Featured Image: Observed Alive © Johnette Rodriguez 2017
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.—T.S Eliot
I don’t like it, and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.—Erwin Schrödinger
“Is that a dog or a baby?” the man in the elevator asked Jenny.
Jenny had Schrödinger in a carrying case with a towel overtop. She wasn’t allowed to have a cat but it was too late to pretend otherwise. Having a dog wouldn’t be any better and having an infant in a pet carrying case definitely would not.
“It’s a cat,” Jenny replied.
“Not a very happy cat.”
“Well, I won’t tell.”
“Is it a sick cat or an unhappy cat?”
“Can’t she be both?”
“I suppose you’re right, I suppose it can.”
“She, not it, she.”
“Is she spayed?”
“I’m not sure how that is any of your business.”
“I have just never understood why they do that to apartment cats, seems kind of pointless.”
“Just to be sure.”
“I had a wife who said something like that, it turned out that she was sleeping around.”
“This is a cat; not a wife, not a dog, not a baby. A cat.”
“What’s her name?”
“Isn’t that a male name?”
“It’s gender neutral.”
“What’s the vet trip for? Cancer?”
“Why would you assume cancer?”
“I don’t know, I had a dog with cancer. He died.”
“Yes, I am aware of that.”
“Well, an apartment cat might live longer, but it certainly won’t be as happy.”
Jenny pretended to check something on her phone.
“Vets always seem like a huge ripoff to me,” he added. “My dog died and they still sent a bill.”
Jenny knew that she shouldn’t encourage this conversation but, like all academics, had the fatal flaw of replying all the same. Also, too often she didn’t reply and later realized that she should have.
“Would you only pay a doctor if you lived?”
“If I die it doesn’t really matter what happens to my money, does it? Besides, this is Canada. I don’t pay the doctor. Can you get it to stop crying?”
“Again, her. Not it. And no, I can’t.”
How Jenny loathed these awkward encounters. Sometimes it seemed to her that all encounters were awkward and it was best to not leave the apartment at all. Academia was different, of course. Being an awkward Masters candidate in Philosophy was just a part of the gig.
She recalled the play she had seen that was set entirely in an elevator shaft. Somehow it was impossible to be in an elevator and not have an existential crisis. People die in elevators, Jenny thought.
She got to her apartment, unlocked the door, let out Schrödinger, went to her bedroom and lay down on the purple bedspread with her laptop. She wished she could keep the bedroom door closed to avoid her roommate, Crystal, but then Schrödinger wouldn’t be free to wander about and would instead claw at the bedroom door, never able to decide between the bedroom or the living room.
Jenny opened up the AbnormalThink chatroom where she immediately found her long-term chat friend, Schrodinger, after whom she’d named the cat. Her chat friend named himself after the physics thought experiment. Schrödinger’s Cat could be neither alive nor dead until somebody opened the box. Humans could be the same. Who opens our boxes? Jenny thought.
Jenny’s screen name was RichardParker, in honor of the cannibalism victim whose death had led to the first conviction for murder by cannibalism in Britain. At least no one ate Schrödinger’s Cat. In the quantum world, perhaps someone had.
Schrodinger: hey RichardParker: hey. just got back from the vet. Schrodinger: hows the cat? RichardParker: she has cancer. Schrodinger: shit! so sorry. i feel kind of responsible, being the source of such an awesome cat name. RichardParker: shell probably be ok. i met some freak in the elevator tho. Schrodinger: yeah? RichardParker: i dont want to talk about it. Schrodinger: maybe in some alternate universe schro is perfectly healthy and the dude in the elevator died. RichardParker: wouldnt i be dead too? Schrodinger: good point. RichardParker: how goes the battle with you? Schrodinger: i think i might set a bomb. RichardParker: you know the nsa is probably reading this. Schrodinger: let them. i got an android emulator, set it up with a google account with fake info, connected to the internet via a vpn, then downloaded a .apk extractor to save app installation files to a sd card. then i logged out of google and went to allow apps from unknown sources which let me install the extracted .apk apps onto my android without giving goole access to any personal information. Schrodinger: *google RichardParker: i want your brain. Schrodinger: no, you dont. RichardParker: thinking of dropping out of school. Schrodinger: dont. RichardParker: why not? i heard someone say today that a ba is the work of the devil so god knows what an ma is. Schrodinger: just dont. RichardParker: well, you pretty much dropped out. and you weren't dumb enough to study philosophy. i gotta go. bbl.
Jared put his head on his desk and sobbed into his application for a teaching position. His apartment always seemed to smell like his mother, even though she had never lived there, though she did bring him plenty of pea soup when she visited from Seattle. It used to be clean. Now unread books, papers, broken appliances and photos of old girlfriends piled up. A neighbor kept bringing him odd things, things even Value Village wouldn’t take, feeling sorry for him, but it just added to the mess and he was too polite to turn anything down. The apartment seemed to be shrinking. Jared threw about the books. What good was a degree in geology, anyway? Who gives a fuck? “Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences,” the program was called, though that could be anything. EAPS—one letter short of being an actual word.
Dust had started to form colonies in the corners. It made Jared feel safe. That he could slowly watch the dust take over, that it might overtake him. He stuffed some books in a broken microwave and put on some music. Maybe there was a God. Maybe he was even a liberal. How would that be for irony? Maybe this whole thing was a simulation. There was a 20% chance of that, according to a philosophy grad student Jared didn’t particularly like. He always meant to ask RichardParker what she thought of this idea but he didn’t want to risk destroying their relationship through a futile philosophy disagreement. He had done a fairly good job of hiding his distaste for philosophy.
He considered RichardParker his online girlfriend, which just meant she was always online when he was. She may not even be a girl. Her screen name was a bit suspicious, but she said that this was just to keep the creeps away. She said the name came from the 1884 cannibalism case of the cabin boy, Richard Parker, stabbed to death and eaten at sea so that two other men could survive. The crew had been travelling from Southampton to Australia when their yacht, the Mignonette, broke apart in the Atlantic. It was nineteen days before they resorted to cannibalism.
When another ship, the Francis Speight, foundered in 1846, the crew resorted to cannibalism and the victim, according to some, was named Richard Parker. Others insist that while the crew did resort to cannibalism, this Richard Parker only drowned. In Edgar Allen Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the crew drew straws and the victim who was stabbed and eaten was none other than Richard Parker.
When Jared found out that the tiger in Life of Pi was named Richard Parker, he tried to watch it to please RichardParker. He couldn’t get past imagining the tiger saying, They’re grrreeat! Through the screen it was impossible to tell if she were genuinely amused by his Tony the Tiger connection or not. It was hard to tell if she were genuinely anything. Jared asked if RichardParker were the murderer or the one being eaten. She said that maybe she was both, how could anyone ever really know? This may have been a warning sign. Female spiders often eat their mate.
Thank god for the Internet, Jared thought. Thank god for space and dust mites.
Dust clumped up in the corner like it was knitting a sweater for Jared made up of plant, pollen, hair, textile fibers, paper fibers, minerals from soil, skin cells, dust mites, dried food and insect parts. This is home, it said, you can live in your own skin cells. Only you can do that. The dust mites could love Jared. Dust mites preferred dark, warm and humid places, just like Jared. Dust mites were blind and had eight legs with sticky pads on the end to attach to fabric. The added creep factor gave Jared a warm and fuzzy feeling. The average human would shed 1.5 grams of skin per day. That was a lot of life. He was supporting a colony. He was supporting life. The dust was his secret, along with the broken appliances. It was all his. He was God, as far as the dust mites were concerned. He was everything.
Looking around, it occurred to Jared that this was not sustainable. Far from it. He was living in a garbage pile and he loved it. He loved his mess like a brother. He was a cat in a box, and somewhere else he was dead.
This was where his mind went when he spent too much time alone, caged up in his bachelor’s suite, as he often did. Sometimes he wanted to see how far he could go, how far he could climb; if, perhaps, he could make some huge scientific discovery when his mind felt like a runaway train. But he knew how arrogant this must seem so he bit his lip and typed into the private window of the chatroom.
Schrodinger: what do mars and my apartment have in common? RichardParker: being a mess. Schrodinger: perhaps. RichardParker: sex? Schrodinger: they are still figuring out how to have sex up there. RichardParker: sounds like your apartment then. Schrodinger: ha.
Her real name was Jenny, or so she claimed. He could hack her but that would probably cause too many problems. Sometimes it was better not to know.
RichardParker: would you choose litter purrfect, katgo, feline pine or good mews cat litter? Schrodinger: is this a trick question? RichardParker: no, i had a debate with my roommate over it. Schrodinger: good mews. RichardParker: happy paws or young again cat food? Schrodinger: are you making these names up? RichardParker: i wish. Schrodinger: they should join forces with angry birds. whichever figures that out first. RichardParker: ha. what are you doing in science? you should be in comedy. Schrodinger: i dont like people. RichardParker: like every comedian. Schrodinger: i am allergic to people. RichardParker: that could be an issue. Schrodinger: my mother certainly thinks so. RichardParker: i should be working on my devil work. Schrodinger: no! RichardParker: i thought you wanted me to stay in school? Schrodinger: you are too cool for school. besides, then what will i do? RichardParker: clean your apartment? Schrodinger: i like my mess. RichardParker: work of the devil himself. Schrodinger: damned straight. would you eat me if we were stuck at sea? RichardParker: maybe.
Jenny sent Jared a video of her cat. He mentioned how many birds per year are killed by cats and all the measures taken to remove the feral cat population in New York City. An asteroid could hit, he said. Jenny, or RichardParker, let him spiral this way. She had her own issues. Don’t we all?
An asteroid was long overdue. Or an earthquake. A terrorist attack. As was his thesis. God, he hated Massachusetts.
One day RichardParker wasn’t online. Then again the next day. And the next.
Jenny looked out the window of her apartment. Kids were playing Frisbee. She traced the Frisbee as if making a graph. Was she the one opening the box as if it were Christmas and not knowing whether she would receive an alive cat or a dead one? The truth was, she was never really afraid that she would get a dead cat, she was afraid of knowing what was in the box at all. Somehow, just the act of opening was a disappointment.
Crystal was playing rap music so loud that it gave Jenny a headache. Crystal described it as the type of music you would kill yourself to if you hadn’t heard it as a teenager. To Jenny it was the type of music you may have killed yourself if you had been forced to listen to it. Jenny and Crystal were not besties but they made do. Mostly by living out their separate lives and getting together only when those other lives seemed worse than pretending that they had anything in common. Also, this way they could share food.
Jenny wondered what would happen if she were in a shipwreck with Schrodinger, or a shipwreck with Crystal. Would they draw straws? Would they choose to starve? Did people resort to cannibalism because there was no one to act as the observer? Maybe that’s why we need a God, she thought. We need somebody to take score.
These were the things that often ran through Jenny’s head when her mind was simultaneously yelling at her to speak. Speak! At least try, her brain said, say something about the weather. Say something about TV shows. Say something about the walls Crystal painted purple. Say something nice about the walls Crystal painted purple.
Instead, she avoided encounters. She patted Schrö, who still managed to purr, despite her ill health.
Jenny was working on a paper on the morality of surveillance. She was wanting to talk to Schrodinger, though also not wanting to talk to Schrodinger. She was wanting to take back the paper she wrote on existentialism in undergrad that got an A+. She didn’t deserve it. She was wanting to play Frisbee with quantum mechanics.
Jared hadn’t moved in days.
Schrodinger: just tell me youre alive, goddamnit. RichardParker. JENNY. RP. what the hell kind of name is that, anyway? this is not a simulation. parker? what the hell is your name, anyway? i heard a joke the other day about cats. im sending you a pair of socks. PARKER.
Jared remembered when people used to tell their asl. Nobody trusted anyone anymore. And why should they?
Schrodinger: 287MSpace, looking for 26FToronto. looking for dust. looking to settle down. RichardParker would understand.
Jared put up his hoodie and his best emo music. Best emo music—oxymoron? Oxymoron would be another good screen name.
Schrodinger: OxyMoron. OxyMormon. OxyOnion. OxyParker. DustyMoron. DustyParker. OxyOrgasm. OxyContin. OxyO. O, O, O. O, RichardParker, why did you go?
A knock at the door. His mothers voice radiated in, “Jared, are you in there? People are starting to worry. Can you open the door, sweetie? I brought some soup. Your advisor said that he hasn’t heard from you in awhile. I tried calling and emailing. Sweetie, please open the door.”
Jared crumbled into his chair. Even safely hidden in his apartment he could hear his mother’s jewelry clang and he could imagine her on her toes, as if that would increase the chance of anyone paying attention to her. He loved his mother; he just found the trip to the door an exhausting proposition. He tried not to move, and the absence of movement made him tremble. Why did she come all the way to Massachusetts from Seattle?
“Jared, we’re getting very concerned.”
Dust continued to fill the crevices.
Schrödinger had to be put down. Jenny couldn’t move. She couldn’t open her laptop. She didn’t want to hear how somewhere there was an alive cat eating Temptations cat treats and chasing dragonflies. She didn’t want to hear it. She could hardly tell her advisor that she needed a break due to the death of her cat. She couldn’t speak. And she couldn’t even speak to Jared. She never even called him Jared. Now she would.
We are in a simulated world, she imagined telling him. 9/11 was just an experiment in mass trauma. Climate change, a joke for anyone who thought they could play God. I am God, someone had been saying all along.
Crystal knocked on Jenny’s bedroom door. “I have ice cream. Cookie dough, your favorite. Jen, come hang out. I’m going to watch season four of The Good Wife and stuff my face. Be disgusting with me. You have to come out sometime. I miss Schrö, too.”
Jenny ignored Crystal. She could later say that she had her headphones on.
“Are you wasting time on YouTube or what? Come hang out with the cool kids. We have vodka.”
We? There were others? One person was bad enough, Jenny thought.
As if reading Jenny’s mind, Crystal replied, “Don’t worry, it’s just Adam.”
Adam was Crystal’s boyfriend. Jenny only pretended to like him. He was always wearing sweaters and he didn’t once contribute to the groceries, though he ate plenty. Schrö never liked him, either. She always went under Jenny’s bed when Adam was around. Adam once said that no cat should live in an apartment, it was like living in a box. Jenny bit her tongue at that.
Jenny had to get out of the apartment. When she could safely do so without having to talk to Crystal, she snuck out as if she had burgled the place. In the elevator, she met the same man who had asked her if Schrödinger was a dog or a baby.
“How’s the cat?” he asked.
“Not cancer then?”
“That’s good. Vet bills get expensive. I didn’t tell, by the way. Your secret is safe.”
Jenny started to shake, her keys started to make noise like a baby rattle. The man gave her a strange look, which made Jenny shake even more.
“You don’t get out much, do you?”
“I had a wife like that.”
“I thought you said she was sleeping around?”
This was how Jenny spoke when she was like this. She couldn’t let any contradiction slide. This was why she tried not to speak.
“That was a different wife.”
Jenny nodded, as if their existential elevator encounters were entirely natural. She nodded as if to forgive her awkwardness, as well as his.
The elevator reached the ground floor. When Jenny got to a café she opened her laptop, logged into the café’s Wi-Fi, opened her student email and started reading the comments made by a fellow grad student on her recent paper. No matter how much she knew the guy was right, she found herself mocking him in her mind. She found herself telling him to get out of philosophy.
She caught a man in the café staring over his laptop and she was sure he was hacking her. She closed her laptop. She suddenly wished she had Schrodinger to talk to. Hell, she wished she had both Schrodingers to talk to. The Jared Schrodinger would know how to tell if she were being hacked and what to do about it. It suddenly occurred to her that this could be the infamous Jared staring at her in the café. Really, how could she know? She started to shake again. She closed her laptop and started reading Life of Pi for the twelfth time. She flipped to page 316 and circled her favourite passage, I was weeping because Richard Parker left me so unceremoniously.
Jared’s apartment might be a box in another country but he was alive, goddamnit. And he didn’t believe in philosophy. All he believed in were particles and every particle that made up her body was on high alert.
Jared was not alone. RichardParker was out there. In his apartment, there were billions of dust mites. Entanglement: two particles, one here and another on the other side of the world, could connect and change each other without communication. Each particle playing out its course.
Mars was covered in dust. 40,000 tons of cosmic dust reached Earth from space each year. There was dust everywhere if you looked close enough. One day they would all be dust.
Somewhere there was a dust storm and somewhere RichardParker was sleeping. And every Richard Parker since Poe was out there, somewhere.
Jill Talbot attended Simon Fraser University for psychology before pursing her passion for writing. Jill has appeared in Geist, Rattle, The Puritan, Matrix and subTerrain. She was shortlisted for the Matrix Lit POP Award for fiction in 2015 and the Malahat Far Horizons Award for poetry in 2016. Jill lives on Gabriola Island, BC.
is a food, travel and arts writer published in Yankee, Saveur, the Boston Globe, SO Rhode Island, CoxHub.com and the Westerly Sun. She is also a serious amateur cat portraitist.