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Fortune Smiles Stories
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Adam Johnson is the author of Fortune Smiles, winner of the National Book Award and the Story Prize and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the California Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Johnson’s other awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Stegner Fellowship; he was also a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award. His previous books are Emporium, a short story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us. Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University and lives in San Francisco with his wife and children.
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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?”
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.”
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