This piece was performed most recently for the Now What? Reading series at the BakeryATL.
In another place, impossibly distant, in another reality, even, Professor Nicholas Tecosky steps into a test chamber at the headquarters of a massive corporation, and softly shuts the door behind him. He walks to the center of the room, sitting in a wooden chair and studying his great invention on the podium before him.
This is his brainchild. It has a lovely, clean design. A simple white box, electrodes running out from either side. Atop it, a little red button. He runs his hands over it lovingly. This device, he thinks, will be his legacy. This device will change the course of human history. This device will make him a very wealthy man.
As he attaches the electrodes to the sides of his head, he thinks of the future. An escape from corporate drudgery. A sailboat. The Mediterranean. Wine and sunshine and song, until the day he dies on soft cotton sheets.
A breath. He presses the button. A single, soft tone indicates that the machine is engaged. He feels a pleasant tingle as it scans his brainwaves.
And then, a tiny ambient hum — shifting — into a HIGH PITCHED WHINE. Behind it, a distant RUMBLE emerging. Coming closer and closer and then–
His body contracts into itself as his mind expands, the unfathomable heavens all cramming themselves into his skull at once, a bright holy fire that nearly cauterizes his ego, leaving him adrift, formless, and then, suddenly, no, at last, at long last:
He is faced with every possible permutation of his own existence, every slight variation, the infinite possibilities of what he can be, what he is, across every universe.
His conscious mind struggles and strains and finds some tiny modicum of control, and he is able to hone in on a single reality among the multitudes:
In it, an alternate Nicholas Tecosky plays music at a dingy dive bar in Montauk. His original material is falling flat, so he plays Billy Joel’s “Down-easter Alexa” for the third time of the evening and his tips double. Stupid longshoremen.
He drifts into a different life:
Nicholas Tecosky is a celebrated romance novelist with a self-proclaimed “brandy habit.” He owns seven cats. He calls them his babies. He lives alone.
And more lives still:
He’s a fireman, broad and muscular. He’s a junky, lying in a flophouse. A cop. A senator. A clown.
In one reality, he is an actor named Scott Aikens, the lead in a popular television show titled “My Head Hurts.” His character, Nicholas Tecosky, runs a moderately popular live-lit series in Atlanta, Ga. Despite the bad acting and contrived dialogue and the fact that nothing ever really seems to happen, the show is a smash success and goes on for ten miserable seasons. In the series finale, Tecosky lies down on his couch. That’s it. That’s how it ends. The show is popular because everybody in this universe is obsessively interested in existential angst. This particular universe is exhausting.
In the next universe over, the television show is his reality. Tecosky stands in front of a crowd in a hotel basement, reading aloud a piece he’s written. In the middle of it, he looks up to check and see if his audience appreciates his third-rate postmodern hackery.
They seem ambivalent. His head hurts.
In one, he is an accountant in the suburbs of Wichita. He wakes one morning and walks down the stairs into the kitchen. He glances out the window to find that his child is already awake and sitting outside, furiously scribbling in a tattered notebook. He thinks that maybe his offspring dreams of a different life far from here. One day, when she’s old enough, the child will leave for a foreign city, will go and hew a rough and jagged path for herself. She may never know peace, but she will be proud to have struggled on her own terms. The man briefly ponders all of the choices he himself never made.
Tomorrow he will be fifty. He will not see sixty.
Here, there are lives are toil, here lives of great and terrible power, lives that end abruptly to accident, disease, suicide.
In one, his frozen body inexplicably floats in the void of space, passing the moons of Jupiter on its slow journey toward the stars.
Everything ever at all points in space and time, jamming into his mind, over and over, it’s too much, everything is far too much and then, suddenly, no, at last, at long last—
He jerks the electrodes from his head with a gasp, and allows his deep terror to slowly fade as he catches his breath in the blank white room.
This device… is terrible. What would happen if they sold these? The users who didn’t go mad instantly would be gripped with a paralyzing wealth of choices. This is not an entertainment, he thinks. This is concentrated horror. An all-consuming white flame of egoism. A system of bottomless despair. A Perpetual Malaise Machine.
This is truth incarnate.
Nobody needs that.
He walks out of the chamber and into his office, considering his next move. If he trashes the project, he may as well give up his dream of a retirement off the coast of Greece. If he hands it to the CEO and takes the check, he could destroy a billion lives. Civilization itself could collapse! But he’d have a boat.
He sits down at his cluttered desk. Shakes his head to clear the residual effects. He picks the phone up and dials the direct line to the CEO, who answers on the first ring.
“Did it work?” his boss asks, “Can we go into production?”
Tecosky pauses. What should he say?
He takes a deep breath, buying himself an extra moment to make a decision.
He has to choose his answer carefully.
This could go so many ways.