One night last September, I returned home after teaching in jail and realized that I’d lost my keys. I’d promised our daughter that I would take her swimming at the YMCA that evening, but K drove by the jail first so that I could dash in, search the waiting room for my keys, and ask the guards to check the lockers (I’m allowed to bring only paper and pencils inside, so anything else I’m carrying has to be crammed into a small metal basket near booking) and the classroom upstairs.
Because there’s such a short turnaround between the end of K’s school day and the time my own classes are scheduled to begin at jail, I strap the kids into their car seats each afternoon and drive to the high school, where I slide to the passenger side and K drives me to jail. I hurry in, often a few minutes late, teach a class, then walk the three miles back to our house.
Which meant there was one more promising place I could check for my keys. The jail is at the bottom of a hill – the inmates whose work we just published were living in a windowless underground space since the building extends into that hill – but K lets me out of the car at the top of the hill, a block and a half away, before turning toward home on a one-way street.
On that September night I told K, “Can you loop around and pick me up? I wanna jog up the hill to look one last place.”
Indeed, my keys were there, lying in the grass alongside the curb. They’d lain unmolested from 4:08 till 7:30, perhaps because they were attached to a camouflage-patterned lanyard. It was fourteen years old, that lanyard, one of the only two physical objects given to me by the woman I dated through most of our sophomore year of college (the other being a copy of Frankenstein riddled with her previous semester’s marginalia).
I felt triumphant, standing in that patch of grass. I hoisted my keys toward the sky. Finding things that were lost outside always seems magical – so much could have happened during the three hours my keys lay there.
I know, of course, that magic isn’t real. Neither is luck. But knowing is different from believing.
I continued feeling lucky for almost ten minutes. That’s when I started to think that K was taking an awfully long time to circle the block and pick me up. I’d expected to wait a while because this was the first night of Lotus Festival, an international music festival that Bloomington hosts every year, for which many streets are closed downtown and the remaining few stall with crawling traffic.
Standing beside the street, waiting in the waning light, my mind began to wander. I had nothing to do … nothing in particular to think about … which is dangerous. Suddenly every coincidence seemed a portent. Going through my head was the thought: what if luck is finite? What if I used my up on the keys? What if I found my keys but lost my family?
I know now that this sounds ridiculous, but at the time I was standing alone in the waning light, rhythmically blinded by the headlights of passing cars – then the speculation felt reasonable.
Suddenly, after twelve minutes of waiting, I heard an approaching siren. A fire engine and an ambulance turned toward me, passed, and strobed off in the same direction my wife had driven. Music festivals are full of drunks … our town is full of drugs … what if they were in a car crash?
I stood, feeling crushed, for a moment more … then started sprinting, chasing the flashing lights. I followed for half a mile before I lost track of the way they’d gone.
Then, of course, I worried whether my family had driven by the spot where I said I’d be during those minutes I spent chasing the ambulance. I dashed back. I waited again. I grew worried again. Back and forth I skittered around town, compelled by the vagaries of my unmoored imagination.
By nine o’clock I wound up in a grocery store. Wild-eyed, I asked if there were pay phones anywhere – no, not anywhere anymore – then asked at the customer service desk if I could make a local call and tried K’s number.
“We thought you were meeting us at the library. We waited for fifteen minutes but then we had to go home … the kids need to go to bed.”
An idle mind can be a terrifying thing.
In jail, conspiracy theories run rampant. Everyone’s mind is idle there. People inside have nothing to do but sit and think and try to make sense of what is happening. The lights are off for only four hours each night, which exacerbates the problem. So I’ve heard a lot about assassinations, and faked assassinations, and the secretive groups that plan them. The conspirators are presumed to be far more competent than I’ve found most government employees to be. I once nodded sagely for twenty minutes straight while a former construction foreman explained the significance of the prophetic phrase “hewn stone.”
We built a kingdom of brick, but the bricks have fallen. After the twin towers fell, we had to rebuild. We’re building a wall. This time it’ll be hewn stone.
Certain numbers take on inordinate significance. The people inside search for whatever patterns arose during their own lives. They draw elaborate historical charts to determine whether the year of jubilee should be the forty-ninth or the fiftieth.
Apparently Yahweh told his people to celebrate jubilee after every seven cycles of seven years, during which festival all slaves shall be freed, all debts forgiven, all prisoners pardoned. If the people choose not to celebrate jubilee, they will be punished by another curse. Jubilee has never been celebrated.
The former foreman argued that jubilee should have occurred during 2016, and that the 45th is our curse. Again I nodded sagely. What does one say? People inside wait, and wait, and wait. Dreadful are the ruts that idle time allows a mind to dig.
Although … in the men’s defense … people are conspiring against them. Judges and PDs and prosecutors often seem to act in concert, pressuring a dude together to just take the plea, keep it out of court, wrap it up nice and neat with twelve years suspend four for a level three … which gives the men more fodder for their numerology.
In jail, the mind’s idleness is enforced. We punish people for poverty: they can do nothing but sit and wait. When lucky they might be allowed to visit the jail library, but the schizophrenic guy in seg constantly kicking his steel cell door makes it difficult to read. And the books on hand are those that other men in jail have left behind, about Knights Templar, UFO, ESP, prophecies.
The men sit and wait … sit and think … sit and believe …
Great wealth can accomplish the same.
In Phenomena, Annie Jacobsen discusses the history of research into paranormal activity. The design flaws in most of the experiments are glaringly obvious. Some, like the recent efforts to demonstrate precognition, torture data with unnecessary statistical manipulation. Others simply presume the effects under study to be real, eliminating necessary controls. Sometimes this was justified by claiming that the presence of nonbelievers would negatively effect psychic ability. Sometimes psychics would be put into unusual situations, like a Faraday Cage or outer space, to determine which environs best bolster their (nonexistent) powers.
But researchers received steady funding, allowing their ill-conceived experiments to continue. In some cases the money came from the U.S. government:
One of the CIA’s early programs sought to develop a truth serum, an age-old quest that touched upon ideas of magic potions and sorcerer’s spells. In consort with U.S. Army scientists at the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Maryland, this classified program was first called Bluebird, then Artichoke, and finally MKULTRA. For these and other programs like them the CIA hired magicians, hypnotists, and even Sybil Leek, Britain’s famous white witch.
At other times, funding came from the idle rich. The wealthy of southern California have long squandered money on healing crystals, orgone chambers, and the advice of smooth-talking gurus; they also fueled paranormal research.
Among those in attendance who were enchanted by Puharich’s Theory [that brains radiate energy, allowing for telepathy, telekinesis, and more] were two wealthy benefactors, Joyce Borden Balokovic and Zlatko Balokovic. Joyce was a primary shareholder of the Borden dairy fortune; Zlatko was a world-renowned Yugoslavian-born virtuoso violinist who owned one of the world’s largest collections of Guarnerius and Stradivarius instruments.
[Joyce] suggested Puharich create a research laboratory in Maine dedicated to the study of the Puharich Theory. She and Zlatko would be happy to donate, she said, and so would many of their friends. To demonstrate, Joyce introduced Puharich to a friend she was certain would also want to become a benefactor, Alice Astor Bouverie.
Alice Astor Bouverie was an heiress, a philanthropist, and the only daughter of John Jacob Astor IV, of the Astor dynasty. Alice was just ten years old when her father, one of the richest men in the world, died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Astor left his daughter $5 million, roughly $120 million in 2017. Like Joyce Borden, Alice was interested in ESP, and in mental telepathy in particular, a notion she learned about from her father.
A third female patron was introduced to the growing circle: Marcella Miller du Pont, of the chemical and weapons production conglomerate. Like Joyce Borden and Alice Astor, Marcella du Pont was passionate about ESP and willing to finance Puharich’s research efforts in this area.
While waiting for the next dinner party, or the next trans-Atlantic flight, why not sit and muse over the possibility of bending spoons with thought?
What does the germination of supernatural belief look like?
Vivek Shanbhag provides a beautiful illustration in his novel Ghachar Ghochar, translated by Srinath Perur. An industrious uncle launches the narrator’s family into the upper echelons of wealth; with nothing to strive for, the rest of the family slips into decadent sloth.
It’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.
The narrator’s sister marries. Insufficiently pampered, she returns home. The uncle sends a set of bodyguards to intimidate the former husband and reclaim her dowry.
The narrator marries, too. An eligible woman is found, a wedding is arranged, and, during the honeymoon, he feels that happiness is within reach. But for some reason his new wife expects him to do something with his time:
After speaking about her family’s routine through most of breakfast, she went quiet as we returned to the room. Perhaps she was thinking of how her day would change after we returned home, how it would have to reshape itself to accommodate my workday. Then, as I unlocked the door, she asked me how much leave I had taken from work.
We entered the room. I closed the door and encircled her waist with my arm.
“I’d take permanent leave to be with you,” I said, trying to brush the question off.
“No, I’m serious. I really want to know. Tell me how much leave you have,” she said.
“I just told you,” I said. “It’s the truth. I’m on endless leave now that you’re here.”
She asked again, but I managed to make light of the matter and leave it at that.
I don’t know all that [my advocate] had said while the marriage talks were on, but I believe she was told I was the director of Sona Masala, [the family’s spice packaging company]. Which was, of course, true. The fact that I didn’t have anything to do with the running of the business is another matter altogether.
Soon he finds his wife’s presence intolerable. She is too honest. She has too much integrity. She treats the mobster uncle with insufficient deference. She remarks on the petty misbehavior of everyone in the family. The narrator’s only refuge is a nearby coffee house, where he convinces himself that a waiter’s trite clichés contain deep insight.
When the narrator’s new wife takes a week-long trip, the family celebrates her absence by discussing local gossip … of a particularly morbid type:
“The whole town knows Manjunath killed his wife.” …
“You’ve got to hand it to Manjunath, though. He’s managed to get away with it without any consequences …”
There’d been a report in the newspaper about a woman who had died two years ago of burns resulting from a gas leak in the kitchen. It had been proven that her husband’s family had planned the accident.
“But in court they claimed it was all an accident and that the police forced a confession out of them. They were all released …”
“These days murder has become commonplace,” [my uncle] said. “People go ahead and kill someone, but then they get caught. Remember that techie who recently killed his wife He was caught because of his overplanning.” He laughed.
“What are you people saying?” [my father] asked. He looked upset. “You’re talking as if it’s all right to kill someone when it suits us.”
[My uncle] sighed. “Coffee King is living in another age,” he said. These things are not as big a deal today. I haven’t brought it up before – but do you know how much I pay as protection money on behalf of Sona Masala? Everyone else does it, too. You never know when you might need these people. It’s practically a collective responsibility of businessmen now to ensure they are looked after …”
Now it’s Tuesday. Anita hasn’t called since she left. Going by the ticket I booked for her, she should have been back yesterday afternoon. I haven’t returned home since I left yesterday morning. Haven’t been able to summon the courage.
Instead of returning home, he visits his beloved coffee shop:
As Vincent placed my coffee on the table, I said to him distractedly that I hoped his family was well. He nodded, and with a faint smile said, “Blood is thicker than water, isn’t it, sir?”
I began to shiver at the mention of blood. Whatever the meaning of the saying, why should he bring up blood at a time like this? He was at least kind enough to pretend not to notice my discomfort. He went away without speaking another word.
If we assume in advance that each word carries deep meaning – that each happening is a portent – we can always contort our interpretations to make the world’s coincidences fit a prophecy.
I’m sitting here, waiting anxiously. For what, I don’t know. The phone rings. I grab it and look at the screen. An unknown number.
I answer: “Hello?”
A voice at the other end: “Hello, Gopi, is that you?”
No, it’s not.
“Wrong number,” I say, not very politely, and hang up. My mind is in a whirl. Why today of all days must I receive these useless calls? First the insurance agent, now this. Could it be a sign?
Maybe Anita hasn’t returned from Hyderabad. Or maybe she’s back and hasn’t called because she’s still mad at me. Could she have had an accident on her way from the train station? What if a lorry slammed into her as she got out of the auto-rickshaw outside our house? Or could something have happened to her after she came home? What if she’s killed herself? Everything she might need is there. A roll of rope, electric current, sleeping pills. A tall building not too far away. Two women to goad her – what agent of death is as discreet as words?
Enough of this madness! Let me go home now. I reach for the glass of water in front of me. It shatters in my hand. Vincent comes running, folds up the tablecloth, making sure none of the water falls on me. He seats me at the next table and brings another coffee without my having to ask.
I sit there trying to compose myself, sipping the coffee with some determination.
As he’s passing by on his way to another table, Vincent says, “Sir, you may want to wash your hand. There’s blood on it.”
I freeze. What is happening? What have I become entangled in? There must be some way out of all this. The words rush into my head of their own accord: ghachar ghochar.
“Ghachar ghochar.” A nonsense phrase invented by his wife’s family, meaning entangled, chaotic, irremediably ruined. Idle time let his mind roam free; with this freedom, he could imagine only doom.
Although perhaps the narrator is right to worry. Looming over him, a otherworldly deity – an author – pulls the strings. Within a novel, no coincidence is innocent.