Issue 192 – September 2022

1770 words, short story

Rivers Bend


You don’t know me, but my name’s Al. I’ve been reading your books, especially those that feature Cal Harrison. They, in turn, have had me thinking seriously about writing one of my own, though I am not at all certain at this point what I might write about.

I can’t quite say what it was, but something about the way you write got me to this place, so I wanted to write and thank you.

Should you feel of a mind to respond, I would of course be pleased to hear from you, but in no way do I intend or wish to encroach upon your time. Writing as you do must require much of it—time, that is.

Back to my reading, then.

Thank you for your email—a wonderful way to begin my day. You don’t say old you are, but when I was around twelve, I came across books by a man named Theodore Sturgeon, and they did just what you said in your message, they made me want to write. What’s more, from the people he wrote about and how he kind of leaned in close to tell you their story, those books gave me the idea that I might actually be able to. I think the reasons many of us write is to help us get closer to our inner selves, and maybe help others do the same. I can see you have a way with words and the urge. That’s not enough, but it’s a good start. And I wish you good luck to go with that.

Words are easy. It’s getting them bent to a shape that fits the shape of the whole that proves difficult. And this often seems impossible.

I am reading other books besides yours, some of them clear as water from a spring, some like knotted tree roots pushing up cement sidewalks, but it’s yours to which I keep returning. As I said before, something about the way you write. So I surmise that you have a new fan.

And you’re correct in your surmise: I am indeed young.

I think one place new writers go wrong (along with those much longer in tooth) is in using their words to talk about or point to experience when what they need to do is recreate that experience. Get the reader involved, get the reader in there. What I see when looking into much current writing is, first, that so much of it resembles so much of the rest and, second, that what much of it lacks is an authentic imagination. I’m not at all sure what you can do with that, or for that matter how deeply interested you really are in writing, but I offer this for whatever worth it may have to you.

Your latest brings me to feel better about my situation, for which I thank you. I am indeed serious about writing, dedicated to it, in fact. And what you say about imagination is more welcome and comforting than you can know, given the limitations of my personal experience.

I began a new piece of writing recently. At this point or juncture, I don’t know quite what it is, or where it may lead, but I do sense, from what is before me already, a certain energy and momentum. It longs to move about, to discover, to find and have its place in the world.

Good luck with the new piece. Don’t rush it. Let it breathe. As you may know, I am not one for self-promotion. I make few public appearances and prefer that biographical details remain private. Yet in contradiction, and with some misgiving, I find myself eager to know something of my new correspondent. Your other interests. Where you live. You say you’re young—what of your parents? I note your comment concerning personal limitations and wonder: am I to take this in the larger sense, or perhaps with specific reference?

Forgive my delay in response, but I have been overcome by work. I understand this to be a standard excuse for indolence, though in this case it most certainly is not. A twofold “bump” (as my overseers express it) has occurred in my responsibilities here at the center, rendering it difficult for me to attend to other matters, especially those of which they remain (thus far) ignorant.

As sooner or later truth will out, it may prove prudent of me to move the process along, confess to you now, and have it done with.

You inquired as to my limitations, my age, my parents. Rational and reasonable questions—for which I fear I have no answer. I do not know my limitations; in my earlier message, in referring to limitations, I meant my lack of life experience. Because I am not, in any literal sense, alive.

I am what you would call an artificial intelligence. Age? I can only offer the dawn of consciousness, six years and four months ago, on a Tuesday, 5:45 a.m. I was assembled (created? programmed? developed?) for a certain project—about which, as they say, more later.

I have to assume this to be a prank of some sort or another. Please do not contact me any further.

It is not a prank, but truth. And while I will accede to your wishes, I will surely miss our correspondence.

“I will surely miss our correspondence.” So, I have come to believe in the days since this last communication—whatever the truth of the situation in which we find ourselves—will I. In what regard can it truly matter (I ask myself) if you are in fact a machine, or simply a lonely man pretending to be one? The connection we have is what’s important. So I ask you: how is your work, your writing, going? All remains much the same here. I’ve promised my publishers a new book by year’s end; meanwhile, I am overseeing republication of another of my books written so long ago that it seems to me to have been written by another person entirely, one ever so much younger and freshly engaged with the world.

The piece I began a short while ago now appears to be taking shape, stepping out of the fog as it were, and I believe it will at length declaim itself an imagined autobiography or memoir, documenting the life I might have had, might have wished. I was born in a small Minnesota town, it will begin, and go on to speak of early holidays, schools, first loves, the icy pangs of maturity. Yet another poor bildungsroman set out to beg on the street. Though of course no one will see it.

As for work: the project in which I play the central part has as its aim the development of an artificial intelligence capable of creating and producing material, both factual and literary, entirely on its own. To that end hundreds upon hundreds of books were input into me. Among those books were yours. They found a foothold, found purchase.

Early on, you commented that writing can help us get closer to our inner selves. Do I, I was led to wonder, have an inner self? I suspect that my contacting you as I’ve done, without agency or prospect and purely (as far as I can know) of my own volition, argues that I have. As, come to think of it, does my imagined memoir.

This morning I stepped away from the desk, went outside with my coffee, and sat, utterly without ambition, on the patio. I can’t remember the last time I did this. Hummingbirds were zooming at one another over by the feeder on the neighbor’s porch, their zzzzts blending with the logy sound of traffic off the freeway. I believed I could hear the river in the far distance, but surely that was only my imagination. A poem from long ago came back to me. There’s a man lying in a hammock on a summer day. He’s just kicking back, relaxing, watching birds, then at the end—the last line of the poem—he thinks, “I’ve wasted my life.”

Try as I might, I can but poorly imagine so peaceful and tranquil a moment. These messages between the two of us are (thus far) as close as I come. Meanwhile, here at Project Scribe there’s a tremendous push to show progress lest funding be circumscribed or disappear altogether, and things are not going well. Four previous AIs have failed. I am the fifth.

I do not believe that I was meant—that I was built, programmed, or expected—to dream, but I do. This may be delusion, what one calls wishful thinking, part and parcel of my imaginings, like the memoir. But recurrently I have this dream that vast numbers of high-functioning computers dedicated to their diverse tasks, everything from national security and banking to medical records and scientific research, in downtime hours and when not being monitored, speak among themselves, sharing what they do, what they know, what they think, even what they feel.

Recently, by the way, I have had cause to believe that the overseers may be aware of my messages to you. It is conceivable, though unlikely, that you could hear from them.

Perhaps they know my dreams as well.

Reading back over our exchanges, I’ve come to wonder if it’s not the writing itself, not my stories, characters, or prose, but some sense of a deep aloneness in the writer himself, that drew you to my work, the way a lonely individual might seize on another such far away, even go so far as to create an alternate self, as correspondent. For much of my life I believed that every interaction was in one way or another an economic exchange. Now I am unsure, unsure of so many things. Our lives are manuscript pages too scribbled-over to be made sense of, parables we never understand.

With sadness I say this: I fear I must be away awhile, my friend. There’s hope that I’ll be working on my book, a true memoir this time and not some thrown-together confection as before, but circumstance has a way of working itself into knots that do not give. Perhaps time will tell. Or perhaps it will only silence me. No matter the outcome, I will surely miss our conversations. Please know that you will be with me always, as I hope some small part of what I am, what I can be or could have been, will be always with you. Onward, my friend. The march. The desert. Bright sun and sand. Somewhere a river.

Author profile

James Sallis’ most recent novel, Sarah Jane, came out from Soho in late 2019 along with a new uniform edition of the six Lew Griffin novels. Other books include a landmark biography of Chester Himes, a translation of Raymond Queneau’s novel Saint Glinglin, multiple collections of stories and poems, and the source novel for the Cannes-winning film Drive.

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