A Novel Excerptby T. Coraghessan Boyle
He didn’t believe in God because God didn’t make any sense to him, and what he was hearing from some of the people in the psych department made even less, if that was possible. Rational people, grad students every bit as serious and committed as he was, suddenly seemed incapable of talking about anything but the oneness of being and the face of the Divine, as if they were mystics instead of scientists. He hadn’t come to grad school for God or mysticism or mind expansion or whatever they were calling it, but for a degree that would lead to a job that would pay his bills and get him a house and a car that actually started when you inserted the key and put your foot down on the gas pedal. Unlike the piece-of-crap Fairlane he was sitting in at that very moment, which he’d coaxed to life with a judicious blast of ether down the throat of the carburetor and had to be goosed every five seconds to keep from dying, and that had nothing to do with any deities except maybe the ones sitting in the boardrooms in Detroit. Of course the car was eight years old, with tires worn as smooth as the sheets of Corrasable Bond he typed up his class notes on, and rusted-out rocker panels, and springs so worn you hit bottom every time you went over a bump, which was just another kind of humiliation, and where was she? Jesus. To be late—late for anything—was totally unacceptable, not to mention rude and unprofessional and about twenty other adjectives he could summon, but tonight of all nights?
It was cold, somewhere down around zero, but he was sweating because he always sweated when he was nervous—or worked up, as his father liked to put it—and he was nervous now. And late. He jerked his head around to stare up at the window that cut a glowing rectangle out of the void above him, no curtains, no blinds, everything open for everybody to see—and no Joanie and no babysitter either. The car sputtered, caught again, and he brought his hand down on the horn and hammered it, twice, till Joanie appeared in the window with her pale pinched face and gave him an irritated flap of her hand that could have meant anything from Go crawl off and die to I just broke my wrist, and then she was gone and he immediately hit the horn again and kept hitting it until a new face thrust itself through the blinds of the apartment next door—Mrs. Malloy’s, her jaws clenched and her hair flattened to one side of her head—and he eased up.
What he felt like doing was just driving off and leaving her there, but that wouldn’t work of course, and he’d never do it anyway, because then there’d be a whole long soap opera of tears and recrimination to get through when he came back. Plus, Tim had insisted he bring her (“This isn’t just for you, you know”), and the last thing he wanted was to disappoint Tim. Or countermand him, or whatever you wanted to call it. On top of it all, he was feeling increasingly ambivalent about the whole thing—scared, that is—and he needed her. Now more than ever. And where was she?
He was turned sideways, feeling around on the floor for something to pin down the accelerator so he could go up there and drag her out of the house if that was what it was going to take, when a shadow drifted up the dark tube of the shoveled walk and suddenly cohered into the shape and form of the babysitter, Mrs. Pierzynski, and he caught his breath. He watched her come lumbering past the car without even realizing he was there—knock-kneed, rubber boots, scarf, mittens, knit hat—and then stamp up the steps, the door opening and closing in a quick flash of light and the figure of Joanie replacing hers on the landing. In the next moment there was a rush of cold air and Joanie was sliding into the seat beside him, smelling of the perfume her mother had given her for Christmas.
“Jesus,” was all he said, and then he put the car in gear and lurched out onto the icy street, feeling the wheels slide out from under him for one terrifying moment before finally taking hold where the plow had scraped the pavement.
“What?” she said. “Don’t blame me—you’re the one who insists on treating him like a child. Corey’s thirteen years old, Fitz, thirteen. He doesn’t need a babysitter—it’s just a waste of money we don’t have.”
“You’re the one who infantilized him.”
His wife’s face, elaborately made up, false eyelashes, lipstick so red it looked black in the dim glow of the dash lights, hung there beside him as if it were floating free, one more satellite in orbit. “How would you know? You’re always at the library.”
“You baby-talk him.”
“It’s not baby talk—it’s a code, we have a code between us, okay? Mother and son? Our own special vocabulary.” He heard her purse snap open, the rattle of the cellophane on a fresh pack of Marlboros. They were silent a moment, then she said, “Don’t blame me. It’s ridiculous, is what it is—you tell me he can’t be home alone for a couple of hours on a Saturday night?”
The heater was up full, roaring against the windshield. Sweating, he turned it down, and when he tried to shrug out of his overcoat she was busy lighting her cigarette and didn’t even make a pretense of trying to help him. “Keep your hands on the wheel, will you?” she snapped in an irritable little buzz of a voice that brought his anger right back up again. He was going to say, It’s not just a couple of hours, but the thought came like a punch in the stomach, and her whole attitude—and the fact that they were late—made him go on the attack instead. “Screw you,” he said. “Really, screw you.”
The upshot was that when they finally came up the front steps of Tim’s house (after the added tension of driving around the same block three times, squinting at numbers on dimly lit mailboxes), they were angry, pissed-off, stewing, in exactly the wrong mood for the session he’d let himself get talked into, which he, in turn, had talked her into. And if that wasn’t enough she’d insisted on bringing along a bottle of Bordeaux they couldn’t afford as if this were a suburban dinner party with the local minister and the superintendent of schools and the guy who owned the car dealership. He felt ridiculous, the vise tightening one more twist in the fraught moment he found himself standing there in a sudden blast of wind, cradling the wine and pushing the doorbell nobody was answering.
“You always bring wine,” Joanie said, her voice flat and instructional. She’d spent half an hour on her hair and makeup and she was wearing her best dress, her best coat, and a pair of black pumps that were new last fall. “It’s expected. It’s civilized. And you hand it to the wife, not him—”
“Hand it to whose wife?”
“His wife’s dead.”
“What are you talking about—I thought you said he had kids?”
“You don’t need a wife to have kids, not once they’re born. She killed herself is what I hear, I don’t know, before he even came here . . . out west. In California.”
The wind was bitter, riding a dank undercurrent of moisture off the sea, and he shivered in his blazer, cursing himself for leaving his overcoat in the car. He pressed the buzzer again. From inside came a low murmur of voices rising and falling in conversation, a snatch of laughter, the low-end repetitive thump of the bass line of a jazz record, and that was a surprise—he didn’t know Tim was a jazz buff; he would have figured him for Bach, Handel, Mozart, maybe Shostakovich if he really got adventurous.
“Still,” Joanie said, because she always had to get the last word in, “you don’t come empty-handed to somebody’s house.”
That was when the door swung open on a tiny moon-faced girl who looked to be Corey’s age but for the breasts that swelled the fabric of her white turtleneck. “Hi,” she said, smiling dutifully at them, “come on in. I’m Suzie, by the way,” and then, before he could hand her the wine or even calculate if it was appropriate to present it to a child, she’d turned and padded away on her bare feet and he and Joanie were left standing there in the entryway.
The house was warm, the voices louder now, the jazz defining itself as John Coltrane’s latest LP, which he himself didn’t have the money for though he was dying to have it and could see the cover in his mind’s eye, all blue, the saxophonist’s head looming over the neck of the instrument as he lost himself in a passion that was as evident on his face as a sexual climax. It was a profound, aching kind of music, and he’d fallen under its spell at the record shop one day, listening to it over and over when he should have been elsewhere, should have been studying. He looked at Joanie. She looked at him. He shrugged. “I guess we just go in?”
In truth, she was the one with the confidence in this relationship, not that he felt in any way inadequate, just that sometimes in social situations he tended to try too hard and that left him off balance, at least until she took charge. Which she did now, leading him by the hand through the foyer and into the living room, where there was a fire going and twenty people standing around with drinks in their hands as if they were at a cocktail party. If he hung back—just briefly, just for an instant—it was because this wasn’t what he’d expected at all. What had he expected? Something more intimate, more clinical, monkish even. This was supposed to be his initiation into the inner circle, not just another cocktail party.
It was no small thing, either—the inner circle was the only circle as far as Tim was concerned and if you weren’t part of it he didn’t have much use for you. The psychology department (and its offshoot, the Center for Research in Personality) might have relegated him to a converted closet on the second floor as befitting his beggar’s status as visiting lecturer, but no matter the size or location of his office, he was the shining star everybody wanted to study with. Half the students in the grad program were already onboard, gravitating to him and Professor Alpert (Dick) because they were the young guns, the ones with the fresh approach, espousing a whole new methodology that was transactional rather than authoritative and hierarchical. Tim described it as a partnership with the patient, as if you were sitting across the kitchen table from him having a beer instead of laying him out on a couch and probing him like an inquisitor. His first book, Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality, had appeared five years earlier, and it came down like a hammer on behaviorism and the traditional model of Freudian analysis. People were still buzzing about it. Tim was hot, red-hot, and Harvard was lucky to have gotten him.
The story had it that he was in Mexico writing his second book when by chance he stumbled across a new tool he couldn’t stop talking about, a tool he insisted would revolutionize psychotherapy. It wasn’t a theory or a method, but a drug—psilocybin—which had been synthesized by a chemist at Sandoz Laboratories from the so-called magic mushrooms of Mesoamerican culture, and it had powerful psychoactive properties that could dissolve a patient’s defenses in a single session. Along with an earlier synthesis, lysergic acid diethylamide, it was just then being used in clinical trials as a potent new means of disarming the control tower of the brain, as Tim put it, thereby freeing the subconscious and letting all the unfiltered sense impressions of the world come winging in. No one knew quite how it worked, but the attraction was magnetic. You didn’t need psychotherapy anymore, that was the implication. You didn’t need books and study and lab rats—all you needed was this, a little pink pill, as if it were magic.
He himself had been on the outside of all that, new to the program in September and one of the last of Tim’s advisees to resist taking that particular flight, and three days ago Tim had put it to him bluntly: “Listen, Fitz—can I call you Fitz, or do we have to keep up with these Doctor/Mister games? Fitz, you’re going to have to decide if psychology is really for you, or even what century you’re living in, whether you’re going to be transactional and experiential or go the crusty old Freudian way—or what, play with Skinner’s white rats till you become expert in the psychology of rodents? Or pigeons, maybe pigeons is the way to go, operant conditioning, peck, peck, peck.”
They’d been alone in Tim’s office and Tim had got up to shut the door for privacy. There was a window, a filing cabinet, and just enough room for a desk and two chairs. Tim let a beat go by, then leaned back in his chair. “You don’t want to be a pecker, do you?”
Well, no, of course not, and he didn’t want to be hidebound or the brunt of a joke either, but he was reluctant—and beyond that, uneasy. He came from a long and undistinguished line of Irish drunks and he’d worked hard to get into the program, to get into Harvard, and he didn’t want to screw with that, didn’t want to have to worry about alcohol or this new miracle drug or anything else that could compromise what mattered above all else: the degree, the job, the house, a better life for Joanie and Corey. This was called ambition, class mobility, the American Dream, and he had it in spades. But Tim was persuasive, messianic even, and everyone in the inner circle had taken the drug—was taking it, regularly—and now, feeling left out, feeling pressured, he felt himself giving way.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of—you know that, right?”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Then what’s the hang-up? This is nothing less than a revolution we’re talking about, Fitz. The first time I ate mushrooms, the real thing, obtained from a curandera in Mexico—you know what a curandera is?”
“Right, a shaman, and we’re talking a thousand years of history here, and you know what? I learned more about the mind in six or seven hours than in fifteen years as a psychologist. God’s truth. And what I’m telling you, Fitz, is that this is a tool we can’t afford to ignore, not as psychologists, not as human beings. You decide.” He tented the fingers of both hands in front of his face and peered through them. “Ball’s in your court, my friend.”
So here he was, and here was the ball, and he was stroking it back.