CHARLES CONLEY - INBOX ZERO
Sam turns on his computer, nearly a decade old and losing its rear-guard action against obsolescence. While it boots up, he looks out his office window. It is not yet dawn, but he’d been away from his computer long enough and could no longer remain in bed. The yielding of the gray world of his dreams to his long gray days can hardly be called waking. It is merely an exchanging of dreads—the dread of his nightmares for the dread of his lived life. In the pale glow of the booting computer, he sees at first only a ghostly reflection of the room in which he sits. With the aid of memory, the image on the other side resolves itself. He follows the line of his property past the pergola he and Maggie put up a few summers ago, beyond the flower garden and the stretch of lawn, to the backyards and rear facades of the new bungalows that the young couples moving into the area are snapping up. So many new houses, so close together. Back when he and Maggie had bought the home, they were moving out of the city, but now it seems the city is moving out to them. To him.
The houses have replaced a patch of old forest, some of which he’d owned. For years he’d rested his eyes there, gazed upon the forest while his subconscious puzzled out a coding issue, a network inefficiency, and he’d known those trees in every season, in all weather. The smooth-skinned beeches that rush straight up to their patch of sun, the proud sugar maples spreading their branches to claim their share of the light. The mid-Autumn red of the leaves, the early-winter gold. Now the homes are denser than the forest and leer through the scattered trees with the manufactured confidence of an advertising executive. They’re building smaller houses, using geothermal heating and solar panels. The neighborhood association had gotten approval for an electric streetcar. They’re so optimistic, these kids moving into his neighborhood, with their faith in community action, responsible consumption. They have the world in their hands.
Computers run the whole house these days. You let them know what time you wake up and they take it from there: opening blinds, circulating the air, turning on your morning news program, starting the coffee maker, running a bath if that’s what you like (and always at the perfect temperature). Sam can’t remember what else. A salesman had come out to pitch Maggie and him, to offer them a deal on a retrofit since his workers were already in the neighborhood. But Sam’s too old for all these novel technologies, he was already too old. He’d been on the vanguard at one point, an early adopter, but not for a while now. When his daughter tried to use his computer last week, she looked for the retinal adaptor and laughed at him—sweetly—when she realized his keyboard wasn’t for show. He found the monocle uncomfortable and speaking aloud to an empty house ridiculous, so he stuck with what worked—keyboard and mouse. But this is how technology moves—the old left behind with their nostalgia and whatever trees survive the decimation, the young pushing ahead, hardly able to imagine how people had managed before. The first railroad, the telegraph, the rise of the internet, smartphones, whatever they’re up to these days, with their quantum secretaries and optical synchronizers—each advance showing you just how small your world had been up to that point.
Sam has spent over a week shrinking his world down to the smallest possible area. What he will do today—as he did yesterday, has been doing for the last nine days, and will continue to do for as many days into the future as he dares to imagine are left to him—is reread Maggie’s old emails. The first time he’d read them in chronological order, but now he follows the emails’ lead. One email would remind him of another from a decade earlier, and he would find it. A phrase in one message would foreshadow an event that will happen years later, and he will jump ahead to that date. The connections are too many to map. Like the gravity linking celestial objects, it’s not always a strong pull, but it exists, and with a sensitive enough tool he can measure it. He is that tool. His memory and his love. His sorrow. There is nothing in the world more sensitive than his sorrow.
He’s rereading Maggie’s emails with the same insatiability Sophie had shown for her favorite story books as a toddler. Sam didn’t understand that hunger for repetition thirty years ago, but he does now. Sophie wanted the safe suspense of a story she knew by heart. She could play at worrying about George the elephant while knowing he would end up in the warm embrace of his family at the end. But that’s where Sam and the infant Sophie part ways. He knows how this story will play out. Through all his waking hours he reads and jumps forward and circles back to put off the ending as long as possible.
He’s done this before, this compulsive rereading of Maggie’s words. Thirty-six years ago. He doesn’t remember, and the obsessiveness with which he scrutinized a message from a woman he’d never met would embarrass him, so the forgetting is a favor. He sat at his computer desk in the first place he ever lived alone: a one-bedroom apartment, part of the living room set aside for his home office. He examined her message, fanning the hope that a second would follow while simultaneously searching for the reason it wouldn’t. Her email came in response to his initial inquiry. Like he had done, she attached additional photographs to supplement the one on his profile page on the dating site. Also like him, she included the obligatory disclaimer that she didn’t normally meet people online. Thinking he’d detected interest, Sam had taken the plunge and sent a longer message explaining who he was, what he was looking for in a partner, the kinds of things he enjoyed doing in his free time. He wondered if she’d like to meet. In truth, he’d written what he thought someone in whom he’d be interested would want to hear from a prospective partner, and asked if she’d like to go on a date with that person.
He’d sent that email in a post-lunch sugar high the previous day, and immediately regretted it. The tone was all wrong. He said too much and left out everything that mattered. He knew she wouldn’t respond, and was dissecting her email to learn precisely what about her he’d gotten wrong. Still, he couldn’t kill the hope. Maggie—her name was adorable. Some would say she was overweight. But not much, and so was he. She was a redhead. One of her four new photos hinted at dimples. In a short-lived fit of optimism, he’d already cleaned his apartment, changing the sheets on the bed from the flannel he’d been using since Christmas to the cream-colored Egyptian cotton he used rarely for fear of overuse. Their tastes, as far as could be measured in a short survey, matched up well, and they were close in age.
He stopped rereading her first email just long enough to check his inbox for the second email he was certain she would never send. There were six messages, and none was from her. Three were work-related, even at that early hour, and two were from friends making weekend plans. The other appeared to be junk mail. Sam worked from home as an IT consultant. There was no more important tool than his computer. It was an extension of his mind. Spam not only took up his time, it felt like the first salvo of an invading army. He opened it looking for a way to unsubscribe—ideally for someone to complain to. But he recognized it: a third solicitation from something called the Bullfinch Corporation, it advertised an email product he’d never heard of. The message didn’t make it clear what it even did, only that it was on the cutting edge. Sam unexpectedly found a name and contact information. He composed a complaint, explaining that he was in the business and knew many companies relied on broadcast emails as part of their new-business-acquisition strategies. He appreciated the importance of avoiding spam filters, but asked whether their organization thought someone who was intent on blocking its emails was really a promising lead. He requested, though he knew it was futile, that his name be removed from their promotion list. Then he finished his coffee and took a shower, the signal to himself that it was time to go to work, even though he’d be returning to the very same desk in the very same room to do so.
A day will become lodged in Sam’s memory, but why this one? It started with an image of the moving boxes piled in the room he would use as his office (“so they’re out of the way,” he thought he remembered Maggie saying), then him looking out the window to their yard—all that property for their children to play in. They were always plural in his mind then, the children they would have. This view that would become so familiar he could see it in the dark was still new then, as was the idea that he owned this little segment of the world. The edge of the Johnsons’ house, rosebuds peeking over the fence from the garden extending fifteen feet down their shared property line; the above-ground pool (later dug into the ground and surrounded by a deck); the expanse of lawn gently sloping down two hundred yards before giving way to the dense canopy of beeches and sugar maples that made up the far third of his property. That far third would later be sold to a developer in lieu of taking out a second mortgage when Sophie went to college, those trees betrayed and cut down.
He was jealous of Maggie, that she would be going to work, leaving the house with its distractions, its boxes to unpack, its unknown, as yet, errands to run; that she could just get away from these tasks that seemed so much more urgent or interesting than solving another network logjam or server error. He turned on his computer, the first thing he’d unpacked, picked up the two cups of coffee he’d prepared, navigated the cardboard labyrinth to the master bedroom where Maggie lay asleep in their bed. He placed a coffee on her nightstand and watched her breathe. He wasn’t jealous. Her hair—long and curly, still then a deep red—spread about the pillows as if arranged.
He walked around to his side of the bed, put down his coffee, took off his robe, and slid under the covers. His hair was wet and his body still damp from the shower. He smelled like shampoo. He thought she was awake, that she pretended not to be. With his belly nestled in the arch of her back, he slid her hair away from her ear and whispered.
“Time to wake up.”
“No,” she said, pulling the covers up to her nose and curling over in the same mock anger she pretended every morning.
“Yes,” he said softly, “it is.” He kissed her behind the ear and down her neck.
She tilted her head so he had more neck to kiss and said “Go away” in her pouty voice.
“Okay,” he said, and stopped kissing her. He pulled down the blanket to leave.
“Where are you going?” she said, and turned to face him. “Why’d you stop kissing?”
“I’m sorry baby,” he said, and kissed her on the lips, slowly, letting her catch up to him.
They did this nearly every morning before she went to work, and the routine of it never became tiresome. It grew richer with repetition. It was their liturgy, playing at rejection and abandonment each morning, keeping it at a safe distance from reality. Some mornings they made love, but not that one. Maggie didn’t have time.
Maggie never let him sense when she was rushed. This was partly because of her unshakeable faith in an ability to make up time on the drive, but it was a deeper part of her makeup as well, her ability to focus on the matter at hand and trust the future to take care of itself. He, on the other hand, was hopeless when rushed—scatterbrained, clumsy, and irritable—and worried over every contingency without realizing he was doing it. They kissed a while longer, then she went to take a shower and he to prepare breakfast. When she appeared ready for work in the kitchen, the egg-white omelets were sitting on the table, still warm. They ate together, and she left the same time she always did. From the doorway, he watched her back down the driveway, pull into the street quicker than he would have liked, and set off for work. He waved to her and went to his office to begin his own workday.
His view out the window isn’t the same, but it’s still the same office he went to work in every morning after Maggie left. She decorated the other rooms several times over, but not the office. She left that to him. Now she’s left everything to him. That is precisely why he’s scattered his thoughts so wide, flying to Sophie in Chicago, barnstorming the past, why he shoos it away like a wasp when his mind settles on the present. He’s hiding from it, and he doesn’t want to stop. While the computer finishes booting up, he takes his “World’s Best Grandpa” mug, half-filled with days-old coffee, to the kitchen.
He looks past the dishes, the greasy brown liquid pooling in the sink, the half-eaten casserole he forgot to put back in the freezer, to the photos on the refrigerator. The women in his life—wife, daughter, granddaughter—in parks, on beaches, near ferris wheels, smiling at the old happy Sam staring out from the lens, stabbing this Sam in his forlorn heart. He’s pierced anew by how much Ellie looks like her grandmother. Even at two-and-a-half years old, she has the same mischievous eyes, the same hint of a dimple. Sophie left three days ago, went back to Chicago, to her husband and daughter, and entropy has his home in its grip. She left Sam a week’s worth of meals to reheat, and there’s that much again in the freezer left by friends and neighbors over the last week and a half. Not that Sam has much of an appetite. Breakfast and lunch he can handle, but eating dinner alone is pouring gasoline on the wildfire of his grief.
His thought was to do a few dishes. A simple task: rinse out the bits of food and place each dish or glass or piece of silverware in the dishwasher. He stands at the sink and runs the hot water. How long has it been? A week and a half? Collected and bound, Maggie’s emails would be longer than War and Peace, but already he’s read every one, most of them multiple times. Sometimes, when it’s attached below, he’ll read the email he’d sent her and to which she was replying. These messages are the best record of his life’s work. Perhaps they are his life’s work. Neither comedy nor tragedy, they’re simply a collection of the apparently insignificant details of his time with Maggie. And yet they comprise an epic, the greatest thing he’s ever done. The greatest thing he could ever have thought to do. He turns off the water and returns to the computer.
A few hours after he sent that complaint about unsolicited email, The Bullfinch Corporation sent its reply. The whole interaction would almost immediately be superseded in his memory, but at the time, he was surprised by the promptness, surprised to receive any response. That was why he opened the email.
To: Samuel Littman
From: Bullfinch Corporation Client Services Department
Re: Persephone Email Offer
Thank you for contacting us regarding the e-solicitation you received for our Persephone line of email products and services. Let me assure you that your spam filter did not fail you (though if you are interested in a broadcast email program that can evade even the most advanced spam filters on the market, we do offer such a product!!). You did not receive a mass solicitation, but were specifically selected as a market leader to be among the first to receive our offer!
After years of research and testing, we have created the most exciting and innovative email program on the planet and we want you, Samuel Littman, to enjoy a risk-free trial of the greatest productivity-enhancing tool since the introduction of the personal computer!
For more information, please click on the link below. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me.
Thank you for your interest,
Client Services Representative
Click HERE! to learn more!
It didn’t seem to be a form letter, but Daniel Cliburn, however friendly he sounded, had conspicuously managed to avoid saying anything about what this Persephone software actually did. Sam clicked on the link at the bottom of the email.
It brought him to a plain-looking website, black type over a light-blue background. The Bullfinch logo, an orange silhouette of a bull with small bird perched on its back, sat in the top right corner of the screen. Sam read about the company.
For fifteen years the developers at Bullfinch have been working on a Top Secret Artificial Intelligence program for the U.S. Military and the NSA. Our government contract completed, we are turning our attention to the domestic market.
We have developed a way for you to utilize the same Artificial Intelligence as the U.S. government to help you optimize your electronic communications and recover hours every day to spend on the tasks that are important to you!
Sam skimmed the next section—marketing jargon intended to convince him he needed the program—searching for a description of what it actually did. Near the bottom he found it.
As soon as you activate Argus, Phase I of the Persephone program, it will read through all the emails stored on your hard drive and each new email you send, analyzing them for context, content and style.
When you receive an email, Persephone will compose and store a hypothetical response. When you send your actual response, Persephone will compare its version to the one you wrote, and by repeating this process with every message you send and receive, soon learn exactly how you respond to your emails—understanding different contexts, targeting different audiences, mastering different styles. When it achieves a 99% correspondence between its hypothetical responses and your actual emails, Persephone will be ready for Phase II: Echo.
This is when your productivity will soar, because now, instead of having to read, prioritize, and respond to all the emails you receive every day, you’ll only have to edit Persephone’s replies and schedule the date and time you want the message to be received. You’ll save hours over the course of your day. Inbox Zero will go from being an impossible fantasy to your reality. And best of all, Persephone is still learning!
It sounded interesting, and, if it could do everything it claimed, impressive as well, but since he hadn’t requested the program or heard of the company, he decided to pass. He closed the website and returned to his work.
Ten minutes later, the email from Maggie he’d been so apprehensive about—hoping it would come, certain it wouldn’t—arrived and blanketed everything he had experienced or thought that morning like a heavy snowfall. The length of her email pleased him; he took it as a sign of interest. She suggested they start small, meet for coffee. Sam wrote an enthusiastic and affirmative reply as soon as he finished reading, but didn’t send it: An immediate reply following a day-and-a-half delay on her end would make him look desperate. He saved his reply to send out the following morning.
He read her email a dozen times over the course of the day. She complained about her job—not so much that she came across as a pessimist, just enough to make it clear that for her there was something more to life than work, something larger that sustained her. Someone like that would appreciate Sam’s decision to sacrifice the security of an office job for the flexibility of freelance consulting. Maggie worked in Human Resources at a large local restaurant supply firm, which probably meant she was friendly and outgoing—a conclusion reinforced by the tone of her email. Sam needed that, someone to get him out of his head and into the world, doing things with other people. He liked her sense of humor, which was sunny and inclusive rather than the sarcastic and worldly default mode on these dating websites. He was excited to meet her, could hardly wait, and he would let her know just that as soon as enough time had passed that he could send his email.
The four days between Maggie’s accident and her funeral were the busiest of Sam’s life. Signing papers, notifying friends and relatives, making arrangements, and accepting condolences filled every waking hour. Despite this, he’d managed to carve out time to write Maggie’s eulogy. He withdrew to his office and shut out everyone coming by to ask how they could help--even Sophie—and wrote a short eulogy. He wasn’t happy with it—happiness then, as now, was impossible—but he’d done his best.
And then he stood at the podium. Behind his right shoulder, a serene Jesus hung on his cross over the altar. Past Maggie’s lily-covered casket, a church full of mourners awaited his words. The church was not quite full, but it was by a factor of ten or fifteen the largest group of people Sam had ever spoken in front of. He took two deep breaths and began confidently. In the middle of the third line, he stopped: The speech couldn’t have been more wrong. He hadn’t written a speech about Maggie, he’d written a speech to Maggie, and she was almost the only person he knew who wouldn’t hear his words. In the silence, the awkwardness in the pews was palpable. Sympathy—already so intense in the room—flipped over into anxiety, then inched toward panic. Two of Sam’s oldest friends, on opposite sides of the aisle but both in the first few rows, seemed about to walk up to the podium and escort Sam to his seat. It was the only time in the three hours leading up to her mother’s interment that Sophie completely stopped crying, so worried was she about her father.
Sam didn’t know how long he stood there, gazing down at the speech full of wrong words and meaningless phrases. Wrong and meaningless for this audience. A chorus of coughs from the pews brought him back to himself. He apologized and gave an embarrassed smile, ditched the prepared text, abandoned what he’d wanted to say, and started to speak. The size of the crowd attested to how loved Maggie was. How proud she—both of them—had always been of Sophie. How much everyone’s support meant. How Maggie would always live on in the hearts of everyone who’d known her. He gave them tears and sniffles and pauses to collect himself and the speech they expected to hear, a Hallmark eulogy, then thanked them all for coming and returned to his seat. The only thing he’d wanted was to articulate precisely how much he had loved his wife, what was unique about her and was now lost forever. And he’d delivered a eulogy culled from movies and television, a speech retrieved from some shared cultural databank of superficially moving phrases. He’d failed his love, and in that failure, finally stared into the chasm that separated him from his wife.
The speech—once he’d overcome his hesitation and delivered it—had acted as a fulcrum. The crowd was relieved of the panic that threatened while Sam stuttered at the podium, but only by shifting it onto Sam. Through the rest of the service it grew, then intensified even more in the hearse on the way to the cemetery. At the gravesite it was briefly benumbed by death’s icy irrevocability, but the panic reasserted itself on the car ride home and strengthened throughout the post-funeral gathering at Sam’s house. He could hardly have said where he was. He kept rewriting the speech in his mind, grasping for a way to say the only thing worth saying. Revisions to his eulogy slipped out of Sam’s consciousness in snippets and fell into his conversation without any context. When these excerpts confused rather than illuminated whoever he was talking to, Sam’s panic swelled. Nothing mattered but bridging the chasm that would separate him from Maggie for the rest of his time on earth. And so, as soon as the last of the guests but Sophie and her family could be maneuvered out the door, he went into his office and began reading Maggie’s emails, the most complete record he had of her. Of them, when there had been a them. He closed his office door and Sophie left him alone until well past dinnertime, when she knocked to urge him to eat something. He let her bring him food—he couldn’t have said what—and he ate it, but he was not present in his office. He was in the past evoked by Maggie’s emails, when deciding what movie he and Maggie would see was a priority, when she could respond to his dispatches about what Sophie had done that day, what books he read her, how long she slept, what new word it sounded as if she might have said. When those were the most important things imaginable.
On the anniversary of their first coffee date, Sam wanted to ask Maggie to live with him. He hoped to make an occasion of it, and this was proving more difficult than he’d anticipated. Maggie shared a small office with two other women, so during work hours they kept personal phone calls to a minimum. Most of their conversation they conducted over email, and Sam was trying that day to convince Maggie to let him take her out to dinner at a fancy steakhouse downtown. Negotiations were not going well. He couldn’t tell if she was being lazy, was worried about the calories, or if something had happened to cost him her affections. She was being flaky, which was unlike her, and he was on the verge of aborting his plan. He was certain that if this had transpired by phone, rather than over a series of emails, his nervousness and agitation would have pushed him to say something he’d later regret.
With all the time he was spending to get her to agree to dinner, Sam wasn’t doing his work. He had a report due that day, a Friday, which wouldn’t have been a problem if there weren’t so many emails piling up, some of them urgent, requiring attention before everyone disappeared for the weekend. He worried his emails to Maggie were reflecting his impatience. He went to the kitchen to refill his coffee and grabbed a Boston crème donut.
When he returned, there was a popup window in the center of his screen.
Persephone has achieved 99% accuracy on outgoing emails.
Do you wish to engage Phase II: Echo?
CANCEL OKAY HELP
At first, Sam had no memory of his emails from the Bullfinch Corporation. In the speed and excitement of falling in love with Maggie, he had a hard enough time remembering what he was working on at the moment: this was year-old junk mail. A hazy memory returned to him, something to do with email. He searched for Persephone online, but found nothing but references to Greek myth. He clicked on “Help.”
Phase I of Bullfinch Corporation’s Persephone email program has been completed. For one week, it has been matching each of your email replies at a 99% rate of accuracy. The program is ready to begin Phase II: Echo. It will evaluate all emails in your inbox, prioritize them, and create replies, which you can review and edit before sending. Would you like to activate Phase II?
Sam remembered the program now, and also remembered declining it. He certainly wouldn’t have downloaded anything. He searched his hard drive and found nothing suspicious. An AI program, he started to remember. Something about the CIA? His first thought was to his privacy—were his emails being recorded, and if so, who had access? He again checked his hard drive and again found nothing. Should he send a complaint? To whom? What about? There was no evidence of anything aside from the pop-up window, and that could just as well be some hacker’s prank. While he was getting distracted by this, he wasn’t doing the work that needed to get done, nor was he convincing Maggie to join him for the most important date of his life up to that point.
A thought came unbidden: What if this Persephone thing could do what it claimed? He could finish that report. It was a longshot, and he would never have done it if he thought someone might find out how reckless he was being, but what could it hurt to activate it? Just to see what happened. If it was an absolute catastrophe, his files were backed up. He could wipe his hard drive and reinstall. Even as he pretended it was about getting the work done, he knew it was really about his frustration with Maggie. Maybe he wanted something to go terribly wrong, to blow it all up—the date, the project, everything. He engaged Phase II.
The results were immediate and fantastic.
In a few seconds, the program read through the forty-plus emails sitting in his inbox, determined which ones needed attending to that day, and composed replies that it submitted to Sam for review in priority order. The email to Maggie was first in line. He read it in amazement. It was the email he would write if he was in a good mood and had all the time in the world. As far as he could tell, it captured his sentence rhythms, the way he wrote something corny then immediately undercut it with a self-deprecating parenthetical comment. It even picked the right closing, one of four or five he used regularly, and the most affectionate of the bunch. He looked for something to change and found nothing. If this didn’t convince her to go out to dinner with him, nothing he did or said would. He approved it for immediate delivery.
Although the rest of the emails were less dazzling, they were no less effective. The program did precisely what it claimed—sorting his emails, prioritizing them, and writing replies anyone would have sworn were written by Sam himself. Every three or four messages, he changed a couple of words, but in twenty minutes all the emails that needed answers were sent, and he could spend the rest of the day working on the report. It wasn’t quite inbox zero, but it was a lot closer than he’d been when he turned on his computer that morning.
He got a reply from Maggie within ten minutes and opened it immediately.
that was the sweetest email!! Why didn’t you say it was so important? And here I am being such a sh*t. Of course I’ll go.
Pick me up at 7.
PS-Ill make it up to you later! XOXOXOXXX
Sam and Maggie hadn’t intended to wait so long to have their first child. They wanted to enjoy being alone in their home for a while, and they needed to save up some money, but they also assumed it would happen as soon as Maggie went off the pill. When it didn’t, Maggie began to track her cycles more closely, and they had sex, chore-like, at the appropriate times, in the appropriate positions, until Maggie got another promotion—a significant one—and their diligence waned. Understanding there had been a shift in priorities, Sam picked up more work as well. A good portion of their increased savings was earmarked for fertility treatment, but once they had the money for it, they lacked the time. So five childless years passed in their suburban home. Ten days before their first appointment with the fertility doctor they found out Maggie was pregnant. The phone call canceling the appointment was perhaps the happiest phone call of Maggie’s life.
Sam often joined Maggie for her appointments, setting out with her in the morning or picking her up from work, and he could’ve gotten away for the thirty-two week appointment, but he was onsite with a client, it was a critical time in the project, and there had been no reason to think this appointment would be any different from the others. Not that any time he heard his daughter’s heartbeat was ever routine—it remained a miracle, the most wondrous thing Sam had ever heard in his life, every time—but he thought, they both did, that he could miss this one, get ahead on the project before they settled in for the home stretch of the pregnancy. So Maggie went alone.
After, from work, she wrote to Sam. A candidate she was supposed to interview for a job at her company never showed, and she was late for the doctor’s appointment. Rushing over had brought up her blood pressure, so they put her in a dark, quiet room at the end of the hall and let her rest for a few minutes before taking it again. It came down, but not all the way. The doctor noticed Sam wasn’t there and asked if everything was all right between them. Then he asked if she was still working, whether it was stressful. The doctor’s questions had annoyed Maggie even more than she admitted. Sam could tell from the tone of her email. The doctor asked her to come in first thing the next morning to get her BP checked again. She hoped Sam would go with her.
Persephone wrote its usual perfect response, taking Maggie’s side against the doctor, saying of course Sam would take her to the appointment, and easing Maggie’s unstated concerns about the baby. That night Maggie told Sam about the appointment again in greater detail. They ate a light meal and went to bed early.
First thing the next morning they were at the doctor’s office. Sam read the previous week’s Us Weekly while Maggie was examined, then they talked with the doctor together.
“Well,” the doctor said, “it’s definitely above normal, but not that much above normal. If it were any higher, I’d prescribe bed rest for the remainder of the pregnancy.” Sam could see by Maggie’s reaction to the phrase “bed rest” that she did not like the idea. “At this point, I’m only going to recommend it. Though I hope you’ll consider doing it. Either way, I need you to take your blood pressure every day. They’ll set you up at the desk with everything you’ll need. If your BP goes any higher, call me immediately.” When Sam tried to get the doctor to put his concerns into more concrete form, he said, “Just being careful. We want to make sure everybody’s healthy.”
Sam and Maggie’s post-appointment lunch was normally the best part of those days. They would play hookie from work an extra hour while they talked about their baby. That day’s meal was a tense affair. Sam wanted Maggie to go on bed rest.
“Sure, Gail can handle the work,” Maggie said, “but my paid maternity plus my sick days plus my vacation days won’t cover that long. I’ll have to take unpaid leave.”
“I know,” Sam said, “and it’ll be tight, but…” Sam couldn’t say what. They both knew it was the health of the baby on the other side of the equation.
“Bed rest sounds so Victorian,” Maggie said to fill the space. “I think he resents that I’m a working woman.”
“That’s—” Sam stopped himself before he said “ridiculous.” “That’s no way to run a business,” he said instead. “What obstetrician can make a living in 2004 only treating housewives? There aren’t enough left.”
“You didn’t hear the way he said it, when he asked if I was still working.”
“His opinions about a woman’s place in society don’t matter,” Sam said. “His medical opinions do. And he thinks you should go on bed rest.”
Maggie couldn’t take a stand on principle when it was their baby’s health on the line. Sam knew it and knew he’d convince her in the end. He told her the project he was working on was big enough to cover expenses. She would be able to relax and enjoy herself. Relaxing would be just the thing.
It wasn’t. Headaches came on that over-the-counter painkillers couldn’t touch. When she moved her head quickly, she saw spots. Other than hot baths in the dark, the only other thing Maggie seemed to find soothing were daytime talk shows. Their familiar rhythms, so easy to pick up, comforted her. The hosts spoke in such warm tones. Sam wondered how something targeting so many millions was able to create such intimacy. He hated the shows. Those noises—the applause, the feminine howls of delight or faux-naughtiness—were distracting. Worse than distracting. He’d be in his office, and clapping from the TV on the other side of the house would jackhammer into his brain, right in the back of his head where the skull met the vertebra, and whatever he was thinking simply disappeared from his mind. The diabolical sounds were just as clear to him in his office, through the walls and his closed door, as they were to Maggie, seven feet away from their source.
Sam had planned so well! He had this big job, and it was supposed to be his last major project before their daughter was born. He’d intended to be completely finished by the time Maggie was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and he was ahead of schedule. But what good did that do Maggie, sitting—ignored and resentful—in the living room all day? She was a proud woman, good at her job, outgoing, and she was stuck on that couch listening to the most inane of conversations between talk-shows hosts and B-list actors. It killed him that he wasn’t out there massaging her swollen feet, talking to her about everything that was happening and would happen. But he had to finish this project. Even with the money it provided they’d use all the fertility treatment money that didn’t go into the nursery before Maggie was back at work. Without it, they might have to tap her 401k.
When stress built up, Sam ate junk food. He had a stash in his office drawer, and could always pop out to the gas station if he ran low on Doritos or Chips Ahoy!, or when he needed an emergency donut. Maggie was banned from these snacks by doctor’s orders, so Sam hid the evidence. To keep her from being tempted. He buried the wrappers at the bottom of the garbage, kept the snacks in the only desk drawer with a working lock. But eight days in he slipped. He went to the bathroom and left a bag of Fritos on his desk. When he came back to his office, Maggie was there, and she exploded, seizing on his transgression as a way to vent her nebulous dissatisfaction with Sam and the atmospheric discomfort of her home. His selfishness, she asserted, was the primary problem. That he would hide out in his office all day snacking, that even with a baby on the way he refused to take care of himself. He’d probably always been cheating, through all their dieting regimes, when she’d been at work eating celery with hummus, he was here eating this delicious poison. The fact that he’d kept it secret was proof he knew he was betraying her. An affair, she went so far as to say, at least wouldn’t give him a heart attack.
Okay, she was getting carried away with herself, Maggie said, but she was going crazy stuck in the house all day. She missed feeling useful, chatting with coworkers, training new hires. It was as if Sam wanted to pretend she wasn’t there. Whenever she tried to talk about their daughter, or her apprehension, Sam changed the subject. He would mention an important phone call and run back to his office. Was he having second thoughts? He would badger her about her health, ask condescendingly if she was being careful, but that was the extent of his communication. And she was sick of it after only a week. Sick to death. She’d taken her leave, chained herself to the bed and the couch. What else did he demand of her?
Sam absorbed Maggie’s invective. Defending himself would only lead to a bigger fight and more stress. Plus, she wasn’t wrong, not really. The rhythm of their life was thrown off—which Sam had anticipated would happen when the baby came, but not yet, not before he had everything lined up. With Maggie sleeping in, Sam missed waking her up in the morning. He missed seeing her zip down the driveway in reverse, missed waving to her from the front door whether she was paying attention to him or not. He was adrift without the little emails they exchanged throughout the day, when he could say what needed saying without worrying about causing her undue stress. Why was it so much harder when they were in the same room? He wished he were working from the client’s office, because he’d finish the project a lot faster, but also because he wanted to be free from the half-dozen pointless conversations they had, every time he walked past her to the kitchen or bathroom. Exchanges in which they said nothing, even though the list of things they needed to say kept growing longer, and those unsaid things were like water seeping into a crack in the roadway, freezing in the coldness between them, splitting them apart.
Maggie disappeared upstairs and Sam made dinner. While they ate, she told Sam her blood pressure was high. She’d called the doctor, and he’d said to take it easy and come in first thing in the morning. Sam was conciliatory. He thought if he worked into the night, he should be able to spend more time with Maggie during the day. He promised her it would be better starting tomorrow. He ran her a bath, then went back to work.
It was 11:25 at night, and Sam was well into the day’s third pot of coffee. He was exhausted and guilty and doing his best not to open the junk food drawer. Focusing was difficult. Several times he clicked the new email icon, without thinking, like a smoker reaching for his pack. But Maggie wasn’t using email—there would be work questions and stress and nothing good could come of it. When Sam endorsed this plan a week ago, he hadn’t known what he’d be losing.
He heard a thump from upstairs and then complete quiet. Deathly quiet. He sprinted out of his office and up to the bedroom. Maggie had fallen. Her feet were tangled in the sheets, suspending her at an angle. Her shoulders and head were on the ground. She was rigid, eyes open, staring at nothing. Sam knelt next to her, tried to get her to respond, but she didn’t. Wherever she was, Sam couldn’t reach her. He lifted her back up onto the bed, called the obstetrician, and called emergency.
Sam rode in the ambulance with Maggie. The paramedics were efficient and professional, but did nothing to ease Sam’s worry. They put Maggie on an IV and repeatedly checked her blood pressure. The doctor met them at the dock, spoke with the paramedics, and said he’d be performing an emergency C-section. He was sorry, but Sam wouldn’t be allowed in the OR.
Sam sat in the waiting room looking at the empty chair across from him. He replayed the fight a hundred times. He cursed himself for failing to make the bed rest work. He imagined what he would say to Maggie if they lost their daughter. He couldn’t imagine losing Maggie.
The doctor came to Sam after the surgery. Both had come through, but it was still serious. Maggie was in the ICU and their daughter was in the NICU. Yes, she was a preemie, but the doctor was optimistic. Sam was lucky his girls were so tough. Sam agreed. Then he fell apart.
When he composed himself, a nurse brought him in to see Maggie. She was still under. She looked pale, clammy, and exhausted. He wiped the hair out of her eyes and kissed her forehead. When he was ready, a different nurse brought him to the NICU. His daughter was in a room full of big, clean machines and tiny, crumpled human beings. The nurse said she had his eyes, which was kind of her but a lie. His daughter lay inside a protective bubble and there was a wire running into her onesie. She wore a pink hat and little booties. Her eyes were closed but she was awake, or at least her fingers were clenching and her little legs were kicking. The nurse said he might be able to hold her next time.
Maggie wasn’t cleared to leave the ICU that first day. Her blood pressure was still too high. Their daughter wasn’t strong enough to leave the NICU. So Sam spent the day traveling between Maggie, Sophie, and the gift shop to buy a bag of potato chips he ate outside with the smokers. Maggie’s despair was thick in the room, and her pain was a third presence where Sophie should have been. That night, Maggie begged Sam to get her Vicodin, though she wasn’t due her next dose for a half hour. She cried and pleaded and whimpered, then attacked him, furious that he’d been able to see their daughter when she hadn’t, that he’d held Sophie in his arms yet refused to do anything for her pain. She wasn’t the person Sam knew, and he hadn’t the slightest idea how to respond. He went looking for a nurse, and she gave Maggie the medicine. He wished he could’ve been the one to deliver it, just to be able to give her something good.
When Maggie finally fell asleep, he took out his laptop. The internet told him there was an increased likelihood of Maggie developing pre-eclampsia again if she got pregnant. That couldn’t happen. Sam decided to get a vasectomy. He contemplated discussing it with Maggie, but there was just no way. And he had to make the appointment now, while the terror of Maggie’s fall and all the time he spent in the NICU were still fresh in his mind. If they got Sophie home and things settled down, he might not remember what this was like.
Not mentioning the vasectomy was only a symptom of their continuing difficulties. When Sam tried to distract Maggie from her pain, it made her think he was taking it all too lightly. When he tried to show he wasn’t taking it lightly, it sounded like he was complaining, and who was he to complain? He hadn’t been ripped open. He got to see their daughter whenever he liked. When Maggie held Sophie, he felt clumsy and intrusive if he tried to join their small circle of happiness. His wires were all crossed, the anxiety was still too great. The accumulation of errors, all he’d already said and done wrong, made it harder with each mistake to reverse course. He found exactly the wrong thing to say at every moment.
A brief cease fire went into effect when the three of them were finally home together, but when it ended, it was as if there had been no rapprochement at all. Even when Sophie wasn’t crying, Maggie couldn’t sleep for the pain. Sam very quickly realized trying to sleep in the bed with her was a bad idea. If he shook the mattress the tiniest bit, Maggie’s abdomen felt as if it were ripping open again. She was not improving as quickly as he’d assumed, and he was between jobs. That was prearranged—he’d go back to work soon enough—but it didn’t look like Maggie would be ready when they had planned, and the hospital bills were higher than he’d budgeted for because of the complications. Sam could hardly think he was so tired, and Sophie’s air-raid siren of a cry sent the adrenaline rushing through him every time. He was over-caffeinated and jittery, on the outs with his wife, and had no idea how he’d pay all the money they owed.
Sam sat at one end of the couch burping Sophie after a feeding. Maggie was on the other end, leaning up against the pillows with her legs under a blanket. The TV was off and it was quiet. Even Maggie’s talk shows would have been better than this quiet. Maggie looked like she was trying hard not to tell Sam he was doing something wrong. But how lovely it was to hold his little girl! The sweat built up on his left shoulder under her hot little body, and he patted her on the back. If only he and Maggie could avoid fighting.
The phone rang. Maggie twisted too quickly grabbing for the phone—habit, he supposed, since Sophie was sleeping most of the time—and gasped at the pain. She blew out her breath through tight lips and said, “Hello?” Then she said, “He is,” and put the phone on the end table. He handed her Sophie and picked it up.
It was a call to confirm his vasectomy appointment the next day. He answered a few questions and hung up quickly
“Who was that?” she said.
“The doctor’s office,” he said. “I made an appointment for a vasectomy and forgot all about it.”
“Huh.” Maggie looked down at their daughter.
“You didn’t think that was something we should talk about?”
“No,” Sam said. “I did. I just didn’t think…”
“We should talk about it until the last possible moment?”
“Not that. No, honey, I didn’t think…”
“I deserved to have a say?” she said again before he could finish.
“I didn’t think it would be so hard to talk about it. When I scheduled it,” he said, “I thought things would be better by now.”
“How? By magic?” Maggie hadn’t raised her voice much, but Sophie stirred, opened her mouth wide in the hope something would be inserted. Now Maggie whispered. “You wish I’d never gotten pregnant.”
Sam was completely wrong-footed. How could Maggie think that?
“God. Maggie, no. Look at her. No, I…” What could he say to fix this?
“Really? You hide in your office, you come out to talk only when Sophie’s sleeping on my lap. What are you afraid of?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I don’t know,” he said. “Making things worse.”
“I don’t understand, Sam. You were always so good. My friends have always been jealous. But now, now,” she looked at Sophie, then back at him, “you clam up?”
Sam dropped his head.
“Well, what else has changed? Now we have someone to take care of. I don’t know if you’re worried you’ll never get enough sleep again or have enough money or if it’s something else, since you never talk to me anymore. It’s hard to conclude anything except that you regret having a baby.”
“No. Honey, I promise you. That’s not it. Look, I’ll cancel. Of course. I was stupid.” She was looking at Sophie. He thought she was crying or might be about to. “I’m sorry Maggie.”
He had sat down on the coffee table at some point during the discussion. He continued to sit there, looking at Maggie for several moments, but she didn’t take her eyes off Sophie. She was done talking to him.
Sam went to his office and closed the door. More for Maggie’s sake, he felt, than for his. He tried to write Maggie an email. Tried to get Persephone to help him write an email. It wasn’t the first time, and it didn’t work any better than the others. The program didn’t have the recent data. The last time he and Maggie had been in regular email contact was when she’d told him about the doctor’s appointment where they detected her high blood pressure. Less than a month ago, but so much had happened since then. His world had fallen apart.
A few tense days later, Sam packed Sophie into the stroller for a walk so Maggie could rest. It was mid-day, and the weather was perfect—three or four puffy clouds in an otherwise clear blue sky, only the slightest breeze. Sophie was bundled up, the visor on the stroller pulled down. She looked around, soaking in the new sights, mostly the tops of trees, poles, and swaying utility wires. The sky. It didn’t matter to her. It was all new. Maggie was wrong, of course—Sam didn’t only come to them when Sophie was asleep. But it was a constant struggle, between wanting to be with his daughter—of course he wanted that, how could he not?—and the fear of being near his wife, of saying the next wrong thing. He was executing a classic defense-in-depth: with every encounter ending in defeat, he avoided engagement, ceding space and counting on time as an ally. The strategy was on the verge of failing utterly.
He’d brought along a notebook and copies of his most recent invoices in order to work out a new fee schedule to charge his clients. He hadn’t raised his rates in several years, and he wasn’t earning what he should for the time he put in. Talking about money was by far his least favorite part of the job, and he hoped that sitting out in the sun at the park with his daughter might ease the anxiety of the task. Then he had another thought. There was a new strip mall only a couple of blocks out of the way, and it had a drug store with a long aisle of greeting cards.
Sophie was asleep by the time they got there. They passed some high-school kids loitering outside the 7-11, drinking buckets of liquid or semi-solid sugar. A girl with blue lips and four necklaces made a cooing noise when Sophie passed, and it filled Sam with pride for his daughter and gratitude to the girl. A woman coming out of the drugstore held the door open for Sam and the stroller, and she too made the sweet sound that indicated the presence of a baby. She looked at Sam as if he must be a wonderful husband and father just because he was walking his daughter in the middle of a workday. Maybe he could pull these people off the street as character witnesses the next time he tried to talk to Maggie.
He wandered the greeting card aisle in search of the perfect card. He wanted something that showed Maggie he was sorry, that he had no regrets at all about becoming a father, and that things were going to get better. What category would that be? Condolence felt closest, but he went to the new baby cards. He liked the funny ones best, but they were inappropriate. Others were too religious, God has delivered unto you, etc. That wasn’t what he wanted. He found a few that were optimistic, serious, even spiritual, without being overtly religious. A baby is a gift, that kind of thing. That was part of what he wanted to say. He found one without a baby on the front. It showed wildflowers and the glare of the sun. It seemed forward-looking. Hopeful. This would do.
He backed out of the drug store pulling the stroller behind him and headed to the park. Sophie was still asleep. He got off the busy road and zigzagged through the side streets. There were kids walking in packs, trying to look tough, making jokes, showing off. His little girl would be like them one day? Impossible. He had to be around to see it happen, every single moment of it.
The park had been refurbished a year or so earlier. All the old, rusty, decaying playground equipment had been replaced. Instead of rubble-filled sand, there was thick rubber padding. He went over to a bench, made sure Sophie wasn’t in direct sunlight, and sat down. Five children played a complicated game of tag on the equipment, and another, a little girl, was alone on the swings, to all appearances perfectly happy. Three mothers sat on a bench, chatting. They were too far away to hear. Sam opened the card, took out the pen, gazed at his sleeping daughter for a few moments, and wrote some lines to Maggie. He filled the left side of the card, but it wasn’t enough. So he opened his notebook and began again, writing at length about what they’d been through. He imagined the message Persephone would compose if it had all the data. He wrote that letter. He apologized for specific errors, like the junk food and the unilateral decision about the vasectomy, and for his general failures as a husband the last few weeks. He took the blame for the difficulty they’d been having trying to talk. He explained the vulnerability and helplessness he felt when she and Sophie were in trouble, and he tried to show how deciding to get a vasectomy was the only thing he could come up with at the time that made him feel like he was doing anything besides worry. He told Maggie how deeply he loved her, how terror-stricken he’d been by the possibility that she might not be around anymore. And he ended with a passionate appreciation of their baby girl.
The letter was no panacea, but his sentiments combined with the effort convinced Maggie she’d been wrong to conclude that Sam regretted Sophie. With all her attention on Sophie’s health, she conceded, she might not have sufficiently considered how her own close call had affected Sam. Sam and Maggie didn’t return to their old familiar ease until Maggie was back at work a few months, but things started to improve with the letter. Finally they were going through the difficult trials of being first-time parents together, rather than from opposite sides of the chasm.
Sam never made the decision to keep Persephone to himself, he just did so, every day for forty years. When clients showed amazement at his productivity, when they told him how much they appreciated the frequent updates on his progress or how he always got back in touch just when they once again required his services, when they asked him how many people worked for him, or where he’d found such a capable assistant, he thanked them for the compliment and never revealed anything. If asked about the unease he felt at these exchanges, he would have answered that he was not good at accepting compliments, but in other areas of his life, he was perfectly happy to receive a compliment, even went out of his way to elicit them. Using Persephone wasn’t unethical. He didn’t think that. It was just private.
Private even from Maggie, which it would’ve had to be. She was too idealistic to see that it was simply another tool, one that helped oil the gears of their relationship, that it kept things running smoothly at a superficial level so they didn’t have to waste time fighting over the dozen nothings that threaten to complicate every nice meal or chance to sleep in. Their time together was freed of all that friction. And Persephone helped, sure, but only by doing what Sam would have done if he wasn’t so busy trying to earn a living—it helped him remember, anticipate, communicate. And Sam never lied about it—he would never lie in response to a direct question from Maggie. When they became engaged, they combined their finances, and Sam opened a new account for the business. It wasn’t deceit when he moved the reasonable monthly subscription fee for Bullfinch over to the business account. It was a business expense, a tax write-off. If it never came up in conversation, wasn’t that just proof that it wasn’t such a big deal after all?
But where was Persephone now? Just like during that three-month gap in correspondence when Sophie was born and his marriage nearly lost, when he needed it most—to order his thoughts, to explain his feelings—it had nothing to offer. It deserted him and left only this disheveled and battered mind to make sense of things. And he couldn’t do it. Nothing made any sense, not even the most basic tasks of life. Because the foundation was gone. Why vacuum the carpets, why dust, why put the new roll of toilet paper on the dispenser if it wasn’t to please Maggie? Why worry about what he ate, why shave, why not wear the same clothes every day? Even the consulting, which had so satisfied him once—why bother pursuing new clients, staying in touch with old ones, making sure every job was perfect? The house was paid off. He had some savings. Maggie’s life insurance would come through eventually. He had money to pay for food and utilities, if not for the rest of his life, then for most of it.
What he’d had, briefly, was Sophie, and now that she was back in Chicago, he hated that he had sunk so low in front of her. Surely he could have held himself together for a week. But, no. Sophie had washed the dishes and cleaned the toilet and done the laundry, but she couldn’t tidy up his mind, wash his guilt-ridden, despairing soul. And so he’d lost his grip.
She’d given him two days of privacy while he read through Maggie’s emails. She’d urged him to eat, took care of the errands, dealt with the condolence calls. For two days. On the third, she pestered him—as a parent would a child watching too much TV on a beautiful day—asked him to come to the grocery store with her, begged him to take a walk, insisted that he shower and eat three meals at the dining room table. He did all she asked, but he was fidgety, and irritable, and distracted, so on the fourth day she backed off. And on that fourth day, it was as if Sam was intent to make up for all the time he’d spent away from the computer on the third. He read with even more fervor than before.
The evening of the fifth day after the funeral, Sam was in his office scanning the list of Maggie’s emails. He leaned forward in his chair and ran his finger down the subject column. He looked as if he were searching for a particular message, but he was waiting for one to call out to him. One did—it was short, only a few lines. Maggie making fun of her boss, new at the time but later one of her biggest boosters and a good friend. He’d been very kind to Sam at the funeral. Maggie had been funny; her sarcasm could bite. It was good to remember that. He exhaled as if he’d been holding his breath the whole time he’d been searching for and reading the email. He began to scan for another.
“Dad?” Sophie was behind him. He hadn’t heard her come in.
His attention was caught up in finding the next email to read. “Hmm?” he grunted.
A disappointed and sympathetic note in her voice got through to him. He turned away from the monitor. “What is it sweetie?”
“I made dinner.”
“Dinner time already?” He looked at her hand and the desk to see if she’d brought him a plate.
“Come out and eat.”
“You caught me right in the middle of something…”
“Come on out,” she said. “They’re not going anywhere.”
So she’d seen what he was doing. “Of course.”
She went into the kitchen, and he sat in the dining room. Two place settings were laid and there was an open bottle of red wine in the center of the table. Maggie and Sam hadn’t eaten in that room often, splitting their meals between the breakfast nook in the kitchen and the couch in the living room, so there weren’t strata of memories there for Sam to be buried under. There were some dinner parties, a couple of anniversary and birthday meals, but it wasn’t the big occasions with Maggie that Sam longed to relive. It was their quotidian adventures. And the emails were full of them.
Sophie brought out a platter of macaroni and cheese. This had been her birthday meal through her childhood. Sam was touched to see her bringing in the platter. Maggie had made this for her, and now she had made it for him. For some unknown reason, he found this sweet rather than devastating.
It was delicious, just as good as Maggie’s. So his daughter could do this. It was so small, and yet it pleased him. He thought of all the conversations with Maggie in which he worried about what kind of example he was setting for their daughter—him, a man, doing most of the housework, doing most of the shopping, being the one who attended the piano recitals and soccer games. Then he remembered how Maggie made fun of him for worrying, telling him every time it came up that he was selling himself short. There was an email about that. He’d read it the other day. He would find it again.
“So, I’m supposed to leave tomorrow night,” Sophie said.
“Right,” Sam said. “I’m sorry I’ve been…”
“You’ve hardly been here, dad.”
“I know, sweetie. You’ve been so good.”
“Is that what you’re doing all the time you’re shut away in there?”
“There are still some work emails coming in I need to deal with. People sending their condolences.”
“You know what I’m talking about, dad.”
He stayed quiet and looked guilty.
“You’re just reading through mom’s old emails.” It could’ve come out as an accusation, but there was too much sympathy in her voice. “There must be thousands.”
“Yes,” he eventually said.
“I don’t think it’s good for you. You’re not eating, you only shower when I remind you.”
His look told her everything. Nothing else mattered.
“I want you to be around, dad. For me. For Ellie. For a long time.”
He was supposed to agree that he too wanted to be around. He said, “It started after the eulogy.”
“The eulogy was perfect. Everybody thought it was beautiful.”
Only he knew how much he’d let Maggie down. Why did that make it worse?
“It wasn’t perfect,” he said. “I got up there and I couldn’t… capture her. I lost her.”
Sophie inhaled as if she would speak, but didn’t.
“And I imagined, as time passed, she’d get further away, until… And I couldn’t breathe at the thought of it. I was standing in the middle of a highway with a truck bearing down on me. The headlights were all I could see, growing bigger and brighter. And just like maybe when that’s really happening there’s some part of your brain saying, ‘Jump, you idiot, it’s a truck!’ something inside me remembered her emails. And I had no choice but to read them, because if I didn’t, I would’ve been flattened.”
“Is it helping?”
“Well, in one way, yeah. They’re so boring, most of them, but that’s just what you forget. The stupid little things, the jokes that aren’t really funny except you’ve repeated them so many times. The mundane questions, ‘did you make an appointment to get the oil changed?’ or ‘can you stay home today and wait for the plumber?’ Why would they make me feel so much? Or writing back and forth about you—especially that—your mother telling me what you guys talked about on the phone, how you were doing.”
“But it makes me need more. Each message is connected to the hundred that came before and lead to the hundred that follow, and none of them tells any kind of complete story. So I started reading them out of order to break that, but then all these connections I hadn’t even considered started ambushing me, the way our greetings and salutations and pet names changed over time, how she always screwed up her ‘its,’ adding or leaving out an apostrophe. Like once you remove the logic of chronology, seven new logics take its place. It’s not rational, I know, but I started thinking that if I can map all these connections I can capture her forever, never lose her. And once I do that, I’ll be able to step away from the computer.”
She crouched next to his chair and gave him a hug. She was crying. She cried and hugged him for a long time without saying anything.
“There has to be something else you can try.”
“Nothing else can bring her back like the emails, sweetie. Don’t you think I’ve looked?”
“But you can’t keep on like this, dad. How does it end? With you having a stroke in front of the computer in two years, or three, because you’re living on junk food and not getting any exercise.”
He didn’t answer.
“I remember when mom told me the story,” she said, “about when I was born. She told me a few weeks before I went into labor. I never knew how bad it got. Between you two.” She went slowly. “She said that… that you two were in trouble. Serious trouble. You couldn’t talk anymore. And that when things were at their worst, you’d written her a note, and the note had changed her mind, had saved our family. She said you were always better at writing your feelings. That when you wrote to her, that was when she felt she knew you best.”
The note. He’d almost forgotten. It was nowhere in the emails. But Maggie had kept it close, and then she’d saved the story for their daughter, to tell her just when it would do the most good. Because everyone tells you that having a baby changes a marriage like a volcanic eruption changes a landscape, but the thing no one tells you is that there’s no right or wrong way to save a marriage except as judged by results. Did it work? Did the love survive?
“I’m just wondering,” Sophie said, “if the problem is that you’re hoarding these memories of mom. What if, instead, you told her what you really meant to say in the eulogy? Record a hologram of you delivering it for her. Or rewrite it, make it even better, and record that version. Maybe the way to feel close to mom isn’t by trying to put all your old memories in a vault, but by creating something new for her.”
It struck him that after hearing that story about the difficult pregnancy, his little girl could never again think he was perfect, that his marriage to her mother was perfect. And yet here she was, looking at him with the same love she’d always shown. A small part of him wanted to be angry at Maggie for marring his image in his daughter’s eyes, but a larger part of him saw the gift of it.
“I don’t know,” Sam said.
“Dad, please. Just try. I’ll help you record the hologram, listen to the speech, leave you alone. Whatever you need. I have one more day here, and I can’t leave you like this. So if you promise you’ll try it, I won’t bug you about anything. I’ll make you breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’ll leave the house in the best shape I can get it. Dad. Please.” She was crying again now. She hugged him again, even tighter. “Please.”
Sam began immediately after dinner. He started by reading through the eulogy, but found only a few lines worth salvaging. He scrapped the rest and began writing. Writing as he hadn’t in almost thirty years.
As he wrote on, he started to wonder if his daughter might have been right. So much to tell his wife, perhaps that had been the source of his most dire pain. Things left to say like splinters festering below the skin. Getting them out might just work.
It didn’t. Nothing can relieve him. Sophie’s plan failed.
For a while, as he wrote a new version of the eulogy, he thought it was working. Sophie explained how to use the hologram recorder with as much patience as he’d ever shown her when she learned to ride a bike or needed help with algebra. When he dropped her off at the airport, he was anxious to get back and record the speech. But once he was home and delivering his new eulogy in an empty room, his optimism proved baseless. The speech failed him again. Or maybe it was the medium. He and Maggie had never communicated by hologram; it was artificial to do so now. When he finally fell asleep deep in the dark of the early morning, it was in despair’s icy embrace.
When he awoke, he grasped at his very last straw. He’d write Maggie an email. That was how he’d always communicated best. That was the technology he should use to deliver his final thoughts to her. He wrote about the funeral and the failure of the original eulogy, about reading through every email she’d ever sent him—not a one of which he’d ever been able to delete, thank God. He told her about Sophie and how good she’d been to stay with him these last few days. But mostly, he told her how much he loved her, and missed her, and how certain he was that he would never recover from the blow of losing her.
And then he went back to reading her emails, in whatever order they asked to be read, because writing to her didn’t work either. Writing her was in some ways worse. In trying to write across that threshold, he was just sending his message out into the void. The void doesn’t write back, but its reply is clearer than words could ever be.
So he’s spent every waking hour of the last two days poring over the daily reminders and notes of affection and attempts to agree on plans for some long-past weekend. He’s beginning to memorize some of her emails. Their effectiveness is fading. They fail to do what they did even a few days ago. He doesn’t know if that’s from the repetition, or from having gotten his hopes up, but whatever the reason, he’s a junkie now, looking in vain to recapture that first high. He knows it’s destroying him but can do nothing else. And here it is now, just past ten in the morning, and he’s been reading through Maggie’s emails for over five hours. The sun has come up, he’s eaten no food, hasn’t washed or changed clothes, has done nothing since the computer booted but scour Maggie’s emails for shocks of life to keep his fading heart beating.
He hears a chainsaw from outside. They’re cutting down more trees, more of his old forest. Probably because they’re in the way of the solar panels. One day they’ll miss those trees. Yes, they’re trying to lower their energy bills, reduce consumption, use fewer fossil fuels, doing all the good responsible things people are finally getting around to doing, but they’ll miss those trees. Maybe they’ll plant new ones, in a less obtrusive spot, some native species, but eventually they’ll figure out there’s no way to replace an old tree. It’s a history of light and shade and life. There’s no substitute.
He can’t see the workmen out the window, but he’s looking anyway. When he turns back to the computer’s screen, it’s dim in contrast. There’s a film clouding his vision. An unread email sits in bold at the top of the column. How did it get there? There’s no way he could’ve overlooked a message from Maggie. It’s just not possible. He opens it, scans the first lines. It looks like hers, but fails to settle into the narrative of their lives together, triggers no emotional memories. It remains outside, above, and sets him spinning like a plank of plywood caught in a tornado. He hunches over, as if in the midst of the cyclone he can hold himself together through the force of his will, keep the pieces of him that aren’t already dead from flying apart to be lost forever.
What is this email? How has he not read it before? He’s gone over every one of her messages many times. Could she have sent it before she died? Could it have been misdirected or caught in a logjam of e-packets or held up by a faulty server? What message of his was she responding to?
He’s staring at the words on the screen, at this terrible gift the web has given him. He’s staring at the words but he’s not reading them. In fact, for days he’s hardly been reading her words. He’s been scanning them, decoding them, classifying them, but no longer reading them. They are like living room furniture familiarity prevents him from noticing, but that unerringly locate him in space. And Sam, walking through the darkness, has smashed his toe on an end table he didn’t expect to be there.
Just as he begins to actually read the message, a small pop-up window opens over it.
Eurydice, Phase III of the Persephone ecomm suite, is ready for activation.
Please enjoy this free trial before logging in to your account
and filling out the payment information.
For details on Phase III or to contact client services, please click HERE.
Sam clicks and finds himself on the Bullfinch Corporation website. As he reads the words, he has the impression they were written to him. They’re on the corporate website, but they seem to be aimed directly at him.
You have been a valued client of Bullfinch Corporation for four decades now and I hope you will agree that we have never let you down! Please be assured that our thoughts are with you in this time of difficulty. But here at Bullfinch Corporation we do not rest with kind words: we dedicate all our resources to meeting the needs of each of our clients.
Allow us to take this opportunity to tell you about Phase III: Eurydice, the newest enhancement to our Persephone ecomm suite. We think it’s our most revolutionary product yet!
As he continues to read, Sam is reminded of the top secret artificial intelligence technology developed for the U.S. Government, is told about the database of detailed and personalized user data contained on their servers and the long history of service to their clients, and, seemingly, to Sam in particular. Sam has intimations of where it is leading. He reads more quickly, until he’s barely skimming along, hardly digesting the sentences at all. He gets to the penultimate paragraph.
As I’m sure you’ll agree, a product like this requires years of research and development and, of course, the work of the best minds in the field: all of which comes at a price. We have been more than happy to include our evolving services in one low monthly rate—and we will continue to do so—but for a product this revolutionary, we require a modest one-time payment that will allow us to service your account to the best of our abilities, as well as continue to push the envelope of what ecommunications can do. We are happy to report that since you have been with Bullfinch Corporation for so long, we have reduced your fee by 10%—a discount reserved for only our most trusted clients!
Sam knew before he saw the price he would pay them whatever they wanted. It would take all the insurance money, and he’d have to mortgage the house he and Maggie had paid off only four years ago. He wouldn’t be able to stop consulting. Trips to Chicago to see Sophie and Ellie would have to be kept to a minimum. But he’d find a way to pay them their money.
He closes the window and goes back to the email, understanding now what it is. Dearest, it starts:
Thank you for writing me such sweet sad words. I know you loved me. I loved you too. But you have to be strong now. The world is big, and you have a lot to do. Sophie just lost her mother—you can’t let her lose her father at the same time. She needs you. Go to Chicago, visit her. Hold Ellie. Love her enough for the both of us. When you go, bring those jelly donut’s Sophie used to love. The ones you only got on special occasions because she always made such a mess eating them. Ellie will like them. But pick them up on the way to the airport so they don’t get stale. Not too early. I know how you like to have everything prepared ahead of time.
And, my love, you may be tempted to do something foolish with the insurance money. Don’t. Sophie might need it. Or Ellie. One day something will come up and you’ll have to be ready to help them. You have to be there for them. Not at your computer trying to hold onto the past. I know its hard, but you have responsibilities. I promise you won’t forget me. Trust yourself as much as I trusted you.
Give everyone my love.
He immediately reads it again, looking for mistakes, holes in the program Maggie might have slipped through. He doesn’t find any. He reads the words and it’s her voice speaking them. Her voice telling him what to do. He knows she couldn’t have written them, but they are hers. They may not be real—they can’t be real—but they are true.
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