This Great Society - Arts


Illustration: Joel Bentley

Andrew Mills: Things that Grow in the Dark
Illustration: Joel Bentley


He was on the top floor of the library: dark, hunched and forever scribbling into thick yellow pads. I’d pretend to be indexing in the archives where he wrote, running a finger along a leathery spine. I watched him through the gaps in the shelves.

            The words of Sam, the summer intern, split the silence in my head: “The shady one smells like shiitake mushrooms today.” Sam, a girl who thought everyone was fantasizing about her, somehow needed this attention, even from the oddly odorous. I knew better. I knew they only fantasized about her body parts, never about her, seeing only breasts, dark hair and the tiny strip of tanned flesh perpetually exposed under her bellybutton and above her pants. “He doesn’t even have a real name,” she rattled on. “He checks books out under ‘M. Hosea.’ Why not Morpheus or something?”

            “I’m going to learn his name,” I said quietly. Sam screwed her face at me like I’d confessed, “I have 30 cats in my apartment.” And so my surveillance had begun: first, as a game to pass the long summer hours, and then as an intensifying obsession. Now, I thought one afternoon, time to engage the subject directly.

            I was surprised by his meanness. “I’m occupied,” he said, before I could even finish my greeting. He didn’t look up, but his hand stopped moving. A glacial silence shifted between us – I became aware of my body suddenly cold in my summer dress. His hand gripped a pencil until lead broke onto the page. I realized he was afraid, not angry. In my best reassuring voice I asked, “What are you writing?”

            “Speculative fiction,” he sort of blurted out.

            I waited until he added: “In the future, incredibly sophisticated nanotechnology will catalyze a biogenetic revolution. Populations en masse will alter their basic genetic makeup, sparking a brutal ideological war.” He inhaled sharply.

            There was silence while he stared at the table, eyes straining against the enclosure of their sockets.

            “So, like people putting chips in their brains?” I ventured, determined to make real contact.

            “Sort of.”

            “Is that a bad thing?”

            He peered into the table’s wooden knots like they were secret spiral galaxies. I willed him to look me in the eyes. He put the pencil down, and finally turned his face toward me.

            “It will be awful,” he said like he’d seen the future, like he’d just had 40 days of visions in the desert – though by all appearances he wasn’t fasting there.

            “How do you know it hasn’t happened already?” I asked. “I might be a cyborg.”

            He ignored me and said, “When choice is reduced to neural hardware, there’s nothing left but efficiency-unto-death.”

            I let this linger in the stuffy library air, impressed by the deep assuring timbre of his now-calm voice.

            “Kierkegaard?” I offered.

            He did this half-smile, his right cheek bunching up all funny. I suddenly blushed, remembering the Danish philosopher’s infamous physical deformity and the public persecution he suffered at the hands of the press. The awareness of disability had been raised, and we both got quiet trying not to think of his hobbling, cane-assisted ascent and descent of the library stairs, always the last to leave, clicking out into the night.

            “What can we do to stop it?” I asked, trying to recover.

            “Pull the wires out of our brains.”

            I nodded sagely. “Wait – what?”

            “Everything we use, watch or listen to rewires dendrite connections in our brain; it’s a massive tree with habitual neural pathways branching out. We program our brains’ futures with our present choices. These preferences take on their own life and, if we’re being constantly, artificially over-stimulated, our emotions will soon become more entangled in wires and steel than with humans.”

            “Sounds pretty bleak.”

            He lifted his head and looked around the room, slowly making a sweep of all the people plugged into computers, iPods or cell phones, wordlessly backing up his argument.

            “Is this why you use yellow paper? Because technology is so evil?”

            He caught me off guard by laughing. “I don’t even have a telephone.” He pronounced the “ph” like it was a hard consonant.

            “So you don’t believe in communication? Isn’t print technology? Where would we be without Gutenberg?”

            He sighed, then looked at me again – intensely blue eyes ensconced in all that flesh. “Intimacy isn’t possible in a hallway of mirrors.”

            “I’m not sure what you mean. Aren’t you alone with your words?”

            He was staring at me like I was an eclipse, like what he saw would hurt him later.

            “Do you know who Hosea is?” he asked.

            “The Old Testament prophet, yeah?” I wasn’t going to let him mistake me for some ditzy intern.

            “What qualified him to speak to Israel on God’s behalf?”

            “Uh, he was the one who married a prostitute?”

            “Yes, at God’s decree. And he loved her in spite of her unfaithfulness, experiencing first-hand the pains of loving a wandering heart.”

            “So, you live in self-imposed isolation to understand the isolation of the times?”

            He just smiled.

            “So, your writing – is it a warning? An escape?”

            “I’m not sure. No one reads my stuff.”

            “I’ll read it.”

            “It’s not ready yet.” His voice suddenly had a strange, internal distance, the same voice he used at the reference desk. He started scribbling in the pad again. I took this to mean our conversation was over. I was walking away when he said: “I know you’re not a cyborg, because machines don’t blush.”

            That was the last time he came to the library. I understood; his prophetic invisibility had been compromised. I never learned his name, but there was a gift.

            “Your sci-fi creepazoid has had a book overdue for a month!” Sam said at the end of August.

            I went to the archives and, sure enough, The Singularity by Ray Kurzweil was buried under some Discover magazines near his old haunt. My heart skipped a beat at the sight of yellow pages protruding out of the book – one of his stories! I sat down to read.

            There were archaic, space-age names and the dialogue hurt my brain. Spelling errors and comma splices abounded. He was right; it wasn’t ready. But his epic universe of good and evil, man and machine, warmed my fiction-loving heart. When I finished, I looked out of the fourth floor view, yellow sheets spread before me on his old desk. I wondered where he was writing now. Where more painfully off the grid than here? There was a trace of something perishable in the air up here – the smell of lonely joy, the fragrance of obscurity.


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