For most of her life, Maxine has assumed anyone who couldn’t get out of bed must be in the grip of a severe mental illness. In college, while her classmates slept off their hangovers, she leapt up eagerly to take a shower, get dressed, and set off to the dining hall. How could she not look forward to the secrets of relativity due to be revealed that day in physics? The magic of linear algebra in math. Middlemarch and Jane Eyre in English lit. Even at the modest public university she found the wherewithal to attend, any student who accomplished the not-so-difficult task of getting out of bed could learn to play the harp, fence, skydive, sculpt, paint, speak Mandarin, or design a submarine.
Later, at MIT, she felt lonely and overwhelmed. But then she met Sam, and every fresh day provided an opportunity to get to know him. Sam might not have been perfect, but he had been perfect for her. Unassuming. Slight. With pale red hair and a sparse, soft beard. To her mother’s generation, such a man might have been considered too “sensitive.” Too easily mistaken for a homosexual. Now, Maxine’s female students seem to believe mild, technologically proficient guys like Sam won’t boss them around. Cheat on them. Drink too much beer and yell profanities at the television when their team misses an easy lay-up or blows a touchdown. Such women find younger versions of Sam to be attractive for the same reasons they enjoy shopping at a thrift store: coming home with a plaid polyester housedress shows their more original taste in fashion.
But Sam has been dead eight years, and Maxine hasn’t been able to find anyone to date or sleep with, let alone to replace him. The eighteen-year-olds who make up the majority of Ann Arbor’s population are like stem cells: put any two in a Petri dish, squirt on nutrient solution, and each will take on the characteristics of the other. But by the time any two adults have reached their fifties, each has differentiated to such an extent that asking one to share the other’s life is like asking a heart cell to morph to become a liver cell or part of an eye.
Her friends insisted she try online dating. But in a city so small, she might as well have stood on Main Street with a sign around her neck: MIDDLE-AGED PROFESSOR, REDUCED FOR SALE. When she finally gave in and posted her profile—by then she was fifty-four and desperate—all she found were a few burly inhabitants of outlying towns, where the most common male pastimes seemed to involve speedboats, guns, and Harley-Davidsons. Of the three “matches” she agreed to meet, the first didn’t show up, and the second turned out to be a wealthy, combative lawyer who, when she revealed she directed something called the Institute for Future Studies, laughed and asked her to predict whether she would become his fourth and final wife, or his fourth divorce.
And yet, the night before, she had somehow found the courage to meet the third candidate with whom the wizards at Match.com had paired her. For a while, she and this man—a sweet but self-deprecating preschool teacher—made conversation about the weather. Then he asked what she did at the university, and Maxine tried to describe the courses she taught, her role in riding herd on a bunch of scientists studying the effects of computers on human psychology and behavior. “Digital” this. “Voice recognition” that. Cochlear implants. Fake electronic eyes. Prosthetic limbs. Prosthetic bodies. Nanobots that might repair malfunctioning blood cells from inside a person’s marrow. Maxine’s own area of specialization was the study of immortality.
By the time she had explained all this, her date had devoured most of the pizza they had ordered, while Maxine’s own slice had grown greasy and cold on the plate before her. “What about you?” she said. “It must be wonderful being around young children all day. They are the future, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” he said. “I love watching children play. But it’s nothing like studying immortality.” He excused himself to visit the “little boys’ room,” then slipped out the back without paying the check or telling Maxine goodbye.Not to mention her son has stopped calling her or responding to her emails. For the past seven months, she has had no idea where he is.
No wonder she can’t get out of bed. Not to mention her son has stopped calling her or responding to her emails. For the past seven months, she has had no idea where he is.
She drags herself to the bathroom. For most of her life she appeared far younger than she was. Her hair, still black and long, shows only a few silvery strands, like the tracks dividing the songs on an old LP. But eight years of grief for Sam, along with the more recent worry about her son, have exacted their toll. When did she grow so haggard, the lines around her lips and eyes so drawn?
She splashes cold water on her face, then trudges downstairs and chokes down her calcium and Omega-3. In the old days, when Zach was so thin she couldn’t find jeans narrow enough to stay on his hips, Sam had cooked them all elaborate breakfasts—oatmeal thick with raisins and dates; omelets loaded with mushrooms and parmesan; pecan-studded waffles smothered in apple-and-brown-sugar syrup. She could fix those same break- fasts for herself. But every raisin and date would remind her of the sweetness that has gone out of her life. Instead, she pours a bowl of the same dry Special K she ate as a child. (Her father used to tease that she was the only girl who ate cereal without milk. “Why don’t you just chew on the box?” he joked.)
Still, she hasn’t deprived herself of the Times. How would it look if the Director of Future Studies couldn’t summon the interest to find out what happened the day before, let alone gain insight into whatever new catastrophes might be brewing? She opens the front door and darts out, barefoot, into the gray Michigan dawn. The blue plastic bag lies in a gutter filled with muck. She looks up and down the block. If her neighbors read the Times, they read it on their computers. She understands the allure of not needing to go outside in one’s pajamas. But the gritty feel of the paper and the burnt-toast smell of the newsprint kindle the excitement she experienced as a child, sharing it with her father. Her job had been to bring in the bottles of milk the dairyman delivered, along with the Times and the Fenstead Press. On cold winter mornings, great yellow plows bleated past on the street, piling up snowbanks Maxine and her friends would later excavate into tunnels. In the spring, dew glistened across the lawn, patterned by the tracks of birds. She would scurry inside and hand the paper to her father, who fixed them both breakfast, then read aloud to Maxine about this discovery or that invention, the way the government had passed, or failed to pass, some regulation that made it easier for little guys like him to earn a living.
The first Sunday Sam slept over—this had been when she was a graduate student at MIT and Sam a post-doc—Maxine cooked him eggs, then passed him the front section of the Times and listened happily—well, not happily, but with the knowledge she was falling in love—as he raged against the corruption that had caused a factory in India to collapse, killing hundreds. They married and moved to Ann Arbor, Sam as a highly recruited associate professor in the Program for Global Initiatives, Maxine with a junior appointment in the Residential College. Zach was born, and by the time he was in elementary school, the three of them would sit around the table eating Sam’s ambrosial omelets, chattering blithely, and grabbing whatever section of the paper someone had just set down.
Then, when Zach turned fourteen, he decided his father, in the guise of alleviating poverty, was importing the miseries of the First World to the citizens of the Third. “You’re just bringing them the pollution we have here! They’ll end up a bunch of industrial clones like we are!” Sam had allowed Zach to express his views. But the fights became unpleasant. Zach would reach a point where he grew so frustrated with his father, he would sit simmering in silence. His eyes would bulge, and you could see he was arguing in his head. If only he would come out and curse them. Hurl a chair. Dump his omelet on the floor. Anything but hold in that anger.
This went on for two years, until Sam died, after which Zach’s moods grew incomprehensible. He and Maxine would sit hushed in numbness, the paper untouched between them, as if, should either unfold a section, they would be opening a Pandora’s box of arguments. Then Zach seemed to decide his father had been a saint, devoted as he had been to the welfare of people so much less fortunate than himself. To atone for having given him such a hard time, Zach cooked up the idea of going on a hunger strike. If the adults in Ann Arbor refused to acknowledge that children in other parts of the world were starving, Zach would demonstrate what a starving child looked like. Maxine coaxed him to eat. But he refused so much as a Cheerio. He created posters showing the malnourished children in Malawi and tacked them to telephone poles around town. He gave an inter- view to the local radio station. Other parents complimented her on having such a good-hearted, strong-willed son. But she could tell they were grateful their own children were more oblivious. By the third day of his hunger strike, Maxine was frantic. “Please,” she begged. “I admire your values. But you’re already so thin! You’ll get sick. You’ll pass out on the street.” She prepared his favorite meal—vegetarian chili and cornbread—and insisted he come to the table. But he sat with his hands folded, even as his mother consumed two portions. She wanted to hold him down and shove cornbread in his mouth, but she couldn’t very well do that, could she?
“Don’t worry,” her friend and coworker Rosa Romanczuk assured her. “Zach isn’t Bobby Sands. He’ll eat when he’s good and hungry.” But Maxine suspected her son was fully capable of starving himself to death. She cried. She wrote a check to UNICEF. And another check, for twice that amount, to CARE. She persuaded Zach’s classmates’ parents to donate money. But asking your friends to write checks to UNICEF so your son won’t starve himself to death isn’t like asking them to buy thin mint cookies.
On the fourth day, Zach wobbled home from school, sat down to do his homework, then laid his head on his arms and cried. “I’m so weak,” he said. She interpreted this to mean he was weak from hunger. Then she realized he was beating himself up for not being able to carry through on his promise. She microwaved a Trader Joe’s lasagna intended to feed a family of four. Zach wolfed it down. She returned to the kitchen to heat up another.
Then, just as he was gaining a few pounds, Zach read an op-ed piece by a professor of ethics at Princeton who argued that since each of us is born with two kidneys, we are morally obliged to donate the spare to someone who might die without it. At sixteen, Zach was too young to have the surgery without her permission. But he was so single-minded she was afraid he would slice out his own kidney and advertise it on the Internet. She spent days trying to convince him she would never survive the loss of her only child on top of losing his father. Reluctantly, Zach promised he wouldn’t donate his kidney until he turned twenty-five, by which time she hoped he would develop a modicum of the selfishness that protected most people from the advice of childless Princeton philosophers. Recently, Zach had turned twenty-four. Maybe he couldn’t bring himself to wait another year. Maybe he had signed himself into a hospital to donate his kidney and didn’t want his mother to find out and stop him.
It wouldn’t be the first time her son had run off to commit an act of charity. When he was seventeen, Zach had left a note and hitchhiked to Louisiana to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. As angry as she was, Maxine knew his leaving had been her fault. He had seen her watching the news and crying. “We don’t do that in America!” Maxine had ranted. “We don’t abandon old people and black people and people in wheelchairs to drown, then leave their corpses beside a highway!” In Louisiana, Zach spent ten days heaving sodden mattresses and moldy carpets from people’s houses before returning to Ann Arbor to begin his junior year of high school. Maybe she had been too lenient. But it wasn’t as if she had discovered a cache of automatic weapons in his room.
Besides, after Zach got back from Louisiana he buckled down and accomplished everything a high-school junior needed to accomplish to get into college. Five years later, he earned his degree in environmental engineering from MIT and accepted a job at a classmate’s start-up in Palo Alto. Maxine assumed she could let down her guard.
Then, the previous summer, Zach had turned sullen again. Withdrew. When she begged him to come home to visit, he mumbled some excuse. She called his cell. The number had been disconnected. She remembered his housemate’s name and contacted the young man via Facebook. Apparently, Zach had given away his terrariums, his bicycle, and his books, then got- ten in his car and driven off. A week later, Maxine received a postcard. The front showed Fisherman’s Wharf. On the back, Zach had printed in awkward block capitals, as if he were his own kidnapper: I NEED TO GET AWAY. I WILL BE IN TOUCH WHEN I CAN.
Maxine had taken the note to the police, strangely embarrassed by her son’s childish writing. (The year Zach was in third grade, his teacher had neglected to instruct her pupils in how to write cursive. Maxine had been upset, not knowing that within a few years, writing by hand would be obsolete.) But the cops weren’t willing to send out a bulletin about a healthy, white, middle-class, twenty-something-year-old male who needed a break from his mother and had been considerate enough to send a postcard. Maxine’s mother keeps demanding she hire a detective to find her grandson. But Maxine worries Zach will never forgive her if she tracks him down.
Or maybe she is afraid of what the detective might discover if they do find Zach. Every morning, when she reads the newspaper, she isn’t sure if she is searching for disasters her son might be working to alleviate, or disasters he might have caused.
She bends and scoops the Times from the leafy muck, then carries it inside. Muddy water drips to the hardwood floor; a person doesn’t need a degree in Future Studies to predict she will forget and step in that puddle later. She eats her dry Special K and scans a story about whether the Obama administration should repeal the Bush-era tax cuts. An online retailer admits its customers’ financial data has been hacked—Jesus, Maxine thinks, it’s 2012 and Visa and Mastercard still haven’t figured out a way to safeguard their data? In Brazil, a battle has erupted between a group of peasants and the mercenary thugs hired by the government to evict them. Children have been shot. A man has been forced to eat the brains from the clubbed head of his brother. Maxine can’t summon the compassion her late husband or missing son would have wanted her to feel. In the old days, a person would have been aware only of the tragedies in her own hometown. Now, she is expected to grieve for the entire world. Our hearts aren’t designed to absorb so many strangers’ pain, she thinks. It’s like trying to pour Lake Michigan into an espresso cup.
She is about to turn the page when she realizes she has skipped the day’s biggest headline. TECHNOBOMBER DEMANDS MANIFESTO BE PRINTED: Threatens More Carnage if Call for Revolution Isn’t Heeded. Apparently, the serial terrorist the FBI long ago dubbed the Technobomber has demanded the editors publish his ravings. If they don’t, or if the revolution he is call- ing for doesn’t begin soon enough, he will escalate his campaign and send more bombs. What shocks Maxine is that the editors have caved in to the bomber’s demands. What can be gained by stirring up more trauma for his victims? Four or five years ago, a professor at her own university received a package he assumed to be a manuscript from a fellow scientist. As he tugged open the wrapping, the package blew up in his face. He lost the sight in one eye and three fingers from his right hand. Maxine never cared much for Arnold Schlechter. But she hates to think he will need to spend the rest of today recounting his injuries to reporters.
Then again, as the director of an institute that purports to study the same future the writer of this manifesto is determined to prevent, Maxine might be spending her own day fielding calls. The Times has printed the document in a separate sec- tion. The densely packed paragraphs seem forbidding. Already she is running late—she has a meeting to lead in another hour. And some dread she can’t identify, as if she might find her own name, or her son’s name, or her late husband’s name, amid those densely packed paragraphs, causes her to put off reading it.
She spoons up the last mouthful of Special K and washes down the tasteless paste with coffee. She slips the manifesto in her backpack, then pads across the living room to go upstairs. As she does, she steps in the muddy ooze that dripped from the paper earlier. Maybe, she thinks, it is time to give in and join the rest of the world in reading the Times online.
From Eileen Pollack, The Professor of Immortality. Used with the permission of the publisher, Delphinium Books. Copyright © 2019 by Eileen Pollack.