Cold Reading

by Michael Swanwick


Story Copyright (C) 2011, Michael Swanwick.
Images Copyright (C) 2011, Rudy Rucker.
2,200 Words.

One day you look around yourself and for the first time notice the bits of colored tape on the floor.  They are scattered about in short right-angle vees and larger exes.  It’s clear that they’ve been there for a while.  “What’s all this for?” you ask.

“That’s spike tape.  The exes are to help you hit your mark when you make an entrance.  The rest help the stagehands set up the furniture in a scene change,” your spouse says brightly.

“I see.”  You work out the implications a little more slowly than you’d have liked.  Then, tentatively, because you find it hard to believe, “You mean we’re in a play?”

“Oh, yes.  Of course.”

“Why didn’t I know?”

“Well, you wouldn’t, would you?  That’s the whole point.”  The doorbell rings.  “Oh!  That’s my cue.  Excuse me, dear.”

You’re still staring at the tape when your spouse re-enters, stage left, with your illicit lover, who also happens to be your spouse’s best friend.  “Look who’s here!  You two talk while I put away the groceries.”

The instant your spouse is gone, you and your adulterous love fall into each other’s arms. This is madness.  But it’s a common, everyday madness.  “Listen,” you say, “I just discovered something alarming.”

“Oh, shut up and kiss me.”

So you do.

Or, actually, you almost do.  But just as you’re about to, your lover’s eyes close one by one.  On the right eyelid is carefully printed the word DROP in grease pencil.  On the left, DEAD.

You make a noise and release what is suddenly a complete stranger.  Who immediately jeers, “Made you flub your line!”

You’re staring at your lover, open-mouthed, when your spouse comes into the room with a cell phone.  Completely ignoring your befuddlement.  Even though, given the state you’re in, that’s pretty hard to do.  “It’s your mother.  She insists that you come over right away.”

The lights dim.  In a swirl of activity, the living room furniture is whisked away and patio furniture laid down.  When the lights come back up, there’s your mother, lounging on a recliner alongside a small table with a pitcher of martinis.  You kiss her on the cheek.

What just happened, you realize, must have been a scene change.  But if so, the scene felt awfully short to you.  Maybe it was already in progress when you made your entrance.  Which you can’t seem to recall.

Your mother clears her throat.  “I said, I understand you’ve been having trouble with the script.”  She emphasizes the second word heavily.  Clearly, you hadn’t delivered the required line of dialogue when she spoke the first time.    She pours you a martini and thrusts it into your hand.  Stalling for time, you take a sip.

It’s tap water.

To your complete astonishment, you smack your lips.  For some unfathomable reason, you say, “As smooth as mother’s milk.”

“You were a bottle baby,” your mother replies tartly.

Laughter washes through the universe.  It breaks something loose in you.  “Please,” you beg of her.  “Script?  I don’t understand.  I’ve never seen a script.  I didn’t even know I was in a play until just a moment ago.”  Suddenly, you’re close to tears.  “I don’t know my lines or what’s going on or what to do or even who I am!”

“Oh, don’t be so existential.”


 Your mother’s laughter tinkles like glass.  It’s the most artificial thing you’ve ever heard.  “You’re being far too serious.  Think Noel Coward.  Oscar Wilde.  Light and frivolous.  Inheritances and infidelity.  Hypocrisy and inconsequence.  In a pinch, we could conceivably go as dark as early Neil Simon but not one breath further.”

Desperately, you say, “At least let me know what the play’s about.”

“I couldn’t possibly tell you that, sweetie.”

“Why not?

“Don’t be simple.  It would destroy the whole point.”

“Which is what?”

“If I told you, then you’d know, wouldn’t you?  Honestly, dear.  You can be so dim at times.  Sometimes I wonder if you’re really mine at all.”  A thoughtful note enters your mother’s voice.  “Your father did have the occasional fling.”

Your glass is empty.  You accept a second martini and slug it down in one gulp.  It’s still tap water.  But now your movements are a little unsteady and your voice is just a tad slurred.  Getting down on your knees, you take your mother’s hands in yours and kiss the knuckles.  “I implore you.  For the sake of the love you feel for me –”

“Oh, I don’t feel any love for you.  Where did you ever get such a ridiculous notion?”

Now you’re floundering.  “But . . . I . . . you have to.  Don’t you?  You’re my mother.”

“For heaven’s sake.  Do I look old enough to be your mother?  Ignore the greasepaint circles under my eyes and this ludicrous grey wig.  Just look at these boobs.  I’m younger than you are.”  She arches her eyebrows.  “And, I might add, a far better actor.”

Horrified, you stand up and stagger back.  Almost, you miss your mark.  But then you see the spike tape on the floor and take a quick step sideways.  Clutching your head, you inexplicably cry, “I must be going mad!”

The lights dim, the furniture whirls, and, just as the lights are coming back up, two stagehands ease you down onto a couch.  This seems rather too similar to the position your not-mother held in the previous scene, and you half-suspect it’s the same piece of furniture.  But the couch is facing the other way around and you’re lying flat on your back, so maybe the audience won’t notice. 

Plus it might be some kind of deliberate thematic thing on the part of the playwright.

But there’s no time to consider that possibility because a man in a jacket-and-beard combination that can only mean he’s supposed to be a psychiatrist is saying, “Szo.  Your mother tells me you think you’re in a play.”

“But we are.  Aren’t we?”  You sit up.  “I mean, look at you!  No real psychiatrist would look like that.”

The stage psychiatrist scribbles something in his notepad.  Of course he’s holding a notepad.  “Szigmund Freud did.”

Laughter washes over you, making you gasp for air, almost drowning you.

“But that’s just it.  Biologists don’t look like Charles Darwin.  Physicians don’t dress like Hippocrates.  Why would . . .”  You trail off, because when you peer in one direction, the wall isn’t there.  You’re staring into darkness with bright lights up above.  When you squint you can almost see something.  “Over there.”  You point.  “Are those . . . faces?  An audience?  Do you see them too?”

“See them?” the psychiatrist cracks.  “Heck, I can even smell them!”

Laughter, mingled with applause.

You do your best to ignore it.  “So we really are in a play then.  And you knew it all along!”  Suddenly you’re angry.  “But you’re not going to tell me a thing about it, are you?”  The psychiatrist purses his lips and shakes his head in a no-of-course-not manner.  “So where does that leave me?  I don’t what’s going on, or what to think about it.”  You stare into his eyes.  Doing your best to connect with him, one human being to another.  “What am I supposed to do?”

“Do?”  The psychiatrist leans forward and solemnly extends a hand.  Its forefinger points straight at your chest.  Smiling, he says, “Pull my finger.”

Gales of laughter.  The bastard is playing to the audience!  Now he’s waggling his eyebrows, really mugging it up.  Even though he knows it destroys any plausibility the play might have.  Indignantly, you step between him and where you deduce the audience must be.  “If you think you can pull this kind of crap on –”

Suddenly, you almost double up with pain.  The psychiatrist is standing up now, pretending to give you a reassuring hug, while he’s actually digging a thumb into your kidney.  Hard.  He whispers into your ear, “Don’t try to upstage an old pro, kiddo.”  Then, projecting his voice in the hokiest way imaginable, “I’m going to have to stage . . . an intervention!”

But this time, when the furniture spins about you, you reach into the maelstrom and haul out a skinny young man in black.  “All right,” you say, “who are you?”

“I’m just a stagehand,” the man says.  “Let me go.”

“Not until you tell me exactly what’s going on here.”

“I don’t know anything.  I’m not supposed to be on stage at all, much less delivering lines.”

You reach into your pocket and pull out a honking big clasp knife that an instant ago you hadn’t known was there.  One-handed, you flip it open.  You press it against the stagehand’s throat.  The tip punctures his skin.  A drop of blood trickles down from it.  Whatever else may be false, this is real.  Your anger is real, too.  As is your knife.  The stagehand is only a gesture away from dying.

He knows this.  You can see it by the panicked way his eyes meet yours.

“I want to speak to the director,” you say.  Then, when the stagehand doesn’t respond, “I want to speak to the director!”

“I . . . I . . . don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Tears well up in the stagehand’s eyes.  They’re real too.  They spill down his cheeks, and suddenly he’s sobbing.  “Scout’s honor, I don’t.”

Your hand tightens on the knife and, with a frisson of horror, you realize that you’re going to do it.  You’re actually going to –

“Stop.”  Your spouse steps out of the darkness.  Looking surprisingly unfrivolous.  “He’s telling the truth.”

Your adulterous lover stands forward as well.  “There is no director.  There never was.  No playwright.  No script.  Nothing.”

“There is only us,” says the psychiatrist, his fake accent gone.  “Making it up as we go along.  Playing to the darkness.”  He spreads his hands.  “That’s all.”

“So you see, dear,” your mother says, “you never will get an answer.  Because, well, I’m afraid there is none.”

Everything they say is the truth.  You know it is.  You can feel it in your bones.  Dark, aching, painful truth.  This is what you asked for.  You ought to be grateful to them.  And yet.

The truth is unbearable.

You convulsively release the stagehand, who steps away, rubbing his throat.  You keep a firm grip on the knife, though nobody makes a move to take it away from you.  The other actors stand in a semicircle, looking at you.  Waiting.

“You don’t understand,” you say, though you’re baffled by your own words.  “It’s different for you.  You don’t know how it feels.”

They say nothing.  They look.  They wait.  Until finally, you understand what it is that they’re waiting for.

Every muscle in your body tenses.  Your face stings like ice.

Then, with a strength of will you had no idea you were capable of, you turn the knife around in your hand so that it points toward your stomach.  Taking a deep breath first, you plunge it in.  Like a samurai, you cut and then twist.  The pain is like nothing you’ve ever felt before.  Your intestines slide out of your body and onto the stage.  The darkness closes in around you.  Slowly, agonizingly, you lose consciousness.

You die.

There is a moment of stunned silence.  Then rapturous applause.  Grinning maniacally, your mother bounds to the front of the stage and takes a bow.  One by one, your spouse, your lover, the psychiatrist, and the stagehand join her.  When the psychiatrist joins the line, he points his index finger at the crowd and mouths, “Pull my finger,” earning him an extra laugh.

Joining hands, the cast all bow in unison.  Then your spouse and your lover crouch down to help you up.  Hastily scooping your entrails back into your body cavity, you stagger to your feet.

When you take your bow, the applause doubles, redoubles, redoubles again, and (impossibly – has this ever happened before?) redoubles for a third and final time.  The sound of it is a physical force.  You inhale and it fills your lungs.  It pounds against your stomach like a fist on a drum.  It permeates every cell of your body.

Yes!  You pump your fist at the sky.

God, but you love show business.




About the Author

Michael Swanwick is one of the most acclaimed and prolific science fiction and fantasy writers of his generation.   He has received a Hugo Award for fiction in an unprecedented five out of six years and has been honored with the Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards as well as receiving nominations for the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

 Michael’s new novel, Dancing With Bears, featuring post-Utopian confidence artists Darger & Surplus, will be published by Night Shade Books on May Day, 2011.   He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Marianne Porter.

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