The Monkey Kinkade

Yuri didn’t remember much of anything.  She somehow knew that there was a world outside the room she now occupied, and yet all her memories seemed to emerge here.  

A strange substance covered her face.  It seemed almost alive: a thick, moist and powdery white clay that had been expertly caked across her cheeks and smoothed into the wrinkles to make them disappear.  She might have resembled a Geisha had there been any contrasting adornments around her eyes or mouth.

She surmised that she had woken up in the bed a few steps away from her chair, but did she remember waking?  She remembered putting on the robe that was draped over her chair.   She certainly remembered being in bed, under the covers.  And so it seemed logical to her that she had previously been asleep.  Perhaps she was only unconscious of herself until that exact moment.

Next to the makeup removal pad on the bedstand was a handwritten note that explained almost nothing: “You may use this to clean yourself if you are uncomfortable.  Dial 0 when ready.”  The note was written on a notepad with the address of the hotel typed on the bottom of each page: The Avowsongslides Inn, 5003 Underwood Ave, Omaha, NE.

She sat back and allowed herself to focus on something other than the task of removing each smudge from her thick white mask.  Yuri saw now that her face was youthful and strong, exactly what she had hoped for herself.  But she had also hoped for some recognition, and she realized that she did not even know the face in the mirror.  She was overcome by an emotion that was even more sorrowful than loneliness.

When we are alone, she thought, we at least have ourselves.

Yuri turned away from the mirror fearfully, overwhelmed by the stimulus of her new identity.  She looked around her seeking something to attach to, but it was like every hotel room: a door to a bathroom, a door to the hall, a cooling unit vibrating loudly under a window with the shades drawn.

There was one thing that was different about this room, though, and someone might spend a whole night there without noticing.  Yuri had only become aware of it because her brain was so hungry for recognition and connection that it was ready to absorb even the slightest subtlety of her surroundings.  And also because she was an incorrigible reader.

Her first clue of the oddity of this place was the neatly typed label over the thermostat which read: “Temperature is constantly surveying the brain?”  This was a question that she could not answer, and she was certain that it wouldn’t make sense to anyone else, either.

Over the bed was a motivational poster of an athletic looking man in a tracksuit.  Under his torso were the words: “Stand unalterably opposed to linear.”

And then there was the very strange painting hanging on the wall opposite the window.  She recognized the style at once for its photorealism and lurid pastels.  This was a Thomas Kinkade, perhaps one of his later works.  In the midst of a snow covered garden sat a pastoral cottage decorated for Christmas.  A warm light from the fire inside cast long shadows on the dead flowers and frosted trees.  

And then there was something that didn’t belong in this idyllic vision.  In the doorway stood a bald-headed monkey wearing the millstone collar or ruff that was once a mark of prestige in Elizabethan England.  

Also strange was that, in the place of a signature, the lower right corner of the painting bore the inscription: “March forth for the fighting pose of each computer.”

Panicking, she looked around the room for some clue that would make sense to her, but there was nothing else.  Her eyes fell on the bed stand.  She opened the drawer, half expecting to find a Gideon Bible.  

Instead she found the book Darwinian Software Ecology.  Had she seen that title somewhere before?  She opened to the first page, which contained two sentences: “Journalism will emerge victorious!  Scan forward to finally find something.”  Hope filled Yuri’s soul.  She turned the page.  But it was only more gibberish: 

The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses … Dear Gabe, The drugs help me bend my fingers around a pen … Not to be rich, not to be famous, not to be mighty, not even to be happy, but to be civilized — that was the dream of his life … She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise …

Just as a spark of recognition flashed across her brain, Yuri heard a soft knock at the door.  She opened it almost without hesitation.  She again had a moment of joy when she thought she recognized the man standing before her.  But again she was disappointed as she realized that he was only a slightly older and decidedly unathletic version of the man in the motivational poster. 

He was also much smaller than the man in the picture, rising scarcely five feet from the floor.  He was misshapen: a man’s pudgy head rising, as if on stilts, on the body of a hungry child.

“You’re awake!” he said, flashing his teeth through a shabby mustache.

“Who are you?” she asked, quietly.

“May I come in?  You should probably be sitting down when I explain all this to you.”  

Oh God, she thought, this nasally voice is going to explain something to me.  She looked down at him, blocking his entrance to her room, but then relaxed as she realized, I can take this guy.

She also wanted to believe that he was not a threat and that she was safe.

Perhaps he was a Good Samaritan who had found her by the side of the road, her memory erased.  Maybe he had brought her to the hospital for treatment and then he was the only one who showed up when they released her.

If this fantasy were true then the mustachioed man might not be a goblin at all, but instead, a devoted fellow who had been crushed into bad posture and a strange existence by the weight of a misunderstanding society.  

She let him walk past her into the room.  He smiled as he eyed the open drawer beside the bed.

“That book in the bed stand,” she said, “aren’t those the first lines of novels, all jumbled together?”

The strange little man’s smile vanished.  

“What makes you say that?” he asked.

“I remember it now.  They’re all Phillip Roth novels, aren’t they?”  

He stared at her quizzically, but said nothing.

“Yes,” she said, as something came back to her at once.  A past life, a life that surely must have belonged to her, a life in which she was someone dedicated to thought and ideas — a high-school literature teacher, perhaps — and these lines were part of a lecture she had once memorized.  She recalled the entire speech as she gave it to him now, without even thinking about it, because her mind was not capable of focus at this moment.

“When he was in his mid-twenties, Roth went to his favorite neighborhood cafeteria.  After taking his cut of beef from the Sicilian server who also offered him juice …”  Now Yuri trailed off for a moment, distracted by her sudden recognition of the world that existed outside the room.  “‘Juice or gravy?’ the man asked over and over again, almost as an incantation.  After he took one or the other, Roth sat down at a table that was unoccupied but on which the last diner had left a scrap of paper.  On that paper was typed a long, nonsensical paragraph.  As he ate his roast beef, he puzzled over it.  Not one of the sentences bore any connection with any other sentence.  And so he folded it and put it in the pocket of his ruffled corduroy sport coat.  When he found it again, weeks later, he realized that each of these sentences was the first sentence of a novel that he had yet to write.”

As Yuri finished her story, the small man stood up and began pacing in front of her.  

“This is very unexpected,” he said, talking more to himself than her.  “You say these are opening sentences to other stories?  That may be easily verified.”  He now turned to address the Kinkade atrocity on the wall.  “Chit,” he said, addressing the monkey in the painting, “come help daddy think.”  Then his voice rose an octave and a half as he called again: “Come down, my little one.”

Yuri watched in unblinking horror as the monkey in the Kinkade painting came to life and, as it turned its head slowly to stare at the little man, the whole painting around it made a long, sucking, wet noise, like a boot being pulled out of mud.  

The monkey bared his teeth under the strain of freeing itself of his garish surroundings until Kinkade’s nostalgic vision of pastoral perfection finally released him into the room, allowing him to leap not only out of the world he inhabited but clean out of his Elizabethan clothes and onto the little man’s shoulder.

Yuri stared fearfully, and the crouching wet animal lowered its head and returned her glance with red, wild eyes.  There was something monstrously unclean about the animal, its skin hanging lifelessly from its bones and its fur covered with a sloshing mask made of layers upon obscuring layers of what looked like clay.

Yuri felt she was making the animal nervous.  She also felt nervous herself and noticed a faint ringing in her ears.  She sat down in her chair and breathed slowly to control the ringing and to put the monkey at ease.

This also seemed to relax the little man, who lowered his voice and looked lovingly at the monkey as he spoke to Yuri.  “I made my fortune in machine learning software.  When I was 16, I built the first multi-armed bandit optimizer, which is essentially a logic mechanism that randomly adjusts the weight it places on various inputs until it has perfected itself to some desired outcome.  As the name suggests, it is like a slot machine with many arms.  And it keeps spinning until it hits three cherries, as it were.”

He looked up at her now, expecting some sign of recognition from Yuri.  Most people couldn’t understand him, but he hoped his analogies might help her.  She gave no indication that she cared to understand.  He continued: “The Phillip Roth quotations in that book must have somehow been fed into this room by my very naughty mechanical governess.”  He tisked at the monkey.  “Otherwise, all the sentences in this room were generated by my first program, which I called Avowsongslides after the musical, sliding poetry that it produced.  With that program I was able to build an empire of self-spawning ad-supported websites that now constitute more than half the internet.  Type Avowsongslides into your favorite search engine and you will see just how big it has become.  Each day it becomes bigger.  Someday it will crowd out all other conversation and we will each be surrounded by a poetic music that is beyond our mortal understanding…inscrutable even to its creator.”

The monkey turned his head to keep an eye on Yuri as the shoulder on which he perched moved slowly around the room.  The ringing in Yuri’s ears grew so loud that she had to think hard to understand the little man.

“The great limitation I grasped was that my program, like all machine learning software, is trapped inside the virtual world of our computers.  I saw at once that the so-called singularity would never happen so long as neural networks had no physical manifestation.”

“We needed some physical manifestation — not a robot with a server for a brain, because even that would be limited by the mechanics of its own hardware — but a sentient substance that is both random and purpose-driven.”

He reached up and dipped his finger into the painting and scooped out a bright pink lump of slime.  He brought his hand slowly to the monkey and allowed it to lick his finger clean.

“My great innovation was to apply the principles of the neural network to a cheap and self-organizing gel.  Like my previous experiments in semantics, I had to feed it with some raw material: in this case not words, but organic matter.”

Yuri looked down at her hands and, for the first time, realized that they, too, were covered with thick, white makeup.  Looking quickly past the hem of her robe she saw that her feet and even her legs were dripping with the strange substance, which she began to rub off furiously.

Yuri’s voice was now scarcely audible, almost a whisper.  “Where did you find me?”

“You are almost entirely of my own making,” the little man said, “my proudest achievement.  By feeding you with words and ideas I have created someone who has some vague recollection of a history but without the experience that defines identity.  You are both a sentient creature and a tabula rasa.  Proof that the universe does not need a God.”

Yuri pulled her robe tightly around her body as the ringing in her ear reached a crescendo.  In one leap she dashed past the man and his monkey and through the open door.  

The little man tried to stop her and then hobbled after her down the hall.  “Come back,” he cried out, “Come back!”  He followed her down the hall but could not move nearly as quickly.  He shouted after her in a pleading voice, “Come back, my quail of the woods!”  Before he was even halfway down the hall, he heard her slam into the panic bar of the firedoor.  The monkey leapt off his shoulder at the sound and scurried back to his room.  

Finally the little man reached the exit of the abandoned hotel.  He looked across the empty parking lot with great sadness as Yuri’s disheveled shape was absorbed by the darkness of the city around.

Blobs of white makeup shook loose from her body as her slippered feet pounded away from the ever dimming light of The Avowsongslides Inn.  Perhaps she would find someone out there who could help her remember something about the world before this day.Until then, she would embrace order as it came to her, wandering and always searching for her forgotten past.