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2014 winner


'Nirvana'

It’s late, and I can’t sleep. I raise a window for some spring Palo Alto air, but it doesn’t help. In bed, eyes open, I hear whispers, which makes me think of the President because we often talk in whispers. I know the whisper sound is really just my wife Charlotte, who listens to Nirvana on her headphones all night and tends to sleep-mumble the lyrics. Charlotte has her own bed, a mechanical one.

My sleep problem is this: when I close my eyes, I keep visualizing my wife killing herself. More like the ways she might try to kill herself, since she’s paralyzed from the shoulders down. The paralysis is quite temporary, though try convincing Charlotte of that. She slept on her side today, to fight the sores, and there was something about the way she stared at the bed’s safety rail. The bed is voice-activated, so if she could somehow get her head between the bars of the safety rail, “incline” is all she’d have to say. As the bed powered up, she’d be choked in seconds.

But she doesn’t need an exotic exit strategy, not when she’s exacted a promise from me to help her do it when the time comes.

I rise and go to her. She’s not listening to Nirvana yet—she saves it for when she needs it most, after midnight, when her nerves really start to crackle.

“I thought I heard a noise,” I tell her. “Kind of a whisper.”

Short, choppy hair frames her drawn face, skin faint as refrigerator light.

“I heard it, too,” she says.

Next to her voice remote is a half-smoked joint. I light it, hold it to her lips.

“How’s the weather in there?” I ask her.

“Windy,” she says.

Windy is better than hail or lightning, or god forbid, flooding, which is the sensation she felt when her lungs were just starting to work again. But there are different kinds of wind.

I ask, “Windy, like a whistle through window screens, or windy like the rattle of storm shutters?”

“A strong breeze, hissy and buffeting,” she says, “like a microphone in the wind.”

Charlotte hates being stoned, but she says it quiets the inside of her. She has Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a condition in which her immune system attacks the insulation around her nerves. When the brain sends signals to the body, the impulses ground out before they can be received. A billion nerves inside her send signals that go everywhere, nowhere. This is the ninth month, a month at the edge of the medical literature. It’s a place where the doctors no longer feel qualified to tell us whether Charlotte’s nerves will begin to regenerate or whether she will be stuck like this forever.

She exhales, coughing. Her right arm twitches, which means her brain has attempted to tell her arm to rise and cover the mouth.

She tokes again. Through the smoke she says, “I’m worried.”

“What about?”

“You.”

“You’re worried about me?”

“I want you to stop talking to the President,” she says. “It’s time to accept reality.”

I try to be light-hearted. “The President’s the one who talks to me.”

“Then stop listening. He’s gone. When your time comes, you’re supposed to fall silent.”

I nod, but she doesn’t understand. Stuck in this bed, having sworn off TV, she’s probably the only person in America who didn’t see the assassination. If she’d beheld the look in the President’s eyes when his life was taken, she’d understand why I talk to him late at night. If she could leave this room and feel the nation trying to grieve, she’d know why I reanimated the Commander in Chief and brought him back to life.

“Concerning my conversations with the President,” I say, “I’d just point out that you spend half your life listening to Nirvana, whose songs are from a guy who blew his brains out.”

Charlotte tilts her head and looks at me like I’m a stranger. “Kurt Cobain took the pain of his life and made it into something that mattered. What did the President leave behind? Uncertainties, emptiness, a thousand rocks to overturn.”

She talks like that when she’s high. I tap out the joint and lift her headphones.

“Ready for your Nirvana?” I ask.

She looks at the window. “That sound, I hear it again,” she says.

At the window, I peer out into darkness. It’s a normal Palo Alto night—blue recycling bins, a raccoon digging in the community garden. Then I notice it, right before my eyes, a small black drone, hovering. Its tiny servos swivel to regard me. Real quick, I snatch the drone out of the air and pull it inside. I close the window and curtains, then study the thing: its shell is made of black foil, stretched over tiny struts, like the bones of a bat’s wing. Behind a propeller of clear cellophane, a tiny infra-red engine throbs with warmth.

“Now will you listen to me?” Charlotte asks. “Now will you stop this President business?

“It’s too late for that,” I tell her and release the drone. As if blind, it bumbles around the room. Is it autonomous? Has someone been operating it, someone watching our house?

“Play music,” Charlotte tells her voice remote.

Closing her eyes, she waits for me to place the headphones on her ears, where she will hear Kurt Cobain come to life once more.

I wake later in the night. The drone has somehow turned itself on and is hovering above me, mapping my body with a beam of red light. I toss a sweater over it, dropping it to the floor. After making sure Charlotte’s asleep, I pull out my iProjector, turn it on, and the President appears in three dimensions, his torso life-sized in an amber glow.

He greets me with a smile. “It’s good to be back in Palo Alto,” he says.

My algorithm has accessed the iProjector’s GPS chip and searched the President’s database for location references. This one came from a commencement address he gave at Stanford back when he was a senator.

“Mister President,” I say. “I’m sorry to bother you again, but I have more questions.”

He looks into the distance, contemplative. “Shoot,” he says.

I move into his line of sight but can’t get him to look me in the eye. That’s one of the design problems I ran across.

“Did I make a mistake in creating you?” I ask. “In releasing you to the world? My wife says that you’re keeping people from mourning, that this you keeps us from accepting that the real you is gone.”

The President rubs the stubble on his chin.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he says.

Which is eerie, because that’s a line he’d spoken on 60 Minutes, a moment when he expressed regret for legalizing drones for civilian use.

“Do you know that I’m the one who made you?” I ask.

“We are all born free,” he says. “And no person may traffic in another.”

“But you weren’t born,” I tell him. “I wrote an algorithm, based on the Linux operating kernel. You’re an open-source search engine married to a dialog bot and a video complier. The program scrubs the web and archives a person’s images and videos and data—everything you say, you’ve said before.”

For the first time, the President falls silent.

I ask, “Do you know that you’re . . . that you’ve died?”

The President doesn’t hesitate.

“The end of life is another kind of freedom,” he says.

The assassination flashes in my eyes. I’ve seen the video so many times—the motorcade slowly crawls along while the President, on foot, parades past the barricaded crowds. Someone in the throng catches the President’s eye. The President turns, lifts a hand in greeting. Then a bullet strikes him in the abdomen. The impact bends him forward, his eyes lift to confront the shooter. A look of recognition settles into the President’s gaze before he takes the second shot in the face. They put him on a machine for a few days, but the end had already come.

I glance at Charlotte, asleep. “Mister President,” I whisper, “did you and the First Lady ever talk about . . . worst scenarios?”

I wonder if the First Lady was the one to turn off the machine.

The President smiles, “The First Lady and I have a wonderful relationship. We share everything.”

“But were there agreements? Did you two make a plan?”

His voice lowers, becomes sonorous. “Are you asking about the bonds of matrimony?”

“I suppose so,” I say.

“In this regard,” he says, “our only duty is to be of service, in any way we can.”

My mind ponders the ways in which I might have to be of service to Charlotte.

The President then looks into the distance, like a flag is waving there.

“I’m the President of the United States,” he says, “and I approved this message.”

That’s when I know our conversation is over. But when I reach to turn off the iProjector, the President looks me squarely in the eye, a coincidence of perspective, I guess.

“Seek your inner resolve,” he tells me.

*

Can you tell a story that doesn’t begin, it’s just suddenly happening? The woman you love gets the flu. Her fingers tingle, her legs go rubbery. What finally gets her to the hospital is the need to pee. She’s dying to pee, but the paralysis has begun: the bladder can no longer hear the brain. After an ER doc inserts a Foley catheter, you learn new words—axon, areflexia, ascending peripheral polyneuropathy.

Charlotte says she’s filled with “noise.” Inside her is a “storm.”

The doctor has a big needle. He tells Charlotte to get on the gurney. Charlotte’s scared to get on the gurney. She’s scared she won’t ever get up again. “Please, honey,” you say. “Get on the gurney.” Soon, you behold the glycerin glow of your wife’s spinal fluid. And she’s right. She doesn’t get up again.

Next comes plasmapheresis, then high-dose immunoglobulin therapy.

The doctors mention, casually, the word ventilator.

Charlotte’s mother arrives. She brings her cello. She’s an expert on the siege of Leningrad. She’s written a book on the topic. When Charlotte’s coma is induced, her mother fills the neuro ward with the saddest sounds ever conceived. For days, there is nothing but the swish of vent baffles, the trill of vital monitors and Shostacovich, Shostacovich, Shostacovich.

Two months of physical therapy in Santa Clara. Here are dunk tanks, sonar stimulators, exoskeletal treadmills. Charlotte becomes the person in the room who makes the victims of other afflictions feel better about their fates. She doesn’t make progress. The doctors don’t call her a “soldier” or a “champ” or a “trooper.”

Still to be described are tests, tantrums and treatments. To come are the discoveries of Kurt Cobain and marijuana. Of these times, there is only one moment I must relate. It was a normal night. I was beside Charlotte in the mechanical bed, holding up her magazine.

She said, “You don’t know how bad I want to get out of this bed.”

Her voice was quiet, uninflected. She’d said similar things a thousand times.

“I’d do anything to escape,” she said.

I flipped the page and laughed at a picture whose caption read, “Stars are just like us!”

“But I could never do that to you,” she said.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

“What are you talking about, what’s going through your head?”

I turned to look at her. She was inches away.

“Except for how it would hurt you,” she said. “I would get away.”

“Get away where?”

“From here.”

Neither of us had spoken of the promise since the night it was exacted. I’d tried to pretend the promise didn’t exist, but it existed.

“Face it, you’re stuck with me,” I said, forcing a smile. “We’re fated to be together. And soon you’ll be better, things will be normal again.”

“My entire life is this pillow.”

“That’s not true. You’ve got your friends and family. And you’ve got technology. The whole world is at your fingertips.”

By friends I meant her nurses and physical therapists. By family, I meant her distant and brooding mother. It didn’t matter: Charlotte was too disengaged to even point out her non-functional fingers and their non-feeling tips.

She rolled her head and stared at the safety rail.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I would never do that to you.”

*

In the morning, I massage Charlotte’s legs and feet. It’s our routine.

“Let’s wake up,” I tell her toes. “It’s time to start dancing.”

“Look who’s Mister Brightside,” she says. “You must have been talking to the President. Isn’t that why you talk to him, to get all inspired?”

I rub her Achilles tendon. Last week, Charlotte failed a big test, the DTRE, which measures deep tendon response and signals the beginning of recovery. “Don’t worry,” the doctor told us. “I know of another patient that also took nine months to respond, and he managed a full recovery.” I asked if we could contact this patient, to know what he went through, to help us see what’s ahead. The doctor informed us this patient was attended to in France, in the year 1918.

After the doctor left, I went into the garage and started making the president. A psychologist would probably say the reason I created him had to do with the promise I made Charlotte and the fact that the President also had a relationship with the person who took his life. But it’s simpler than that: I just needed to save somebody, and with the President, it didn’t matter that it was too late.

I tap Charlotte’s patella but there’s no response. “Any pain?” I ask.

“So what did the President say?”

I articulate the plantar fascia. “How about this?”

“I saw the iProjector,” she says. “I know you talked to him.”

It’s going to be one of her bad days, I can tell.

“Let me guess,” Charlotte says. “The President told you to move to the South Pacific to take up painting. That’s inspiring, isn’t it?”

I don’t say anything.

“You’d take me with you, right?” she asks. “I could be your assistant. I’d hold your palate in my teeth. If you need a model, I specialize in reclining nudes.”

“If you must know,” I tell her, “the President told me to locate my inner resolve.”

Inner resolve,” she says, “I could use some help tracking down mine.”

“You have more resolve than anyone I know,” I tell her.

“Jesus you’re sunny. Don’t you know what’s going on? Don’t you see that I’m about to spend the rest of my life like this?”

“Pace yourself, darling. The day’s only a couple minutes old.”

“I know,” she says. “I’m supposed to have reached a stage of enlightened acceptance or something. You think I like it that the only person I have to get mad at is you? I know it’s not right—you’re the one thing I love in this world.”

“You love Kurt Cobain.”

“He’s dead.”

We hear Hector, the morning nurse, pull up outside.

“Promise me something,” she says.

“No,” I tell her.

“Come on. If you do, I’ll release you from the other promise.”

I shake my head. She doesn’t mean it—she’ll never release me.

She says, “Just agree to talk straight with me. You don’t have to be fake and optimistic. It doesn’t help.”

“I am optimistic.”

“You shouldn’t be,” she says. “Pretending, that’s what killed Kurt Cobain.”

I think it was the shotgun he pointed at his head, but I don’t say that.

I only know one line from Nirvana. I karaoke it to Charlotte:

“With the lights on,” I sing, “she’s less dangerous.”

She rolls her eyes. “You got it wrong,” she says. But she smiles.

I try to encourage this. “What, I don’t get points for trying?”

“You don’t hear that?” Charlotte asks.

“Hear what?”

“That’s the sound of me clapping.”

“I give up,” I say.

“Bed, incline,” Charlotte says. Her torso slowly rises. It’s time to start her day.

*

I take the 101 Freeway toward Mountain View, where I write code at a company called Reputation Curator. Basically the company threatens Yelpers and Facebookers to retract negative comments about dodgy lawyers and dentists. I was hired to write a program that would sweep the web to construct client profiles. Creating the President was an easy step from there.

In the vehicle next to me is a woman with her iProjector on the passenger seat, and she’s having an animated discussion with the President as she drives. At the next overpass, I see an older black man in a tan jacket, looking down at the traffic. Standing next to him is the President. They’re not speaking, just standing together, watching the cars go by.

I shift to automatic and dart into the Google lane, where I let go of the wheel and sign on to the web for the first time since I released the President a week ago. I discover that fourteen million people have downloaded the President. I also have seven hundred new messages. The first is from the dude who started Facebook, and it is not spam—he wants to buy me a chimichanga and talk about the future. The latest message is from Charlotte: “I don’t mean to be mean,” she writes. “I lost my feeling, remember? I’ll get it back. I’m trying, I really am.”

I see the President again, on the lawn of a Korean church. I understand that he is a ghost that will haunt us until our nation comes to grip with what’s happened: that he is gone, that he has been stolen from us, that it’s irreversible. And I’m not an idiot. I know what’s being stolen from me, slowly and irrevocably, before my eyes. I know that late at night I should be going to Charlotte instead of the President.

But when I’m with her, there’s a membrane my mind places between us to protect me from the tremor in her voice, from the pulse in her desiccated wrists. Driving now, I think how she has started turning toward the wall even before the last song on the Nirvana album is over, that soon, even headphones and marijuana will cease to work. My off-ramp ahead is blurry, and I realize there are tears in my eyes. I drive right past my exit. I just let the Google lane carry me away.

*

In the garage, I decide to get to the bottom of this drone business. I dock the drone to a bank of drives and use some slave code to parse its drive. I burn through its firewall, and then reinitialize. Turns out the little guy speaks Google, so I synch it to a pair of Android glasses. I install a new OS, reboot, and like that, the drone is mine. Wearing the clear glasses, I roll my eyes and the drone—lithe and liquid—does a backflip.

Inside the house, I find Charlotte suspended in a sling from the Hoyer lift, which has been rolled to the window so she can see outside. She’s wearing old yoga tights, and she smells of the cedar oil her massage therapist rubs her with. I go to her and open the window.

“You read my mind,” she says and breathes the fresh air.

I put the glasses on her, and it takes her eyes a minute of flashing around before the drone lifts from my hands. A grand smile crosses her face as she puts it through its paces—hovering, rotating, swiveling the camera’s servos. And then the drone is off. I watch it cross the lawn, veer around the compost piles, then head for the community garden. It floats down the rows, and I can see the distant drone inspecting the blossoms of summer squash, tracking watermelons by their the umbilical stems. When she makes it to her plot, she gasps.

“My roses,” she says. “They’re still there. Someone’s been taking care of them.”

“I wouldn’t let your roses die,” I tell her.

She has the drone inspect every bloom. Carefully, she maneuvers it through the bright petals, brushing against the blossoms, then shuttles it home again. Suddenly it’s hovering before us. Charlotte leans slightly forward and sniffs the drone. “I never thought I’d smell my roses again,” she says, her face flush with hope and amazement and suddenly the tears are streaming.

She regards me. “I want to have a baby,” she says.

“A baby?”

“It’s been nine months. I could have had one already. I could’ve been doing something useful this whole time.”

“But your illness,” I say. “We don’t know what’s ahead.”

She closes her eyes like she’s hugging something, like she’s holding some dear truth.

“With a baby, I’d have something to show for all this. I’d have a reason. At the least, I’d have something to leave behind.”

“You can’t talk like that,” I tell her. “We’ve talked about you not talking like this.”

But she won’t listen to me, she won’t open her eyes.

All she says is, “And I want to start tonight.”

*

Later, I carry the iProjector out back to the gardening shed. Here, in the gold of afternoon light, the President rises and comes to life. He adjusts his collar, cuffs, runs his thumb down a black lapel as if he exists only in the moment before a camera will broadcast him live to the world.

“Mister President,” I say. “I’m sorry to bother you again.”

“Nonsense,” he tells me. “I serve at the pleasure of the people.”

“Do you remember me?” I ask. “Do you remember the problems I’ve been talking to you about?”

“Perennial is the nature of the problems that plague man. Particular is the voice with which they call to each of us.”

“My problem today is of a personal nature,” I say.

“Then I place this conversation under the seal.”

“I haven’t made love to my wife in a long time.”

He holds up a hand to halt me. He smiles in a knowing, fatherly way.

“Times of doubt,” he tells me, “are inherent in the compact of civil union.”

“My question is about children. Would you have still brought yours into the world, knowing that only one of you might be around to raise them?”

“Single parenting places too much strain on today’s families,” he says. “That’s why I’m introducing legislation that will reduce the burden on our hard-working parents.”

“What about your children? Do you miss them?”

“My mind goes to them constantly. Being away is the great of the sacrifice of the office.”

In the shed, suspended dust makes his specter glitter and swirl. It makes him look like he is cutting out, like he will leave at any moment.

“When it’s all finally over,” I ask, “where is it that we go?”

“I’m no preacher,” the President says, “but I believe we go where we are called.”

“Where were you called to? Where is it that you are?”

“Don’t we all try to locate ourselves among the pillars of uncommon knowledge?”

“You don’t know where you are, do you?” I ask the President.

“I’m sure my opponent would like you to believe that.”

“It’s okay,” I say, more to myself. “I didn’t expect you to know.”

“I know exactly where I am,” the President says. Then, in a voice that sounds pieced from many scraps, he adds, “I’m currently positioned at three seven point four four north by one two two point one four west.”

I think he’s done. I wait for him to say Good night and God bless America. Instead, he reaches out to touch my chest. “I have heard that you have made much personal sacrifice,” he says. “And I’m told that your sense of duty is strong.”

I don’t think I agree, but I say, “Yes sir.”

His glowing hand clasps my shoulder, and it doesn’t matter that I can’t feel it.

“Then this medal that I affix to your uniform is much more than a piece of silver. It is a symbol of how much you have given, not just in armed struggle and not just in service to your nation. It marks you forever as one who can be counted upon, as one who in times of need will lift up and carry those who have fallen.” Proudly, he stares into the empty space above my shoulder. He says, “Now return home to your wife, soldier, and start a new chapter of life.”

*

When darkness falls, I go to Charlotte. The night nurse has placed her in a negligee. Charlotte lowers the bed as I approach. The electric motor is the only sound in the room.

“I’m ovulating,” she announces. “I can feel it.”

“You can feel it?”

“I don’t need to feel it,” she says. “I just know.”

She’s strangely calm.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

“Sure.”

I steady myself on the safety rail that separates us.

She asks, “Do you want some oral sex first?”

I shake my head.

“Come join me, then,” she says.

I start to climb on the bed—she stops me.

“Hey, Sunshine,” she says. “Take off your clothes.”

I can’t remember the last time she called me that.

“Oh, yeah,” I say and unbutton my shirt, unzip my jeans. When I drop my underwear, I feel weirdly, naked. I swing a leg up, then kind of lie on her.

A look of contentment crosses her face. “This is how it’s supposed to be,” she says. “It’s been a long time since I’ve looked into your eyes.”

Her body is narrow but warm. I don’t know where to put my hands.

“Do you want to pull down my panties?”

I sit up and begin work them off. I see the scar from the femoral stent. When I heft her legs, there are the bedsores we’ve been fighting.

“Remember our trip to Mexico,” she asks, “when we made love on top of that pyramid? It was like we were in the past and the future at the same time. I kind of feel that now.”

“You’re not high, are you?” I ask.

“What? Like I’d have to be stoned to recall the first time we talked about having a baby?”

When I have her panties off and her legs hooked, I pause. It takes all my focus to get an erection, and then I can’t believe I have one. I see the moment coldly, distant, the way a drone would see it. Here’s my wife: paralyzed, invalid, insensate, and though everything’s the opposite of erotic, I am poised above her, completely hard.

“I’m wet, aren’t I?” Charlotte asks. “I’ve been thinking about this all day.”

I do remember the pyramid. The stone was cold, the staircase steep. The past to me was a week of Charlotte in Mayan dresses, cooing at every baby she came across. Having sex under jungle stars, I tried to imagine the future: a faceless someone conceived on a sacrificial altar. I finished early and tried to shake it off. I focused only on all those steps we had to make it down in the dark.

“I think I feel something,” she says. “You’re inside me, right? Because I’m pretty sure I can feel it.”

Here I enter my wife and begin our lovemaking. I try to focus on the notion that if this works, Charlotte will be safe, that for nine months she’d let no harm come to her, and maybe she’s right, maybe the baby will stimulate something and recovery will begin.

Charlotte smiles. It’s brittle, but it’s a smile. “How’s this for finding the silver lining,” she says. “I won’t have to feel the pain of childbirth.”

This makes me wonder if a paralyzed woman can push out a baby, or does she get the scalpel, and if so, is there anesthesia, and suddenly my body is at the edge of not cooperating.

“Hey, are you here?” she asks. “I’m trying to get you to smile.”

“I just need to focus for a minute,” I tell her.

“I can tell you’re not really into this,” she says. “I can tell you’re still hung up on the idea I’m going to do something drastic to myself, right? Just because I talk about crazy stuff doesn’t mean I’m going to do anything.”

I say, “Then why would you make me promise to help you do it?”

The promise came early, in the beginning, just before the ventilator. She had a vomiting reflex that lasted for hours. Imagine endless dry heaves while you’re paralyzed. The doctors finally gave her narcotics. Drugged, dead-limbed and vomiting, that’s when it hit her that her body was no longer hers. I was holding her hair, keeping it out of the basin. She was panting between heaves.

She said, “Promise me that when I tell you to make it stop, you’ll make it stop.”

“Make what stop?” I asked.

She retched, long and cord-rattling. I knew what she meant.

“It won’t come to that,” I said.

She tried to say something but retched again.

“I promise,” I said.

Now, in her mechanical bed, her negligee straps slipping off her shoulders, Charlotte says, “It’s hard for you to understand, I know. But the idea that there’s a way out, it’s what allows me to keep going. I’d never take it. You believe me, don’t you?”

“I hate that promise, I hate that you made me make it.”

“I’d never do it, and I’d never make you help.”

“Then release me,” I tell her.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I can’t”

I decide to just shut it all out and keep going. I’m losing my erection, and my mind wonders what will happen if I go soft, but I shut it out and keep going, pounding on Charlotte until I can barely feel anything. From the bedside table, the drone turns itself on and rises, hovering. It flashes my forehead with its green laser, as if what I’m feeling is that easy to determine, as if my emotion has a name. Is the drone spying on me, feeling sympathy or executing old code? I wonder if the drone’s OS reverted to a previous version or if it’s in some kind of autonomous mode. Or it could be that someone hacked the Android glasses, or maybe . . . that’s when I look down and see Charlotte is crying.

I stop.

“No, don’t,” she says. “Keep going.”

She’s not crying hard, but they are fat, lamenting tears.

“We can try again tomorrow,” I tell her.

“No, I’m okay,” she says. “Just keep going and do something for me, would you?”

“Alright.”

“Put the headphones on me.”

“You mean, while we’re doing it?”

“Music on,” she says. From the headphones on her bedside table, Nirvana starts to hum.

“I know I’m doing it all wrong,” I say. “It’s been a long time, and . . .”

“It’s not you,” she says. “I just need my music. Just put them on me.”

“Why do you need Nirvana? What is it to you?”

She closes her eyes and shakes her head.

“What is it with this Kurt Cobain?” I say. “What’s your deal with him?”

I grab her wrists and pin them down, but she can’t feel it.

“Why do you have to have this music? What’s wrong with you?” I demand. “Just tell me what it is that’s wrong with you.”

*

The drone follows me to the garage, where it wanders the walls, looking for a way out. I turn on a computer and download one of these Nirvana albums. I play the whole thing, sitting there in the dark. This Kurt Cobain sings about being stupid and dumb and unwanted. In one song he says that Jesus doesn’t want him for a sunbeam. In another, he says he wants milk and laxatives along with cherry-flavored antacids. He has song called “All Apologies,” but he never actually apologizes. He doesn’t even say what he did wrong.

The drone, having found no escape, comes to me and hovers silently. I must look pretty pathetic because the drone takes my temperature.

I lift the remote for the garage door opener. “Is this what you want?” I ask. “If I let you go, are you going to come back?”

The drone silently hums, impassive atop its column of warm air.

I press the button. The drone waits until the garage door is all the way up. Then it snaps a photograph of me and zooms off into the Palo Alto night.

I stand and breathe the air, which is cool and smells of flowers. Down the street, I spot the glowing eyes of our cat. I call his name but he doesn’t come. I gave him to a friend a couple blocks away, and for a few weeks the cat returned at night to visit me. Not anymore. This feeling of being in proximity to something that’s lost to you, it seems like my whole life right now. It’s a feeling Charlotte would understand if she’d just talk to the President. But he’s not the one she needs to speak to, I suddenly understand that. I return to my computer bench and fire up a bank of screens. I stare into their blue glow and get to work. It takes me hours, most of the night, before I’m done.

It’s almost dawn when I go to Charlotte. The room is dark, and I can only see her outline. “Bed, incline,” I say, and she starts to rise. She wakes and stares at me but says nothing. Her face has that lack of expression that comes after it’s been through every emotion.

I set the iProjector in her lap. She hates the thing but says nothing. She only tilts her head a little, like she’s sad for me. Then I turn it on.

Kurt Cobain appears before her, clad in a bathrobe and composed of soft blue light.

Charlotte inhales. “Oh my god,” she murmurs.

She looks at me. “Is it him?”

I nod.

She marvels at him.

“What do I say?” she asks. “Can he talk?”

I don’t answer.

Kurt Cobain’s hair is in his face. Shifting her gaze, Charlotte tries to look into his eyes. While the President couldn’t quite find your eyes, Kurt is purposefully avoiding them.

“I can’t believe how young you are,” Charlotte tells him. “You’re just a boy.”

Kurt’s mumbles, “I’m old.”

“Are you really here?” she asks.

“Here we are now,” he sings. “Entertain us.”

His voice is rough and hard lived. It’s some kind of proof of life to Charlotte.

Charlotte looks at me, filled with wonder. “I thought he was gone,” she says. “I can’t believe he’s really here.”

Kurt shrugs. “I only appreciate things when they’re gone,” he says.

Charlotte looks stricken.

“I recognize that line,” she says to me. “That’s a line from his suicide note. How does he know that? Has he already written it, does he know what he’s going to do?”

“I don’t know,” I tell her. This isn’t my conversation to have. I back away toward the door, and just as I’m leaving, I hear her start talking to him.

“Don’t do what you’re thinking about doing,” she pleads with him. “You don’t know how special you are, you don’t know how much you matter to me,” she says, carefully, like she’s talking to a child. “Please don’t take yourself from me. You can’t do that to me.”

She leans toward Kurt Cobain, like she wants to throw her arms around him and hold him, like she’s forgotten that her arms don’t work and there’s no him to embrace.

A little bit about Adam Johnson

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Adam is Associate Professor of English at Stanford University.
A Whiting Writers Award winner, his work has appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, Playboy, GQ, The New York Times and Best American Short Stories. He is the author of two short story collections – Emporium, and Fortune Smiles, which won the 2015 National Book Award – and two novels - Parasites Like Us, and The Orphan Master’s Son, which received the 2013 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. His books have been translated into twenty-nine languages. Johnson was a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow and a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow.