The hotel’s ancient neon sign still shines through my window every night, even with the venetian blinds closed. During the day it’s like any other sign, but after dark it blinks out an SOS dispatch in purple Morse code. · · · – – – · · ·, · · · – – – · · · , · · · – – – · · · . All night, every night. But no one responds to the plea. If this old hotel were a ship at sea, it would sink with all aboard. Without a trace. Without ever being remembered.
I told Vladislav about this once, before everything happened, mostly to fill up some of our hour together. He increased my Thorazine. I always left the pills in their bottles at the Altar of Our Lady, in the cathedral down the street. She accepted them as an offering. They were never there the next day.
A new tenant moved into the hotel, just before the shit hit the fan. He sang a cappella at night. Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer. Until about 4am every morning. With all the right breaks in all the right places. He had amazing timing. Kind of like Sinatra, after he divorced Ava Gardner. I could hear him through the air vent over my bed. It was like having a Vegas floorshow piped in — with the old neon sign going SOS SOS SOS, ad infinitum. So, who the fuck had time to sleep?
At one of my last appointments with Vladislav, he suggested that perhaps the new tenant wasn’t real, and asked if I’d been taking my meds. He used to get a little thrill out of suggesting the things I enjoyed in life weren’t real. Like all of the beautiful red and orange leaves in autumn, that blanketed the floor of my room, and crunched under my feet when I got up in the night to go to the can.
I smiled and lied about the medication, of course. And purposely failed to mention that the Virgin Mary was taking the pills now, instead of me. And that her beatific smile seemed to imply that they were working better for her than they had for me.
He shifted belligerently in his chair, and took iniquitous notes. But we weren’t friends, or anything.
In fact, by then, Vlad had become a problem. He only wanted to see me biweekly, and said I could email him if I had an issue. Except he never returned my emails. Even when I emailed him that I was surrounded by the Greys, and they were eating out of my refrigerator. The little alien fuckers would scare the hell out of me. Standing round my bed, staring at me with their big orbicular eyes, eating my KFC leftovers, throwing the bones onto the floor. Would they do that on their own planet? I don’t think so.
Anyway, I’d been planning something special for ol’ Vladislav. Something based on an idea hatched out of one of those crushing, self-obliterating darknesses I enjoy so much. The ones that permeate my inner-metaphysical assemblages at the deepest possible level, and suck every molecular spec of me down the kitchen drain. Then spit me back up in a seweratic bloom, renewed and radiant like the still-glowing hands of a long dead thrift store alarm clock.
It always surprised me and boosted my mood, the creativity that bled out of my blackest despondencies. It was like getting my bonus Air Miles in the mail on a gloomy day.
My depression inspired idea was a mind control transmitter. It turned out all I needed was a PC, an internet connection and a proper set of headphones. Not earbuds, mind you. But a full-on headset, like the hippies used to use. Skullcandy’s okay, but Bose is better.
This was the trick:
- Plug the headset jack into audio-in, instead of audio-out.
- When this is done place the headset on your head, over your ears.
- Twist the headset ninety degrees to the right, so that the left earpiece is on your forehead.
- Now you had a direct line, through the left earpiece, from your prefrontal cortex into the CPU. And you could stream your thought controlling messages into Gmail.
It took up a lot of bandwidth. But when I pressed send, my thought control messages would go out over the driftnet they called the worldwide web, and they were delivered to the addressee. When the recipient opened the email, his or her brain would lock onto the message, and they would do whatever I demanded.
I used Google Drive’s 10GB attachment size limit to avoid Gmail’s meager 25MB limit. A thought control message could be pretty huge. There was a lot of code involved. Maybe that would have changed once it caught on. Mothers could have used it to sneakily coax their children to call, and governments to convince the people that critical thought was terrorism.
The first thought control message I sent was to the Mayor, and it took him less than a week to fix the sidewalk out front. It had been cracked and bumpy before, and old people had been tripping and falling all over the place. By lunchtime, most days, it looked like a geriatric killing field, all of the oldsters fallen and unable to get up. But after my mind control message made it to the Mayor, and the sidewalk was repaired, they just floated by with their walkers, like wheeled robots blissified in their new found movability.
My point is that this was a proven technology, baby. I didn’t hold any patents or copyright on it, though. It was like shareware. You could have tried it at home. I didn’t care.
After the Mayor, it was Vlad’s turn. I didn’t have any demands like fix my sidewalk for him. He probably couldn’t even use a screwdriver. I just wanted to fuck him up a bit, introduce the cardigan-wearing comb-over mother fucker to an existent reality, separate from the DSM 5 and Land’s End deck shoes.
And so, by now you’ve probably figured out that Vlad was a psychiatrist. He wanted me to call him Vladislav, instead of Dr Pulin, because he thought being on a first name basis gave him some perversely deserved form of street cred. But it just made him seem like Sally Field in The Flying Nun. And like I’ve said, he liked to tie most of my lived experiences to my presumed psychosis. He even refused to acknowledge the presence of the Greys, with their big buggy eyes and Domino’s Pizza, whenever they’d come along with me to an appointment.
His office was on the twelfth floor of an old downtown art deco number, with a stone balcony above the busy street. The balcony was festooned with flowering potted plants, vines and shrubs. And he had a small Ethiopian man named Bruck come in once a week to take care of them. Vladislav didn’t really like Bruck though, and Bruck thought Vlad was an asshole.
Sometimes Bruck offered insights into what he overheard from patients on the balcony. Insights that seemed far more informed than Vladislav’s. Vlad really resented this. I watched it happen in the waiting room a few times, as Vlad leaned forward, breathing heavily over the receptionist, pretending to read a file on the counter. Bruck would say something clinically astute, and Vlad would sneer and send him back out onto the balcony with his pruning shears.
“That little African bastard’s really pushing my buttons,” he’d whisper into the receptionist’s ear, with his garlicky lunchtime escargot breath. “Can we do anything to revoke his citizenship?”
The receptionist would shrug and wheel away on her desk chair.
In the summer, I’d sit out on the balcony for sessions with Vlad. This would have been almost enjoyable if he wasn’t such a dick, smoking his pipe, nodding needlessly, raising his eyebrows and squinting critically, displaying mock empathy at what might have been the right moment, but never was. It was like a well-rehearsed alienist pantomime, probably perfected in his intern years, surrounded by slobbering imbecilic psych ward inmates in a hospital just off of skid row. And it had the adrenaline stink of his own internalised horror. But I never said anything; sometimes the patient must accommodate the physician.
Sometimes he’d say shit like, “Let me help you take joy in choosing life.” Like he wasn’t the single most suicidal ideation inducing factor in my life.
I would have split and run if the visits weren’t court ordered. Hell, if the visits weren’t court ordered, I’d have been drinking beer and snorting amyl nitrite under a bridge somewhere.
But getting back to mind control via the doubtable Windows operating system.
I’d bought a pair of Bose SoundTrue on-ear headphones the day before it all went to hell. I believed they’d work better than the vintage Sears model I’d been using, with its adapter plug and fraying cord. Besides, I probably looked like a total loser with a pair of headphones from the eighties, turned ninety degrees on my head. The eighties wasn’t a bad decade, but they had different ideas about what was compact and streamlined back then. As soon as I tried on the Bose set in the store, gave them a quick turn so the left earpiece was on my forehead, and asked to see myself in a mirror, I knew that I was making the right choice.
That night I came home, sat in the blinking neon purple SOS light and listened to the Vegas floorshow guy singing through the air vent. And I composed my mind control message to Dr Vladislav Pulin, as I did.
I’d brought home a couple of six packs and started to guzzle. This was going to be great.
I really wanted to set the shithead up for some grief, and I’d spoken to Bruck earlier in the week to tell him what to watch for, that there would be a chance to peg Vlad with a harassment complaint that might really pay off.
“Do you believe you can control world events, Tommy?” Bruck asked me.
“No,” I said. Okay, I sort of lied.
“Well that’s fine, then.”
After I explained my plan to him, he put his hand on mine and told me that he understood that realities could differ greatly, but that that didn’t deny the importance of one’s personal perception. Then he said that I should proceed with my plan, as long as no one got hurt.
It was absolutely the right thing to say, in so many ways. And it came out of the mouth of an Ethiopian grader. Ain’t that something?
The as long as no one got hurt part really didn’t sink in, though. That might have been the beginning of how it all went so wrong. And in hindsight, I might have worded things differently. Too late now.
The message sort of went like this:
Hi Vlad, (regular email salutation protocols apply to thought control messaging) Why don’t you get back at the little bastard, Bruck, and push his button? Find it and push it, Vlad. Push the button that will ruin, even eliminate, your greatest enemy. Go ahead, Vlad, push the button that will change the world and put you in charge. You know you want to.
By then I’d gotten through the first six beer. I was a little bit tipsy, I’ll admit. I forgot all about the Google ezAutoCorrect extension that lived on my computer, in an alternative reality all its own. It ended up drastically changing the spelling of key words in my message. In the address field, Vladislav.Pulin@gmail.com became Vladmir.Putin@gmail.com. And in the text field, Bruck was changed to Barack.
I take no solace in knowing that I’m not the first drunken fool to press send, when he should have held off until the morning after.
And who the hell knew Vladimir Putin had a Gmail account?
The mind control email message arrived on Putin’s PC in the afternoon, and The Button was pushed shortly after.
So, now the neon purple SOS has a new kind of importance. Worldwide electrical grids are failing, along with mass communications. A massive electromagnetic pulse wiped every hard drive and flash drive on the planet clean in a nuclear second. The Vegas floorshow guy still sings, but his songs seem a little more melancholy, and he’s developed a persistent cough that messes up his timing. The good news is that the Greys haven’t returned. I guess it’s because KFC and Domino’s don’t deliver anymore.