Published by The Future Fire (2008.14), dedicated to “Social, Political, & Speculative Cyberfiction. An experiment in and celebration of new writing.” It’s s always a treat to be published in a magazine that you also like to read! The story was illustrated nicely by Chris Cartwright of Digital Design. See it at FutureFire.
This story is a chimera. All incidents, encounters, speculative or philosophical riffs, are based on actual events. To unify them on the three levels of the story – our relationship to “ultimate realities,” other intelligent life, and the intelligence community’s impact on its most committed professionals – they must be presented as fiction. “Fiction,” as the narrator says, “is the province of the fantastic ….”
The initial pages illuminate the state of the narrator’s mind on all three levels, lest they be thought extraneous … some editors did not understand how that constituted “fiction” rather than an essay. I suggested to one that he think of “Notes from Underground,” please, as an antecedent, and its two parts. He acknowledged that was fair, but still didn’t like the story. It made me wonder if anybody reads fiction from before 1960 these days; then I learned that one can get a degree in English literature at “good” universities without having to do so.
A dear friend, on the other hand, who spent decades as an intelligence professional, highly respected and honored by his peers, told me he kept saying, “Bingo!” as he read it. I guess it helps to understand the territory.
A riff on this text, a different way of saying it, call it what you will, Northward into the Night, is now making the rounds.
Less Than the Sum of the Movable Parts
by Richard Thieme
Nothing gets us through a long day more than an image of a constant self.
My life is one long day, so believe me, I know. It helps. Thinking that “I” was here “yesterday”, “I” am here “now”, “I” will be here “tomorrow”—it’s wonderful, isn’t it? Using an imaginary temporal index linked to a mirage of an equally illusive self to manage an inchoate flow of impressions which turn into pictures in the “mind” to simulate fixity?
I think it’s wonderful, anyway. I think it helps us stay engaged with tasks that might otherwise drive us to despair.
There’s a bigger question, however: is there a connection between the connections? A real one, I mean? A single template that works from top down, instead of bottom up?
Otherwise, it’s just a coding trick—memories encoded in chemicals programmed to disclose aspects of what we call “selves” like origami unfolding to that same subjective self. This recursive program would be a stroke of genius, if a genius existed. A reflexive self, embedded in its own structure, suggests continuity; seemingly real memories frame the phantom self like planes in a cubist painting constructing odd geometries—inside of which we, all unassuming, happily thrive.
Or—to put it another way—it thinks, therefore we are.
Or, in cases like mine, agencies think for us, relieving us of some of the work.
OK. We emerge from braided twists of code like cookies from flour water and sugar. But where does the recipe come from?
Well—who knows? Maybe it evolved. Maybe we were cooked up in a kitchen. I prefer fun hypotheses like Charles Fort’s. It sounded crazy when he said it; now it sounds reasonable, now that we know that UFOs are real and have been around for a long time. Fort, you recall, combed through newspapers and periodicals in the New York public library in the early twentieth century, filtering anomalies into his notebooks. Then he bound them into a vision. He suggested that we might be property, owned by an alien race. He didn’t know if they won us in a lottery, inherited the planet as part of a bequest, claimed us after a battle, or agreed to accept us in lieu of cash in a game of intergalactic poker. The reasons, whatever they may be, are unthinkable because we have no point of reference. They relate to memories in the storage banks of the alien race(s) linked by connections as invisible to us as dark matter. We don’t know if or how they design histories or store memories to preserve identities distributed through folds of space-time. We can’t even see them, much less understand how they evolved. We don’t even believe in them yet. All we can do is suppose that they, too, construct peculiar geometries in the blank space of the zero point field. Perhaps the multiverse unfolds in their imaginations like origami too, a multidimensional canvas on which they paint or sculpt the equivalent of art.
Who knows? Anyway, the first steps are the hardest: believing that they exist, and then, believing in our belief. At this point in time, we don’t believe. We believe in disbelief. By design, I believe.
In a court of law, lawyers tell me, three witnesses who say the same thing are considered the best evidence. Well, witnesses have testified to the presence of our watchers, owners or visitors, whatever they are, by the thousands. The data points are voluminous. They plot countless visits by beings in luminous discs, silent triangles or elongated craft with portholes; they have been documented for decades, perhaps centuries, they have been here anyway a long long time—they or their robots or clones—but we act as if they don’t exist. We can’t map what we can’t comprehend. We have impressions, images of conspicuous displays, stored in collective memory banks, but we turn them into myth. We make fiction instead of history. Fiction is the province of the fantastic and distracts us—and their manipulations of energy or matter seem fantastic, make no mistake. The effects we have observed imply an understanding that we can not apprehend. And they seem to hide and show themselves, they seem to play a game of cosmic boo and peek—but to what purpose?
Once again… who knows?
Anyway… the DNA came from somewhere. Whatever the source, perhaps our owners think of us as dairy farmers think of their herds. Perhaps they sip like emotional or intellectual milk our cultural excrescence which is useful in some way, or tasty, an occasional treat, a distraction from the task of searching for meaning. Maybe we add a page to the choral songbook of the multiverse. Maybe they feel affection when we head for the barn at the end of the day, the sun steeping the pasture with its lone oak tree slanting in shadow. Maybe the twilight sky that brightens before it fades is a liminal image that stirs them, too, a portal to something they have lost and can not recall.
Or maybe they are proud of our halting progress as parents delight in a child’s first steps, watching us splutter into our neighborhood in primitive machines, skipping to the moon or Mars like toddlers coming downstairs and walking around the block for the first time, seeing with wonder that there is something real indeed across the real street.
Seeing the street at the same time for the first time. Seeing the bridge and seeing the distant bank in the same moment.
We have been born or bred to believe we are individuals, discrete entities, selves with will, feeling and intention, and more than that, that we are the apple of God’s eye or—in a more secular vein—the top of the food chain, something special… instead of transient manifestations of energy and matter in complex relationship to everything else.
But it’s not true.
We are more mist than mountain, more metaphor than mist.
Disorienting, isn’t it, thinking like this? It gives me a headache too. Better to believe our beliefs, believe we are the selves that we experience reflexively as points of reference for the shifting contours of our so-called interior lives.
The task then is to manage the threat of chaos. There are three ways to do this: the Small Way, the Big Way, and the Biggest Way. My colleagues see management of the Small Way as their job. We leave the Big Way to visitors by default. The Biggest Way, we leave to It.
Okay. So… are we the sum of our moveable parts?
Who knows? And does it matter? We will do what we do, think as we think, regardless, take comfort in what we call “cultures” which like “selves” exist as higher branches on a fractal tree and also seem to be sums of, more or less, all of their moveable parts.
The machinery breathes. That’s what matters. People believe in their beliefs.
I was walking home the other night at dusk. It is November, and the weather is changing. The dry leaves of maple and ash and oak were blowing on the pavement, the bare branches of trees clean and leafless against a luminous sky. Clouds streamed from the northwest, obscuring moon and stars, low clouds illuminated by light from the distant city. The road was empty. There are no streetlights in the village, and I trusted the pattern of the pavement to channel my walking toward the bridge across the ravine without bumping into something or stumbling into the shallow ditch along the road.
High on the right, through a tall hedge marking a line of property, windows blazed from a mansion built to the right scale for the land. It was an old home, brick and stone, and its high windows glowed. I flashed back to a cold night when I was a child sent to buy a loaf of bread at a commissary in a high rise. The white bread was in a paper sack in my gloved hands, and coming back, the wind stinging my cheeks, I saw through the blurry prisms of my tears high on the right the bright window of a mansion above an elaborate entrance. Through the window a portrait on the wall of a library filled with books lining shelves from ceiling to floor, a woman in a dress in a chair in a golden frame, a picture light illuminating the portrait, the bright window signifying a refuge. A nexus. A place. A node. A home.
That mansion is gone. It was torn down years ago to make way for a high rise, a glass stack of lighted windows fronting the city on the dark water. Now a bluish candescence spills through glass walls floor-to-ceiling into the night and dissipates before it reaches the ground.
The image of that mansion is a memory, don’t you see, a chemical trace. There’s nothing there. The house no longer exists. It never did. Oh, something was there, once upon a time, something that we agree to call a mansion, but I don’t know what it was. Or what kind of life was lived inside. Or who that woman was. And neither do you. You think you know but you don’t.
You believe in your beliefs.
We presume so much, don’t we? We presume everything. These little slides or luminous images in our minds are slotted into a matrix made to hold them like tiny panes of painted glass, buttressing the belief that we inhabited a past and that the past existed. We believe in the reality of vanished landscapes.
If history is a symphony played in a hall with dead spaces, so are individual lives. The chemical bonds between memories weaken, bleed into one another, leak through once-firm walls of cells of a database housing a house of self. The diminishment of memory contrasts with the illusion of fixity of purpose and self-definition that sustained us. The terminator, the line on the moon where darkness meets the light, throws mountains into sharp relief, but the light and darkness on either side of the line are absolute. Only by contrast do we see anything at all, and then, only for a moment.
The darkness and light, as the man said, are one.
A plumb line of gravity sinks as a point of reference for the floor on which we think we walk. Everything, it seems. We are always in freefall in the deep well of the night. We project imaginary patterns onto stars but cannot see our nearest neighbors, even when they cross the street and walk into our yard. We see them if at all through a glass darkly. Civilizations more ancient than we can imagine, invisible because they are unthinkable.
“Ants can’t get that dogs exist.”
That’s what the professor said.
The professor is also named Paul. When I last saw him, he sank into the billowing cushions of his immense wing chair. His white hair flamed from his face like Einstein’s. He is more massive than Brando, he is huge, but embarrassed by the obsession with obesity. It’s only a fad, he says, dismissing it with a wave. Then reaches for something to nibble on, something to suck.
The professor is a loveable cuss who cannot stop looking. He says he’s retired but doesn’t know how. He can’t help it. He still wants to know. He calls it blessing or curse, depending. What else would I do? he asks in mock exasperation. Play golf?
The idea is funny. I imagine clubs like little sticks in his huge hands, his enormous bulk as solid as a building as he whiffs. I laugh.
The professor is always in the grip of some confounding event. He thrives on irregular shapes, feeling rough edges with his fingers, liking the occasional ouch. He wouldn’t know what to do with a smooth surface or a curve that didn’t challenge him. He prefers to live in hair shirts of perpetual perplexity. Itchiness makes him feel alive.
His eyes often look into the distance. Sometimes people turn to see what he is looking at and can’t see anything at all.
On the other hand, the professor often trips over his own feet.
He obsesses about our owners. He knows they come and go. He has been immersed in the data for decades. He has written hundreds of papers, good ones with careful documentation, reasonable conclusions, and of course, he is ignored. His work is published in periodicals that nobody reads. He lectures to empty rooms but no one puts it on YouTube.
He doesn’t know how long they stay or to what end. Even if we analyzed the metal from a crash or their flesh, it does not tell us anything important. We can do that analysis, it is well within our competence, but to what end? We want to know the story, and the story is a muddle without a point of reference. Where’s the narrative? That’s what we need. A narrative, not abstractions. They seem to want to make it a muddle too and so do we, our own people, guardians of the interface, he winks, meaning our colleagues, who muddle the muddle more.
Ideas can be as alive as people, more alive than some. The people who appointed themselves guardians of the interface, keepers of the secrets, do nothing but dream them up. They invent and alter and manage perceptions and images and ideas in the battle space of our minds. They create relationships between things, then fill in the blanks.
Most keep the faith and die in silence. But once in a while one will have misgivings. Then there’s a crack and a little light gets in, as the song says. Someone gets an itch that has to be scratched.
My friend—call him Herb—is a social scientist. Like the professor, Herb is a tenured academic. But he has worked on contract for years. People like Herb say they distrust us but believe me, they’re easier to recruit than hookers. They talk the talk, but they always take the money.
Herb looks like an academic. Can you picture one? Got it? That’s Herb.
Much of his research has been funded in the dark. Of course, a lot of research in social sciences has been done that way for fifty years; everything is dual use, there are always plausible reasons, and then there are the ways the “intelligence community” as we call it with a laugh can use it, too.
You think I am alluding to something small. You have no idea. We have spun a vast dark web for generations through media, research in and out of industry, entertainment, universities—you cannot imagine how vast it is. Because they turn everything typical into an anomaly. That keeps you from seeing it whole. You never see it all mapped out.
Try. Go ahead. Try to imagine how big it is.
See what I mean? You can’t even come close.
Herb works in the blur between social and psychological, looking for means of manipulation, although he doesn’t call it that, and partners with experts in particle beams, lasers, electromagnetic energy—there are many interesting effects. Like stopping people in their tracks. Making them vomit. Or heat up. Or their brains go fuzzy. Or putting voices in their heads.
Memory, too. Herb works with memory. It’s a passion, not a duty. He works with individual memories, not “memory” in the abstract. He makes memories and he makes memories go away. Or he keeps them intact but breaks up the index so they can’t be retrieved without a good program. You have to know the code that unlocks the code. Herb can intensify some memories and reduce the intensity of others. It’s like using a mixer, he says, recording a song. A little more bass, a little less trumpet, and you wouldn’t know it’s the same song.
‘Of Mice and Men’, he calls his current research.
Herb can make mice forget what they just learned. It looks like magic if you don’t know the science. He distinguishes short term and long term encoded proteins and plays games with them. He has a blast. His playground is small at the moment, just little mice minds, but as Herb said the other night, looking at the streetlight refracted through his glass of sherry, “Just you wait.” Then smiled at me and I smiled back.
His wine looked like liquid ruby from across the study. The wind rattled the ornamental shutters on his three story brick colonial home. His neighbor had raked that afternoon but the leaves blew from his piles onto Herb’s lawn. We could see the leaves swirling in the wind. A neighbor was waiting for his dog, scooper in one hand and leash in the other. The dog was a blur. Then the man and the dog moved away, their distorted images flowing along the thick panes of antique glass.
Herb sipped his sherry and smiled again. He and his colleagues had moved a memory from the brain of one mouse to the brain of another. Then they distributed memories randomly in a dozen mice, busting up the culture in a way, the group still knowing everything but not in the same way. The different juxtaposition in time and space changed the frame. The memories could all be retrieved and resequenced in the proper order, restoring the right tilt to the world. But as I said, you had to know the code.
But that wasn’t why he wanted to talk. That was gossip. He invited me over because he had an itch he needed to scratch. When he turned at last to the subject on his mind, his smile faded.
Herb had been invited somewhere for the weekend. They came through a friend with a channel to the place for the meeting. They wanted to discuss disclosure. That’s all he would say. A tap on the shoulder came like an invitation to Skull and Bones, and off he went. A weekend away, expenses paid. He never says no. When he flies, sometimes windows are blacked out. Sometimes elevators take a long time to go down. You can’t even see the road into the mountain, that’s how good they are. Google Earth is their toy, too, and all the mapping platforms, so unless you have your own satellites, or code to correct the altered images, you haven’t got a reference—don’t you see?—so you can’t really see the earth. All you see is the floor they have given you, seemingly concrete.
A weekend away with men and women from diverse disciplines was a treat. There were several dozen, I think he said. Or did I fill in a blank? We make connections without thinking, fill in the blank spaces. Without thinking consciously, I ought to say. Narratives complete themselves. No, I think he did say a couple of dozen. The agenda at any rate was simple: should they tell? They talked over the pros and cons. How long can we sit on this? How long should we? More people know now, despite our work, how well we have hidden it all in plain sight, but they don’t know that they know. That’s the kicker. Some know but don’t know that they know.
But—how long should we keep it up?
Then their facilitator said—now, this is a direct quote, and Herb looked perplexed as he said it, his affect appropriate to the words—”What will the cattle do? Will they stay inside the fence or will they stampede?”
Hm. I see that the metaphor cattle might be confusing. I use “cattle” as a metaphor again, but not the way I meant before. The cattle to which I am referring here is the whole herd of humanity, the mass of all humankind, our shared mental space. Not the cattle I meant before, when I said that we humans might look to our owners like cows. Then I meant cows. That was a simile. This is a metaphor. That was speculation. This is historical fact.
So let me back up and say it again.
One morning my friend Herb received a call. There is going to be a meeting, he was told. People will come together. Then the meeting will not have happened. There will be no minutes, no memory of the meeting.
We need to discuss disclosure—again. Again we must make a decision.
Your expenses, he was told, will be paid as usual through the Department of International Studies at Oberlin. They will request a paper and you will send one. It won’t be published so it doesn’t matter which.
Then the caller became serious. Things have been warming up. You understand what I mean? Yes, exactly. We don’t know how hot it will get. It’s not in our control.
The question is, has it percolated long enough through the mind of the herd to bring us to a tipping point? Will people understand and adjust? Or will they go through the barb wire?
I did it again. That wasn’t much help, was it? Of course you don’t know that point of reference, either. How could you? It’s from another story. So let’s go there, okay? It’s a detour, but the shortest route to all goals is the detours.
Once upon a time, I was waiting at a neighborhood bank—it doesn’t matter, but it happened to be Midwest Bank, a local institution with a dozen branches. I have lunch with some of the officers now and again at a nearby club. Some play tennis, we all play cards. I was waiting that day to renew a CD. A new vice president was helping me, middle aged, mostly bald, a little fringe of gray and darker hair, a paunch pushing at the tight belt of his not very expensive suit, starting to edge over the belt like a shelf. He was friendly enough, the kind of fellow who might manage the branch someday; he was processing papers to renew my CD. A sheet of paper and a couple of cards were on the glass top of his desk. His eyes moved back and forth between a computer screen I couldn’t see and a pad on which he made notations. We chatted as he calculated interest.
My last conversation with the professor—we had gone to a local casino and walked in winding paths among the noisy slots, turning this way and that as we talked, altering the curve of the interface, in case—was on my mind. In the past, I wouldn’t have said anything. But now, I’m old enough so I don’t care. Let people think I am crazy. Besides, it’s part of the job, part of the latest persona. My current job is thinking about things and saying stuff. At least, that’s how it looks. Like Paul the professor, my puppet “Paul” is intended to look creative, eccentric, be genius-level at times, but always what up here they call “different.”
So as I waited I said to Glen, that’s the new V-P, I said, Glen, you know, I read this article the other day, and told him about the sighting I heard from the professor how pilots and air traffic controllers and radar stations all reported the same thing, how huge the thing had to have been to make a blip like that, how huge in fact it was according to both pilots, they literally soiled themselves, I said, and he nodded, filling in my name on a blank.
We had something happen on our farm, once.
Oh? I said.
Yes, he scribbled on a card, up north, on the family farm. One night this trooper came speeding along the road chasing after this bright light flying low along the hills. The thing glowed with incredible intensity, not like something with a light, but like the thing itself glowed from the inside out. It was white but it was so white, the purest white light, and he skidded to a stop, which is when we heard him outside on the loose gravel and went out to see. This thing whatever it was had apparently come down behind our barn. The trooper was a guy we knew, everybody knew Luke, he was standing at the open door of his prowler, behind the door like he was hunkering down, looking at this bright light behind our barn illuminating trees and everything back there. We stood there looking at it with him for a long time. He told us he chased this thing from the other side of town through town and out along the highway by our farm.
Are you going to go back there? I asked.
Hell, no, he shook his head. No way in hell he’d go back there alone.
Then whatever it was suddenly rose up so silent and it moved fast so we couldn’t really see or it disappeared. But one minute this bright white light was hovering over the barn and then it was up there looking like a star and then we couldn’t see it anymore. It was like night descended suddenly upon the house, the pasture, on us, everything, and everything was still again. Then the insects started chirping and we realized they had stopped.
I’ll never forget it, he said. He turned two cards toward me and handed me a pen. I signed the cards on the lines at the X.
That was the end of it, then?
Well, no, he said, see, the next morning we went out behind the barn to see was anything there, and we found broken branches in kind of a circle like something had snapped them off, grass scorched and the edges of the branches burnt too and some of the leaves.
But—do you know much about cattle?
I shook my head.
He said, something scared hell out of the cattle. Cattle know about barb wire. They know what it is. But that night, so many of our cows went through the barb wire, they went right through it, they tore themselves up so bad, udders and all; we had to destroy most of them, they were so cut up.
Nobody ever saw anything like it.
He folded the CD and put it in a plastic sleeve.
OK. So I told you the name of the bank where we had this conversation. I can tell you we put money into that bank or another, but money is another null set, isn’t it? Money doesn’t exist, either. Money is energy stored in a form we pretend. We act like money is real, interest will be paid, businesses exist, and that’s the thing—it’s all held together by couplers that are imperfect but good enough and it stays together because nobody pulls at it too hard.
You don’t want something scaring hell out of the cattle so they go right through the barb wire and cut themselves to pieces and have to be put down.
Anyway, that’s what the facilitator meant when he said about cattle, will they stay inside the fence or stampede? He meant what Glen at the bank meant but Glen meant real cows.
So Herb went to the meeting. Now, I know Herb. I know him as well as one can know another. Or oneself, as I have been saying. Herb went to the meeting intending to weigh in on the side of telling people everything. It’s our planet, he said. People have a right to know what’s happening. It’s time, he chimed like he was an alarm and humanity a clock. Like he knew all about it.
Then he went to the meeting. And when he came back—I never saw anything like it. He had turned completely around. He went away one hundred per cent in favor of disclosure. He came back just as adamant against.
I asked him what he had heard that changed his mind but he wouldn’t say. Well, I asked, who was there? He wouldn’t say. I wouldn’t say, myself. Lots of different ones, he said. Most knew a lot more about it than me. He was leaning forward in his wing chair looking like that trooper might have looked, as I imagine him looking in the memory of Glen the vice president of the bank, staring at the light behind the barn.
He wouldn’t face me exactly. His gaze was at an angle. He was looking out the window but looking at nothing. There was nothing there to see.
That’s all I’m going to say, he said. Then he said, they’re afraid it won’t hold.
He looked at me with sorrow and I believe pity.
Paul, we wake up and get dressed and go to work. We have breakfast and watch TV. We buy stuff and cut the grass. It’s the little things, the things you can’t make people do. They have to want to do them. They have to believe in them. They have to believe in their beliefs.
The way we do it, it’s good enough, it’s not perfect, but it’s good enough. You know that. We can’t take the chance.
He sat back, sinking into the billowing cushions of his immense chair. His white hair flamed from his face like Einstein’s. I knew why he was upset. And he knew I knew why. The loop completed, as it will.
Is it just chemical, I wondered, looking at it from the outside? Looking at Herb leaning in his chair, looking at how I must have looked, looking at Herb. The way fear is transmitted, I mean? Is it some primordial pheromone that triggers fight-or-flight? That makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck? The heart race and the palms sweat?
That makes us want to get out while we can?
Except that what we’re in is ourselves. And there are no boundaries between us. Each the bridge, each the other side.
And we’re in it together. Us and them and then some.
Old men have the luxury of telling the truth because no one pays attention. Old men are irrelevant to currents of action, reflection beside the point when life is brutish.
People concede to us wisdom or perspective only because they don’t matter.
It was right around that time, if I remember correctly, that I met Susan for lunch in Chicago. I have known Susan for years. Susan is a social worker which can mean lots of things. She worked for community services for a while, had a stint at County Hospital, and I think she worked for a time at New Life Counseling Center. Now she works mostly with addicted women who get beaten up a lot. She has done it for some time so she must have learned how to use herself as a tool and still go home, kick off her shoes, and watch TV the rest of the night.
We had lunch at a trendy restaurant on the near north side. We laughed when we read the names of the fancy vegetables. “California stuff,” I said, looking at a waiter setting down a plate of white and pale green stalks and leaves.
Susan had a sandwich with three kinds of cheese and asparagus and a red paste on yellow bread with lots of seeds. The little bit of salad on the side was full of curled greens and coiled carrots. I went for something hot. I had my leather coat zipped up the whole time. I was still cold from walking from my car in that wind.
Susan looked good. She sounded solid. She was into a new relationship so she was hopeful—again. She usually picked horses that came out of the gate strong but faded in the stretch.
I listened a lot and seldom spoke, nodding to indicate what she called “empathetic listening.” Through the plate glass window the gray sky had lost all definition. The discoloration became rain and then the rain turned into snow. There was sleet too and slush along the sidewalks by the time we finished eating, ankle-deep and cold. Susan had parked in front of the bistro and drove me to my car parked a couple of blocks away.
My cold feet flexed in my wet shoes as she turned on the heater. The sleet squeaked on her worn wipers. She turned all the way around to pull out and went slowly down the narrow street.
There it is, I said.
That one? I was looking for the Ford.
The Ford’s long gone. There was even a Mazda between.
She pulled in behind the old Toyota and turned off the wipers. The end of the scraping sounded good. Sleet ran in thick rivulets down the clean windshield.
Susan continued to talk about what she wanted to do next, wondering was it too late, and should she give this guy a chance? Elmo was his name of all things. Maybe it was made up.
She lowered her window an inch or two, letting the car idle and keeping the heater on. Warm air flowed from the vents while a thin stream of cold air from the open window felt like white icing on a cake.
It was one of those conversations. You can’t make it happen, but when it does, you don’t ever want it to stop. First, there was the meal, hot chowder and crab cakes for me, fresh hot bread with drizzle to dip, a delicious sauvignon blanc from Cloudy Bay, the chatter and glasses and silver around us at precisely the right level. We hadn’t seen each other for a long time, and it felt so good just to be with her, eating quietly, taking our time, letting the ambient noise be a cushion for the pauses. It was like a real community filling in the blanks so we didn’t have to do everything ourselves. Beyond Susan at the next table, a young couple were playing footsie, the movements of the draped cloth betraying their game, looking at each other with little smiles. Made me nostalgic. Outside, the snow and sleet were really coming down, the snow blowing slantwise across the window and people hurrying through the mess, holding their coats closed at the collar, dipping their heads in the bitter wind when they had to wait for a light. But we were inside, warm and dry. Susan talked on as she often did about her life. I had heard a lot of it before. It wasn’t what we talked about so much as knowing one another for all those years.
Sitting in the car afterward, I thought I was doing OK, nodding a lot like I said, paying attention most of the time, when she turned off the heater and gave me a look.
“You haven’t said much about your work.”
“Oh?” I shrugged. “I told you some things, what I could, what I thought you might find interesting.”
“Paul,” she said, her eyes not letting me off the hook. “Paul, you told me you were talking to people who were tortured. You were working with people doing it, too. You told me about it last time. How it affected them. Then you were off about where the planet might be headed, other kinds of life forms and God only knows what. But I keep going back to what you said about the Turks. And the Uzbeks. It was chilling.”
I shrugged and shivered. I leaned over and turned on the heater.
“The techniques aren’t the thing. It’s pretty cut and dried.”
She looked at me for a long time.
“Paul,” she said, reaching and taking my hand. “Do you remember what you said once? About people going over the line?”
I did, but forgot I had said it.
“Paul—you’re over the line.”
I had a sinking feeling and looked down at her hands. Her hands are where the aging showed most.
“You told me yourself, you don’t know how to talk to normal people anymore. You don’t share their points of reference.”
I turned to look outside. “I said that?”
“Yes,” she smiled, getting inside. “You said you live in a world that people don’t want to know. You didn’t want to talk about it, either, but you did, some. Do you think I would forget something like that? Do you think I can’t see what’s going on?”
“Why? What am I doing?”
“Oh, Paul,” she sighed. “For someone so smart, you sure can be dumb. Do you remember the books I gave you on trauma? How it affects people?”
“Sure.” I nodded. “I read some of it. It was interesting.”
“Why do you think I asked you to do that?”
I shrugged again. “Because the people I talk to, whether its ones doing interrogation, or ones who have been worked on, or ones who have had encounters, or the ones who keep the interface, manage the deception, whoever it is, they all show signs of trauma, right? You wanted me to understand what symptoms they would have.”
“Yes, but why else?”
I shrugged a final time. “I don’t know.” I was truly blank.
“Because,” she said, squeezing my hand, “you’re showing symptoms too. From listening. It’s almost the same as being there.”
I guess it was obvious to her, doing the work she does. But have you ever not known something so completely that when someone says it, the recognition of it is like all of the air rushing out of the room? You can’t breathe, you can’t even think of breathing. Then, when you do speak, your emotions are so raw, like someone sank a shaft and hit oil, because they have been buried for so long, you can feel the sobbing rising inside but refuse to let it out.
Susan could feel it, too. She took my other hand and I saw she had lost weight. I noticed for the first time that her navy skirt didn’t pucker as much on her belly.
“Paul, you can’t not know what you know. You can’t unlearn it. It’s who you are. But part of you must know what it does to you.”
I nodded. She was wearing a ring, not an engagement. Then I looked up into the deep well of her eyes.
Everything let go.
“Do you have any idea what we do? Or what they do? Or how long it’s been going on? Do you have any idea who we are? How much we are not what you think? Or who you think?”
She had unleashed a beast and realized it now. The fear in her eyes was evident.
She shook her head. “Do I want to know?” She had lost the offensive and knew it. She was looking for a place to hide. I watched her cover and duck.
“I’m concerned with what it’s doing to you. You say you kind of retired but you still talk to all these people, and –”
“No,” I shook my head. “You think you’re concerned but you don’t know. You don’t know. You’re concerned about the wrong things. That’s how it’s designed, Susan.”
The floor on the deep well of the night gave way. Her eyes darted back and forth looking for something to hold. During that transient glimpse into my life, into all life, she understood, felt it like a sudden chill and almost went into panic mode. She almost headed for the barb wire. Then her eyes shifted from my face to the window where snow was dropping from the trees and she found a reprieve. Everyday people passed on the walk in overcoats and parkas, a woman tottered by in sheer hose and four inch heels, comic relief, watching her step through the melting slush. Behind her, the old stone of a brownstone mansion was whitened by snow blowing off the roof. Susan saw as she tilted her head and looked up an elegant doorway with its black wrought iron gate and above it a second story window blazing with electric light.
“Paul—” she said.
I shook my head.
“Susan, my name isn’t Paul. It never was.”
She looked for a connection. That’s what people do. Try to plug in.
“I remember a few years ago,” she almost laughed although nothing was funny. “Someone called you Herb. You made a joke of it, saying they were getting old.”
I shook my head again. “It isn’t Paul and it isn’t Herb. And I am not a professor. I never was.”
After thirty-seven years. Thirty-seven years.
“I’ve had so many names, Susan, I can’t remember them all.”
She let my hands loose and they came back to my side of the car. I believed she accepted my confession and all of the things that it shattered with professional equanimity. So I leaned closer, hoping to hold her in my arms. I wanted to feel her and inhale her scent. I wanted her warmth. That was all. I just wanted to be close. But the fracture was too abrupt. In the moment, I thought I confessed in order to be real, but as she drew back, her eyes receding into the distance, I realized that she saw more clearly than I ever would that I had, as always, simply needed to prevail.