He didn't know if the woman was really listening or not; her moist eyes were fixed on his lips, as if to give the mere appearance of attention. But it didn't matter. It felt good to talk about it. And she was getting the gist: that he had been locked up against his will in a mental institution. To her, he was another victim of the former President's mental health laws—one of those people you saw telling their story on TV nowadays. Perhaps this made him seem glamorous. Maybe she wasn't listening, but she was showing him, with her moist eyes, that she felt sorry for him.
"Like a friend of mine said: I was building a mental nest. Everything went into it. Anything was material. Out of little coincidences, isolated oddities, and unrelated events I wove an elaborate tapestry of conspiracy."
He told her the story of his psychosis, pointing out the fallacies and errors, all the small but cumulative leaps to conclusions—just as Dr. Bindle had done for him.
"Some of it was ridiculous! The fact that my cat bit me, for example. Well, so what? He'd bitten me before. Or the way technology fucked out whenever I was around. You know, Mike's security system. The charge machine at the pub. Hell, the hand dryer at the pub. The automatic doors that would open for everyone but me. My car's tripometer. My PDR's voice recognition. The weird phone calls ..."
"Very strange," she agreed, missing the point.
"Not strange at all! It happens to everybody. Technology fucks out, that's what it does. But it took Dr. Bindle, someone I respected, someone I could trust, someone in a position of authority to remind me of that fact. I wasn't thinking clearly at the time."
"You were stressed."
"Yes, well. I was stressed," he admitted. "It's not every day your estranged daughter shows up on your doorstep, goes crazy, and kills herself."
"On the other hand," he added, taking a thoughtful swig of his whiskey sour, "my earbugs really were malfunctioning."
This was a year later. He had not returned to work. The monthly injections kept the voices and hallucinations in abeyance, but they also made thinking difficult. He felt as though his brain were submerged in a viscous fluid. He felt half awake.
So instead of hacking out articles on subway outages, civic expenditure, and Santa Claus parades, he spent his days wandering the streets, or playing chess in the park with some of the other, less fortunate (that is, homeless) ex-schizos, or snoozing in the public library, or vegetating at home on the couch (in his cotton-headed state, he had finally discovered the appeal of television). Or, like today, trying to pick up women in pubs.
The drugs curbed unhappiness, more or less. But not loneliness.
"Other coincidences were not coincidences at all. The fact that some of her words, phrases, and drawings corresponded to things in books about schizophrenia, for example. Well, she'd been diagnosed with schizotypal personality years before; she had plenty of time to do some research. Or the break-in. That was probably her. Or the ... message on the wall. Obviously she'd read the newspaper article about Nathan Shipley. There was always a rational explanation that I'd overlooked."
"You can't blame yourself."
"Not everything was so easy to explain, of course. For instance, I asked him one week: But how do you explain the fact, Doctor, that, out of the millions of books I could have plucked from the shelf, I was somehow led right to that one, the one by Persinger that explained all about the geopsyche?"
"A good question."
"It seems obvious now," he said. "In the state of mind that I was in, I would have kept looking till I found something that seemed to apply. Besides, it wasn't completely random. Mike had mentioned this guy's name. So I was primed to recognize it. Besides, I'd made a mistake. In Miranda's shorthand, it wasn't a short E, but a long one. It wasn't Pers knows how, but Pierce. Her boyfriend's name, or whatever he was. I'd made another leap there, you see—desperate to make the pieces fit together. And I would have kept on revising and re-seeing that message of hers until something did fit, until something reminded me of something else, until something led me to my next 'clue.' If it hadn't been that Persinger book, it would have been something else. Take those other books, the ones Mike gave me. They were old. Schreber's was published in 1905; the article on the influencing machine in 1932. Obviously, these people's minds were not being controlled by sophisticated electromagnetic rays. They were schizophrenic."
He caught the bartender's eye in the mirror and waved his hand above their glasses to request another round.
"Yes, 'Pierce knows how,'" he said. "Pierce knows what they're up to. Of course he does. Pierce was the one who probably told her most of what she came to believe. Thanks. Cheers."
"You know, it was a kind of contagion. He passed it to her, she passed it to me. There's been a lot of backlash lately, and I certainly think scrapping those laws is a good idea ... Of course I'm glad that I'm no longer forced to take these bloody injections ... But, you know, from my talks with Dr. Bindle and what I've learned since, I'm not sure the concept of mass schizophrenia is total nonsense. Let's face it: a lot of mental illness is without insight. So by definition, one of the symptoms of some diseases, schizophrenia among them, is that the victim is not going to realize, not going to accept that he's sick—which means a lot of mentally ill people walking around undiagnosed. In other words, a lot of latent schizophrenics in the population. Right?"
"Oh sure. Right."
"And so if you're one of these people, of course you're going to be drawn to ideas that harmonize with your own fears and mistaken perceptions. If you're paranoid, and start to think people are talking about you, and start to feel weird sensations in your body that you never felt before ... and then you go online, say, and read about this conspiracy that's afoot to destroy and discredit and drive insane all the independent thinkers in the country through electronic harassment, or you find that there's this whole community of people who complain that they're being gang-stalked, followed, insulted, whispered about ... Well, shitchrist! It's like a ray of light piercing the darkness. Thank God I'm not the only one. Thank fuck I'm not crazy. Thank God it's really real. You know?"
He ordered another round. Or had he already ordered another round? Time was getting slippery. It still happened sometimes. Alcohol did not mix well with the drugs. It made him even more muddled.
"Sure," she said.
But it had been thirty-two days since his last injection. The drugs should have been wearing off. He had not decided yet if he would go back for another shot. This time, for the first time, it would be voluntarily. Because the new laws had been repealed.
"It's like hypochondria," he said, "or hypochondriacal paranoia, I think Dr. Bindle called it. I guess before the internet, hypochondriacs were relatively rare. Relatively. Because, unless you had access to a good medical library or an obliging doctor, there wasn't much information to feed your imagination. But now that everything's online, accessible from every PDR, it's a real problem. A lot more of these hypochondriacs are dedicating all their waking hours to investigating every possible illness, researching every possible symptom. They get so obsessed that they lose their jobs, their friends, their spouses. Basically drop out of life."
"Well, it's the same for paranoid schizophrenics. Before the internet, they had to, you know, build their own nests. With locally available materials. It could take years to weave that tapestry. But now, shit. Now you've got all these ready-made fantasies, all these paranoid world-views, each one intricate and air-tight, and all for the taking. Pick the one that best matches your symptoms. It's nothing new, really: they used to separate certain paranoid patients because they didn't want one's horrible or violent delusions to infect the other's. They called it folie à deux, or trois, or if a whole family caught the bug folie à famille. So now today they call it mass schizophrenia, that's all. It's the same thing. Only these ideas, they're much more easily spread today. Like germs. They're airborne."
He'd lost her. She just nodded seriously, unblinking.
"Anyway," he said, tossing back the last of his last whiskey sour. "I'm not saying you should lock everybody up who happens to believe that the water supply is being spiked, or that the President's mind is being bombed with electromagnetic radiation. I don't know what should be done with these people, but I do know you can't just put them away. Before I met Dr. Bindle, the hospital made me worse. I'm sure of that. All I'm saying is maybe it's not so crazy to assume that somebody who's shouting this stuff in public, in a park, say, late at night ... I don't think it's necessarily doing them an injustice to conclude that possibly they are schizophrenic, and to try to get them help."
"No," she said. Her gaze had begun to drift to the television behind the bar.
"Anyway, I need to piss."
"Hurry back," she said.
What a lot of piss and shit comes out of your mouth, said the cancer.
He read the graffiti over the urinal. suck my cock. the future is growing on me. t'reason. iiium. gay zionism. suck my cock. It was the same all over. Which reminded him of another of Dr. Bindle's ideas. With so many people already thinking the same, behaving the same, feeling exactly the same feelings, why would the government or anyone else need to resort to controlling their minds electromagnetically?
Miranda had said once (when?) that her idea of hell was having to watch television for an eternity. So, in a world where everyone voluntarily chose her hell, no wonder she'd come to the conclusion that people were slaves, or robots, or ants, being manipulated and controlled by some shady organization.
But it was not Big Brother who had put those televisions in every waiting room, bus station, and bank in the country. It was not the government who had forced every man, woman, and child to have earbugs implanted, or to carry a PDR at all times.
The people had chosen those amenities for themselves. Their conformity was voluntary—an expression of their free will.
There were no more minds needing controlling.
The hand dryer wasn't working; he wiped his hands on his pants.
On his way back to the table, on his way back to join the woman with the moist eyes and tired face who felt sorry for him, he was overwhelmed with sadness.
He remembered a Christmas, eleven or twelve years ago. Sheila sulking in the kitchen over some inadvertent insult, or insufficient praise of her meal. He and Miranda amused, annoyed, guilty. Finally Miranda picked up her fork and began eating. Motioned for him to do likewise. Cleaning their plates. Then she stood up, empty plate in hand, and seriously, so solemnly, led him into the kitchen, to show her mother what they had done.
What was he doing here, in this squalid pub, with this awful woman?
What had he done with his life?
"Come on," he said, throwing cash onto the bar. "Let's get the fuck out of here."
It was a beautiful afternoon. The sun was still high overhead. A wide blue sky. And hanging there, like chalk lines drawn on a sidewalk by children, were fat white vapor trails.
On the corner, a schizoid was raving about the Illuminati, and Satan, and the President, and the New World Order, which was coming, he said, in 2065, for sixty-five was five times thirteen, and two plus six plus five was thirteen, and thirteen, as everyone knew, was the devil's favorite number.
"2065," Drew muttered. It reminded him of something. What?
Feeling guilty, Drew slipped the man a twenty.
"God bless you, my friend. Burr and I adhere. The two of us discharge ties."
"They got your message. They'll be in touch. Hold tight. And God bless."
"Poor old guy," said the woman, when they were out of earshot.
"Yes," said Drew vaguely.
Something was reminding him of something.
No. It was nothing.
Tomorrow. Yes. He decided.
Tomorrow he would go to the clinic, for his voluntary injection.