Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On The Edge Of A Scandal

Note From A Little Later:

I've exchanged emails with the individual involved, have been assured that the situation has been blown out of proportion, and that my work was not at all involved.

So at this point, I suspect it is simply a matter of allowing things to progress until a clearer picture emerges.

Yes, my beloved, the Swillistrations proceed apace.

So. I've become aware of an interesting situation. It seems that the first editor I don't know personally to ask me for fiction has been accused of some fairly ugly behavior.

I'm very bothered by this because our interactions had left me liking him. I'm waiting to see if he has anything to say to me. I don't think he gave me this particular treat -- both pieces of fiction I wrote for him were mentioned on his sites with my name attached to them.

I am a little baffled as to how to react and behave here. So I'm letting y'all know that something is going on, there is no way it is good, and right now I am really, really hoping that David Byron -- the name he gave me -- is going to show himself to be a gentleman. In another time I would be keeping this to myself, but right now I feel a stronger sense of allegiance to the community of writers than to Mr. Byron, and feel that despite the possibility that this is not what it seems to be, it is appropriate that anyone who has had dealings with Mr. Byron know about the situation.

In other words, I'm hoping that what seems evident turns out to be false. And if this turns out to be true, I'm kind of braced for it. I don't feel anger, which surprises me. I just feel puzzled.

When does that kind of behavior seem like a good idea? I don't understand.

While I am holding off on making any kind of serious judgment between now and when I feel as if I actually fucking know something, I am going to celebrate by passing on to y'all one of the stories. If anyone's seen this anywhere, please tell me. This is my story. This was one of a series I wrote and quit after two had been published -- they were basically an attempt at selling outlines instead of writing stories, and it did show up on the New Voices in Fiction website. I was told that it had been published in the magazine and an anthology as well. Here's the special Christmas version, so put on your pointy red...


Next year either I get my shopping done early or I’m blowing Christmas off entirely, I thought to myself. I hate shopping at the best of times and this wasn’t the best of times. It was the holiday season. The bookstore, the music store, even a little boutique to pick up some fancy hair crap for the missus… I needed a drink. I promised myself I’d never go back to that dive just off campus but this was an emergency.

As soon as I stuck my head in the bar I knew I was making a mistake. The last time I’d been in here the place had been nearly empty; now it was packed and noisy and full of happy young people, a breed of human I can do well without. The jukebox was still broken but someone had brought in a boom box. It was playing horrible dance remixes of Christmas carols. The kids were dancing on the rough concrete floor and crowding up against the badly finished plywood of the bar. Someone had stuck up some mistletoe. The bear on the dust-coated Hamm’s Beer waterfall seemed to disapprove.

The short guy with the walrus mustache who had been behind the bar the last time I was here moved neatly back and forth as he dispensed draft beer and well shots, a pointy green elf hat perched awkwardly on his threadbare scalp like it was getting ready to jump. I started to withdraw when he caught my eye and held up his hand and waved me over.


I pushed my way through the crowd and the bartender gestured again, moving me further down the bar. That’s when I saw a big chunk of territory at the end that was completely vacant except for a beefy guy in a Santa suit and a moist white false beard. He had the kind of rugose drinker’s tan that turns skin into a rind the color of a pomegranate. There was an iced tumbler of soda or tonic water, a shot glass, a bottle of hundred-proof vodka and a red plastic bucket sitting next to him on the bar. The college kids who had the nerve to look at him were disgusted or horrified; in turn he regarded them with calm benevolence.

The bartender smiled at me from behind his mustache, a creepy smile that made me think he had something planned for me.

“Come on, hoss,” he said. “You’ve got to meet the latest. Get him while he’s here cause he’s going away fast.”

Hoss? Whatever.

“Mike,” the bartender said to the beefy guy. “You got to tell this guy about the brain stuff, he’ll get a kick out of it.”

Mike smiled benevolently and took a small swallow from the tumbler and licked the moisture off his upper lip. “Sure,” he said. “It’s good for me to talk. It helps with the pacing.” He had the slow, smooth diction of a serious drunk deep into a binge but nowhere near the end.

The bartender turned to me. “The usual?”

I’d only been here once before and I was curious as to what ‘the usual’ was.

“Sure,” I said.

The bartender went to fetch my order and steal change from the frat boys at the other end of the bar.

Mike poured a shot and downed it. “Well, I can’t tell you everything,” he said.

“Top secret stuff, huh?”

“Yes,” Mike said, still smiling. “You got it in one.”

Then he picked up the red bucket and, just as easily as he smiled and drank, he puked in it. Nothing big; more like a macro-spit than a hurl. Clear fluid dribbled into the blue-white fibers of his fake beard.

No wonder the crowd gave him so much elbowroom.

There was a thump on the bar next to me. It a tumbler filled with something red – no ice.

“Eight bucks,” the bartender said and grinned, stubby yellow teeth barely visible behind his mustache. I handed him a ten.

“So this is the usual,” I said. “What is it?”

“Just go on and taste it, okay?”

As I’d feared there was wine in it; there was something else as well. Something varnish-y that swallowed like hard alcohol. It made a couple of return trips before I finally got it down.

“It’s a Brutal Hammer,” the bartender said. “Seven ounces of vodka for the kick, five ounces of red wine for the hangover. I got this cheap Ukrainian vodka I can’t get rid of so I figured I’d cut you a bargain. Chernobyl, baby.” He gave me a thumbs-up.

“Fuck you and everything you stand for,” I said and the bartender laughed and moved down the bar without giving me any change. Jesus, if he was giving me radioactive vodka what kind of wine was in there?

“I used to think that the problem with the world was that people didn’t think straight,” Mike said and took a swallow from his tumbler. “You know, people think they’re rational but they really aren’t.”

“How do you mean?” I took another sip of the Brutal Hammer and it only took two swallows to get it into my stomach. I’d paid for the fucking thing, I was going to drink it.

“You know anything about the brain? I mean, developmentally.”

Now I had to think hard for a moment. At first there was nothing there, and then the file opened up. “Sort of. The way I understand it is that the brain’s like a house where there’s been all kinds of additions put on and nothing torn down; brains started off as sensory processors and then at different stages of evolution additional parts of the brain were added to the basic design and the parts that make us human were the last to come along. It’s not like a human brain is all that different from a fish’s brain; it’s more like it’s a fish brain plus a whole lot of other stuff.”

“Close enough for government work.” Mike smiled gently, as if he’d made a joke. “They’ve done some interesting work with brain scans. When someone makes a decision you see action in the lower parts of the brain first, then in the upper parts. The fish and lizards we carry around in our skulls make the decisions and our human parts just rationalize everything the animals do.”

Mike poured and swallowed a shot.

“Our brains are better at religion and conspiracy theories and fairy tales than they are at rational, logical thought. We can think, we can think well, but it’s like stirring paint with a screwdriver or cooking on an engine manifold. It works but you’d be better off using a tool made for the job.”

Then he puked again and dabbed his lips and false beard with a cocktail napkin.

“So we made the right tool for the job. We made brains for people that let them really think rationally.”


“Hoss, you know I can’t tell you that. I will say this; since nine-eleven there’s been an awful lot of money floating around for people who have an interest in…” He took a sip from his tumbler. “Alternative avenues of research. Big money and no controls and if the president says you can do it then it isn’t illegal. And that’s everything you’re going to hear about that.”

I nodded and thought the Tuskegee experiments and those cancer patients they dosed with plutonium and the time they sprayed germs over San Francisco…

“The thinking caps have two parts,” he said. “The first is a sort of EEG that shows which part of your brain is working on a given bit of information. The other’s a processor that allows you to record memories in a limited fashion and also gives you access to calculation, record keeping, all the functions of any computer hooked directly into your brain so you can access them at will. You wind up with your consciousness running on both an electronic digital processor and an organically-grown analog one.”

He took a swallow from his tumbler. I took one from mine; it still took two swallows to keep down.

“Sounds like it would be hard to do any experiments with animals,” I said. “Seems like you’d need to be able to communicate in order to tell whether or not things were…”

Mike nodded. “Terry, which isn’t her name, split off from us and tried to work with parrots that had already been trained to talk; she figured the setup would improve their vocabularies enough to let her work with them. Bird brains are different than human brains; parrots have the equivalent of a cortex but the neurons are organized in a totally different… Well, you’ll hear about those parrots in the news pretty soon. That’s one disaster they won’t be able to keep secret forever. So yeah, we had to experiment on ourselves if we were gonna get any useful results.”

He took a shot and lifted his hat; there was a grubby white plastic box the size of a deck of cards stuck into a shaved patch on top of his head ringed by scabby scar tissue. He put his hat back down.

“Those poor parrots had to be hooked up to their thinking caps with optical cables. Goodbye flight. No wonder they got so pissed.”

This time I didn’t take a swallow; I took a gulp. A quick bad booze shudder and then I said, “So that little box has a processor that can run a simulated human mind?”

Mike waved his hand like he was brushing away an invisible butterfly. “No, no. It’s better than you’ll find in consumer markets but we don’t have anything that good. Yet. It works like this. When you have a thought, you not only have the thought, you also know what part of your brain it originated in. So you find out that your parking is based on territorial instincts rather than time and space functions, or that you picked a particular checkout line because you think the cashier is sexy. It makes it a lot easier to sort things out. Put that together with a digital memory recorder and an internet connection…” He shook his head. “You’d be amazed if you knew how many decisions you made with your dick.”

“Oh, I doubt that.”

“You. Would. Be. Amazed.”

Mike puked in his bucket. The bartender swooped by and emptied it into the little bar sink, wiped the lip with a rag and set it back down.

“Anyway, the end result is that you know what you think and why you think it, you can store important memories in a solid form – the world’s first impartial witness. So if you’re willing to spend the time with your thoughts you can really figure things out. And that’s what fucked us over. We figured out the big question. And then we figured out our answers.”

“The big question?”

“How should I live my life. That’s the only important question and everything else comes from that. And at the end of the day life is a simple minimax situation – minimize suffering, maximize pleasure. Of course there’s no way to eliminate suffering – it’s all a matter of making sure that you get what you pay for.”

He took a sip from his tumbler; by now I was pretty sure it was just a way of padding his stomach for when he hit it with the hard stuff.

Mike held up his hands and started counting off fingers. “Terry, Terry, Terry, Terry, Terry, Terry, and Terry killed themselves inside of the first two months. What we got out of the hard drives in their thinking caps was that they realized their prime motives for existence were based on animal needs they would never be able to effectively gratify – that everything they did was intended to attract potential mates and none of it would ever work and the best way to maximize their happiness was to minimize their lifespans. Thinking with the dick, except for Terry and Terry who used their vaginas.”

Mike puked into his bucket again — splosh.

“Now Terry and Terry, they make a good argument for the success of the experiment. They got together with each other, started getting involved in community services. These days they grow their own food, volunteer at the local grade school, all that kind of thing. Epicureans in the real sense of the word – maximizing life’s pleasure through balance. I mean, they would have wound up like the other Terries if they hadn’t decided that they’d settle for each other.” He held his tumbler out to me. “To Terry and Terry.”

I clicked my glass against his and we both sipped.

“Terry, Terry, and Terry couldn’t make their new minds work. Or maybe we just didn’t wire them right. So now they are locked up in tiny rooms and nasty men such as myself take notes on their various twitches and spasms. Terry runs that program; he likes power and secrets and decided to roll that way. Dick thinking and in his case it works. Terry realized that at the end of the day it was chocolate for her. Diabetes got her after a year and a half, a good two months more than what she thought she’d get. Terry wanted to be pregnant; she’s involved in a fertility research program that’ll come out in the news the same way the parrots will. I promise you nightmares, my friend. And then Terry, Terry, Terry, and Terry have devoted themselves to a sort of masturbatory monasticism. Limited but gratifying, apparently.”

Mike took a shot.

I took another gulp and a deep breath. “So how are you handling it, man?”

Mike smiled, his eyes wide and wet. “Oh, I’m just like Terry with her chocolate but I like to drink.”

The bartender leaned over to me, his mustache almost hiding his grin so I could barely make out his crooked yellow teeth. “Tell you what, Hoss. It’s Christmas. Finish that off in one go and I’ll give you another on the house.”

I looked at the Brutal Hammer, still more than half-full. “Nice of you to offer but I think I’ve got more here than I’m gonna finish.”

Mike smiled benevolently at both of us. “Ho, ho, ho,” he said and reached for his bucket.

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