Pasha and Dr. Mack Probe the Universe and Themselves
by michael goldlist // issue 3. Vol. 1 // web exclusive
HLR Emerging Writers Fiction Contest
I haven’t even fully sat down in the green recliner when in a gamma burst of honesty I tell Dr. Mack I’m high. “Well, not high; I smoked at 3:30. Not positive on the metabolization rate of THC.” I’m not looking at him, as usual, just at the dim wood-panelled wall. I assume he’s on his chair, beside his desk, with his pad seemingly always untouched, yet covered with chicken scratch by the end of a session. I resolve to pay attention to what he writes today.
“Do you want to talk about that?” he asks, freakishly even keel as always.
“Can we not?” I lean my head back, which kicks the footrest out—a motion that always feels like an astronaut strapping in for lift off.
“Of course,” says Dr. Mack, “but if at any point you do want to talk about it, let me know.”
“You want to experiment on me.” I’m staring at the office ceiling. The familiar stucco is dimpled like the face of the moon.
“I’m always curious about how people process in different states.”
I make a whirring sound, which is what I always hear when Dr. Mack says process.
“This is my brain; this is my brain on pot.” I can make whirring sounds and pretend Dr. Mack is The Man and even be minorly stoned because I trust Dr. Mack. He knows this. And he knows I know he knows. We’ve processed this before.
“I’m not asking out of judgment, but while we’re on the topic of pot, have you come here stoned before? I’ll let you know, I’m asking because I think you have.” Dr. Mack could make being caught masturbating not embarrassing. Plus I’m orbiting the stucco moon, and buzzed, so there’s really no issue. This safe, dimly-lit room is a little like a flight simulator. The point being that you can be there and not be there at the same time.
“Yeah, I’ve come stoned,” I say.
“Two thursdays ago, perhaps?”
“I should have told you. I wanted to.”
“I know.” I can hear Dr. Mack smile. That’s how great his smile is.
“You knew, right? Strange pathways, the funhouse mirror of distorted perception...”
“No, you just smelled like weed.” I laugh and so does Dr. Mack. I would kiss his bald head if I wasn’t 384,000 kilometres away, running my eyes across the desolate lunar landscape. I’ve mentioned that in the green recliner I tend to drift away. That’s the point, he said. It’s old and beat up, wouldn’t be surprised to find duct tape somewhere. And yet, when it dawned on me that other people have sat in this chair, it stirred up a torrent of rage and jealousy. We processed that. Also, every time I see a recliner now, I want to scream Mental Health!, which never means health, always just mental.
“It’s been one of those weeks,” I say, drifting around the moon of the ceiling, gravity falling away.
“How does your week feel?” he asks. He’s begun.
“Grey. Weightless. I feel...empty.” I feel like space – cold, dark and endless – but I try not to be too poetic with Dr. Mack. I’m afraid he’ll think I’m trying to impress him. “We didn’t find fucking anything around BD60K.”
“So this is work related,” says Dr. Mack.
“I don’t know where work stops and the rest of me begins.”
“Hm. We’ll get back to that.” And I can hear him writing it down, the pencil etching that confession into permanence. I don’t think I’ve ever said that out loud before, but I’m sure we’ve both guessed at it. You don’t win a Nobel by hanging up your hat at 5pm. That would be, as we processed long ago, defining myself by success (I do), which, as a corollary, means I also define myself by failure. I pick a smooth spot on the stucco that looks to be a suitable landing spot. I focus on my breathing, I imagine it sounds like Darth Vader. I explain as I slowly drift up:
“I thought it was for sure this time. I felt it. In my intestines. I didn’t mention anything last week because I didn’t want to jinx it.”
“So you had a feeling you were about to succeed. A strong feeling.”
“Never had anything like it. BD60K seemed like the one—the star is exactly perfect. Same density, luminosity, photospheric composition, even the same fucking age. It has three fucking planets in the goldilocks zone.”
“And you found out today...”
“We’ve been finding out all week, or not finding. Today we finished the scans. I was still holding on, though, still thought we’d get that sweet red glow somewhere.”
“Did you share these feelings with your colleagues?”
“I could have smashed everything. I just gave coordinates for the next star and left. Went home. Smoked. Came here.” The ceiling really does look like the moon. I picture myself small and space-suited, bounding along the stucco. Planting the Pan-American flag. Doing a little dance. THC metabolizes slowly in zero gravity. “I was positive, Dr. Mack.”
“Can you tell me why?”
“It’s been ten fucking years. And still just more fossilized microbes.”
“Were there fossilized microbes on the planets around—” he leans to check his notes, “—BD60K?”
“Yeah. A fuck ton.” I see my little upside-down ceiling avatar remove his space helmet and suck deep vacuum breaths. He looks like me but with long weightless hair—how I looked in college. Maybe it’s because I’ve been going to Dr. Mack for so long, or because I smoked really excellent sour diesel, but while Dr. Mack is talking with me about work stress, I imagine what he’d say if I were to tell him about the little astronaut-me dancing on the moon ceiling. He’d wonder why it was he looked like me in college. Happier times? he’d ask.
“So in some ways BD60K could be viewed as a success?” says the non-imaginary Dr. Mack.
“It’s been a decade of the same fucking thing. Lewis and Clarke only get kudos for splashing into the Pacific once.”
Dr. Mack clears his throat. “Two things: I want to bring your attention to the fact that you’ve said ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’ six times already—”
“I’m bringing it to your attention. You can process that how you want. Don’t knee jerk. Let’s try that again. You’ve said ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’ seven times.”
“Interesting...” The little astronaut-me on the ceiling is screaming FUCK! into the void. He’s got a bong in his hand, the purple one I had in college with the cartoon of Shiva on it. Perhaps you’re smoking weed to escape back into your college years, suggests the imaginary Dr. Mack. Well, obviously man.
“And the other thing,” says the real Dr. Mack, “is that I would like for you to delineate the consequences of this result.”
“You mean, am I going to get any flack for this?”
“No,” I laugh, “everyone else sees it as another success. They all love me. There are posters of me hanging in dorm rooms.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“Still getting me laid.” The little astronaut-me makes the jerk off motion. Finding yourself more cynical now?
“Is there perhaps some pressure you feel from that? That you’re admired?”
My little man is taking off his space suit, stripping down to his undershirt.
“That was always a sideshow,” I say, “the magazine covers, the book tour. The important thing has always been Life.” I can hear Dr. Mack scratch down a word. Life, maybe. My ceiling moon astronaut-me tries to spy on Dr. Mack’s pad as he removes his space-pants.
“So what changed? You’ve been frustrated before, but I’m hearing from you that this is different.” Astro-me, now in his underwear, is digging a hole in the grey lunar dust. He has a bandannawrapped around his head. He takes breaks to smoke more weed. Is this a desire for tree planting? Because that was simpler than leading your current mission? Again, obvious, subconscious Dr. Mack. Obvious.
I say, “Statistically it’s not any different. BD60K is the 307th star. And we’re dealing initially with something like 182,000. We have billions out there, and many have two or three planets that could have similar conditions. So what’s 307? It’s a piss in the fucking ocean.” I catch myself. “The friggin’ ocean.”
“Nice,” says Dr. Mack.
“Sidebar—I’m not the only man there who swears. Can I say that?”
“Oh, I’m sure. But you expressed to me that as a leader you wanted to display self-control. This comes from you.”
“I only want you to be self-actualizing. You get to set your own guidelines.”
“And if I say I want to murder a child?” And my little man on the ceiling gives me the finger.
“If you can make it self-consistent, I won’t judge you. I will call the police. But I won’t judge. However, you know how I feel about violence. Very hard to do in alignment with the self.”
“Well, I’m in baby-stabbing mode today, Doc.”
“You want to talk about that?” Dr. Mack asks, unruffled.
“No, I want to get back to what I was saying before. What was I saying before?”
“BD60K, 307th, piss in the friggin’ ocean.”
“Right. No reason to panic. This was always a long haul. But this horrible feeling: what if it’s all just fossilized microbes?”
“Tell me more about this feeling.” And I take my time, because with Dr. Mack you’re never in a rush. It’s not IASA here, even if we’re only 20 minutes down the freeway. This office, this recliner, exist in a different galaxy—one where time curves like a parabola. A session is 90 minutes but it may as well be a month. Faster speeds equal slower time. Processing equals speed? A special theory of mental relativity? Astro-me makes the ‘crazy’ gesture with his finger, up on the ceiling. Do you worry that parallel fantasies of a miniature space-travelling you and a disconnected and subconscious me may be straining your grip on reality? Well, gee, you could say that. Einstein.
“Einstein,” I say. “Something that momentous. I’m the father of modern astrobiology. But it’s a stillbirth.” I hear the pencil scratching “stillbirth”. A poetic image—thank you Understanding Poetry 301 in undergrad. Little me is cradling an even littler me in a baby-sized spacesuit. I have to actively ignore the obvious question both subconscious and corporeal Dr. Mack will ask.
“Stillbirth. Can you elaborate on that?”
“You wrote that down, didn’t you?”
“Pasha, if at anytime you don’t want me to take notes, I’m okay with that.”
“Abortions. God’s abortions.” Astro-me drops baby astro-me and grimaces. Prof. Edmunds in third-year poetry asks if I’m maybe gilding the lily with this metaphor. Have you perhaps gone too far? I’ve gone too far. “I’ve gone too far.”
“Not at all. I think it’s a brave association.” Dr. Mack to the rescue.
“It’s as if all I find is dead babies. Seeds, but no plants. We hear microbes and we all get so joyous, it’s as if we don’t hear fossilized. But there’s the rub.”
“What’s the rub?” asks Dr. Mack, feigning naivety.
“No life, Doc, no life. Just traces of death. Cosmic tombstones.” Astro-me is burying little astro-me in the grey dirt of the lunar pit. Shovelful after shovelful. So this isn’t really work related, it’s more, shall we say, existential. We shall, Doc, we shall.
“Pasha, I don’t want to debate you, as I’m sure I’d lose, but isn’t death a trace of life?”
“That was how I used to feel, too.”
“307 stars surrounded by fossilized bacterium. It’s a fucking museum out there. Friggin’. A friggin’ mausoleum.” Mausoleum! Excellent, says Prof. Edmunds, chalks “mausoleum” on the board. Dr. Mack’s pencil scratches mausoleum into eternity. Traces. Words too are traces of life receding, literary redshift, meaning speeding farther and farther away from signifiers, and growing dimmer. Astro-me is fake-crying, rubbing his eyes with big fists.
“Of course, so far. But what if it’s all fossilized microbes? It can’t stop there. Energy is supposed to become life. Don’t you see? Life is supposed to be the consciousness of the universe, the expression of it.”
“Supposed to be? Can I ask according to whom?”
“Well, I don’t fucking know. It can’t not be. If not, my protesters, those religious assholes, they’ll be right. We’ll be special. I don’t want to be special. Can’t you see how fucking depressing that is? We’re freaks. We’re an accident. We’re an only child. Life is a bastard son.” Do you think it’s possible that the examples you’ve used (bastard, only child, abortion) pertain to the fact that— Yeah, obviously, that I never knew my father, and Marie got the thing in college, whatever, obvious, c’mon. Gotta do better than that. Well, it is rather striking... Astro-me is reading Freud’s Die Traumdeutung, Prof. Edmunds is thrilled, recommends Lawrence.
“Pasha, I want to bring your attention to three things.”
“Can I guess? I said fucking without correction twice.”
“And I’m using extremely personal imagery, themes from my own life, to explain my work. Which surpasses my crisis of defining myself by my work, and leaps into a far more serious problem of defining my work by myself.” Astro-me gives the thumbs up. Yeats referred to himself as a poem, says Prof. Edmunds.
“I’d agree up to the point where you said ‘more serious problem’. That’s a value judgment that I doubt will be helpful.”
“Fair. Withdrawn. What’s the third?”
“You said: I don’t want to be special.”
“Yeah...” Astro-me pauses mid-air-guitaring to nod his head, subconscious Dr. Mack strokes his beard, and Prof. Edmunds underlines “special”on the blackboard. And then something strange happens, beyond just being stoned.
“Loneliness,” begins Dr. Mack, and there is a sudden gravitational shift; space-time becomes like origami, all realities folding together. Imaginary Dr. Mack, Astro-me, Prof. Edmunds—we’re all rapt with attention, all staring directly at actual Dr. Mack, his bald head, his affectionate smile, his empathetic heart.
“Loneliness is perhaps the fate of intelligence. Both the individual, and the species. Perhaps life, energy’s consciousness, is special.” We are all nodding. Astro-me starts to cry.
“Perhaps loneliness is the mark of distinction.” Prof. Edmunds begins to weep, and clutches his worn copy of “Hamlet” to his heart.
“We’re conscious of the burden of consciousness.” Imaginary Dr. Mack looks to the ceiling as a single tear falls into his beard.
“We’re alive to the solitude of life.” I’m fighting to not cry. Dr. Mack is waiting for me. The ceiling is empty, my head is empty, the room is empty save me and Dr. Mack. I take a deep breath.
“That’s how I feel, Dr. Mack. That’s exactly how I feel.”
“What do I do about that?”
Dr. Mack laughs.
Michael Goldlist is a Toronto-born writer, actor and producer. He has written for film, television and the theatre. As a writer-producer, Michael has created several short films and music videos, included Spirits by The Strumbellas which earned him an MMVA. For the stage, Michael wrote and collaborated with acclaimed off-Broadway theatre ensemble The Bats in New York City, and his first full length play, Gwen Powers, was produced by Toronto’s WORKhouse Theatre, of which he is an associate member. Michael has his BA in Theatre and Philosophy from Kings College, and his MFA from The New School in New York.