The HyperTexts

by Sally Cook

It wasn't too long ago that I read of a Catholic priest saying that if life forms exist on other planets then we must send out missionaries to convert them.  I assume he meant to Christianity; still, there are so many disciplines that this whole idea of conversion and, indeed, re-conversion opens up like a giant flower and becomes increasingly fascinating the more one thinks of it.

There is no doubt in my mind that one of the most difficult things for anybody to do is to keep some sort of check on the imagination lest it roar out and over everything, inundating both perspective and what is uncommonly known as "common sense".  The Catholic church, at least in my experience, is on the conservative side; not noted for espousing radical ideas.  So that when a priest of this venerable body hints of life on other planets and tells us it is our duty to make them more like us—re-create them in our own image, so to speak, I would tend to think the idea is not a new one, having been clothed in official sanction.

Therefore, it seems to me that if we can avoid making the usual error of assuming that creatures of space do not so much as approach our level of intelligence but consider the idea that they may very well be our superiors in every way, then it becomes a frighteningly easy thing to simply turn the concept inside out and "see ourselves as others see us". In short, could we not, at this very moment, be undergoing a kind of cosmic conversion to almost anything by some sort of, as they say, alien intelligence?

Laugh if you will.  Newspapers and other propaganda media and dispensers of official information have laughed for years at such things as extra-sensory perception, faith healings, ghosts, flying saucers, teleportation, time travel and telekinesis, but there is hardly a person I have ever met and talked to for any length of time that has not had an experience which would fall into one of these categories.  People go on believing in what has happened to them; they don't care why, and all the while the great weight of advertising is brought to bear to convince them they should believe instead in what never has and is never likely to happen to them.

My life is primarily one of seclusion—I watch and wait, and every now and then I pick up a little nugget of the unexplained—perhaps the unexplainable. As a writer, I know I am supposed to take a great and ponderous interest in the pressing social problems of today, and though in my own quiet way I am as interested in them as anybody I cannot accept the premise that all of them stem from physical causes. There is another world around us all the time; not always metaphysical, but rather a body of half-forgotten knowledge, evidenced by ideas imperfectly realized—drifting, lighting, or burning themselves out.  In a tidy world of concepts neatly pragmatic I look for the strange, the half-known and the little understood.   

The house in which I live is divided into two sections—the front half, which is again divided into three furnished apartments with a little store tacked on the front—and the rear, in which there are two unfurnished apartments; one upstairs occupied by a Mrs. Carstairs, and one downstairs which is mine. I've never been really comfortable here. The living room is too dark, the bedroom too small, and the room where I work so long and narrow that nothing much will fit into it except a desk and chair, some books, and a small easel where I amuse myself by painting something from time to time. Nevertheless, I continue to stay on—inertia keeps me here. I have not been well for a while and have largely replaced my social life by a vicarious interest in the kind of thing that happens in a neighborhood like this. In a small city on an obscure secluded street one soon learns to recognize the infinite variety in every doorway, behind every window.

The apartment over me is occupied by a woman who was one of the first to move into this building. The apartments in the upper front contain two fat women with elaborately teased and heightened hair. One leaves garbage lying around in the hall, on the steps, in the yard, or wherever it happens to fall from her lethargic hand. The other has an equally fat boyfriend named Vince, and is now and then carried away to the hospital because of a screaming fit. Charming girls, both of them; not the type one is glad to have for neighbors. I've always been relieved they live in the front of the building, not in the back.

It must have been about three weeks ago when the downstairs front apartment became vacant. The landlord had put up one of those ridiculous, hand-chalked signs that said "Exquisite Apartment, Furnished. All utilities. Can be viewed by calling this number for appointment". The man always has the most over-inflated idea of what he gives his tenants and deprecates everything we do in return. He is forever turning off the heat if he sees an open window, and invariably ignores complaints and requests. So I smiled when I saw "Exquisite Apartment".

None of us ever knows when the landlord is likely to come around but his presence can be sensed and when the oppressive atmosphere that surrounds him lifts, we know he's gone again. It was in this way that I knew he was no longer about, and yet a light burned at night in the window of the vacant apartment. The obvious conclusion was that it had been rented, but it was almost a week before I discovered who it was who had taken the "Exquisite Apartment".

The woman above me, Mrs. Carstairs, was sitting out in the yard one afternoon and I had stepped outside to say hello and to get a breath of fresh air when I noticed that another woman was standing there, somewhat awkwardly to one side. She was small, slightly stooped, with the pleasant rather innocuous face of an aging child. She had inordinately large full breasts for a person of her size and the way in which they followed the curve of her stooping shoulders, making a neat little ovoid of her, combined with the general impression she gave of being brown and wrinkled made me think she was like nothing so much as a walnut. The walnut woman smiled upon being introduced, and proceeded to ask me in the most correct and delicate manner possible what to do about the garbage. I could see it was not a subject that would ordinarily come up at all within her scope of things and that she was taking an almost gleeful delight in talking about, to her, such an incongruous subject. I explained as well as I could and even dropped a subtle hint about the garbage-dropping girl from the upstairs front. At last, with slow quiet little movements she picked her way back through the yard into her own part of the house, and the rest of us returned to our own affairs.

I wish I could say I had immediately sensed something strange about her but the truth is I merely thought she was shy and unused to people. Unused to people! What significance this first impression was soon to take on.

The next time I saw her she commented on the fact that she had heard my piano and enjoyed it very much. Each word was spoken with unusual clarity and deliberation. It was hard to believe she had always spoken the language, and yet she had no accent at all unless it was a clinical one—that is, one that would come from very carefully learning not to have one. She was full of several little questions: when I played was I practicing, or did I just sit down and play? When I repeated certain portions of one piece or another, did it mean that I was practicing?

I was beginning to get the idea that she knew something about music and was baiting me, yet when I asked her if she played or was a lover of music she said hastily, "Oh, no. Not at all." It was almost as if I had caught her pretending to herself or imagining that she knew something of music.

That evening when I sat down to play, nothing I attempted seemed to come out right. I was thinking of my silent listener and felt that just as each word fell from her lips in abnormal purity, so she was expecting a like standard of perfection from my performance. Finding it impossible to play the more austere things, I abandoned Bach and Purcell and attempted some Rachmaninoff. I hadn't gone more than a few measures into the thing when I was struck by the feeling that I was making a ridiculous pretentious fool of myself and it was this way through to the very end of the piece; every time I tried to put any emotion into it I felt as though I were running naked through the center of town. A cool discriminating intelligence was listening and making its opinions felt.

For several days I had been bothered by disturbing dreams and now my imagination was aroused and running at full tilt. Each day I took what I know of this woman and tried a different character on her quite as if she were a paper doll, but no paper doll had ever worn costumes of the kind I gave her. Perhaps she was a spy of some kind, I said to myself and then I thought she might be an FBI agent coming to impound somebody's garbage; I had heard of such things. As to garbage, why not mine? It was to me and me alone she had addressed her somewhat lengthy remarks on the subject. I began a mental inventory of things I had thrown away since she was here—before she came—six months ago—last year. It didn't seem very interesting, any of it, except for occasional pages of stories I had re-written and letters from friends urging me to come back to New York and referring to the "situation" by which I knew they meant the situation as regards writers and their relation to and dealings with publishers. But would the FBI know this? If not an agent for this government, why not for the Communists? I dismissed this as hysterical, yet everyone knows the best spies are inconspicuous and if we have ours they must have theirs. And then I thought she might be an embezzler, a poisoner or an ax murderer. There was something profoundly removed yet observant about her, like a person who was not a part of anything but had at all costs to blend in. For a few nights when I locked up and pulled the shades I did so in the full knowledge hat she might very well be standing quietly outside, her feet placed neatly together, toe against toe, heel flush with heel, hands folded childishly in front, and a singular narrow little smile on her lips, eyes glued beadily on my window.

Then one evening I heard a soft knock on the door and there she was, and she came in and sat down and began in her precise little way to speak of Bertrand Russell and "good literature" and the weather and other general things. I remember that the color of her apartment bothered her; seemed in fact to be draining her of vitality. She referred to it again and again' didn't I think it was a most unpleasant color? How could one live with it, day in, day out. Of course she worked at home, and so her surroundings were very important to her. Also, the apartment was filthy. I asked her in what way, and she told me an appalling story about scraping dirt from around the base of the faucets with her nail file. I showed her some of my books and paintings; we talked of generalities. The only strange thing that happened that night occurred when I offered her coffee. "No!" she said, starting sharply, and then as if by extreme effort, settled back in her chair. I could almost hear gears whirring, or some sort of electronic apparatus selecting and rejecting. It was all in the space of a minute, and then she said in what for her was a perfectly ordinary voice, "I mean—why—yes!" I brought it to her from the kitchen. Then I asked her if she wanted sugar and cream, and the same thing happened all over again—the look of fright, imaginary gears whirring, a sharp "No", then relaxation and an abrupt reversal of opinion: yes, she would take both. I had already given her a spoon and napkin when I brought in the coffee. Returning to the kitchen, I picked up the sugar bowl and spoon and a small pitcher into which I had poured a generous measure of whole milk with cream floating on top. I placed these on the table in front of her; she looked into the pitcher, stiffened again and said, "That's not cream".

I apologized for only having milk. I was sure that she had not intended to imply an oversight on my part, but was only making a surprised and rather frightened observation. Still, I felt rather as though I were operating a coffee machine in reverse; the gears had been set for coffee with sugar and cream and here I was putting in milk. I had a feeling if I was not careful I would be asked to return some loose change. She did use the milk after her gears had considered the problem and come up with a favorable answer, but for some reason completely ignored the spoon and napkin, and instead used the sugar spoon to stir her coffee and then laid the wet spoon on the table.

A few days later she was standing on her steps as I came up the walk, and asked me if I would like to drop by the next Friday night for "a beer". I was still as fascinated with her as ever and somewhat fearful too, but my curiosity and my imagination by this time far outweighed any sense of caution I might be feeling. Besides, Mrs. Carstairs was going to be there. I was still bothered by vague disquieting dreams; in fact some mornings I felt on arising as if my brains had actually been picked over like a bowl of new peas; some discarded, other more succulent ones put aside for use later. As for the piano, I could no longer go near it. I had tried on several occasions and on each one my performance became successively worse. The same problem occurred over and over; I couldn't meet the standards which I felt were being imposed on me from outside, and I was ashamed to interpret music emotionally under the lucid eye of whatever it was that was watching. Call it self-consciousness if you will, never before have I felt such oppression; such disdain for my pursuit of a small harmless hobby. This woman—was she a woman? I sometimes thought of her as a small eternal ageless gnome who had put on a stuffed brassiere with no regard for womanly proportion and was now masquerading as a woman.

Friday night arrived and after much wavering I finally presented myself at her door, half an hour late. Mrs. Carstairs showed up at almost exactly the same time—perhaps she too had felt reluctant to spend an evening in such company. We were seated and our hostess glided noiselessly out into the kitchen where our beer was poured and then brought in to us. Since she seemed to do things very slowly I had entirely too much time to think about that beer before it finally arrived and I had a wild desire to rush into the kitchen on some meaningless pretext and snatch the beer can, unopened, from her hand, go into the cupboard and select a different glass from the one she had chosen, wash and rinse it very carefully in hot water, open the beer myself and pour it. Then and only then, it seemed to me, would I be able to relax in the comparative safety of Mrs. Carstairs' company. Nevertheless I did not do this, but continued to sit in the depths of a scratchy green armchair. Nursing the beginnings of a headache and shivering slightly, I began to drink my beer.

Her conversation, as on the evening she had spent with me, continued to be surprisingly good. She spoke on a wide range of things, prefacing almost every remark with a few words indicating her own complete ignorance or inadequate knowledge of the subject. As one by one opinions and information were exchanged on decoration, literature, television and a host of other things, I began to see the conversation taking on a general direction; a predominance of a certain attitude was emerging. In some very subtle way she had led each one of us into agreement on one thing—that things were no longer the "way they used to be", and she was now proceeding to draw us out on why we felt that way, all the while pressing very insistently (without actually ever saying how) that she had noticed it too. It was about this time I got the idea she was efficiently pumping us for any information we might have about how it was two, three, seven, ten or twenty years ago and that in truth she knew nothing at all about how it had been. At once on realizing this I tried to become almost as vague as she, and I immediately felt invisible feelers withdraw and regroup for a new attack; I noticed a barely perceptible narrowing of her eyes. Why not, I thought, launch a counter-attack? If for nothing else than a momentary satisfaction of seeing how she might react, I determined to do so. She seemed, I reasoned, to be digging for some sort of pertinent information and though with her wide, slightly befuddled stare fixed on one it seemed perhaps that any and all information she could manage to extract from Mrs. Carstairs and myself might apply, I knew it was not so. As with any researcher or connoisseur of a particular type of knowledge, she was willing to accept much extraneous matter in order that she could eventually come to the meat of the thing; that for which she had sought us out.

The basic theme of my counter-attack was to be a distressingly vague attitude about anything specific on which she tried to pin me down, coupled with a gradual introduction into the conversation of things fantastic and unknown. Thus I began to steer our talk away from the commonplaces of this earth and onto such imperfectly understood phenomena as flying saucers and the untried powers people possess. As a ploy she immediately evinced a great and long-standing interest in unidentified flying objects, without, of course, once referring to any specific incident or type of craft. As for untried powers, she tried to squash that by bringing up Norman Vincent Peale and others of similar ilk. Annoying as these countermotions were, the loss in the conversation of a logical sequence of revelations was almost completely compensated for by the insights gained into this personality. Here indeed was a superior intelligence! I countered again by never once asking her a personal question, but tried in other ways to let her know I possessed far more knowledge about her than anything that could be gained by knowing if and how she voted and what kind of breakfast food she ate.

I think, looking back, that she must have understood. When nervous I have a habit of drinking a first and second drink down much faster than I should and consequently I had downed my first beer sooner than anyone, naturally expecting another. But I was forced to twiddle and turn my empty glass for the remaining two hours or so spent in her company. It seems that when she meticulously invited the two of us in "for a beer", she meant just that. How literal! As the evening wore on, I occasionally glanced at my glass and then at her and I am sure she was cognizant of her blunder. Electronics do not a human make, nor whirling gears an understanding of the simple colloquialism.

As we left that night, she stood politely to one side of the front door and shook our hands. I felt as though I were on some kind of a receiving line, and was either finished with or passing into something. It was then she made her most significant remark—glancing deep into my eyes and leaning slightly forward, she said "I knew I was sent here for a purpose. Yes, it must have been. I was wondering what it was, and now I know".

What admirable audacity! I was completely taken aback and could only think to mutter some silly thing about how she must be some sort of Buddhist, to which she slowly shook her head, smiled, and said only—"No".

I saw her only once more. The day before she left she came in to tell me she was going and to thank me for the use of my garbage can. I asked her if she might come back sometime, but she said no—she was finished here.

This whole episode has completely unsettled me. I think about it almost all the time and have as yet found no remedy, except that I shall soon have to move. Not too soon, it would excite suspicion in certain quarters.

Where I will go I do not as yet have any idea. But I must get out before the prime rule is violated—that I, who came to convert become converted. The heavens know what she has left behind her.

THE END            

The HyperTexts