Settled back into the San Francisco singles scene following the implosion of his young marriage just months after the honeymoon, Neill Bassett is going
through the motions. His carefully modulated routine, however, is soon disrupted in ways he can’t dismiss with his usual nonchalance.
When Neill’s father committed suicide ten years ago, he left behind thousands of pages of secret journals, journals that are stunning in their detail, and, it must be said, their complete banality. But their spectacularly quotidian details, were exactly what artificial intelligence company Amiante Systems was looking for, and Neill was able to parlay them into a job, despite a useless degree in business marketing and absolutely no experience in computer science. He has spent
the last two years inputting the diaries into what everyone hopes will become the world’s first sentient computer. Essentially, he has been giving it language—using his father’s words. Alarming to Neill—if not to the other employees of Amiante—the experiment seems to be working. The computer actually appears to be gaining awareness and, most disconcerting of all, has started asking questions about Neill’s childhood.
Amid this psychological turmoil, Neill meets Rachel. She was meant to be a one-night stand, but Neill is unexpectedly taken with her and
the possibilities she holds. At the same time, he remains preoccupied by unresolved feelings for his ex-wife, who has a talent for appearing at the most unlikely and unfortunate times. When Neill discovers a missing year in the diaries—a year that must hold some secret to his parents’ marriage and perhaps even his father’s suicide—everything Neill thought he knew about his past comes into question, and every move forward feels impossible to make.
With a lightness of touch that belies pitch-perfect emotional control, Scott Hutchins takes us on an odyssey of love, grief, and reconciliation that shows us how, once we let go of the idea that we’re trapped by our own sad histories—our childhoods, our bad decisions, our miscommunications with those we love—we have the chance to truly be free. A Working Theory of Love marks the electrifying debut of a prodigious new talent.
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Scott Hutchins, a Truman Capote Fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University, received his MFA from the University of Michigan. His work has appeared in StoryQuarterly, The Rumpus, The New York Times, and Esquire. He currently teaches at Stanford.
A few days ago, a fire truck and an ambulance pulled up to my apartment building on the south hill overlooking Dolores Park. A group of paramedics got out, the largest of them bearing a black chair with red straps and buckles. They were coming for my upstairs neighbor, Fred, who is a drinker and a hermit, but who I’ve always held in a strange esteem. I wouldn’t want to trade situations: he spends most of his time watching sports on the little flat-screen television perched at the end of his kitchen table. He smokes slowly and steadily (my ex-wife used to complain about the smell), glued to tennis matches, basketball tournaments, football games—even soccer. He has no interest in the games themselves, only in the bets he places on them. His one regular visitor, the postman, is also his bookie. Fred is a former postal employee himself.
As I say, I wouldn’t want to trade situations. The solitariness and sameness of his days isn’t alluring. And yet he’s always been a model of self-sufficiency. He drinks too much and smokes too much, and if he eats at all he’s just heating up a can of Chunky. But he goes and fetches all of this himself—smokes, drink, Chunky—swinging his stiff legs down the hill to the corner store and returning with one very laden paper bag. He then climbs the four flights of stairs to his apartment—a dirtier, more spartan copy of mine—where he lives alone, itself no small feat in the brutal San Francisco rental market. He’s always cordial on the steps, and even in the desperate few months after my divorce, when another neighbor suggested a revolving door for my apartment (to accommodate high traffic—a snide comment), Fred gave me a polite berth. He knocked on my door once, but only to tell me that I should let him know if I could hear him banging around upstairs. He knew he had “a heavy footfall.” I took this to mean, we’re neighbors and that’s it, but you’re all right with me. Though maybe I read too much into it.
When the paramedics got upstairs that day, there was the sound of muted voices and then Fred let loose something between a squawk and a scream. I stepped into the hall, and by this time the paramedics were bringing him down, shouting at him, stern as drill sergeants. Sir, keep your arms in. Sir, keep your arms in. We will tie down your arms, sir. The scolding seemed excessive for an old man, but when they brought him around the landing, strapped tight in the stair stretcher, I could see the problem. He was grabbing for the balusters, trying to stop his descent. His face was wrecked, his milky eyes searching and terrified, leaking tears.
“I’m sorry, Neill,” he said when he saw me. He held his hands out to me, beseeching. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I told him not to be ridiculous. There was nothing to be sorry about. But he kept apologizing as the paramedics carried him past my door, secured to his medical bier.
Apparently he had fallen two days earlier and broken his hip. He had only just called about it. For the previous forty-eight hours he’d dragged himself around the floor, waiting for God knows what: The pain to go away? Someone to knock? I found out where he was staying, and he’s already had surgery and is recuperating in a nice rehab facility. So that part of the story has all turned out well. But I keep thinking about that apology. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. What was he apologizing for but his basic existence in this world, the inconvenience of his living and breathing? He was disoriented, of course, but the truth holds. He’s not self-sufficient; he’s just alone. This revelation shouldn’t matter so much, shouldn’t shift my life one way or the other, but it’s been working on me in some subterranean manner. I seem to have been relying on Fred’s example. My father, not otherwise much of an intellectual, had a favorite quote from Pascal: the sole cause of Man’s unhappiness is his inability to sit quietly in his room. I had thought of Fred as someone who sat quietly in his room.
Not everyone’s life will be a great love story. I know that. My own “starter” marriage dissolved a couple of years ago, and aside from those first few months of the revolving door I’ve spent much of the time since alone. I’ve had the occasional stretch of dating this or that young lady and sought the occasional solace of one-night stands, which can bring solace, if the attitude is right. I’ve ramped my drinking sharply up and then sharply down. I make the grooves in my life that I roll along. Bachelorhood, I’ve learned, requires routine. Small rituals that honor the unseen moments. I mean this without self-pity. Who should care that I pour exactly two glugs of cream into my first coffee but only one into my second (and last)? No one—yet those three glugs are the very fabric of my morning.
Routine is why I can’t drink too much, and why I’ve paradoxically become less spontaneous as a thirty-two-year-old bachelor than I was as an even younger married man. I feed the cat at seven. I cook a breakfast taco—scrambled egg, slice of pepper jack, corn tortilla, salsa verde—and make stovetop espresso. I eat standing. Then the cat sits in my lap until 7:40 while I go through email, examining the many special offers that appear in my inbox overnight. One-day sales; free trials; twenty percent off. I delete these notes, grab a shower, and am out the door at eight, a fifty-minute commute door to door, San Francisco south to Menlo Park.
Work is Amiante Systems, a grandiose linguistic computer project. As an enterprise, it’s not perfectly designed—the founder thought “Amiante” was Latin for magnetism; my ex-wife, Erin, pointed out it’s actually French for asbestos—but it’s well funded and amenable. There are three employees, and together we’re training a sophisticated program—based on a twenty-year diary from the so-called Samuel Pepys of the South (so called by the obscure historical journal that published the one and only excerpt)—to convincingly process natural language. To converse, in other words. To talk. The diaries are a mountain of thoughts and interactions, over five thousand pages of attitudes, stories, turns of phrase, life philosophies, medical advice. The idea is that the hidden connections in the entries, a.k.a. their personality, will give us a coherence that all previous conversing projects—hobby exercises, “digital assistants”—lack. The diarist, an Arkansas physician, was in fact my late father, which is how in the twisting way of these things I have the job. The diaries are my legal property. Still, my boss has warmed to me. I know little about computers—I spent my twenties writing ad copy—but of the three of us I’m the only native speaker of English, and I’ve been helpful in making the program sound more like a real person, albeit a very confused one.
When I get home from work, I feed the cat and make some dinner for myself. I sit on my new couch. If it’s a weekday, I have a glass of wine and watch a movie. If it’s a weekend I might meet up with an old pal, or a new one (though I have few new ones, and fewer old ones), or I might have plans with a lady friend (always plans, never anything left to the last minute). Occasionally, I go to a local watering hole where the bartenders are reliable. I consider this an indulgence, but little indulgences are also key to bachelor life. Parking is one—for three hundred dollars a month I avoid endlessly orbiting my block—but I also have my magazines, my twice-monthly housekeeper, my well-stocked bar, and my heated foot-soaking tub. If I feel overworked, I send out my clothes to wash-and-fold. Twice a year I might schedule a deep-tissue massage. I order in dinner weekly, and sometimes—if I’m feeling resolute—I’ll take a book to a nice restaurant and dine solo.
I grew up in the South, but made my home here in San Francisco for what are called lifestyle reasons. I enjoy the rain-washed streets, the tidy view of downtown, the earnest restaurant trends (right now it’s offal), the produce spilling from corner stores, farmer’s markets, pickup trucks. There are many like me here—single people beached in life—and I make passing friends, passing girlfriends. Right after my marriage ended I went on a crazed apartment hunt in Silicon Valley, closer to work, but soon saw what would become of me. I would disappear into my house, my housework, lawn work. I would become a specter, and this is the great peril of bachelorhood—that you’ll become so airy and insubstantial that people will peer straight through you.
I took a different tack (in part inspired by Fred). I decided to stay in the city, in the very apartment that Erin and I shared, and learn bachelor logic. It’s a clean system, with little time for sentimentality. It understands that as a bachelor you are a permanent in between. This is no time for conventions. When it comes to breakfast, to social life, to love, you must privilege the simple above the complicated. There’s nothing cruel about this. The bachelors I’ve met—temporary friends—have been nice guys. I’ve never been able to stomach men who refer to women as bitches, teases—though these men do exist, in San Francisco as in all the world. It’s not even their misogyny that bothers me: it’s their self-betrayal. They are the inept, the lost, the small. The successful bachelors—the ones without bitterness—have taught me many things: to schedule a social life, never to use both a spoon and a fork when either will do. I know a guy who sleeps in a hammock; a guy who allows no organic matter in his apartment, including food; a guy so sure of his childless bachelorhood he underwent a vasectomy (he gave me the recipe for the breakfast taco). Another bachelor once told me about his strategy for navigating the doldrums of physical isolation. When he wasn’t in the mood to dance or meet anyone datable, when he just wanted a sweet night with a strange body, a lee in which to pitch the Bedouin tent of his soul, he checked into one of the city’s big youth hostels. I said it seemed creepy, but he pointed out that creepy was irrelevant. It was ethical, and that was all that mattered. He was looking for a temporary balm; travelers would be more likely to share his goal. He wasn’t preying on anyone; in fact, he was offering his thorough knowledge of the city and his open pocketbook. The only shady business was that you had to concoct a mild alibi to explain why you’re checked into a youth hostel. You have elderly relatives visiting; your plumbing is out. Or you can bring your passport as your I.D. and pretend you’re traveling.
“It’s a melding of desired outcomes,” he said. All I could do was marvel at the performance of bachelor logic.
But is it nonsense? Will this friend, this good man, end up strapped to a stair stretcher, hands grasping for his rented walls?
I’m so sorry, Neill.
My father—I stopped calling him Dad when he committed suicide; it seemed too maudlin—would have found a specific and obvious moral to the story. He was such a traditionalist I’m half surprised he didn’t go about in period dress. He liked to cite the quotation on his parents’ grave marker, “Magnificence there was, but of comfort there was little, and, being unknown, it was unmissed.” It’s from Ivanhoe. We’re from an “old” southern family and are Roman Catholic to boot, so he probably would have insisted I do my duty, which usually was some version of “living for others.” I was in college when he killed himself. I took it hard, but it freed me from a certain worry, a locked-in way of seeing the world. I came to California, where I relinquished my duties as a “scion” of an “old” family. (I could just as easily put “duties” and “family” in scare quotes.) Instead, I took up the responsibilities of the good citizen: recycling, riding my bike, giving money to environmental groups and the Glide Memorial shelter. I belong to the SFMOMA and the Film Society. These are my adjustments, and in many ways they’ve been solid. As good as my brother’s white picket fence life in Michigan, his relentless quest for the banal. And, I fear, better than my mother’s attempt to both keep and escape the old house in Arkansas, a compromise that keeps her on a loop of educational tours, cruising the world’s unpopular coastlines.
My entire life, to my father, would be incomprehensible. Beneath mention. But my father’s diary—Dr. Bassett, as it’s referred to at Amiante—will engage any question. Since it’s a pretty basic program, a searchable version of the diaries with a few conversational tricks, I can’t say it understands anything. It can’t pursue a thought or even distinguish among who’s talking to it. (It doesn’t know, for instance, that I’m Dr. Bassett’s son.) But sometimes I throw in a few words, and the computer—in his Magic 8-Ball way—returns a phrase that has some hidden jolt of insight. This morning we had this exchange:
frnd1: should i stay in or go out tonight?
drbas: fridays are friend days.
frnd1: today is thursday, but that’s a nice thought
If I say more than one thing—use “and” or “but”—he often comes up empty-handed.
frnd1: your sentiment was a nice thought
drbas: how do you feel about my sentiment being a nice thought?
frnd1: just fine. so should i stay in or go out tonight?
drbas: you’ve moped long enough. it’s time you enjoyed yourself.
I had to correct his response: nothing in our earlier conversation hinted that I had been moping. Nevertheless, he’s right. Outside, dusk is coming down like a cleaver. If I can’t shake myself from this couch, I’ll be trapped, looking out on the black, unforgiving city of my thirties. The street below—as it so often does—will rattle with distant laughter.
At Fisherman’s Wharf—a quick taxi ride away—I watch the Ghirardelli sign flicker to life. My companions are a tall blonde, Rachel, and a pint-sized brunette, Lexie, from Tel Aviv. Neither is a great beauty, but they have the attraction of youth. As they should, since I met them at the youth hostel. It was as easy as my friend had described—Let’s go see the city, I said. Okay, they said. Exactly what I came here for, and yet the whole exchange put acid in my stomach. I should have chosen a simpler alibi—that my plumbing was out—rather than posing as a tourist. But I wanted that feeling of dislocation and here it is: the San Francisco of postcards. The smell of steaming crabs is in the chill air, and the storefronts of this great T-shirt souk glimmer platinum in the dusk. Fog cocoons the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz sits lit and lonely in the gray water. We couldn’t ask for much better if a cable car bell rang, and presently one does—king, king. The Hyde and Larkin Street line.
The girls are lightly dressed, as if we’re hitting the clubs in Miami: short skirts with Ugg boots, tube tops skintight and grimacing. They shiver. The blonde, Rachel—the more handsome but less cute of the two—reddens and speckles from the gusting cold.
“What a view,” I say. It’s their first time in San Francisco.
“It’s awesome,” Rachel says.
“I can’t believe this is fucking August,” Lexie says, rubbing her arms. She’s round and powdered and young, but she has the deep, raspy voice of an emphysema patient. “So where’s the party around here?”
“Can’t we just look at the scenery for three seconds?” Rachel says.
“This is our last city.” Lexie casts a meaningful look my way. I recognize it: she wants rid of me. I must beam gloominess.
“And you want to do the same thing in this city you do in every city,” her friend says.
“It’s worked so far, right?” Lexie barks. “We’ve had fun, right?”
Rachel shakes her head, looking disgusted.
“I’m surprised you’re traveling all by yourself,” Lexie says.
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