The Problem of Other Minds

by Harry Dolan

"You're Larry Spector?"

The figure in the mirror nodded. Its face was pale: high forehead, puffy cheeks, and an otherwise weak chin defined by a thin mustache and a thinner beard. Both of these last were close-cut, gold mingling with black so that neither truly matched the eyebrows or the hair.

"You don't look like him."

The eyes narrowed, looking back — brown eyes behind thick lenses in cheap plastic frames.

"But then what would a Larry Spector look like?"

A hand came up on either side of the face, two bony hands on thin wrists. The fingers were an unhealthy white with bristley hair growing on them and pink joints thicker than the digits themselves. It looked as if someone had starved those fingers.

"Like this?"

Thumb and index finger pinched a fold of bearded skin on the right side of the jaw and drew it out in a flap, wiggled it back and forth. On the other side some other fingers hit upon the same idea and ran with it. Pull left and watch the head move left. Pull right. Stretchy face.

Fingers released and flesh snapped back into place. A crooked smile appeared, creating half a dimple in one cheek.

"I guess you are


Larry Spector switched off the light over his mirror, took two steps backward, and fell onto his bed. He stared at the ceiling: crinkly white plaster illuminated faintly by reflected light from the reading lamp on his desk. Over a hook embedded in the plaster was looped a rubber band, and suspended on this were a number of caps from sixteen-ounce soda bottles — resealable aluminum caps from diet Coke and diet orange Minute Maid. They had been clamped together, one on another, in a kind of chain: a white and orange phallus that swayed in the breeze from the window. Twenty-eight inches long and growing longer every time Larry opened another bottle. Carolyn had once called it obscene. It had been shorter then.

"'S'art." he had said, lying beside her, mumbling the words into her tousled black hair.


"It's art."

"Oh. Obscene art."

"All art is obscene."


Larry reached over the active radiator next to his bed and closed the window. He propped his head up on two oversize pillows and pulled a quilt over his legs. He picked up a book from where it lay open, face down on the floor, half under the bed. Its smell said textbook. He found his place and read from Rene Descartes' Second Meditation. Rene was talking about wax.

. . . words often impede me and I am almost deceived by the terms of ordinary language. For we say that we see the same wax, if it is present, and not that we simply judge that it is the same from its having the same color and figure. From this I would conclude that I knew the wax by means of vision and not simply by the intuition of the mind; unless by chance I remember that, when looking from a window and saying I see men who pass in the street, I really do not see them, but infer that what I see is men, just as I say that I see wax. And yet what do I see from the window but hats and coats which may cover automatic machines? Yet I judge these to be men. . . .

The aged clock radio that sat atop Larry's stereo clicked as it did every hour: 10:00. Larry bent a corner of the page he was on and closed the book. He kicked the quilt off his sweaty legs, sat up, and opened the window a crack. The wind sighed through, relieved. Crossing to his small refrigerator, Larry took a bottle of diet Coke, twisted it open, and added its cap to the phallus-in-progress.

He sipped his soda and glanced at the clock radio. "Ten-oh-one on a Sunday night," he said to himself. "What do we do on a Sunday night?"

For the previous three months the answer had nearly always been some variation of "see Carolyn": either "take a walk to Carolyn's" or "call Carolyn and invite her over" or "go with Carolyn to a movie." But Carolyn, it seemed, was no longer interested in any of those options. Now he had to think of another answer.

"Sunday," he said. "The Sabbath. A little pagan ritual is in order."

He set his soda next to the electric fan on one of his speakers and knelt down by the bed. From beneath it he extracted a dusty cassette case, imitation leather with a metal clasp. He opened it on the floor and scanned the titles, passing by Elton John and Neil Diamond, passing by Barry Manilow.

Carolyn had been amused when she found that he listened to Barry Manilow. She was fond of classical music. He had no patience for anything without words.

"I like the lyrics," he had confessed. "I like to sing along."

"They're only words," Carolyn had said. "Can't you sacrifice a few silly words for music?"

And when he'd played her Stephen Bishop, she had mocked him gently, singing along: " 'I remember all the women who've cut me deep.' Do you really remember?"

"Every one."


Eventually, Larry found what he wanted: his double-length tape of Jesus Christ Superstar. He had owned it since high school and had played it so often that he knew all the parts by memory. He could even match the characters' voices, their accents, their emotions.

His mother had stopped insisting that he go to church when he was twelve; but later, when he'd gone through his spiritual phase, he'd decided that it was possible to discard God while retaining Jesus Christ. Larry admired Christ, not as a deity or the incarnation of a deity, but as a fascinating character in a compelling story. He found Judas Iscariot equally fascinating, and he had incorporated them both into his life by means of a simple personal ritual. Every Sunday night he would find the time to play Jesus Christ Superstar, even if it were only as a backdrop to some other activity, even if he didn't have time to sing along. His Sunday ritual.

Carolyn did not know of it. He had stopped when he started seeing her; it had not seemed so important. He might have invited her to become a part of his ritual, might have exposed that facet of himself to her, but would she have understood such a thing? Did he understand it?

She was an irreligious person, raised Presbyterian but unimpressed by it. Once, under questioning, she had declared herself an atheist.

Larry had found it entertaining to play God's advocate. "How can you not believe in a supreme being?" he'd asked.

"When have I been given any reason to?"

"You want proofs? Who do you think created you?"

"That's easy. Mum. Dad."

"And who created them?"

"Their Mums. Their Dads."

"But it had to start somewhere," he'd said. "Who created everything?"

"You're begging the question. You're taking for granted that everything was created."

"As a student of philosophy, I am well aware of that. But you're not answering."

She had sighed. "If an omnipotent God had created the Universe," she'd said, "I'd like to think It would have done a better job."



Larry pushed the open cassette case back under his bed and raised himself from his knees. He retrieved his soda and slipped the tape into the deck, fingering the play button, keeping the volume low. He did not want the sound to be intrusive. The guy in the room next to his had annoyed him often enough, playing Van Halen at all hours, cranking up the volume when he had his pot-smoking friends over, so that they wouldn't have to talk to each other. But on Sunday nights he was usually off somewhere, probably smoking in someone else's room, being deafened by someone else's music.

Larry sat cross-legged in his bed, arranging the pillows to support his back. The overture began playing quietly beside him, no words yet. He set his Coke on the desk and picked up a letter from home that had been there since Friday. He felt the heat blowing out of the radiator and the cool breeze from the window. Adjusting the desk lamp above his shoulder, he opened the letter and unfolded it in his lap. It was written by his sister and punctuated with all the exuberance he might have expected of a thirteen-year-old.

Hi Larry!!

How's it going??? Mom's sick and she's upstairs resting!! It's nothing serious, but she didn't feel like writing you today!! No offense!! She just doesn't feel good at all!! So I'm writing you instead!! Daddy's drunk again!! So what have you been doing?? I've had lots of homework lately, especially Math and History. But I shouldn't complain — you must have tons of it!!!

Mark and Terri were here yesterday and they brought the baby!! Matthew is so cute!!!! He turned seven months old last week!! Me and him and Mark were sitting on the floor and playing with his little blocks and Mark took out his handkerchief and covered up one of the blocks so Matthew couldn't see it and Matthew acted like it wasn't there at all!! It was weird!!

That was a spot of vintage Mark: performing psychology experiments on his own kid. He probably couldn't wait until it was old enough for Rorschach tests. Larry shook his head and took a swig of Coke before reading the last of the letter.

Well, I've got to go!! By the way, how's Carolyn?? Tell her I said Hi!!! I saw the picture you sent!! I think she's really pretty and you should marry her!!

Your cutest sister,


Quietly, from the stereo, Judas Iscariot began to sing: "My mind is clearer now. . . ." Larry shifted his position, stretching his legs out in front of him. The wind was winning out over the radiator and he was chilled. He swung one leg over and closed the window with his foot.

"Listen, Jesus, I don't like what I see. . . ."

Larry took a pen and a clipboard from his desk and stared at a blank page for a few minutes, half-listening to the music. Across the room the refrigerator came on, hummed for a while, and turned off. Slowly, jerkily, between sips of diet Coke, Larry wrote a letter.

Dear Cutest Sister!!!!!

Much as I might like to fulfill your last request, I'm afraid Carolyn would be unlikely to go along. She is no longer willing, she says, to be my link to the world. Isn't that a curious phrase? Shall I relate the silly stupid incident that led to that remark?

Friday I went to see her, just like I always do. We were sitting on her couch and I was massaging her shoulders. Should I be telling a thirteen-year-old that I was massaging my girlfriend's shoulders?

She had already massaged my shoulders.

"Where would you like to go tonight?" she said.

"Where would you like to go tonight?" I said.

"There's a movie playing in town," she said. "Something with Meryl Streep."

"Sounds good," I said.

"Jim and Kathy are going dancing tonight," she said.

"We could go dancing with Jim and Kathy," I said.

"Or there's a play. The Bald Soprano," she said.

"Okay," I said.

"Which one, Larry?" she said.

"Any one is fine," I said.

"Pick one," she said.

"Whichever you like," I said.

"I'm asking you, Larry," she said. "Talk to me."

"Mmmm. Okay," I said. I paused. "What were the choices again?"

She removed my hands from her shoulders. She got up from the couch and sat in a chair, drawing her knees up to her chin. That's when she said it. "I'm not willing to be your link to the rest of the world, Larry," she said. "That's too big a responsibility for me."

Larry crumpled the letter and threw it across the room. Tomorrow he would write something tame and innocuous that said nothing and said it cleverly. Tomorrow he would mail it off with the checks he needed his mother to deposit for him and that would be enough.

The radiator was blowing triple force and Larry was sweating. He tossed the clipboard on the floor, got up, and eased the window open. For a few seconds it was a pleasing, cooling feeling, but then he was too cold. He slammed the window shut and turned his electric fan on low. On the stereo, Mary Magdalene was singing of her love for Jesus. Larry was forced to increase the volume so that he could hear above the noise of the fan.

"I don't know how to love him;
I don't know why he moves me.
He's a man;
He's just a man.
He's not a king;
He's just the same
As anyone I know.
He scares me so."

Larry finished his diet Coke and put the bottle in the bag by the door. On the way back to his bed he tripped over his boots and cursed. He threw them into the closet. He switched the electric fan to "high" and sat on the edge of the bed facing the stereo, trying to sing along. When the side ended he turned the tape over and laid down and listened and shivered from the air of the fan. After a while he stood up and hit the "off" button and watched the blades of the fan slow and finally stop. And Jesus Christ was taken to Pilate and beaten and whipped and nailed to a cross. And then the music was over and there was only a low, hissing quiet until the tape ran out.

"Then what happened?" Larry asked the still, stuffy air.

No answer from the stereo: end of tape. No answer from the fan or the window or the fridge. The clock radio did its best, responding to the only question it understood. 11:32, it said.

"Thirsty," Larry said. "God, I'm thirsty." He thought of a cup of hot chocolate and of a place where he could get one: Belle's Kitchen, a diner he had gone to at times, alone, at night, in his pre-Carolyn days. It was not far from her apartment, but as he retrieved his boots from the closet and put on his coat and hat he assured himself that that proximity had nothing to do with his decision.


Outside, the wind bit into his exposed hands before he could put on his gloves. His face was cold and he had no scarf to protect it. His thin beard offered little comfort.

The sidewalks were mostly barren, but he did pass a few people, bundled in coats and hats just as he was. For all he knew they might have been automatic machines. Yet he judged them to be men and women.

He passed by the south end of the lake where the ice was retreating from the snow-covered shore and leaving the surface of the water exposed to the wind. Ripples in the black water reflected the light of the street lamps. He moved on.

Somewhere between the lake and Belle's, he acknowledged the fact that he wasn't prepared to be Larry Spector alone.


The lights were on at Carolyn's, but no one answered to his knock. The door was unlocked and he went in, slipping off his boots and hanging his coat and hat on the rack. The television was on and one of Carolyn's roommates was asleep on the couch. He did not recall her name.

He ascended the stairs quietly to the second floor and found the door to Carolyn's room standing open. She was seated at her desk with her back to him. She wore a pair of mini-headphones that were nearly lost in her sleek black hair, and she had on a navy blue blouse, low-cut, baring her deeply tanned back and shoulders.

Those shoulder blades had enticed him, had lured him to her when first they met. But he had been so timid, so unsure of himself. Even when the night came when they both knew that it was right for them to be together, she had been obliged practically to rape him the first time.

And afterward, as they lay entangled with the sheets, with their clothes, with each other, he had caressed the skin of her shoulder blades.

"So dark. So soft," he had whispered.


"And I'm so pale."

"Mmm. But soft. Still soft. We'll just have to get you out more. Get you some sun."

"I don't know," he had said. "I think I like the contrast."


He knocked lightly on the door frame to announce himself, then harder when she didn't hear.

She turned, startled. She took off her headphones.



Her window was open an inch and a half. Nothing was hanging from her ceiling.

"How are you?" she said.

Her books were arranged in rows, her papers stacked on her desk. Her clothes did not litter the floor. The mirror on her bureau was polished.

He gestured with his arms. "It's all so neat, so orderly."

She looked a little confused, but then she smiled. Tapping her temple, she said, "You've never seen what it's like up here."

He blinked. "No," he said. "How could I?"

He watched her put her headphones down on the desk and a curious thought struck him. "You weren't listening to Jesus Christ Superstar, were you?"

"No," she said, puzzled. "Mark Isham. Vapor Drawings."


"What's Jesus Christ Superstar?"

"Nothing . . . nothing."


He opened his mouth, then closed it and looked away, looked around the room again.

"Is there something you want to say?"

His eyes came back to her.

She shrugged. "You seemed as if you wanted to ask me something," she said.

"A question?" he said. "I've got lots of questions; that's my business." He scratched his chin. "Try this: What do you suppose would have happened if Eve had never eaten the apple? Would we still be in the Garden — with a frustrated God watching over us, waiting for somebody to screw up?"

She frowned, said softly, "Larry—"

"That's not the kind of thing you meant? How about a riddle. We know that Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter, but who discovered the Earth's moon?

"I give up, Larry. I gave up before."

"A metaphysical question, perhaps: What would it be like if everything were a frog?"

Her eyes narrowed. She said, "If your beard were longer I'd pull it. Hard."

He had to smile at that, but she was not smiling.

He took a step toward her, saw a pen and a spiral steno pad lying on the desk.

"What are you writing?"

"It's private."

"It looks like a poem. May I see? Please?"

She considered. "All right."

He crouched down on one knee beside her. "It is a poem."

She nodded. "It's silly. I don't know yet if I like it."

He picked up the pad in his bony hand and read:

He wears his heart on other people's sleeves,
not daring to present it on his own.
His soul is in the pocket with his gloves;
he keeps it ready like a loaded gun.

His time is spent in lingering alone,
but hoping to be seen by someone who
will recognize what's missing in his days,
and want to know the truth that's in his eyes,
and want to match the measure of his step,
and long to meet his enigmatic gaze.

He wears his heart on other people's sleeves,
but never dares to claim it as his own.
And if they don't anticipate his moves,
he slips it in the pocket with his gloves,
and draws his soul and holds them all at bay,
and wonders why they back away in fear,
and wonders why so many choose to flee.

He thinks that he alone should slip away;
he thinks they own the heartbeats that they wear.

He came to the end and then read through it again.

"Wow," he said.

"It's not finished," she said.

He felt a tingling sensation, felt beads of sweat forming on the back of his neck. "Since when do you write poetry?"

"Since high school, I guess," she said. "On and off. A very silly, very private little ritual. I've never had much time for it."

Larry's eyes widened. He swallowed.

Carolyn closed the steno pad, said wistfully, "I've gotten out of



"Are you all right?"

Larry got up, took a few uncertain steps. He saw his image in the mirror on the bureau. There, in the reflection, his skin seemed almost tanned, his beard seemed thicker — a trick of shadows and light.

He watched in the mirror as Carolyn approached him, watched as a brown hand came to rest upon his shoulder.


They both watched a tear roll down a bearded cheek.

"I've always been able to see you, Carolyn, but I could never be you."

"I don't think I understand."

"It's a difficult thing to understand."

She waited, watched him struggle to find words.

"I could never be you," he said, "and I could never see me."

She tugged him gently by the shoulder, turned him around to face her.

"I can see you, Larry."

He felt a gust of air from the window, took a deep breath.

"Are you ready for an understatement?" he said.

He took her two brown hands in his pale ones.

"I'd like to tell you something."