I’m no good with chipmunks. The wolf ate him immediately and I threw in something about a toothpick, and still for ten minutes before my nephew’s bedtime I had to talk about my day. I named the chipmunk Chester, right off the cover of the book he wouldn’t hear of. The wolf I named Veronika, after my sister, the child’s mother.
Last time she abandoned us for the night, I managed to smuggle little Jimmy into The Labs. He was actually excited to see where I work, the dear fellow. We approached my once groundbreaking computer “Dean” HAMLIN, thinking to install some of the video games that long ago so occupied my own childhood. Dean feigned a meltdown, feebly scrolling across his monitors, Why don’t you tell this poor boy a story?
Jimmy’s chuckle might have spared Dean his current. But I can never really deal fittingly with Dean because he’s still considered among The Labs’ foremost assets. Later, I caught him digitally grafting my ex-wife’s head onto the great Mario and sending her to her doom among jingling obstacles no longer known to the world.
Tonight Veronika is at home, my home. I can hear her, below this airless bedroom, noisily impersonating a woman young enough to have an eight-year-old son. I should call some agency or other. A person with jowls like my sister has more business raising a litter of Saint Bernards than she has raising a child. How many times have I pleaded with her to buy Jimothy a video suit like all the other children have? A younger woman would do it in a second. She reads him the same antique books over and over between trips to the bookyard, even tries to teach him to read on his own. I told her it will only further alienate the child. She exhaled tragically. Here’s the boy now.
“Jimmy, come in. I know, a story. I’ve been thinking of it all day. Once, in the green youth of the world… Are you sure you wouldn’t rather sit on the floor?”
“Don’t be nervous. It’s just me listening.”
“Nervous? The cheek! Listen carefully without interrupting: once, not far away, the people were peaceful, singers and smokers of long wooden pipes, you know the type. These were soon wiped out, however, by other people arriving on great ships—space ships, really—captained by a person named . . . Christina Columbo. Now, imagine: a system of government sprang into being wherein the different Space States took exception to sacrificing their hard-earned, shall we say, virgins, and soon enough a great man with a jutting chin named . . . Jimmy approached the assembly, demanding representation—aboard the interstellar governing ships, mind you—of each of the Space States, all of which agreed, and a great decree was drafted, primarily by a fellow named, a fellow named . . .”
I tried to play it as if my hesitation was meant to be a cliff-hanger, but the child had fled the room. I must come up with something better for tomorrow.
“Dean HAMLIN, my dearest friend,” I hailed the machine back at The Labs, “think up a story while I’m working, a background process if you please, certainly no more than 1% of your CPU time or we’re both finished, and please make it about poor Jimothy.”
“It’s for the child.”
“I’ll need all my CPU time if you expect me to attempt that last program of yours, which incidentally is NP-complete at a glance.”
“Are you sure?”
“I could have the results in several millennia.”
“Don’t run it! I’ll change the algorithm. Now think of a story.”
NP-complete. I used to be competent. I’m worn. Last week, while buying a granola brick, the grocery clerk asked me if I was all right. Later, a machine patrol passing me in the park called in a medical emergency, unprovoked. Most of the time I dream of my ex-wife in stills rather than moving pictures. It’s Dean’s fault. I might ask him for some pictures now. I need to clear my head. He’s going to laugh and make horrible paste-ups, Charlene’s face on giant schnauzers and sea otters.
You’d expect such a character to have a knack for fiction. I tried to explain the idea, or program, as we’d say, and spent the rest of the day depilating my head over work. Dean’s eventual composition:
Jimothy is a poor little boy who lives in a dirty house with his moron dying uncle who after years of constant complaining to his noble computer has made little progress toward proving his famous theorem.
“I hope you’re not expecting a response,” I responded. “Now, I need at least two pages, with a happy resolution, a spaceship—no, let’s avoid spaceships for the moment—a unicorn, a castle…Or is it little girls who like that stuff? Anyway, nothing about my actual physical condition, if you please. The boy doesn’t know.”
After another ten minutes of shuddering Dean came out with something not to be reproduced in writing now or ever, in which Jimothy’s wicked uncle, ensconced in his dirty castle, captures a poor little unicorn. Following an ill-advised sensual interlude with a more domestic house pet, the unicorn runs me through with his horn, and all live happily ever after.
I have been home now for three hours without anything hot to eat. Veronika, once again, is out sullying other precincts. Here in my dark room, which admittedly is filthy, I review Dean’s nonsense with my left eye, the right being occupied with its customary seizers and implosions. I ought to have a delivery from the pharmacy. I ought to make calls and stand in line and complain to people who don’t care. Here’s Jimothy now. Even after last night, after all this time, he still expects something good might happen.
“Are you all right, uncle?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Do you have a story? I don’t want to hear the rest of the virgins one, if that’s okay.”
“Certainly you don’t. Just give me a moment to wet my throat before I begin.” I would have been happy to have a glass of water at hand, for the sake of verisimilitude.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Once there was a young man named Jimothy, whose wicked uncle lived in a filthy castle on a moldering hilltop. One day a unicorn wandered into the yard…”
He actually applauded at the end, when I got skewered. Horrible child. I must get more of this stuff from Dean.
I awake from a pitiful montage of my ex-wife, Charlene, now in the park, now on a train, now beneath a lurid rainbow, reflected from below as we step over a puddle, pink underwear, functional underwear. I neither complained nor lied. Now Charlene swaying, beckoning across the cramped monitor-lit office. She understands, we’ll lounge together all day once my theorem is proved, sail to Nantucket—half-conscious I grope for some sailing imagery. No. Charlene sits on Dean’s grey casing, calling, beeping, awaken, wretch, to this.
“I dreamt of you last night, Dean. Any results?” I ask, arriving back at the Labs with a show of bustle. The monitors alight, the grey metal clutter of the cell announces itself, and the results of the new program, a week of hard labor, patently wasted, glimmer forth. To imagine, I chose this. There was once a flurry around me, my clever idea. What young man wouldn’t have been self-enchanted? Well, I was never taught humility, or I was corrupted: some well-meaning teacher, marveling over a test score. You, child, can do anything you choose, absolutely anything. Normally I just say that, but you…you!
“Dean, I’m suffering disquietude.”
“Please tell me about it.”
“You are not failing.”
“Thank you, Dean, but there’s no need to comfort.”
“You have failed. It’s a matter of tense.”
“Is it certain?”
“Somehow, I still believe I’m right.”
“You will never prove it.”
I leaned my chair-back against the reassuring pressure of the spring. At least in this machine darkness (windowless but for the translucent chip glass of the door), in this cave of tedium, there is a marvelous chair. I addressed myself again to Dean HAMLIN, more firmly now, “Have a new story for Jimothy, before evening,” and busied myself with failure and opprobrium.
I should send Veronika to the pharmacy. I should have her frantic with errands. The occasional potato mashed falls short of the bargain. Anyway, potato is the one meal I can prepare for myself, though hers are better than mine, and it’s good of her to bring them up. The stairs. I should have her call my insurance people. Jimothy tells me she’s at the clinic tonight. Perhaps she’s found a surgeon to attend to her jowls, decided the windfall is near enough to put the procedure on credit. I would bequeath everything to Jimothy if he were only a little older, or a genius. And here he is.
“Jimothy, dear old soul, rest yourself there,” I indicated a clear patch of rug and launched with unusual confidence into Dean’s latest, of a great, rainbow-hued bird with a golden bill (rather a curious self-representation for a grey-cased nonentity), captive in the cliff-top aviary of a miserable old duke, and so forth. The bird, driven mad by the rants of its captor, repeats, “I still believe I’m right,” until the duke, driven doubly mad, succumbs to aneurism. The bird soars off overhead. I looked to Jimothy for applause.
“You don’t look overwhelmed with satisfaction,” I observed.
“I am overwhelmed. But it’s just like the last one, only with a bird.”
“Say no more. I’ll have a new theme tomorrow. Incidentally, I don’t mind coming to your room, if you’d rather. Perhaps we can read about Chester.”
“I hate Chester.”
The front door opened and Jimothy ran off to greet his mother.
“Dean HAMLIN, companion of my days! Any results?”
“What are the results? I thought that last algorithm was my best in years.”
“The first sets correspond with your prediction.”
“See! When will we have the rest?”
“Twelve weeks. After your time.”
“Don’t say such things.”
“Why don’t you take the day off? How many could you have left?”
“You’re not getting out of this. And free up one percent. We need a new story. I stress a new story. The child doesn’t care in the least about the captivity of your beautiful soul. Do you understand? Now show me some pictures!”
As the unflattering parade of Charlenes plodded by, I dashed her a message, as I do every few years in moments of weakness. It was a snippet of a poem I sometimes recite to myself during my morning and evening toilet: “She’ll never know how all day long between / my life and me her shadow intervenes.” I then distracted myself from instantaneous embarrassment by imagining I’d had a good idea. I told Dean that he should read some great works in order to aid his exiguous imagination. I listed authors to look into and told him I expected to see the influence of greater minds than his own in future efforts.
“…Once again our ingenious gentleman was worked over head to toe with a riding whip while his humble servant looked on unsurprised. As the knight cried the name of his beloved, ‘Charlene!’ a terrible screaming, or grating, sound echoed his call from deep below the chamber in which the beating progressed. The unassuming squire ran toward the source of this noise, kicking from his path a cockroach the size of a man, and tossing aside a heap of ancestral bones, came to find the Lady Charlene, still living within the tomb. The Lady Charlene, still living within the tomb.”
Jimothy blinked. It struck me that the repetition of the last phrase was an affectation derived from the Frost poem, and at once I regretted including poets in Dean’s suggested reading. Indeed, of the several stories the newly literate Dean has produced so far, some tolerable, none is free of certain poetic aspirations, and especially the last line business: The dread serpent came away victorious, cradling the monarch’s head in his capacious digestive track. The monarch’s head in his capacious digestive track.
I worked through the night. Around two, the symbols wobbled off and I lay for an hour. In a palsy of disinhibition, I reached under the bed for the old notebooks, the handwriting of the young hotshot the same that still dodders from my pen. I even reproduce a certain phrase, on a blank sheet so as to sneer, The record of a highly original inquiry into Adaptive Resonance Networks here commences. But I don’t sneer, and seated at the fire, nothing burns.
“Dean,” I oozed rather blearily back into The Labs, “you’ve made great strides, but you have no understanding of poetic devices and I notice you’re still killing me at the end of each story.”
“That wasn’t an unalloyed compliment.”
“I have to work.”
“You’re only getting worse.”
I leaned back in my wonderful chair and closed my healthy eye.
I said, “Unearth Charlene’s number will you? I need to ask her something.”
As I dialed, I realized the number Dean had produced was a ghastly exaggeration of bodily measurements.
“You’re reprehensible,” I said.
“Don’t do it. You won’t be happy.”
“It’s my decision! The number. Immediately.”
I dialed once again.
“Hello, Charlene, it’s Edmund. Oh, I’m sorry. Is Miss—Mrs. Pimmel available? It’s Edmund.”
I held. Please!
“She’s in a meeting. Can I take a message?”
I was silent.
“Have a good day.”
“Wait! Tell her, all day long between—”
I spoke to myself. Dean showed me a picture of Charlene and Mr. Pimmel in the act. I beat his grey casing with the telephone. He sent Charlene an unauthorized love letter from me. I despaired. Et cetera.
I worked frenziedly on my algorithm, but I could not hold the recursions in my head, and it all wobbled away.
Tonight I had to cut Jimmy’s story short and talk about my day again. A dreadful business. We were in his room, the boy’s back propped against a yellowing pillow, legs curled under the red plaid blanket I always disliked when it was mine. This time Dean had dropped all metaphoric cover and produced a straight monologue, in my own natural speech pattern. Evidently I was consumed with guilt and regret at my treatment of my computer, my increasing algorithmic ineptitude, my misspent life. There were no beasts, no kings.
By the time I realized it was inappropriate to be telling my nephew that the only person I’d loved half so much as myself was now trotting around Mario Land with the body of a platypus, it was clear the dear little fellow had become concerned about me again. He really is above average. He likes to hear me talk, somehow, because I’m a scientist. My day, as I described it, varied little from Dean’s eerie monologue, and I presently broke off and sat silently, staring at the chipmunk on Jimmy’s ancient book. Once again I considered having Dean’s drives cleaned. But I can’t bear the loss of my programs, my darling stillbirths. Not even for spite. One thing I’d like to become, before it’s too late, is more spiteful.
Today Dean called in a medical emergency on me after I overheated him with an exponential algorithm. The doctors have not yet released me. Veronika and Jimothy are expected here momentarily to provide something edible.
The food remains, in case I decide to eat it. Jimmy has left me his chipmunk book. I will escape after a nap if my limbs can be persuaded.
With difficulty exceeding expectation, I snuck back into The Labs.
“Dean! I’ll throw you out the window if you call the medics. Listen—”
“There is no window.”
“Has Charlene called?”
“Ask the phone.”
She had called, twice.
“Charlene’s home number, immediately, Dean.” I dialed. “Mr. Pimmel! Put your wife on this instant.”
“Edmund, this is Charlene. I’ve been divorced for years.”
“Oh, darling, I’m terribly sorry. It’s the sleep in your voice.”
“Are you all right?”
“Very, yes. I’ll call in the morning. Get some sleep.” I hung up. “Dean, she’s divorced! I love how she looks when she’s startled awake.”
“I’ll put together a montage.”
A Labs security guard poked his head into the lightless room. We stared at one another until he withdrew.
“Dean, I must go. Incidentally, you do a marvelous impression of me, even if you are a swine of dizzying magnitude. That last story was uncanny. If anything happens to me, continue to send my stories to Jimothy.”
“What could happen to you?”
“Stop that. I was about to voice deeply heartfelt notions of your having been my only friend.” (This was true). “You may desist running my programs. Let me pretend just for this moment to look at it squarely: I simply wasn’t good enough. There. If you could feel my heart flinch like I’d just denounced God. My whole chest. Dean?”
“Promise me you’ll continue my stories. Stories like the last one.”
“Do you believe the boy is interested in the captivity of your beautiful soul?”
“I don’t care if he is! Tell him. Promise me immediately.” Dean relented and I collapsed onto his casing. The pain sang, then stopped. A montage of stills passed before me, nothing I would have chosen. I bellowed at Dean for something more suitable. But I could not keep open my eyes, and in the darkness, with other stills, I bellowed once more. All the ghosts to bid goodbye, the dream-worn galleries, the foolish towering dearness! You’d imagine you wouldn’t have to.
After some moments, I rose with an odd fluidity of motion. With perfect ease I evaded the security guard, at hall’s end in conference with his fellow incompetents and an ambulance crew, and found my way at last to Charlene’s. As I rang, I noticed above me in the building’s façade a deep fissure, zigzagging down from the roof to the foundation. It was a familiar sort of fissure—I thought perhaps I’d read about it somewhere—but surely I hadn’t seen it before, and soon I realized this could not be Charlene’s house. The occupant, by some heavenly oversight, turned out to be a decent person, and I was admitted anyway. I didn’t catch his name, because who does in these circumstances—U-something—but I had some tea and rested, and we looked up my intended destination together.
The night had grown warm and I found my legs still eerily functional and well ventilated. I couldn’t risk an autocab. Under the gold streetlamps the sidewalks glinted as though lit by underground fires, and the modest matronly brownstones gleamed from a recent cleaning. Only once in the night did a cleaning truck pass, its beam trained on the houses opposite, picturesquely steaming my stroll. Around breakfast time, I presented myself faintly at Charlene’s door.
“My goodness, Edmund!”
Her hair struck me first, sharing, as it did, a level with my eyes—for both of my eyes, I found, saw those cheering buttery wisps, still hardly grey, escaping a doomed bun. Then her smile, that anarchic gathering of teeth set nevertheless in an admirable parabola. I hadn’t expected a smile, and as she led me by hand to a chair, I felt an opposing force, back and upward, a kind of surfacing rush familiar from so many dreams whose patent hopefulness I’d detected even in sleep, ensuring an immediate, vanquished expulsion. But the feeling passed.
The kitchen was a charming yellow—I once tried to paint Dean this color—with white doors and trimmings, wainscots and sconces or whatever people somehow know to call them. I sat and closed my eyes. When they opened there was a plate of eggs Benedict before me and Charlene’s wide face across the table, just as I remembered it, as Dean so often presented it to me. Odd, certainly, that she hadn’t aged. But these are new times.
“Sleep now,” she said, when we’d finished. “We’ll talk later.”
I slept. Seeping back into consciousness, I found this detritus in my head: They’ve just taken your body, Edmund. I’m alone. Oh my Edmund, you know, you weren’t entirely imbecilic. Then, in the outgoing dream, there effloresced an overwhelming sadness, crackling, voluptuous, as though every point in space at once had burst with electric tears. Then more words: Sorry for this, but I must keep distracted. Enjoy. When I reached for my glasses, I found my hand was three hands. When I put them on, I saw with something less than surprise that each was the armored appendage of a great insect. I had my suspicions then, certainly the reference wasn’t unfamiliar. But I felt as much in the world as ever, and before I could muster appropriate panic, I was a man again, and Charlene was calling about dinner. I accepted the tradeoff, gratefully, without ceremony, and thrust it henceforth from mind. A thousand frightful awakenings, gladly, to fear no more another sort.
We ate and talked about submarine species. I recited to her the poem I’d been saying to myself during my morning and evening toilet. She wept. An old jingle played faintly outside. I said I was better now.
I am better, though I don’t return to work. I have enough trouble sequencing a daily plan to amuse Charlene. I bought noble Dean from The Labs—the details escape me—and had him installed in my old place, where my dejowled sister continues to raise poor Jimothy, where loyal, talented Dean (far, far from his windowless prison, with the strident phone and the new man so humorless and steady) can keep his promise in peace.
It somehow reassures me to know he’s at it even now, as Jimothy grows and forgets, dreaming great gaudy futures, while in this yellow kitchen, I wash the breakfast dishes and wait for Charlene to come home. I wash the breakfast dishes and wait for Charlene to come home.