Monday, November 15, 2010

From the Vault

As mentioned in previous posts, I'm going to be using the blog to "publish" some old stories from online journals that have gone under. I think I've pretty much decided to focus on print publication exclusively; my latest negative experience concerns a story that was accepted by an online journal that vanished before it had a chance to publish my piece. I might change my mind in the future, of course, but that's where I am right now.

So for the moment, here's my story "Snooping," which appeared in the inaugural (and only) issue of the online journal The Squirrel Cage. It's my first sci-fi publication, and though I personally think it's a bit less polished than my later stuff, it's got obvious sentimental value, if nothing else.


Minnie is Snooping on the couple in 2A.

Ruth and Jericho are their names. They are at the kitchen table. Ruth curls on a chrome and red vinyl chair, her knees to her bent head, her brown hair spilling over her bare legs. Jericho stands in a grease-stained t-shirt, his torso tipped slightly forward and upward as if a new self is straining to burst free from the shell of his old body. The table hosts a solitary plate from which a bean-and-rice dish has been violently spilled, trailing a muddy cone across the white plastic tabletop. Its companion lies on the floor, its contents smearing the linoleum near the legs of Ruth’s chair. Ruth’s back jerks arhythmically, her sniffles clotted as if from some obstruction of her nasal passages. When Jericho cocks his arm she raises her head, showing puffy eyes and a red tangle where blood has matted her hair against her cheek.

“All right, Minnie,” Dr. Achison’s voice says. “That’s enough for a start.”

The kitchen fills with the whine of a desktop powering down and Minnie watches as Ruth, Jericho, the table, the room shudder and shrink like a balloon flying through space, only there is no space, the scene is the space, and its collapse yields a sickening sense of compression until Minnie opens her eyes to the familiar sight of the darkened office, her therapist’s shadowed face.

“So,” he says, reaching over to unclip the device from her ear. “What did you see?”


The first thing Snooping taught you was that you were far more populous than you could ever have guessed. The brochure even said so. Personae proliferated, depending on how deeply you went in, until you found yourself the axis of a veritable republic of surrogates, each bearing a name, a behavior, and a history. None of these factors, though, was fixed; as Dr. Achison explained, the personae could shift, change, surprise. The next time in, it might be Jericho whimpering at the kitchen table, Ruth taunting his crumpled back. Or it might be that Ruth had departed, leaving Jericho to pitch dishes in pent solitude. Or it might be that Minnie would find them cuddling by the ornamental fireplace, the chance vocabulary of Scrabble tiles lying forgotten on the flagstone hearth. This would not, however, mean the two had separated, reconciled, switched personalities or places; all was simply random fluctuation, neural firing. It was vital, Dr. Achison stressed, to keep in mind the three fundamental principles of Snooping:

1. The personae were not real. They were manifestations of the brain’s electrochemical activity, anthropomorphized, it appeared (the process was not well understood), in the mind’s effort to foster identification with its own biochemical basis. The Snooping technology did no more than provide heightened access to, and in principle control over, these personifications of one’s neurological apparatus. Hence its trade name, Sub-Neural Omniscience OPtimization.

2. You could not interact with your personae in the normal sense of the word; you were not, by definition, a participant in the scenes generated during Snooping sessions, for “you” were at once source and expression of the personae on whom you Snooped. You could watch, but not join, the action.

3. Your role was to guide the action, to cultivate a healthier, which was to say a more productive, relationship to your personae. In so doing, you would not (as in classical psychotherapy) simply be altering your attitudes or beliefs but actually changing the physiological operations of your brain. But such guidance, again, could not take the form of direct interference. Snooping subjects who failed to honor this built-in limitation found themselves frustrated, angry, finally worse off than when they began. What you were watching, you had to recall, was yourself, and you could not leap in to save yourself. You could only gain sufficient ownership of these simulacra of yourself to make such dramatic gestures unnecessary.

Since its introduction a half decade ago, the brochure explained, Snooping had supplanted talk therapy as the most cost effective form of therapeutic intervention. Skeptical at first, patients, doctors, hospital administrators, and insurance carriers had all come around. Clinical trials to assess the procedure’s effectiveness on major depressive disorders were currently underway.


Minnie had begun seeing Dr. Achison after her husband died, when her dreams turned so turbulent she couldn’t sleep. In the first nine months following Greg’s death she had experienced all the anticipated signs of heartache: finding a sock balled at the bottom of the hamper and sobbing uncontrollably, finding herself dialing his office from work, finding she’d misremembered a detail of his courtship, his body, and pleading at the altar of her grief for forgiveness and consolation. The pieces of him he’d left behind, the pieces that had fallen irrevocably away, made a jagged mosaic she knew it was her lot to carry for life.

But the dreams introduced a totally unexpected form of torture. Most of them were of his death, grisly fantasies so unlike his sad surrender to cancer she (who could never bear to watch that kind of movie) couldn’t imagine where they came from. Greg gunned down by hidden assassins, light beams piercing the perfect round holes in a blinding Braille. Greg torn to bloody shreds by packs of wolves. Greg drowned in the tub, his eyes encrusted with corals and crabs. And worst of all, in some of the dreams she was the victim, he the attacker. This didn’t make sense; her husband had never laid an unwelcome hand on her in eight years of dating and marriage. But in her dreams he stalked like a murderous golem, brandishing hatchets, beating down doors she put between them. At her first, tentative sessions with Dr. Achison they pursued the usual routes: guilt over her inability to predict or prevent Greg’s death turned to anger at him for abandoning her, then the anger twisted back onto herself for betraying her guilt. But the dreams didn’t cease, and when her therapist suggested they try something a bit more radical, she gratefully agreed.

The afternoon of their first Snooping session Minnie remembered pausing at the apartment door, feeling she’d forgotten something, frozen with unease. The wedding photograph she’d never had the heart to take down gleamed on the wall: Greg in his tuxedo looking shyly at the champagne flute in his hand, she half turned to face him as if waiting for his signal to drink, the lacy hat she’d worn in lieu of a veil piled on the table where the cake sat, tiered and ruffled. Long life, the toast had been offered. She had been so dazzled then by her husband’s beauty she could remember no more. Four years later, when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just shy of his thirtieth birthday, the cruel fact of his undamaged good looks struck her like a fist. She felt it to be a spiteful joke that he could appear so sound when the oncologist gave him less than a year. Like the crystal flute of the photo, his fragile beauty would not last.

After one final, fruitless search of her purse, she closed the door and left that memory behind, waiting.

The Snooping setup was disarmingly simple: a slim box about the size of a laptop, with a wireless transmitter in the shape of a Bluetooth that hooked to your ear. The transmitter directed a signal to your hippocampus, initiating a process of cerebral stimulation and memory retrieval. The operator, Dr. Achison explained as he showed her the keyboard, could modify, intensify, redirect, or abort the signal on the subject’s cues, but could not (with current technology) access the Snooper’s personae. The Snooper, meanwhile, required practice not only to recognize, sort, and differentiate the scenes presented to her but to distinguish the interior landscape sufficiently from the exterior to provide the operator with feedback. Ideally, in time the subject would become so expert that she could remain in constant communication with the operator throughout the procedure.

“But let’s start slow,” he said at that first session, gently clipping the device to her ear. It pinched slightly, warm from his touch. “When I press this button you’ll feel a pulse, a tingling behind your ear. I’ve tried it, it feels something like a cell phone on ‘vibrate,’ it’s not unpleasant at all. The tingling will penetrate, that is you’ll feel it deeply inside your head, but there should still be no pain. Most people prefer to close their eyes, at least at first, it cuts out distractions.” He smiled encouragingly. “Are you ready?”

“And you’re sure this will help?”

“All I can tell you is that it has helped others. On the premise that the devil you know is preferable to the devil you don’t.” He cocked his head, whether in irony or not she couldn’t tell. “Are you ready?”

Minnie closed her eyes, nodded, and felt her jaw hum, then she vaulted inside with Jericho and Ruth.


At first she is like a swimmer reentering the water after losing a limb: the cool fluid embrace feels familiar, but its very familiarity mocks her unbalanced body. Her strokes lash out lopsided, mutinous; she thumps the water where once she shrugged it off. Her coach assures her she will recover her cadence, but she trusts the poolside more than his words. She launches herself for its slick surface and clings, heaving.

In these first few weeks of uncertainty many personae appear, their bodies and faces coalescing out of nothing, shimmering and wobbling like soap bubbles. Anthony, the homeless man with walrus mustache and filthy olive parka who snoozes at the bus stop. Ray, the young black woman who dances in a black leotard beneath the track lights of her apartment, her back a snapping ribbon. Delilah, the stringy redhead who negotiates the hopscotch grid under the autumn spill of leaves. But these are isolates; they never commune, never last. They flicker and fade. They tantalize--how to fit them together?--but they do not take.

The one person who never arrives, whose arrival she awaits, is her husband. But she knows (the brochure tells her so) he will not be there. No one real will.

Unlike the others, Ruth and Jericho arrive regularly, and always as one. Within a month the apartment they share becomes as familiar to Minnie as her own, its nooks and spaces mapped in her mind: cream-colored living room carpet, off-white walls bare of photos or artwork, improbable jutting fireplace, front window seat, peeling kitchen floor, bedroom and bath down the narrow, unlit hallway. By this time Minnie has mastered the jarring duality of inside/outside adequately to report as she views. There they are again, they’re arguing, Jericho raises his voice, Ruth hugs a shawl around her shoulders as if his words cast a chill. Or: Jericho seems subdued today, he sits at the alcove window staring into the sun while Ruth putters in the bedroom, folding sheets. Or they’ve gone out, the apartment is empty, Ruth’s vanilla scent lingers. Minnie asks Dr. Achison whether the couple’s persistence may be significant, and he concurs, guardedly, that it may be: though primacy and frequency offer no proof of relevance, the obvious analogy--a young couple experiencing marital difficulties--suggests they are worth pursuing. He only cautions Minnie not to become so fixated on them that she ignores or suppresses other potentially fruitful leads.

“If I were to suppress them,” she asks, “how would I know?”

He has no answer to that, beyond the suggestion that she consult her dreams.

This response is characteristic; though occasionally he prompts, queries, he offers no analysis of what she has witnessed, and Minnie needs to remind herself, conditioned to the give-and-take of psychotherapy, that here the analysis is not his to make. At the end of each week’s session they discuss but do not speculate. The lone time he provided what might count as diagnosis or exegesis followed her first session, and then only because the violence she had witnessed made her quail to continue. She should not be surprised, he had suggested then, that Jericho should appear as aggressor this first time, given the dreams with which she’d lately been wrestling. She could not so easily escape the violence that had settled on her life, he said.

“Will I ever?”

“That’s the hope,” he responded.

And indeed, after that first time Jericho displays no violence, merely anger and a bristling disquiet, and Minnie is somewhat mollified.

Her first real crisis occurs three months in, when unexpectedly she is thrust into Ruth and Jericho’s bedroom. Or not altogether unexpectedly: she had wondered, worried, if this might be coming, but when it had not, she had relaxed, reasoning that such scenes would surely be blocked by some internal censor. Now from her position of hovering omniscience, within the scene yet surveying it all at once, she spies on the couple in bed, Ruth reaching up to fondle Jericho’s face, he accepting her caress, eyes closed, cheek slanting to her fingers. Minnie is relieved to see the tenderness of their lovemaking, on this occasion at least, but still she feels defiled, and the knowledge that it is herself she is watching does not help. She had not imagined her brain had sex. She knows that, with some effort, she can terminate the session, instruct her mind to disengage with its own material basis, but at the same time she admits, with corrosive guilt, that she does not want the scene to end. She has been without a partner for over a year, Greg’s final months having been so fragile he bruised at her very touch. If nothing else, this scene recalls to her when his body--and through his hers--was whole.

“Minnie?” Dr. Achison’s voice enters the room, making her flinch. “Is everything all right?”

“I--” This is even worse, now she is in bed with her dead husband, two strangers, her brain, and her shrink. “I’d rather not say.”

She hears the rapid ticking of his keyboard. “Would you like me to stop?”

Despite her confusion and shame, Minnie almost laughs. But the truth is, she does not want him to stop, does not want Ruth and Jericho to stop, does not want Greg to stop, does not want herself to stop. And yet, even now, she can see the distraction taking its toll, the rhythm of Ruth and Jericho’s movements becoming fractured, the room darkening. Soon they will deflate, sag like wilted violets, and she will be powerless to prevent them. How horrible, she thinks, that she cannot close her eyes to avoid seeing.

“Yes, please,” she says, as Jericho jerks covers that stretch and bubble like gum over his own and his wife’s bodies. “I’d like to stop now.”


At the following session Dr. Achison tells her that crises differ from catastrophes. He offers this spontaneously, in no particular rejoinder to anything; if he guesses what she saw the previous week, he does not disclose his deduction. A crisis, he explains, typically marks a transition, the arrival at a crossroads. But choice is difficult; there is always the temptation to turn back. Hence the conflict, hence the crisis.

“You remember the line from The Wizard of Oz?” he says. “When they enter the lion’s den? ‘I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.’ Which is another way of saying it’ll only get lighter if it gets darker.”

Minnie has her doubts, but remembering Greg, her crystal wine glass, she decides to enter the forest.

And as it turns out, her reward awaits her there. Ruth and Jericho have returned to a less compromising spot--their old standby the kitchen--and have commenced the first civil conversation Minnie has seen shared between them. Most encouraging is how truly trivial their talk flows; no accusations or innuendoes, just common chitchat such as two young lovers might trade. Maybe, Minnie thinks, the crisis was theirs as well as hers; maybe the x-rated scene was a reconciliation, the result of some breakthrough in their relationship. Or--she still finds it difficult to remember that their relationship is hers, or a function of hers anyway--some breakthrough in her own recovery.

“I’ll resist the obvious forest-for-the-trees witticism,” Dr. Achison says as he removes the earpiece. “But how was it?”

“Lighter,” she answers.

She spends that weekend boxing up her life with Greg. The wedding picture comes down, the album following it into storage. His clothes are long since gone, except for a special hand knitted sweater and a tie or two she’d given him over the years. These she slips into storage bags and deposits with the rest. She empties the shelves of college textbooks, maps from journeys they’ve taken, novels they’ve exchanged. She buried him with his wedding ring; many times since she’s wished she kept it, but now she tells herself she’s glad it’s gone back to the ground from which it was mined. She hardly knows why she is so keen to purge the space just now; she wonders whether it is time to move altogether. She wonders, too, whether this is what it means to heal. She breathes deeply, looks around the emptied apartment, and tries not to remember where everything used to be.


As the weeks pass and the memories of forgetting dim, she finds herself looking forward to her sessions. Ruth and Jericho have supplanted all other personae (the last to go was dancing Ray, who tapped madly at her curtain call as if determined to impress before being applauded offstage). But Minnie welcomes the uncontested space the two now own, the space, she realizes, they’ve needed all along; freed of the others’ disruptive presence, their relationship is quite obviously improving, even thriving. Perhaps it was that initial, unimpeded conversation that sealed the change. Or perhaps it was the ring Jericho presented Ruth shortly after: an opal set in silver, he slid it onto her left hand, and Minnie was surprised, but not displeased, not to have considered their being unmarried. This explains the ugly start, she reasons: a young couple just starting out, of course there’ll be hiccups along the way. A bloody nose, she recognizes, is no hiccup, but it has not recurred, Jericho’s hands are gentle as blossoms as he cups Ruth’s shoulder or guides a strand of hair behind her ear, and perhaps its initial appearance was her--Minnie’s--fault.

The apartment becomes a second home. Minnie fails to witness a formal proposal or wedding preparations, but she presides over every sign of their courtship deepening. Jericho surprising Ruth with roses, she returning the favor with back rubs. Extended exchanges at the dinner table, now filled with sly laughter and private allusions. Evenings before the TV, Ruth’s hand trailing from the couch to be cradled by Jericho’s, he feeding her popcorn, she taking the kernels lightly on her tongue and teeth so each bite seems a promise. And yes, more nights in bed, Minnie no longer torn between fleeing and drinking in the scene but simply relishing their uncorrupted delight in each other’s body. She has not reported these encounters to Dr. Achison--in fact, she has not reported the disappearance of Anthony, Ray, and the others--but she has come to an understanding that satisfies her: watching Ruth and Jericho together is no more inappropriate than watching her former husband’s body sleek with droplets from the shower or tense with the rapture of their own lovemaking. Ruth and Jericho are hers, are her, and there can be nothing disreputable about sharing in their joy.

Minnie’s nightmares have ceased. When she does dream it is of Ruth and Jericho.


Six months into the process, Dr. Achison suggests a change.

"Thus far you’ve been a more or less passive observer,” he says. “That’s not a criticism, you’ve done wonderfully considering. But I think it’s time to step it up a notch.”

“But I thought we were making progress,” she says. At their last session Ruth and Jericho took a walk in the park, the first time she’d witnessed them outside their apartment, and she had thrilled to see them holding hands, kicking leaves, contemplating others’ children.

“We may be,” he says. “But I’m afraid. . . .”

Minnie’s heart sinks; she imagines what’s coming.

“. . . you’ve become content to watch, to let things develop as they may. And that’s problematic, even dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” This is the first time he’s raised the prospect of dangers.

“Risky,” he amends, smiling. “Therapeutically speaking. It suggests a withdrawal from the process, a desire to cede control.” He smiles again, apologetically; Minnie knows he does not want this to sound as reproving as it does. “There’s a term for this, Minnie. Not that a term makes a thing real, but. . . . Omniscience avoidance. Everything appears to be going well, yes? Ruth and Jericho’s relationship appears to be strengthening, healing?”

She nods.

“But ask yourself this: if they were taking a turn for the worse, would you feel the same way? Would you be so willing to allow things to develop ‘naturally’? Or would you want to step in and take control?”

The response is too obvious, which is perhaps why she feels the need to argue. “But if they’re healing, doesn’t that mean I’m healing? If they’re me, if my mind--brain--is finding a healthier place, maybe I am taking control without even knowing it.” She suspects this is a lie; she feels only pleasure at their strolls and sex, too purely gratifying for the hard work of therapy. But maybe it’s true.

“It’s possible,” he muses. “Only you would know. But let me pose it this way: can you know when you have no basis for comparison? Never having tried any alternative, can you be sure the path you’re following is the right one?”

Minnie’s resistance wavers, drops. Therapy, she had believed before Snooping, was an inexact science: relative, a tautology. Whatever worked was good; whatever was good worked. But apparently with neurochemistry came absolutes. Still she tries: “I don’t think I have enough control.”

Wrong objection; he pounces on it. “That’s precisely the problem. You can’t gain control until you think you can.”

Fearing another storybook analogy, she concedes. “What do I need to do?”

“Nothing drastic,” he assures. “Just when you’re in, try to think of yourself differently, less audience than director. Don’t simply watch; ask yourself what you’re watching, why you’re watching it, whether it’s what you want to see.” He waves away her riposte. “I know you’ve already done this to an extent, it’s impossible not to. I’m simply asking you to try harder, to do more.”

“What will happen to Ruth and Jericho?”

For a moment his eyes scrutinize her face. He begins to say something, stops. “Let’s just wait and see.”


In her mind’s eye Minnie sees trees, trains, traps. She knows the therapeutic relationship is built on trust. On the edges of the vacuum that forms her vision she senses personae crowding, swirling like vapor, clamoring for entrance. For the first time she imagines one of them as her doctor, shadowy and stern. Why, she wonders, is it so hard to know one’s others, one’s self? Why can we never escape this mind? Then the room fills with light as if in answer and Minnie watches intently the scene that takes shape on the brightening sphere.

Ruth sits at the kitchen table, the scent of cinnamon hovering in the air. What was once a merely functional, uninviting space has been leavened: an oversized brass ladle hangs from a peg on the wall, its beaten surface reflecting golden cuts and crescents, a ceramic vase stands on the table, overflowing with baby’s breath, the buds’ pink shade only one hue of the rotating pinwheel Jericho replenishes daily. Ruth seems agitated but not upset; she glances frequently at the hand-painted clock above the counter, rises to peer out the kitchen’s single window. Watching her, Minnie feels a throb inside her stomach, a deep wobble greater than tension or anticipation. When the apartment door opens and Jericho enters, bearing blue flowers wrapped in plastic, Ruth runs to him, and Minnie knows what she has longed for has come to pass.


“Ruth is pregnant,” she announces without prelude at their next session. She has kept the secret a week, savoring it, but she cannot contain it any longer. Her voice is triumphant, her chin raised, her eyes squarely on his. It is almost a challenge.

Dr. Achison blinks. Then he asks, “How far along?”

“It’s still early,” Minnie says. “She just took the test. But they’ve been trying for a while.” Her voice sounds actually defiant; now that the truth lies before them, she refuses to apologize for having watched and withheld so long.

He says nothing for a time; he is enough of a Freudian to be intrigued, even intimidated, by anything having to do with sex. Then he says, “And how do you feel about this?”

“It’s what I’ve wanted,” she says. “What I’ve willed. You told me I needed to take control. This is proof I have.”

“Proof,” he repeats. “Minnie, how long has it been since you’ve Snooped on anyone other than Ruth or Jericho?”

“Months,” she says without hesitation. “Just after I first saw them in bed together.” She adds, needlessly and recklessly, “And I’ve been dreaming of them too. Real dreams. Good dreams.”

“You’ve banished the others?”

She shrugs. “I didn’t realize it at the time, at first it made me uncomfortable to watch them, but now I know they’ve been trying all along. To have a baby.”

“They’ve been trying.”

“They, I, we. I’ve been trying to have Ruth’s baby.” She laughs. “And now I have.” She realizes this makes no sense, she cannot be mother and father, watcher and watched, the one who wills and the one who receives all at once. But at the same time she feels absolutely sure of herself, sure of the miracle of surrogacy that has enfolded her life. This, she thinks, is what it means to heal: to become one, whole, a cosmos integral and secure.

“Minnie,” Dr. Achison’s voice interrupts. “How long has it been since you’ve had your period?”

She ignores him. She watches a fly bat itself against his window, stupidly stubborn to gain the light outside.

“Minnie,” he tries again. “Whatever is going on, Ruth can’t be having a baby. Or you can’t be having theirs. There is no Ruth, there is no Jericho. These people aren’t real.”

“They’re real enough,” she says. “More real than this office, than”--she points--“that machine. Their love is real. How do I know you’re real?” How, for that matter, did she know she was real?

“You know,” he says. “Reality isn’t always such a nice place.”

She rises. She considers a final gesture--dashing off a check, slamming the Optimizer shut--but decides simply to march past him and grab the doorknob.

“What about Greg?” he says as she opens the door.

She pauses for a moment, hand gripping the doorknob. “What about him?” Then she exits the office.

Another patient sits in the waiting room, an older woman thumbing a magazine. She looks up, surprised, thinking she has lost track of time. Her watery eyes search Minnie’s face. Then, catching the young woman’s expression, she smiles conspiratorially. “I used to cry at night,” she confides. “Now all I hear is singing.”


The machine, Minnie knows, has opened a pathway. For that she offers thanks. But it is no longer needed. She can travel the pathway whenever she chooses, wherever it goes.

Ruth reclining in a hospital gown, cool gunk smeared on her belly, Jericho standing proudly at her side. The ball rolls across her flesh, the screen brightens with a gray, swirling form.

The couple at the mall, pricing prams, strolling arm-in-arm past the goldfish stream, spooning each other sundaes at the snack court.

Ruth decorating, blue and white, fingering the mobile and watching it dance.

Ruth lying in bed, aglow in a shaft of sunlight. Her skin pale, her arm flung above her head, her hair splayed as if sinking. The door parts and Jericho peeks in, his tie loosened, his daily floral offering fanned under an arm. At first he smiles tenderly, begins to retreat. Then his look changes and he leaps to the bed, lilies scattering on the floor. He touches Ruth’s shoulder, speaks her name, lowers his ear to her chest. His eyes travel her body to where the blood shadows the sheets.


The doctor admits it was a close call, but Jericho’s vigilance has saved her. Within a day she has recovered her color, within weeks, having clung to Jericho every night, her spirits. She is more determined than ever to have her baby. And within the year she is rewarded. Her faith has healed her.


At least, that’s what the Snooper hopes happened.

But there remain other possibilities, random firings, she can neither predict nor avert. Ruth barren for life, bitter in a childless marriage. Jericho resuming his assaults, caged, furious. Or arriving too late to save his beloved, blankly watching the earth take her rose white body.


Ruth is Snooping on the woman in 1A. Minerva is her name. Chubby, with a headful of black ringlets and dark eyes, she squats among cardboard boxes in an apartment empty of furnishings. She calls out, but her only reply is silence.

Ruth rests a hand on her stomach, feeling the baby beat inside her, and waits for Jericho’s return.

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