Excerpt

“Nirvana”

Adam Johnson

December 14, 2015 
The following is a story from Adam Johnson’s National Book Award winning collection Fortune Smiles. Johnson is the author of The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, Emporium, and Parasites Like Us . Johnson’s awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Stegner Fellowship.

It’s late, and I can’t sleep. I raise a window for some spring Palo Alto air, but it doesn’t help. In bed, eyes open, I hear whispers, which makes me think of the president, because we often talk in whispers. I know the whispering sound is really just my wife, Charlotte, who listens to Nirvana on her headphones all night and tends to sleep-mumble the lyrics. Charlotte has her own bed, a mechanical one.

My sleep problem is this: when I close my eyes, I keep visualizing my wife killing herself. More like the ways she might try to kill herself, since she’s paralyzed from the shoulders down. The paralysis is quite temporary, though good luck trying to convince Charlotte of that. She slept on her side today, to fight the bedsores, and there was something about the way she stared at the safety rail at the edge of the mattress. The bed is voice-activated, so if she could somehow get her head between the bars of the safety rail, “incline” is all she’d have to say. As the bed powered up, she’d be choked in seconds. And then there’s the way she stares at the looping cable that descends from the Hoyer Lift, which swings her in and out of bed.

But my wife doesn’t need an exotic exit strategy, not when she’s exacted a promise from me to help her do it when the time comes.

I rise and go to her, but she’s not listening to Nirvana yet— she tends to save it for when she needs it most, after midnight, when her nerves really start to crackle.

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“I thought I heard a noise,” I tell her. “Kind of a whisper.” Short, choppy hair frames her drawn face, skin faint as refrigerator light.

“I heard it, too,” she says.

In the silver dish by her voice remote is a half-smoked joint. I light it for her and hold it to her lips.

“How’s the weather in there?” I ask.

“Windy,” she says through the smoke.

Windy is better than hail or lightning or, God forbid, flooding, which is the sensation she felt when her lungs were just starting to work again. But there are different kinds of wind.

I ask, “Windy like a whistle through window screens, or windy like the rattle of storm shutters?”

“A strong breeze, hissy and buffeting, like a microphone in the wind.”

She smokes again. Charlotte hates being stoned, but she says it quiets the inside of her. She has Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition in which her immune system attacks the insulation around her nerves so that when the brain sends signals to the body, the electrical impulses ground out before they can be received. A billion nerves inside her send signals that go everywhere, nowhere. This is the ninth month, a month that is at the edge of the medical literature. It’s a place where the doctors no longer feel qualified to tell us whether Charlotte’s nerves will begin to regenerate or she will be stuck like this forever.

She exhales, coughing. Her right arm twitches, which means her brain has attempted to tell her arm to rise and cover the mouth. She tokes again, and through the smoke she says, “I’m worried.”

“What about?”

“You.”

“You’re worried about me?”

“I want you to stop talking to the president. It’s time to accept reality.”

I try to be lighthearted. “But he’s the one who talks to me.”

“Then stop listening. He’s gone. When your time comes, you’re supposed to fall silent.”

Reluctantly, I nod. But she doesn’t understand. Stuck in this bed, having sworn off TV, she’s probably the only person in America who didn’t see the assassination. If she’d beheld the look in the president’s eyes when his life was taken, she’d understand why I talk to him late at night. If she could leave this room and feel the nation trying to grieve, she’d know why I reanimated the commander in chief and brought him back to life.

“Concerning my conversations with the president,” I say, “I just want to point out that you spend a third of your life listening to Nirvana, whose songs are by a guy who blew his brains out.”

Charlotte tilts her head and looks at me like I’m a stranger. “Kurt Cobain took the pain of his life and made it into something that mattered. What did the president leave behind? Uncertainties, emptiness, a thousand rocks to overturn.”

She talks like that when she’s high. I tap out the joint and lift her headphones.

“Ready for your Nirvana?” I ask.

She looks toward the window. “That sound, I hear it again,” she says.

At the window, I peer out into the darkness. It’s a normal Palo Alto night—the hiss of sprinklers, blue recycling bins, a raccoon digging in the community garden. Then I notice it, right before my eyes, a small black drone, hovering. Its tiny servos swivel to regard me. Real quick, I snatch the drone out of the air and pull it inside. I close the window and curtains, then study the thing: its shell is made of black foil stretched over tiny struts, like the bones of a bat’s wing. Behind a propeller of clear cellophane, a tiny infrared engine throbs with warmth.

“Now will you listen to me?” Charlotte asks. “Now will you stop this president business?”

“It’s too late for that,” I tell her, and release the drone. As if blind, it bumbles around the room. Is it autonomous? Has someone been operating it, someone watching our house? I lift it from its column of air and flip off its power switch.

Charlotte looks toward her voice remote. “Play music, “she tells it.

Closing her eyes, she waits for me to place the headphones on her ears, where she will hear Kurt Cobain come to life once more.

* * * *

I wake later in the night. The drone has somehow turned it­self on and is hovering above my body, mapping me with a beam of soft red light. I toss a sweater over it, dropping it to the floor. After making sure Charlotte is asleep, I pull out my iProjector. I turn it on, and the president appears in three di­mensions, his torso life-size in an amber glow.

He greets me with a smile. “It’s good to be back in Palo Alto,” he says.

My algorithm has accessed the iProjector’s GPS chip and searched the president’s database for location references. This one came from a commencement address he gave at Stanford back when he was a senator.

“Mr. President,” I say. “I’m sorry to bother you again, but I have more questions.”

He looks into the distance, contemplative. “Shoot,” he says. I move into his line of sight but can’t get him to look me in the eye. That’s one of the design problems I ran across.

“Did I make a mistake in creating you, in releasing you into the world?” I ask. “My wife says that you’re keeping peo­ple from mourning, that this you keeps us from accepting the fact that the real you is gone.”

The president rubs the stubble on his chin. He looks down and away.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he says.

Which is eerie, because that’s a line he spoke on 60 Min­utes, a moment when he expressed regret for legalizing drones for civilian use.

“Do you know that I’m the one who made you?” I ask.

“We are all born free,” he says. “And no person may traffic in another.”

“But you weren’t born,” I tell him. “I wrote an algorithm based on the Linux operating kernel. You’re an open-source search engine married to a dialog bot and a video compiler. The program scrubs the Web and archives a person’s images and videos and data—everything you say, you’ve said before.”

For the first time, the president falls silent.

I ask, “Do you know that you’re gone . . . that you’ve died?”

The president doesn’t hesitate. “The end of life is another kind of freedom,” he says.

The assassination flashes in my eyes. I’ve seen the video so many times—the motorcade slowly crawls along while the president, on foot, parades past the barricaded crowds. Some­one in the throng catches the president’s eye. The president turns, lifts a hand in greeting. Then a bullet strikes him in the abdomen. The impact bends him forward, his eyes lift to con­front the shooter. A look of recognition settles into the presi­dent’s gaze—of a particular person, of some kind of truth, of something he has foreseen? He takes the second shot in the face. You can see the switch go off—his limbs give and he’s down. They put him on a machine for a few days, but the end had already come.

I glance at Charlotte, asleep. “Mr. President,” I whisper, “did you and the first lady ever talk about the future, about worst-case scenarios?”

I wonder if the first lady was the one to turn off the ma­chine.

The president smiles. “The first lady and I have a wonder­ful relationship. We share everything.”

“But were there instructions? Did you two make a plan?”

His voice lowers, becomes sonorous. “Are you asking about bonds of matrimony?”

“I suppose so,” I say.

“In this regard,” he says, “our only duty is to be of service in any way we can.”

My mind ponders the ways in which I might have to be of service to Charlotte.

The president then looks into the distance, as if a flag is waving there.

“I’m the president of the United States,” he says, “and I approved this message.”

That’s when I know our conversation is over. When I reach to turn off the iProjector, the president looks me squarely in the eye, a coincidence of perspective, I guess. We regard each other, his eyes deep and melancholy, and my finger hesitates at the switch.

“Seek your inner resolve,” he tells me.

* * * *

Can you tell a story that doesn’t begin, it’s just suddenly hap­pening? The woman you love gets the flu. Her fingers tingle, her legs go rubbery. Soon she can’t grip a coffee cup. What finally gets her to the hospital is the need to pee. She’s dying to pee, but the paralysis has begun: the bladder can no longer hear the brain. After an ER doc inserts a Foley catheter, you learn new words—axon, areflexia, ascending peripheral polyneuropa­thy.

Charlotte says she’s filled with “noise.” Inside her is a “storm.”

The doctor has a big needle. He tells Charlotte to get on the gurney. Charlotte is scared to get on the gurney. She’s scared she won’t ever get up again. “Please, honey,” you say. “Get on the gurney.” Soon you behold the glycerin glow of your wife’s spinal fluid. And she’s right. She doesn’t get up again.

* * * *

Next comes plasmapheresis, then high-dose immunoglob­ulin therapy.

The doctors mention, casually, the word ventilator.

Charlotte’s mother arrives. She brings her cello. She’s an expert on the siege of Leningrad. She has written a book on the topic. When Charlotte’s coma is induced, her mother fills the neuro ward with the saddest sounds ever conceived. For days, there is nothing but the swish of vent baffles, the trill of vital monitors, and Shostakovich, Shostakovich, Shostakovich.

Two months of physical therapy in Santa Clara. Here are dunk tanks, sonar stimulators, exoskeletal treadmills. Char­lotte becomes the person in the room who makes the victims of other afflictions feel better about their fate. She does not make progress, she’s not a “soldier” or a “champ” or a “trouper.”

Charlotte convinces herself that I will leave her for one of the nurses in the rehab ward. She screams at me to get a va­sectomy so this nurse and I will suffer a barren future. To soothe her, I read aloud Joseph Heller’s memoir about con­tracting Guillain-Barré syndrome. The book was supposed to make us feel better. Instead, it chronicles how great Heller’s friends are, how high Heller’s spirits are, how Heller leaves his wife to marry the beautiful nurse who tends to him. And for Charlotte, the book’s ending is particularly painful: Joseph Heller gets better.

We tumble into a well of despair that’s narrow and deep, a place that seals us off. Everything is in the well with us—careers, goals, travel, children—so close that we can drown them to save ourselves.

Finally, discharge. Yet home is unexpectedly surreal. Amid familiar surroundings, the impossibility of normal life is am­plified. But the cat is happy, so happy to have Charlotte home that it spends an entire night curled on Charlotte’s throat, on her tracheal incision. Goodbye, cat! While I’m in the garage, Charlotte watches a spider slowly descend from the ceiling on a single thread. She tries to blow it away. She blows and blows, but the spider disappears into her hair.

Still to be described are tests, tantrums and treatments. To come are the discoveries of Kurt Cobain and marijuana. Of these times, there is only one moment I must relate. It was a normal night. I was beside Charlotte in the mechanical bed, holding up her magazine.

She said, “You don’t know how bad I want to get out of this bed.”

Her voice was quiet, uninflected. She’d said similar things a thousand times.

“I’d do anything to escape,” she said.

I flipped the page and laughed at a picture whose caption read, “Stars are just like us!”

“But I could never do that to you,” she said.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

“What are you talking about, what’s going through your head?”

I turned to look at her. She was inches away.

“Except for how it would hurt you,” she said, “I would get away.”

“Get away where?”

“From here.”

Neither of us had spoken of the promise since the night it was exacted. I’d tried to pretend the promise didn’t exist, but it existed.

“Face it, you’re stuck with me,” I said, forcing a smile. “We’re destined, we’re fated to be together. And soon you’ll be better, things will be normal again.”

“My entire life is this pillow.”

“That’s not true. You’ve got your friends and family. And you’ve got technology. The whole world is at your fingertips.”

By friends, I meant her nurses and physical therapists. By family, I meant her distant and brooding mother. It didn’t matter: Charlotte was too disengaged to even point out her nonfunctional fingers and their nonfeeling tips.

She rolled her head to the side and stared at the safety rail.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I would never do that to you.”

* * * *

In the morning, before the nurses arrive, I open the curtains and study the drone in the early light. Most of the stealth and propulsion parts are off the shelf, but the processors are new to me, half hidden by a Kevlar shield. To get the drone to talk, to get some forensics on who sent it my way, I’ll have to get my hands on the hash reader from work.

When Charlotte wakes, I prop her head and massage her legs. It’s our morning routine.

“Let’s generate those Schwann cells,” I tell her toes. “It’s time for Charlotte’s body to start producing some myelin membranes.”

“Look who’s Mr. Brightside,” she says. “You must have been talking to the president. Isn’t that why you talk to him, to get all inspired? To see the silver lining?”

I rub her Achilles tendon. Last week Charlotte failed a big test, the DTRE, which measures deep tendon response and signals the beginning of recovery. “Don’t worry,” the doctor told us. “I know of another patient who also took nine months to respond, and he managed a full recovery.” I asked if we could contact this patient, to know what he went through, to help us see what’s ahead. The doctor informed us this patient was attended to in France, in the year 1918.

After the doctor left, I went into the garage and started making the president. A psychologist would probably say the reason I created him had to do with the promise I made Charlotte and the fact that the president also had a relation­ship with the person who took his life. But it’s simpler than that: I just needed to save somebody, and with the president, it didn’t matter that it was too late.

I tap Charlotte’s patella, but there’s no response. “Any pain?”

“So what did the president say?”

“Which president?”

“The dead one,” she says.

I articulate the plantar fascia. “How about this?”

“Feels like a spray of cool diamonds,” she says. “Come on, I know you talked to him.”

It’s going to be one of her bad days, I can tell.

“Let me guess,” Charlotte says. “The president told you to move to the South Pacific to take up painting. That’s uplift­ing, isn’t it?”

I don’t say anything.

“You’d take me with you, right? I could be your assistant. I’d hold your palette in my teeth. If you need a model, I spe­cialize in reclining nudes.”

“If you must know,” I tell her, “the president told me to locate my inner resolve.”

Inner resolve,” she says. “I could use some help tracking down mine.”

“You have more resolve than anyone I know.”

“Jesus, you’re sunny. Don’t you know what’s going on? Don’t you see that I’m about to spend the rest of my life like this?”

“Pace yourself, darling. The day’s only a couple minutes old.”

“I know,” she says. “I’m supposed to have reached a stage of enlightened acceptance or something. You think I like it that the only person I have to get mad at is you? I know it’s not right—you’re the one thing I love in this world.”

“You love Kurt Cobain.”

“He’s dead.”

We hear Hector, the morning nurse, pull up outside—he drives an old car with a combustion engine.

“I have to grab something from work,” I tell her. “But I’ll be back.”

“Promise me something,” she says.

“No.”

“Come on. If you do, I’ll release you from the other prom­ise.”

I shake my head. She doesn’t mean it—she’ll never re­lease me.

She says, “Just agree to talk straight with me. You don’t have to be fake and optimistic. It doesn’t help.”

“I am optimistic.”

“You shouldn’t be,” she says. “Pretending, that’s what killed Kurt Cobain.”

I think it was the shotgun he pointed at his head, but I don’t say that.

I know only one line from Nirvana. I karaoke it to Char­lotte:

“With the lights on,” I sing, “she’s less dangerous.”

She rolls her eyes. “You got it wrong,” she says. But she smiles.

I try to encourage this. “What, I don’t get points for try­ing?”

“You don’t hear that?” Charlotte asks.

“Hear what?”

“That’s the sound of me clapping.”

“I give up,” I say, and make for the door.

“Bed, incline,” Charlotte tells her remote. Her torso slowly rises. It’s time to start her day.

* * * *

I take the 101 Freeway south toward Mountain View, where I write code at a company called Reputation Curator. Basically, the company threatens Yelpers and Facebookers to retract negative comments about dodgy lawyers and incompetent dentists. The work is labor-intensive, so I was hired to write a program that would sweep the Web to construct client pro­files. Creating the president was only a step away.

In the vehicle next to me is a woman with her iProjector on the passenger seat; she’s having an animated discussion with the president as she drives. At the next overpass, I see an older man in a tan jacket, looking down at the traffic. Stand­ing next to him is the president. They’re not speaking, just standing together, silently watching the cars go by.

A black car, driverless, begins pacing me in the next lane.

When I speed up, it speeds up. Through its smoked windows, I can see it has no cargo—there’s nothing inside but a battery array big enough to ensure no car could outrun it. Even though I like driving, even though it relaxes me, I shift to au­tomatic and dart into the Google lane, where I let go of the wheel and sign on to the Web for the first time since I released the president a week ago. I log in and discover that fourteen million people have downloaded the president. I also have seven hundred new messages. The first is from the dude who started Facebook, and it is not spam—he wants to buy me a burrito and talk about the future. I skip to the latest message, which is from Charlotte: “I don’t mean to be mean. I lost my feeling, remember? I’ll get it back. I’m trying, really, I am.”

I see the president again, on the lawn of a Korean church. The minister has placed an iProjector on a chair, and the president appears to be engaging a Bible that’s been propped before him on a stand. I understand that he is a ghost who will haunt us until our nation comes to grips with what has happened: that he is gone, that he has been stolen from us, that it is irreversible. And I’m not an idiot. I know what’s re­ally being stolen from me, slowly and irrevocably, before my eyes. I know that late at night I should be going to Charlotte instead of the president.

But when I’m with Charlotte, there’s a membrane my mind places between us to protect me from the tremor in her voice, from the pulse in her desiccated wrists. It’s when I’m away that it comes crashing in—how scared she is, how cruel life must seem to her. Driving now, I think about how she has started turning toward the wall even before the last song on the Nirvana album is over, that soon even headphones and marijuana will cease to work. My off-ramp up ahead is blurry, and I realize there are tears in my eyes. I drive right past my exit. I just let the Google lane carry me away.

* * * *

When I arrive home, my boss, Sanjay, is waiting for me. I’d messaged him to have an intern deliver the hash reader, but here is the man himself, item in hand. Theoretically, hash readers are impossible. Theoretically, you shouldn’t be able to crack full-field, hundred-key encryption. But some guy in India did it, some guy Sanjay knows. Sanjay is sensitive about being from India, and he thinks it’s a cliché that a guy with his name runs a start-up in Palo Alto. So he goes by SJ and dresses all D-School. He’s got a Stanford MBA, but he basically just stole the business model of a company called Reputation De­fender. You can’t blame the guy—he’s one of those types with the hopes and dreams of an entire village riding on him.

SJ follows me into the garage, where I dock the drone and use some slave code to parse its drive. He hands me the hash reader, hand-soldered in Bangalore from an old mother­board. We marvel at it, the most sophisticated piece of cryp­tography on earth, here in our unworthy hands. But if you want to “curate” the reputations of Silicon Valley, you better be ready to crack some passwords.

He’s quiet while I initialize the drone and run a diagnostic.

“Long time no see,” he finally says.

“I needed some time,” I tell him.

“Understood,” SJ says. “We’ve missed you, is all I’m say­ing. You bring the president back to life, send fifteen million people to our website and then we don’t see you for a week.”

The drone knows something is suspicious—it powers off. I force a reboot.

“Got yourself a drone there?” SJ asks.

“It’s a rescue,” I say. “I’m adopting it.”

SJ nods. “Thought you should know the Secret Service came by.”

“Looking for me?” I ask. “Doesn’t sound so secret.”

“They must have been impressed with your president. I know I was.”

SJ has long lashes and big, manga brown eyes. He hits me with them now.

“I’ve gotta tell you,” he says, “the president is a work of art, a seamlessly integrated data interface. I’m in real admira­tion. This is a game changer. You know what I envision?”

I notice his flashy glasses. “Are those Android?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

“Can I have them?”

He hands them over, and I search the frames for their IP address.

SJ gestures large. “I envision your algorithm running on Reputation Curator. Average people could bring their per­sonalities to life, to speak for themselves, to customize and personalize how they’re seen by the world. Your program is like Google, Wikipedia and Facebook all in one. Everyone on the planet with a reputation would pay to have you animate them, to make them articulate, vigilant . . . eternal.”

“You can have it,” I tell SJ. “The algorithm’s core is open-source—I used a freeware protocol.”

SJ flashes a brittle smile. “We’ve actually looked into that,” he says, “and, well, it seems like you coded it with seven-layer encryption.”

“Yeah, I guess I did, didn’t I? You’re the one with the hash reader. Just crack it.”

“I don’t want it to be like that,” SJ says. “Let’s be partners. Your concept is brilliant—an algorithm that scrubs the Web and compiles the results into a personal animation. The pres­ident is the proof, but it’s also given away the idea. If we move now, we can protect it, it will be ours. In a few weeks, though, everyone will have their own.”

I don’t point out the irony of SJ wanting to protect a busi­ness model.

“Is the president just an animation to you?” I ask. “Have you spoken with him? Have you listened to what he has to say?”

“I’m offering stock,” SJ says. “Wheelbarrows of it.”

The drone offers up its firewall like a seductress her throat. I deploy the hash reader, whose processor hums and flashes red. We sit on folding chairs while it works.

“I need your opinion,” I tell him.

“Right on,” he says, and removes a bag of weed. He starts rolling a joint, then passes me the rest. He’s been hooking me up the last couple months, no questions.

“What do you think of Kurt Cobain?” I ask.

“Kurt Cobain,” he repeats as he works the paper between his fingers. “The man was pure,” he says, and licks the edge. “Too pure for this world. Have you heard Patti Smith’s cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’? Unassailable, man.”

He lights the joint and passes it my way, but I wave it off. He sits there, staring out the open mouth of my garage into the Kirkland plumage of Palo Alto. Apple, Oracle, PayPal and Hewlett-Packard were all started in garages within a mile of here. About once a month, SJ gets homesick and cooks litti chokha for everyone at work. He plays Sharda Sinha songs and gets this look in his eyes like he’s back in Bihar, land of peepal trees and roller birds. He has the look now. He says, “You know, my family downloaded the president. They have no idea what I do out here, as if I could make them under­stand that I help bad sushi chefs ward off Twitter trolls. But the American president, that they understand.”

The mayor, barefoot, jogs past us. Moments later, a bill­board drives by.

“Hey, can you make the president speak Hindi?” SJ asks. “If you could get the American president to say ‘I could go for a Pepsi’ in Hindi, I’d make you the richest man on earth.”

The hash reader’s light turns green. Just like that, the drone is mine. I disconnect the leads and begin to sync the Android glasses. The drone uses its moment of freedom to rise and study SJ.

SJ returns the drone’s intense scrutiny.

“Who do you think sent it after you?” he asks. “Mozilla? Craigslist?”

“We’ll know in a moment.”

“Silent. Black. Radar deflecting,” SJ says. “I bet this is Mi­crosoft’s dark magic.”

The new OS suddenly initiates, the drone responds, and using retinal commands, I send it on a lap around the garage. “Lo and behold,” I say. “Turns out our little friend speaks Google.”

“Wow,” SJ says. “Don’t be evil, huh?”

When the drone returns, it targets SJ in the temple with a green laser.

“What the fuck,” SJ says.

“Don’t worry,” I tell him. “It’s just taking your pulse and temperature.”

“What for?”

“Probably trying to read your emotions,” I say. “I bet it’s a leftover subroutine.”

“You sure you’re in charge of that thing?”

I roll my eyes and the drone does a backflip.

“My emotion is simple,” SJ tells me. “It’s time to come back to work.”

“I will,” I tell him. “I’ve just got some things to deal with.”

SJ looks at me. “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about your wife. But you don’t have to be so alone about things. Everyone at work, we’re all worried about you.”

* * * *

Inside, Charlotte is suspended in a sling from the Hoyer Lift, which has been rolled to the window so she can see outside. She’s wearing old yoga tights, which are slack on her, and she smells of the cedar oil her massage therapist rubs her with. I go to her and open the window.

“You read my mind,” she says, and breathes the fresh air.

I put the glasses on her, and it takes her eyes a minute of flashing around before the drone lifts from my hands. A grand smile crosses her face as she puts it through its paces—hovering, rotating, swiveling the camera’s servos. And then the drone is off. I watch it cross the lawn, veer around the compost piles, and head for the community garden. It floats down the rows, and though I don’t have the view Charlotte does in her glasses, I can see the drone inspecting the blos­soms of summer squash, the fat bottoms of Roma tomatoes. It rises along the bean trellises and tracks watermelons by their umbilical stems. When she makes it to her plot, she gasps.

“My roses,” she says. “They’re still there. Someone’s been taking care of them.”

“I wouldn’t let your roses die,” I tell her.

She has the drone inspect every bloom. Carefully, she ma­neuvers it through the bright petals, brushing against the blossoms, then shuttles it home again. When it’s hovering be­fore us, Charlotte leans slightly forward and sniffs the drone. “I never thought I’d smell my roses again,” she says, her face flushed with hope and amazement. The tears begin stream­ing.

I remove her glasses, and we leave the drone hovering there.

She regards me. “I want to have a baby,” she says.

“A baby?”

“It’s been nine months. I could have had one already. I could’ve been doing something useful this whole time.”

“But your illness,” I say. “We don’t know what’s ahead.”

She closes her eyes like she’s hugging something, like she’s holding some dear truth.

“With a baby, I’d have something to show for all this. I’d have a reason. At the least, I’d have something to leave be­hind.”

“You can’t talk like that,” I tell her. “We’ve talked about you not talking like this.”

But she won’t listen to me, she won’t open her eyes.

All she says is “And I want to start tonight.”

* * * *

Later, I carry the iProjector out back to the gardening shed. Here, in the gold of afternoon light, the president rises and comes to life. He adjusts his collar and cuffs, runs his thumb down a black lapel as if he exists only in the moment before a camera will broadcast him live to the world.

“Mr. President,” I say. “I’m sorry to bother you again.”

“Nonsense,” he tells me. “I serve at the pleasure of the people.”

“Do you remember me?” I ask. “Do you remember the problems I’ve been talking to you about?”

“Perennial is the nature of the problems that plague man. Particular is the voice with which they call to each of us.”

“My problem today is of a personal nature.”

“Then I place this conversation under the seal.”

“I haven’t made love to my wife in a long time.”

He holds up a hand to halt me. He smiles in a knowing, fatherly way.

“Times of doubt,” he tells me, “are inherent in the com­pact of civil union.”

“My question is about children. Would you have still brought yours into the world, knowing that only one of you might be around to raise them?”

“Single parenting places too much of a strain on today’s families,” he says. “That’s why I’m introducing legislation that will reduce the burden on our hardworking parents.”

“What about your children? Do you miss them?”

“My mind goes to them constantly. Being away is the great sacrifice of the office.”

In the shed, suspended dust makes his specter glitter and swirl. It makes him look like he is cutting out, like he will leave at any moment. I feel some urgency.

“When it’s all finally over,” I ask, “where is it that we go?”

“I’m no preacher,” the president says, “but I believe we go where we are called.”

“Where were you called to? Where is it that you are?”

“Don’t we all try to locate ourselves among the pillars of uncommon knowledge?”

“You don’t know where you are, do you?” I ask the presi­dent.

“I’m sure my opponent would like you to believe that.”

“It’s okay,” I say, more to myself. “I didn’t expect you to know.”

“I know exactly where I am,” the president says. Then, in a voice that sounds pieced from many scraps, he adds, “I’m currently positioned at three seven point four four north by one two two point one four west.”

I think he’s done. I wait for him to say “Good night and God bless America.” Instead, he reaches out to touch my chest. “I have heard that you have made much personal sac­rifice,” he says. “And I’m told that your sense of duty is strong.”

I don’t think I agree, but I say, “Yes, sir.”

His glowing hand clasps my shoulder, and it doesn’t mat­ter that I can’t feel it.

“Then this medal that I affix to your uniform is much more than a piece of silver. It is a symbol of how much you have given, not just in armed struggle and not just in service to your nation. It marks you forever as one who can be counted upon, as one who in times of need will lift up and carry those who have fallen.” Proudly, he stares into the empty space above my shoulder. He says, “Now return home to your wife, soldier, and start a new chapter of life.”

* * * *

When darkness falls, I go to Charlotte. The night nurse has placed her in a negligee. Charlotte lowers the bed as I ap­proach. The electric motor is the only sound in the room.

“I’m ovulating,” she announces. “I can feel it.”

“You can feel it?”

“I don’t need to feel it,” she says. “I just know.”

She’s strangely calm.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

“Sure.”

I steady myself on the safety rail that separates us.

She asks, “Do you want some oral sex first?”

I shake my head.

“Come join me, then,” she says.

I start to climb on the bed—she stops me.

“Hey, sunshine,” she says. “Take off your clothes.”

I can’t remember the last time she called me that.

“Oh yeah,” I say, and unbutton my shirt, unzip my jeans.

When I drop my underwear, I feel weirdly, I don’t know, naked. I swing a leg up, then kind of lie on her.

A look of contentment crosses her face. “This is how it’s supposed to be,” she says. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to look into your eyes.”

Her body is narrow but warm. I don’t know where to put my hands.

“Do you want to pull down my panties?”

I sit up and begin to work them off. I see the scar from the femoral stent. When I heft her legs, there are the bedsores we’ve been fighting.

“Remember our trip to Mexico,” she asks, “when we made love on top of that pyramid? It was like we were in the past and the future at the same time. I kind of feel that now.”

“You’re not high, are you?”

“What? Like I’d have to be stoned to recall the first time we talked about having a baby?”

When I have her panties off and her legs hooked, I pause. It takes all my focus to get an erection, and then I can’t be­lieve I have one. Here is my wife, paralyzed, invalid, insen­sate, and though everything’s the opposite of erotic, I am poised above her, completely hard.

“I’m wet, aren’t I?” Charlotte asks. “I’ve been thinking about this all day.”

I do remember the pyramid. The stone was cold, the stair­case steep. The past to me was a week of Charlotte in Mayan dresses, cooing at every baby she came across. Having sex under jungle stars, I tried to imagine the future: a faceless someone conceived on a sacrificial altar. I finished early and tried to shake it off. I focused only on all those steps we had to make it down in the dark.

“I think I feel something,” she says. “You’re inside me, right? Because I’m pretty sure I can feel it.”

Here I enter my wife and begin our lovemaking. I try to focus on the notion that if this works, Charlotte will be safe, that for nine months she’d let no harm come to her, and maybe she’s right, maybe the baby will stimulate something and recovery will begin.

Charlotte smiles. It’s brittle, but it’s a smile. “How’s this for finding the silver lining—I won’t have to feel the pain of childbirth.”

This makes me wonder if a paralyzed woman can push out a baby, or does she get the scalpel, and if so, is there anesthe­sia, and all at once my body is at the edge of not cooperating.

“Hey, are you here?” she asks. “I’m trying to get you to smile.”

“I just need to focus for a minute,” I tell her.

“I can tell you’re not really into this,” she says. “I can tell you’re still hung up on the idea that I’m going to do some­thing drastic to myself, right? Just because I talk about crazy stuff sometimes doesn’t mean I’m going to do anything.”

“Then why’d you make me promise to help you do it?”

The promise came early, in the beginning, just before the ventilator. She had a vomiting reflex that lasted for hours. Imagine endless dry heaves while you’re paralyzed. The doc­tors finally gave her narcotics. Drugged, dead-limbed and vomiting, that’s when it struck her that her body was no lon­ger hers. I was holding her hair, keeping it out of the basin. She was panting between heaves.

She said, “Promise me that when I tell you to make it stop, you’ll make it stop.”

“Make what stop?” I asked.

She retched, long and cord-rattling. I knew what she meant.

“It won’t come to that,” I said.

She tried to say something but retched again.

“I promise,” I said.

Now, in her mechanical bed, her negligee straps slipping off her shoulders, Charlotte says, “It’s hard for you to under­stand, I know. But the idea that there’s a way out, it’s what allows me to keep going. I’d never take it. You believe me, don’t you?”

“I hate that promise, I hate that you made me make it.”

“I’d never do it, and I’d never make you help.”

“Then release me,” I tell her.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

I decide to just shut it all out and keep going. I’m losing my erection, and my mind wonders what will happen if I go soft—do I have it in me to fake it?—but I shut it out and keep going and going, pounding on Charlotte until I can barely feel anything. Her breasts loll alone under me. From the bed­side table, the drone turns itself on and rises, hovering. It flashes my forehead with its green laser, as if what I’m feeling is that easy to determine, as if my emotion has a name. Is it spying on me, feeling sympathy or executing old code? I won­der if the drone’s OS reverted to a previous version or if Google reacquired it or if it’s in some kind of autonomous mode. Or it could be that someone hacked the Android glasses, or maybe . . . That’s when I look down and see Char­lotte is crying.

I stop.

“No, don’t,” she says. “Keep going.”

She’s not crying hard, but they are fat, lamenting tears.

“We can try again tomorrow,” I tell her.

“No, I’m okay,” she says. “Just keep going and do some­thing for me, would you?”

“All right.”

“Put the headphones on me.”

“You mean, while we’re doing it?”

“Music on,” she says. From the headphones on her bed­side table, Nirvana starts to hum.

“I know I’m doing it all wrong,” I say. “It’s been a long time, and . . .”

“It’s not you,” she says. “I just need my music. Just put them on me.”

“Why do you need Nirvana? What is it to you?”

She closes her eyes and shakes her head.

“What is it with this Kurt Cobain?” I say. “What’s your deal with him?”

I grab her wrists and pin them down, but she can’t feel it.

“Why do you have to have this music? What’s wrong with you?” I demand. “Just tell me what it is that’s wrong with you.”

* * * *

The drone follows me to the garage, where it wanders the walls, looking for a way out. I turn on a computer and down­load one of these Nirvana albums. I play the whole thing, just sitting there in the dark. The guy, this Kurt Cobain, sings about being stupid and dumb and unwanted. In one song, he says that Jesus doesn’t want him for a sunbeam. In another song, he says he wants milk and laxatives along with cherry-flavored antacids. He has a song called “All Apologies,” but he never actually apologizes. He doesn’t even say what he did wrong.

The drone, having found no escape, comes to me and hov­ers silently. I must look pretty pathetic, because the drone takes my temperature.

I lift the remote for the garage door opener. “Is this what you want?” I ask. “If I let you go, are you going to come back?”

The drone silently hums, impassive atop its column of warm air.

I press the button. The drone waits until the garage door is all the way up. Then it snaps a photograph of me and zooms off into the Palo Alto night.

I stand and breathe the air, which is cool and smells of flowers. There’s enough moonlight to cast leaf patterns on the driveway. Down the street, I spot the glowing eyes of our cat. I call his name, but he doesn’t come. I gave him to a friend a couple blocks away, and for a few weeks the cat re­turned at night to visit me. Not anymore. This feeling of being in proximity to something that’s lost to you, it seems like my whole life right now. It’s a feeling Charlotte would under­stand if she’d just talk to the president. But he’s not the one she needs to speak to, I suddenly understand. I return to my computer bench and fire up a bank of screens. I stare into their blue glow and get to work. It takes me hours, most of the night, before I’m done.

It’s almost dawn when I go to Charlotte. The room is dark, and I can only see her outline. “Bed incline,” I say, and she starts to rise. She wakes and stares at me but says nothing. Her face has that lack of expression that comes only after it’s been through every emotion.

I set the iProjector in her lap. She hates the thing but says nothing. She only tilts her head a little, like she’s sad for me. Then I turn it on.

Kurt Cobain appears before her, clad in a bathrobe and composed of soft blue light.

Charlotte inhales. “Oh my God,” she murmurs.

She looks at me. “Is it him?”

I nod.

She marvels at him. “What do I say?” she asks. “Can he talk?”

I don’t answer.

Kurt Cobain’s hair is in his face. Shifting her gaze, Char­lotte tries to look into his eyes. While the president couldn’t quite find your eyes, Kurt is purposefully avoiding them.

“I can’t believe how young you are,” Charlotte tells him. “You’re just a boy.”

Kurt mumbles, “I’m old.”

“Are you really here?” she asks.

“Here we are now,” he sings. “Entertain us.”

His voice is rough and hard-lived. It’s some kind of proof of life to Charlotte.

Charlotte looks at me, filled with wonder. “I thought he was gone,” she says. “I can’t believe he’s really here.”

Kurt shrugs. “I only appreciate things when they’re gone,” he says.

Charlotte looks stricken. “I recognize that line,” she says to me. “That’s a line from his suicide note. How does he know that? Has he already written it, does he know what he’s going to do?”

“I don’t know,” I tell her. This isn’t my conversation to have. I back away toward the door, and just as I’m leaving, I hear her start to talk to him.

“Don’t do what you’re thinking about doing,” she pleads with him. “You don’t know how special you are, you don’t know how much you matter to me,” she says, carefully, like she’s talking to a child. “Please don’t take yourself from me. You can’t do that to me.”

She leans toward Kurt Cobain like she wants to throw her arms around him and hold him, like she’s forgotten that her arms don’t work and there’s no him to embrace.

 

 

 

From FORTUNE SMILES by Adam Johnson. Copyright © 2015 by Adam Johnson. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.


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