Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Most Powerful



The neighborhood around the campus is questionable and said to be unsafe after dark. Secretaries and research assistants working after eight pm are given vouchers so that they don’t have to ride the elevated train and can go home by taxi. And, normally, after sunset, Geoffrey did not venture beyond the ivy-clad walls of the university and the security check-point with its drowsy African-American guard at its gate.

But, on this night, long after midnight, Geoffrey, disheveled and wild-eyed, nodded to the sentinel half-asleep at his post and, then, strode beyond the fortified campus and down the street toward the taverns with the beer signs in their windows and the after-hours joints and the convenience stores with their grated fronts, the check-cashing places and the pharmacies where young men were gathered at the street corner who growled and cursed at him. Soon, it would be dawn – in this time of year our nights are short – and Geoffrey could buy breakfast from a taco truck and, then, make his way home on the El crowded with worried-looking people hurrying to work.

The boulevard softened a little and Geoffrey saw small trees with sparse green leaves growing in the ruins of a burned-out building. In a corner of the sky, there was a pale streak, perhaps a harbinger of dawn and the street was empty, a desert for as far as Geoffrey could see, traffic semaphores ceaselessly signaling red, and yellow, and green to one another and the empty crossroads. The skyscrapers a half dozen miles to the north were lit haphazardly from within, cleaning crews probably still at work there, and the wind came off the lake and stole down the quiet avenues and freshened Geoffrey’s face, cooling the moist places under his eyes.

Dogs hidden from view barked in chorus. Geoffrey saw an animal trotting down the center of the empty boulevard. At first, he thought it was large cat, but the creature’s legs were long, stilt-like, and, as the animal passed, Geoffrey saw that it was panting slightly like a dog, a pennant of red tongue showing through its half-open jaw. The animal was the color of dry foliage and August underbrush. For a moment, Geoffrey thought that the beast was looking at him and he saw its eyes glitter briefly, catching something like starlight from the sky and transmitting that beam to him. The dogs concealed in the darkness howled in an ecstatic frenzy. The revelation passed. Geoffrey looked up and down the long, still street but the animal was gone. He walked another half-block to a bench marking a bus stop and sat down.

He was one of the leading computer scientists in the world and had spent the night processing data on the quantum computer that he managed. The quantum computer was like a mighty telescope or a particle accelerator: forty men and women worked on it around the clock in its underground vault so that the instrument could be used to peer into the heart of things. The machine was swathed in tubing that fed reservoirs of liquid helium cooling the matrices of superconductors. Sometimes, the liquid helium sublimed into the air and the technicians found themselves speaking to one another in high-pitched comical chipmunk voices. Conventional computers with high-resolution monitors radiated from the quantum device. The digital computers were installed in insulated cubicles installed on terraces above the helium vats and the SQUID devices in their vaults. SQUID means Superconductor Quantum Interference Device and these were plates of lead-niobium alloy separated by membranes one electron wide, sensors that captured the data output from the computer in the center of the array. The Quantum computer transmitted data in quantum waves measurable by magnetometers sensitive to one-billionth of a Tesla. Inside the so-called "black box" – it was actually a grey monolith englobed by mini-particle-accelerators– Schroedinger’s cat was both alive and dead, performing a trillion calculations per second. The "black box" processed qubits of information, the quantum equivalent of computer bits. These qubits were sub-atomic systems, impossible to imagine except through mathematical equations – theoretical probability circuits that were both 1 and 0 simultaneously, but, also, superposed so that all numbers in between those values could also be deployed in algorithms that only the machine could understand. The Quantum Computer was the most powerful calculating device in the world – indeed, in all possible worlds. Swathed in helium a fraction of a degree above absolute zero, the machine manipulated super-dense information arrays of quantum-entangled cubits. Although the concept was hard to grasp, the instrument performed computations in multiple universes simultaneously. No one knew how many universes the device accessed – the number of dimensions in which data arrays were processed was thought to be a very high number, although, probably, not infinite.

As with the great optical and radio telescopes, computing time on the most powerful data processing instrument in the world was valuable. Most of the machine’s brain-power was devoted to military applications, of course, with a fraction of its computing capacity utilized to run programs relating to the economy. (Geoffrey wasn’t prepared to talk about the covert use of the device to prognosticate sports events and support wagering in Fantasy Football leagues.) Like any oracle, the machine was only as good as the questions posed to it.

For several nights, the University’s Quantum Computer had been calculating the probability of life existing elsewhere in the universe, or, indeed, in the multi-verse. A single-cell protozoa arises as the result of a billion billion outcomes, each generated, one might imagine, by the roll of a thousand-faceted dice. To produce a one-celled life form, matter has to be organized according to certain principles and this organization must proceed in accord with certain numerical sequences. Geoffrey called each outcome in this probability function a "decision" or a "decision-point," a term that he realized as unduly anthropomorphic since it assumed that someone or something was "deciding" rolls of the dice with a strategic purpose in mind. Nonetheless, Geoffrey adopted that phrase, as did his team, and they recognized that, in theory, each decision point could be calculated in terms of statistical probability. The most powerful computer in the universe could be programmed to take a "quantum walk" through these probability functions, exploring all possible outcomes, rummaging among them for those favorable to the predicted outcome, and, then, calculating the likelihood that a "decision" conducive to the evolution of life might occur. Further, in another dimension, the machine could calculate the probability that such a "decision point" would happen in the exact sequence necessary to lead to the next roll of the dice required to engender a living organism. No conventional computer could manage the data arrays necessary to attempt this calculation. But, it seemed to Geoffrey, that this was the best and highest use, perhaps, to which the quantum computer could be put and, so, for several years, he had devised algorithms to program the most powerful instrument in all worlds of worlds to envision a one-celled life-form, an amoeba, for instance, as a mathematical system and, then, reverse engineer that system through every possible permutation necessary for the creation of that system, each permutation conceived as a series of either-or equations that solved cumulatively resulted in the equation matrix representing that amoeba.

This was the work that had occupied Geoffrey, along with missile trajectories and pestilence dispersion studies and future treasury bond interest rates (as well as football and hockey prognostication), for the past 48 months. An hour before the machine had solved the equations and Geoffrey knew the answer to the probability of life evolving both on our planet and anywhere else in the multiverse.

Geoffrey put his head in his hands. He looked down at the gutter in front of the bus stop. The gutter was dry, but water from storms had run there recently, and some leaves and shredded paper were stuck together against the curb. The earth wobbled on its axis and neutrinos flooded through the planet’s molten core and, overhead, a few stars visible despite the orange-yellow glow rising over the city, trembled briefly as if quivering in the fluid of human tears. And, on cue, a drunk appeared, crossing the street on the diagonal, looking neither right nor left, but heading straight for the bench where Geoffrey sat.

Geoffrey didn’t move and continued to count and measure the fragments of leaves and paper in the gutter. The drunk stood facing him, a few yards away, and Geoffrey smelled the man’s sour stink and felt him wobbling in his own spine – the man was unsteady on his feet and this made Geoffrey feel slightly dizzy.

"That’s an unlucky bench," the drunk said.

Geoffrey looked at him. The man’s age was indeterminate. He was wearing a white tee-shirt that was torn over his left shoulder. Some stains on the tee-shirt showed charcoal-colored in the darkness, although who knows what there actual color was – maybe, there was no true color; it was just a matter of the light transfusing the scene. Geoffrey couldn’t see the man’s hair – he was wearing a baseball cap tight over his scalp. The drunk’s feet were bare in his ripped tennis shoes and Geoffrey could smell the faint reek of his dirty heel and toes through the other odors.

"That’s an unlucky bench, chief,’ the drunk said again. But he stumbled forward and sat down beside Geoffrey.

Geoffrey glanced at him sideways. The drunk had a noble, ruined profile. He seemed a mixture of all races and colors. His eyes glittered faintly like the eyes of the animal that Geoffrey had seen trotting down the street.

"Why’s it unlucky?"

"Funeral home, man," the drunk said. "It’s an ad for a mortuary."

"Oh," Geoffrey said.

The drunk fumbled in his pocket and a found a claw-shaped shard of broken glass. He set the glass piece on his knee.

"Dangerous neighborhood, you know," the drunk said.

"I didn’t notice," Geoffrey said. "I came from the university, the campus."

"You shouldn’t be out and about this late. Not in this part of town," the drunk told him.

"Is that true?" Geoffrey asked.

"Just my opinion which don’t amount to shit," the drunk said.

"No, no," Geoffrey said. "It’s worth knowing. I suppose I ought to..."

Geoffrey started to stand up. The drunk picked up the shard of glass carefully and inspected it.

"Not without an escort," the drunk said. "I could walk back with you. You done rambled a far piece from your campus. I could guard you. But, you know, it’s valuable services...and..."

"I suppose I have to pay."

"Just saying."

Geoffrey sat down. He looked up the avenue. He looked down the avenue. Perhaps, a bus would come along or a police car. But the street was empty and silent.

The drunk looked relieved. He set the glass back down on the bench between them. He said: "What brings you out into this part of the ‘hood’?"

"I was walking and thinking. Sometimes, I don’t pay much attention to my whereabouts," Geoffrey said.

"That’s a peril," the drunk said. "You gotta know where you be."

"You’re right," Geoffrey replied. "But I was, you know, lost in thought."

"Thinking about what?"

"We did a study, with the big computer at the U," Geoffrey said. "We used decision-tree analysis to calculate the probability of life evolving out of inanimate matter."


"We wanted to know whether there is a probability of life like us in other parts of the universe."

"Why did you want to know that?"

"Just to know. I guess we had government funding."

"Someone should boot some of that funding my way," the drunk said. "But what did you find out?"

"The probability that life could evolve from hydrogen, hydrogen atoms — "

"Why hydrogen?" the drunk asked.

"Because everything was originally made from hydrogen. That’s the stuff from which everything else emerges."

The drunk nodded.

"The probability is one chance out of 10 to the 80th power," Geoffrey said.

"What’s that mean, boss?"

"It’s a fraction, a one sitting on top of a ten with 80 zeros."

"So what’s that mean?"

"It’s exceedingly unlikely that life could evolve from hydrogen atoms," Geoffrey told the drunk. He paused. "To give you an idea of the magnitude of ten to the 80th power, the number correlates – it’s odd but at least on orders of magnitude – it correlates to the number of hydrogen atoms in the universe. It’s a coincidence, I suppose, but that number’s supposed to be between 4 times 10 to the 79th power and ten to the 81st. So imagine this, you look at every hydrogen atom in the whole universe, you look at every atom in every star and super-nova and galaxy of stars, you look and you look and you look and, finally, you find one of them, just one, and that’s life, that’s an amoeba wriggling in a drop of water."

"So you proved that we’re alive, that we exist," the drunk said.

"But there’s no one else," Geoffrey said. "There can’t be. One time in 10 to the 80th, an amoeba evolves from hydrogen plasma. But for this to happen twice, the number is 10 to the 91st power. That’s a hundred more universes than ours and still you only have two amoeba."

"So it can’t happen," the drunk said.

"Well, it did happen, of course, but it can’t happen again," Geoffrey said.

"All you done, my brother, is prove the existence of God," the drunk told him.

"How so?’

"You proved that we can’t be here, that we can’t be living here in this world, without that God done it."

"I don’t know about that," Geoffrey said.

"Brother, it’s as plain as the nose on your face."

"What I’ve shown, in fact, is that there’s no one else out there, no other life in all the universe, nothing but particles colliding with one another. This is what’s true. The most powerful computer in the world tells me this."

The drunk tapped his forehead. "This here is the most powerful computer in the world," he said. "You got nothing but hardware, nuts and bolts, back there at your university."

"I don’t know," Geoffrey replied.

"What’s the most powerful computer in the world tell you? I mean that computer you’re toting around in your skull?"

"It seems that there ought to be life out there somewhere. That’s how it seems."

"Your machine don’t tell you it ain’t there."

"It can’t prove a negative," Geoffrey said. "It just shows that the possibility of there being someone else out there is a vanishingly small, an infinitesimally small number."

"Well, we’re here, aren’t we?"

Geoffrey nodded.

"Anyway how do you know that something’s alive?" the drunk asked.

"We had criteria. A mathematical model," Geoffrey said.

"You can tell it’s alive ‘cause it moves," the drunk said. "It moves on its own."

"So a cloud’s alive. By that criterion, the moon’s alive when it crosses the sky. The snow’s alive when it falls out of the sky," Geoffrey replied.

"Well, who says them things ain’t alive," the drunk said.

To the east, where the streets dead-ended at the vast, cold lake, a fissure of greyish light opened beneath the orange glare cast upward by the furnaces of the steel mills.

"I gots to be going," the drunk told Geoffrey. "Do you think you could help me with some cash, a couple bucks, so I could get me a sandwich?"

Geoffrey took out his wallet and handed the drunk a twenty dollar bill.

"God bless you, boss," the drunk said. "God bless you."

He stood up a little unsteadily. "You can keep that there dagger," the drunk said. "For your personal protection."

The drunk limped down the sidewalk, moaning a little as he walked.

Geoffrey was afraid to touch the shard of broken glass. It’s razor edges were unpredictable and its geometry uncertain and he thought it might slash him. He nudged the claw-shaped piece of glass off the bench onto the sidewalk below. But, then, Geoffrey felt ashamed of himself. A child might see the glass while waiting for the bus and would be intrigued by its sharp edges and shiny surfaces. Someone might step on the glass and be cut. Geoffrey leaned over and, gingerly, picked up the scimitar of broken bottle. He wrapped it in his handkerchief and carefully slid the shard into his breast-pocket.

Suddenly, all the dogs on the block began to bay. Geoffrey looked up and saw the coyote prancing along the center of the boulevard. The animal was trotting back toward the lake, moving in a direction opposite to its previous path. As it passed, the coyote turned and grinned at him and Geoffrey saw its long red and eloquent tongue displayed between its jaws.





Friday, August 22, 2014

Staying and Going




IN THE DISTANCE, I SAW a figure emerge from pockmark in the hillside. It was warm and heat shimmer blurred the tiny figure that appeared on the slope just below an outcropping of pinkish rock. The tiny, indistinct figure took a few wobbly steps away from the bluish shadow that marked the cave-opening. The slope was yellow with sun-bleached grass and veined with gullies lined with loose gravel and it took the apparition a long time to reach the base of the hill and the prairie.

Later, I saw this person struggling through ravines shaded by ancient trees and, then, passing through a village beneath the steeple of a church and several steel grain bins tall as towers and enclosed in metal rigging. The figure walked along the edge of a lake and, then, followed a stream past the ruins of an old mill where water rolled in warm, bright sheets over the lip of a concrete dam.

Moving more swiftly now, the figure entered a city, not by marching along the highway past the glass skyscrapers operated by software firms, but, instead, following the old route, along the disused shipping canal, walking the towpath and passing the cast-iron bridges and, at last, entering the sector of abandoned warehouses with collapsed tin roofs and brick walls undercut by saplings growing in the deserted places. The figure was remote and moved with haphazard gait, clambering over piles of debris and, at last, entering downtown through narrow, moist, and foul-smelling alleys.

Then, I saw the figure on the windy plateau between the two metropolises, a wasteland where pyramids of tires were burning and bullet-trains commuting between the city-centers shrieked past. The figure was like an ant crawling on a sidewalk where someone has broken a beer bottle or a pocket mirror.

I lost sight of the figure, briefly, when it entered the park and hiked the boardwalks along the grey sedge and the marshlands. But the figure, still impossibly remote, merely a speck to my eyes, emerged from the woods, came past the ruined fountain and the terraces where the basketball courts used to be, and descending the hill, by the rut made by the toboggan-run, crossed the bridges on the meander, walked through the shopping mall (perhaps to take advantage of the air conditioning or the food court), and, after, using the toilet at a McDonald’s first, and, then, a few miles later, the rest-room in the public library, entered the suburbs and approached the cul-de-sac where I live. I squinted my eyes to see if I could identify the approaching figure, a man or a woman (impossible to tell at this distance) who limped up the hill toward my garden and, then, came through the sweet corn and my ruby-red tomatoes growing on their vines, closer and closer, until I could see that it was you, it couldn’t be anyone but you. So you stood at my threshold and I said: "I have always known you would come to me."

(After Frank O’Hara)




GUILLAME, whose name is pronounced with a hard Anglo-Saxon "g", was one of those persons who are forever booking trips to remote places and, then, not going on those pre-planned journeys. Guillame had not gone to Argentina and Buenos Aires with a side trip to Iguaszu Falls. He had not gone to Paris despite reservations at a fine downtown hotel on Rue Haussmann. He had not gone to see the Great Wall of China, notwithstanding a non-refundable ticket to Beijing and had not gone to Rome at the height of the tourist season. Although he had paid to take a bus tour with senior citizens to Branson, Missouri, and another trip by bus to Vermont during the height of the autumn colors displayed by deciduous trees there, in fact, he didn’t take either trip and forfeited his deposit. Guillame arranged for a packet tour to Sumatra and Bali, but didn’t go and, although he reserved a spot on a river cruise through the Baltic countries events conspired to prevent him from traveling. He didn’t tour the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and saw neither the Kremlin nor waxy Lenin in his mausoleum. The planned excursion to Cancun fell through as did the all-inclusive stays at Cozumel and, later, at a resort in the Dominican Republic. He prepaid for a professional seminar on the Big Island of Oahu but didn’t attend. On the fishing trip north of Kenora, his friends were sorry that he couldn’t come, although the sporting expedition had been in the works for many months and Guillame had paid his share of expenses in advance.

There are certain restaurants in our city that are very exclusive and highly rated. If you wish to dine at those establishments, reservations are required six to eight weeks in advance. Guillame was always making reservations for exquisite dinners that he never ate.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Eyes Wide Shut


Before I came to Austin, Minnesota, I had never attended a movie screened for me alone. Even obscure foreign films that I saw at the University always had other viewers, at least twenty or more people in the audience. One year, I saw ten silent films from the German expressionist period. Those pictures were shown in the basement of the Lutheran Student Center on campus and there were always at least a dozen disciples gathered to watch the dim 16 mm prints clawed through the old projector. But, in Austin, it’s different: the Cineplex is located at the end of a mall that has failed and empty storefronts stretch into the distance lining the arcade littered with advertising and commercial parapheranalia dragged out of the abandoned shops and, at the remote end of the shopping center, beyond the wrecked food court, there is a Younkers, an outlet of an Iowa department store favored by middle-aged school-teachers and elderly women, the only other business surviving in the place. Most of the parking lot is ruinous, but lanes have been preserved against the general fissure and fracture of the old asphalt between the Cineplex end of the mall and the Younkers at its antipodes. Some parking spaces not too badly potholed survive at the exterior door to Younkers and there are twenty or so spaces, white lines badly abraded occupying a hollow place in the shattered prairie of the lot adjacent to the movie theater. Those twenty parking spaces are almost always vacant. You can enter the mall through a Shopko sutured to the structure and patrons of the theater generally walk through that business to shoplift candy and cans of pop to smuggle into the theater and so must of the theater’s customers park their cars in front of that store.

On many occasions, I have come to the movie, bought my ticket, and, then, sat alone in the theater to watch the film. The first time this happened, I felt privileged, as if I were a rich man attending a private screening in my mansion. But, later, the experience seemed depressing to me, melancholy and lonely. The individual theaters in the Cineplex are relatively new, but the ceilings leak and there is a pervasive odor of mildew and dank, decomposing butter, remnants of popcorn caught, I suppose, in the carpet or under the seats. A fat woman, the manager of the place, sits in her humid office under posters of horror movies, her door open into the empty lobby of the Cineplex where a morose girl plays the triple role of cashier, ticket-taker, and concession attendant. Sometimes, the girl selling tickets and popcorn shouts to the fat woman who calls back to her. Movie posters under glass line the lobby and, in the rest room, one of the urinals is always webbed with tape to prevent it from being used. The drinking fountain doesn’t flow so much as it spits gobs of water upward and the theaters are porous to the sounds from the adjacent screening rooms – in the middle of a love scene, you can hear colossal explosions occurring in the theater next-door. There is a never a line of people waiting to buy tickets. The only time that there is any delay in acquiring a ticket and entering the theater is when a local group home has brought its residents out for a matinee; in that case, a half-dozen or so wheelchairs with people slumped in them, silent with heads lolling onto their shoulders, wait to wheeled into the show.

One night in 1999, I went to the theater alone to see Eyes Wide Shut. I was drinking heavily in those days and so my pockets tinkled with little airplane bottles of whiskey and vodka. It was November and the weather was unsettled: earlier in the day, it had been warm and bright, but a cold front was advancing across the plains and the icy fog lingered in intersections, dull rays of sleet falling sometimes. The sleet was mixed with rain and sodden snowflakes and, although it didn’t seem capable of surviving on the roadways, the grass in the medians was dusted white and some of the rooftops seemed pale with an accumulation of ice. I noticed that the ragged lane leading from the fast food places on the boulevard to the twenty space hollow in the mall lot was slippery and my windshield wipers batted snowflakes away as they plunged onto the glass in front of me. It can be dangerous to park your car in the hollow when rain is predicted. The area flash floods and I have seen vehicles parked there literally floating in an ephemeral and filthy lagoon of water formed after a thunderstorm. But this night, the sleet didn’t seem sufficiently intense to warrant any concern and so I zigzagged around the potholes and put my car under an old, corroded lamp that had once provided light to this part of the lot but which was now lifeless and dark. When I exited my car, I hear strange sounds far away on the horizon, perhaps, a tremor of thunder, and trucks on the freeway a mile away made booming sounds as they bounced over defects in the concrete.

To my surprise, twenty or so people, mostly couples with small children were loitering around the entrance to the Cineplex. Toddlers were crying and I could smell a dirty diaper. The adults looked indignant and were conferring with one another. The fat woman was standing at the edge of the lobby. As I bought my ticket to the Kubrick film, I heard her telling an angry mother that the projection print for Toy Story 2 had, indeed, arrived in timely fashion, but the film was damaged and could be not be shown. A placard mounted on a stainless steel stanchion stood a half-dozen feet in front of the cashier’s station: a hand-lettered sign read: Toy Story 2 will not be shown tonight because of technical problems. Your patience is appreciated.

I bought a soft-drink for an outrageous price. I needed ice and soda to mix with my booze. The theater where Eyes Wide Shut was going to be shown was at the end of the carpeted corridor leading among the screening rooms. The farther down that hallway that I walked the darker it seemed and the stronger the odor of mildew and rotting butter. Something was wrong with the ventilation system and the air smelled untreated and swampy, like the exhalation from a marsh. As I expected, the theater was completely empty. The first seat that I selected in the exact center of the screening room was broken and sagged in an uncomfortable manner under me. I picked a seat nearby and it also seemed to be damaged so I went to the end of the row and sat in that place. The Coming Attractions were projected very dimly and the images seemed to be shown through a veil. The poor picture quality was, perhaps, related to the fact that the dim amber house-lights were still lit, probably to aid late-comers in locating their seats, but, of course, there were no late-comers – I was completely alone in the theater. The auditorium lights faded away and the red "EXIT" signs over doors that I presumed to be locked or otherwise inaccessible flared into brightness like cigarettes being lit in the dark and, then, the movie began.

Eyes Wide Shut is long and I don’t remember much about it. In the middle of the movie, the whiskey and vodka affected my concentration and, perhaps, I dozed or, at least, became indifferent to what was happening around me. I fumbled for one of the tiny vodka bottles and dropped it on the floor. It rolled forward on the sloping floor toward the screen and the sound that the glass made on the concrete was surprisingly loud and distinct. I stood up from my chair and went forward, following the sound of the rolling bottle and, then, groped among the seats and soggy spilled popcorn until I fished the bottle out from the crack where it had come to rest. I turned to go back to my seat and, then, saw that I was not alone in the theater. Apparently, when I had been inattentive, some people had arrived and taken seats in a place a half-dozen rows behind me. I was surprised, even a little alarmed. I thought that I had been completely alone in the theater and, certainly, had not noticed their entrance into the screening room and it seemed odd to me that they had come into the show when it half over.

As I made my way back to my seat, concealing the vodka bottle in my fist, I looked at the newcomers. At first, I couldn’t see them at all. The images on the screen were nocturnal and so there was insufficient light reflected back into the auditorium to illuminate them. The new arrivals seemed to be a family – I saw four shadows hunched in the darkness, their heads at various heights: two parents and two smaller children. I wondered why they had come to this movie. Eyes Wide Shut is not exactly a family picture and I supposed that they were baffled and appalled at what they saw.

Something happened on the screen to release a glimmer of white light and, in that flash, I saw the family clearly enough. A man, who looked like a farmer was seated at the end of aisle, glaring at the screen with a fixed, indignant stare. A woman with slumped shoulders and her eyes averted from the movie sat beside him. She was gripping the back of the empty seat in front of her as if she were riding on a roller coaster at an amusement park. Two small children leaned forward to watch the movie: their eyes were wide open and unblinking. The light reflected back onto the family was white and gave them a waxy, marble pallor. The man’s eyes and those of the two children seemed to be looking without seeing; there was something unfocused and dull about their gaze. The woman was shivering as if with cold and I could see her shoulders twitching slightly. They must have just come in from the cold outside because I inhaled a wet, icy chill from their plain clothing.

Of course, it was the wrong movie for this family to be watching and I felt that I should, perhaps, remonstrate with them or make an explanation or apology at least. No, no, you don’t want to see this movie...you won’t understand it and the images will only puzzle and anger you and there will nudity and sex scenes for which you will have to stammer explanations to your offspring and the whole thing will simply be a bad experience, an unfortunate attempt at a family outing that has gone terribly wrong. I sat down with these thoughts in my mind and poured the vodka from the bottle into my mostly empty cup of soda pop and melting ice and, although I strained my ears to hear, not a sound came from that family seated behind me, not a whisper or, even, a breath. They were completely still and their silence was so dramatic and formidable that it frightened me – how could they be sitting so completely motionless, like pale, white statues in the darkness? I didn’t try to glance over my shoulder at them, but, as the action in the film became increasingly erotic and explicit, I was worried for their sake and embarrassed also and I blamed the ticket-taker or the fat manager for accepting their money and letting them in to see this movie which was, after all, manifestly inappropriate for family viewing. At last, I shifted in my seat, and, as an orgy was underway on screen, turned my head to glance back at them. To my relief, the family was gone. They had slipped out of the theater just as silently as they had entered. The seats behind me were all vacant and dark.

The next day, I saw a headline in the local newspaper that read: FAMILY OF FOUR KILLED IN TRAGIC ACCIDENT. The story explained that a husband and wife with their two children had left their farm in the country to travel into town to see a movie. Neighbors said that the children were excited about seeing Buzz Lightyear and Woody in Toy Story 2. The country road was slick with fresh-fallen sleet and the man lost control of his pickup truck on the ice. The pickup left the road and toppled into a drainage ditch in full spate and brimming with icy water. The truck was upside down in the mud and water and the family drowned in the ditch.

I’m interested in films and Stanley Kubrick’s last picture, Eyes Wide Shut, is a movie that I would like to see again sober. But I’m afraid to watch the movie. Every time I’ve rented the DVD, I am unable to summon the courage to put the film in the machine. I guess that I’ll have to resign myself to never seeing that movie again.