When I was fourteen, my uncle told me a story. It was of a Russian man, at that time technically a Soviet, though the terms were often used interchangeably in my youth. This Russian man was a purported psychic who had been amazing his adoring public with the ability to control moving objects with his mind. Telekinesis. This supposed psychic had dared to step in front of moving bicycles, horses and cars, with only the power of his mind to stop them. He stepped up his stunts in intensity, growing his audience with each new example of his psychic prowess. A combine harvester. A truck. Clearly, the man had a power others did not possess, one worthy of increasingly greater audience and spectacle. In due course, this psychic Russian, as my uncle told it, attempted to increase his public’s adoration with a feat never before dreamed of by man. He would step in front of a freight train and stop it, too, with his unparalleled powers of telekinesis. He was confident. His audience was excited. And he was, of course, crushed by a train unable to combat the massive force of inertia in the short amount of time graciously afforded it by the psychic.
My uncle then followed the story with the phrase he used to follow so many stories.
A phrase that seemed to say the world was insane beyond redemption, on its way into a great abyss from which it would never return.
A phrase that followed him throughout his life.
The phrase he would say was this:
“Here we go.”
The story begins like this.
A middle school gymnasium is filled to bursting with parents, siblings, and other various relatives attending what is generously called a musical performance. Attempting to force music from their instruments of torture are a collection of sixth graders who first held them not four months previous, and of whom the greatest expectation from a reasonable person would be to play sounds that more or less begin and end at the same time.
After three depressingly unforgettable selections, the band retires in favor of the middle school choir sharing the concert with them. As many members of the choir are also members of the band, there is an inevitable shifting around of students, chairs, stands, and general chaos as one portion of the concert ends and the next begins. There is a fair amount of noise associated with this chaos, but in comparison to the cacophony that had been the sixth grade band, the relative quiet is enveloping.
Students put down their instruments, don choir robes, and move awkwardly to their places on the choir risers as other choir members stand up from where they had been patiently waiting their turn, already robed. Up in the bleachers, those who are talking speak in hushed tones as if they know loud talking isn’t exactly appropriate, though not patently against the rules of etiquette.
In the midst of this half silence, Jacob Gruber, a walk-on character in our story, stands up and speaks in full voice. He does not look all that unusual. Tall, just on the heavy side of fit, short cropped hair, and a sweater over his collared shirt. He does not have a wild look in his eye, does not flail his arms about, does not scream. He merely speaks to the room as if he has an important announcement. As if the conductor has called on him to speak about a local charity while the choir prepares for their first piece of the evening.
Except the conductor has not called on him.
Standing up, he speaks in a clear voice, and there is no mistaking his words. “I’m afraid the end has come,” he says. “Not for the world. I don’t mean that. Though, who knows?” He smiles awkwardly, perhaps hoping for a laugh. Getting none, he continues. “I mean the end has come for me. I have, in the last few minutes, lost my sanity, and am no longer truly among you. I’m sorry to interrupt this event, but I feel compelled to speak. I find myself in a world that was formerly stable and is now anything but. I suppose I am dangerous, although I don’t feel particularly so. Please forgive my interruption and abrupt exit. Please show my family your support. You shall not see me again.”
Now the room truly is silent. Everyone watches in amazement as he turns around and bends over to pick up the coat he had rested, like so many others, on the bleacher seat beneath him for cushioning. He carefully puts on the coat as the crowd continues to watch in silence. Then, as if he were simply going to the bathroom, he slips past the four or five people separating him from the nearest aisle, quietly saying “excuse me” as they turn their legs to the side to let him pass. Then he is gone, and gazes turn to his wife, Amber. She is mortified, and frozen with indecision.
The choir director grabs his microphone, desperate to distract the parents from this strange event, and to turn their attention back toward their children.
“Well,” he laughs awkwardly, “that’s something you don’t hear every day,” and there is a titter from the bleachers. “Well, um, I think the students are set now, so, um, let’s get started. Our first piece really gives the students a chance to play with some interesting time signatures, and...”
As he blathers on, introducing the first piece, several men, first responders no doubt, stand up and leave the gym, sometimes moving toward the nearest aisle and sometimes just climbing over parents, their feet always somehow finding the empty spots between them. The principal also moves to leave, first walking over to Jacob Gruber’s wife, Amber, and leading her out.
Jacob Gruber will never be seen alive in that town again.
This story is not about Jacob Gruber. It is about two brothers, a muse, and a conman by the name of Benson Quartermaster. It takes place in the midst of a world wide epidemic, the primary symptom of which is unadulterated madness.
Calumet Forsyth, the first of our two brothers, has not yet contracted the virus at this point in the story. He will, of course. Everyone in this story will. Every person you will come to know throughout the reading of this tale, every man, woman, and child, their friends, their neighbors, their teachers, mentors and influences, every person they know, every person they ever thought about, and every person who could in any way be considered to have some distant connection with characters named or unnamed will penultimately contract this disease of insane visions, followed in most cases by death or catatonia. It is inevitable.
At this time, however, Calumet Forsyth, Cal to his friends and neighbors, walks about in the care of full sanity, tempered only by the increasingly unusual events surrounding him. I like Cal. He has a dispassionate curiosity that I find both thoughtful and illuminating. Meditative and logical.
When the snows come, he stands in his driveway enjoying the peace of the freshly fallen snow and considers the quiet meditative and healthy exercise of the shovel compared with the speed and efficiency of the gas powered snowblower. Except when the snows are excessive, he chooses the shovel. He next considers the pattern with which he and his shovel will traverse the driveway. He thinks through each possible step, each repercussion for every choice, and metaphorically plows through the final scenario in his mind, clearing the driveway with maximum efficiency balanced with minimum suffering, all the while standing in the unplowed driveway, losing heat, and failing to begin. Once he is satisfied with his plan, he turns back to the house, warms up with a cup of coffee, waiting until he is fully warmed before executing his plan, which will leave his driveway clear and his soul improved.
He thinks logically and without passion, but prefers actions that bring him peace.
Before the story is through, he will, on more than one occasion, lose his cool, as the saying goes, but he is, for the most part, a calming influence on those with whom he interacts and an excellent observer of the events unfolding around him. He also has a few good jokes.
Do not misunderstand me. He is not a strong man. He does not force his ideas on others, does not push back against ideas he does not agree with. Clear of logic though he is, it is usually the less rational path that he takes, a result of a fear of conflict, a desire not so much to please others as to not displease others. He has a lack of confidence that undermines his strong mind, and forever keeps him from leading others down wiser roads.
Still, I like him.
His wife, Greta, I like not as much.
She, too, has a strong streak of the rationalist within her. She sees the world as a series of logistical challenges which can be overcome with good planning and foresight. I don’t begrudge her that. Her approach to life saves time, money and work for nearly everyone she interacts with. She streamlines in a way most people can only dream of.
She is convinced, however, that life is fundamentally unfair. She is strong in her opinion that the world is populated by lazy layabouts whose primary goal is to work as little as possible, and to burden her with the work that by all rights should have been done by them. This resentment is quiet. She does not shout it from the rooftop. But she is ruthless in making her opinion known. It shows in her face, in her actions, and in those quiet comments meant to hurt, but which are technically innocuous. Comments that sound like, well, she must have a good reason, but which really mean, obviously, she just doesn’t want to do the work.
She is charitable, but only for those who truly cannot help themselves.
What really drives her crazy, however, is that the world continues to reward the layabouts, while burdening her with sufferance.
When the snows come like a soft blanket slowly covering the earth for winter, she sees only cold and suffering. She rushes the kids into her car to drive them the four blocks to school, condemning them for oversleeping, and putting her plan off schedule. She curses drivers throughout her commute to work for driving too fast or too slow, sure that if everyone just followed the rules, traffic would flow smoothly. She curses snow plows for slowing traffic when they are in front, and for failing to clear the snow when they are not.
She sees herself in constant battle with a world unwilling to help itself, a world that could do so much more if only it would listen to her.
It’s ok. She means well. She is quick to pull by the side of the road to help a broken down vehicle. She always stays to clean up. She volunteers to help with her kids’ activities. She does the right things, it’s just that she gets no joy from doing so. All of her energy goes to condemning those who do not help.
Like everyone else in this story’s universe, Greta, too, will succumb to madness before this tale comes to a close. And her reaction to that madness will be so unlike her husband’s as to hardly be recognizable as having been born of the same virus.
Cal and Greta have just left a middle school auditorium, where they were witness to the first of what would be many incidents that could only be explained by an epidemic of madness.
Here we go.
The book you hold in your hands is infected. It contains a communicable virus that infects the brain, driving it inexorably toward madness. In the case of Jacob Gruber, the virus has left him effectively incapacitated to the point where the world will never again appear to him in the way he had previously come to rely upon. Fissures open up before him, incomprehensible visions pervade his mind, and the formerly reliable signals sent to his brain from his eyes are now so unpredictable as to be not only useless, but dangerous. The trust that Mr. Gruber had built up with those signals over a lifetime of predictable input is broken. He has been betrayed by his own operating system, by his neurological network, by his own organs. He will not recover.
How he came to be infected was this. On a cold but sunny Sunday, after a lazy morning reading the paper and sipping coffee, Jacob Gruber walked to the library. It was a short walk, so although the cold spring wind was blowing something fierce, the brevity of the walk combined with the bright blue sky put him in good spirits. The day was his own, his family was happily occupied at home, and he would soon have several new books to bring him further joy throughout the week. He felt optimistic about the days and years in front of him, and proud of those he had left behind. It was, in short, a good day.
He had intended to head, as was his wont, to the mystery section, to look over the new arrivals. Jacob was a voracious reader of mysteries and pulp fiction, so much so that the library was a significant parter in keeping him from driving his family to the poor house through book purchases. The books he would borrow today would be read by Saturday, and by the following Sunday, he would be back again for more.
As he entered the library on this particular Sunday, he was, alas, distracted by a rack of sale books, and being in a somewhat unusually dreamy mood, fingered through the books before him to see if something unusual might present itself to him. How The Art of Caring for the Aging Garden came to attract his attention is unknown, even by myself. Perhaps it was the bright green letters against the moss green background. Perhaps it was the overly severe and small font. We shall never know. What we do know is that he picked up the book and leafed through it. We know that he skimmed some passages at the beginnings of several chapters. We know that in order to purchase the book, he left the library to interact with a machine designed to give him access to his own money without the inconvenience of speaking with another human.
We know that by the time he finished checking out with that week’s mysteries, having ultimately decided against the sale book, he was changed so significantly as to have effectively left his friends, his family, and his world forever.
He would survive his disease for exactly 9 days, 6 hours, and 23 minutes from the moment it entered his body. Although it would be hard to argue that the disease did not lead to his demise, it could not be said that it was finally the cause of it. On the ninth day following his infection, Jacob Gruber would swerve what he was certain was an abyss that had just opened up on the stretch of empty state highway in front of him. The swerve would take him to a patch of ice. The patch of ice would cause Jacob to lose control of his car, which would, without his guidance, deliver him into the abutting ditch, where his car would tilt, roll, and finally careen into the half frozen slough beyond it. Over the next 46 minutes, Jacob Gruber would lose nearly three pints of blood, as he waited for the surrounding demons to carry him away.
Following the incident at the middle-school, it is safe to say that Cal, Greta, and both of their children were a bit shaken up. There was a little conversation and gossip after the concert, and most tried to laugh it off, but the undercurrent of fear was definitely palpable. On the surface, people spoke phrases like, “there but by the grace of God go I,” but in their minds, darker thoughts pervaded. Did Jacob Gruber do something to deserve what happened? Could it happen to me? The usual joyous ruckus leading into a late evening stop for ice cream was replaced by a subdued and self-conscious murmur, no one quite daring to do more than count their blessings.
Their ride home was quiet, after which each of them headed toward bedtime rituals. The kids still had homework. The grownups lay in bed for a chapter or two before sleep. Either they did not feel like talking about the strange scene at the middle school, or were afraid to. In any case, it was silence that ruled the night.
The next morning, the incident seemed like a fading dream, and everyone headed into their daily rituals as if it were any other day. By mid-morning, the kids were settled in school and the parents at work.
Life must, after all, go on.
Twenty-one and one-half hours after Jacob Gruber had announced his insanity, Greta Forsyth was ostensibly preparing dinner. She was standing in front of a cutting board, knife in hand, no vegetables in sight.
Cal walked into the kitchen from the children’s bathroom, where he had been investigating a leaky toilet with little success. “I guess we need to replace the works, but we might need a plumber.”
She did not respond.
She simply stared ahead, knife in hand, lost in thought.
“Get everything you needed at the store?” he asked.
“Greta,” Cal said, “You’re not acting like yourself. What’s wrong?”
Greta had a reputation for being a brick, but if she was a brick, it was a delicate and hollow one made of thinnest glass. She had a quiet calm that usually managed to comfort those around her, but it was a fragile illusion, and took all of her strength to maintain. Normally, she forced the dark feelings down, covering them with small talk, pleasantries, as if the innocuous words formed a protective packing around her fragile shell. Those words were gone now, and her shell was becoming exposed. She was trying to hold herself together, but she was about to fall apart.
She slowly turned her head toward Cal and gave him an intense look that hid a long conversation, a series of back and forth comments between her and Cal, all taking place silently in her mind, playing out one scenario after the other, depending on which words she began with. It was clear that she wanted to speak, and at the same time, dared not let herself for fear of shattering.
Cal stepped toward her and reached out to touch her, hoping to wake her from her trance, to bring her back to reality. He was not disappointed. She flinched back violently, and held the knife up in front of her, as if she feared for her life, as if she needed to protect herself from the one man who had always made it his goal to protect her. Still, she did not speak.
Cal backed up slowly and attempted to use a calming voice. He focused his efforts on getting the chef’s knife out of Greta’s hand.
“Greta? What happened? Did something happen when you picked up the...did something happen at the grocery store? Are the kids ok?”
She cocked her head, almost like a curious dog. The fear seemed to dissipate as she focused on his voice. She looked confused, as if she didn’t know where she was, and looked about her. When her eyes came down to the knife in her hand, she seemed entirely shocked to find it there and dropped it on the counter. She lifted her hands halfway to her face, stared at them a moment, and looked back at her husband.
“My God, Cal,” she finally said, her voice half a whisper, “has the whole world gone mad?”
Cal let the silence hang in the air, allowed his wife to gather her bearings. Gently, he reached for her shoulders and tried to share with her what strength he had. Carefully, he asked, “What happened?”
Greta took a deep breath, gathered her bearings, and told her story.
“Well, I was in line at Newman’s with a just a few things. Someone I didn’t know was in front of me with a full cart, and I was just, sort of, watching the check out. Sarah Markuson was at the register, and she looked really tired. She was just sort of doing her job like a robot without even looking up. It was almost as if she was trying not to look up. Well this woman with all the groceries had a big pile of coupons and kept trying to give them to Sarah. Without looking up, Sarah told her to scan the coupons on the machine, but it was like the woman didn’t understand her or something. She just kept trying to hand the coupons to Sarah. Finally, Sarah looked up at her and just...it was like she’d seen...well, I don’t know what. She seemed like she was about to say something, and then shut her mouth. Then she looked at me, and had that same look of fear, or disgust, or...or just like we were aliens or something. I asked her if she was alright, but she just looked around like she was surrounded by wild dogs or something. Then she just ran out of the store.”
“Just like that?” Cal asked her. “Not a word?”
“No. When she got to the front door, she turned back and screamed, ‘I don’t believe in you. I don’t believe in any of you. Go away!’ and then ran out. My God, Cal, it was just like Jacob Gruber.”
Slowly, carefully, Cal took Greta in his arms.
They stood like that, with love and peace and care, for some time.
Then, in a complete change of character that can only come from a lifetime of practice, she put her fear away, put away her love, and found a new task to occupy her thoughts. Life, after all, must go on. With a visible shaking off of her husband, and a smile that was designed to show love and thanks, but ultimately only served to disguise her remaining fear, she said, “Oh, your brother called. Well, his secretary did. I left the number on the counter. She wants you to call her.”
And as Greta walked away, Cal, still reeling from a rare sighting of his wife’s vulnerable side, dragged his feet to the counter and stared at full sheet of white paper with only a single name and number. A name he didn’t recognize. A number too long to be local. A number he did not want to see. A number he was not likely to call. A full sheet that would soon be a scrap of paper hiding in his pocket, worn with the natural oils on his fingers as they consider pulling it out and using it, but never dare to.
Greta isn’t crazy. Not yet. Before our story winds to a close, Greta will murder her children to save them from the satanic monster she has failed to subdue. Their not yet fully developed pulmonary systems will fill with poison as she cowers beneath the monster, waiting for the perfect time to lunge in for the kill, a time that, sadly, will never come
Her mild catatonia was not a direct result of the disease now slowly making its way through her community, but rather, an oblique one. She had been deeply affected by the virus only in that she had witnessed the insanity of a sometime acquaintance who was herself infected with the virus.
Sarah Markuson filled her car with fuel. As this story takes place in modern times, the process by which she did so involved the use of a machine, without the pleasure of interaction with another human. In a, perhaps, more civilized age, the dispensing of automobile fuel required such a pleasure, and afforded a customer the opportunity for a conversation sometimes referred to as small talk. An attendant of what at that time was known as a service station, would begin by asking the customer how he might help, and while doing so, might engage in conversation about the weather, a local sports team, or perhaps some other news of local interest. The conversations were rarely meaningful except in that they allowed these two humans to feel that they were part of a greater species, one with common interests and goals, and perhaps did something to dispel an overwhelming sense of loneliness, always lying in wait to poison them.
At the time of this story, the last bastions of that civilized past in the United States were relegated to two small areas, one on each coast, where it was felt that there was still some value in human interaction. In the rest of that great land, speaking to other humans had been weighed against the valuable time lost in doing so, and had, sadly, been found wanting.
Here we go.
Sarah Markuson had little choice but to put gas in her car herself, and because she, like so many, considered her limited time to be of more value than might be gained by visiting the clerk inside the station, she did so with the use of a pump designed to eliminate human interaction altogether. It was, although not definitively so, effectively a robot. This robot was connected to a vast network of other robots and control devices, one of which had been used by an infected individual and was anxious to share what it had learned.
She fed this robot a piece of plastic embedded with a magnetic code, and it responded by asking her a series of questions.
It asked her how it should interpret the strip.
It asked her for a four digit code to transfer funds from her banking account.
It asked her for a series of five numbers identifying the location of her residence.
It asked her if she wanted to have her car washed by a different machine.
It then instructed her which buttons to push and which levers to pull.
She made choices where appropriate and followed instructions as necessary. Upon completion of her task, she followed further instructions regarding buttons and levers, after which the machine thanked her by giving her a record of her actions which it encouraged her to save, to aid in her memory of this shared experience. She read the receipt and discarded it in a rubbish bin conveniently located adjacent to the fuel dispensing machine for precisely that purpose.
Sarah Markuson then proceeded to the Newman’s Supermarket where she would spend the day cleaning, stocking, and tending a register. It was a small store, but not tiny. She knew many of the regular customers, and although she was not a particularly extroverted person, she would sometimes engage these regulars in small talk.
That day, however, she did not.
That day, she was infected.
That day, she was very confused by the sudden transformation of human customers into wispy clouds of darkness with ill intent. She did her best to ignore them. She kept her eyes on the groceries, on the plastic bags, and, on the rare occasion that a customer would attempt to interact directly with her, on the cash or check that inevitably followed. When she dared to look at the customers, she was filled with dread, and the inescapable sense that her soul was about to be stolen from her.
By the time Greta made it to the register, Sarah had been fighting her fear for several hours, her strength and endurance at last exhausted.
Outdoors at a small European cafe, a man, a scientist, the emotionally distant brother of Calumet Forsyth, sits alone. His coffee goes cold as he studies models on his laptop computer, far beyond the comprehension of most of the world. The sun is shining with the promise of spring, and yet this man betrays no hint that it might, in any small way, give him joy. His forehead is wrinkled, his brow furrowed, his shoulders tensed. In every way, his body language shows him to be baffled, curious, frustrated and confused. Something is wrong, and he cannot understand why.
A waitress asks him in her native language how he is doing. It would not be unusual for him, or anyone, to sit at such a cafe table for hours, slowly sipping coffee and enjoying the day. She is not rushing him. She is not even providing particularly good service, at least by the standards of those back on the other side of the world. But it is a slow time of day, she has finished her cigarette and coffee, and she is bored with the conversation that had previously engaged her in the dark interior of the cafe.
She says, referring to his now cold coffee, “Looks like you could use a warm-up.”
To which he relies, “I beg to differ.”
“Come again?” she asks.
“To suggest that I need warming up assumes a level of chill which I am not currently experiencing. Moreover, the temperature is a comfortable nineteen degrees which, combined with my use of this sweater should lead any careful observer to note that the need for warming up is not something I am likely to experience.”
She looks at him curiously. “I meant your coffee.”
“Oh,” he replies, and lowers his eyes back to his laptop.
She notices the strange shapes on his computer and asks him what they are. She wonders aloud if he might be working on some sort of new shoe design.
Our scientist, aware that our waitress does not feel pressed to attend to other customers who, like him, are content to be left alone with cooling coffee as they engage in day long study or conversation, invites her to sit down. It is not his wont to be a teacher, but he does have a persistent tendency to lecture, usually in a way considered condescending by his colleagues. In the case of the waitress, however, this is probably the safe choice. He speaks to her in her native tongue, which, in the language of our friend across the sea, would be interpreted as follows.
“Imagine that you are a snowflake.”
“Yes. You are a pretty snowflake. You don’t remember forming in the cloud, and you have no conception of life on the ground. You just float. Around you, billions of other snowflakes float, none of them remembering the cloud, none of them able to imagine what is, inevitably, to come. And yet it will come. It must. At some point in your future, inconceivable as it is to you today, you must land. Gravity is a force which cannot be ignored, and you must, without question, eventually settle upon a pile of other snowflakes and be crushed in the darkness of packed snow until the summer sun tears you apart.”
The scientist looks at the waitress expectantly, to see if she is following him.
“I am a snowflake.” She is beginning to regret engaging the man in conversation.
“You are a snowflake. And the world you know, the life you live, is entirely in the sky. You have no memory of life before your birth, and no conception of life after your death. It is the journey from one to the other that occupies you, that comprises the sum total of your life experience.”
Once again, he looks at her expectantly.
“The cloud is my birth, and the pile of snow is my death. Yes?”
The scientist smiles. “Now. A wind picks up during your fall, your life journey, and you are blown about with other snowflakes. It is like a disaster. You will lose many friends, you will be lost, your life will change, but you are still a snowflake surrounded by snowflakes moving from your creation to your destruction in a way not altogether different from what you have always known.”
“I am in a blizzard?”
“Yes. That’s right. You are in a blizzard.”
The waitress attempts to contribute. “Blizzards are very dangerous. My brother lost his arm after becoming lost in a blizzard four years ago.”
Had the scientist been the least bit interested in what she had to say, she would have continued without halting. The gentleman would have learned that the brother of this waitress had been driving alone on his way to meet friends for a weekend of skiing when a predicted blizzard had turned his blue skies to gray, so to speak. He would have heard the waitress condemn her brother for not paying closer attention to the weather reports and for tempting fate by traveling such dangerous roads in bad weather. He would have seen a raise of her eyebrows and cant of her head that did as much as to say, “I told him so, but the fool never listens.” He would have heard how the brother became lost and drove his car off the roadway, to be buried in drifts for six days in what became bitter cold. He would have heard how the waitress’s brother lost his right arm to frostbite and about his struggle to become left-handed, how he has become a burden on her mother who was old enough now that she had trouble getting around, largely because her quack doctor didn’t know what he was doing, and how this job was now the only thing that...well, perhaps it is better that our gentleman is self-absorbed, after all.
The waitress takes a breath to speak and indicates, in body language anyone with an emotional radar above 0.01 would recognize as, “I am about to speak. Please listen to me.” The scientist does not recognize the pattern, but is rescued from the impending monologue by his own natural desire to keep his own thoughts the focus of all so-called conversations. The words are not yet out of her mouth when he successfully regains control of the situation.
“But as you blow about in the wind, you come near a desert, where instead of snow blowing about, there is sand. You have never seen sand before, have never imagined it, and yet there it is, blowing all around you, intermixing with you and the other snowflakes, two worlds swirling about each other, each as confused and out of place as the other.”
“Yes.” The waitress, having lost her chance to participate, has subsequently lost interest. Sitting with this customer is still preferable to talking with the cook, however, and certainly better than cleaning, so she remains and allows the gentleman to continue.
Which he does.
“Yet the wind does not cease. Soon the sand and snow are swirling together with rain and ocean spray. As a snowflake on your life journey from cloud to pile, all of these things are new to you. They are natural, they belong in the world, but to you, they are like space aliens, inconceivable until they cross your path. Now the wind has become a tornado, and as you swirl around with snow and sand and spray, you now see human refuse, bricks, sticks of lumber unimaginably large to you, and yet moving toward and away from you, becoming part of your formerly lonely universe.”
The scientist waits for the waitress to respond. She does not.
“Now,” the man says patiently, “how would that make you feel?”
The waitress, who at this point has lost interest, quickly tries to remember what he was talking about. Flying through a tornado, possibly.
“I suppose I would feel frightened,” she ventures.
The man nods his head as if to say, “Hmm.” Then, out loud, he says, “That’s what Victoria said.” He looks closely at the waitress, as if seeing her for the first time. He examines her face, her bearing, her clothes. He considers her as a valuable object worth studying, and attempts, however briefly, to imagine her as worthwhile. Then he shrugs his shoulders, lets out a sigh and says, “Perhaps humans weren’t born for adventure after all.”
With that, he turns his attention back to his computer. The waitress, surveying his table, sees that his coffee has long gone cold, but feels no need to refresh it. Ignored, she casually stands up and walks to another table, where she engages a regular in a conversation with more than one participant.
Staring once again at his computer, problems invading him from every direction, solutions eluding him at every turn, the scientist and elder brother of Calumet Forsyth shuts his eyes hard, and wonders why his brain no longer seems to work.
I don’t dislike Cal’s brother. Personally, I find his lack of emotional intelligence refreshing, though I know it can make him seem more than borderline sociopathic at times. In truth, though, he is simply a man more rational than is usually deemed acceptable in modern society. To say he is logical only, to compare him, say, with Mr. Spock, for example, would be misleading. Not all logics, after all, are the same.
Cal’s brother would be quick to tell us that all logical systems must be built upon a basic premise, some paramount thing that rises in importance above all the rest. For most of us, that premise would be something like, people should be happy, or humans should survive, or some other such nonsense. Hammond Forsyth has no such illusions. His premise, the starting point for the logical system that is the focus of his every thought, is no more nor less than this: the nature of the universe must be known.
His actions, his words, his very thoughts all come back to that same premise, and if something does not satisfy it, he tosses it away without care.
When the snows come like a soft blanket slowly covering the earth for winter, he sees a conglomeration of crystalized water molecules behaving as expected. He considers the barometric pressure, and whether it is rising or falling, combines that knowledge with that of the current temperature and trends for the past days, and predicts, with some amount of success, the likelihood that the snow will melt of its own accord. He then catalogs this prediction so as to compare it with measurable results, thus improving his ability to make improved predictions in the future.
Were someone to question his attitude, suggest that he was failing to see the bigger picture in life, he would look upon that someone with the sort of arrogant sustain that can only come with an intelligence so beyond the masses as to make them, in his opinion, unworthy of remark.
In other words.
Where the world sees joy, suffering, beauty and pain, he simply sees data and nothing more.
Cal usually thought of his brother as an ignorant, careless, selfish, cocky, arrogant, insufferable son of a bitch, or bastard, or cocksucker, or asshole, or maybe just jerk, an epithet with which he had no doubt his brother would beg to differ.
Ham has little tolerance for statements that are, if only technically, inaccurate, and will vehemently deny them if given the chance. It is, perhaps, Ham’s great fault that he uses the verb “beg” when in disagreements. If he were to remain true to himself, he would merely say, “I differ.” His overly used phrase, “I beg to differ,” I’m sorry to say, comes from my misplaced desire to give Ham some sense of humor and diplomacy, neither of which come naturally to the man.
In any case, the phrase has become inextricably linked to Hammond Forsyth, and shall remain so until his dying day, forty-two years, eight months, and fourteen days from the moment in the cafe.
Hammond Forsyth used the phrase incessantly as a child, and always in an attempt to bring greater accuracy and precision to the world he inhabited. As a child, Ham abhorred metaphor and hyperbole, and would beg to differ at every opportunity. Needless to say, such behavior did not win him any friends. Fortunately for Ham, he desired none.
He would, however, have been incorrect in his difference of opinion with Cal.
Son of a bitch, or son-of-a-bitch, or sombitch, if you prefer, all lay the pith of the epithet upon our subject’s mother, a saint wholly undeserving of such disdain.
Bastard has similar implications.
Cocksucker implies that any person who practices fellatio is disdainful, an implication which seems deeply unfair. Add to that the certain knowledge that Ham has never practiced such a sport, but who would not consider such practice abhorrent so much as unnecessary, and we are once again left with an epithet of little to no value.
Asshole has fair implications of selfishness, but has the added suggestion that the subject of the epithet acts with purpose, something which, in the case of Ham would be wholly complimentary. Also, Ham would likely point out that the anatomical location from which the metaphor receives its punch is unfairly maligned for its smell and tendency to transmit disease, while its value to the body as an outlet for waste, as well as to the bacteria for which it provides shelter, is kept artificially low.
Jerk lacks power, and Ham would only see it as a function of change in acceleration anyway.
Perhaps we’d best leave it at something or other.
Is he thoughtless? Not really. He thinks all the time.
Is he careless? Only of the important things.
Is he selfish? He would allow his body to die a horrible death if he were distracted by another problem. He doesn’t act for his own gain, nor does he act for the gain of others.
Is he cocky? Not on purpose.
Is he arrogant? I suppose that to earn that title, you must intentionally desire to prove yourself smarter than others. He has no such desire. He is simply unable to imagine that you are capable of thinking on his level.
That leaves us with insufferable. Perhaps this one is fair, after all. While a person can in fact suffer the pain that is a conversation with Hammond Forsyth, one rarely desires to do so.
The best we can do, without fear of a reasonable reprisal from the object of our insult, is to say that Hammond Forsyth is an insufferable something or other, a description with which even Ham cannot beg to differ.
Still a little spooked by Greta, not less so for her ability to completely hide her emotions, Cal attempted to find his calm with some family conversation. “So how was school today, Clyde?”
Clyde just shrugged his shoulders.
“And by how was school, I mean, tell me something that happened in school today. Something you learned. Something you did.” It was Cal’s usual approach with Clyde. Jessi, his daughter was the talkative one, and would dominate the conversation soon enough. Once she got going, Clyde would be able to slide into his usual comfort zone of silence. Cal always started out the dinner conversation by trying to engage the boy first.
Clyde had a mouth full of lettuce and croutons, salad dressing dripping down his chin, but spoke anyway. He had to repeat himself twice before anyone could make out what he was saying.
“Police came to school.”
Cal and Greta froze.
“Police? How come?”
“Some sixth grader went nuts or something. I guess he ripped all his clothes off and ran screaming around the school. We were all locked in the classrooms.”
Clyde shrugged his shoulders and went back to his salad. Jessi jumped in.
“It was Alex Myendorff. His sister is in my health class. They pulled her out of school after lunch. I think he was sick or something. He was all hyper and whatever, and they had to shoot him up with drugs in the gym.”
Greta immediately stood up. “Those idiots! Why can’t they...” she shook her head. “I mean how hard is it to...” her eyes opened wide. She turned toward the family computer just outside the kitchen and began reading emails. Everyone at the table was silent, waiting for her to say something.
“My god,” she said, her voiced raised in anger, “Do they think we all just sit around checking our emails all day? And a lockdown! They can’t bother to make simple phone call?”
“What is it, Greta?”
“It’s an email from this morning. It says that a student has posed a possible danger to the school, and that until the situation is resolved, the school is on lockdown. It also says that the students are not permitted to use their phones until the situation is resolved. Then here, about fifteen minutes later, we’ve got another email apologizing for unnecessarily worrying anyone, that the student has been taken to the hospital, and that school will continue as normal through the end of the school day. Idiots!”
Greta stayed at the computer for the rest of the evening and engaged in what is, at times, the most dangerous hobby known to modern man: internet research. She explored the depths of madness through the use of the world’s largest collection of opinions, looking for some clear solution she could catch hold of. It mattered not what was true, what was conjecture, and what was knowingly false and manipulative. She had confidence that she could parse truth from fiction and teach her friends and neighbors the truth of what had happened that night. As usual, she believed that only she could do that. What she dismissed along the shadowy paths of the internet we shall never know, but somewhere in her exploration of the dark reaches of the largest congregation of unsubstantiated ideas ever known to man, she came across her Grail.
She had reduced her fear to a problem, the problem to a solution, and the solution to a task. Task was clear, simple, and as usual, would have to be executed by her, since no one else would likely bother to do the actual work.
How Alex Myendorff came to be infected was this:
He was locked in his room. Not literally locked in, but for all intents, purposes and practical effects, one could not question that he was, at least from the perspective of his parents, inaccessible from the outside. His door was closed, and therefore, according the principles his parents had instilled upon him, his privacy was assured. He sat on the floor, surrounded by dirty clothes, books, toys, garbage, and this and that, his eyes focused on the device in front of him. The device was a laptop computer, so named because it could, in some circumstances, be used while resting on the users lap. This was generally impractical due to the heat generated by the device while in use, and users typically took the less painful approach of resting the device on a desk, or floor, or bed, or pretty much anywhere they could effectively reach it without burning their lower limbs.
His device, as usual, was connected to millions of other devices sharing information with each other, resulting in a library of sorts, but one in which talking among patrons was not frowned upon. This particular evening, Alex Myendorff, twelve, after spending much of his evening studying photographs of adult naked women, had casually moved on to another area of the library, this one concerned with light science and puzzles designed to pass the time. Of the many puzzles and curiosities he studied that evening was an ancient puzzle that had reportedly been studied by great scientists for centuries. The solution was included on the same page as the puzzle, but Alex challenged himself to find the solution himself. For seventeen seconds. Then he read the answer and was just as confused as he was before he read it. Then he read a joke about robots.
It was in those seventeen seconds of thought that the physiology of Alex Myendorff was irrevocably changed, such that in four days time, he would see the world as it truly was: a hostile environment where swarms of flying, chitinous insects starved for food chased humans for their clothing, constructed as it was from materials considered by the bugs to be a great delicacy. Naked and safe in the center of his middle school gymnasium, he could nought but laugh as insect covered authorities told him everything was going to be ok. It was not until they attempted to wrap him in an infested blanket that he resumed screaming and fighting.
Unlike his captors, Alex Myendorff was aware that once the bugs became sated with cotton, they would turn their attentions to their next basic need, human liver. In his hospital bed, covered in bugs, he could feel rogue explorers crawl into his orifices and work their way into his abdomen.
Whether or not he is in danger from these creatures matters less than that he believes he is, for the mind is a dangerous thing. Four days after his incarceration began, for it will be no less, his liver will cease to operate, and his mind will find the peace all men long for, but fear to find.
By the time Greta went to bed, she had committed to memory a series of questions, posited by a team of researchers at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, as part of a study done in the early 1980′s. She tried the questions on her husband.
A guinea pig.
Lying quietly, each ostensibly reading their respective books, she asked him, “What color is this?”
Cal was in the middle of a paragraph at that moment, and muttered only, “Huh?”
“I’m sorry, what?” He looked over to see her holding the glass of water she always kept on her nightstand, freshly filled and still sweating with condensation.
“Cal, what color is this?”
“What color is that?”
“Yes, Cal. What color is this?”
The glass had no discernible color, nor did the water within it. She had chosen the object for that very reason. It was part of the test. He looked at her in confusion, and she met his questioning look with a bold stare of her own. They eyed each other in silence, each quietly evaluating the other.
“What color is this?”
She did not reply.
“Why?” He asked.
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“Why do I ask?”
“Yes, Greta. Why do you ask me to tell you the color of your glass?” The room had become tense.
“Do I?” Greta responded, as if she, herself, was confused by her own question.
Cal was at a loss. He thought back to the evening before, to Jacob Gruber’s confession of madness, to their lack of conversation about it, to their awkwardly silent ride home from the concert with the kids. He thought of Sarah Markuson and Alex Myendorff, and Greta’s catatonic stage earlier that evening. He began to think that Greta might be more profoundly affected than he had previously expected. She was, but not in the way he had feared.
Cal pressed back. “You do. You ask me the color of your glass.”
Still holding the glass between them, she said only, “What color is this?”
Cal gave in, and chose to take her seriously, if only to figure out where she was going. “Well,” he began, “I don’t suppose it has any color.”
She carefully placed the glass back on her bedside table, saying only, “Hmm...”
As they continued to sit in bed, silently, Cal considered asking her again about her question. Why had she asked it? What did she intend to learn? He was preparing himself to do so, imagining her possible responses when she interrupted his thoughts with another question.
“Where is the North Pole?”
Cal feared the worst.
“Greta, are you feeling ok?”
“I’m fine, Cal. Never been better. Now please answer my question.”
“Where is the North Pole?”
“Yes, Cal. Where is the North Pole?”
Cal had seen Greta like this before. She had some idea in her mind, had rustled up all of her confidence to back it up, and now she would not stop until she had put every bit of effort she could spare into playing it out. He was faced with a not unusual choice between fighting his wife’s instinct, and losing, or playing along, and bringing her new mission to conclusion as soon as possible. Unsurprisingly, he chose the latter.
He answered her question.
“At the northernmost location on Earth.”
It was followed with another.
“How big is an antelope?”
“I don’t know. Three or four feet high. Maybe two hundred pounds.”
“Is a lemon drop sweet or sour?”
“Both, I suppose.”
“Why do birds fly south?”
“To escape the cold.”
“How big is heaven?”
Cal was stymied.
“How big is heaven?”
“Yes, Cal. How big is heaven?”
“I have no way of knowing.”
“Thank you, Sweetheart. Just one more.”
“Just one more question?”
“Just one last question.” Then she was silent. Cal waited. She waited. They both waited, but neither spoke. Perhaps they were both of afraid of what they might say. Perhaps Greta was as worried about Cal’s responses as he was about her questions. Was she mad, like Jacob Gruber? Like Sarah Markuson? Could Cal raise two children on his own? Could he afford care for her when the insurance ran out? Did it even cover mental illness? His mind was racing in all directions at once, doing what it could to distract itself from the panic trying to force itself in.
Greta’s thoughts were inscrutable.
She continued to stare. To wait.
But it was she who was to speak next. She who had introduced one last question. It was almost as if they had entered into a staring contest. A contest of wills. First person to blink loses. First person to speak forfeits. And yet, Cal wasn’t really playing. It was her game. Her rules. Cal was only looking for the way to best pacify her. Did she want him to speak, or stay silent? Which was the least worst option?
Cal dared. “Greta?”
“You said you had one last question.”
One more pause. Then, “What is the meaning of life?”
Cal fell silent again. Answers raced through his mind. Answers trite, profound, meaningless and esoteric. He thought of the circle of life, of his family, his job. He thought of poor Alex Myendorff, and about a party Cal went to in high school. Finally he thought about walking the dog.
Cal sought for the least worst answer, the response that would please Greta, lower her defenses. The answer that would put the catechism behind them and lead to a proper conversation about what had driven it in the first place.
Cal was about to say something about the little things in life, about moments, about reverence. He was about to say something he would undoubtedly regret moments later when he would come up with something better, stifling his first thought. Before he answered, however, he was thwarted altogether by Greta, who leaned to her bedside lamp, turned it off, and with a kiss to his cheek, said, “Goodnight, Sweetheart.”
Cal put down his book, turned off his light, and stared into the darkness. There would be no further discussion that night.
Greta’s questions were, in fact, from a study meant to determine, without question, the degree of mental illness harbored by a given individual. The study was either a rousing success or a dismal failure, depending on how you define success. It helped the aforementioned (but not yet named) college gain access to a major grant from the federal government not previously attainable. With the help of clever attorneys, the college used that money to build new dormitories, which in turn attracted wealthier students, which in turn allowed the college to raise their tuition, which in turn allowed the college to increase the wages of its administrators.
Here we go.
The study was also bunk.
The author of the study was a conman by the name of Benson Quartermaster. Benson Quartermaster had begun his professional life as an errand boy in a grant making organization, with a promising future of a good living wooing the wealthy in the name of worthy non-profits. He soon learned, however, that there was a fortune to be had for an unscrupulous man, if only he knew how to ask for it. He dedicated his life to asking for it, not for the good of charity, mind you, but for his own personal gain. It was a dangerous career choice, but a potentially lucrative one, and Benson took to it with abandon.
Town to town, university to university, Benson Quartermaster honed his trade and lined his pockets. Town to town, he built both his experience and his bank account. With the use of false but impressive credentials, he would present himself as an experienced and expert fundraiser, and work the system in a way only the unscrupulous could. Fearful of the law, he would temper his winnings for the sake of continued freedom. He would walk away from each new job as soon as he could get some money in his hands, but always before his shenanigans could be discovered. It was a niche trade that served him well. In the spring of 1983, the still unnamed college in Minnesota was ripe for the picking.
Benson Quartermaster’s grant request for this particular institution of higher learning involved the proposed hiring of a large number of students to present a random sample of citizens with a survey of his own devise. These student minions would then visit institutions of mental health and present those previously diagnosed as mentally ill with the same survey. The intention was to use this data to find a new tool for diagnosing mental illness.
Upon receiving his first payment, modest but not insignificant, Benson Quartermaster predictably quit town. The college, in its own way as unscrupulous as Quartermaster, determined that the wisest thing to do was to use a teaching assistant to complete the study, collect the rest of the grant, and file the study only where required for the receipt of funds. The study was also used to inspire a long overdue gift from a previously miserly donor who had been waiting for just this sort of study before giving his fortune to this institution. He used the study to prove his own sanity to his wife who had always claimed he was not is his right mind, although sadly, he could not successfully use it to disprove her own.
Years later, as part of an investigation into junk science and worthless studies, a budding Minnesota journalist discovered the closeted study and used the questions as part of her three part piece for a St. Paul weekly magazine. As an intern for the magazine she received no pay, although she expected that the piece would be the catalyst she needed to jumpstart her career as a professional journalist. It was not. She eventually gave up on journalism and focused her writing skills on marketing the organic honey for what would become her family side business. Too bad, really. The piece was quite good and had insights into the dark world of non rigorous science that wouldn’t be embraced for decades.
A decade went by, and the piece was plagiarized by a student for a paper on oddball studies. The student was a bit of a slacker and had the idea that if he could come up with the weirdest selection possible of unusual studies, his professor would be so entertained that his research would never be questioned. He was right. In fact, several of the studies mentioned in his paper never existed at all, save in the student’s imagination. The student received a B+ for the paper, a grade widely acknowledged to be commensurate with a clever interpretation of a given assignment, though not otherwise exceptional in any way.
In the late oughts, this paper was discovered by an upstart blogger with little moral compass. Like the budding journalist turned honey marketer from decades previous, he hoped to gain fame for himself through his writing. Unlike our Minnesota heroine however, he had no desire for discovering truth and sharing it with a wider world. Rather, he shared the study as legitimate science, in the hope that it was just sensational enough to be shared by the ignorant masses and grow his following, which, of course, it did.
By the time Greta read the survey, it seemed by all rights to be part of a legitimate study done by legitimate scientists at a legitimate institution of higher learning.
It was still, of course, bunk.
Benson Quartermaster received neither shame, fame, nor notoriety from any of these writings. He had a moderately successful, albeit criminal career, and avoided capture by keeping his ambitions low. Like everyone else in this story, he will eventually succumb to an infectious madness. By the time Benson Quartermaster faces his own insanity, he will have forgotten all about the study, and wish only that the demon kicking him to death would hurry up and get it over with.
The journalist turned honey marketer will lock herself and her grandchildren in the cellar, kill them in the mistaken belief that they have asked her to do so, and then kill herself in remorse for the deed in a brief respite from her madness.
The plagiarist will die of thirst in his own backyard, perched in the canopy of a burr oak.
The blogger will freeze to death on an icy Lake Michigan beach, waiting for the angels before him to carry him away.
Cal fingered a scrap of paper in his pocket as his mind wandered.
From thousands of miles away, a woman’s voice rang in his ears.
“Dr. Forsyth’s office.”
“Um, yes. This is, um, Calumet Forsyth. I got a message to call here.”
Moments later, Cal was connected with his long lost brother.
"Who is this?”
“Yes, Ham, your goddam brother. Listen, I don’t know what you want and I don’t care. You left us all a long time ago, and nobody wants to hear from you again. How dare you call me? How dare you try to crawl back into my life? You call me again, you send me a single letter, let alone to my children, and I’ll have whatever police they have over there haul you into some cockroach infested prison on a trumped up charge and leave you to rot for the rest of your life. Or better yet, I will personally track you down and tear out your heart, if you even have one. Now get out of my life and stay out!”
And with that, the conversation ended.
And Cal snapped himself out of his daze.
And he fingered the scrap of paper in his pocket.
And he told himself. “Later. I’ll call him later.”
And so our story is nearly begun. But before we can begin in earnest, it seems only fair that we meet the fourth member of our quartet.
Let us call her Scherzo.
The muse of Hammond Forsyth is a fickle piece of work.
She comes when she comes, and she leaves when she leaves, and woe to the man who dares tell her to do otherwise. Still, she likes Ham and needs no encouragement to spend her days with him. She likes that he is not easily distracted from the task at hand, unless by her. She likes that he listens to no one, unless to her. She likes that she has no rival from love or hate or fear or joy or ambition or contentment. That he is oblivious to her presence only increases her interest in this subject whom she considers to be gloriously pliable.
Hammond Forsyth is not a machine, of course. He does not think when told to think, and rest when told to rest. Like his muse, he considers himself in full charge of his own destiny. Though he would never admit it to himself, would in fact be ashamed to admit to such a lack of control, he is, like so many artists, wholly dependent upon his muse for his greatest achievements.
But even a muse desires change from time to time, and Hammond Forsyth’s personal goddess occasionally takes her leave.
When she fails to visit him, when he notes the emptiness but fails to define it, he turns his attention to the mundane but necessary tasks of detailed experimentation and analysis. Such are the primary jobs of every scientist, methodical, repetitive, exhausting, and sadly necessary. Of course, like so many professionals at his level of experience, Ham often uses assistants to carry out the daily tasks that constitute 98% of science, preferring, whenever possible, to interpret, study and solve. A more carefree man than he might dare say dream. When his muse fails to visit, however, such dreaming is usually fruitless, and the exercising of these monotonous tasks keeps his mind busy while waiting for her return.
On rarer occasions, Ham rests his mind altogether. Though he doesn’t know it, he misses her, and is in his own way seeking her comfort. He finds himself unable to concentrate, even on the most mundane tasks, and takes to an unconscious search for the keeper of his soul. Such searches are rare, but not extraordinary. After a boldfaced but failed attempt to bully through the absence of his muse at the cafe, he might commence his search with a long walk through increasingly empty streets, perhaps landing at a grassy patch where a few older locals are playing bocci. He might perch himself on a short stone wall abutting the field, and watch the players, strategizing the game in his mind. Or he might walk on, searching for the elusive peace he only finds when she is by his side.
Today, she will not come.
Today she is angry.
It was a dangerous idea and she should have kept it to herself. She should have kept her big mouth shut. Should have kept her thoughts to herself. But dangerous or not, inappropriate or not, she did not keep it to herself, and dammit, he should have listened. Fuming, she stomped off to wherever her people go when they stomp off to bask in the glory of the universe or some other such garbage, while she gathered her thoughts. She would not be back soon.
And Ham is on the verge. He can feel the idea just outside of his reach, floating somewhere north of his cerebellum, not quite daring to venture to his temporal lobe. He had it, had seen it, had known it, figuratively held it in his hand, was doubtless of its existence. It was...was...something important, something...but also...also ridiculous. He tried to fight through it with the waitress, teach, explain, come around to it from the side in the hope of finding the key thought that eluded him, but there was no hope. Had he taken the gift when it was offered, he would now see the world as no one ever had. Now he can only grasp in frustration, the epiphany fading like the night’s dreams after morning coffee.
He walks to the short stone wall he remembers, but the old men are nowhere to be seen. The clouds have rolled in, and the day no longer shows promise. Perhaps he had better go back to the lab, after all, crunch some numbers, numb his mind. As the sky grows darker, he sits on his wall, a curious look on his face, still searching for the lost epiphany, but losing steam.
He doesn’t know it yet, but he is perched on a precipice, below which is the crevasse known as crisis of faith. He does not yet know he ever had faith, but he will soon. For the love of his life is gone, and she isn’t coming back.