SYNOPSIS: In 1977, a concerned mother takes her teenage son to a psychiatrist. The boy is an artist, but he talks wacko sci-fi stuff all the time. Unexpectedly, his futuristic philosophy changes the life of the old shrink. (Hear audiobook read by the author.)
By Bob Bello
12-MAY-1977, 10:00 A.M.
MILKY WAY, SOL SYSTEM, EARTH
When Bobby turned sixteen, his mom took him to a psychiatrist. He was a restless young man, growing between divorced parents and his grandmother’s care, and that was reason enough.
“All adults ought to check their heads once in a while,” his mom said, attempting to ease him. “Not that I think you’re crazy, son. It’s just a prophylactic checkup with a mental-health physician.”
“Cool.” The teen smiled. “Let’s see if I’m psycho.”
They laughed on the way, and then entered the specialist’s office.
After exchanging the usual greetings and verifying that Bobby was the “patient” in question, the prominent university professor asked the mother to wait outside. Fifteen minutes later, he called the parent, and this time asked the “voluntary test subject” to wait in the corridor.
“Dear Mother,” the doctor began with a heavy Russian accent, “may I ask why you think your son needs my services? Beside what you told my secretary on the phone when making this appointment.”
“He’s an artist,” the woman hesitated, “at times he acts strange.”
The old man nodded. “I see. Don’t we all?” He asked this rhetorically, as though his years of academic wisdom had bestowed upon him the undeniable answer to that question. “In this hectic world of 20th century,” he continued, “we all are little crazy. Today there is no such thing as ‘perfect’ mental health, Mother. Especially when it comes to intellectuals. Most artists are somewhat nuts. ‘They are not alone up there,’ as the old Russian saying goes. Instead of enjoying life or having date at nice restaurant, they stay home, nose in the paint, creating what they call art. Does this sound normal to you?”
“Uh … I’m no artist,” the mother lost her words.
The psychiatrist nodded. “Yet we all marvel their art in museums and exhibitions, do we not?” He took off his glasses and began slowly cleaning the thick lenses, continuing, “We do standard tests here, which help us determine what we call individual’s ‘intelligence quotient’ and mental capability. We show them pictures, ask questions, and if we detect disturbing or very non-standard response, we have the technology to read their distorted brainwaves and go on from there.”
The mother wriggled her fingers on the other side of the heavy oak desk, trying to get a straight answer from the peculiar man’s cryptic musings. “So, he’s okay, then?” she wondered.
“You see, ma’am, your son’s test results are outstanding. He has acute memory, great and healthy imagination, and he is well outspoken. You have done great job in his upbringing.”
The mother smiled with uncertainty. “Thank you, Professor.”
“People with poetic souls,” the gray-haired man went on, “are often not satisfied with diurnal reality. Life is really quite repetitive: we wake up, we eat, we work, we sleep … However, when we get bored, what do we do? We go to movies, operas, concerts—even visit art galleries—to vent our overloaded souls, right? Frankly, these are the people that entertain us. They fascinate everyone with their unique stories, adding sense and meaning to life, sweetening our banal existence. Let him dream, Mother, let him write; let him create art and music. Moreover, to try and stop him may just push him over the edge. Trust me, all geniuses are somewhat eccentric. Take for example Van Gough, Mozart, Newton, Hemingway…”
The professor’s eyes fogged as he began telling her what had actually happened in his office a moment ago…
* * *
“What do you see here?” the psychiatrist asked the teen.
Bobby looked at the blotted ink graphic. “A moth.”
“Going up or down?”
“Both ways, of course. Is that a trick question?”
The professor put down the IQ test drawings. “Very good, son. Let me now ask you some standard questions.” He removed a rubber band from around a set of flashcards and read aloud, “Do you love to use underpasses? Answer with Yes, No, or I don’t know.”
“Love?” The sixteen-year old scanned the mental-health physician’s eyes beneath those white, bushy eyebrows. He smiled, because the morning sunlight didn’t care at all whether the professor’s face was wrinkled or not. It spilled golden colors on him just as it would in the days of Vermeer—the Dutch maestro of light, as Bobby called the famous painter, with whom only Rembrandt’s art dared to compete. “I … don’t think the word ‘love’ is appropriate here, sir,” he finally answered, trying not to snigger.
The doctor looked at him over his reading glasses. “How would you formulate the question if our roles were reversed?”
“Um … ‘Do you prefer’ or just ‘Do you use underpasses.’ I don’t think I can ‘love’ or even ‘like’ going through them.”
“Why not, Bobby? Does darkness bother you?”
“No, of course not.” Annoyed, the teen sensed the prying nature of the simplistic question. “I just don’t see how I could say ‘I love using an underpass.’ That would mean that the moment I spot one I run through it up and down like crazy, just to satisfy my … romantic feelings for it, or something?”
“I see what you mean. Why can’t you use the word ‘like,’ then?”
Bobby chuckled. “What’s there to like about ‘em? This isn’t a painting or music, or a beautiful girl. It’s just a simple, functional passageway, not even a great architectural landmark, though some of them today have shops and cafés inside, even small galleries.”
“So, you can’t answer with Yes, No, or I don’t know?”
“I can,” Bobby chuckled again, “if you were more specific, sir.”
The psychiatrist nodded, greatly amused. “Specific how?”
The young man didn’t want to sound weird. He knew why he was here. “Sir,” he explained, “if I say ‘No,’ that means I hate underpasses. If I say ‘Yes,’ that means I’m somehow attracted to them. If I say ‘I don’t know,’ then I’m lying, because I do know. If the question were, ‘Do you risk to use underpasses when it rains like flood’ or ‘Do you prefer to use them when you’re in a hurry,’ then I’d answer right away. But ‘love?’ I’m sorry, that’s just ridiculous. I know that people say, ‘I love ice cream.’ Even so, who can love an underpass? It stinks of drunkards’ piss, not to say worse.”
The professor laughed heartily, putting down the questionnaire flashcards as well. “Boy, did you bring your mother for checkup or she brought you?” Trying to hold in his spasmodic laughter, the Russian continued, “Bobby, you’re perfectly sane, I can see that. But let’s talk about death.” His face turned serious. “It bothers your mom that you speak about it too much, frightening your friends away. She is concerned you may end up lonely, closing yourself in dark thoughts or perhaps turn suicidal. Forget I’m a doctor. Can we talk man to man?”
Bobby’s expression changed. The last time he was in a hospital he had to be resuscitated in the ER after a deadly accident. He sighed, shifting uneasily in the patient’s chair. “We’re all on a death roll, Professor, aren’t we? People are mortal. Life is the very thing that kills us all. Isn’t that rather a paradox?”
“And that’s why you became artist?” the psychiatrist asked.
“Yes. Because everyone acts like we’re not going to die. They avoid the most important question of all. It’s stupid and reckless, not to call it a charade. Why do we accept it’s normal to lose relatives to death and not to cancer? To me, death is sickness—the biggest of them all. The chief illness, if you will. Where’s the great glory in being a king, for example, and end up with the peasants in the same old dirt, eaten by worms? We all turn into soil, and then the future generations literally eat us in the fruits of the earth. That’s quite alarming, sir, to say the least. Are we just dirt? No intelligence? How long are we going to stand there and let this happen to us as ‘the circle of life?’ Why are we lying to ourselves? Excuse me, but this is idiotic, if I may be frank.”
The professor nervously clicked with his pen, taken aback by the teen’s existentialistic philosophy, then shoved it into the front pocket of his lab coat and leaned back in his leather chair, covered with brass tacks. “Son, how do you propose we fix this problem humanity is facing? You must have some rational idea, am I right?”
“Art won’t help us,” said Bobby, feeling like a fish in its own waters, now that the discussion was turned in his direction. “We need sober science, sir. And not just any, but one that can create miracles of transplanting organs every time a body part fails. Better yet, force our DNA to grow everything we need right inside us: from lost teeth to lungs and hearts, and one day maybe even brains.”
“Whoa, whoa, slow down, sonny,” the old man halted him moderately. “What if this never happens? What then, huh?”
“It’s worth dying for,” the sixteen-year old insisted quite seriously. “With all due respect, sir, nothing intelligent ever happens unless someone makes it happen. None of my paintings paint themselves. How many of your patients heal themselves? ‘Where’s a will there’s a way.’ But if we believe death is something normal…
“Bobby,” the doctor asked, “why do you think it’s not normal to die? People die ever since the dawn of time.”
“Why should I accept to perish?” the teen rebuffed. “I don’t want to end like a rotten apple just because I’ll grow old. That’s a total waste of knowledge that we gain. Our physiology is practically begging us to fight death on all fronts. First they said nothing heavier than air can fly—now we fly. Then they said we can’t go into space—now we send astronauts to the Moon and probes to Mars. Who sets the rules and the limits? We do. Wanting is what makes the difference. Professor, life is waiting for us to harvest our nature-given possibilities, even enhance ourselves like we graft vine trees for better taste or genetically engineer garlic that doesn’t smell.”
“But what about overpopulation?” the doctor inquired, straining his look. “What about feeding and clothing billions and then trillions of undying people? What about energy problems? When we run out of fuel sources and food, what then, young man?”
“Develop chemical fuel and synthetic food,” the boy insisted sincerely. “Build artificial islands, extend the continents. Why are we intelligent—to gobble like locusts and wait to die? Here’s how I see it, Professor. We need immediate space exploration and projects dedicated to cosmic survival, just as sailors live on both land and sea. There are so many riches in outer space and so much more room for all of us. Why overpopulate and overuse Earth until it breaks like an old truck that no one takes care of? We can build orbital cities and move our factories up there, freeing our dying planet from the pollution and nuclear waste of power plants. People can work and live in orbit for a season, then come back home with a space-bus and have a nice picnic in the clean forest, or go for a swim in a pure sea. Is that too much to wish for? Is that utopia? We can colonize the moon, build launching facilities there, which don’t require so much fuel to overcome Earth’s gravitational pull. Then we can go for Mars and other solid planets and asteroids, even build artificial planetoids in our own orbit. Eventually, humanity will achieve interstellar travel and undertake mining activities all over the galaxy. Who or what can stop us, sir?”
“Hmm,” the old man grinned, “money and politics, of course.”
Bobby squinted at him. “What?”
“If we don’t first kill one another,” the psychiatrist put it plainly. “Good will is not enough, sonny. Look at the bigger picture here: our world is in Cold War. To achieve what you say, humanity needs to be united. But around whose flag and whose ideology—theirs or ours? Will Communism or Capitalism rule the global society? Something in between? Socialism? Ah, you’re too young to see the problem from inside the can of worms. That’s why there’s no global peace and unity.”
Indeed, Bobby was too young to see that. There was much more than good will, he figured out. There was also … bad will. And that, he knew, was why people would continue dying all over the world every God-given second, fighting their pitiful differences. But, considering the ongoing threat of armament proliferation, which existed after two world wars of unsolved political differences, he knew it was much better to die from old age, than a WW-III nuclear holocaust.
The boy sighed again, as if he were the older person in the room. “Well, that’s why I’m an artist, sir, not an astronaut. First we must change the world, upgrade its thinking. Art and music, I believe, are the best ways of doing it. It’s like an international language to me. No need of translators. It speaks to all reasonable, intelligent beings.”
The psychiatrist glanced at his watch. Bobby’s session was about up. Yet the old man couldn’t just leave it at that. “You know what,” he said, standing up slowly, “why don’t you write about it? Words can say so much more than paintings and music. Why speak of it with colors and symbols, when it could be novels, for example? Yes, write some science fiction and publish it. I have a few friends in high places. Who knows, maybe they will listen to what you have to say.” He walked around the desk and shook Bobby’s hand, his eyes brimming with excitement and expectation. “Agreed?”
“Agreed.” The teen brightened. “I’m glad you like my idea, sir.”
“Like it?” the doctor chuckled. “I love it, sonny. This will be the underpass I will run through anytime I see it. Don’t forget,” he wagged an index finger, “I want your book autographed…”
* * *
His recollection fading, the Russian academic wrapped it up, “Dear Mother, people like your Bobby have destiny to follow. This is what we call ‘futuristic culture.’ Let him paint, compose music, produce movies. He will not work on factory conveyor closing boxes for seven hours and then be happy that the pay is good. Noooo, he needs wings to carry his imagination and free his soul from the meaninglessness of our pitiful existence. He is passionate visionary.”
The mother didn’t say a word, only stared at the old man’s sudden enthusiasm, which somehow didn’t suit his age and title.
Reading her through, he smiled, adding with professional composure, “For all our sake, ma’am, let him be who he is. Food, sex, and money is not everything for people like your son. In fact, I encouraged him to write a sci-fi novel. Who knows, maybe one day we will live on Mars, sending our sons and daughters to conquer the riches of the galaxy. I wish your Bobby is right, ma’am. It would be glorious future!”
The mother, herself a television bibliographer with quite a wide worldview, gaped at the prominent psychiatrist. A friend of hers had recommended him as the best authority in the field.
No, this wasn’t the same old man talking anymore. It was … her “crazy” Bobby fantasizing now through the old academic’s mind.
Copyright © 1983-2009 Bob Bello. All Rights Reserved! Network with the author and read more stories at www.facebook.com/timeship