It’s 3:30 a.m. in Dayton, Ohio, a grad student is wrapping up a thesis on mid-21st-century political writers, and I’m seventeen years old explaining to my father why I’m blackout drunk in what I think is an articulate fashion. The student watches this portion of my past, making sure the recorded facts match those in her paper. Meanwhile, I’m twenty-four, living with my third serious girlfriend. We‘re bickering over bills that didn’t seem so important till I lost my second job in a month, the scene on display for a teen in Canada who thinks watching this is the same as experiencing it. I don’t have the ability to tell him otherwise. I can only show him the memory. In London a group of girls is trolling through the times I fought with my kids, more on the kids’ side than mine I suspect, and I try to change the situation, straining with every independent thought I can muster to not throw a bottle of whiskey at my son.
Back into the sterile room with the nurses and doctors. The blank curves they call faces lean over me as they connect wires. The current surges through, and I feel myself dissolve.
I was told everyone experiences the reboot in their own way. I don’t know why shock treatment is mine. The doctors have no faces. Neither do the nurses. These blanks strap me to the table, jam a rubber bit into my mouth. I’ve given up trying to explain to them, “I don’t need this!”, though I can’t help resisting. It’s never pleasant.
I’ve never had shock therapy, have I? I might have had it left out of the profile, but then why am I seeing it now? Questions that make me wonder which of us was the better me.
My daughter is in the hospital, her femoral artery sliced wide open, a grin carved into her face, all by her own hand. The doctor says it doesn’t look good. My ex-wife is burning the tears out of her eyes staring at me. But this is all too depressing for a plane ride, so the Observer, probably muttering about calling up the wrong clip, clicks to the time I was nineteen and stole a keg from a party I felt ended too early. Even as my friends and I laugh, the keg carried between two of us, my thoughts are on the daughter I don‘t have yet but will and will have to watch die.
I’m shooting paint cans with a Desert Eagle, the clip amusing frat boys in Wisconsin. For some reason four different people in Chicago are watching me watch my wife be pregnant. I‘m seven for a twelve-year-old Observer in Kentucky. I always said I knew from that age what I wanted to do with my life, and he wants to see the realization, see how it syncs up with him. I want to tell my wife I‘m just scared, that it was a joke and I don‘t really want an abortion.
Shock therapy. Dissolve and coalesce into character. I have to remember: this isn’t my life. I’m just the man in the mirror. The real Me is dead seventy-five years now.
Sometimes people forget to log off, and the reels keep running. I relive whole years when no one is watching: age fifteen, age forty, months of unemployment, drunk and sober, the birth of my second son, the death of my ex-wife, and it all happens at once, the threads seeming to run together, though I can focus in on some at a time, wondering how this is my life.
I know all the points this life will go wrong, every consequence of action, and every time I try to change things I flash into the white room. The doctors burn away the independent thoughts. According to the tech that explained the process to me, “Once we’ve put together your profile, there is a chance that new thoughts, similar to your own, might develop. After all, this is almost a virtual you, an artificially intelligent reflection. However, any attempt to change the memory track is impossible, though the I.T. or, uh, independent thought, might remain. In which case a kind of cleanup program will run automatically.” Clean up programs to burn away anything contrary to what I am, was, could be.
I did this all for my kids, the ones who survived knowing me. I don’t know if they took the money, the royalties from subscription fees based on how many people Observe my profile. I left them everything when I realized I’d given them nothing.
“It’s a historical record of sorts. Call it a living memoir, if you will,” said Duncan Brass, the man who sold me this afterlife. He circled the globe peddling pseudo-immortality to billionaires and celebrities, anyone who could pay to feel like they’d spit Death in the eye. I don’t know how I died, but I knew it was coming, so I gave my memories to Duncan Brass.
My wife and I are getting married at the same time I’m living the start of our divorce. The place we owned on Belden is empty except for a few liquor bottles, a handful of guns, one battered laptop, my clothes, books, and a leather recliner. Our friends are all forming a circle in the middle of the dance floor. None of us can dance very well, but we all throw ourselves into the mix, taking turns being silly, feeling good. I can hear them laughing as I smash bottles in the empty house. The wedding is from a reel left running and the divorce is on for an Observer in Missouri. We relax into bed, for the first time wife and husband. I can’t tell her what I’m thinking, alone in the brownstone, though I want to say... The doctor leans in close. He has no odor. I don’t know what I expected a program to smell like, but it would nice if it was something. Anything. The lack of aroma reminds me he isn’t real, which is no comfort when he turns the dial, melting me away.
The phone won’t stop. Deadlines: every editor’s main concern. So I smash the phone with a hammer. There’s work to be done, and I can’t have these distractions. The magazine can have words when I give them words.
It’s been decades since a political campaign divided the country so absolutely. And lately, I don’t know if I care anymore. My idealism is dying the longer I stay on the campaign trail, but I write about “savage bastards” and “jackals in suits” and how “fear is permission to believe lies.” The country is practically a powder keg, and I’m ready to light the fuse. There are rumors about rampant drug use by one of the candidates (whom I despise). I may have instigated said rumors, but that doesn’t make them any less valid. We needed horrifying possibilities to rouse ourselves into action, shake off the apathy of the last several years. The zombie apocalypse had come and gone, and no one realized its passing. I worry every night no one would read these articles if they weren‘t so over the top, important facts getting lost in the oddities.
This Observer bores and switches to:
Screaming down the highway at ninety miles an hour, the California coastline whipping past in a blur. The acceleration is a bit slow for my tastes, but the bike handles well. I could hit ninety-five if I want; however, there are turns up ahead. It’s best to ease down, slow to seventy before throttling up to tighten into the turn. The wolf eyes are in my head.
The campaign ended a few months back. America made its decision, and now it’ll have to live with it. There are things I tried to express but couldn’t find the words to articulate my point. In a way, it feels like I’m part of the national failure. People try to tell me it’s just sour grapes; my team lost and I’m bitter because of it. But it’s more than that. I’ve seen the way both sides are similar, serpents in suits hissing in different tones but venomous to the same ends. There’s no hope for the future.
So it’s out to the road. One of the few places I can feel alone and in control yet... the mechanical beast between my legs roars for top speed. It wants to know its limits. The wind shrieks in my ears. Some might call it a cry for caution, others hear an incentive to push further. The Edge is fast approaching.
I feel a strange sort of calm as the past year is stripped away, peeled off skin stinking from the rot I’ve swum through, and all it took was ninety miles an hour to whip myself clean.
I missed my oldest son’s first word. My wife used to call every night, the first few weeks I was gone. By the end of the campaign, she phoned about once a month. At first it made sense given my schedule. Our hours drifted to different times. They called me “the vampire” out on the road, being awake all night and asleep most of the day. I always managed to get up for the politicos, their speeches the meat and potatoes of political journalists. But it was the late night hours, spent with campaign managers and volunteers, the everyday Joes at the tavern, all of us getting drunk and confessing to what we saw, what we knew, and perhaps more importantly what we thought we knew. The other journalists are aware of the same backdoor tactics, but they don’t know how to maintain after the eighth cocktail. A few sharp snorts of coke or a handful of speed, and I could be around to overhear blackout revelations about Senator So-and-So: “Yeah, but what’s he supposed to do, tell people he doesn’t know a thing about the economy? It would be pointless to run.”
By the end of the campaign I’ve printed too many secrets to have much of a future in political writing; I’ve shared what no one is supposed to tell. It‘s gotten hazardous to even be seen with me. My daughter is getting old enough to realize her father is never around, and I try to explain to her it’s only a year. She’s nine. There’s plenty of time for us to be together, I tell her. But it doesn’t matter. The cracks are starting. I tell her she should smile more.
I should turn the bike around and go home. This always felt like the turning point. If I head home now, I might talk my wife out of…
I try not to think of her name. It makes it easier to imagine her as an actress, not my wife. Or even as someone not even human. Is a memory a person? It’s best to just watch us argue. Try to enjoy it like the housewives from Toledo, New Jersey, London, St. Louis, Toronto, Seattle; teenagers in Baton Rouge, Columbus, Chicago, Minneapolis, Tampa, New York; the dramatist in Pierre, South Dakota looking for dialogue he can borrow; whole portions of a population sitting at home, comfortable, and stuffing their slack starring faces while my marriage crumbles because
“I have responsibilities. I have to work.”
“But why do you have to be gone so long?”
“Because that’s how long it takes. If it took less time, I’d be back sooner.”
“You went off to cover the Super Bowl and were gone for three weeks.”
“Something came up.”
“It made for a better story.”
“And who doesn’t like tits?”
“One paragraph! One paragraph about a stripper, and you’re through the ceiling.”
“It’s not the paragraph, it’s the detail.”
“I get paid for details.”
“You get paid for being America’s greatest weirdo.”
“Don’t complain if you live in the house weirdness bought.”
“But it’s all a myth.”
“Not all of it.”
“Come on. See. I knew it. You’re buying into your own hype.”
We loved each other once. I remember long nights in the summer, a cramped apartment we stayed cool in by being naked most of the time, drinking beer frozen to the point of ice chips floating inside. We had the kind of sex that keeps neighbors up grinning with vicarious satisfaction or snorting disdain out of envy. Funny thing is, more Observers tend to watch us fight than fuck.
The kids can hear us. By the time we got divorced, we had three. All our fights end the same. Annie locks herself in our bedroom with a bottle of whatever she grabs on her way to the stairs. I smoke some grass, suck down a fifth of whiskey, and crank the stereo to its highest volume, load a revolver, and put a few holes in the wall. The stereo drowns out the gunshots, but the cops’ll show up because of the music. Years from now, my oldest son will tell me he hallucinates, for lack of a better word, the smell of cordite when he has panic attacks. They all worry how I might one day use my guns.
I don’t want us to argue, digging ourselves deeper.
They don’t have features, but I swear, from time to time, having seen them as much and as often as I do, there are flickers of expression. Vague, subtle shifts in the curvature of their blank faces ripple for a moment when the doctors and nurses go about their tasks. Connecting the wires, the lower portion of one nurse’s ‘face’ seems to stretch, suggesting some type of grin. The doctor’s hands tremble as he reaches for the control knob. The tremors stop when he takes hold. His shoulders slump as if relieved when he cranks the dial, letting the current surge. Sometimes I wonder if the techs who brought this reality to life, knowing what they did about so-called independent thoughts, ever considered the cleanup programs might develop thoughts of their own. They enjoy their work, but I can't stop being me.