Read an Excerpt
Flying through the Air
There was an intense flash of light, and I felt the floorboards where I was standing rise up beneath my feet. I didn't really hear a sound but there was pressure on my ears as if I were under water. I was off the floor and into the air exhilarated, and then a giddy alarm. I felt as if the flesh of my face was pulling me forward at a great rate through a rushing wind. A tall, wood-framed window that looked out onto the street was hurtling toward me. I could see every detail of it. The frame was painted an old green and the paint was flaking. I saw my doubled reflection in the double-paned insulated glass becoming larger and larger against the background of the black night sky outside until it filled my vision entirely. I was face-to-face with my own face. It seemed puffy, but otherwise not distorted though it felt elongated. I was eye-to-eye with my own four wide eyes. I put my hands out in front of me by reflex as the window flew toward me. I braced myself for a crash but I heard and felt nothing that I could remember as the image of my eyes crumbled and fell before me, yet I must have smashed through the window because, next thing I knew, I was lying on the asphalt on broken glass and there was a great booming noise coming from the building behind me that shook the ground and sprayed a propulsive vomitus of shrapnel that flew over me. Some of it rained down on me in a cloud of dust.
My flight through the window did not kill me. In fact, that crash was a lucky accident that saved my life and changed my mind forever about luck and coincidence. I'll tell you about it.
Of Spiders and Intrusions
"I'm coming," I said. "I'm coming."
Our loud doorbell, the kind with the clapper that strikes repeatedly against a naked brass hemisphere, shocked me out of my reverie. It rang a second time as I hurried down the creaking wooden stairs from my study moving my legs faster than I wanted to move them and annoyed that I was doing so. As I passed through the front hall, I looked to my right into the large, wood-framed mirror that ran nearly the length of the hallway at the bottom of the stairs. It was early May. I was in rolled up shirt sleeves. My hair was graying but still full. My slack belly challenged my shirt buttons and bulged over my belt buckle. My cheeks had become puffy. I was not grossly obese but the manner of my movement reminded me of the flouncing of a parade float. I was permitting myself to ease into the comfort of a too comfortable life.
This too shall pass.
I opened the inner door to the vestibule. Old houses like mine often have vestibules, a tile-floored place to remove wet boots and overcoats. The tiles were laid in a repeating abstract floral pattern in red and blue on a white background with areas discolored from use. Crack lines ran through and united several of the tiles. Our vestibule had coat hooks on the left and right walls, black wrought iron hooks screwed into boards darkened with age. There was a slightly musty old-house smell in the vestibule. I saw the wavy shadows of two male figures through the frosted glass of the front door with uniform caps on their heads.
Two delivery men?
I had been sitting at my desk in my study staring at a spider when the doorbell rang. I was grading final papers for the philosophy course I was teaching at Radley College, a task that I found tedious. Student papers tend to be repetitive, one the same as another. Many students use sloppy language with grammar and spelling errors. They repeat back to you what they think they have heard. I was not a very patient teacher, and when papers were particularly poor, I tended to take it personally�get a bit angry. I had to take special care that my grades did not reflect my impatience. The papers I was grading were written for a senior course called Philosophy of Mind. The topic for this final paper was, Can a Machine be Built that Has Thoughts and Feelings? I made this question the theme of the course because it engaged students by making them angry. Most all of them would begin the course firmly believing that a thinking, feeling machine could not be built, and they became exercised as I had fun trying to convince them otherwise. The amusing thing, of course, is that I didn't really know the answer myself, no one does. And if we were able to build such a machine, it might be impossible for us to know whether we had actually done it. I was considering which grade to give the paper I was reading when I happened to see a spider.
It was a small house spider, a wolf spider, the kind that doesn't make webs, but hunts its prey on the run. It had appeared at the edge of a book shelf that was directly in front of me and just about at eye level. That's the shelf where I kept my dictionaries, my Thesaurus, Handy's four-volume History of Philosophy, and the books that I was using in the courses I was teaching in the current semester, all close at hand. The spider peered over the edge of the shelf and seemed to be looking at me with its two big compound eyes.
I looked back into the eyes of my little spider and chose to see a face peering at me. The human brain is designed to see human faces. Put two raisins on a saucer about an inch apart and two eyes are staring at you. It's easy to see faces in anything that presents two eye spots. My spider had a smaller eye beside each of its larger eyes, but my brain ignored them and saw the spider's soul in its two big compound eyes.
I brought the tip of my ballpoint pen slowly toward the spider face. The spider backed off a pace, raised its two front legs and displayed its fanged mandibles�a threat.
I know something about spider brains. Essentially, there aren't any. Spiders have a nerve cord, like our spinal cord, that runs along their bellies instead of their backs. The head end of their nerve cord bulges a bit to accommodate their eyes and other senses, but that's it. Yet this spider was recognizing possible danger and reacting appropriately to it the way a cat or dog might react. How could it do that with so little brain? How could it not do that and survive in a cruel world? Did it know that there was danger? If I touched it, would it feel the touch? Would a dog or cat feel it? Would you?
That's when our doorbell rang and I clambered down the stairs mumbling with annoyance at having been disturbed. I opened the front door. Two broad-shouldered cops stood there, one just before the other. They took up all the space in my door frame. They had American flags sewed onto the right shoulders of their blue-gray, short-sleeved summer shirts.
We're all Americans here.
The butts of their guns stuck up high by their right forearms almost to their elbows. Their belts were hung with flashlights, handcuffs, a communicating device, other stuff that I did not recognize. The foremost one asked me if I were Dr. Sherwin Wyzer, and I said I was. Then he took off his blue hat, and that's when I knew what had happened.