Okay, so…this is supposed to be a book review week, not a short story week. Unfortunately, the first book I attempted to read (Aurora, Kim Stanley) was so utterly horrible that I gave up on the book 20% of the way through. With the amount of time that slogging through that 20% took, as well as a bunch of time being put into the creation of the CoHH wiki, I’ve only gotten about 45% of the way through the replacement book (Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckle). I’m loving the replacement quite a bit, but likely won’t finish until after the weekend. As a result, and in order to keep up the post pace, I decided to flip the review and the short story that I would have put up next week.
On that note, Do the Plates Have Eyes is both one of my older pieces, and one of the few pieces of General Fiction that I’ve ever written. It’s a bit shorter than my usual shorts, but I hope you enjoy!
Do the Plates Have Eyes?
By Jacen Aster
It was a regular day, or mostly regular at least. Days when my most unusual patient visits are never quite regular. But, at least until he arrived, it had been a perfectly regular day, and yet I remember it curiously clearly. The chill of a late spring frost was being slowly overcome by the bright sun, my secretary had blathered on about a new boyfriend, and my ex-wife hadn’t harassed me all week. It was such an overwhelmingly regular day that, despite his oddities, I had been looking forward to seeing him. He would be a breath of fresh air after a day of perfectly mundane sessions. As such, I’d been almost disappointed when he did show up and his session was far more normal than usual. The typical meandering subjects of a long term patient with few new bits to surprise me with. Though, at least I knew how much of a lie that was in his case, so I was a tiny bit prepared for what came. So much, that is, that such a thing is possible with him. At any rate, I clearly remember the question he asked me. It was one of the oddest I’ve ever heard. He asked me, simply. “Doc, do the plates have eyes?”
Perhaps I should backtrack for a moment though, to help you gain a proper prospective on this oddity. I’m a psychiatrist, as you might have already guessed. No, I don’t have a radio show and you won’t find me on your television. I am not famous, I don’t generally serve celebrity clientele, and I’ve written no groundbreaking books. Nothing, on the whole, is really all that special about me. I’m not even at the top of my field in Chicago, let alone the nation or world. I’m just the sort of regular, mundane shrink that you find in your phonebook. I don’t, in fact, even have a particular specialty. I do, however, have one thing that my colleagues do not. Specifically, a very odd patient that would well and truly boggle the mind of my poor, unsuspecting contemporaries.
This man, whom I shall refer to as JL for confidentiality’s sake, simply walked into my office one perfectly average day and offered me three times the going rate for my services. Not for me to help him, per se. Not for me to tell him what was wrong with him either. Rather, he simply wanted me to listen. Just listen, and perhaps respond with some measure of intelligence. I remember how he put it during that very first session quite clearly, even two decades later. The memory is a funny thing, and his words often had an odd way of sticking with you even if it wasn’t.
He said to me. “It will be nice to have someone intelligent to talk to, someone who will voice their opinion to me on whether I am stark raving mad or not. It won’t change a thing of course, but I think it would be nice.” He paused for a moment and then, in an amused voice he added. “Perhaps, in all arrogance, it’s why Sherlock Holmes kept Watson around. So he’d have someone to properly tell him he was a madman.”
It wasn’t very many sessions before I got curious about him and his oddities. Particularly as the comparison with Sherlock Holmes and Watson seemed ever more disturbingly accurate each time I met him, and I wasn’t all that fond of being Watson. Perhaps it wasn’t overly professional of me, but then even the simplest of searches turned up his name. As it turned out, I had quite the famous personage in my little office. An eccentric inventor who very few knew anything about. He was a hermit of sorts, not known for socializing or granting interviews or any of that other rubbish the famous often partake in. Truly, while there was much to be found about his accomplishments, there was very little about the man himself. Indeed, I suspect I already knew far more than the sources I turned up did, and I realize quickly that there was no point in digging deeper. From what was known of his habits it was clear that anything further, any supposition as to his character, would have been mere baseless assumption and rumor.
But, for all that the frame of reference is useful, I’m afraid I’m merely rambling now. So let me properly set the scene. There I was settled quite nicely in my comfy chair, a nice leather wingback that I’d properly worn in, with him leaning back across from me in the traditional couch. It was something he was quite insistent on, that couch. I hadn’t had one before and he seemed to like the stereotype. He’d appeared in his second ever session dragging a vintage chaise lounge up the three flights of stairs to my office. At any rate, as he reclined on the couch he had been going on about reactors and dials and other such things when he suddenly stopped, raised his head to looked me dead in the eye, and asked me. “Doc, do the plates have eyes?”
Now, I’m sure you think by now that he really is a madman. However, it is my professional opinion, acquired over many sessions, that JL is frighteningly, terrifyingly sane. Far saner than any man or women I’ve ever met. Far saner then I myself am, in truth. I would wager that fact even with God. You can imagine my confusion then, and not a little startlement, when he asked me, ever so seriously, something so…insane.
Being ever so professional…I blinked twice and said “What?” Actually, I say said, but I squeaked it out really. Not my finest moment. He, of course, thought, much to my mortification, that this response was quite hilarious! I went beat red at his laughter and angrily demanded to know if he was making fun of me. Yes, I know. Also not my finest moment.
Once he stopped laughing he again became quite serious, looked me in the eye again and told me. “No. Of course not, doc. Now, you didn’t answer the question. Do the plates have eyes?”
Baffled, I resorted to asking if this was some sort of technical term I didn’t know. He used such things often, but was always willing to explain. To willing, sometimes, to be completely honest.
He shook his head and responded. “No, just regular dinner plates. Do they have eyes?”
“Well, I’ve never seen one with eyes. Save, perhaps, on a child’s plate. Do yours have eyes?” I, of course, was frantically reviewing all of our previous sessions, trying to explain his behavior. Was he really a madman and I had missed the signs?
“Ah, an answer at last. Now tell me, Doc, if plates don’t have eyes then how do they see?”
Completely lost now and fingers twitching ever so slightly towards his file, I responded. “Plates can’t see JL, surely you know that?”
“Ah! But there is the crux of the matter. If plates cannot see, then it is because they are inanimate. Correct?”
More curious now than anything else, I answered with a simple, “Of course.”
“But, if an inanimate object cannot see, or hear, or feel, or even think, then why do we talk to them? Why, perhaps more importantly, do they respond?”
Uh-oh, he was hearing voices? Damn, this was so out of my league. Yes, that was what I thought. Even as I tried to find an answer, I was frantically reviewing every half-remembered theory from classes I barely passed in university. Still, I’m a professional. Even if I was out of my depth here, I had to try and reach him. It was with this thought I tried for the most generic question I could, thinking to buy a bit of time to process. “Are your objects talking to you?” Yes, that was a fine start.
I admit I was more confused than ever, and ready to reach for the painkillers at that point, rather than his file.
“Of course not, doc.”
Great, he was just screwing with me. I was almost sure of it. I stopped trying to remember all those esoteric tidbits from college, and my hand twitched towards my desk drawer. Ah, sweet painkillers, how do I love thee, let me count the ways.
Then he spoke again and my hand froze. The rest of me too, for that matter, but I really wish that my hand, at least, had continued. The painkillers could have gotten a head start that way.
“But they do respond, doc. How else do you explain a computer fixing itself when you threaten to hit it, or your car sputtering to life when you are already certain in your heart that it will not? I once heard a story of a man who rotated his plates regularly so they wouldn’t get jealous of one another. Another of a man who could ask the rain not to touch him and it wouldn’t. I even once encountered a light that turned off when I, and only I, walked past it. If these things cannot see, or hear, or feel, or think. Then how do you explain it?”
I was dumbfounded at this, as one might imagine. This is what he had been building up to? Still, I thought the answer was obvious. “Coincidence, or providence if one believes in such things.”
“Oh? Let us take the light for an example. It did this, the turning off, every time I walked past. It did it without fail for months on end. More, once I had passed by it would immediately turn back on. It did this for me hundreds of times and never once for another, not even if they walked under it right before or right after. Doesn’t mere coincidence seem a bit far-fetched to you? Can it be called providence, or luck for that matter, if it was so reliable?”
Well, I could still explain this, surely. “Then a scientific answer. Perhaps you were carrying a leaky cell phone or some other such thing that would trigger its electronics.”
He sounded quite amused as he responded. “A fine try, doctor, but I replaced my phone and watch both, even left them behind on more than one occasion as an experiment, and I carry no other electronics. It is also but one example of such things. Can you honestly come up with none of your own? Do none of my examples ring a bell to you? Did your mind not jump to times that such things had happened to you, when I began describing them?”
That brought me up short. Of course I could come up with examples. Dozens of such examples, in fact. Indeed, my mind had supplied several already, just as he obviously assumed it would have. He started talking before I could answer. Before I could admit to him that it was so. Perhaps the answer was already clear on my face.
“Of course you can. Everyone old enough to have been around the block a few times can. Car problems that a mechanic can’t duplicate. A computer that crashes when you touch it but works fine for your secretary. These sorts of things are so utterly common, so universally experienced, that nearly anyone can commiserate with your misfortune. Yet, and yet, no one thinks it odd at all. Here we are, with all the evidence in the world that the toaster is alive, and yet no one thinks to question it.”
He paused for a few long moments.
“Ah, well, I think that’s enough for one day. I shall set another appointment with your secretary, if her computer is in an agreeable mood. Good day, doctor!”
With a jaunty wave he was gone, leaving me in silence and stuck thinking thoughts that I was sure meant I needed a shrink of my own. Well, those and thoughts about the bottle of painkillers. It was getting low. I would need to replace it before his next visit.
So, dear reader, I have but one question for you, asked of me by a terrifyingly sane man.
“Do plates have eyes?”
P.S. Perhaps I should pick up some polish for that couch? Surely it must be as confused as I am.