Cale Canis

When Frederick Francis Cale was a babe, he observed his father’s dog barking at a cat which had stepped across the street and swiftly dropped to his hands and knees and keened at the top of his lungs, to the surprise and amusement of his parents and the grand terror of the tabby, which, wide-eyed, sped off to the distant alley from whence it had come.

From that moment on, whenever young Frederick would chance upon a cat, he would fall to all fours and bark until exhaustion overtook him.

At first, his parents were greatly amused, but after several months the boy’s behavior remained unchanged. Mr. Cale feared some dark aberration had taken root in the lad’s mind, but could find no example, in the excavation of his memories, of any queer turning in the child’s development; his upbringing had, until recently, been completely normal, which made the boy’s strange behavior appear, in retrospect, all the stranger.

“Surely we should speak to him.”

“Oh, darling,” Mrs. Cale cooed, “Its just a phase. He’ll grow out of it.”

“Perhaps you’re right.”

The next month, the Cale’s neighbors, The Cumberlands, bought a young feline from the local shelter and gave it to their daughter Esmeralda, as a present for her birthday, who decided to take her new ward for a turn around the culdesac. When Esmeralda passed the Cale House, young Frederick, upon spying the cat, rushed to the window, howling and yelping and slobbering upon the glass, giving the girl a terrible fright and causing her cat to tug against its leash, tail flickering, hair standing on end. Mr. Cale shut the window, shot his son a withering glare, shook his head and bounded quickly from the house to greet the woman upon the green and grey.

“I’m sorry. We’ve no idea why he does that.”

To his great surprise the woman only smiled and laughed.

“Its alright. I’m sure its just a phase. Worse to be too strict than too lenient, right?”

A year passed and Frederick’s peculiar behavior remained unchanged—indeed, had compounded. The matter came to a head when, in the month of January of that year, Frederick, in one of his canine fits, tried to bite Esmeralda’s cat. Despite his wife’s protestations and the fact that the Cumberlands were nonplussed about the affair, Mr. Cale sent the child off to the local shrink.

One day, scarcely a month into Frederick’s new regime, the Cale’s phone rang. Mr. Cale answered and was greeted by a frantic female voice.

“This is the Cale Residence?”

“Yes ma’am. This is Arthur Cale. I assume this is about my boy?”

“It is. Please, come as soon as you’re able.”

“What happened? Is he all right?”

“There’s no time to explain. You must see for yourself.”

“Very well, I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

He hung up the phone and, with a thrumming heart, dashed to his car, and spun out of the short, white gravel drive.

When Arthur arrived at the shrink’s office, he found the psychologist snarling at a tree.

A cat upon its gnarled branches.

Roadkill

Sitting and lazily swiveling in my broken leatherette desk chair, I looked around my office, searching its contents for some sense of purpose for being there, but much to no avail.  Brown bookcases lined the walls, squeezed tightly together in a uniform fashion. The shelves were concave, virtually choking on artifacts collected (hoarded, really) over my three-year tenure at the university. Many of my interests, adopted since graduate school, were also sufficiently represented: Old English textbooks, manuals on psychotherapy, stacks of literature—most of the poetry and “dirty realism” ilk—and guides that promised to convey all one could ever want to know about qualitative research methods and their ethical applications. They were more distractions and dalliances than anything, really, that—in lieu of slowing things down and actually reflecting on my life—occupied my mind and most of my free time. Despite the random bursts of clutter that, strategically, were left untouched so as to add a sense of busyness to the room, it was a pleasant space to be in, with its dark, laminate wood furniture (in their varieties of almost-matching hues) and motley knick-knacks that, while decorative, gave visitors little to no information about the inner-workings of my head, leaving them a bit disturbed and slightly off-kilter. The main culprits were a gold-leaf Ganesh statue that doubled as a paperweight; a plaster skull that served as a makeshift bookend; a worn copy of the Zohar on the console table by the door; a metal dachshund on a wooden base, peeing on a fire hydrant; an earmarked book of daily reflections on stoicism; and a vintage toaster from the 1950s that sat atop the bookcase near the office’s rear window that immediately pulled one’s attention towards the back wall, where multiple degrees were mounted like stuffed deer heads, but with no sense of pride or accomplishment attached to them. Stopping mid-swivel, I eyed the few shelves dedicated to the field that I not only currently taught, as a full-time assistant professor, but had dedicated a good portion of my adult life to, social work.

Many titles rang familiar, as I had immersed myself in the profession (clinical practice to be exact) for more years than I cared to admit, hitting heights in my career that even I had never anticipated. I smiled and nodded to myself, as I scanned book spines for titles I was particularly fond of and found most useful. Most of them centered around cognitive-behavioral therapies and developmental theories: the subjects that had lent greatly to my success as a therapist and college instructor. Other titles were observed, however, inserted willy-nilly amongst the familiar, that fell upon my consciousness with a dismally lackluster thud. I had no recollection of where they came from or even why I bought them in the first place. Their subject matters were relevant enough, spanning everything from family therapy to mindfulness-based practice to the “science of compassion” (whatever that was), but I had never handled any of them, nor flipped a single page between any of their crease-free, paperback covers.

Must have been bought last year when I still gave a shit…or at least tried to, I thought to myself, disturbingly unmoved by the assumption.

Truth be told, I was no stranger to orchestrating a life based on what I “should” do, though the origin of that narrative really was never quite clear to me. The pursuit of upward mobility and goal attainment had become second-nature, making alternate options tantamount to failure or—at the very least—proof that all the things I had been trying to convince myself that I wasn’t were, indeed—after all—true. To ponder too long upon such thoughts was unacceptable. “We don’t do that,” my father used to say to me (when we were still speaking, anyway), after any suggestion of doubt or surrender was made audibly known, as if he were speaking to one of the many faceless football players he had coached during his long, acclaimed high-school teaching career. The radio silence between the old man and me should have made things easier for me to find a way out of my current sojourn into limbo, but it didn’t. Some specters follow you no matter how much time has passed. No matter how many skins you’ve shed and brushed under dusty carpets; they stick like birthdays or the need to breathe. No, those thoughts just didn’t do. They were weak. Dangerous. After all, what would chucking it all have meant in retrospect? All those years of graduate school. The years of training. The late nights and weekends working in the ER until sun-up. My private practice. The systematic sacrificing of what little personal life I had had. All wasted? No. That wasn’t an option. From a practical standpoint, it made absolutely no sense to shift gears this late in the game—much less, start over from scratch. That meant giving up everything I had talked myself into thinking was important and that couldn’t happen, even though I—more than anything—wished it could.

As the silence of my office began to stab at my ears, I was overcome with the urge to feel tethered to something—anything. The groundlessness of what seemed like a constant free-fall was beginning to wear on me.  I was always in my head, and when I was lucky enough to be present—really present—I felt pressed by the weight of it all—my life—and hyper-conscious of the meat that burdened my leaden bones.

My work had brought me a decent amount of security over the years, opening enough doors to help me coast through life. Up until a few months prior, that had been the most important thing in my small world, but—more and more—the prospect of more years of automaton-like productivity had begun to grate on me, gradually tearing away at the illusion of my career and its once-held platinum-card appeal. Maybe it was because I never really wanted to become a social worker—and clinician—in the first place. After all, it was just a means to an end, a way to prove something; though I wasn’t sure to whom. Maybe that was what came from expecting too much, or too little, or nothing at all. Maybe it was what came from forcing a purpose in life and not letting one just unfold before me. To have expected a different outcome seemed silly. In truth, the glamour had faded and, ultimately, I was left navigating a cold world of hard edges and empty space.

Leaning my head back onto my chair’s headrest, thoughts pulled me back to the summer of 1977 when I drowned in my apartment complex’s swimming pool; I always went there when I found myself walking that thin line between depression and numbness. School was out, so my sister and I had gone down to the pool to let off some steam and cut the boredom of the day. I remembered my father was there, reading a newspaper on a nearby bench with his usual cup of black coffee. My sister, Lisa, a pretty and slightly chubby girl, was laying on her stomach in a black Woolworth’s one-piece with sash-like fuscia and turquoise stripes that wrapped around her thick waist, flipping through a then-current issue of Tiger Beat magazine with John Travolta on the cover. I aimlessly dog-paddled about the shallow end of the pool, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my back and the silky coolness of the water that glided around my legs. After a while, a boy about my age—probably from another unit in the complex—entered the pool gate and headed to the patch of grass near the water. While close to the same height, the boy was much bigger than me. He threw his towel in the grass and dove in, surfacing close to where I was treading water. It wasn’t long before a friendly exchange took place, and both of us shot-the-shit, chatting about everything from Legos to what pains-in-the-ass sisters were. Eventually, a game of tag ensued, and we flopped about, darting to-and-fro, launching ourselves from the rough-surfaced pool walls in relentless, individual efforts to make the other ‘it.’ I remembered one of my ankles being grabbed and then being pulled down, hard, but not before an excited laugh escaped my lips; a moment of true, unadulterated happiness. I remembered being underwater for a long time, not being able to breathe or rise above the surface. There was thrashing and kicking. The pulling didn’t stop. I remembered the play of shimmering webs of sunlight on pool walls around me. I remembered the distorted world above the surface that seemed miles from where I was. I remembered panic and the color light-blue.

Then black.

When my eyes opened, I was on my back; the silhouette of Lisa’s head looming over me, as the noon sun beat down in a relentless assault. Instinctively, my eyes searched around for my father, but he was gone. It was just Lisa and me. She had given me CPR and saved my life; a fortuitous perk of her working part-time, as a lifeguard, at the city pool that summer.

“Oh, my God, Jacob! Are you ok? Are you ok?” Tears filled her eyes.

I was disoriented and had taken in a lot of water. I was too busy coughing up what seemed to be an endless supply of it to answer her. Each cough set off a fire in my chest, as small trickles of warm liquid splashed upon the concrete under my left cheek.  “Where is Dad? I want dad!” I cried.

“He’s getting help. You stopped breathing, Jacob. We—I couldn’t find a pulse. Oh, my God! You scared us to death! Are you ok?” Barely navigating her way through the too many emotions she was having, she pulled up my limp body from the ground and hugged me, tightly; something that had never happened before. “That fucking asshole! Was he trying to kill you?”

“What? Who?” I asked, laying back down on the warm, wet concrete, finding its hardness soothing.

“That kid. That asshole you were playing with! He pulled you down and wouldn’t let go.”  Lisa began to cry, stifling her sobs, as she continued. “I—we didn’t notice what was happening until…We saw you under the water. You weren’t moving!”

Lisa moved away to give me some air, leaving me even more muddled and blinded by the sun. I asked, “What happened to him?”

Lisa looked confused. “What are you talking about, Jacob?”

“The boy. Where is he?”

“I dove in and tried to pull you away from him, but he just wouldn’t let go. He wouldn’t stop. Asshole! That fucking asshole!”

“So, how did you—”

“I kicked the fucker in the stomach! Hard! That’s how!  He wouldn’t let you go!  I snatched you away and he took off, crying. I don’t know where. I pulled you out and…you weren’t breathing. You weren’t breathing!” She sobbed, wiping hot tears from her cheeks. “I checked after I got you out. You didn’t have a… Are you ok?” I had never seen her look at me with such care before. For a moment, it felt nice.

About a minute passed before I could speak, as I clutched the hard ground beneath me, waiting for the world to stop spinning as if I could be flung off into the blackness of space at any minute. “I think so,” I said, still in shock, shivering. I raised myself onto my elbows, slowly, with my eyes—like my chest—burning with chlorine. “Where is Dad? I want dad! Where was he? Did he see?” I asked, wishing it had been him who had saved me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the bench where he had been sitting; a newspaper was neatly folded on its surface and his coffee cup was gone.

I rarely thought of that summer day; it, essentially, remained wiped from my memory, except for when things got low—really low—which happened every so often, but still more than I cared for. I chuckled to myself at the irony of being saved only to live a life that didn’t seem like mine anymore. Guess God wasn’t done with the show yet. At times I felt like maybe things were so hard because I did come back, almost as if I wasn’t supposed to be here anymore, and the world let me know that at every turn. Or maybe I didn’t come back all the way—a jumble of remnants that couldn’t quite be properly pieced together, again. It was all so tiring, but that is what happens when you live life on a dare; the words “want” and “can’t” just don’t exist, so there is no choice but to keep moving and trying until the day you just don’t anymore. Truth be told, I longed for that day, sometimes, but that wasn’t up to me.

I could hear the custodian cleaning the office next door; he would be in my office soon.  It was almost six in the evening, according to the clock on the computer. I let out a long, drawn-out exhale and gathered a stack of ungraded papers from under my keyboard and stuffed them into my satchel, powered down the computer, and prepared to lock up for the night. I turned off the lights and took one last look around the space for anything I may have missed. Turning to leave, I slightly hesitated, noticing how peaceful the room was without the electric hums of fluorescents and a running computer. It was time to go, though.

Papers to gradeDogs to feedSleep.

The drive home was calming. The lulling, rhythmic kisses of rubber treads on the road. The random selections of my iTunes on low. The stale smell of cigarettes and sweat in my car that reminded me of my grandfather, who died forty years ago too soon, and his old, white Ford pick-up. I took the backroads home, as I always did, which took a little longer, but they were rarely used that late in the day, so I could take my time driving when the inclination hit me. I didn’t mind. I liked to drive, especially when the quiet in my life threatened to overtake me, granting license to thoughts and memories to rouse and scramble, looking for hints of light that seeped in through doors, opened ajar, hungry for recognition. I reached my right hand over towards the passenger’s seat, threw back the flap of my satchel, and dug into its contents for a Marlboro, fumbling through the sharp edges of papers and uncapped pens with determined purpose. Keeping vigilant, my eyes were fixed on the road, ahead, when I felt the edge of a cardboard box graze my fingertips. I pulled out the pack and with my thumb flipped open the top, bringing it to my lips, where I proceeded to pull out a lone cigarette with my teeth. I lit it with the lighter I had purchased that morning at 7-11; one more to add to the slew that I had, progressively, stockpiled at home in errant drawers, leather bags, and even the bathroom, where I ritualistically had my first smoke of the day, after dragging myself out of bed. I always forgot them when I left the house—too many thoughts, too early.  I took a long, crackling drag and held it in my lungs for a while, exhaled, and then wrested my wrist on top of the steering wheel. As the cigarette dangled between me and the speedometer, I eyed the yellow-grey smoke, as it streamed from its flaming cherry, lost in how it rippled and curled like a fine silk ribbon. I admired the graceful poetry of it and thought it a shame to turn it to shreds with another exhale.

A loud ruckus suddenly broke my reverie, as the car and everything in it shook and shifted.

Shit! Did I hit something?

My eyes darted forward and found nothing but open road, then I quickly looked into the rear-view mirror, noticing nothing but a blackening sky that slowly melting into asphalt that was divided by intermittent dashes of vibrant yellow. Pulling my attention back to the world outside the windshield, I noticed a shock of red among the dark hues that flooded the rear-view. I squinted and focused, intently, into the mirror, noticing a band of red that stretched in tandem along the road’s surface, while my tires intermittently jarred and sounded, as if driving over stones and wet, rolled-up newspapers. Confused, I clutched the steering wheel with my other hand—so hard I pumped the blood out of my knuckles—and scanned the road before me, noticing the same ruddy hue extending off into the distance. Clumps of black speckled the highway, disappearing into the periphery, as quickly as my tires propelled me home. Intermittent bumps and pops from the road, below, reverberated within the cabin.

What?

I tossed my cigarette out of the cracked, driver-side window.

Something got run over.

I checked the rear-view, again, and saw no cars behind me, then decelerated to better see what was going on straight-ahead.

It’s blood…and fur.

Given the distance that the length of gore had stretched and the amount of carrion on the road, it appeared as if some poor animal had been hit and dragged along for quite some time. As if in an automatic response, I turned the wheel, slightly, to adjust the position of the car within the lane, centering it directly over the deathly strip. Off to my right in the distance, I spied a motionless black mass by the side of the highway, much larger than what had then been feeding the road and my tires. I drove on and followed my “guide” until it minimized into sporadic smears and splatters that trailed off onto the side of the road, where the still thing lay. Veering off, I parked just ahead of it, turned off the ignition, and just sat there, staring at it in the rear-view.

A quiver possessed my legs, as I noticed my hands were still grasping the steering wheel.  I released them, my right hand instinctively searching for another cigarette

Damn!

Stopping myself, I remembered I had just smoked the last one.

It’s gotta be dead.  No way he could survive that.

I wondered why I had stopped. What could I do? It didn’t make sense, but something inside me knew I had to stop and take a look. Bracing myself, I released the seatbelt and opened the door. The air that night was cooler the usual—chilly, almost. I poked my head out into the dimmed light of evening and looked to the right, then left. Still no cars. I—we—were alone. I got out, closed the door, and took a deep breath. I looked ahead of me at a field of cotton that flanked the left side of the highway. The stalks looked black against the evening sky with a peppering of stark white that punctuated the—seemingly—lifeless expanse’s absence of color. It seemed colder all of a sudden—the air more humid and nipping than before.

I turned to my left and walked towards the heap, the crunching of gravel and clods of dried mud beneath my feet. With every step, splatters of crimson and bits of meat and fur marred the path ahead of me. I finally came upon it. The headless tangle of broken limbs—a dog, likely—had thick, black, wooly fur, that was stickily matted with congealing blood and gore. It was sprawled out in an almost apologetic fashion, seeming to want to edge its way towards the shallow canal just beyond its reach, past a patch of chaparral trees some forty feet away from where I stood. Looking down upon the sad lump, safely distanced from it (though safe from what I didn’t know), I stood in silence and inspected my “summoner.” Shards of bone and bloody, gray innards crept out of peeks of torn flesh. Flies and ants had already started to feast.

Doesn’t take long, does it?

The smell of carnage hung in the moist air like the odor of pennies that had been held in a sweaty fist for too long. I thought of how much it must have suffered. How long it must have taken to die.

All alone…out here.

I wondered if he belonged to anyone. If he was missed. If anyone even cared… or would.  No answers came. Just the whispering of the wind through the chaparrals and black stalks of cotton beyond.

I wanted to feel sad, but didn’t… couldn’t. Something stirred within my chest; a burning.  I thought about what I would have done if I had found the animal alive. I would have tried to save it—if I could. Stayed with it—if all was lost—so he wouldn’t have to die alone; a prospect that made the fire in my chest rage even more. I imagined it alive and what it might have looked like, a pair of pleading, brown eyes, looking up at me for comfort; a tail, furiously wagging. In my head, I heard it whining and whimpering from fear and pain.  “We don’t do that,” escaped my lips before my consciousness could ground me in the bloody place where I stood. My eyes began to sting and moisten, but no tears came. Silent and fatigued, I hung my head, as if in prayer, and watched the fading sun glistening off dampened, black fur and red-tinted bones, finding my thoughts pulling me towards the comforts of home and six dogs that were very much alive.

Before I got back into my car to leave, I pulled off the college ring I had bought myself years ago, after graduation, and tossed it onto the carcass, as if to show any passers-by that he—maybe I— wasn’t alone.

The Euphoric Problem

The thought of my “present reality” was plastered on the front side of a coin with a backside insisting, “Try to escape.”

Notice, while the backside literally read, “Try to escape,” the front side did not read, “Present reality.” Instead, the front side listed that which was, at the moment, my present reality. More often than not, the front side of the coin featured only a single word. For example, at any given moment, it might say, “Hungry,” or “Tired,” or “Complacent.”

Sometimes I really wanted to try to escape. Take the present reality of being “Cheated.” This is a situation requiring action, and I would most certainly find the bastard to blame and right away work against my present reality until I was fully “Rectified.”

At other times, it was not such an immediately satisfying game. I found, for instance, that every time I was “Euphoric,” I hesitated before considering my escape routes. To be euphoric is in all aspects desirable; and yet, even at the height of euphoria, I was confronted with the instruction to escape.

When I hit upon what might be called The Euphoric Problem, I began to realize that the coin analogy was burdened with a subtle oversimplification—an oversimplification that really amounts to a fatal oversight.

The coin correctly highlights a present reality and the compulsion to escape, but it leaves out a third level: the “subconscious will,” if you like.

When I began to contemplate this third level, I realized that it was the primary force responsible for projecting any given word onto the surface of the “present reality” side of the “coin,” and that is when I came to understand that the complete totality of my conscious circumstance undergirded a single proposition, which might be stated as: “Create any present reality and see if you can escape it.”

My only true present reality, you see, was this statement. I had been escaping a running series of present moments, but only in the context of this statement. With the satisfaction of the winning move in a game of chess, I promptly directed the proposition itself onto the front side of the “coin.” And that is how I achieved my current state outside the present moment. It might be called “disoriented,” “not-present,” or even “dead”—or it might be called: the answer to a problem.

Firebug

Devlin Carver heard it in the morning. The dull scratching on the ceiling that had kept him up half the night. Something in the walls…

He rubbed the dream-dust from his eyes and rose and paused, listening intently. The scratching intensified for a brief moment and then fell silent. Shortly, the sound started up again in roughly the same spot.

Insects.

Carver cursed under his breath and moved to the left to examine the wall, placing his ear against the dull, green surface. The sound of multi-legged skittering greeted him. Could be termites. Pine beetles. Ants. Something else. Maybe a family of mice or some other type of rodent. He considered his options as he showered and hurriedly dressed. He’d need to call a exterminator to rid his tiny house of the mysterious scourge on his way to work. Unless…

“I wonder if I could make a trap?” He mumbled aloud as he brushed his teeth. He had no idea what kind of insects were in the walls and thus, had no idea what kind of trap to build. When he thought on the matter for just a little longer he realized he had no knowledge of insect traps whatsoever. He knew that sticky paper could get rid of flies and certain zapper-lights could kill moths and other light-drawn night-fliers, but he’d no notion of how to construct such items, nor where to purchase them and figured it didn’t much matter because such devices wouldn’t work inside his peeling walls. He hoped his erstwhile guests weren’t possessed of some vile disease. He’d heard of that before. Read of it. Bug disease.

Suddenly, the scratching came again – so swift and loud and sudden that it caused Devlin to swallow a little of his toothpaste by accident. He cursed under his breath and turned to the flat, tiled wall. There was nothing. It was as if the creatures in the wall could tell when he was near…

*

Devlin arrived at work five minutes late and was met by Jamie Brinks outside his work station.

“Where in Waldo’s name have you been?”

“I was only five minutes late.”

“Seven now.”

“Shit.”

“Cameron is gonna flip.”

“He’s always flipping about something.”

“You been sleeping ok, man? You look a little… brittle.”

“Couldn’t sleep last night. Some kind of… infestation… in my house. You know me. I keep tidy. Don’t know how it happened. But, anyway, it sounded like… insects… or… something.”

“Gross. Sorry to hear that.”

“Can hear them in the walls. Gotta call an exterminator. Know any?”

“Uh, yeah, actually, I do. When Maggie brought back one of her weirdo foreign plants, turned out to be filled with some kind of tree-killing beetle and the damn things went around and started fucking up our orchard. Killed the fuck outta all the trees. Can’t remember their names. The trees or the bugs. Anyways, we called this small company that operates out of the suburbs. Cheap, quick, clean. I can give you the number.”

Brinks reached into his suit’s inner breast pocket, withdrew a memo pad and a pen and began furiously jotting down a name and phone number.

“Thanks, man. Appreciate it.”

“Ah, shit, here comes Cameron.”

A short, fat man strode – or rather waddled – up to the duo, his pin-prick eyes smouldering with strange intensity and his shiny, spa-smoothed brow reflecting like a mirror. He looked, to Carver, like some kind of disgruntled bullfrog.

“You’re late. Again.”

“Sorry.”

“I don’t need apologies. I need good workers who know how to set their alarms. Clearly that isn’t you.”

“But sir-”

“You’re fired.”

*

Devlin Carver shook his head and ate a pickle and called the waitress of the diner over and ordered another coffee; he wanted a drink of something stronger but detested the taste of alcohol. He simply couldn’t believe he’d been fired for being only a few minutes late. It was only the fourth time in four years. So what, he thought furiously, so what if I’m late, so fucking what? He thought back to his time at the company, clicking a keyboard, filing reports, getting yelled at for incompetence and laziness. Four years of his life down the drain. Four years of his life spent laboring for a company whose board and CEO he’d never even seen or talked to, four years he could have been building up his own company, his own venture, his own life, rather than serving those he didn’t even have the courtesy to give him the time of day. It was all their fault. Them and those things in his walls.

Motes of dust like flecks of burning gold spun through the ambered light of the Jenny’s diner. He wondered who Jenny was, if she was the fat woman behind the counter to the far left of the room or the hot little number serving beer and sandwiches to an old couple at a table to the right. The duo must have been in their late sixties, perhaps old, and yet they chortled and moved with a vivacity that Carver associated with the gilded fervor of youth. He bet they had plenty of cash to burn. Coasting on retirement funds. Subsidized unto the tomb. The pickle raised before his mouth slipped from his hand and splashed upon his breeches, soiling them with juice, prompting a muted curse. The man’s fists shook as he picked up the pickle and grabbed a napkin off the table and began sopping up the mess as the buxom waitress, returning from the old couple, began to laugh, siding up to Carver with a twinkle in her eye.

“Having some technical difficulties, sir?”

“Doing fine. Thanks. Just dropped my pickle.”

” You dropped your pickle on your pickle.”

She laughed raucously but quickly brought herself under control as her boss shot a dissaproving frown in her direction. Carver wanted to punch her. Wanted to slam her over-powdered face straight into the corner of the table. He remained silent.

“I’m sorry, sir, I shouldn’t laugh. Anything I can get you?”

“Got a new pair of pants in the back?”

She smiled and chuckled as Carver forced a smile.

“Fraid not.”

“Didn’t think so. Thanks for asking.”

A jolt of realization shot through his mind and he scrambled for his phone as the waitress went about her work. He had forgotten his date. Julia was going to be distraught. What was the time, he thought frantically, what was the time! He pulled out his phone and sighed.

He was late for his date. Late by half an hour.

He paid for his meal and hailed a cab.

*

When he arrived at the Scallop he was greeted by an exceedingly prim, mustached waiter who leaned towards his ear.

“You are Mr. Carver, yes?”

“That’s me.”

“Julia Farrah, with whom you had secured a reservation, wanted me to deliver a message,” the waiter handed a small folded piece of paper to Carver and then shifted away.

“Where’d she go?”

The waiter paused briefly arched his brows, “She left, ten minutes ago.”

*

Carver blamed the things in the walls. For his firing. For the spilled pickle. For missing his date. Costing him his relationship and it but fetal and barely formed, so filled with promise, now dashed. He would have gotten up at day-break if the whatever-in-the-walls had not have kept him up half the night with their incessant chittering.

He swigged vodka from a ceramic coffee cup adorned with palm trees and hula girls and looked out the window of his decaying apartment at a gang of youths harass police officers on the street.

“It’s not my fault.”

As if in response he heard the chittering. A rancid insectal thrumming.

“It’s not my fault.”

He started, eyes widening and then swore and threw his cup at the wall of his study where it shattered, raining ceramic fragments to the floor. The noise ceased momentarily and then picked up, louder than ever. Carver’s ears rang. His head felt as if it would, at any moment, burst under the strain of the ratcheting aural assault.

He rose and kicked the wall, but the sound only increased. He swore and snatched up his cell and punched in the number that Brinks had given him. A smooth male voice answered on the other end.

“Y’ello.”

The voice sounded strikingly familiar to Carver, though he could recall who it belonged to or where he’d heard them speak.

“Hi. This is Devlin Carver. Jamie Brinks gave me this number. Said you were a good exterminator.”

“You say your name was Devlin Carver?”

“Yeah.”

“I think I know you.”

Devlin paused, furrowing his brows and pursing his lips, “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, you’re Julie’s friend, right?”

Devlin froze, his knuckles going white about the phone, eyes engorged with the dying amber light that filtered in through his windows from the slowly setting sun. He had heard this voice before, at Julie’s family’s Fourth of July party…

“Who is it, babe?” A female voice inquired from somewhere in the near distance.

Devlin hung up the phone. He knew if he didn’t he’d scream. The noise started up again, scratching the interior folds of his brain much as it scratched the plaster and drywall. He rose and moved from his study in the far left corner of the room to his bed on the opposite side of the room and threw himself against the sheets as motes of dust leapt into the air. In the golden light of the vanishing sun, they looked to all the world like ashes from a crackling fire. The noise continued to pummel his brain, now coming from the floors and the ceiling. He put the pillow over his head and then screamed as his bed began to reverberate with the chittering.

Carver leapt off the bed and lit a candle on his nightstand, shut his window and ran for the kitchen and turned on the gas and left the tenement as the sun and the world was covered in shuddering darkness.

*

Carver watched the firemen tend to the charred ruins of his former home. The ensuing flames from the explosion had taken out at least five other apartments. The skittering sound had ceased. The things in the walls were gone. Gone forever.

Unless…

Unless the creatures in the walls were fireproof…

Intelligence: Artificial & Otherwise

To speak sanguinely about Artificial intelligence (AI) – real and speculative – one must first ask the question: Is AI possible? Before that question can even be rendered answerable, however, one must define one’s terms, especially given the proclivity for intelligence-as-such, that is, as a material process, to be conflated and constrained wholly to sapience (human intelligence). If one’s definition for intelligence-as-such is constrained solely to human intelligence it is definitionally refuting, as it would be to claim that intelligence is a human-exclusive process (which it isn’t). It may be the case (and indeed is likely) that the concept of intelligence is unique to humans, but the process there described is clearly not. No one would contend that pigs, dogs, monkeys and dolphins do not have their own, unique, forms of non-sapient intelligence. However, if one theorizes from the ludicrously anthropocentric1 position that human intelligence is the sum-total of intelligence-as-such than clearly AI (often used synonymously with MI, or Machine Intelligence) has not yet been developed and is, indeed, impossible. This is conceptually egregious.

Intelligence is a particular configuration of matter; a durable process of some system which allows for the further processing of information (both internal and external to the originary entity) which then allows the system to react, in some way, to the information there processed. Thus defined, AI is not only possible, but already actual. This is to say that a contemporary computer IS artificially intelligent, it is not conscious of its intelligence but there is no reason why any given entity must be conscious of its intelligence for it to display intelligence because intelligence is a function of a particular material configuration. The complexity of intelligence, however, prohibits simple and all-encompassing characterization in a way which is not comparable to flight, swimming, lifting or running. For example, if a roboticist were to create a fully-functional machine that, in every detail, imitated the structure of a bat, no one would say that this machinic creation wasn’t really capable of flight. If it were swooshing about a room via the power of its metallic wings one would readily admit it were flying without a qualm. Similarly, if this same genius roboticist were to create a fully-functional replica of a fish and then placed it into a stream and watched it slip through the liquid, no one would say that this replica-fish was not really swimming. However, when it comes to computers performing tasks, such as mathematical problem-solving, the cry “that isn’t real intelligence” is invariably raised.

Sam Harris elaborates upon the issue, “We already know that it is possible for mere matter to acquire ‘general intelligence’—the ability to learn new concepts and employ them in unfamiliar contexts—because the 1,200 cc of salty porridge inside our heads has managed it. There is no reason to believe that a suitably advanced digital computer couldn’t do the same.”2

Writing the same year, Benjamin H. Bratton makes a similar case, “Unless we assume that humanlike intelligence represents all possible forms of intelligence – a whopper of an assumption – why define an advanced A.I. by its resemblance to ours? After all, “intelligence” is notoriously difficult to define, and human intelligence simply can’t exhaust the possibilities. Granted, doing so may at times have practical value in the laboratory, but in cultural terms it is self-defeating, unethical and perhaps even dangerous.” And somewhat later in his text, “Contemporary A.I. research suggests instead that the threshold by which any particular arrangement of matter can be said to be “intelligent” doesn’t have much to do with how it reflects humanness back at us. As Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig (now director of research at Google) suggest in their essential A.I. textbook, biomorphic imitation is not how we design complex technology. Airplanes don’t fly like birds fly, and we certainly don’t try to trick birds into thinking that airplanes are birds in order to test whether those planes “really” are flying machines. Why do it for A.I. then?”3

Why indeed? Of course, artificial intelligence-as-such and the desire to create artificial intelligence which is human-like, or human-exact, are two completely different issues. It may be that the process of creating human-like machine intelligence is at some point discovered and deemed imminently desirable. Whatever is decided in the future, I would recommend the acronym SEAI (Sapient Emulating Artificial Intelligence) to differentiate, with brevity and clarity, general artificial intelligence from human-like artificial intelligence systems.

1Anthropocentrism has two principal classes: (a.) the belief that humans are the most, or one of the most, significant entities in the known universe. (b.) the belief that humans are the fundemental, indispensible or central component of all existence which leads to the interpretation of reality solely through human-familiar conception. All utilizations of ‘anthropocentrism’ in this paper are (b.)-type. The author finds no fault with definition (a.) and has extensively remarked upon this topic elsewhere; see: Kaiter Enless. (2018) Suzerain. Logos.

2Sam Harris. (2015) Can We Avoid A Digital Apocalypse? A Response To The 2015 Edge Question. SamHarris.org.

3Benjamin H. Bratton. (2015) Outing AI: Beyond The Turing Test. NYTimes.