Short Story: Alex Muller’s “The Last Original Thought”

////Short Story: Alex Muller’s “The Last Original Thought”

The Last Original Thought
Alex Muller 

“Inverted Worlds” by Ana Jovanovska

“Oh my god, Dave! Did you hear that, the television? Dave, you have to get a load of this!”

Dave had not heard the television, or Jennifer, for that matter. He was in the couple’s study, head wrapped in enormous noise-canceling headphones, eyes dancing across the lines of text displayed on his laptop monitor. A nightly habit of late, he was writing at the large oak desk he had inherited from his father.

He was absorbed in reworking a particularly dense section of dialogue when Jennifer burst into the study, backlit by the television in the adjoining room, a silhouetted specter portending the death of his productivity. With arms spread wide in mock dramatic fashion, she descended upon her bemused husband.

“Come on, you know I’m working — ” he started.

“On your novel, allegedly. You’ve never even let me look at it, so for all I know you’re watching porn in here. What’s your poison? Guy-girl? Girl-girl? Girl-girl-girl-girl-” she was counting them off on her fingers, “girl-girl … guy?”

“You got me pegged, Jen,” Dave laughed. “Pretending to write but secretly watching porn. Research for my steamy romance novel, 50 Shades of Dave.”

“Yeesh,” she pulled at her collar and Dave feigned a wounded look. “Anyway, you need to come see this. It’s just the craziest thing.” Jennifer didn’t even let Dave stand up, instead pushing him in his office chair through the study’s glass-paned double doors and into their modest living room before parking him in front of their sensibly sized television. Dave, eyes wide, clutched his laptop to his chest, while his headphones slid down around the nape of his neck.

Jennifer grabbed the remote control and began rewinding through a recorded local news broadcast. A group of well-groomed reporters in a brightly colored studio somewhere across town danced backward through time. She hit play.

“ – and that is why you viewers should never skydive with your pets! Keep those paws on the ground. Right, Kim?” said the male newscaster through a set of sparkling veneers that probably cost more than Dave and Jennifer’s honeymoon.

“I own two cockatoos, so I’m way ahead of you, Ron,” the female newscaster replied. “And now let’s turn to sports, with Kurt Calder,” she continued, pivoting to address the man to her left. “What’s new in the sporting world – oh, wait. I’m sorry, folks, it appears we have some breaking news to share with you this evening.”

Newscaster Kim put her hand to her ear and stared down in concentration, interpreting whatever directions she was receiving through her earpiece as she tapped on the screen of the tablet in front of her. She looked up directly into the camera and laughed in a puzzled sort of way and then turned to Newscaster Ron and shrugged her shoulders. Dave arched his eyebrows and looked up at Jennifer, who squeezed his shoulder while staring intently at the screen, mouth half agape.

“Sorry for the confusion here, ladies and gentleman. We’ve received word out of Boston this evening about a very interesting development we’re still trying to wrap our heads around,” Newscaster Ron said, staring directly into the camera. “It appears scientists at the Northeastern Institute of Technology have discovered the last original thought. I’m not exactly sure what – hold on, one second, I’m getting an explanation from our producers.”

Dave grabbed Jennifer’s hand and started pulling at her. “Babe, what the hell? Is this some kind of joke?”

“Shush, they explain it. Just watch,” she freed her hand and absentmindedly slapped him away, eyes still on the television.

“ – apparently is exactly what it sounds like,” the newscaster continued. “Using a software program – an algorithm – that crawls the internet, NIT scientists have been cataloguing, well, everything. Everything humanity has ever created is categorized and stored in data warehouses around the world, allowing these scientists to cross-reference information for a variety of purposes, one of which is to determine the originality of any given idea.” At this point the newscaster leaned over the table on one elbow and a big, idiotic smile crept over his face. Dave rolled his eyes impatiently as the newscaster tapped the desk theatrically with a pen. “And this is big, folks. They’ve identified the last – the final – original thought. According to this mathematical algorithm, every possible unique idea humanity is capable of has now been catalogued.”

“That’s right,” Newscaster Kim interrupted, to an annoyed look from her partner. Ignoring him, she plowed ahead in a serious, low tone. “This ultimate speck of human originality was posted on the popular social media platform Drekster this afternoon at 3:47 p.m. by a user who goes by the handle, um, BonerSimpson69 –”

“Nice,” interjected Sportscaster Kurt.

“Unfortunately, due to the length of the post and some, let’s say, colorful language, we can’t read it on the air, but I’m being told it’s featured prominently on our station’s homepage at this very moment,” she continued. “The website address should be at the bottom of your screen if you’d like to read it in full, but the general gist is –”

Dave grabbed the remote out of Jennifer’s hand and paused the recording. She whirled on him. “Are you kidding? Don’t you want to hear that?”

“Not really,” Dave muttered, flipping his laptop open and returning to his manuscript.

“Really? This is a big deal, right? Like, a huge, momentous event in terms of human history!” Jennifer exclaimed, waving her arms wide to capture the entirety of human existence. “We did it! We thought of everything!” She was hopping up and down now, a habit she was inclined to when exceptionally excited.

“What do you mean, ‘we’? Who’s we? I didn’t think of everything. Did you think of everything?” Dave pointed his index finger at the ceiling and spun it around in a tight circle, as if to diminish the news. “What does that even mean, anyway? The Last Original Thought. Like I’m going to let some scientist tell me that originality is dead.” He leaned over the arm of the office chair and pretended to spit.

“Dave, I have this sneaking suspicion you aren’t interested in what this BonerSimpson69 posted,” she replied with more than a hint of amusement in her voice.

“There’s a reason I stay off social media. Yeah, yeah, I know you know,” Dave said as Jennifer sighed in exasperation. He knew he wasn’t the type to keep his opinions to himself and that she had been subjected to this screed many times. Still, the breaking news had agitated him. “Drekster is just a bunch of people rushing to make the same stupid joke or pop culture reference or hop on whatever is trending any given minute. It’s an echo chamber with nothing to offer.” He ran his hand through his dark, close-cropped hair and let out a long sigh. Still in the office chair, he rolled over to Jennifer and wrapped his arms around her waist to let her know his cloudy mood was directed elsewhere.

“Well, not in this case,” she said. She playfully pushed him away and dug into her sweatpants pocket to retrieve her phone. “Let’s just see what the last truly great thinker has to say?” She winked at him and tapped in the address for the news station’s website.

The webpage loaded and she scrolled, eyes darting back and forth as she read the post. “Huh, I guess that’s it then.”

She flopped down into an overstuffed armchair and tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling, contemplating. After a while she reached out to hand the phone to Dave, but he had already rolled his way back into the study.

“Hey,” she said, padding into the dimly lit room. His headphones were already back on his head, so she waved at him and motioned taking an imaginary pair off. “Put that away and come hang out. Let’s, you know, be a married couple tonight?”

Dave felt guilt bloom in his chest and settle hard in his stomach. For the second time this evening, he was to repeat something he’d said many times before. “I’m sorry, babe, I’m just …”

“So close to the finish line,” she parroted him. Her expression changed, somehow, in a subtle way that probably only he would have noticed, having seen it many times before. She was still smiling at him, but it felt different now. It cut him. She’d need to be truly divine to not resent his writing pursuit and what it stole from her. She sure was making one hell of an effort, but there were consequences, seen or unseen, to his one-time hobby that had crept toward obsession during the past year as he neared his first draft’s completion.

“Please?”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, embarrassed by his role in this ritual. She sighed, resigned, and slipped out of the room, closing the doors behind her.

* * *

If Dave moonlighted as an aspiring novelist, he daylighted as an ad executive at a boutique marketing agency to pay the bills. His artistic persistence had ebbed and flowed, but every few months the writing bug would bite, and since college he had incrementally whiled away at his passion project. His most recent writing spate was also his longest. Whenever he hit a wall or his interest wandered, he’d think about an event five years earlier and he’d be right back on that word train.

He had been returning from his lunch break on a warm June day. There was a tasty-if-not-quite-authentic Korean taco truck that parked a few blocks from his building, and on pleasant days he’d grab a couple bulgogi tacos and walk through a nearby park for some fresh air. It was a nice break from the monotony of his job, which essentially involved recycling ad ideas for various clients. His agency handled mostly small-business work. Owners frequently would come in with a half-formed idea of what they wanted, inspired by some commercial they’d seen during their favorite sitcoms. The clients with large budgets were often the worst. Their success led them to believe they were authorities on most matters, which meant they were frequently stubborn and single-minded about their vision. Money might buy you sixty seconds in local primetime, but it didn’t buy you creativity, which meant he had a portfolio of client work adapted from nationally run, well-known ad campaigns.

On this particular afternoon he was pondering how to incorporate a small, talking lizard into a local car dealership’s thirty-second spot without infringing on a copyright when he rounded a corner and noticed a commotion outside his office building. Police cars blocked traffic and an ambulance had backed up over the curb to park on the sidewalk, rear doors opened wide and waiting. He ambled up to where a few police officers had halted passersby and gasped in surprise as the building doors burst open and four emergency medical personnel ushered out a gurney carrying Rhonda, his office’s administrative assistant.

Rhonda’s face was ashen. The jostling of the emergency personnel racing the gurney down the concrete steps caused her head to turn, and her mouth fell open, tongue flopping out. Dave saw that her eyes were wide and staring and glassy.

“Oh my god,” he whispered.

“Whoa, that’s a dead body,” a man standing next to Dave gawked. “Do you see that?” The man turned to Dave. “Holy shit, that’s a dead body.”

Just that morning he had put in an order with Rhonda for more red ballpoint pens. They had shared a joke about running out of ink from editing so much of his coworker’s haphazard ad copy. He had asked her if she needed anything on his way out to lunch. And now she was dead, tongue lolled out for the entire world to see. She probably died at the desk she had sat at for fifteen years. Jesus, she had died at the office.

The man was staring at him, waiting for him to say something. Dave was at a loss, searching. “That’s redundant,” he finally replied absentmindedly.

“What?”

“I mean a body, by definition, is devoid of life. So saying ‘a dead body’ is redundant.” He stared at the ambulance as medical personnel vaulted into the back and swung the doors shut. “That’s … just a body.”

“Good god, show some respect,” the man looked at him in disgust. “That woman just croaked.”

Dave watched the ambulance speed off to the nearest hospital, lights ablaze and sirens screaming, and vowed to make the most out of whatever time he had left. He’d take every vacation day, make love with Jennifer more often, finally start watching French cinema — and actually appreciate, you know, everything.

And, goddammit, he was going to finish that novel.

* * *

Jennifer needed to use the car the day after the announcement to go to an after-work function, so Dave was stuck taking the train to his office in the city. As he stood on the platform, still-bleary eyes staring at the electronic sign slowly counting down the minutes until the train arrived, he contemplated the prospect of the Last Original Thought.

Dave was pragmatic to a degree. He knew popular culture was full of heavily retreaded tropes and concepts. There was a reason the public ate that up: It was familiar, comforting. Hell, it was why he was employed. But Dave was also a bit of an idealist, a romantic, so to say that there were no original ideas left, no more uniqueness in the world, was so offensive to him both as a consumer and a creator.

And, if he was being honest, more than a small part of him was terrified the researchers got it right. It had been his dream to contribute something, anything, culturally significant. In his profession, he had masqueraded as a creative, when really he was an adapter, a con man peddling half-hearted forgeries. As he grew more disillusioned with his occupation over the years, he found solace in his writing. Was all that work for nothing? Maybe it had always been a fool’s errand – a nice distraction and nothing more. But to definitively say it was a hopeless endeavor because some clown named BonerSimpson69 had put a bookend on human creativity – well, that might be enough to break him.

“Is that thing broken, or what?” a late-middle-aged woman next to him irritably asked no one in particular.

She was looking at the digital train arrival sign. Lost in thought, Dave hadn’t noticed the platform slowly fill up with commuters. The crowd hummed with a tense energy, and he realized the sign had been predicting the next train would arrive in ten minutes for quite some time now. He checked his cell phone display and saw he had been standing on the platform for more than half an hour. He glanced back up at the sign to see the arrival time had changed to an emergency alert message asking travelers to check the transit agency’s website for updates about the delay.

“Protesters!” The woman next to him was now staring at her cell phone.

“Protesters?” Dave asked, pointing at her phone. “Mind if I take a look?” He sidled up next to the woman as she held out her phone that displayed the city newspaper’s website. The article’s headline read “Rush-Hour Traffic Snarled Due to LOT Protesters” and the image showed a group of young men and women in various stages of undress laying on a set of train tracks between two platforms. Each protester had shaved his or her head down to the stubble and wore a brightly colored blindfold over their eyes and a ball-gag in their mouth. They had oiled their bodies so they glowed luminescent in the underground station’s fluorescents.

They were students from the local fine arts university, according to the article, who were protesting the announcement of the Last Original Thought. An excerpt pulled from the protesters’ social media manifesto said the group was demonstrating against the death of creativity: “If original thought no longer exists, then there is no longer any reason for us to create or experience artistry in any shape or form. We immediately withdraw from university and will instead spend our remaining days highlighting the bleak and meaningless nature of our existence.”

“Oh come on – ” Dave barked a quick laugh. “I mean, that’s a little dramatic, isn’t it?” he asked the woman. She shook her head, expression hidden by large, plastic-framed sunglasses, face framed by straight, chin-length, gray hair.

“Maybe,” the woman replied. “Oh, I don’t know. I can empathize with them. They’re young, they’re passionate and idealistic. But they don’t have a lot of perspective, in many ways. Imagine you were all of that and had just been told your life’s work was meaningless? Your future was even more uncertain due, ironically, to some scientific certainty?”

Dave winced as her question landed. “Well, I wouldn’t turn into a nihilist, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t put so much stock in a computer program either. And if art really were their passion, would they be able to just give it up overnight?”

“Maybe they’ll come around. Don’t you remember being their age?”

“Hey, I’m only thirty-one, I’m not that old.”

“Well, then perhaps you need a little perspective, too.” After she spoke, she took her sunglasses off and gave him a warm smile. Was she weighing him with those eyes? She patted Dave on the shoulder. “I think I might have better luck catching a cab,” she said and tiptoed off through the crowd.

After she left, Dave pulled out his own phone and saw dozens of news alerts related to the announcement. He sighed, looked straight up into the gray morning sky and then followed the woman’s lead.

* * *

He spent the forty-five minute cab ride hunched over his cell phone, reading news about society losing its collective mind over the Last Original Thought.

Local art students weren’t the only ones reacting strongly to the news. A whole slew of well-known authors, artists, musicians, actors and the like had released statements ranging in tone and severity. Some denounced the finding as fraudulent, a hoax. Others called it a travesty. Some reluctantly embraced it in language usually reserved for a tragedy: We’ll make it through this. We’re stronger together. And still others announced they were voluntarily ending their careers. His favorite author pronounced her forthcoming novel would be her last, so shaken was she by the news. On the other end, a bidding war had broken out among film studios for the right to tell the tale of the Last Original Thought and its creator. The cost had climbed into the high seven figures. “BonerSimpson69” and “Last Original Thought” were trending topics in web searches and on social media around the world. The Drekster website had crashed from the millions of users rushing to debate, comment and like the post. The president – the goddamn president! – had invited the NIT researchers to a White House summit with the National Science Committee, the Arts Council and an assortment of legislators for an intelligence debriefing to help inform future policy decisions.

His anxiety rose with each headline he read. He hadn’t accepted that the finding was real, hoping rather that it was some sort of publicity stunt or maybe a mistake. That meant he also hadn’t contemplated the larger repercussions of this new reality. He rubbed his temples as he stared out the window of the moving car, watching the city’s downtown begin to rise out of its residential areas. His pulse quickened as he thought of the emotion and energy he’d invested — and his wife, sacrificing her happiness for his creative pursuit — only for this to happen right as he was reaching an endpoint. Was this a message? A cosmic joke? 

Knock-knock.

Who’s there?

Just some sap being crushed under the weight of a terrible realization.

By the time the taxi pulled up in front of his office building, he was knee deep in a panic attack, barely able to breathe. He stumbled out of the cab and up the steps into his office building. Because of the train delay, he arrived at that time between morning rush hour and lunch, so he was alone in his elevator ride up to the twenty-fourth floor. This was fortunate. He screamed into a clenched fist the entire way. Wiping sweat from his brow, he took a deep breath and composed himself as the elevator dinged, signaling his arrival. He actually felt much better. He was raised in a Catholic household, so he could compartmentalize difficult feelings in less time than it took to mutter an “Amen.” He’d be fine for at least another few hours, as long as he could avoid anything other than a passing conversation about recent current events.

“Dave, thank God you made it!” Monique, a sales associate, greeted him as he stepped out of the elevator.

“Sorry? Made it?” Dave asked. “Shit, did I miss a client meeting this morning? There was a train delay …” He trailed off when he saw the entire agency gathered in the large, glass-walled atrium used as the bi-level office suite’s common area. Many of his coworkers were standing in small clumps, like little islands of intense conversation. They gestured excitedly, arms flailing like palm trees in a gale. Others stared up at a large screen that displayed the introductory slide to a presentation. In large, blocky script it read: “What Now?” Underneath it sat a stock photograph of a confused-looking CEO-type with his chin resting on his fist.

“No client meetings. Boss-lady declared a day of reflection,” Monique looked surprised at his blank stare. “You know, the big news out of NIT? The Original Thought? Don’t tell me you haven’t heard yet. We’re going spend the day talking about how this affects the industry, sharing our thoughts about … Dave? Dave, where are you going?”

Dave watched confusion bloom across Monique’s face as the elevator doors closed. He began to scream again, this time with both fists balled at his side.

* * *

He wasn’t sure how he made it home that afternoon. His angst grew after leaving his office, rendering him only half aware of his actions. It seemed like every news ticker, car radio, newspaper front page trumpeted updates about the Last Original Thought, unraveling him further. He remembered stomping through a city park, muttering and cursing like a deranged ghoul, a mother shielding her children as he swept by. He remembered a bus ride spent breathing heavily with his head between his knees, the driver asking whether he needed medical attention. He remembered fumbling his keys after collapsing through the front door of his apartment.

He lay on the hardwood floor, eyes wide, phone dinging as news alerts poured in. He confronted the fact he had been trying to avoid since the previous evening: He still didn’t know what the damn thing was, this source of all of his distress. He still hadn’t read the post.

What did it matter now? Better to experience it on his own terms at this point. He once read about a Japanese soldier who was discovered living alone on an island in the Pacific Ocean decades after the end of World War II. Even when shown an abundance of evidence, he refused to believe the war had ended because he had never received a stand-down order from his superiors, who had been killed by Allied bombers. Dave didn’t want to end up like that guy, marooned less by circumstance than by his pride and his refusal to face reality.

So he crawled slowly, almost unwillingly, into the study and up into his office chair. He flipped open his laptop. He took a deep breath and typed “BonerSimpson69” into the search bar. He pressed the enter key and clicked on the first result. His eyes danced across the lines of text displayed on his laptop monitor.

He read.

He read and he could feel it slipping, his grip on his sanity. Somewhere between his navel and his groin a dark pit opened, and he began to feel his entire being slowly circling. He was being swallowed by something grotesque. His thoughts began to fuzz and lose shape. He tried to scream, to put his fist through his monitor, to do anything to feel some sort of control over his situation. But he was fading, hurtling headfirst into some other dimension, into some hell.

He began to laugh, howling deliriously into the empty apartment.

* * *

“Oh my god, Dave! Can you hear me?”

He woke on the floor, Jennifer kneeling beside him, his laptop in her hands. He must have passed out and she had found him hours later when she got home. He pulled himself up into a sitting position and moaned loudly.

“Are you sick? Have you not been drinking enough water again? Oh god, are you drinking whiskey again?”

He looked at her, and then at the computer in her hands, and thrust his chin at the laptop. “Look at it. The text document. My novel.” His voice was thick with emotion.

Jennifer sat down across from him on the floor, her legs intertwined with his, and set the computer in her lap. The blue glow lit her face in the dark room.

“Oh, babe! You finished it?”

“Last night, after you went to bed. That doesn’t matter now, though. The first page, the synopsis. Read it.” Jennifer looked at him quizzically, an eyebrow arched with worry, and then back at the monitor.

“My god.” Her hand flew to her mouth and she reached over to grab Dave’s arm. His vision of her began to swim, and as he closed his eyes he could feel the warm tears run down his face. She put down the laptop and gathered him into her arms.

“The Last Original Thought,” he choked out. “It was mine. I’ve been writing it for almost ten years.”

“Oh, honey,” she whispered. “It’s going to be okay.”

“Don’t you get it? I missed out! I got distracted. Instead of writing this story I wasted my time on my shitty job and – ”

“And what? Wasted your time on me? On life?”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” he said quickly. He looked into her eyes. “Not that.”

He took a deep breath and rested his head on the wall. “I just always wanted something, you know? Something I could point to and tell people, ‘I did that. That’s mine. I created it.’ I’ll never have that now.”

She looked at him, and then straightened quickly. “Dave, you dummy, don’t you realize?” She grabbed his hands. “You did create something.”

“But it’s not mine! I have to share it with some idiot on the internet. Me and some jackass came up with – ”

“But that’s just it. That’s the problem with this announcement and the news stories and the hoopla and all that garbage. What is originality anyway?” she asked.

“What do you mean? It’s individuality, imagination, innovation, probably some other synonyms that don’t start with the letter I, too,” he said.

“Yes, but I mean. What is it really? Anyone who’s ever created anything has been inspired. I don’t give a shit what some algorithm says.”

“But there have been whole ages of great thinkers! They named them for chrissake: Classical Antiquity, the Ming Dynasty, the Renaissance, the Age of Goddamn Enlightenment —”

“Nothing is created in a vacuum, Dave. Everything, everything, since humans have started recording thoughts on cave walls, has come from something else. All of us, our ideas are the culmination of our experiences and influences. When we create, all we’re doing is giving that part of ourselves a voice. So is it any surprise, when so many of us share various experiences and influences, that sometimes our ideas overlap? Just because a thing has been done before in some way or fashion doesn’t mean you can’t take pride in creating something yourself. So what is it? What is originality?”

He looked at her, and then he smiled weakly. “Is it bullshit?”

“Eh, maybe just a tad overrated.” She smiled back at him and then grabbed his laptop off the floor and stood. “What are you going to do with your novel?”

“I … have no idea,” he sighed. “Is this useless? I can’t just start over, can I?”

“Dave, honey, I hate so much that this happened to you. I do.” She crouched and reached out with one hand to caress his face, forcing him to meet her gaze. “But this is — shit, I don’t know — an opportunity? Maybe?” She cocked her head and there was love there, in her eyes, and something else. Hope.

She handed him the computer and he held it in both palms and stared at the document. He thought about all of the things that had happened to him since he wrote that opening line. He’d traveled thousands of miles. Switched careers. Switched priorities. Coped with loss, real loss, but then celebrated life. Discovered new passions. Learned how to throw a curveball, oddly enough. Actually purchased furniture instead of just inheriting it from friends or family. He had fallen in and out of love a few times and then back in love one last time for good measure. He had gained perspective. You can become a completely different person if you’re not paying attention, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Dave picked himself up off the floor and closed the computer, placing it on the desk. He grabbed Jennifer’s hand and led her out of the study, closed the doors behind them and pulled her to the couch. Wrapping his arms around her, he put his face in her hair and inhaled deeply. He closed his eyes as they sat there, in the darkness and silence, and he thought of nothing at all.

 

 

About the writer:
Alex Muller is a former journalist who has worked at news organizations in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC, and is currently a content strategist for a user-experience consulting company in Seattle. He’s enjoying the PNW with his wife and their Jack Russell mix, Sadie.  @Alex_D_Muller

Image: Ana Jovanovska was born in 1991 in Macedonia. She got her Master’s Degree in Traditional Printmaking and Graphic Design from the Faculty of Fine Arts – University Ss. Cyril and Methodius, Skopje in 2016. In addition, she spent a semester studying abroad attending École supérieure d’arts & médias de Caen/Cherbourg in France. Jovanovska is interested in combining the word and the image and exploring or depicting themes that have a social element, presenting it through art that is concerned with the reality of today’s society.

 

By | 2018-05-15T12:53:22+00:00 May 15th, 2018|Fiction, LITERARY ARTS, Short Story|