Maps in a mirror, p.16

Maps in a Mirror, page 16


Maps in a Mirror

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  “Just so you understand.”

  “I understand.”

  Alvin sat down at the keyboard. From the kitchen came a sound like the whine a cringing hound makes, back in its throat. It was Connie, and she was terrified. Her fear, whatever caused it, was contagious. Alvin shuddered and then ridiculed himself for letting this upset him. He was in control, and it was absurd to be afraid. He wouldn’t be snowed by his own son.

  “What do I do?”

  “Just type things in.”

  “What things?”

  “Whatever comes to mind.”

  “Words? Numbers? How do I know what to write if you don’t tell me?”

  “It doesn’t matter what you write. Just so you write whatever you feel like writing.”

  I don’t feel like writing anything. Alvin thought. I don’t feel like humoring this nonsense another moment. But he could not say so, not to Joe; he had to be the patient father, giving this absurdity a fair chance. He began to come up with numbers, with words. But after a few moments there was no randomness, no free association in his choice. It was not in Alvin’s nature to let chance guide his choices. Instead he began reciting on the keyboard the long strings of genetic-code information on his most recent bacterial subjects, fragments of names, fragments of numeric data, progressing in order through the DNA. He knew as he did it that he was cheating his son, that Joe wanted something of himself. But he told himself, What could be more a part of me than something I made?

  “Enough?” he asked Joe.

  Joe shrugged. “Do you think it is?”

  “I could have done five words and you would have been satisfied?”

  “If you think you’re through, you’re through,” Joe said quietly.

  “Oh, you’re very good at this,” Alvin said. “Even the hocus-pocus.”

  “You’re through then?”


  Joe started the program running. He leaned back and waited. He could sense his father’s impatience, and he found himself relishing the wait. The whirring and clicking of the disk drive. And then the cards began appearing on the screen. This is you. This covers you. This crosses you. This is above you, below you, before you, behind you. Your foundation and your house, your death and your name. Joe waited for what had come before, what had come so predictably, the stories that had flooded in upon him when he read for his mother and for himself a dozen times before. But the stories did not come. Because the cards were the same. Over and over again, the King of Swords.

  Joe looked at it and understood at once. Father had lied. Father had consciously controlled his input, had ordered it in some way that told the cards that they were being forced. The program had not failed. Father simply would not be read. The King of Swords, by himself, was power, as all the Kings were power. The King of Pentacles was the power of money, the power of the bribe. The King of Wands was the power of life, the power to make new. The King of Cups was the power of negation and obliteration, the power of murder and sleep. And the King of Swords was the power of words that others would believe. Swords could say, “I will kill you,” and be believed, and so be obeyed. Swords could say, “I love you,” and be believed, and so be adored. Swords could lie. And all his father had given him was lies. What Alvin didn’t know was that even the choice of lies told the truth.

  “Edmund,” said Joe. Edmund was the lying bastard in King Lear.

  “What?” asked Father.

  “We are only what nature makes us. And nothing more.”

  “You’re getting this from the cards?”

  Joe looked at his father, expressing nothing.

  “It’s all the same card,” said Alvin.

  “I know,” said Joe.

  “What’s this supposed to be?”

  “A waste of time,” said Joe. Then he got up and walked out of the room.

  Alvin sat there, looking at the little tarot cards laid out on the screen. As he watched, the display changed, each card in turn being surrounded by a thin line and then blown up large, nearly filling the screen. The King of Swords every time. With the point of his sword coming out of his mouth, and his hands clutching at his groin. Surely, Alvin thought, that was not what was drawn on the Waite deck.

  Connie stood near the kitchen doorway, leaning on the refrigerator. “And that’s all?” she asked.

  “Should there be more?” Alvin asked.

  “God,” she said.

  “What happened with you?”

  “Nothing,” she said, walking calmly out of the room. Alvin heard her rush up the stairs. And he wondered how things got out of control like this.

  Alvin could not make up his mind how to feel about his son’s project. It was silly, and Alvin wanted nothing to do with it, wished he’d never bought the cards for him. For days on end Alvin would stay at the laboratory until late at night and rush back again in the morning without so much as eating breakfast with his family. Then, exhausted from lack of sleep, he would get up late, come downstairs, and pretend for the whole day that nothing unusual was going on. On such days he discussed Joe’s readings with him, or his own genetic experiments; sometimes, when the artificial cheer had been maintained long enough to be believed, Alvin would even discuss Joe’s tarot program. It was at such times that Alvin offered to provide Joe with introductions, to get him better computers to work with, to advise him on the strategy of development and publication. Afterward Alvin always regretted having helped Joe, because what Joe was doing was a shameful waste of a brilliant mind. It also did not make Joe love him any more.

  Yet as time passed, Alvin realized that other people were taking Joe seriously. A group of psychologists administered batteries of tests to hundreds of subjects—who had also put random data into Joe’s program. When Joe interpreted the tarot readouts for these people, the correlation was statistically significant. Joe himself rejected those results, because the psychological tests were probably invalid measurements themselves. More important to him was the months of work in clinics, doing readings with people the doctors knew intimately. Even the most skeptical of the participating psychologists had to admit that Joe knew things about people that he could not possibly know. And most of the psychologists said openly that Joe not only confirmed much that they already knew but also provided brilliant new insights. “It’s like stepping into my patient’s mind,” one of them told Alvin.

  “My son is brilliant, Dr. Fryer, and I want him to succeed, but surely this mumbo jumbo can’t be more than luck.”

  Dr. Fryer only smiled and took a sip of wine. “Joe tells me that you have never submitted to the test yourself.”

  Alvin almost argued, but it was true. He never had submitted, even though he went through the motions. “I’ve seen it in action.” Alvin said.

  “Have you? Have you seen his results with someone you know well?”

  Alvin shook his head, then smiled. “I figured that since I didn’t believe in it, it wouldn’t work around me.”

  “It isn’t magic.”

  “It isn’t science, either,” said Alvin.

  “No, you’re right. Not science at all. But just because it isn’t science doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

  “Either it’s science or it isn’t.”

  “What a clear world you live in,” said Dr. Fryer. “All the lines neatly drawn. We’ve run double-blind tests on his program, Dr. Bevis. Without knowing it, he has analyzed data taken from the same patient on different days, under different circumstances: the patient has even been given different instructions in some of the samples so that it wasn’t random. And you know what happened?”

  Alvin knew but did not say so.

  “Not only did his program read substantially the same for all the different random inputs for the same patient, but the program also spotted the ringers. Easily. And then it turned out that the ringers were a consistent result for the woman who wrote the test we happened to use for the non-random input. Even when it shouldn’t have worked, it worked.”

impressive,” said Alvin, sounding as unimpressed as he could.

  “It is impressive.”

  “I don’t know about that,” said Alvin. “So the cards are consistent. How do we know that they mean anything, or that what they mean is true?”

  “Hasn’t it occurred to you that your son is why it’s true?”

  Alvin tapped his spoon on the tablecloth, providing a muffled rhythm.

  “Your son’s computer program objectifies random input. But only your son can read it. To me that says that it’s his mind that makes his method work, not his program. If we could figure out what’s going on inside your son’s head, Dr. Bevis, then his method would be science. Until then it’s an art. But whether it is art or science, he tells the truth.”

  “Forgive me for what might seem a slight to your profession,” said Alvin, “but how in God’s name do you know whether what he says is true?”

  Dr. Fryer smiled and cocked his head. “Because I can’t conceive of it being wrong. We can’t test his interpretations the way we tested his program. I’ve tried to find objective tests. For instance, whether his findings agree with my notes. But my notes mean nothing, because until your son reads my patients, I really don’t understand them. And after he reads them, I can’t conceive of any other view of them. Before you dismiss me as hopelessly subjective, remember please, Dr. Bevis, that I have every reason to fear and fight against your son’s work. It undoes everything that I have believed in. It undermines my own life’s work. And Joe is just like you. He doesn’t think psychology is a science, either. Forgive me for what might seem a slight to your son, but he is troubled and cold and difficult to work with. I don’t like him much. So why do I believe him?”

  “That’s your problem, isn’t it?”

  “On the contrary, Dr. Bevis. Everyone who’s seen what Joe does, believes it. Except for you. I think that most definitely makes it your problem.”

  Dr. Fryer was wrong. Not everyone believed Joe.

  “No,” said Connie.

  “No what?” asked Alvin. It was breakfast. Joe hadn’t come downstairs yet. Alvin and Connie hadn’t said a word since “Here’s the eggs” and “Thanks.”

  Connie was drawing paths with her fork through the yolk stains on her plate. “Don’t do another reading with Joe.”

  “I wasn’t planning on it.”

  “Dr. Fryer told you to believe it, didn’t he?” She put her fork down.

  “But I didn’t believe Dr. Fryer.”

  Connie got up from the table and began washing the dishes. Alvin watched her as she rattled the plates to make as much noise as possible. Nothing was normal anymore. Connie was angry as she washed the dishes. There was a dishwasher, but she was scrubbing everything by hand. Nothing was as it should be. Alvin tried to figure out why he felt such dread.

  “You will do a reading with Joe,” said Connie, “because you don’t believe Dr. Fryer. You always insist on verifying everything for yourself. If you believe, you must question your belief. If you doubt, you doubt your own disbelief. Am I not right?”

  “No.” Yes.

  “And I’m telling you this once to have faith in your doubt. There is no truth whatever in his God-damned tarot.”

  In all these years of marriage, Alvin could not remember Connie using such coarse language. But then she hadn’t said god-damn; she had said God-damned, with all the theological overtones.

  “I mean,” she went on, filling the silence. “I mean how can anyone take this seriously? The card he calls Strength—a woman closing a lion’s mouth, yes, fine, but then he makes up a God-damned story about it, how the lion wanted her baby and she fed it to him.” She looked at Alvin with fear. “It’s sick, isn’t it?”

  “He said that?”

  “And the Devil, forcing the lovers to stay together. He’s supposed to be the firstborn child, chaining Adam and Eve together. That’s why Iocaste and Laios tried to kill Oedipus. Because they hated each other, and the baby would force them to stay together. But then they stayed together anyway because of shame at what they had done to an innocent child. And then they told everyone that asinine lie about the oracle and her prophecy.”

  “He’s read too many books.”

  Connie trembled. “If he does a reading of you, I’m afraid of what will happen.”

  “If he feeds me crap like that, Connie, I’ll just bite my lip. No fights, I promise.”

  She touched his chest. Not his shirt, his chest. It felt as if her finger burned right through the cloth. “I’m not worried that you’ll fight,” she said. “I’m afraid that you’ll believe him.”

  “Why would I believe him?”

  “We don’t live in the Tower, Alvin!”

  “Of course we don’t.”

  “I’m not Iocaste, Alvin!”

  “Of course you aren’t.”

  “Don’t believe him. Don’t believe anything he says.”

  “Connie, don’t get so upset.” Again: “Why would I believe him?”

  She shook her head and walked out of the room. The water was still running in the sink. She hadn’t said a word. But her answer rang in the room as if she had spoken: “Because it’s true.”

  Alvin tried to sort it out for hours. Oedipus and Iocaste. Adam, Eve, and the Devil. The mother feeding her baby to the lion. As Dr. Fryer had said, it isn’t the cards, it isn’t the program, it’s Joe. Joe and the stories in his head. Is there a story in the world that Joe hasn’t read? All the tales that man has told himself, all the visions of the world, and Joe knew them. Knew and believed them. Joe the repository of all the world’s lies, and now he was telling the lies back, and they believed him, every one of them believed him.

  No matter how hard Alvin tried to treat this nonsense with the contempt it deserved, one thing kept coming back to him. Joe’s program had known that Alvin was lying, that Alvin was playing games, not telling the truth. Joe’s program was valid at least that far. If his method can pass that negative test, how can I call myself a scientist if I disbelieve it before I’ve given it the positive test as well?

  That night while Joe was watching M*A*S*H reruns, Alvin came into the family room to talk to him. It always startled Alvin to see his son watching normal television shows, especially old ones from Alvin’s own youth. The same boy who had read Ulysses and made sense of it without reading a single commentary, and he was laughing out loud at the television.

  It was only after he had sat beside his son and watched for a while that Alvin realized that Joe was not laughing at the places where the laugh track did. He was not laughing at the jokes. He was laughing at Hawkeye himself.

  “What was so funny?” asked Alvin.

  “Hawkeye,” said Joe.

  “He was being serious.”

  “I know,” said Joe. “But he’s so sure he’s right, and everybody believes him. Don’t you think that’s funny?”

  As a matter of fact, no, I don’t. “I want to give it another try, Joe,” said Alvin.

  Even though it was an abrupt change of subject, Joe understood at once, as if he had long been waiting for his father to speak. They got into the car, and Alvin drove them to the university. The computer people immediately made one of the full-color terminals available. This time Alvin allowed himself to be truly random, not thinking at all about what he was choosing, avoiding any meaning as he typed. When he was sick of typing, he looked at Joe for permission to be through. Joe shrugged. Alvin entered one more set of letters and then said, “Done.”

  Alvin entered a single command that told the computer to start analyzing the input, and father and son sat together to watch the story unfold.

  After a seemingly eternal wait, in which neither of them said a word, a picture of a card appeared on the screen.

  “This is you,” said Joe. It was the King of Swords.

  “What does it mean?” asked Alvin.

  “Very little by itself.”

  “Why is the sword coming out of his mouth?”

  “Because he kills by t
he words of his mouth.”

  Father nodded. “And why is he holding his crotch?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “I thought you knew,” said Father.

  “I don’t know until I see the other cards.” Joe pressed the return key, and a new card almost completely covered the old one. A thin blue line appeared around it, and then it was blown up to fill the screen. It was Judgment, an angel blowing a trumpet, awakening the dead, who were gray with corruption, standing in their graves. “This covers you,” said Joe.

  “What does it mean?”

  “It’s how you spend your life. Judging the dead.”

  “Like God? You’re saying I think I’m God?”

  “It’s what you do, Father,” said Joe. “You judge everything. You’re a scientist. I can’t help what the cards say.”

  “I study life.”

  “You break life down into its pieces. Then you make your judgment. Only when it’s all in fragments like the flesh of the dead.”

  Alvin tried to hear anger or bitterness in Joe’s voice, but Joe was calm, matter-of-fact, for all the world like a doctor with a good bedside manner. Or like a historian telling the simple truth.

  Joe pressed the key, and on the small display another card appeared, again on top of the first two, but horizontally. “This crosses you,” said Joe. And the card was outlined in blue, and zoomed close. It was the Devil.

  “What does it mean, crossing me?”

  “Your enemy, your obstacle. The son of Laios and Iocaste.”

  Alvin remembered that Connie had mentioned Iocaste. “How similar is this to what you told Connie?” he asked.

  Joe looked at him impassively. “How can I know after only three cards?”

  Alvin waved him to go on.

  A card above. “This crowns you.” The Two of Wands, a man holding the world in his hands, staring off into the distance, with two small saplings growing out of the stone parapet beside him. “The crown is what you think you are, the story you tell yourself about yourself. Lifegiver, the God of Genesis, the Prince whose kiss awakens Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.”

  A card below. “This is beneath you, what you most fear to become.” A man lying on the ground, ten swords piercing him in a row. He did not bleed.

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