A Random Antidote / Chapter 1

(Part 1, Lay Me Down Tomorrow)

Thank God for the reservation, you might say to yourself as you fly into the city of Phoenix, Arizona, from the east.  The Salt River / Hopi Indian reservation is eighty square miles of desert, cotton, and corn fields, right in the middle of the frantic building and development of the white man.  The city’s houses and walls and buildings rush up to the reservation’s edge and then stop there, thwarted by the righteous combination of tribal ownership, open spaces, and miles of green crops.  This latter arrangement fits the desert much better.  The green fields accept the harsh rays of the sun and thrive under them.  The structures of the city reflect the glare with glass and white paint, hoping to evade the intense energy of the sun but in truth they are just passing it back and forth.

One blotch in the green landscape is the casino toward the west end of the reservation.  The casino is large and the parking lots take up even more land to accommodate the visitors that leave a million dollars each and every week there.  The overall odds at the casino are not particularly good but it is much closer to the city’s residents than are casinos on more distant reservations.  So gamblers have the choice of staying closer to home and losing their money more quickly, or driving another hour to lose their money more slowly.  Most seem to prefer the close-to-home option.

This casino has a legacy slot machine section where the familiar ding-ding-ding-ding and thudding of metal coins in the coin buckets is still heard.  Most slot patrons prefer the electronic machines which are quicker and more efficient, in the sense that you get more pulls per minute, though this also means that you lose your money faster.  But there are enough old-school slot people to keep some of the mechanical slots around.  And the mechanical clicking of the slot machines, and the background ding ding of the coins when there was a win, seem to create a more natural ambient which is softer and less intrusive.  The fully digital machines have to make up for the lack of natural sounds with louder and shriller off-key digital noises.

One warm desert day, a slightly built forty-something white man was playing at one of these older slot machines in the casino, playing somewhat slowly compared to the average patron.  He had been at the same quarter machine for about twenty minutes, dropping coins in occasionally and then seeming to pause and reflect on the outcome, whether it was nothing, or (rarely) a few coins dropping into the cup.  He was also watching people at other slots in between pulls.  He wasn’t trying to calculate the winnings at the other machines, though, as some people do in order to jump on a machine when they think it might be due for a winner.  At that moment the man, whose name was Steve Evans, was wondering whether the slot machines in the legacy section had lower payouts because it was more expensive for the casino to redeem the coins and keep the machines filled.  He reflected briefly on the problem and then, with a start, he focused on his machine again.  He started playing four coins at a time. 

He played for another five minutes, still pausing between pulls that set him apart from the efficient bet-pull-bet-pull rhythm of other gamblers.  Then he stopped, slowly stood up, and went over to a cashier to put $200 on an electronic casino card.  He went over to a newer digital dollar machine and started playing five dollars at a time.

A dim feeling in his consciousness, neither articulated nor acknowledged, expressed a thought that with more awareness might have been:  “These higher stakes better work, because I am getting more anxious.”  This feeling stayed mostly in the background while Evans kept playing, going up a hundred bucks and then rashly playing ten dollars at a time and losing over two hundred in a few minutes.  During this time Evans didn’t look around as much. 

As a matter of fact, the dollar machine was working, in that the higher stakes and rhythmic motions of the slot machine were enveloping him, keeping his attention, and pushing other thoughts out of his head.  It was a novel sensation, the risk of gambling, the winning and mostly losing, and it was taking him some time to absorb and process that sensation.  The effect was like the snooze button on an alarm clock.  Sometimes you can stretch that ten minutes of limbo, where you know there are things that will spoil your snooze but you haven’t remembered them yet, into a good long while.  In the back of his mind Evans knew he would soon remember, and that his snooze bubble was easily pricked, but even a few minutes not remembering was worth it.

Between pulls he observed nearby gamblers.  There other players were intent on their slot machines, not talking to one another.  The 60-ish woman on his left seemed to be in her own trance, the way she kept at the lever rhythmically without breaking stride.  Was she keeping her mind occupied for a reason?  He wondered. 

He remembered a conversation from a few months ago, in his pre-life, with a professor friend.  “Most gambling is a total perversion of, and exploitation of, a basic human instinct,” he remembered Harry saying, or lecturing, as if he was in the classroom.

“Our ancestors had to take risks to live through each day,” Harry had said.  “Every day they took crazy low-probability risks for food or mating, because doing nothing had an even lower probability of eating or passing their genes along. 

“We’ve got the genes from the ones that took risks and were rewarded for it.  We’ve got the genes from the ones that were looking for that one payoff among a hundred potential disasters.  From the ones who were good at it.

“The slot machine takes that instinct for risk-taking and corrupts it.  The machine takes your natural ability to hope, your inclination to hope, and feeds on it like a leech.  Just perverts it.  Look at the risk and reward:  the payout of the machine, the reward, is terrible.  It’s a below-zero-sum game that almost everyone loses.  And you never, never, never get better at the slots.  You don’t win because you are fast, or smart, or can hold your breath for a long time, like your ancestors.  If you do win it’s purely chance – nothing about you.”

“I have an inclination to hope?”  Steve had asked.

Harry had shrugged.  “Sure – you get a mental reward with anticipation, with hope.  A small hit of dopamine or endorphins or something.  You want it again.” 

Recalling this, Steve looked around at the other players.  They don’t look much like hopers, he thought, they look sedated.  He saw the players in the room as essentially selfish, each willing to sacrifice everybody else to come out ahead.  One player could win at slots only because other players were losing.  But almost all of them seemed to be losing.  I guess, if you asked, they might say that the playing itself is the entertainment, the reason, he thought.  

That’s absurd, he answered himself, pulling the lever, watching the spin, and losing again.  No one would play without the chance of winning.  You might be happy spending $100 for the day on the chance of winning big, and call that ‘entertainment’, but only if there is a reasonable chance of winning.  You wouldn’t play if there isn’t that chance. 

Well, it looks like it doesn’t take much to keep their hopes up, to get that psychic tickle.

Pull, spin, lose.

I guess not.  Look at them slapping away at these slot machines, most of them without even the sensory benefit of the coins clinking into the cups.  You don’t even cash in anymore with cash…you just get your debit card refilled electronically.  Sedated players with a miniscule chance for a disembodied reward.

You like fishing, he reminded himself.  It’s low probability.  Sometimes for you very low.

Pull, spin, lose.

Jesus, yes I like fishing.  I like the water, the sky, the banks of the stream.  I like being out there.  I like getting out there.  Who likes this sad stinky smoky room?  This crappy carpeting?  Who would come here without the gaming, as the casinos like to say?

Are you sorry you don’t get the psychic tickle?  He asked himself.

Pop! went the snooze bubble. 

Shit, I don’t know.  I thought I had it.  At least for the last couple of days.

It was indeed a couple of days earlier that Steve had discovered, in the midst of other activities that included combinations of drugs and alcohol, that casino gambling was an effective diversion from It, the diagnosis of serious illness that he had recently received, and which had been the preoccupation of all of his thoughts since then.  The novelty of gambling with large sums and the rhythmic nature of the slots could lessen this preoccupation but it was fleeting.

It had been smaller and easier to deal with in the first stages, when the symptoms were misunderstood and the tests were still underway.  Evans could focus on family and work and the hundred other things that you think about, of which the potential It was just one.  There are always potential problems but usually you are too busy to pay attention until one turns into a crisis.

When the tests confirmed the cancer diagnosis, and indicated a disastrously short survival time, It quickly took possession of Steve’s thoughts and emotions.  He couldn’t think about anything but the disease and its progression.  The last several weeks had been a struggle to focus on even his family, much less the hundred other things.  Steve became terrified as he saw an invisible wall rise up between him and his wife and children.  He wanted normalcy, he wanted to pretend, he wanted to help with homework and have dinner and wash dishes with his wife, but he couldn’t, and his family couldn’t, get through the wall.  He found it impossible to talk to them without sounding grotesque, impossible to move without seeming jerky or affected, like a puppet.  He couldn’t pay attention to anything else for more than a few seconds, and then his stomach would clutch anew and the sweating would start again, not from the disease but from the remembering. 

What little advice and counsel that he got from the doctors, about dealing with the disease, confused him and seemed to make things worse.  The clichés about ‘living for today’ mocked him as he heard them over and over in his head.  Living each day as if it were his last was the most horrible thing he could think of, and he was repeating it each day.  Each day he saw his family looking at him as if they were at a zoo. 

Earlier that same day, before coming to the casino, he had further distanced himself from his family.  Maybe on purpose.  He blew up with their careful treatment of him.  “I am not on display!” he shouted at his wife.  “I am not on Tralfamadore!” She didn’t understand and he didn’t explain.  He left and drove to the reservation.

Staring at the slot machine, he thought about the sessions with the counselors that had been recommended to him.  Even the psychiatrists are repelled by me, he thought.  And think I am a hopeless case. 

The first one, Dr. Welton, seemed frustrated with him early on.  She had kept coming back to the ‘live fully each day’ theme, trying to explain it to him.  Steve had tried to understand, knowing that he needed help to get his thoughts and emotions back.  And his family.  When she spoke he listened intently but still couldn’t connect. 

“I am not getting the ‘live for today’ thing,” he had told her.  “I just don’t understand it other than superficially.”

“Okay, here is another example,” Dr. Welton had continued.  “Let’s break it down in to small pieces, small routine things.  It means to fully see a flower in the sun, all the hues of the petals and leaves; or smell bacon cooking, and how the smell activates your memories; or how you take the time to completely kiss your wife, to notice each second of the embrace.  It means really listen to the music, the individual notes and how they combine and are pleasing.  That’s where you want to get to, to focus on these small things that add up.  That in their combination make up a good day.” 

He shook his head, feeling clumsy and oafish.  “I don’t get it,” he tried to explain. “Definitionally I don’t get it.” he added stiffly, trying to be precise.  “Enjoying the smell is dependent on enjoying the eating, on being alive to eat it.  I can’t enjoy the smell now.  Food is pretty much my enemy.”

“Well, that’s a bad example and I am sorry for…”

“No,” he interrupted her, “it’s a good example.  It’s just that there really isn’t a difference between bacon and music, or flowers, for me, now.”

Dr. Welton looked at him.  “How is this helping you?  You can resist, you can parry, but how does that help you?”

Again, he didn’t understand.  “Is this resistance?” he asked, partly to himself.  “I am just saying that your words don’t help – that your thoughts don’t help.  I am not resisting.  Just not benefiting.  I want to benefit, but I am not.”

“We have to get past these obstacles.  So you can live your days, so you can function each day,” she said.

“Can we stipulate,” he said, suddenly shrill and formal, “can we agree that this is a false concept?  That the people who can live fully each day as if it were their last, have forty years to go?  Can we stipulate that it’s only the people that don’t have this, this thing staring them in the face, who can enjoy your precious ‘day to day’ feeling?  A life is not one day,” he was starting to shout, “a life is growing old with your wife.  Living is having grandchildren.  Living is having enough time so you don’t think every second about it ending…enough time so it’s not crowding everything out.  It’s only because you have thirty years, forty years, to go, that — that ‘live your day, each day’ means something.  That you aren’t grey-faced and your body breaking down waiting for the end.  That you don’t have one thing on your mind, one God damned thing.  And that hearing some superficial pop psychology isn’t frustrating and galling.” 

Dr. Welton was quiet for a time.  “I am not sure I can help you at this point,” she finally said.  “You have to get past this anger.  This anger is consuming and displacing everything else, things that you still want to have.”

“Get past! Again, I have to get past!”  He tried to keep his voice down.  A part of him was still trying to understand, to connect with her.  A bigger part was feeling defeated.  It was like this with everyone, it seemed.  He wasn’t connecting with anyone.

After that session Welton said her schedule couldn’t fit him in and sent him to another therapist.  Steve felt rejected and further tainted, and the thought of going through that again with another counselor repulsed him.  But he also knew that even basic functions, and his ability to interact with his family and friends, were slipping away.

The sessions with the second counselor, Dr. Perry, were also difficult and awkward, and didn’t seem an improvement.  He tried to describe a dream to Dr. Perry, something he had not brought up with Dr. Welton.  He fumbled through it and became quickly frustrated at not explaining it.  “In this dream I’m jogging, you know, for exercise, at the end of the day, and I want to go facing the sun,” he started.  “It’s better that direction, when the sun is dropping over the horizon.  The glow of the sunset is still lighting up the ground in front of me.  I can see where to step, to go around the cactus or rocks.  The sun is down but the day isn’t over yet, there is still light.

“But somehow I am facing the other way, to the east.  I don’t know why.  Just by facing that way, it’s darker, it’s later in the evening.  I mean, I know the time of day is the same regardless of which way I am looking.  The day will end at the same time.  But going this way I have to walk slowly to not run into anything.  It gets so dark that I have to stop.  I know that facing the other way, there is still light.  I want to run toward the sunset.

“I wake up wondering why it’s night.  No, that’s not it.  I wonder where the sun is.  No, that’s not it either.  God, I don’t know.”  He shook his head in despair.  “Let me remember it better for next time.  Just forget it for now. 

“I just…I just don’t know why it’s so hard to do anything.  Can you fix that?”  He looked pleadingly at Dr. Perry.

“I don’t know about fixing anything,” replied Perry after regarding Steve for a moment, “but we can start on some things, the important things.  You still have to decide on the things that you want and work toward them like anybody else, if you want them.  And it looks like these emotional responses, totally understandable, are getting in the way.  You need to figure them out, one at a time, like any problem.” 

“Why is it on me?  Why is it only on me?”

Perry shook his head.  “It’s not only on you.  But you’ll find that others may not even know how to start, not know how to help.”

“All the others have to do is nothing, just be the same, just leave me be.”

“The others will,” Perry said.  “They will absolutely leave you be.  And they will feel bad about leaving you alone, and then they will be angry at you because they feel bad, and then they will feel guilty for being angry at you.  Do you want that?”

“What I want,” Steve said, “is not to know.  Not to feel helpless every second.”  He lightly punched himself in the stomach.  “Not to feel a jab here every second,” he said, thumping himself again a little harder, “every waking second, blocking everything else out, every…other…thing,”  hitting again and again, a little harder each time, knowing it would hurt more later. 

“Right, because of your big brain,” said Perry. 

“What?” Steve stopped hitting himself.  He wasn’t sure he had heard right.  How was that helpful?

Perry continued: “Anthropologists say that our big brains are good at finding solutions.  But our big brains are also good at visualizing bad outcomes, and seeing the futility of struggle.  We get sidetracked by the feeling of pointlessness and want to stop struggling.  When we encounter a dead-end we want to say ‘I can never make a difference,’ and we want to simply shut down, stop moving.  You see that in primates, the tendency to give up once the situation looks impossible.

“But for humans, there is something extra. For humans, Nature comes along and says: ‘Never say never.  Keep trying just in case,’ and gives us an antidote to resignation, a spur to keep moving.  Even though ‘just in case’ could be one in a million.  Nature is willing to push us for that one lousy chance in a million.  The antidote is hope, it’s faith that something good might happen.

“And that is so encouraging,” Perry said.  “That is so… hopeful.  It wouldn’t be that way unless it worked somewhere, some time.  But it turns out – and this is the really important part – that it’s good to have regardless of the outcome.”

“Did you just call me a monkey?”  Steve asked. 

“I did not,” Perry said, “what I meant is that sometimes we need help to get back to that spur, that hope.  It happens to us, regardless of health.

“Like Albert Camus, the writer.  He didn’t have the antidote,” he added, as an afterthought.

Steve looked down.  “No,” he simply said.  He felt the familiar churn in his stomach from pain and anxiety, and sweat started dripping down his back.  Despair settled over him.  “No, I can’t do it,” he said softly.  

Perry looked at him for a minute.  Then he said, “Well look, you aren’t dead just yet,” startling Steve with his candor.  “You can still do things.  Talk to your family, later if not now.  Write letters, make recordings or videos, for them for later, if you can’t do it now.”  Perry handed him a business card.  “Call these guys.  They do pretty helpful stuff in that line, in videos and recordings.” 

Steve put the card in his pocket and closed his eyes, partly in despair, partly in disbelief at those words.  Letters from the dead.  A video of the dying.  He allowed himself to imagine, briefly, and without delving into it, what an emaciated and gaunt figure he would be on video, captured for all time.  A video.  It seemed a grotesque and cruel thing for his family.  And for himself. 

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