The Soul Molecule
I was on my way to see Wilkes. We were going to have brunch. Wilkes was a minor friend from college. He played number one on the squash team. I’d challenged him once, during a round robin, and he annihilated me with lobs. Afterwards, in the showers, he told me his secret.
“Vision,” he said. “You have to see what’s going to happen.”
Now it was five years on and I still felt sort of indebted to him. This was idiotic but I couldn’t unpersuade myself. I kept remembering those lobs, one after another, as elegant as parasols.
Wilkes was in the back of the restaurant, in a booth. We said our hellos and he picked up his menu and set it down again.
“We’ve known each other a long time, haven’t we Jim?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Eight years now, coming up on eight.”
“That sounds about right.”
“You wouldn’t think less of me if I told you something, would you?”
“Heck no,” I said. Mostly, I was wondering how much breakfast would cost, and whether I’d have to pay.
“I’ve got a cartridge in my head,” Wilkes said.
He had that drowsy pinch around the eyes you see in certain leading men. He was wearing a blue blazer with discreet buttons. He looked like the sort of guy from whom other guys would buy bonds. That was his business. He was in bonds.
“A cartridge has been placed in my head for surveillance purposes. This was done a number of years ago by a race of superior beings. I don’t know if you know anything about abduction, Jim. Do you know anything about abduction?”
“Wait a second,” I said.
“An abduction can take one of two forms. The first — you don’t need to know the technical terms — the first is purely for research purposes. Cell harvesting, that kind of thing. The second involves implants, Jim, such as the one in my brain.”
Wilkes was from Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay area. He spoke in these crisp, prepared sentences. I’d always thought he’d be a corporate lawyer, with an office in a glass tower and a secretary better looking than anyone I knew.
“You’re telling me you’ve been abducted,” I said.
Wilkes nodded. He picked up his fork and balanced it on his thumb. “The cartridges can be thought of as visual recorders, something like cameras. They allow the caretakers to monitor human activity without causing alarm.”
“The caretakers,” I said.
“They see whatever I see.” Wilkes gazed at me for a long moment. It was eerie, like staring into the big black space where an audience might be. Finally, he looked up and half rose out of his seat. “Mom,” he said. “Dad. Hey, there they are. You remember Jim.”
“Why of course,” said his mother. She was a southern lady with one of those soft handshakes.
“Pleasure,” Mr. Wilkes said. “Unexpected pleasure. No no. Don’t make a fuss. We’ll just settle in. What are you up to, Jim? How’re you bringing in the pesos?”
“Research,” I said.
His face brightened. “Research, eh? The research game. What’s that, bio tech?”
“Yeah, sort of.”
I’d never done any research. But I liked the way the word sounded. It sounded broad and scientific and beyond reproach.
“Your folks?” Mr. Wilkes said.
“You’ll remember us to them, I hope,” Mrs. Wilkes said.
I had no recollection of my parents having met the Wilkeses.
“What are you two birddogs up to?” Mr. Wilkes said. He was from Connecticut, but he sometimes enjoyed speaking like a Texan.
Wilkes was squeezed next to his dad and his voice was full of that miserable complicated family shit. “We were talking,” he said. “I was telling Jim about the cartridge in my head.”
Mr. Wilkes fixed him with a look and I thought for a second of that Goya painting, Saturn wolfing his kids down like chicken fingers. Mrs. Wilkes began fiddling with the salt and pepper, as if she might want to knit with them eventually.
“How about that?” Mr. Wilkes said. “What do you think of that, Jim?”
“Interesting,” I said.
“Interesting? That the best you can do? Come on now. This is the old cartridge in the head. The old implant-a-roony.”
I started to think, right then, about this one class I’d taken sophomore year, the Biology of Religion. The professor was a young guy who was doing research at the medical school. He told us the belief in a higher power was a function of biological desire, a glandular thing. The whole topic got him very worked up.
Mr. Wilkes said: “Do you know why they do it, Jim?”
He turned to his son again. “Did you explain the integration phases to him? The hybrids? The grays? Anything?”
“He just got here,” Wilkes said.
Mr. Wilkes was sitting across from me. He was one of these big Republicans you sometimes see. The gin blossoms, the blue blazer. His whole aura screamed: yacht.
“They teach you any folklore in that fancy college of yours? Fairy, dybbuk, goblin, sprite. Ring a bell, Jim? These are the names the ancients used to describe our extraterrestrial caretakers. Their appearance was like burning coals of fire and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures, and the fire was bright and out of the fire went forth lightning. That’s straight from the Book of Ezekiel. What’s that sound like to you, son? Does that sound like God on his throne of glory?”
“No,” I said. “I guess not.”
“There’s a reason Uncle Sam launched Project Blue Book,” Mr. Wilkes said. “He was forced to, Jim. Without some kind of coherent response, there’d be no way to stem the panic. Let me ask you something. Do you know how many sightings have been reported to the Department of Defense in the past ten years? Guess. Two point five million. Abductions? Seven hundred thousand plus. They are among us, Jim.”
Our waitress had appeared.
“Do you serve egg beaters?” Mr. Wilkes said.
The waitress shook her head.
“Toast,” Mrs. Wilkes said. “You can have some toast, dear.”
“I don’t want toast,” Mr. Wilkes said.
Wilkes looked pretty much entirely miserable.
“What about egg whites,” Mr. Wilkes said. “Can you whip me up an omelet with egg whites?”
The waitress shifted her weight from one haunch to the other. She was quite beautiful, but dragged down by circumstance. “An omelet with what?” she said.
“The white part of the egg. The part that isn’t the yolk.” Mr. Wilkes picked up his fork and began to simulate the act of scrambling eggs.
“I’m asking what you want in the omelet, sir.”
“Oh. I see. Okay. How about mushroom, Swiss, and bacon.”
“Bacon?” said Mrs. Wilkes.
I didn’t know what the hell to order.
The waitress left and Mr. Wilkes turned right back to me. He’d done some fundraising for the GOP and I could see now just how effective he might be in this capacity. “Mrs. Wilkes and I, we both have implants. It’s no secret. Not uncommon for them to tag an entire family. Did Jonathon already explain this?”
“I didn’t explain anything,” Wilkes said. “You didn’t give me a chance.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Wilkes said. “You musn’t dominate the conversation, Warren.”
“Remember Briggs?” Wilkes said.
“Briggs. Ron Briggs. Played number four on the team. He’s got an implant. He lives out in Sedona now.”
“Do we know him?” Mrs. Wilkes said.
Mr. Wilkes waved his hand impatiently. “Now I’m not going to bore you with some long story about our abductions, Jim. How would that be? You show up for breakfast and you have to listen to that. What you need to understand is the role these beings play. If they wanted to destroy us, if that was their intent, hell, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. They’re caretakers, Jim. An entire race of caretakers. I’m not trying to suggest that these implants are any bed of roses, mind you. You’ve got all the beta waves to contend with, the ringing. Val’s got a hell of a scar.”
Mrs. Wilkes blushed. She had an expensive hairstyle and skin that looked a bit irradiated. “He’s going to think we’re kooks,” she said.
“Not at all,” I said quietly.
“Hell, we are kooks,” Mr. Wilkes said. “The whole damn species is kooks. Only a fool would deny it.”
I waited for the silence to sort of subside and excused myself. I needed some cold water on my ears. I filled the sink and did a quick dunk and stared at the bathroom mirror — really stared — until my face got all big-eyed and desperate.
When I got back to the table, the food had arrived and the Wilkeses were eating in this extremely polite manner. I’d visited them once, on the way back from a squash match at Penn. All I could remember about their home was the carpets. They must have had about a thousand of them, beautiful and severe, the kind you didn’t even want to step on. I couldn’t imagine a kid growing up in that place.
My French toast was sitting there, with some strawberries, but I wasn’t hungry.
Mrs. Wilkes frowned. “Is something wrong with your food, dear. We can order you something else.”
“That was pretty funny,” I said finally. “You guys really had me going. You must be quite the charades family.”
The Wilkeses, all of them, looked at me. It was that look you get from any kind of true believer, this mountain of pity sort of wobbling on a pea of doubt.
I thought about my biology professor again. Toward the end of class, just before I dropped out in fact, he gave us a lecture about this one chemical that gets released by the pineal gland. He called it the soul molecule, because it triggered all kinds of mystical thoughts. Just a pinch was enough to have people talking to angels. It was the stuff that squirted out at death, when the spirit is said to rise from the body.
Mr. Wilkes was talking about the binary star system Zeta Reticuli and the Taos hum and the Oz Effect. But you could tell he wasn’t saying what he really wanted to. His face was red with the disappointed blood.
The waitress came and cleared the dishes.
Wilkes started to mention a few mutual friends, guys who made me think of loud cologne and urinals.
Mrs. Wilkes excused herself and returned to the table with fresh makeup.
Mr. Wilkes laid down a fifty. It was one of his rituals and, like all our rituals, it gave him this little window of expansiveness.
“I don’t know the exact game plan, Jim. Anyone tells you they do, head the other direction. But I do know that these beings, these grays, they are essentially good. Why else would they travel 37 light years just to bail our sorry asses out? It’s the mission that effects me,” he said. “Mrs. Wilkes and Jonathon and I, all of us, we feel a part of something larger.” He gazed at his wife and son and smiled with a tremendous vulnerability. “I know how it looks from the outside. But we don’t know everything. We all make mistakes.” He tried to say something else, but his big schmoozy baritone faltered.
Mrs. Wilkes put her hand on his.
“What the hell do I know?” Mr. Wilkes said.
“We all make mistakes,” his wife said.
“I’m not perfect.”
“Nobody’s perfect, love.”
There was a lot passing between them. Wilkes started to blush. His father seemed to want to touch his cheek. “They’re just trying to save us from ourselves, so we don’t ruin everything.”
The waitress had come and gone and left change on the table. All around us people were charging through their mornings, toward God knows what.
The Wilkeses were sitting there, in their nice clothing, but I was seeing something else now, these whitish blobs at the centers of their bodies. It was their spirits I was seeing. I wasn’t scared or anything. Everyone’s a saint when it comes to the naked spirit. The other stuff just sort of grows over us, like weeds.
I thought about that crazy professor again. He’d called me to his office after Thanksgiving to tell me I was flunking. He was all torn up, as if he’d somehow betrayed me. He asked if I’d learned anything at all in his class. I said of course I had, I’d learned plenty of things, but when he pressed me to name one or two, I drew a blank. Just before I left, he came over to my side of the desk and put his hand on my shoulder and said, We all need someone to watch over us, James.
“Do you believe that?” Mr. Wilkes said.
I was pretty sure I’d never see the three of them again and it made me a little sad, a little reluctant to leave.
Wilkes was smoothing down his lapels. Mrs. Wilkes smiled with her gentle teeth and Mr. Wilkes began softly, invisibly, to weep. His spirit was like a little kerchief tucked into that big blue suit.
“I think we’re going to be alright,” I said. “That’s the feeling I get.” This was true. I was, in fact, having some kind of clairvoyant moment. Everything that was about to happen I could see, just before it did.
Outside, up in the sky, above even the murmuring satellites, an entire race of benevolent yayas was maybe peering down at me with glassy black eyes. I started waving. The waitress breezed by and blew me a kiss. Mr. Wilkes slid another fifty across the table and winked. The sun lanced through a bank of clouds and lit the passing traffic like tinsel. I waved like hell.