A swirling cloud of omniscience: oh, my!
Gilly was happy to see Stephanie go—happier still when she returned with his food and then left again. He was happiest when left alone. The silence was like a shroud that hovered over him. It weighed on his shoulders. All those marriages? Not worth it.
All those sons? He rarely saw them or their progeny or their progeny’s progeny. He missed his sons. He tried to raise them in his lab, but the efforts had proven futile. They weren’t interested. One lived off the grid, no technology to speak of. Another was in finance, that ambiguous career Oso’s sister Alex had been part of before she’d packed it all in and bought a little bookstore in Truth or Consequences, where she barely eked out a living and allowed the local crazies to give aura readings and such.
His third son had become a pastor. A pastor. He’d been born again, just as Oso had been. Yes, just as Oso had been, despite his thesis that women were inclined toward religiosity. Being born again was like an infectious disease. Once it touched one person he knew, it inevitably touched another.
Being born again involved speaking to a deity, of course. It was superstitious to believe in a voice in one’s own head. No, listening to a voice in one’s head was fine, as long as one understood the voice was one’s own. He had listened to his, hence his success as an engineer.
The shroud turned into darkness as the night wore on. After disposing of the evidence of his green chile cheeseburgers, two of them, no fries, no soda, he washed his hands three times to erase the smell of the food from his hands. Then he washed a fourth time and slathered an unscented lotion into his skin. Then he stood in the midst of his kitchen and felt the numbness spreading.
He’d been experiencing the numbness for a while now, though he didn’t trust the average doctor and wouldn’t visit one for such an ambiguous symptom, in any case. It seemed to be related to aging, the onset of death. One foot numb meant one foot in the grave. The darkness of the air swirled around him. One clouded eye meant one eye in the grave. Perhaps half his brain was there, too.
Why did you insist she leave? The question popped unbidden in his mind. She had to go, as she had a date with her grandfather and significant other. No, why did you insist she leave? His stomach, full of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, roiled around. What did the question mean? He’d long gotten over the dissolution of his last marriage, in which his wife had challenged him to spend more time with her and less with his books, and he had told her if she didn’t like the way he spent his life, then she should leave.
He’d never really missed her. In fact, having her gone meant not having to worry about lifting his head from his work and acknowledging another human’s existence. Life was better without her.
And then she had died. She’d known all along she had cervical cancer, had chosen not to treat it or tell him about it until it was too late. But he still hadn’t missed her. Sure, he mourned for her at the funeral. He almost cried, as he remembered she was the mother of his children, who had once been a frail slender blonde. Emotions made him uncomfortable, and so he checked his tears. Yes, they made him uncomfortable, but he still felt them deeply, in that correlation between IQ and feelings. She had never witnessed him crying. And why should he cry at her funeral for her family to witness? He’d been separated from her for months. Never officially divorced, except through death.
Gilly shuffled from his kitchen, feeling old and worn out. He’d never minded the thought of death—had, in fact, fantasized about being done with his body, of dematerializing, as if such was an option. He desired to become a cloud of ether, very much like what his one clouded eye saw swirling in the shadowy nature of his house. A swirling cloud of omniscience. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?
He had stacks of books and papers in every corner. Careful little stacks of knowledge and supposition. Where had he hidden the hideous female face? Perhaps his mind had wanted to know why he’d insisted the face leave his presence. He hadn’t disengaged her; he’d lied to his fake niece about that. It was impossible to disengage a head without a body. Of course, it was impossible that the face was actually alive, apart from his electrically stimulating her.
He found her in an empty terrarium in his lab. He had to lift three stacks of self-published books off it in order to get at her, as he’d returned from the expo and disposed of it all in and on top of the terrarium because it was a quick, available storage space. Disappointment had weighed heavily on his heart. Nobody cared any longer. Nobody cared about his books, his research, his life achievements. Technology was a sham of copycats and useless novelties. And so he’d stowed it all away, quickly, to be rid of it.
And then she’d begun visiting—Stephanie—and his loneliness, which he preferred, abated, and he forgot about Dr. Helen Freud.
He pulled the head delicately from the terrarium and rested her in the chair normally reserved for full bodies, as most chairs were—where he could easily attach the electrodes to the bald spots on her scalp. He did this gently, as it was a gentle process: the electrodes soaked in salt water, pressed to the scalp, and then tuned to a low constant current until the eyelids fluttered and the lips parted for cash.
Finally, with a sad ironic smile on his face, he pressed a counterfeit bill to her mouth. She sucked it up and opened her mouth for more. He dutifully gave her more.
“Hello, Soothsayer,” he said.
“You sound like you’re in need of therapy. How long has it been since our last visit?”
“What brings you here today?”
“I’m all washed up. My successes are meaningless. And I’m alone.”
“We need to tackle one problem at a time. By washed up, I presume you don’t mean you showered today.”
“I didn’t shower today. Thanks for asking. It dries my skin out.”
“We’ll tackle your hygiene issues at another time. What does the word meaningless mean to you?”
Sometimes, even Gilly was surprised by the face. Where had that profound question come from? “I mean that life itself is meaningless. We’re born, we procreate, we die. If we’re lucky, we’ll invent something that others will enjoy after we’re gone. I don’t believe in an afterlife, in other words.”
“What about rebirth? Do you believe in rebirth?”
This time, he jolted just a little. He’d just been thinking about his born again friends and family. “No.” His voice was a little sharp.
“What about sleeping and waking in cycles?”
“I sleep at least a few hours every day,” he said. “And then I wake up again.”
“I don’t mean that kind of sleep. I mean the kind I’ve been programmed to do. It’s part of my programming to fall asleep and wake up again. It’s a concept similar to rebirth.”
“Birth is a trip through a woman’s vagina. I’ve only found one way back in, and I haven’t used that entrance for a long time, my grotesque little sweetheart.”
Her eyes darted back and forth. She grimaced. “Does it give you pleasure to invade a woman’s body?”
“That’s my Helen. Back on track.”
“Have you ever considered that she is hijacking you, sucking you in, holding you captive, rather than the other way around?”
He shuddered. “Yes.”
“Do you know what it’s like to be viewed in that manner?”
“Do you understand the double standard that you have applied to women?”
If there was one activity anything feminine loved to do, it was to wear a man down. Gilly found a chair and drew it close to the Helen head. “I don’t apply a double standard,” he said, though his voice was tired and carried no convictions. “I’ve always appreciated a good slut. At least I did when I was younger.”
His mind circled back to its earlier question. Why did he insist she leave? Furthermore, why did he let her leave? His last wife, his last love—she never was much of a slut.
“Don’t use female pejoratives around me. That includes bitch, slut, whore…”
“Do you have any bad advice for me today?” he found himself asking, despite that his mind was revolving elsewhere. Half his mind was in the grave.
“Yes, stop objectifying women,” Helen retorted, and then added, “and ditch your ego. It’s preventing you from actualization.”
“Preventing me from…” Gilly couldn’t help it. He chuckled. He tried not to when having a session with the worst psychoanalyst known to man, but this time he couldn’t help it. He hadn’t heard the word self-actualization since he’d dated an exotically attractive new age slut fifty or so years ago.
“Your ego has prevented you from realizing your full potential. Your disdainful laughter aimed at me exemplifies your relationship with women.”
He couldn’t bring himself to tell her he’d created her to be disdained. He rose shakily to his feet. So much for alleviating loneliness. Oso never suffered from loneliness. Oso’s ego made him eternally happy and fulfilled. Why couldn’t the same be true for Gilly?
Maybe he should choose an early bedtime with a book—maybe record a session for his old-fashioned radio show, on the old-fashioned AM. Then he would have accomplished something, as accomplishment was what it was all about.
His ego had nothing to do with it. But for some reason, as he shut his house down systematically for the night and settled into his bed with a cognac nightcap, he continued to dwell on another man’s ego. To be honest, he couldn’t stop imagining Oso at his dinner date with a new woman—Oso would never allow himself to be a third wheel.
Oso was always making new friends, but at one time, Gilly had been the primary friend. Gilly couldn’t remember what had happened, exactly. He couldn’t quite pinpoint the moment when his world had diminished to a subject of one: himself.