Although I haven't seen her in some years, my thoughts still turn to Allie Shore almost every day.
At my Palo Alto office this week, one of the junior engineers tapped the edge of my vice-president-sized cubicle with a folded San Jose Mercury and asked me, "What's the adjective for integrity? If a person with hunger is hungry, and a person with confusion is confused, what's a person with integrity?"
And, thinking of Allie, I said, "Integral?"
She counted off the letters on the paper, shook her head, and left.
Integrity, integral: Allie may have been the wholest person I've ever known, coherent in all senses. Slipping between nodes of New York chaos as sleekly as a swimmer changing lanes, she remained secure in the distinction between the necessary and the expendable, between goal and tools -- a distinction I've not always found easy.
Oddly, coherency doesn't guarantee a neatly turned description. Allie's long-time apartmentmate Brenda Tai, who seems guided only by Brownian motion, still can rightly claim on her grant applications to have always kept one hand in the outskirts of video production. Myself I feel comfortable summarizing with a business card: Vincent Kornblau, Cognitive Science. (Admittedly, the card has proven very adaptable.)
Whereas Allie's curriculum vitae.... Born in Harlem to a middle-class family, she was transplanted deep into Jersey; she switched schools and majors a couple of times, played in a straight-edge band, drifted into secretarial work, got pulled up the ladder to executive administrator, then quit. Never married, never had more than a one-month stand, never wrote a book, never even owned a cat. She hardly sounds there at all, does she? Ask me to define her, and all I could do was point.
Allie wasn't dependent on high concept. She had a self. And she was too intent -- had been too intent -- on its progress to be distracted by the conditional objectives which most of us use to structure our lives.
It was during my last visit from Boston that Allie, very tired looking, told me of her resignation from Big Night Cable Network. Instead of falling into the yuppie excesses common to the time, she had saved enough money to travel and "just think" for a few years. I promised that, after spending a decent interval in my new West Coast job, I would hook up with her, and we'd do a Down and Out in Paris and London tour.
Allie approached such idealistic gestures practically. Before losing corporate health benefits, she got a complete physical exam.
Her HMO found cancer midbrain, between her temporal lobes.
Allie's tumor took kindly to radiation, so she escaped the worst side effects of the treatment. The cancer itself was highly differentiated, not invasive at all. Therefore no epileptic fits, or paralysis, or amnesia, or psychosis. Her intracranial pressure simply increased, and Allie dealt only with mood swings, lethargy, blindness, and death.
It was a mercy, her brother said.
When a stimulus -- a loud noise, or a harsh flavor, for example --- is repeatedly applied, the brain's responses dampen in a series of jagged downward steps, in an acutely uncomfortable process called habituation. For subjects with the proper genetic factor, caffeine smoothes habituation.
Caffeine also increases attentiveness, though it's a haphazard sort of attention: In simple tests of vigilance, caffeine users wrongly identify stimuli as interesting targets twice as often as non-users do.
I remember sitting in the Café Noir in San Francisco a week after Allie Shore died. Covering the medallion-sized table were a tumbler of French roast, a coffee-soaked napkin, and some biscotti crumbs.
I was thinking about my phone call to Brenda Tai the night before. She'd gone to New Jersey for Allie's funeral and had met the family minister, the one Allie'd talked so much about in her last messages. The ceremony had been wonderfully healing, with a sense of closure, even of affirmation: a turning point in Brenda's life. (Brenda's life was rife with turning points, but this was probably the first to be triggered by the 2nd Union Baptist Church.)
A dressed-down neatly trimmed man jostled me walking to the back room to toss darts or log onto the net. His cigarette smoke scraped my eyes, still bloodshot.
I didn't start crying again, but I didn't feel closure or, god help us, affirmation. I felt lousy for missing the funeral, and like a hypocrite for even thinking about going to the funeral. I felt callous for not trusting Allie's return to that old time religion, stupid for not being able to follow her reasons. I felt like a traitor for not returning east for a final visit, despite the fact that Allie had told me even one visitor a week exhausted her.
In the cog sci biz, we call this thrashing.
I took another hit off the sour coffee and heard Allie say, "You are so unique." It was a fond, smirking voice from my left; "unique" was Allie's all-purpose compliment.
To my left was the wall, right where it'd been all afternoon, upholstered with "CHILI PEPPER PEARL JAM INFLUENCES NEEDS BASS MADMAN" and "VEGAN GRRL HOUSEMATES BI A PLUS" fliers.
Now that I was listening, the chatter in the place seemed maddeningly loud, and I saw plenty of conversations around me in which "You are so unique" might have been said before being recontextualized by imagination.
Because imagination and perception produce much the same physiological responses in the brain, we have to distinguish between them by attending to other cues. Like the knowledge of Allie's death. If we lose track of those cues, or if we have to learn a new set of cues -- I'm thinking of early movie audiences ducking when a train came toward the camera -- we "see things," or "hear things."
Sometimes seeing things is more attractive than seeking out cues.
I kept my eyes open, and willfully imagined Allie sitting at the other side of the table. With no elbow room, she'd be slumped way down in the chair, her butt hanging off the edge, her boots sturdy on the floor. She'd say....
It didn't work. All I saw was the top of an empty chair, and, past that, a kid with Jesus hair and a Maynard G. Krebs goatee.
I took a final couple of gulps of the coffee, and checked the clock over the chessboard table on the way out. As I'd halfway expected, I had missed the movie I'd driven to the city to see. It didn't seem that important.
Outside, phantoms danced shakily in the sidewalk crowd, and I looked away as my sun-shocked pupils adjusted.
I rarely found anything at the used-book shop down the block, but browsing there would get me through another half-hour of the day. Then I'd go home.
While I lingered over the new acquisitions table by the door -- why would anyone use a highlighter on Sibyl? -- a middle-aged guy came into the shop and asked, "Where would you be keeping your esoteric?"
"Esoteric what?" asked the clerk behind the counter.
"That's enough," the customer said. "Don't you be giving me that shit, too." I glanced up and over at the guy. He was dressed sanely enough, but I didn't like the way he was nodding his head.
"What shit?" the clerk said. At the far end of the store, in front of the science fiction, partly hidden by the worthless 19th-century hardbacks section, I glimpsed a young black woman wearing Bermuda shorts and a huge faded black T-shirt. Her hair was comfortably short. She looked a lot like Allie.
"Where's the esoteric?" the customer shouted.
Allie turned to check out the ruckus. She saw me and smirked, and the men faded as if behind a scrim.
I walked past them into a band of white noise extending from subsonic rumble up to infrared and the visible frequencies. This could be (I thought) one of those epilepsy-linked limbic electric storms, sparking non sequiturs of certainty and revelation, déjà-vu and jamais-vu. The state in which one learns supernatural truths.
I stopped a few feet in front of her and swayed, off-balance.
Through the gray roar, she drew closer. The movement was smooth, as if I were a zoom lens, as if some alien Spielberg was trying to recreate our slam dance greeting ritual with expensive F/X. Her face glided to my left ear.
For one awful moment, I thought she would say, "Jesus loves you."
Instead, carried in a moist mild exhalation into my ear, there unpacked and repacked into phonemes and sent on for deciphering, interpretation, and consignment to various memories, was the fragmentary message, "Brown picture book."
And the scene closed with a dissolve.
I managed to recover myself before the bookshop clerk noticed. Or maybe he'd had enough customer interaction for one day.
I had a beer at the nearest bar ("Whatever's on tap." "We got thirty.") to steady my nerves before driving back to Menlo Park and my blank and blotchy condo. There I worked out my chills with a long hot shower, propping myself against the former owner's smiling fish decals.
When I got back to the living room, I turned the TV on and the volume off, channel surfed to some nature documentary, and sat on the sofa to think.
Certainly, I'd mistaken people before, the pattern-matching hemisphere yapping like an excited Chihuahua over nothing. But I had never mistaken death for life. So had I gone crazy?
Well, lots of people have seen ghosts. At least some of those people were probably sane. If Allie said something like, "Kill for the love of Kali," I'd have reason to worry. But "Brown picture book" sounded fairly harmless, and harmlessness is next to sanity.
Did I believe in ghosts? Certainly not in the absurd lab shenanigans of parapsychologists. But impartial observation might be a meaningless context for the question. Something which showed up so often, across so many cultures, probably existed -- if only in the way that anger or curiosity exists.
Did I want to see a ghost?
Did I want to see Allie's ghost?
I wanted to see Allie.
Close enough for funded work.
I'd promised to check in briefly at the office the next morning. Two of the older staff were working weekends to coordinate our stock market simulation's bull and bear drives; we got wild flailing when both were active. As the supposed AI guru, they thought I might be able to help.
Instead, I drove back up to the city. Ate breakfast in a noisy little diner I knew Allie would like, wandered around Buena Vista park, went to a comics store, finally went back to Café Noir. I stayed there a long time. Nothing happened.
I didn't get much sleep Sunday night, probably because of all the coffee.
Monday morning, I waited at home till I knew the managers' status meeting had started, then phoned and told our receptionist that I'd be coming in the next day.
While I shaved, it struck me that Allie had never been that fond of San Francisco. She'd told a story about walking into Golden Gate Park: First, she passed a bunch of retro-hippies with an acoustic guitar. Then she passed a bunch of punks. She wandered around the park, and on her way back she saw the hippies and punks all sitting in a circle together and singing a Crosby, Stills & Nash song. "How do they expect to get anything done if they can't keep straight on a simple point like that?"
So, if the location itself hadn't attracted Allie's spirit, what had? The mental context, perhaps. My movie-going plans, and the haphazard, unmotivated way I'd killed them.
Once, after talking my way through some particularly torturous vacillation, I'd asked Allie if I'd annoyed her.
"No," she'd said. "I like the glitter."
Perhaps she liked it still. Perhaps it had even attracted her, catching the weakening light. The hypothesis was easy to test:
In the paper, I found two movies of interest, left my watch behind, and drove up to the city. As I took the exit best suited for Japantown and the Kabuki Cineplex, I changed my mind and headed for Walton Park and the Gateway Theater.
Of course, parking was a bitch. After circling a bit, I settled for a two hour meter and a twenty dollar fine.
I bought a ticket at the theater. With little over an hour to kill, I lunched at the Italian place across the park. The entree was tardy, but since the meal made me sleepy, I had coffee afterwards.
I asked the waiter for the time when I got my credit card receipt. Five minutes too late for the film.
Under a semi-formal row of trees, I walked to the park's unsplashy fountain. Wearing a Minor Threat T-shirt which I'd seen in a photograph but never in person, Allie sat watching me, propped against one of the ersatz Henry Moore animal sculptures.
I felt frightened and shy. She looked solid; her knees were even a little scuffed with gray. Were we allowed to touch? Would that break the illusion? Or might it snap me into certifiable insanity?
Would I be arrested?
Allie stood and gestured toward the sculpture. Did she want me to join her there? Her expression was unreadably calm. No, wait; that was the expression she usually had right before blowing up at some timewaster.
Stately, she walked to my side. She put her light cool hand on my shoulder. Desperate to respond, I grabbed for her other hand, but she pulled back. On tiptoe, she whispered, "Brown." I caught a whiff of Lapsang souchong.
I nodded violently.
"Book's close, study's jacket." The book's clothes?
"Again?" I croaked.
She wasn't there anymore. Maybe I'd made too much noise.
I sat on the polished bronze bear cub, not yet licked into shape, and looked at the fountain for a long while. "USES RECYCLED WATER ONLY" said the sign on the fountain.
I had insomnia again that night, and a grueling morning to look forward to. Whenever I returned after a few days off, my manager would itemize all the work I'd delayed, sounding remarkably like an insecure lover. He had no reason to be insecure: the Broker-Fixer project was my first sell-out move from academe, and I was sticking with it till I felt thoroughly sold-out.
Admittedly, selling out wasn't as easy as I'd hoped. For the last four months, I'd been trying to model the effects of market frenzy on the "rational" simulations which modeled long-term planning, but every goddamn module was tissueware, no give at all. What else could you expect from Palo Alto? New York understands the medicinal aspect of stress: it's not abuse unless you get the dose wrong. Whereas California has a binary scale of NONE and DANGER.
That morning was taken up with meetings. That afternoon, I sat in my office and tried to make sense of them. That evening I went out for politically-necessary drinks with two of our hardware guys. During a tedious discussion of censorship and rap, one of them made what sounded like a racist crack, and I jabbed at him with the hand holding the mug. I had a split-second flash of myself on El Camino Real after a geek rumble, trying to flag a cab to a hospital. Luckily, only some microbrew connected. Unsatisfactory apologies passed all round before we separated.
Through most of that night I paced my apartment, enjoying a curiously pleasing feverishness, a homey glow that seemed to call for stoking. For, if I was so intent on establishing a bridge to another world, wasn't it best to render this world less realistically? To even the odds somewhat? Wouldn't the rapprochement be eased by -- to use the traditional formula -- systematic derangement of the senses? After all, I was halfway there already.
On Wednesday, I exchanged no word with another living thing on the way to my cubicle. Once there, I stared at my terminal and thought about my painfully elaborate method of contacting Allie.
Associative conditioning is the classic way to streamline such preparations. In school, even a biofeedback-impaired type like myself had been able to control my heartbeat once I'd associated the automatic slowdown brought on by standing up suddenly with the vivid mental image of Patti Smith exploring her armpit.
My two meetings with Allie's ghost had shared a conflicted, mildly disappointed mindset, so, over the next few hours, I produced that mindset again, using my MIT research as emotional meat. For the associated trigger image, I decided on Brenda Tai's notoriously ancient chocolate-brown terrycloth bathrobe, familiar to both myself and Allie.
Between noon and one, picturing Brenda's robe while I not-quite-focused on the tiles of my keyboard through my translucent doubly-visioned fingers, I caught gray overlapping shadows at the corner of my eye, and I knew she was behind me.
I kept still. I kept my fingers still on the keys.
I felt her lean close, over my shoulder.
"You ain't catching nothing," drawled the ghost.
(Back in the Lower East Side, we'd been walking back from the Life Cafe, pausing every now and then under a bit of shade. Across the street, from the opposite direction, came a bouncy trio, two big Queens boys and a girl who looked like Sixteen's idea of collegiate sassy. One of the boys had a fishing pole, and a guy laid back on a porch behind us yelled at them, "Hey! You going fishing? Hey, there! You all going fishing?"
"Yeah!" yelled the girl after a double take.
"Going to get some Coney Island whitefish, are you?" yelled the guy on the porch.
The three fishers walked faster.
"Shit, y'all ain't catching nothing," the guy grumbled.
And Allie whispered to me, "William Burroughs to his asshole: Shit, you ain't catching nothing.")
"Am I --" I almost asked if I was bothering her. "Are you -- all right?"
She laughed, a nerve-racking sensation like a hummingbird darting past my ear. "Don't know each other."
Fair enough. She'd been through a lot of changes. "Who can help me? Your family? Brenda?"
"They've brown," I think she said. I didn't know anyone named "Dave Brown," anyway.
"Should I --" I almost asked if I should stop calling her. But I didn't want to hear the answer.
I wouldn't have anyway. She was gone.
I walked to the shopping district, had a couple of Cuba libres, and bagged the rest of the workday.
Around midnight, I fell asleep to snowy double images on a weak PBS station, and I dreamt someone was throttling Allie with a terrycloth belt. Since she was dead already, I didn't do anything to stop it; why make waves? Then I saw blood fill her mouth, and I let go of the belt. Too late. I knelt to apply artificial respiration, but she kept twisting her head away from me, and the black blood glistened at both sides; "I'm sorry, don't, you'll die," I kept telling her.
The next morning, I looked up the number of Allie's brother, Tim, in Massachusetts, and called him. His answering machine played the opening theme to "Star Trek: The Next Generation." I left a message that I was coming east and wanted to see him.
Then I hung around the Engineering Director's office till he showed up. I told him I needed a week off.
He said, "I hear you've already taken a week off."
"Then I need two weeks off."
He motioned me into his office, and shut the door. "If you're in some sort of long-term difficulty, don't be afraid to tell me. It's better to find out now than later."
Better for whom? "It's nothing long term," I told him. "Family trouble. It'll be over in a week. I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but you know... family trouble."
I was due back after July Fourth weekend.
After I got to my Harvard Square hotel, I called the guy who'd inherited my MIT grant and told him I needed an evoked potential mapping done on Saturday to check a theory about emotional conflicts. In exchange, I promised free computer consulting in the fall.
Tim Shore worked as an intern at the Newkirk HMO in Somerville. We met for dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant. He'd changed into a Hawaiian shirt and white jeans, and actually looked pretty spiffy, aside from the razor bumps.
He asked what he should order. Since it was Tim, I recommended the Pad Thai. He thanked me. Conversation then stopped while his thoughts focused on anticipation and consumption.
Eventually, he noticed me again. "Hey, what happened to that Catholic girl, that woman you were with when we all went to that Mexican place?"
I tried to remember the dinner. It would have been my second year at MIT, so it was probably.... "Oh, Katie? She decided I was just too indecissive -- indecighssive?" I laughed. "I really couldn't blame her."
"She was nice."
"Thank you," I said, and refilled our glasses.
"How's sunny California treating you?" he said.
"It's not New York. How's the Pad Thai?"
"Good, not spicy at all. I love it out west; it's so full of life."
"I think Manhattan is livelier."
"I mean real life, not people life. I tell you, I'll never know how you and Allie could stand it down in the city. You can't ever relax there."
"Well, I have a theory about that. Neurologists like to say that depression is a disease of memory. To contrast it with anxiety, which they like to say is a disease of attention. Because depression is fixated on the past, on what you can't do anything about. It's inward." I gestured at my abdomen with my glass. "In other words, 'emotion recollected in tranquillity.'" I filled my glass again. "And anxiety, on the other hand, is fixed on the present and the future, looking for threats. That's why it's so easily distracted."
"It's not really my field," Tim said.
"Well, there's not much else to it. My theory is that New York appeals to depressive types. Because the city's level of anxiety works as kind of a -- a temporal counterbalance. You know, New York shifty eyes." I demonstrated. "In the abstract, anxiety seems easier to deal with. Of course, in practice, it causes burnout."
"That's interesting," said Tim, and it suddenly struck me that ghosts also drag the unchangeable past into the unknowable present. That one might define a ghost as that function which transforms the hopeless depression of mourning into the manageable anxiety of fear.
Flush with inspiration, I waved at our waiter and pointed at the wine bottle and held up my index finger. We nodded at each other. Communication at its finest.
"I really miss your sister," I told Tim.
He nodded. "So young. But she was ready."
"She seemed ready for anything," I agreed warmly, feeling cold.
"Yes," said Tim thoughtfully. "She was always curious. Always a searcher... a learner... a lurt."
"A what?" I asked.
"Alert," said Tim.
The wine arrived, thank god. "Do you remember her brown study book?"
He looked puzzled.
"Her... pictures... brown... book...." I tossed out desperately.
"Oh, the brown book." He nodded. "I didn't think she showed it to anyone. She never wanted to show it to me."
(And the memory was there:
Me asking, "What were you doing up so early this morning?"
Allie saying, "Just writing in my brown book."
"You writing a book?"
"No, just a notebook. Dreams, bad poetry, city stuff. Vignettes."
"I'd love to see that."
And her looking unhappy and changing the subject to brunch.)
"I'd love to see it," I told her brother.
He looked unhappy.
"We often talked about each other's writing, you know."
"I didn't know you wrote," he said, and fidgeted as if he was going to ask for the check.
"I don't. Not really. Not as well as Allie. I want to keep that piece of her alive." Bad image. "If she didn't name a literary executor, would you consider me?"
"I'd turn it over to a professional later, when it got to the point of publication."
Tim shook his head. "That's a personal book. Like a diary."
"Right," I said. "Like Anaïs Nin's diary. Usually, the way these diaries work is, the less personal stuff, like poetry, gets passed by the family for approval, and the rest of it isn't published for a hundred years. But Allie worked on it too intensely to want it completely lost."
I think it was the "intensely" which won him over. It made him feel like I'd let him on a secret. Luckily, it turned out that Tim had taken Allie's notebooks along with her science fiction collection, intending to read them when he had "some spare time." We agreed that he wouldn't have spare time for a while and that I therefore could borrow the brown book from him at Newkirk the next evening.
I closed a bar and returned to the hotel.
Saturday morning, I bumped my bloated white rental car out of the hotel garage, picked up my MIT successor, Dana, outside his dull red duplex, and drove to the little lab we used for quick and dirty software tests.
Dana set the electrodes clumsily, but the conducting paste felt soothingly cool on my scalp. I relaxed into a stable position.
"Recording," Dana said, intent on the monitor.
I pictured the chocolate-brown bathrobe.
I looked past Dana to the lab door. Allie was at its window.
"Keep your eyes still," Dana said. "You're kicking up noise."
She softly opened the door, then pushed off the ground towards me, her contours vague except for her face, her arms by her side like a William Blake angel.
"Jesus," said Dana. "That's some emotional conflict."
As Allie drifted over my head, she whispered, "Remember us the study. We are not Allie's."
What was with the royal plural?
She left while above me, or at least she didn't appear on the other side. I clapped my hands together to get a cue mark, and said, "Done."
I got unplugged, and we went to the monitor. The animation-mode playback started with scattered, shifting nodes of activity -- my usual approximation of a rest state. Then two hot spots started, way up front, and spread. Soon the whole front third of the brain's surface was in the yellow and white range. "You're smokin'," Dana said.
Activity suddenly dropped in the frontal lobes. The motor systems burst immediately followed.
"Were you right?" asked Dana.
"Yes," I said, smiling. "Let me spring for lunch?"
"Sorry, no time today. Owe me one." He began taking down the system. "Owe me an explanation, too, OK?"
The nice, clear trace on the monitor pleased me. It was simple and measurable, as opposed to the unstable subjective experience of the ghost. And it was unique: Such wide area cerebral responses are usually caused by pain, as all available resources are asked to find a solution -- but this pattern didn't extend back as far as pain would. Mercifully, neither did it match the schizophrenic patterns I'd seen.
It wasn't until my second drink at lunch that I remembered the lab door opening. A small external detail which suggested that the process might be chaotic in the classic manner, a conflagration set off by the slightest of inputs, with the details always different but with a strangely attractive sum.
Saturday night, I picked up the Brown Book. Tim invited me to have dinner with himself and Sarah, but I begged off: "I'm too beat to hold a decent conversation."
"OK," said Tim. He reached up and put his hand on my shoulder. "And try to get some rest, Vince. Allie wouldn't want you killing yourself; she was too full of life."
I gave what felt like a smile.
"Speaking as a doctor, OK?" He patted my shoulder twice.
It was an engineering notebook, the corners worn to a suede-like texture. The first greenish gridded page held a long column of what looked like verse, written in a minute meticulous hand. Back in the hotel, I read it through three times before realizing it was a list of imaginary band names.
When linearity fails, go stochastic. I riffled the pages with my thumb, and slid it in. Paydirt. She was remembering a near-death experience when she was twelve, drowning at the Jersey shore: "The Technicolor sky an attempt at Heaven. Neat round hills, soft dumplings. But I did not trust these polished grandfatherly figures, golf shirts of Sears Studio portraits. Nor their sunny pitcher of lemonade, shrieking Jack O'Lantern with fade. All was untrustworthy, for all was not yet transformed. Nor I."
I browsed through some out-of-body material, including an ambiguous visit to me.
There was a possibly germane note from her Classical Studies days: "Substitution of honored name for buried principle. B: When this you see, remember me. A: If the name is lasting, then the name has the power. Broadcast it. Spirits need heroes to continue the naming & heroes lie down to measure themselves against the dead. B: A daisy chain. No, a chain of 69s. Mediums with messages. Where TV sucks, there suck I."
And there were pages of cityscape, described in the tones of a naturalist, conversations with the homeless over lunch, and a wake for Will Shatter of Flipper, which prompted the observation: "V's suicide in increments. Preserve the dead. Pickled." (Allie, unlike Brenda and myself, didn't drink or smoke.)
While I struggled through her handwriting, phrases or whole lines would grow fuzzy, and inflate, and lift slightly off the page. Magic, I thought, until I duplicated the trick with the hotel's cable channel guide. It must be me.
Counting off on the calendar in my wallet, I figured I'd gotten no more than a dozen hours of sleep in the last week. My last meal had been the lunch after my EEG, and I couldn't remember what I'd eaten.
I called room service for a Danish and a pot of coffee.
The book's closing entry was, "My eyes wapr. Ths blend together or vanish."
Some time on Monday, Allie visited me, unbidden, just a dark indentation, as if there were a speck on my contact lens.
"Stay," I said.
She said, "This solution. This integration." She sort of said that.
A while later, I found this line in the book: "B. wants to use our Brown Study stills for fem. myth show. No myth! If I'm not there, nothing is there."
I phoned Brenda Tai, waking her up -- I'm not sure what time this was -- and asked for crash space in exchange for an Italian dinner. She gave me her new address and said she'd love to see me. I couldn't remember how to finish a phone conversation. After a couple of false starts I blurted, "I have an appointment," and hung up.
I'm sure I slept for at least four hours.
On Tuesday, I left. Only in Boston would three lanes of bumper-to-bumper airport-bound traffic be forced through three lanes of outbound suburban traffic and three lanes of city traffic to reach an Escher-like jumble of exits with no directions except the vaguely menacing sign:
I'd be stalled here for at least ten minutes. Which I had taken into account. Truthfully, I was doing well. I'd gotten the book from Tim. I'd hallucinated into an EEG. The ghost was still talking. I still wasn't a Baptist. Pretty slick. Only required a few days of utterly amoral use of the memory of someone I loved.
I punched the car's radio on, and a Modern Rock station chanted, "One, two, three, four, five. Senses working overtime."
I drummed my fingers to the beat. I felt like Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. I felt like a snake.
For the first time in over a year, I felt ready to go home.
"Come on in," Brenda yelled. "You won't get lost."
I pushed the door open with my carry-on bag. "Don't be too sure."
A realtor would've called it a studio loft. One very thin, fairly long room; a futon and a desk on one side; a sink, a mini-fridge, a TV, and a wooden partition on the other; at the far end, stacks of boxes, and a window which looked dipped in mud. Brenda was stretched belly down on the futon with an open glossy book before her.
"Nice view," I said. "Let me guess: The bathroom is behind the partition."
"Great location, huh? And setch a baaa-gun!"
I dropped my bag beside her, and sat on it.
She peered at me, and scooted up. "Vincent, you look like shit."
"Well, we're a match, 'cause you look like hot shit." She did, too; a mean lean Korean fighting machine.
"Poor little fella," she said. "You've been trying to handle this all alone, haven't you?"
"Not exactly." I scratched my head, and hit a bit of dried EEG paste. I wished I'd shampooed while I was in the hotel. "Maybe we should go get some coffee."
She took my hand and pulled me up. "Coffee? A growing boy like you needs healthy food, food to build strong bones and a surfer tan. Food like St. Marks Pizza."
As we spiraled down the stairs, I made some joke about pizza-my-heart, but Brenda didn't laugh. Then we seemed to jump-cut to a couple of blocks away, already past NYU.
It was strange to be hopscotching through the sidewalk vendors again. Step on a crackhead, break your mother's heirloom locket. Everything glowed. The leaflets taped to the ground glowed; the Dixieland band by the subway sculpture glowed. The pepperoni glowed worst of all.
The pizza hit me like codeine. "Jesus," I said, through a mouthful of animal fats. "I'm going to be moving slow as Allie soon!"
"Yeah?" said Brenda. "Maybe you should try to take a nap when we get back."
I knew I should object, but I couldn't remember why.
She let me have the futon.
I woke up on Wednesday, July 1.
I took Brenda to Cafe Vivaldi to tell her what had happened.
Her first response was, "It's interesting she made it out to California." (God, I loved Brenda.) "But shouldn't you be trying to make her -- well, rest?"
"It's funny, that's always what people want to do with ghosts, put them back in their place. There's something in communication theory about information and expecting stuff...."
Brenda looked towards the ceiling and recited, "The amount of information in a message is the unpredictability of the message." She looked back down at me. "Because if you know it already, it's not information. I saw it in a movie at the Kitchen this spring."
I made a face. "Sounds like a boring movie."
"Anyway, I just realized, if you define information as the unpredicted, you see that humans don't actually enjoy information."
"My thesis advisor certainly doesn't."
"It makes people anxious. We scramble around it like bugs -- to break it down, to eliminate it, to make it just another part of the known. Now what could be more unpredictable and meaningful than a ghost? So the urge to deny it is very strong."
Brenda looked skeptical. "Yeah, but I'm talking about Allie, not us. You weren't here, Vincent; if you were, you'd know that Allie was reconciled. She was at peace."
"That's right, I wasn't here, and I'm not reconciled." I looked glumly into my empty cup, then into Brenda's eyes. "Look, I'm not saying it's her, exactly. I don't think it is. Allie is dead, right?" (I meant to sound rational, but, stupidly, my voice broke.) "This is like -- you know, how movie ghosts always look like they looked before the accident?"
She frowned, and started sketching little slices of skeletal life on my napkin. (Hers was already full.) "So you think you're hallucinating?"
"Not exactly that either. I think it's something real. It just probably isn't what it looks like. Pictures might sort that out."
"You want me to do a shoot? As evidence?"
"No," I said. "I don't really care what it looks like from the outside. Anyway, my guess is that recordings of these things can always be interpreted as noise. No, it told me I need a picture to understand it. A picture of Allie, I guess. A brown picture, or a study...."
"Oh, fuck goddess all," Brenda said. "If I'm going to have to look at the Brown Study, I'm going to have to do it drunk."
I waited a moment. "If you think it's wrong, then don't do it," I said. "No one should be forced to go through this." That finished the part I'd thought over, but the words kept coming. I could barely follow them. "I feel almost dead myself. Like bleeding into the ground, trying to see invisible things, trying to guess what ghosts want. Letting ghosts pull the strings. The heart's just another machine, and the ghosts don't realize that, they're greedy, they wear it out."
"Mm," Brenda said. "It doesn't sound to me like a ghost moved in and started pulling strings. It sounds more like you dangled strings in front of one until it batted at them. And if your version of Allie wants to see the Brown Study, it can see it. I'm just going to be drunk, that's all."
We found a place which would accept my company Diners Club card, and we celebrated with martinis, kir, two bottles of wine at dinner, cognac and scotch afterwards. By midnight, we were properly toasted.
Our cabby told us a hilarious story about taking Robert Redford to a cowboy bar. I tipped big.
"Whoa! Vertigo!" I said, looking down Brenda's foreshortened apartment.
"Make yourself at home," said Brenda. "Got to be comfortable for a seance."
By the time I'd gotten my boots off, she was already in her bathrobe.
"I can't believe we never told you about the Study project," Brenda told me. "You probably just don't remember."
It's true I have a fluky memory.
Suddenly inspired, I said, "Watch this," and stared at the robe.
"What," she said, and Allie's ghost came out of the shadow between the partition and the window, more indistinct visually than ever before, but somehow more certainly there, as if it was becoming concentrated in some oblique way....
I had second thoughts.
Brenda stepped back, then stooped forward, supporting her hands on her knees. At first, I thought it was some kind of sight gag. She was shaking her head back and forth, muttering something, her thick fine black hair around her face like a sheet of black water.
Inside my left ear, I heard the whisper, "We are allies." All lies? Our lives?
Two fat drops of water fell from Brenda's face onto the hardwood floor.
"Oh, jeez," I said, and ran to put my arm around her shoulders. I bumped the top of her head against my chest. She brought her arms up under mine, and I heard her take great asthmatic gasps and say, "No, no, no."
"No, no," I whispered back, holding her lightly. "It's all right... no... no...."
There was only a shadow between the partition and the window.
After Brenda cried herself out, we both washed our faces at the sink, sort of sheepishly, as if it was already the morning after.
"Don't do that again," she said. "Not unless I say I'm ready. OK? I'll look for the tape, now."
I offered to help with the boxes, but Brenda said she'd go faster without me. She dragged each one onto the floor, then rummaged through the top layer to decide whether to delve deeper.
The work seemed to steady her nerves.
"So, uh, what's with brown?" I asked.
"Well, we were both getting kind of tired of sick of the women-of-color rap. So we started this tape, back when I was taking introductory color theory...."
"Christ, everything has a theory, doesn't it?" At least she hadn't used any words like overdetermined yet.
"Are you going to listen? The idea was: there are primary colors, and secondary colors, which you make from two primary colors; and then you get tertiary colors: brown, basically. Another way to look at it is complements. Colors at opposite sides of the wheel, like green and red, get this energy boost when you put them beside each other. Where they meet vibrates, because your eye gets tired of one but can't beat a retreat without hitting the other. And if you mix them, they cancel each other out and you get a neutral color: brown."
"Thesis, antithesis, synthesis," I said.
"Sort of, except there's no real 'opposite'. It's just whatever you're most concerned with at the moment. So we went looking for fun stuff beginning with 'brown' -- sort of like you've been doing...." She opened the next box and said, "Ah." She pulled out and held up Christ: The Album, the double LP by Crass. "I have a good feeling about this one," she said.
Jammed well into the bottom of the box was a videotape.
"We made this when we were undergrads and didn't have a clue," Brenda said as she loaded it. "I'm going to turn off the lights so you can't see me blush."
But her eyes caught the screen and glimmered.
The TV's snow and shadows went black; its shush was cut off by a hum; and a hand-held videocam unsteadily captured a hand-held title card: BROWN STUDY. The signal was coarse. It must have been a late generation copy of the original recording.
On the screen, a very young Allie, with relaxed hair and a stiff prom dress, stood in front of a music stand which supported an open portfolio. Behind her was a Monet poster. She lifted a paper from the portfolio, cleared her throat, and read: "Brown Study. In 1980, the Psychology Department of Brown University, as part of its ongoing research into the subject, shit, into the important subject of cultural diversity in the United States, surveyed over two dozen examples of cross-cultural children. That is to say, children who habitually, successfully move across class or racial boundaries.
"This study found that such children easily adapt to changes in environments and tasks, and show a surprising sense of, a strongly unified self-image. They are popular with both adults and peers.
"However, such children often fail to achieve a commensurate success in their academic studies. They lack motivation. The normal concerns of adolescence pass them by. They may be more likely to become sexually inverted, or repressed, or even left-handed, or ambidextrous." Allie held the paper high with her right hand and took a pen from the music stand with her left hand. She held the paper against the wall and signed her name with a flourish. Solemnly, she turned again to the camera. I heard laughter on the tape.
"We must bear in mind the possibility that such children, subjected to such unique -- I repeat, unique -- pressures consciously form, in defense, an apparently -- I repeat, apparently -- normal ego structure. Perhaps more efficient than the norm. But at what cost. Only further study will tell."
The tape faded to brown.
A blackened video monitor appeared on the screen. Next to that monitor was Allie; her head and legs were cut off by the camera, but she was wearing the same dress.
The first speech was played on the monitor. Allie stood quietly until the mention of left-handedness. She then held a paper and a pen out to the camera, knelt to position the paper against the screen, and signed her name with her right hand.
The tape faded to brown.
The next scene was dark. The monitor and tape deck were set up against a wall. The previous sequence began on the monitor. Allie slouched into the room, wearing a skinhead cut, a black leather jacket which was much too large, no shirt, baggy jeans, and jungle combat boots. (Next to me, Brenda said, "We actually thought about putting 'TV Party' on the soundtrack. Oh boy.") Allie sat on top of the monitor, knees far apart, face wide-eyed as a lemur's, and gave us the finger. After a few lines of the speech, she hopped off and started kicking the video equipment. (Brenda said, "We should have been shot for that little stunt, but it belonged to a different department and they never found out.") The original tape continued under the noise. After smashing the monitor screen, Allie turned and watched us. The tape faded to brown.
"This next one was for you straight white boys," said Brenda. "But, wouldn't you know, they all like it."
A monitor -- a different monitor -- was shown in front of a wall of white cinderblocks. An exercise pad was in front of it. The previous sequence began on the monitor. Allie entered the scene from the left; a very young Brenda from the right. They sat, arms around each other, then kissed in a perfect Hollywood silhouette against the screen. ("That still sort of works," Brenda said. As far as I knew, Brenda and Allie had never been lovers.) Allie pushed Brenda back, holding the kiss, until Brenda started laughing and both of them fell below camera level. The punk on the screen looked out at them.
The tape faded, and stayed, brown.
Each scene had been clearer, the effect not so much a snapping into focus as a gradual perfecting of vision. The last looked like a first generation transfer.
Brenda got up and turned off the TV, then the VCR. "We talked about adding more scenes, but what we had was so sophomoric, what was the point?"
"No," I said. "Well, yes, in a way. But thank you."
"I wonder why she told you about it."
"Production for use," I said, already beginning to lose interest in my own words as I gained control of myself, or had it gained. "I had to see it to believe it, and it has to be believed to be useful."
"I wonder what the fuck you are talking about," said Brenda. "But not enough, right now, if you don't mind."
Despite her demurral, I would have explained -- but Allie wouldn't have. And Allie didn't.
Instead, Brenda was asked if I could stay another day. I could. We had a nice relaxed visit, and spoke of Allie in the past tense. I flew back to California on the Fourth, and was back at work on Monday.
The mind whispers to itself across its empty rooms.
We know this; we're relatively well informed about loss: to an unsettling extent, brain research relies upon injury.
For example, we know that when one finger has been amputated, the area previously allocated to it in the brain is redistributed among the hand's remaining fingers. However, if the entire hand is lost, the hand's allotted area cannot be redistributed, nor does it suddenly go dead. Thus the familiar syndrome of "phantom limbs."
Similarly, when an old friend is lost, the intersection of minds -- the shared experience, the learned synchronization of thought and speech -- can't be redistributed, but only slowly desensitized. A ghost might be seen as the outline of that emptied space, brought into play by the compulsion to preserve at least a silhouette. If desensitization does not occur -- if the ghost remains -- it must be re-integrated in some way not dependent upon the original human presence.
Integration is a difficult subject for those philosophers who deal with unities.
Unity is a difficult subject for the rest of us.
I've seen a split-brain patient perform perfectly reasonable actions with his mute right hemisphere, his speaking consciousness left with no recourse but denial, or some transparently arbitrary explanation. In less obviously exceptional patients, mixed emotions and inconsistent goals reveal themselves as literal, measurable conflicts causing literal, measurable pain which no amount of "rational thinking" can prevent or resolve.
Since I was a child, I've been uncomfortable with the identification of consciousness with self. I remember lying in bed, begging the nattering verbal machine to stop, or at least slow down enough for sleep.
For years, I've distracted that machine, sabotaged it, and occasionally even enjoyed its company. But, until Allie, my greatest relief had been learning that it was just one module among others, not necessarily to be privileged. That it was not "the ghost in the machine," but just another machine.
Which left that machine in need of a ghost. Or an arbiter, if you prefer.
Of course, the word "ghost" is a bit of a category mistake. As is the word "possessed," except inasmuch as you (always and inescapably the plural "you") might say that I had been sometimes possessed by "Vincent Kornblau." The persistent unity assumed by such concepts is untenable in a world of interdependence. (And Allie would be quick to point out that, untenable or not, the assumption is necessary. A fruitful mistake, I'd agree, and remain reluctant to make it.)
My error had been to assign that clear, efficient bundle of intertwined threads named "Allie" a sort of transcendence I'd never have granted the permeable, fragmented "Vincent." But no matter what "Allie" claims, the soul is not transcendent. After all, it had been communicated: it was communicable. It had been made flesh: it could be incorporated. (For that matter, it could also be corporate. My -- or, less misleadingly, "Vincent Kornblau"'s -- career has progressed swimmingly since that last New York trip.) A spirit which had taken on so many roles could easily handle another.
If she goes to church once in a while, we'll live with it.