The riddle of the Carnival crab was known to all, crab-Johnny, crab-Charlotte, as the mutual devouring principle within a chained civilization, North, South, East, West... The intricacy of all these relationships, their fullness, their abbreviated texture, their half-eclipsed initial capacity in the riddle of the crab at death's door was not entirely lost upon Sir Thomas.
Wilson Harris, Carnival
Old age is like a crab, we don't all age in the same way. It gradually stretches out its claws inside us. At times it starts from the back, others from the legs, others from the head. In my case, it began from the dreams: I started to dream almost every night about people from my past.
Osman Lins, "Retable of Saint Joana Carolina"
At his touch, the crab lurched forward, steel joint against steel screw. From behind the glass wall, he couldn't hear the crab make its way across the table, although from many hours of training it almost seemed he could make out its soft, high-pitched metallic whine. It wasn't efficient--what could that mean anymore?--but still able to work at times, if he was careful.
Occasionally disjointed, prone to seizures that threatened to send it tumbling to its back, legs flailing, but sometimes, like now, did not, the crab reached the far side of the table and crawled towards the face of the other man, in the chair, whose cheeks and chin were tightly viced, not enough to hurt him, but more than enough to hold him still when combined with the straps across his arms and legs. Should he be unlucky and wake up, even temporarily, from his drug-induced catatonia, he wouldn't be able to change his mind. It seemed he would not wake, though; his body remained motionless under the restraints. His eyelids were open, held back with a pair of small steel claws, fluid dropping into the pupils from the small pumps poised above them, so far with proper regularity.
The crab straddled his face; the operator, behind the glass, turned towards the monitor with which he'd have to coordinate the rest of the operation. The monitor kept flickering. He wondered whether, soon, anything would work at all, whether there would be time to get even a few people into their intended states before things simply ceased, although time would continue, of course, like an unseen wave across a vast motionless ocean. He shook his head, trying almost literally to throw away the thought, because whatever its truth, it couldn't help. The monitor, again. It worked well enough; the flickers lasted only a second, the moments of clarity perhaps ten.
He felt himself flickering as well; he'd been at this too long, not just today. There weren't enough people who could operate the crab. There weren't enough people to do anything. So he worked long after he was too tired, after it seemed he would never feel rested again. He'd been doing fourteen, sixteen hour shifts for weeks.
At his touch, the crab released the pincer in its belly. It punctured the strapped man's eye with a swift jab; the man jerked briefly. Not a perfect incision, but close. It would have to do, like the rest. Then the tube rolled out of the crab's belly also; slow, guided, it seemed to be working. The small, white viscous egg appeared at the tube's tip, and the tube, pressing down against the punctured eyelid, pushed the egg through. The tube pulled back into the belly, out of which came the laser; with a brief flash, silent to the man behind the glass although he could hear it in his mind and see it on the monitor, the laser sealed up the eye. The strapped man remained motionless; it seemed unlikely he felt any pain. "Dream," said the man behind the glass, as if it was a command. There was some chance it would work, he knew. Some small chance for some of them.
The crab clambered down from the man's face, landed on the table again. After a moment, it lurched across the table's slick surface. One of its forelegs slipped, so that the leg landed not even on the first small joint but all the way on the second one, near the body. The crab crumpled forward onto the table; before he could stop it, its legs pushed it until it flipped over entirely, kicking at the air a moment before the man stopped the mechanism. "Goddamn it," he said, his hand thudding hard against the side of the machine. Another hour wasted; he'd have to wait that long before it was safe to go in and pick up the crab in a carefully gloved hand. He couldn't afford delays. On the other hand, they were inevitable, some anyway, given the materials he had to work with. It hadn't always been like this, although it was hard now to think of other times, and no use. One simply pushed on through, lurching like the crab, and handled delays as efficiently as possible under the circumstances. Since the goal was to leave this world behind, to find another somewhere else in a burgeoning and unimaginable dream, one could hardly expect much from the world one was abandoning. After all, the crab had worked this time; it had laid the egg. "The egg and the eye," he said, pressing his elbows in at his sides in a sudden desire to warm himself. "The egg and the eye."
"In the long run, of course," Marinda said to the man and woman with her at the table, "I expect to be blamed. I'm too obvious a target. Get me another drink, would you? This one's almost empty."
Pushing his plump hands against the table, the man, Jerry, stood. As he did, a wave of his own flesh rippled underneath his shirt, rising towards his chest then settling back. Marinda stared directly at his gut, unashamedly fascinated. "That's funny," she said.
"Go to hell," Jerry said. His eyes scrunched under puffy cheeks, then brightened. "Hey, lots of chicks up at the bar now. I hadn't noticed. You having another gin?"
Marinda put her hand in her front pocket, fiddled for a moment. "If you can buy me another. I forgot to bring money."
"Again?" Jerry said.
"Yes. And bring back a chick for both of us."
"You have no faith in me."
"I have nothing but faith in you," Marinda said. "It's easier than expectations."
"You're a total bitch tonight."
"Cut it out. You brought me here because you wanted me to be a bitch."
Jerry's eyes glittered. "Marry me," he said.
"And be more celibate than I am already? You're melting me, really. Go."
"You'll see," Jerry walked away.
The third person at the table, Geena, had been silent the whole time. Several inches shorter than Marinda, her hair was long and blond in contrast to Marinda's short clipped black hair. She was a little plump herself, though less so than Jerry, and she wore it with energetic health, another contrast to Marinda's slender emaciation; even when Marinda had slept, she never looked like it. "You're pretty hard on him," Geena said. Her eyes were genuinely shocked.
"He needs me to be mean to him," Marinda said. "It helps him relax. Have you noticed that when people hate themselves, having someone around who can express that hostility is a relief? I wish having people be mean to me would help; if it did, I'd be awfully calm right now. As it is I'm just a wreck."
"You haven't heard from Steve again?"
"He doesn't know where I am. My parents hear from him, though. He writes them letters, calls my mother sometimes late at night to say she was a bad parent and ruined my life. He thinks it has something to do with my father's church. He says if I wasn't so repressed, I'd still be with him."
"He says that to your parents?"
"My mother anyway. My father won't talk to him, obviously."
"Why does your mother talk to him?"
"I don't know. Maybe she thinks she can help him, or maybe she thinks she can do something to keep him away from me. I've got the restraining order, but how good is that? Right now, though, he has no idea I'm in New York. I just hope my mother doesn't let something slip."
"You think she might?"
"Honestly, no. But Steve's devious--I mean, he doesn't know he's devious, but he is. As far as he's concerned, he's a good honest guy I've mistreated, because I hate men, or because of my father, or because I've been emotionally kidnaped by some astrological cult, or whatever the hell he feels like believing any given moment. I've read the books. As far as he's concerned, it's all my fault and I just don't see it, but if he shouts at me and insults me and throws things long enough, I'll change my mind. To think I was actually in love with such a textbook case. But maybe that's the best I'm ever going to do. Sometimes I wonder."
"Stop it," Geena said.
"No, no, you mark my words," Marinda said. "I'm going to be blamed. I'm too easy a target."
"I hope Jerry comes back soon," Geena said. "Where is he? Do you see him? He's so funny." She giggled, a girlish flirtatious giggle, and Marinda looked sharply in her direction--could Geena possibly...?
"He's gay, you know," Marinda said.
"What?" Geena said. "No he isn't."
"He is," Marinda said. "All the guy stuff is for show."
"What do you mean?" Geena said. "Jerry's never claimed to be gay."
"He is, though," Marinda said. "He doesn't want to admit it, because he doesn't understand himself and doesn't want to."
"He's as much of a man as anybody I know," Geena said.
Marinda stared at her. "Not that I hold it against him," she said. "Not knowing himself, I mean. Nobody knows themselves anymore; no one even thinks they should know themselves. Knowing ourselves doesn't help anyone get ahead. That's one of the basic lessons."
"I've been over to his place," Geena said. "It's a guy's room. He's got posters of baseball players."
"Isn't it embarrassing?" Marinda said.
Then Jerry was there, a couple drinks in hand. "One for the queen of death," he placed a glass in front of Marinda. Geena giggled again; she hadn't believed a word Marinda said. Jerry sat down.
"Couple of real babes at the bar," Jerry's voice boomed confidence. "If I wasn't with you ladies, I might have had to take them with me."
"Jerry picks up women in bars all the time," Marinda said, winking falsehood at Geena. "I'm desperate and jealous."
"With good reason," Jerry said.
"Oh Jerry, you know ultimately you're mine, despite all your bravado." She turned to Geena again. "It's wonderful to have male servants, you know. Much better than emotional give and take is emotional take and take."
"Maybe you'd like to take things further," Jerry said. "Or maybe Geena would and you could watch."
Geena shifted uncomfortably in her chair.
"You needn't worry, Geena," Marinda put her hand on the other woman's arm. "He's all talk. He wouldn't dare follow through."
"Try me," Jerry said.
"Or maybe instead we could talk for once about something other than your manhood?"
Jerry shot her an icy stare that said this time he was actually close to being offended.
" Tell us about your new job," Marinda said to Geena. "It wouldn't hurt for Jerry to hear about what it's like to work--he hasn't done it in almost forever."
"I could work if I wanted to," Jerry said. "I just don't need to. I want the right job, not just any job. And I'll have it, too. I've got plans, you know."
"The great advantage of having money," Marinda said, "is it gives you the free time to drive yourself crazy. I've invented whole new ways to go out of my mind. But what have you been doing, Geena? Jerry and I have plenty of time to bore ourselves to death with our own problems."
He'd so often felt abandoned in his dreams that it was comfortingly familiar, if a feeling could be both comforting and devastating at the same time.
The long burnt field in front of him tilted suddenly, and he found himself going against his will through the blue glass doors of an endlessly anonymous building. He knew he worked there because he felt no connection to it--he always belonged to places like this, places that ripped him away from himself until he became no more than the rip.
He pushed the elevator button countless times, but the elevator didn't come. The elevator never came. Nothing and no one ever came. He took the stairs.
He walked several flights with excruciating slowness, his hand grabbing the metal rail like he wanted to break it. Then he came through a door, walked briefly down a generic hallway and found himself in his parent's dining room.
"Steve, help your mother," his father's voice pushed him into a chair. "Help your mother."
"My mother's dead," Steve said.
"She makes excellent roast beef," his father said. "And these potatoes are just right. Stop sitting there whining like a girl and get to it."
His mother pressed herself close to him, a dark colored flower print dress, a reddish fleshy leg. Steve tried to bury his head in the dress, the flower opening to draw him inside it.
"Nothing like a big leg of mutton on a solid bone," his father said. "Maybe you should have been a girl."
He pushed further into the flower, felt his own sudden sexual arousal like a condemning slap, then rolled himself into a ball.
"Can you get these reports out by the end of the day?" his boss leaned over his computer monitor, rings on his fingers flashing. "It's crucial."
The blue anonymous building spread out around him. It had wings--the office could fly. He knew the building was nothing more than the dreamscape of another world, a world that had forgotten how to dream and was sending people through artificial dreams into another dreamed world that was somehow this one, and in so doing altering everything, the dreams of one world and the waking facts of another intermingled in such a way that the dreams of one became the facts of another.
"This isn't my dream," Steve said.
"But it's excellent roast beef," his father said. "And it's an excellent mother."
"Do you love your mother?" asked his mother.
"He loves her way too much," his father said. "You want to fuck your mother, don't you, boy? Or maybe you're not a boy. Maybe you're a girl."
"Get that done in the next hour and drinks are on me," his boss said. "Go down on it right away."
"What?" Steve said. What if being awake was no more than a filter to keep other possibilities out? Like he put on clothes so people couldn't see what he was thinking. "Where's Marinda?" Steve said, but no one was there. "Why are they keeping me from Marinda?"
Cynthia worked in the small cubicle across from his. She was very pretty, not skinny to the point of non-existence like so many women these days, like Marinda wanted to be, but with a solid female energy that could carry him away from what he didn't want to know. She was efficient and friendly. "What's he got you working on?" she asked. "Can I help?"
"You could help me finish this beef," his father said.
Sharp pain cracked through his head. He shouted, reached his hand up to the spot. Ugly pale blue light floated through the cracks in the blinds. His head throbbed. This was real; he was awake. He had turned himself all the way around and must have hit his head on the wall against the side of the bed.
"It hurts," Steve said to the room's empty blue light. "Those fucking bastards. I'm going to make them eat it."
She sat near the back of the room, behind people's heads, where the words would be less overwhelming. They were still there, on a sleeve, a hand, a wall or a door--"Foolish in Brown," "Confused," "Emergency Exit." Tonight they stuck most commonly to people's foreheads, and sitting in a place where those foreheads would be hidden helped her focus. At times like this her surroundings could become a blur of words, foreheads littered into an oblivious rush in which she couldn't make distinctions. Intensity varied--there were even periods of several days when the words retreated back mainly to commercial and official signs, although even then, envelopes and newspapers could assault her energetically--but she felt particularly active tonight, almost eager, if cautious. Perhaps she shouldn't have had so much coffee.
"Having developed the proper tools, then," the man at the front of the lecture hall droned on, "one might proceed to access the brain. Several main hypotheses are currently in place regarding how best to tap into the energy of the dream state..." and blah blah blah. She sighed in frustration. She'd been almost certain she was going to learn what she needed to know--the sign for the lecture, "Accessing the Dream State," had practically hit her between the eyes after weeks of library research, looking in the papers, reading the discussion lists and university websites, hoping to find the answers she'd been looking for. But she hadn't found them; she could barely listen to his pedantic rendering of the details, especially when his forehead had several times tossed out the word "Misinformed" to anyone who wanted to see, and once even read "Don't Get It," the words taking off a moment later from his forehead and fluttering around the crowd, landing first on this person then that, finally settling in the third row on a woman in her early thirties who was watching the lecture intently, the word "Worship" occasionally winking on beside her in a red that clashed badly with her outfit.
It was too much. She stood. She was far enough towards the back that she could leave without making any disruption, although one man looked at her with the words "Annoyed because I can be" popping off the furrows above his glasses. In the hall she avoided the scrawled fury of the message board, then pushed through the "Door Caution Door" into the night air, where she could breathe and where for a moment there were no words, just the sky and, at the far side of the campus park, the lights of the city.
She didn't know where to go. Home was no good--she didn't want to write, and the total lack of words there would feel like absence, not relief, and she didn't want to spiral into emptiness, a real possibility right now.
The messages of the last month hadn't been like any she'd had before. She needed to know where they came from because they didn't come from "here," or at least didn't come from "here" as she had understood "here" before. It had happened several dozen times now, far too much to be simply some new personal oddity she hadn't yet learned to understand. "Dream," the words had insisted, not even insisted but raged, and sometimes they simply happened in the air or on the pavement, where there was no reason for words and no words should be.
Of course, the origin of any words, wherever they appeared, was not a simple matter; sometimes words emanated from people but just as often, perhaps more often, they imposed themselves on whatever surface happened to be available. A wall didn't require the words "Brooks Brothers" or "Shoes Shoes Shoes" to exist as a wall, however much the words themselves were the reason that the wall was really no more than a "wall." The same went for people; their existence walking down the street didn't require words necessarily, however deeply from inside them words like "people" and "sidewalk" and "street" came bounding, however much, that is, they understood themselves only because they understood "people" and "sidewalk" and "street." The distinction between a word emanating from a person and a word imposed on that person was shady, obscure.
But the word "Dream" as it had been appearing lately was not an emanation. Neither was it an imposition, in the sense she had understood impositions before. Ordinary words, even impositions, were simply creations of "here" that had gotten loose, unruly animals released from a cage because they knew it was a "cage." They had been emanations, but had become impositions mainly because no one cared for them or paid them proper attention. But the word, the command, "Dream," had not been from "here" at all. It was from elsewhere. She didn't know how that was possible, didn't know how elsewhere could be so clearly elsewhere and not "elsewhere." But the command "Dream" had gotten loose from elsewhere, wherever that was. As a command, it wasn't yet working; it happened randomly, popping in and out of focus, sometimes burning with fury but still landing wrong. Commanding the side of a wall to "Dream" didn't make the wall dream, however insistent the command.
She was back on the city streets now, away from the college. It was a lively night, as they all were here in the city, with people going to or coming from the theater or movies or restaurants or bars or just taking walks for the pleasure of it or to know where they were. A couple boys brushed her as they hurried past, dropping the words "suburbs" and "lost" at her feet even as their eyes studied her with false bravado. Soon after, she passed a tense-looking couple, the woman nervously eyeing the man who would not quite return her stare--as he went by, he gave off the word "CHEATING" in big green capital letters; at least he had money for his coming divorce. She still felt quite active, but thankfully, out here on the street she felt a lot of restraint as well--there were occasions when the evening streets bludgeoned her and she would have to go home, close her blinds and shut off the lights until the words went away. But tonight, despite the intensity around her, her energy was still focused, even after the disappointment of the lecture. She had the feeling she was getting closer to what she needed to know.
A few minutes later, there it was, in the distance, poised above a streetlight but having nothing to do with the streetlight. "Dream." It didn't have color, and wasn't from here--there was no doubt about it, as there hadn't been. She decided suddenly to follow it, had perhaps already known that she would. "You're not trying to be a sign but I can treat you like one," she said to it before it winked out into nothing.
Once at the streetlight, the question was which way to turn. She wasn't sure there was any path, at least not in the sense conventionally meant by that--the disruptions weren't necessarily leading anywhere. She went down the smaller side street, where it was darker and words held themselves back, a relief, since she could feel herself potentially becoming overloaded. So here she was, walking city back streets, looking wherever her own instincts led her, for... well, for what exactly?
Then it was there again. "Dream"--it moved, this time, crashed into a wall as if it would break through, then bounced off and shattered. It was directed, she was sure--it was meant to go from elsewhere to here and to get where it was going. But it wasn't working--that is, wherever the elsewhere was, it was trying to come here, but it didn't know what it was doing when it got here.
She had walked for some blocks, and the city had become a little rougher. No more crowds. There were still occasional rowhouses, but they were broken up by garages and small fenced-in lots littered with junk. Two men standing on an opposite corner eyed her a moment; she got no words from them and walked quickly on. The city night was still a purplish glow that gave her enough light to see by even in patches where no street lamps shown. But there was real darkness here, places where people could hide. Maybe I should go home, she said to herself. Numbers giving the addresses of the buildings were small comfort--1472, 1474, 1474 1/2 and so on--but for the most part there were no words anywhere.
Then there was a man in front of her, a block away, sitting awkwardly on some porch steps. "Drunk," his forehead flashed quickly, then again. The word flickered oddly, as if something had interfered with it, then vanished. She was close to him now. The man groaned, then whimpered, and his head pitched forward into his hands. "Sick" roared off him and splashed onto the pavement.
Just beyond him, a small alley turned off the street. She caught a quick blip out of the corner of her eye--she hadn't seen it, exactly, but she knew what it was. Would she really go down there? She supposed she had to. She had done more questionable things, sure. But going down the alley was pretty questionable.
There were a few cars parked in the alley, which ran between the small yards, garages and storage sheds behind the houses. A cat dashed past her feet and under a fence; amazing, she thought, how few words animals gave off, although an occasional dog could be plastered with them. Why on earth was she walking here? What did she expect to find? The alley opened out onto another street. I should go home, she thought. I'm wasting my time.
A few blocks down the street and she came to a subway stop; she'd have to transfer lines but home wasn't far. Down in the subway, words were everywhere; on the token booth, posters on the wall, various signs. A few people moved through the stop, giving off bits of low key language--after the intensity of the past hour, her energy was becoming muted. When she got on the first train, then the second, people were mainly quiet, staring ahead tiredly or looking at the floor, studiously avoiding eye contact.
Was there a way to find what she was looking for? If the words themselves didn't know what they were doing, how could she know? Sure, one could sift through the confusion of other people's words and find the sense they didn't know how to make, but that was just a matter of seeing the context of their words from a position they couldn't, because they were so deeply embedded in that context that they couldn't see it as a context. But doing that depended on having some sense already of the context of other people, but how to have any sense of the context of a thing that fundamentally didn't belong, yet had come here anyway? Maybe she had it wrong; she couldn't rule out the idea that what was happening was simply her own aberration. Oh yes I can, she thought, it's not my aberration. Those words are coming from somewhere. It wasn't like her to question her own ability--the fact that she had done so showed the oddity of the situation.
The subway left her off at her stop. It was late now, but there were still plenty of people on the streets--that was one of the things about the city, that there was rarely a time when the streets were empty. Her head had begun to hurt, which told her she'd been focusing hard for too long.
Then, once more, there it was. A quick red flash, "Dream" simply there in the air above her, attached to nothing. A sharp pain shot through her head, and she winced--had the word come close to getting onto her? Words always had attachments, that was their nature, and if this word was attached to nothing then that was a condition the word itself would attempt to change. They're missing their target, she thought, but will they keep missing or will they eventually catch me or somebody else? What happens then? What are they here to do?
She found herself unable to look at the names on the mailboxes, and quickly hurried up the stairs and into her apartment. There, she kept the lights low, and stayed out of the room where her books were shelved. In a few minutes she was ready for bed, lying down in a comforting darkness into which for the moment no words intruded, although tired as she was, she still felt almost afraid to sleep, knowing how language could maraud through her dreams.
"What should I paint, Daddy?" Marinda said. Spread around her on the concrete patio were sixteen different colors and some big pieces of white paper. She'd gotten the paints for her eighth birthday but hadn't been able to use them that day. Now it was days later, and it was only her and her daddy there.
"I don't know," her daddy said. "What would you like to paint?"
She could tell he didn't mean it. He sat too stiffly in the patio easy chair, arms tensed at his sides. He asked her what she would like a lot but most of the time he didn't mean it; he was either thinking about something else and pretending to ask, or else wanted her to say what he wanted her to say and it was her job to figure out what he wanted, so he wouldn't get annoyed.
"Tell me one of your dreams, Daddy. I'd like to paint dreams."
"That's a little silly, don't you think? You're a big girl now. Paint something real."
"Okay." She didn't know what he meant by real though. Wasn't everything real, if only you painted it and made it so? She picked up the blue, painted a little bit of sky, put the blue down. She picked up the green and painted some grass, put it down.
The backyard phone rang, and Daddy sighed heavily. Usually Daddy kept the phone by his chair, but he'd moved away from the phone to watch Marinda paint. He pushed himself out of the chair, went to the phone and answered it. He started talking but he was saying things Marinda didn't understand; it was funny how adults became different people depending on who they were talking to.
She looked back at her picture, picked up a few paint brushes, put them down again. She liked to paint, wanted to paint, but she knew she was supposed to wait for somebody to tell her what to paint so she didn't get it wrong. Maybe I want to get it wrong, she thought. I wonder what will happen if I do. She picked up the red and started dabbing it hard on the paper without even knowing what she was trying to paint. She pushed harder and harder, flattening the brush against the paper so the bristles splayed out on all sides.
"I know it's not easy," Daddy was saying to the phone. "But it's got to get done whether you like it or not."
Marinda took him at his word, even though he wasn't talking to her. She had to get the painting done. She put on one color, and another and another. She wasn't painting anything real, but she didn't care. It was a beautiful day. There was a breeze through the palm trees that stood around the edge of the yard and behind the pool; beyond the trees, the hills were outlined clearly in crisp air. She could have painted what she saw, but she didn't know why she should paint what was already there--wouldn't it be better to paint something not around? Then she'd have more than she had before. It was a beautiful day, yes, but if she only painted things that were there then she'd have to paint houses and schools and cars and stores, but there were already so many houses and schools and cars and stores that Marinda couldn't see why she needed to paint more of them.
"That's all I have to say about this," Daddy said, hanging up the phone.
"Come look at my painting," Marinda said.
He glanced over in her direction, not really seeing her or the painting. "I'm glad you're having fun," he said.
"Is something wrong, Daddy?"
"No," he said. "Just some adult things you wouldn't care about."
"Real things, right?"
"What? Yes, that's right. Real things." He looked away from her, out towards the hills.
Marinda put the first piece of paper aside, because it was filled with color and she still hadn't painted a single real thing--even the bits of sky and grass didn't look like sky and grass anymore. She had a second piece of paper in front of her and wondered what to do with it.
The glass doors to the patio slid back; her mother stood there, moving from foot to foot, hands fidgeting. Even when she was standing or sitting, Marinda's mother never stood still; even when she wasn't flying around, she was on the verge of flying around.
"We're fine back here," Daddy said without turning, his back to Marinda's mother. His tone of voice said he didn't mean it. "How's everything going in there?"
"Almost finished, actually, if you can believe it," her mother said. "And the party's not even starting for another two hours."
"It's already three?" Daddy looked disgustedly at his watch. "I can't believe it's already three."
"Is there a problem?" her mother said.
"I just haven't had time to relax."
"You've still got a little while."
"I guess so."
Marinda's mother disappeared into the house. Marinda still hadn't put anything on the paper in front of her. What was the point of putting anything on paper anyway? No one was paying attention, not this afternoon, not with the party coming. Marinda thought she would have fun at the party but there was a long time before it started. Daddy was still looking stiffly out towards the hills.
Without knowing why, Marinda took the blue paint and put a long line of it directly onto the stone patio. Then she drew another line, making an X.
"Daddy," she said. "Something wrong happened."
He seemed not to hear her, didn't even turn around. Quickly she put four green dots in the spaces between the blue lines, one dot between each set of lines. "Daddy," she said.
"What is it?" He turned around and came over.
"It was an accident," she said.
"Marinda, what did you do?" He saw the paint on the patio. "Oh no," he said. "Marinda, I told you not to get any paint on the porch. We have guests coming, damn it. Why'd you do that?"
"I didn't mean to, Daddy. It just happened."
"It doesn't matter whether you meant to. You did it; that's what counts. Nobody cares what you intend to do in life; they just care what you do." He said it seriously but it didn't make sense. Marinda could see clearly that people didn't care what she did; they just cared when she did things wrong.
"Go inside and tell your mother to bring something out so you can clean this up," Daddy said.
Under his arm, the young lieutenant held a leather folder tightly. Light was dim in the hallway and he walked down it quickly, looking straight ahead as if he expected any moment to be challenged. But there was no one in the hallway, and in fact the building felt almost empty, although he knew it wasn't, that behind this door or that, work went on, as it always had--and always would, as long as he had any say in the matter. He didn't care how long the trouble continued; sooner or later it would end and things would go on as they had.
He turned and went through a door, passing a young woman at whom he nodded briefly before going through another door into another dimly lit room. "General, Sir," he said. "You told me to come right through."
"Yes, absolutely. You have the material?"
"Of course, sir."
"Let me see it."
He handed over the folder. The general took it and leaned forward in his chair, the better to use the light from the lamp on his desk. These days it was important to use as little light as possible, and everyone did it, no matter how high their rank, at least in all official situations. He imagined that, in private, those at the top used as much light as they pleased. He'd get there someday himself.
"Sit down, lieutenant." The general took a document from the folder. "I'm going to read this out loud so we can both hear it."
"Yes sir. I'm honored sir."
"Spare me," the general sighed.
"Never mind. I appreciate your adherence to form, lieutenant."
"Thank you sir. It stands between us and chaos, sir."
"Yes, I guess it does." The general shook his head almost sadly, although the lieutenant had no idea what might be sad about such a fundamental truth. But the general looked worn out, as if he hadn't slept the night before. He was still in his fifties, the lieutenant guessed, still strong, but getting to that point at which one had to ask how much longer he would be that way.
The general began reading. "It has come to our attention that one of the shortcomings of our current effort in these troubles is the ability of our essentially loyal population to be able to imagine other organizational systems than those currently in place. They do not seek to rebel in any consistent fashion, yet there is a constant drain on our resources from all sorts of temporary, ill-conceived and sometimes even passive resistance to current systems and policy. Under ordinary conditions, such independence of mind, however half-hearted and misunderstood, might be considered a strength of a proud, free, and independent people. But in such circumstances as the present troubles, at a time when all mental and physical energies require consistent and total direction towards the resolution of present conflicts, such wasteful misunderstanding may be the undoing of our whole way of life, and as such must be reorganized to have more positive social results."
The general paused, squeezed his forehead. "With me so far, lieutenant?"
"Our scientists have determined that it is now possible, through a program of technological applications which will be explained in greater detail later in this report, to redirect and control these aberrant mental energies. Quite simply, the procedure involves tapping directly into the dream state of the population, and reconditioning those dream energies to be fully in tune with state needs. This requires first that all dreams be temporarily shut down, and second that those dreams be started up again in a manner more compatible with our ends. The goal of the procedure is twofold; first, to eliminate any mental energy that goes towards imagining that social organization may be different, that is, to make this organizational system, in its essential wisdom, seem not merely a temporal but rather a permanent condition. Second, while creative problem solving on the local level clearly requires citizens to be able to imagine successful solutions to the present troubles, those solutions must be maintained within a framework in which the possible solutions do not represent or even suggest any fundamental alternatives to our current social organization. Thus creative problem solving must be limited to certain conceptual frameworks while at the same time avoiding any limitations in its problem solving potential relative to the circumstances at hand.
"The first stage of this program requires a massive bombardment of information; as many people as possible must be voluntarily willing to take the necessary treatment. This media and public information campaign must be both specifically concentrated and widely diffused, and must infiltrate all major public arenas. The campaign must entail a general backdrop in which an assumption is constantly upheld that the good of the people in no way differs from the good of the state--the state's good makes the lives of people better. No idea counter to the assumption must be allowed to appear, and any attempt to resist this general backdrop with opposing ideas must be neutralized, gently if possible but firmly if it's the only way. The establishment of this general backdrop will go hand in hand with the constantly reiterated message that not only the good of the state (which is the good of the people) but in fact the survival of the state requires people to make the free sacrifice of participating in this procedure, a procedure which is almost certain to improve their health in a number of specifically detailed ways--and of course dense booklets of complex technical details will be distributed to make the point about health seem both authoritative and beyond the understanding of the general citizen. This constantly reiterated message will appear in public service advertisements on all media outlets: TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards and other mass information sources. But it will also be a between-the-lines message in all other public arenas, encouraged by hints, whispers, joking comradery, peer pressure on both adults and children; in short, the environment must be totally saturated with indirect encouragement to believe the more directly stated media program.
"Such a program will lead the massive majority of the population, perhaps 90 to as much as 97 or 98 percent, to voluntarily undertake the necessary procedures. Nonetheless, there will be small pockets of resistance operating for different reasons and with different degrees of potentially voluntary adaptability to our goals.
"The first group of resisters, easiest to work with, will be those whose fear of medical procedures outweigh their instinct for social preservation. This group will not be ideologically opposed to the procedures; rather, they will be motivated by fears that exist in various degrees of articulation. Intensive psychotherapy programs, coupled with sleep deprivation and repeated encouragement to rely on the authority of personal caregivers, should change the attitudes of almost all these people within a few weeks. Extreme cases can be handled through medication (given, if necessary, in their food) designed to make the subject passive and pliable in the face of such fears. Uncontrollable hysterics can simply be drugged into numbness. Such occasionally intense measures hardly represent unfair coercion, since the survival of the state and the people depends on this reeducation program; drugging a citizen into necessary participation to ensure this survival is no more unfairly coercive than putting a criminal in jail, or keeping someone suicidal from harming themselves.
"The second group of resisters presents a more complex problem. These are the groups and individuals who, for whatever reason, do not clearly understand what is happening but become convinced that state procedures violate them in some way. While deeply misunderstanding state procedures, they will be convinced that such procedures are harmful. We might call this group the crackpot fringe. It is impossible to describe in advance the various so-called theories to which these individuals might subscribe; the oddity, confusion, and social pathologies of their responses are hard to predict with any degree of accuracy, although it seems clear that the vast majority of these individuals will be motivated by deep confusions that they think of as religious, racial, isolationist, or related to misunderstood notions of individual rights. One can assume that a certain percentage of this group will respond with blatant and clumsy criminality; if convicted of crimes, of course, they can be coerced legally into medical procedures. However, some reactions may exacerbate specific regional feelings related to the ideas mentioned above; such reactions must be handled as carefully and quietly as possible, so as not to encourage group revolts of larger than several people, or sudden martyrdoms which could have unpredictable ripple effects. Of course, most of these people will be borderline lunatics, and in most cases no more may be necessary than public exposure of their beliefs, undoubtedly leading to ridicule and group defections. Still, one must expect that among this group there will be some semi-successful martyrdoms--we must in such cases manage the information about these events tightly and with absolute clarity about our goals.
"The final group of resisters represents the most serious concern; those who do clearly understand the intended state procedures and who have well-considered and articulated ideological objections. These people will vary in rank and standing, although the great majority will be concentrated in urban, church, and university environments. Our biggest advantage relative to these people is their small numbers. Secondly, the mere fact of their thinking of themselves as intellectuals or religious leaders who have a certain social standing may make them in many cases unwilling to believe that state procedures will really take the final steps to ensure state survival; convinced of their own centrality, these people may exist for a long time in a state of denial about what is happening. If we are forced to undertake small police actions, we can expect that most of these individuals will develop their resistance to such actions no further than feelings of shock, anger, and effectless hysterical outpourings of language, sometimes perhaps in public gatherings. Besides, the likelihood of their being generally pacifist, introverted, and prone to feelings of sedate cultural superiority will make them unprepared to respond in kind to any type of police action. Once in captivity, most can be treated with the same psychological programming as those who resist out of unarticulated fear. However it seems inevitable that a small number of these individuals will actually succeed in going underground and forming networks of various sizes, durations, and levels of effective resistance. Such groups must be handled with discretion and detailed care. Some few cases may become public in uncomfortable ways; these will lead to tricky public relations exercises whose details obviously cannot be foreseen.
"Such a policy as we have outlined above is not only tenable but in fact quite certain of success as long as all public officials handle their duties properly. While some few individuals may remain in resistance, there seems little doubt that more than 99% of the population will undertake the dream alteration program during the acceptable time frame."
The general put down the document. "There's a lot more information here, having to do with scientific details relative to the dream alterations," he said. "You should know that information by heart also, but I don't think we need to go over those details now. They'll be the concern of the doctors anyway."
"Yes sir," the lieutenant said. "It's an exciting time to be serving one's country, sir."
The general stared at him, but the meaning of the stare seemed elusive. "Yes, it's finally come to this, hasn't it?"
"Come to this, sir? I'm not sure I understand."
"Never mind, lieutenant. It's been a long day. Time for dinner and a drink, if you ask me. You're aware of your next steps?"
"Off you go then. I appreciate your timeliness in bringing this material to me."
"My pleasure, sir. Anything for my country, sir."
"Yes indeed," the general said wearily. "Anything for the country."
"I could use another, Tom," Cal Briggs said to the bartender. "My head hurts."
"One coming up for what ails you," Tom said. "Been a long week?"
"Who knows?" Cal said. "One week and another. It's all the fucking same to a man on a pension."
"Miss the force, do you?"
"Not really. I see some of the guys I want to see. But a lot of the others can go fuck themselves. Who needs the aggravation? Besides," he looked out the window, "there's all sorts of forces floating around out there."
The bartender stared, confused. "You had your good years, Cal, you don't want to forget that."
"I'm not forgetting it. I've just got a headache. Shit."
"What's that about?"
"Damned if I know. Comes and goes. A couple weeks now. Sometimes it's this buzzing and ringing. Like something that shouldn't be there has gotten inside my head. Got problems with my phone too."
"Maybe you're picking up somebody's CB," Tom laughed. "Or the radio."
"Speaking of the radio," a man further down the bar said, "You listen to that Orioles game last night?"
"They got some runs, Davie," Tom said. "Belle will start hitting better if he relaxes. And Baines--that guy's pure swing, you know? Surhoff's rocking it too but I don't know if that's going to last."
"Belle's a stupid spoiled motherfucker," Dave said. "Yeah he'll get the stats, but he doesn't make anybody around him better. He wants to win, sure, but he wants to do it by himself. But none of it's going to be about hitting anyway--they don't have anybody can get anybody out except Mussina. What are you gonna do? Pitch him every fucking day and have him relieve himself?"
Cal lifted his drink, took a swig, then the ringing went through his head again. It started near the top and came out his ear. It kept happening more and more often. Mainly it was just ringing and buzzing, but sometimes--at night, when it woke him from sleep, or when he was concentrating hard--it sounded like voices, although he couldn't make them out. He wasn't going to tell anybody that, of course. He didn't want to seem like a nut. He put his head in his hands.
"You okay?" Tom said.
"This fucking headache," Cal said.
"You want aspirin?"
"Took some already. Too many."
"You sure that drink's a good idea?"
"It's that summer smog gets to me," Dave said from down the bar. "When the city's hot as all get out, and the air starts to smell like an exhaust pipe."
"Yeah," Cal said. "I..." But he didn't finish the thought. A loud ringing crashed through his head, and for an instant he couldn't see. Then he found himself staring down the long shiny length of the bar. There was a drink spill a few inches away.
"Jesus," Tom said. "Maybe you need a doctor."
"No," Cal said. "No doctors. All that poking and pinching. I just need to go home and take it easy is all." He put some money on the bar and headed out the door.
For a moment, he noticed that the spring night was cool, if a little clammy... then he wasn't noticing anything outside himself at all. Noise pounded through his head. Next came voices, a bunch at once, but he couldn't hear what they were saying. He pushed his hands against both sides of his head, trying to relieve the pressure. "Get out of my head," he said. Had he said it aloud?
He staggered, then reached to catch himself on the rough surface of a wall. The street around him was familiar, but he saw it only a second then the noise surged through him again.
Faces swarmed up into his, almost like insects. "I want you out of my head," he said, and the faces fell back, startled. His hands still pushed hard against the side of his head, but they didn't do any good. The ringing, the buzzing, the voices seared through him like someone had strung an electric wire through his ears.
He had to get home, but when he tried to look around, he couldn't see. Then what he did see made no sense--why was he in some room, where people lay sleeping, attached to some kind of machinery? No, it was just his street, just another night--he knew where his house was, two blocks ahead... What were all these people doing here?
But of course there was no one around. "Get hold of yourself." He was shouting it, was he? The pressure was too much. When had he gotten down on his knees? If he could get up again, he didn't have that far to go.
The voices were everywhere, metallic and distorted as if over some intercom gone wild. If only he could hear what they were saying, that might relieve the pressure growing unbearably, his head throbbing against his hands. Stay in there, keep them in there, don't let them out... he had to let them out, there were too many for his head to stay together... they had all gone into his head because it was the only way for them, they had no heads of their own anymore or something had gone wrong with the heads they had...
For a moment here and there, he could feel the cool rough gravel of the driveway against his legs, back, arms, face... he hit his head against the gravel. He hit his head harder against the gravel. Then he couldn't find his head or the gravel and there was just the ringing, just the voices, and he followed them a long ways down, then further down, then he wasn't even following. Certainly he made no sign of recognition when, the next morning, some young guy who had gotten up for work found him there in the driveway, on his back, eyes thrashing around, staring at something that neither he or anybody else could see.