It all stopped, very suddenly, for Robert Bailey, just before his 31st birthday. One moment he was thinking, remembering things, talking silently and invisibly in his head—in other words, he was altogether active, interiorly speaking, and then it stopped. He woke up feeling as flat as a skipping-rock, quiet (because devoid, not because peaceful). It took him nearly until lunch before someone realized what was wrong. “Robbie? Robbie look at me? Are you feeling alright?” Nicholas was coming back from outside, and he was soaked with rain and complaining under his breath.
The question confused him, but he betrayed nothing in his face. “Oh, yes.”
“Yes? You are? How come you look so distant?”
But Robert was the opposite of distant. He was just then, and then only, very near.
“Did you get enough sleep?”
“Yes,” he said dreamily. Robert sat down languidly and began to work. The two of them were with some 50 others in a call center for a cell phone company. He had never thought the grey felt cubicle dividers to be very interesting before, but now the fuzzy rows of material, stacked perfectly uniform, entranced him.
“Well, okay,” said Nicholas, who had finished wringing his jacket into the recycling bin. “I’d normally never ask you this, but are you high?”
He simply shook his head. “You know I don’t do drugs.” And Nicholas did know.
Subtly, a sense of forgetfulness began to steal into his calm. A hint of anxiety, far, far below the surface, and to say it made a ripple would be too much. He knew it was there, he thought, because all day he felt like maybe he’d left something at home…his keys, wallet, phone, gum…all there…no, then…what?
Later on, when he was watching a movie at home, the actress said to her lover, “What are you thinking about?” and he froze for a moment, and with a sudden “aha!” thunderbolt blast from the gods he saw that he hadn’t had a single thought all day. Perhaps just this day, perhaps on many other days too. How could he begin to guess how long it had gone on, when guessing is thinking and memory is thinking too.
He told Nicholas the next day, but he was staring at something on his screen written in too-small print.
“I said, there’s nothing going on in here.”
“No, no, not you. I can’t tell if that’s a j or an i. Or…an l. Actually, I think it’s a 1.”
“But Nicholas, look at me. I only exist on the surface. Isn’t that remarkable? There is not a millimeter’s depth to me at all. I swear!”
“You oughta get that checked out, man.”
“Your brain isn’t meant to do nothing, is it? If your foot stopped working, you’d go see a doctor. If your teeth stopped working you’d go and see a dentist.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” he conceded.
But the psychologist wasn’t very impressed.
“I haven’t been having any thoughts.”
He frowned. Actually, he had been doing nothing but frowning the entire time.
“How are we speaking together then?”
“Oh, but, my voice is fine.”
“No, no: how are you arranging sounds into words, and words into sentences?”
The sensation of anxiety faded and a light mist of euphoria passed by. He was right, he had made an excellent argument: “I don’t know, doctor! I don’t know at all, except by saying that my words must precede my thoughts.”
“And furthermore,” he went on, sounding like he was chastising him. “Furthermore, how’d you know you haven’t been having any thoughts unless you’re capable of the meta-thought to analyze your own thinking?”
He shrugged and shook his head at the same time, smiling broadly. “Doctor, I just don’t know.”
“You want my advice? Go and count your blessings. I’m a thinker—always have been. My mom told me I was gonna grow up to be a philosopher. It is pain, and suffering, and agony. Ignorance is bliss. Quiet is calm. If you can’t think, you can’t have any problems. Go and read a book about Zen Meditation, about Buddhism. Lack is abundance, not having is much better than having.”
So he solemnly promised him he would, and paid a thirty-five-dollar copay on the way out. The next day was a friday, and he felt almost good to be at work. There, with Nicholas, lots of brightly colored tacks stuck into the notice board. It felt pleasant. Like waiting rooms and pastel paintings of beaches.
“You know?” he said to Nicholas. “I like this job, because I like helping people. They call me with their problems and I help them.”
“You’re fucking nuts,” he responded, not turning around. “You’re out of your mind if you think I give a shit about anyone who calls in.”
One caller said in an email that his phone was broken. Every time he called anyone there were mountains and mountains of static. Robbie leaned back until his chair was on two legs and called him, “I can hear you just fine.”
“Yes, I can hear.”
“Hello? Can anyone hear me?”
“What’s your problem, sir?”
“Can you hear me?”
“Hello? Can you—”
And suddenly he could think again, as if his interior had woken up, and the very first thought he had was shame, like Adam in the garden, except about the clothes he was wearing and the things he’d said to people all his life, and felt with his shame a deep sense of connectedness, because he thought that everyone else, deep down, must be ashamed too. Reduce any given man or woman far enough and that’s all they have. Well, alright then. He felt like jumping to his feet, a sudden pulse of outward-directed energy that faded in an instant.
“You know, I expect,” the man was saying on the phone, “a serious deduction on my phone bill this month.”
“Yes, of course, sir,” said Robert, overriding the program on his computer so that he could delete all of the man’s balance (even though it was strictly against company policy). A message flashed across his screen: “Are you sure you want to do this? This action cannot be undone.” He clicked “ok” but it was replaced by an identical one: “Are you sure you want—?” “ok.” “Are you sure—” “ok.” “This action cannot be undone,” “ok.” “This action cannot be—” “ok.”