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It’s one of those perfectly luminous May days in New York, and Professor Bob Burghley, chair of the NYU psychology department, is being honored at a sendoff party in the faculty lounge overlooking Washington Square. Holding a glass of champagne in one hand and a copy of the student newspaper in the other, Jane Dee stands on the terrace in her best party outfit, a black silk pants suit, looking down into the playground at a toddler in overalls staging a tantrum, and suddenly realizes she’s forgotten to give the new baby sitter her cell phone number. Jane is searching for a flat surface on which to set down her glass so she can remove the cell phone from her pants pocket to call the sitter but is intercepted by Ellen Burghley, who introduces the balding young man alongside her as the psych department’s newest member. Thanks to the rap music thundering from a passing boom box in the park below, Jane misses the new professor’s name but hears him say he’s read her book on Buddhist psychology and is an admirer of hers. Jane’s book came out five years ago and she hasn’t written anything since, so she’s relieved when Bob Burghley appears and cuts off any further conversation about her work with an elaborate display of affection toward his wife. It’s no secret that the couple’s recent public kissing and cuddling are intended to stave off rumors that they were on the verge of divorcing before the plum offer from Washington came. (Bob’s been appointed head of the National Institute of Mental Health, and the social-climbing Ellen has chosen to cast a blind eye on her husband’s affairs. Hence, the divorce talk has ended—at least for now.)
Bob is known for being a snazzy dresser. Today he’s wearing a midnight blue custom-made suit worth a small fortune and a maroon and white striped Hermes tie. He is sixty-two but looks to be in his early fifties; he’s short and lean with a pointed face that reminds Jane of a prairie dog. Bob once told her that he stays in shape by swimming laps for an hour every morning in the university pool before anyone else gets there. Jane has never liked Bob much, but ever since he’s been targeting her husband’s drug experiments as a possible cause for revoking his tenure, her mild dislike has turned to active resentment. Still, even putting aside her antipathy toward Bob, Jane herself would have to admit if pressed that she, too, had harbored qualms about John’s mind-altering drug research. Normally, when asked, she would never have thought twice about collaborating with her husband, had in fact done so on several occasions. But she’d been unnerved at the time by two unusual demands he’d made of her. The first was that they meet in his office late at night without telling her why; the second was that he’d urged her to keep the experiments secret.
That was three years ago. John had been only fifty then, but his hair was almost all white—still a little pepper running through, but mostly salt. He hadn’t yet grown a beard, or taken to wearing smocks and beads, or been branded as having “gone off.” That was to come after the drug experiments—when the NIMH had stopped funding LSD research and “going off” was no longer fashionable. How like John to be out of step with fashion. To be out of step, period.
Carrying a pizza and two beers in a shopping bag, she’d arrived at her husband’s office at about eleven o’clock on a cold February night to find him seated yogi-like on the floor in front of his desk staring at the Turkish prayer rug on the wall opposite with a strangely skewed grin on his face. He did not turn to greet her as she entered.
“I’ve taken two micrograms of LSD,” he said sweetly, like a child admitting he’d just eaten all the cookies in the cookie jar. “Stay here with me and see that I don’t hurt myself. Take notes. Don’t talk, please.”
Sitting there in his baggy green turtleneck sweater, his long legs loosely crossed in front of him, John had reminded her of “Will,” the rag doll her father had sewn for her when she was six and in bed with viral pneumonia. Believing the doll infused with her father’s magical healing powers, she’d stubbornly refused to part with it long after it had fallen to shreds and was unrecognizable. Disturbed by the memory, Jane briefly wonders if that LSD experiment was the first indication of John’s “falling apart”—and her own stubborn refusal to acknowledge it. Should she have warned him then? Salvaged his career (and their marriage) before it had fallen to shreds? Had she been wrong to reflexively cave in to his demands?
The pizza had gone cold and rubbery by the time Jane remembered she was hungry. She ate two slices and drank both beers. John didn’t speak, move a finger, or twitch an eyelid for five hours. Outwardly, nothing happened. Yet, on observing him emerge from his drug dream, Jane knew instinctively that something dangerous had been set loose in him, and that their life together would never again be the same. It didn’t take long for him to bear her out. Heedless of his own demand for secrecy, John had bypassed the professional academic journals and announced his consciousness-expanding drug experiment to the press only two weeks later. Provoked by a Newsweek story referring to the NYU psych department as a “hotbed of mind-altering drug research,” Bob Burghley (once John’s staunchest supporter) had launched his campaign to ruin him.
Guilty for her role in John’s professional slide, Jane’s been overly protective of him since then. Always on the alert, she’s trained herself to gauge the right moment for snatching John out of harm’s way—like now, at this party, for example. But Burghley is standing in front of her talking, blocking the exit, and he’s still John’s boss, so she plasters a fake smile on her face and pretends to listen. Over Bob’s shoulder, she spots John in the lounge talking to a man with an FBI crewcut wearing an outrageously checkered polyester suit and sandals with no socks. Suddenly John looks up, waves at her, and steers his companion toward the terrace. Desperate to head them off, Jane quickly excuses herself and, faking an urgent need for the toilet, rushes past Burghley into the lounge. Someone taps her wrist with a “Hi,” as she enters. It’s Natalie Jaffin, one of the few people here Jane actually likes, a sociologist of religion who is dying of a rare blood disease. Planting a quick kiss on Natalie’s cheek, Jane promises to call her tomorrow then pushes through the crowd, coming full stop against John’s barrel-chested companion, her high heels only just avoiding crushing his bare toes. Her usual social anxiety operating overtime today, she’s a bit too apologetic, but the man is obviously a good sport and laughingly assures her that he’s okay.
“Honey, this is Tom Clerkson. He’s on leave from the Stanford Research Institute; we work in the same area…” John puts his arm around her, electrifying, always amazing how such small, husbandly gestures can be so privately erotic in public.
A sweating student waiter in a white jacket appears with a tray on which Jane can finally set down her empty champagne glass before returning Clerkson’s determined handshake.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise… What’s that you’ve got there?” He points at the newspaper she’s still clutching in her now print-blackened left hand, gently removes it, and places it alongside the champagne glass on the waiter’s tray. A nice gesture, but even as she thanks him, Jane remains wary. Clerkson strikes her as one of those loony academic pariahs John is on the verge of becoming. He’s certainly dressed the part.
“Tom’s also into parapsychology.” John confirms her suspicion in a loud voice, unaware that Francis Walsingham, Burghley’s spy (and soon-to-be successor) is eavesdropping on their conversation.
Jane tries, but fails, to alert her husband to Walsingham’s presence with a nod in his direction.
“He’s been studying clairvoyant subjects at SRI. You know … they publish that parapsychology research journal … the one I showed you that printed my query last fall.”
“So you came all the way from California for the party,” Jane positions herself in front of her husband so as to block him from Walsingham’s view.
“Actually, no, I’m in New York with one of my subjects. I confess I’m only here because of John.” Clerkson looks down at the bare toes sticking out of his sandals as if noticing them for the first time. He’s so badly dressed and out of place that Jane feels sorry for him. Still, he makes her nervous. He could be egging John on to something that will get him thrown out of the psych department for good.
“Isn’t it great that Tom’s agreed to come to dinner and bring his subject with him?” John gives her his shamefaced “I’ve been a bad boy” look.
Hiding her annoyance, Jane asks jokingly, “Is she ancient and covered with hairy warts?”
“He is none of those things … Mr. Kelley is really quite the most extraordinary clairvoyant I’ve ever come across,” Clerkson says breathily, “and I’ve been working in this field for over thirty years, starting back there at Duke, along with Rhine and the Psychical Research Society…” He pauses, then adds in a conspiratorial whisper, “He’s an Englishman.”
No longer counting on the party noises to drown out their conversation, Jane notes for the first time that Clerkson has a southern drawl, undoubtedly picked up at Duke. Seeing that Walsingham has edged in closer, she quips, “Aren’t all clairvoyants?”
Clerkson responds with a bemused smile.
“Here, let me give you our address and telephone number. We’re living out in the country. I’m on a year’s sabbatical, working on a book. We’re on Long Island. Do you know the area at all?” John scribbles the information on the back of his business card and hands it to Clerkson.
“Hey, I did my psych internship out at Islip. Do I know the area, for sure?”
The room darkens as the sun passes behind a cloud. Jane glances at her watch. It’s four o’clock, definitely time to leave.
“What was the man’s name, again? Your subject, I mean?” John lingers.
“Kelley, Edward Kelley.”
Jane gently tugs at her husband’s arm, urging in a low voice that they leave now … the baby sitter … the long drive … the Expressway clogged to Kingdom Come…
The two men exchange a collegial hug.
“Tuesday night, you said. Dinner, was it?”
John’s eyes plead for Jane’s assent.
“It’ll be a simple, cold supper, a salad and smoked salmon sort of thing.” Jane hopes the scant promise of food will put Clerkson off. Judging from the way he’s been scouring the canapé trays, he’s a big eater. “Do you mind? The train takes awfully long, two hours or more from Penn Station to Amagansett, and you probably won’t get in till late.”
Clerkson bows slightly: “Not at all. I’ll eat anything you put in front of me.”
“What about your medium, Mr. Kelley? Doesn’t he require a special diet? They’re all so … sensitive.” Jane’s first hint of outright sarcasm, and she only regrets it a little. Frustrated by John’s habit of inviting strangers to the house, she’s run out of sympathy for Clerkson and now resents him for intruding.
“I’ll bring a couple of bottles of wine and a twelve-pack of beer. Kelley likes the spirits.”
“Ah, a pun.” John throws back his head and his long, white hair billows in slow motion around his face.
Jane tugs harder at his arm and deftly moves him toward the door. “See you then.”
Waving a beefy paw at them, Clerkson is already considering a tray of miniature frankfurters wrapped in dough blankets.
“The sitter doesn’t have my new cell phone number, and it’s past four. Let’s be fast, okay, honey? No side hellos, just let’s amble swiftly past Walsingham, and Ellen Burghley’s bug-eyed stare, and out the door… There!” Jane takes a deep breath. They’re safely out in the hall near the elevators and no one has noticed them leave.
They’re out of danger—for now, anyway. Burghley will be tucked away in Washington; John will have his sabbatical year out in the country, away from the psych department and harmful enemies like Walsingham… Why did he have to go and invite Clerkson and that “clairvoyant” of his? Well, it’ll just be one dinner. She’ll make up some excuse not to ask them to stay overnight, maybe suggest a motel. Worry about that on Tuesday.
Jane calls the baby sitter and gives her the cell phone number.
“Want me to drive home?” she asks as they cut through Washington Square Park toward the garage.
“Yes, you drive,” John wipes his forehead with a balled up handkerchief. “I’m feeling a little woozy, too much wine and talk. It’s really very exciting what Clerkson’s doing.”
A bare-chested black man with a tightly bound red bandana on his head suddenly leaps out of the bushes and tries selling John a handful of “loose joints.”
“No, thanks,” Jane maneuvers her husband past the loose-joints man. Past an ear-phoned jogger on skates looping along to the music of the spheres across the pitted moonscape the city has become, past a man in a camouflage jacket playing a gutted upright piano under a dying plane tree at the entrance to the park. Why, in the years since John’s drug trips, Jane wonders, is it she (and not he) who’s become so morbidly attuned to such details? Or is it because she drank two glasses of champagne on an empty stomach that the homeless man playing that gutted piano under that dying plane tree has set off a runaway train of unrelated thoughts about the catastrophic results of global warming? Could John be right? Is the planet really on the verge of collapse? When all the icebergs have melted and the few remaining survivors are floating around in water bereft of their electronic toys, will they really have no choice but to communicate telepathically across continents … across space? Only a few days ago she’d scoffed at him for exaggerating, and they’d argued. But now, as she leaves the park, Jane fears that her husband’s dire predictions might not be so farfetched after all.