As I write it this novel I am also testing the parameters of the “Long Tail” by marketing it here. Here’s the deal:
You can order a paper copy of this thing by going to Bookmooch and sending me a credit. Don’t have a Bookmooch account? Get one here. Maybe I’ll order one of your books. By the way, I chose Bookmooch instead of paperbackswap for this only because I have a large number of paperbackswap credits and very few Bookmooch ones right now.
When the novel is done (some time before December 1), I will bind it as a paperback book (using the method described at Achieve It), with a cover and everything, and ship it to you (I pay the postage) some time before the new year (hopefully in time for Christmas). This offer is open to the first ten people to send me a Bookmooch credit (and any others who happen to send credits that day).
If you don’t want to go to the trouble of setting up an account at Bookmooch, which is a really cool way to get stuff to read without having to pay so much for it, you can read this here, following through the chapters until your eyes burn and your screensaver comes on. Your choice.
The next day I spent settling into my office, although I was warned by Sid not to move anything around unnecessarily. Apparently the Exec chewed somebody out (he won’t say whom) for moving her plant so that it more effectively blocked a telephone cord. Said person apparently knew enough not to bother to fight. But Sid says I wouldn’t enjoy such an altercation. I believe him, of course, but I also find myself thinking that somebody should stand up this guy. Not me, of course, somebody who has passed their probationary period. We are protected by the union, after all. And this is Massachusetts, where unions actually have a little power. Maybe if I survive the year I’ll take on his weirdness myself, as sort of a pet project.
Already there is a blinking red light on my phone that says I have messages. It takes me a while to figure out how to use it, and then I find that I don’t have a password yet so I can’t listen to the messages. Just as well, I suppose. I ask Sid how to get one and he says that it will be set up the next day. He has already set up my computer and has the morning free to show me how to log on and use the network and all of that stuff. So we do that for a while until he has something else to do. Then I go back to looking at the files left behind by my predecessors.
But I don’t move anything. I’m pretty content with my space anyway. Offices on campus are small and drafty. But the Advancement Office is practically at the edge of town. The offices are huge. And because they are in a refurbished mill building they all have large windows, the kind they had before electric lights. Supposedly this was a better location, because it has parking, for hosting parties and out-of-town guests. I’m thinking that it also has to do with the laziness of the Exec and his general and mutual disdain for the Chancellor.
While I’m doing this my phone rings. I pick it up and have that moment where I am about to say whatever I said on my last job and then am silent until I finally squeak “hello?”
“Hi, is this the development office,” an even female voice returns.
“Yes, I mean it’s the Advancement Office, but we do development work. Can I help you?” I’m asking this question of both of us at this point. There are so few questions that I could possibly venture an answer to.
“Um, this is Lisa Wurzer, in Electrical Engineering. I’m looking for some advice about foundation grants,” she states.
“Oh, yeah. I’m new. It’s my second day, but I will do what I can. Foundations normally don’t fund research into EE,” I tell her. “Electrical engineering projects are usually the sort of thing that is much more fundable through corporations or the federal government.”
“Does that mean you can’t help?”
“Oh, no. I mean, I’ll do what I can. I’m just saying. What sort of project or . . . what are you looking to fund?”
“Maybe we could meet to talk about it.”
I’m quick to agree, now that I’ve put my foot in my mouth a little, so I agree to go to her office in an hour. With parking as difficult as it is I barely have time to make that. So I leave immediately.
Parking on campus has apparently been better, although you talk to most of the faculty and they’ll tell you that it has always been bad. But this year, with the security net thrown around the main engineering building it has to be much worse than ever before. One parking lot close to the building has been replaced in its entirety with mobile homes and construction equipment. Apparently the people who are putting the finishing touches on the accelerator building are housed there to cut down on the amount of traffic in and out. Security thought that it could get a pretty good handle on the comings and goings of faculty, but felt that to keep track of the additional bodies, some of them unsavory characters from beyond the pale of the campus community entirely, would be too much trouble. There are rumors that some faculty have moved into the lot with rented mobile homes as well, but I haven’t actually heard any names.
As a staff member I get to have, if I wish to pay $500 per semester, a blue parking sticker, which would put me somewhere inside the campus, space willing. But my wife taught here for almost a year before I got the grant writing job, and so I know that these blue passes are for suckers. I bought a red pass, which is good for parking almost at the city limits, and I catch the shuttle in from there. Almost the entire town has parking issues, not just the places near the campus, so there is probably sufficient reason to “ask” some of the construction contractors to bring in mobile homes (they learned a few weeks ago that those who didn’t want to were less likely to be kept on for the final phase of construction.)
I get to the parking lot a few minutes later and wait for a shuttle bus. Standing there are some students and this guy with a cowboy hat and a mustache. He is obviously a little tipsy and carrying a large duffle bag. He looks at me and says “Hullo perfesser.”
“I’m not a professor,” I counter, somewhat defensively, I suppose.
“Know you’re not a perfesser,” he says. “You’re wearin’ a suit.”
So now I’m completely self conscious and I blush immediately. The guy doesn’t look dangerous, at least at the moment. He actually seems pretty friendly, the way he’s looking at me. So I decide to joke back. “Well, did you just get off the wide-open prairies of Western Mass?”
“Almost,” he says. “’M from Oregon.”
“That explains your outrageous accent,” I continue.
The shuttle bus pulls up just then, so I’m spared from using all of my witty repartee. The students pile onto the bus, causing the passengers trying to get off to have to wait. Then they get off, then this cowboy gets on, then me.
“Where to?” the driver asks, and I’m towards the back of the bus and frantically thinking about how to communicate to him that I want to go to the engineering building without yelling when I look across and there’s this cowboy looking at me.
“It’s a joke,” he says. “This bus only goes in a circle, like at Disney World.”
It’s patently obvious, of course. I’m apparently wound up a little tight.
Cowboy sees my embarrassment and offers me a drink from a pint flask of run he is carrying.
“No, thanks,” I say, “working.”
“So am I,” he says. “Got the swing shift today. But I thought I’d do some laundry first.”
I look at him and his duffel, the bottle.
“’S okay,” he says. “I’m not a surgeon or anything. Just a painter. And not doing any scaffold work today. Elevator doors, mostly.”
“Do you live in that lot near the engineering building?” I ask.
“Gear Town,” he says, “yes-indeedy-do.”
“I’m kinda new around campus. Do you mind showing me how to get over there?”
“No problem,” he says. “Nolan Reese,” and he holds out his hand.
He’s got a strong grip for somebody his size, which is maybe five-seven. But I know it is a painter thing, holding a brush or a roller for hours on end.
“Neal Slater.” I’ve got a meeting in engineering.
“You don’t look like a gear head. Not corporate,” he says.
“I’m a grant writer.”
“Whatever the hell that is” he finishes my sentence for me and takes another swig.
“Yeah,” I say, and look out the windows. I’m not all that self conscious about it, really. I’ve spent much of my adult life financing my education through manual labor. So I’m comfortable in the role of token “brain,” especially when I have just about the same amount of common sense as the smarter ones do. In those kinds of jobs people have ways of making sure that you know your place. This painter probably makes more than I do writing grants. And he doesn’t have to wear a suit.
But I’ve painted before and I know I’d never make it to his age, which looks to be mid-forties, without some sort of problem. Many of the painters I’d worked with ended up with neck surgery or cancer from all of the chemicals. Almost all of the ones I worked with became alcoholics or smokers or both. They swim in a chemical soup all day long and then after work find themselves going through withdrawals. The only way to keep the shakes at bay is to keep loading up on some sort of chemicals. They say the paints are more innocuous now, but the solvents and cleaners aren’t. And some places still use epoxy paints and oils, primers that are ammonia-based.
I see a dead cat out the window and it snaps me back to reality.
“Hey Nolan,” I say across the noise of the bus motor. “I was coming back to my house yesterday and I saw this pile-up on the 167, only it was a bunch of animals, like six of them.”
“They had big black eyes and pink noses, fluffy white fur and ratlike tails. But they were too big to be rats.”
“’Possums,” he says, nodding. Funny looking. I couldn’t believe it when I first saw one either.”
“But why would they bunch up like that? They weren’t a mother with babies or anything; they were all the same size, pretty much.”
“’Possums,” he says, can’t see good.
“So, what, they stick really close to each other so they don’t get lost?”
“Cannibals,” he says. “’Possums’ll eat each other. So they see the road kill, and then they go to eatin’ and wham. And then another happens by, and then he starts in, wham!”
“So they don’t get lost,” he chortles. “That’s good.”
I act like it was an attempt at a joke, rather than what it actually was, which was me using my powerful intellect to figure things out on the fly. He humors me until he suddenly starts getting out of his seat.
“Our stop,” he says.
The bus can go no closer to engineering than the Administration building, so we have to hike up the biggest hill on campus, in town actually, and then back down to Engineering.
I am carrying a silly-looking briefcase, one of those leather ones with the open top, and Nolan’s carrying his huge duffle bag, so we’re walking slowly. It’s warm already, and the buildings are unfamiliar to me on this side of the campus.
Nolan points out some of the sights, because he can tell that I’m trying to get oriented.
“That over there’s the elevator dig,” he says as we near the top of the hill. “And that,” pointing to a crane off to our right, “is the power plant. They’re finishing the extra turbine.”
“So where’s Engineering?” I ask.
“I’ll show you when we get over the rise. You can’t see it right now, but it’s off to the left and quite a bit forward, too.”
I see what he means as we get over the hill. But I’m puzzled, because if that’s the Engineering building, then the tunnel doesn’t go straight at all, it comes up the hill and takes what must be a twenty-degree turn.
“Wouldn’t it have been a shorter tunnel to dig if they went in a straight line,” I ask, “or does it go to part of the Engineering building that I just can’t see?”
“Idiots,” he offers as an explanation.
I find it hard to believe that they would do this accidentally. But I keep my opinion to myself. Partially, of course, I know that they have made some idiotic moves already with the construction project, so Nolan’s right. But to make a turn like that seems out of the realm of the type of mistake that is usually made in large construction projects. Then I remember the Big Dig and its ceiling panels and I wonder once again if Nolan might be closer to the truth after all. They decided to hang these concrete panels from the ceiling, after all. The Romans knew the value of concrete. They used it to hold things up, because it is really good for that. If they were thinking about suspending something in the air, of course, the Romans were smart enough to think of materials like silk or cotton. And many people have carried this lesson into present day construction methods, which is why you rarely see chandeliers made of concrete.
We walk up to the gate of the engineering complex together, an odd couple, to be sure. The guard has apparently seen it all, though. Nolan shows him his card and he waves him through. I have to get a temporary, because the permanent one won’t be ready for a week or so. So I have to fill out a little form and Nolan and I say our goodbyes there at the gate.
When I finally make it through to the building it is getting close to the time we agreed on to meet. Room 242 should be on the second floor, but this building has steps leading up to the first floor, so it turns out to have the numbers that start with 2. I have the choice of left or right at the entrance and no signs, once again. I choose left, which means a walk down a hundred meter-long hallway that goes up from room 200 to room 280, but without any rooms numbered in the 240s, 350s, or 260s. Then at the end of the hallway there is a sign noting that you can’t use the other wing of the building to get to its opposite wing. So I have to backtrack.
When I finally find the room she is standing up writing at a desk that is kind of high, like the desks that cartoonists or architects use. There’s no chair in sight, but there’s a cot in the room and a refrigerator. No computers in sight either, which I think is a little strange for an electrical engineer.
“Hello, Professor Wurzer?” I venture.
“Yeah, um. Lisa, Hi.
“Neal,” I say and walk towards her, but she doesn’t stick her hand out to me, so I stop and stand there. She is dressed in jeans and high-top sneakers, a red t-shirt with the name of some computer company on it. She puts down her pencil after a second and says “you wanna get some coffee?”
“That’d be great,” I say. She waves me out of the room and then locks it.
“There’s like a coffee thing over that way,” she gestures, so I follow her down the other long hall to the end. I’m expecting it to be closed to traffic like its counterpart on the other wing, but it is not. And looking down the hall towards that wing there doesn’t seem to have been any reason to close the door that I wanted to go through earlier.
She sees me looking down the hall gives me a puzzled look.
“I tried to go around when I found I was on the wrong wing and that door has a sign on the other side saying that you can’t pass through,” I explain.
“Did you try the door?”
“No, I guess with all the security I didn’t want to go anyplace that I shouldn’t,” I explain.
She makes a sound like steam escaping. “Security,” she says. “Makes everyone’s work harder. It’s like the whole notion of other countries getting the secret to building an atomic bomb.”
“Isn’t that a danger?”
“Not really. To be a real threat a country would have to reorient a major portion of its economy toward either buying or building a whole raft of technological devices that only the most industrialized countries can afford. And then there’s the question of how to deliver a nuke. There are so many things that terrorists could do so much easier, and with so much more devastating results.”
“Well, what about this accelerator?” I ask.
“Same deal, only more so. I don’t think many people even know what it is for. Most of the people who do are already working on the project. The others will help analyze the results. And we’ve certainly made it no secret that we’re building it here.”
“Why the tight security, then?” I ask.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” she says as we reach this coffee vendor in the corner of another adjoining building.
I buy coffee for both of us, because faculty seem to know that we get all of the resources we ask for in the Advancement Office. But I pay cash, because the Exec won’t sign off on buying coffee for a prof.
“So,” I say.
She waves over to a couple of chairs and a table that is set up for students and we walk over to sit down.
“So, your project,” I sort-of ask. She busies herself with her coffee, taking the stupid lid off it and blowing on it, as I watch her for some sort of indication of why I am her talking to her. She is in her mid thirties, probably, thin and of medium height, curly brown ringlets for hair and granny glasses hiding bags under her eyes. My first impression is that she works too much but might enjoy working too much.
She looks over her glasses and looks like she’s about to say something but doesn’t. Then she sets her coffee down and takes off her glasses and rubs her eyes.
“Not getting enough sleep these last couple of weeks,” she says.
I try to just look at her, without looking like I can tell, without looking like I can’t tell. I nod.
“I’m not sure I should even talk to you about it because it is a little weird,” she says. “It’s just that I keep having these dreams.”
“Dreams about your project?”
“Dreams about a project. I haven’t actually started it yet,” she says.
“But you want to. And you need money to buy . . .” I say.
“Look,” she says, “you can’t tell anyone about this, even if you can’t help me or if you decide you don’t want to help or whatever.”
“O.K., you mean it’s top secret or something like that?
“No, I mean that’s not the reason,” she says, “it’s because of the dreams.”
“Oh, well lots of people have inspiring dreams that lead to project ideas. What about that guy who finally figured out the molecular structure of benzene while he was dreaming, he saw it coming out of a fire or something,” I say, trying to reassure her.
“These dreams aren’t like that at all,” she says. “They’re really weird, and I need you to promise you won’t spread them around.
“Alright, these dreams are about listening to the dead.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This certainly wasn’t what I expected as the first project here. But again, it makes a certain amount of sense, given the way my week’s been going. Again, I’m trying to just look.
“Listening to the dead,” I repeat, a “momentumizer” that I have practiced at other, less creepy, grant writing jobs.
“It is clear to me when I have these dreams, though I don’t know why it is clear or how I know, it is clear to me that during the process of living we are making the brain more and more orderly in a conscious and incremental fashion. We experience things in our lives and we make sense out of these experiences by constructing an orderly, sequential, narrative out of them as we go along.”
She takes a big swig out of her coffee, although mine is still too hot to even sip. I nod slightly.
“And it doesn’t really make sense if our lives make any intrinsic sense, because we go on making sense out of them, even if it means forgetting things selectively, leaving them out, to accomplish that.”
Already as she is talking I’m not so sure that she is talking about being sure in the dream she has or if she’s saying that this stuff is true and she only realized it after having the dream. But I don’t want to interrupt her, because it’s actually pretty interesting, much more interesting than I thought this visit would be.
“So we create this order in our heads, which is mainly digitally stored in our heads. But the life out of which we create this stuff is not digital at all.”
Suddenly I’m not following her at all, so I get this quizzical look on my face, which she senses and she stops talking for a second.
“That’s important,” she says. “Our lives are not lived digitally, but our memories, which are the ordering of our lives in our heads over time, are. Digital,” she states, slowly and evenly. “Are you following along so far?”
“Yup,” I say, trying to sound casual, because there are some other people in the hallway now and I want to look as much as possible like I don’t think she’s insane. I mean this is my first meeting on campus. I can hardly twirl my finger around my ear and motion for somebody to dial 911.
“But after we die, these memories are destroyed, once again becoming disordered, a jumble, as the brain decays into its constituent atoms and dissipates, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” She looks down at her coffee and then up again at me as she says the next part. “And they unspool in reverse, not digitally, but like life itself, in analog.” She pauses again. For effect? I don’t know. “And I have built a device that can record this un-spooling of memory.”
“In the dream, you mean?” I ask, suddenly quite confused about the actual content of our conversation.
“No, I’ve already built it. It records peoples’ memories of their lives, as they decay, in the ground, or wherever. Then you can play it back and listen to it, even watch some of it through their eyes.”
My mouth is completely dry, so I sip the scalding hot coffee a little. I find myself liking the burning sensation. This woman is no longer looking at me like I’m going to go spreading this thing around campus, and I have no idea why she thinks that. I won’t, of course, but I don’t have any idea why not. She looks much more calm than when we sat down. Perhaps having said these things she feels like she has hit bottom. She has told somebody finally.
For me, I find that it is best to stick to the task at hand. That is a firm anchor in the real world. That’s what I’m looking for. “I don’t understand,” I finally am able to say. “If you’ve already built this thing to record this stuff. What do you need external funding for?”
“If you’ve followed me this far, this should be the easy part,” she says with a slight smile fluttering on her face briefly, a slight smile that makes me briefly, but only for an instant, consider that she is engaged in some sort of practical joke or hazing ritual.
“This technology that I’ve developed, which seemed, by the way, to come in a flash of extremely complicated insight directly from my dreams, is a technology for interpreting analog signals and separating them from other analog signals. These signals are already being recorded, any time you record something on a cassette tape within a few hundred feet of a decomposing corpse.”
I’m hoping that this doesn’t get too much grisly, because I am starting to visualize these things a little too well. “You mean if I go to a cemetery and talk into a tape recorder it records the life experiences of a corpse nearby?” I ask.
“No, you don’t have to talk into the recorder. But yes, essentially that’s right.” She looks at me and seems to realize that this is a lot for somebody to handle. I’m no engineer. And I’m not crazy either, so it is a little much to digest all at once. I start to think about how many tape recorders are within earshot of cemeteries or mortuaries or whatever and she can seem my face doing little dances as my brain tries to catch up, tries to put all this into some sort of coherent narrative.
“Look, there’s quite a bit more, I’m afraid, but I’m going to let that sink in for a minute and I could use another coffee,” she says. “You want a Danish or something?”
I nod my head and manage to squeak out “apple.”
As she nods and walks back to the counter I suddenly think of my music teacher back in seventh grade. This guy was a joker and tried to get our attention, particularly around the first few weeks of school by telling us jokes. They were usually music-related in some way. He must have had a book or something.
Anyway he told one once about these grave robbers who dug up Beethoven’s grave and found him in his casket, frantically going at a manuscript with an eraser.
“My God, what are you doing?” they asked.
“Decomposing,” he said to them. And I’m scared that if I actually giggle I will just lose it entirely. So I take another hit of coffee, which has now cooled off to the point where I can tell that it is exceptionally bad.
I am sipping this coffee slowly, swishing it around in my mouth so that I get as much of the bitter taste as possible. I am guessing that when they brewed this pot, some time back in the Nixon days, a small mammal of some kind crept into the filter. I imagine that I am tasting scorched rat hair, probably the whiskers lasted this long, and possibly some leg bones, along with whatever bitter rat oils the scalding water (or whatever liquid this has been based upon, I remind myself, perhaps a water substitute of some sort) rendered from the animal during the first couple of brews and which has been mixing, these long years, with whatever they keep adding to approximate the color of coffee. It is keeping my face straight. Whatever happens next, I am certainly a very cool and collected person.
I am amazed that nobody even seems to mind this sort of thing around here, the coffee, I mean. I gasped and made all sorts of noises the first couple of times I had coffee here in the Northeast, but the people I was with seemed to think that I was exaggerating. There are places here to get good coffee, but I won’t mention them by name. Suffice it to say that they are large chains that came in from the west. And they seem to sell far more sugary goop here. People here don’t seem to like the coffee unless it is iced or gooped up somehow. I think that this means that they don’t like coffee, and if this is the sort of thing they call coffee, that dislike is not only mutual, it is very easy to understand.
The Danishes are pretty good, though.
I am stunned a little, unable to think about much of anything at this point. I’m not really thinking about how I’m going to tell Lisa that she is crazy. And I’m not thinking about whether any of what she says has any basis in fact. I’m just thinking about the coffee, contemplating the brew. And my head is making this humming noise, I think. But I don’t think anyone else can hear it, and it’s not so loud as to be distracting. It is just humming. Not too weird, seeing as I had a pot of coffee before I left the house and another one (one I made myself) while I was in my office. This stuff might have had some caffeine in it, might have pushed me over my recommended daily allowance a little. Kinda nice, in a way, though, and it is helping me think about things other than the dead for a few minutes.
She gets back and hands me a Danish and I realize that I really should have paid, so I reach into my pocket and she waves me off. “I’ve got it. You’ve been through a lot already.” She smiles again.
“Thanks,” I manage.
“So the thing is, there are all these recordings around the world that capture the events, feelings, sights, etc., of peoples’ lives, because cassette and other types of magnetic recording devices have been around for about forty years or so in common use,” she says. But these things don’t last forever. So there is a certain urgency about making sure that all this stuff gets stored somewhere. And then there is the fact that people are switching to digital recording, too.”
“Digital doesn’t record this . . . stuff?” I ask.
“Not so far as I’m able to tell. I’ve only tested a few different kinds of devices. It seems like almost any sort of magnetic tape does it and either I haven’t figured out how to interpret the digital storage or there isn’t anything to figure out. Maybe they capture too much information, maybe too little, maybe none at all. I don’t really know yet. But as you can imagine, a project to figure all of this stuff out, to publish the information widely without jeopardizing my academic reputation, my job, seems to require some sort of external funding arrangements where profit is not the primary consideration.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I mean, the companies that still make magnetic tape and recorders . . .”
Would not necessarily want to be associated so strongly with the inflexible voices of the dead.”
“Well, that’s a point. What do you mean inflexible?”
“Well you can’t really talk to them. I mean they just send out these signals. They don’t seem to respond to any from elsewhere. And the signals simply document their lives in reverse. They don’t seem to talk about any sort of afterlife. They don’t come up with anything new, because it is their experiences, the ones they had during their lives. So anything really interesting is only so from the perspective of an antiquarian, a historian.”
I bristled a little at that, even though I no longer think of myself as a historian and never defended the profession itself. In fact I spent much of my time in graduate school actively attacking it. It must have flashed across my face anyway, because she asked me what was wrong.
“Well, you have to admit this whole thing is pretty weird and creepy,” I said as a diversion.
“Sure. But you have to admit that it is pretty compelling, too. I mean if you had a loved one recently die.”
I looked the obvious question at her.
“No, I haven’t. I’m really interested for a couple of completely unrelated reasons. First, I’ve cracked a complicated code. Interpreting analog signals is my area of specialization, and I’m really good at it. I’ve made a few novel discoveries. It would be pretty easy to publish some of the results. But I think there will be some questions, because the methods differ substantially from both common practice and the ways I usually work. People, and publishers, will want to know what sort of signals this method can help decode. I’m looking into that, to see if there are other applications, but haven’t found any yet. If I’m able to tell people How I figured this stuff out, it would be easier to understand, but creepy and weird.”
“What’s the other?”
“The dreams are really compelling. Really compelling, and I wake up from them thinking that I just have to do this, have to pursue this project. And yet I can’t really explain why. There doesn’t seem to be any rational basis for going on with it. None that I can remember, anyway.”
“So now we confront the fact that none of the major foundations would touch anything like this,” I say, brilliantly sticking to my job, with the coffee a co-anchor keeping me sane and level-headed.
“Sure. But is there a way to find out what those thousands of weird little family foundations are doing?”
“You mean find out somehow if any of them are interested in the occult?”
“This isn’t the occult. This is just math, science, and engineering.”
“In funding terms, though, in marketing terms, math and science look very different. You’re not teaching kids, you’re recording the lives of the dead. So this is the occult to them, or a weird form of oral history, or something worse.”
She gives me this look that’s tinged with a sort of satisfied smile. “So you’ll help,” she states.
“Well, I can look into it. My schedule’s not exactly packed yet. There’s this company that has an online database that lets you search for grants that have been made. If I do a text search with some very odd keywords we’ll see what we are dealing with, at least. Could you make a list for me?”
“I guess. You mean like ‘talking corpse,’ and stuff like that?”
“Yeah, the word ‘corpse,’ but probably a little softer in tone. Like ‘communicate,’ and ‘ancestor,’ stuff like that.”
“You’re pretty good at this.”
“I’ll take that as a really twisted compliment, but a compliment, nonetheless.”
She sits back in her chair, really relaxing for the first time, and stretches. “There’s one more thing,” she adds. “There are some new internet sites that allow people to upload tapes so that they can be heard anywhere just by clicking.”
“Yeah, and Youtube, although most of that seems to be digitally captured already. Anyway, this stuff is already online, so I’ve been doing some research and just so you know, it isn’t local.”
“It’s not just the dead of this city.”
“Oh, I was thinking that it was just all inside your head, not that it is just happening here in town.”
She smiles much more brightly than I’ve seen her smile yet. “So, you want some proof, then.”
Hard to know what to say to that. What I actually want at this point is proof that she’s crazy, so I won’t have to worry about this stuff anymore. But I nod anyway, reluctantly. And I’m thinking that if worse comes to worst I outweigh her by a pretty good margin and I’ve learned that I can take a hit. So I can probably escape and call for help. And she hasn’t had any of those clingy behaviors that are the mark of people who are crazy and also know, deep down inside, that the rest of the world knows they are crazy. I always watch out for the type of people who overcompensate by telling everyone how sane they are, and so far I’m the only one to bring the subject up.
“My lab is on the fourth floor,” she says, facing the cemetery.”
I’m not sure what would constitute ‘proof,’ but I get up anyway and grab my untouched Danish. And a couple of minutes of silence later we are in her lab, which is mostly banks of computers.
“Do you want to hear some from the internet, or do you want one I recorded here, or what?” she asks.
“One of the locals is fine. Are they talking right now?”
“There’s always one talking, I find. But to hear what’s going on right now I’d have to tape something and then send it though the processor, and then we could hear it. That takes about fifteen minutes now, even with everyone gone from the lab and all the nodes open, plus whatever time we allow for the actual recording. And then there’s the possibility, one-in-three, that they were sleeping. Do you want to wait, or hear one I already have?”
“The dead sleep?”
“No, well, yes, well, I mean that they might be recollecting, or ‘un-collecting,’ a time when they were, in life, sleeping.”
“Whatever you have on tap is fine,” I say, trying to be as accommodating as possible. I look around the lab and see the usual stuff. Students using the lab have left garbage in places and notebooks, so I guess they have stations they typically use that other people do not. It is apparently not one of those labs that just anyone can use. But the machines themselves look the same as anywhere else. Flat screen monitors and a box on the floor, swivel chairs.
She starts up one of the machines and goes through some logging-in motions and such. I go to the window and look over at the cemetery. I’ve got all of these questions coursing through my mind, but they’re not the types of questions that I actually want to know the answer to. With everything she tells me about this stuff I get more and more creeped out.
To some extent the whole northeast creeps me out to begin with. In Northern California, where I grew up there were a few rare building that were more than fifty years old. Almost everything up here, barring the University itself, is far older than that. I lived in a historic district in town where some of the buildings dated back to the Gold Rush, but those places didn’t feel old. Maybe it was because the whole historical thing was so campy there. So many ways to think of it all as the set for a John Wayne movie.
But maybe it’s more than that. I’ve been to Europe, where everything is old buildings built on the rubble of older buildings, and it doesn’t feel as weird as this. Is it the stories that I’ve read that take place here or were written here, the Stephen King, the H.P. Lovecraft, the Edgar Allen Poe, and all of those? I don’t know.
Just then I hear a woman’s voice talking from a computer behind me.
“Becca never seems to want to come home anymore. I made her that pie that she likes and still she hangs out with that Donna girl. Donna’s just a little tramp,” it says and then there’s this long pause. The voice is pretty easy to make out, pretty clear, but there is some background noise that makes it more difficult the longer you listen, as if the background noise is somehow more interesting, although you can’t really make any sense of it. And it wouldn’t take much to make it more interesting, because this woman just drones on and on, presumably about her daughter, although it is hard to be sure.
I look over at Lisa and she nods. “Boring, huh? Not what you expected?”
“Well, I guess. It’s like a blog, almost. Are they all like that?”
“MySpace meets six feet under. Pretty much.”
“For when your space is six feet under.”
“Yeah, so you see why funding this is not so easy. A lot of junk to wade through, mostly about things that everybody knows, mostly ill-informed opinions about stuff nobody cares about.”
“But you’ve listened to a lot of it.”
“Yeah, there’s something that just pulls you in.”
I nod. There is, but it’s not the person talking. I just notice that it is time for me to make my way back to my car so I can get home. “Look, I gotta go. What do I tell anyone who asks what we are looking for? I mean, what kind of project can I tell my boss I’m actually looking to fund for you?”
“Tell them it’s for a feasibility study of networked foundation databases. Tell him it has something to do with data mining.”
“Have a good one,” I say, my usual closing line. And I make my way back across campus just as it’s getting dark, thinking about thing at all, or at least trying to.