Gray Matters

Gray Matters

by William Hjortsberg

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Unrest simmers in a dystopian future where disembodied brains are kept alive in tanks, waiting to earn a new body
At twelve years old, Skeets Kalbfleischer is returning from a ski vacation when a lightning strike knocks his plane out of the sky, killing everyone else on board. Although his body is destroyed, a radical procedure preserves Skeets’s brain, which spends twenty-five years in a fish tank before mankind realizes the implications of his second life. A key to immortality has been found. Four centuries later, it has become commonplace for the minds of the dead to be preserved. While warehoused in a massive storage facility tended by robots, the brains pass time watching old film clips, learning about bees, and meditating their way to a higher state of being. But for the facility’s overseers, Skeets presents a problem. A twelve-year-old for all eternity, their most famous resident still wants to be a cowboy. To remedy this embarrassment, his handlers concoct a solution that will push humanity even farther past nature’s wildest dreams. This ebook features an illustrated biography of William Hjortsberg including rare photos from the author’s personal collection.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453246603
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 03/13/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 152
File size: 768 KB

About the Author

William Hjortsberg (1941–2017) was an acclaimed author of novels and screenplays. Born in New York City, Hjortsberg’s first success came with Alp (1969), an offbeat story of an Alpine skiing village, which Hjortsberg’s friend Thomas McGuane called, “quite possibly the finest comic novel written in America.” In the 1970s, Hjortsberg wrote two science fiction novels, Gray Matters (1971) and Symbiography (1973), as well as Toro! Toro! Toro! (1974), a comic jab at the macho world of bullfighting. His best-known work is Falling Angel (1978), a hard-boiled occult mystery. In 1987 the book was adapted into a film titled Angel Heart, which starred Robert De Niro and Mickey Rourke. Hjortsberg’s work also includes Jubilee Hitchhiker (2012), a biography of Richard Brautigan, American writer and voice of 1960s counterculture.

Read an Excerpt

Gray Matters

By William Hjortsberg


Copyright © 1971 William Hjortsberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-4660-3



The scanner sees: unending gun-metal walls; waxed plastic flooring; three de Hartzman Communicators, multifrequency channel finders attached and blinking; and the forward end of the subdistrict memory-file. A soft flush of lavender suffuses the luminous egg-crate ceiling, the first gentle trace of a dawning day. At the end of the aisle, the Sector's community power unit hums with life.

Next to the power unit, in the foremost deposit drawer, a solitary cerebromorph has switched off his scanner and floats in voluntary darkness. His number is A-0001-M(637-05-99) His name was Denton "Skeets" Kalbfleischer. Skeets is the oldest resident of the Depository. He is twelve years old and will remain so forever.

Over in Aisle B, an Amco-pak Mark IX maintenance van prowls silently along on pneumatic treads. The Mark IX is a clumsy piece of equipment and inventoriai considerations alone keep it from becoming obsolete. Accordingly, its use is restricted to those Sectors established before the Awakening. Maintenance vans are programmed to perform a wide range of mundane chores: the Mark Is clean and polish the aisles each night, the Mark IIIs tend the power units. Every Amco-pak above Mark V is a mechanic, equipped with telescoping arms and lubricated digits capable of the most intricate and precise manipulations. Mechanically minded Depository residents never tire of watching the vans at work and a special scanner channel has been provided to satisfy these vicarious repairmen.

One Aisle B resident with no interest in the Amco-pak is a former Czechoslovakian motion-picture star housed in deposit drawer number B-0486-F(098-76-04). Classified female (in the advanced Sectors no sex distinctions are made between resident cerebromorphs), Vera Mitlovic spends her time screening old films. Although Center Control considers twentieth-century cinema frivolous, and thus detrimental to spiritual growth, the old movies are recorded in the memory bank and all Vera need do is check her Micro Index and dial the appropriate code key on the telescript console.

Vera is awake this morning before reveille serenade (today the overture to Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer) and dials her first film the moment the memory bank librarian switches on for the day. (The film is Bohemian Idyl, a Czech romantic comedy, starring Vera as a Prague fashion designer who falls in love with a gypsy.) Three Center Control regulations for members of her category are neglected. By not checking her memo for a dream playback, she is unable to file the required auditing report; more importantly, for the third day in a row she misses the morning meditation exercise.

But Vera doesn't care. With the old film flickering, she is transported beyond the demands of Center Control. Does it matter if the print is in poor condition, the celluloid yellow and scratched? It is like watching her own ghost. The challis skirt lifts and swirls; her long limber legs gleam with firelight; she dances about the caravan encampment, tempting the fiddlers with her buoyant breasts. And where were those lovely legs today, those youthful breasts? Gone to dust with only their image preserved, a shadow etched in silver nitrate. Vera's joy is tinged with sadness and regret. If only she had eyes she would be weeping.

Two drawers down from where Vera views her melancholy matinee, Obu Itubi, a late twenty-second-century Nigerian sculptor (the most distinguished member of the school now known as the African Renaissance), programs a memory-bank entomology file on the habits of bees. Itubi's work with plastic and steel represents the final flowering of Western humanism, a last gasp of anthropomorphism before the machines lulled the world into meditation. His file number is B-0489-M(773-22-99).

The Amco-pak in Aisle B has finished its work on the auxiliary power unit. A malfunctioning valve has been located and replaced and the Mark IX sorts and repacks the complex array of tools laid out for the job. A comic business. The Amco-pak is an absent-minded octopus, searching with its many arms for a variety of misplaced gadgets. Scanner viewers are always amused by this clumsy clean-up operation.

The Amco-pak locates the tools and lumbers up the aisle, retractable arms stored, steel digits at rest, mindlessly treading toward its next assignment. Many Depository residents are frankly envious. They feel it a waste to bestow those miraculous fingers on a machine incapable of appreciating their worth.

Skeets Kalbfleischer is sleeping late; the reveille serenade digested into his dream, a stirring soundtrack for the Hollywood sex fantasies which still occupy his adolescent mind even after a four-hundred-year absence from Grade B double features. Skeets is a definite problem for Center Control. Because of his stature as a historic landmark, the very first cerebromorph and cornerstone of the oldest Depository in the System, his complete failure to achieve any measure of spiritual progress in this enlightened age following the awakening is a matter of considerable concern to the Auditing Commission.

The problem isn't that Skeets is not educated. In the years, decades, and centuries following his operation, Skeets has earned the equivalent of several dozen baccalaureate degrees. He has ten doctorates to his credit. Sealed in his cranial container from the age of twelve, Skeets has been spoon-fed knowledge by whole committees of curious scientists. Skeets is versed in mathematics, languages, the arts; he is an outstanding authority on molecular biology and ninth-century Indian cave painting. Learning, programmed on endless microfiles, has saturated his brain cells and Skeets spouts answers with the speed and accuracy of a computer. Denton Kalbfleischer is a very successful experiment. Only one problem: in this sophisticated age of meditation and spiritual liberation, Skeets still wants to be a cowboy.

"... the superfamily Apoidea, consisting of various social and solitary hymenopterous insects. Observe Apis mellifera, the common honeybee, both industrious and social. This insect lives in a swarm consisting of three classes. The majority of the swarm are neuters, known commonly as workers; they gather the pollen and build the comb. The female is called the Queen; she is the reproducer, the egg layer, and there is only one per swarm. The male of the species is the drone and his is an idle life. The drone's only function is to...." Obu Itubi isn't listening to the narrator's voice. He has turned the volume down until the mechanized monotone drawl is a murmur faint as the distant humming of the bees. All the more recent memory-files are narrated by computer and the soundtracks have an assembly-line sameness that makes Obu Itubi's flesh crawl. An unpleasant sensation, akin to the phantom pain amputees of an earlier age suffered in their missing limbs, for Itubi no longer has flesh.

A bower of evening primroses arches delicately over the lovers' heads, sweetly scenting the late afternoon. (They were made of paper and dusty from long storage in the property shop.) The slanting rays of an amber sunset gild the features of the handsome young couple. (The lightman was malicious and had trained his thousand-watt instruments directly into Vera's eyes.) Distant violins blend with the shimmering nocturne of nightingales and crickets. (The musicians were drunk and made rude remarks concerning the leading lady's private life. The bird calls and insect noises were produced by a fat pockmarked man who whistled into a microphone and rubbed two rosin-covered sticks.) "My beloved ... my treasure ..." the dark-eyed gypsy croons, while the blushing girl flutters and sighs. (His breath stank of garlic sausage and not even a heavy application of gum arabic kept his toupee from slipping slightly askew.) "Come away with me to the Moravian mountains, my love. I want to take you to the little willage where I was born." (The leading man, who spoke Czech with a thick Slavic accent, was actually born in Croatia.) Leaning forward, he cups her radiant face in his hands and kisses her lips as the violins burble and the sunset dies like a smear of raspberry jam on the cyclorama.

Skeets Kalbfleischer is also a film star of sorts. A file composed of ancient newsreels, newspaper clippings, and hospital training films is stored in the memory bank under the general classification Medicine, subheading Surgery. Skeets has programmed his file several times, out of the same morbid curiosity which once caused men to peek under their own bandages.

The film is a history of mankind's first successful cerebrectomy. It tells the story of a twelve-year-old boy named Denton Kalbfleischer, who was returning home with his parents to Joliet, Illinois, from a Christmas skiing vacation in Vail, Colorado. While circling O'Hare Field in a holding pattern prior to landing, his jetliner was apparently hit by lightning. The result was, at that time, the worst air disaster in aviation history. Over five hundred people were killed, more than half of them on the ground, as bits of molten 747 rained down on East Cicero like a meteor shower. And when, amidst the din of sirens, a fireman found Skeets' broken body heaped on a curbside pile of rubble, it was assumed he was a neighborhood boy, injured by falling debris. Only many hours later, during a routine check of the passenger lists, was his correct identity discovered.

The newspapers, of course, had a field day. Banner headlines proclaimed a XMAS MIRACLE and a swarm of reporters descended like encircling vultures on the Kalbfleischers' Joliet home to interview the maid, the neighbors, the postman, Skeets' sixth-grade teacher, anyone at all with even the vaguest connection to "that courageous, freckle-faced kid fighting for his life on the fifth floor of the Cook County Hospital." Skeets' parents, Dr. and Mrs. Harold Kalbfleischer, were killed in the crash, but home movies the family took the summer before at Narragansett, Rhode Island, were broadcast in color on all the major television networks. Skeets and his dad playing catch on the beach.

Newsreel cameramen stalked the corridors of the hospital, ambushing unwary doctors for filmed firsthand reports and occasionally sneaking past the security guards for a chance at valuable footage of poor Skeets, so savagely mangled that his body could not tolerate the pressure of an ordinary hospital bed, floating like a mummified Hindu levitation artist on a cushion of compressed air. Although, for the benefit of the press, the hospital staff remained cheerfully optimistic, in private Skeets' doctors held out little hope for recovery. Virtually every major bone was fractured, arms and legs shattered, the spinal vertebrae crushed and disconnected like a broken string of beads; all the internal organs ruptured and hemorrhaging; rib fragments punctured both lungs—even considering the recent advances in the field of organ transplants, surgical teams across the nation agreed the case was hopeless. In order to save Skeets they would have to rebuild him from scratch.

A Hollywood film, late in the second reel, would call in a handsome young specialist for delicate, last-minute surgery; happy ending: Skeets lives to play football again and the successful surgeon gets the bosomy blond night nurse with the heart of gold. Reality is more prosaic. The memory-file program cuts to an old videotape of the medical laboratory at the Space Center in Houston, Texas, where the mechanical narrator introduces a NASA engineer, Dr. Frank E. Sayre, Jr. Dr. Sayre has thinning hair, combed straight back, and wears bifocals. For the past five years he has been engaged in special research dealing with the problem of space environment. It is Dr. Sayre's contention that man's body is a liability on a space mission. It must be supplied with oxygen, shielded from extreme temperature variation and radioactivity, provided with food, and let's not forget the nasty business of waste removal. All this requires complex weighty equipment.

"Weight is a critical factor in the success of these missions," Dr. Sayre says, nervously toying with his slide-rule tieclasp. "Now it always seemed to me that going to all this expense and trouble to accommodate the human body on a space flight was putting the cart before the horse, if you understand my meaning." Dr. Sayre clears his throat and continues in a soft sugarcured Tidelands accent. "The only essential part of a man, the part that can't be duplicated mechanically on a spacecraft, is his brain. The rest is simply excess baggage. I approached the problem from the point of view of an engineer. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could find some way to integrate a man's brain with the control system of a space vehicle and leave all that other junk at home in the deep freeze? It would make long-range manned space probes—something on the order of a trip to Pluto, say—feasible right now, today, instead of in a hundred years or so as is currently predicted."

The narration resumes at this point to explain how Dr. Sayre was inspired by the work of a team of Russian scientists who successfully grafted the head of one dog onto the body of another. Using similar surgical techniques, Dr. Sayre was busy for the next few years scooping the brains out of a zooful of rhesus monkeys. The primitive equipment he used grew ever more refined as his government research grants increased and by the time the film was made he had amassed over half a million dollars' worth in the corner of his lab. Although this jumble of tubing and circuitry looks quite haphazard and comical when compared with the sleek efficient Depositories into which it evolved, the essential mechanism remains the same. In Dr. Sayre's day it resembled nothing more than a pet shop fishtank. He is shown in the film posing with a big smile beside this device. Inside, floating in the electrolyte solution, is something that looks like a pinkish-gray jellyfish. This is the brain of George, a nine-year-old orangutan, which, according to the encephalograph, was still alive sixteen months after Dr. Sayre wheeled his great orange-haired body to the incinerator.

A phone call from a colleague in Chicago brought the case of Denton Kalbfleischer to Dr. Sayre's attention. The boy was very near death and, as there seemed to be no living relatives around to object, perhaps the hospital staff might be willing to attempt a radical experiment. Negotiations were conducted and that same evening Dr. Sayre and all his apparatus were on board a northbound plane. Inside of twenty-four hours, George had a roommate in the fishtank.

The newspapers were told that Skeets had died and the reporters were all there when his body was buried in the family plot. It was a closed-coffin funeral. The official press release mentioned a Scout uniform with merit badges and a beloved fielder's mitt under the pale folded hands, but these were only lies designed to satisfy a sentimental public. After the operation, the body was wrapped in a black plastic bag and sent to its final rest with the tracheotomy tubes still in place and the skull open like an empty porcelain soup tureen.

A color film of the operation was secretly placed in the hospital archives for the elucidation of future surgeons. Shots of the shaved scalp being peeled forward like a bathing cap and of surgical saws neatly carving through the cranium are especially vivid, but unfortunately a section of the print was damaged at the point where a vacuum pump lifts the brain intact, the enveloping meninges untorn. Cuts from other, later operations had to be spliced into the memory-file. Because a more sophisticated technique was then employed, certain concessions were made and the narrator politely apologizes to the viewer for the slight lapse in chronological accuracy.

After the operation, Skeets' brain remained incognito for almost two years in Dr. Sayre's Houston laboratory, a lump of gray matter distinguishable from the others in the tank only by the added number of wrinkles on its convoluted surface. NASA was no longer interested in the experiment once federal funds were cut back in an election year Congressional economy drive, and Dr. Sayre kept the brains around more or less as pets. Skeets would have been doomed to this limbo forever if an overanxious hunter hadn't mistaken the balding scientist for a mule deer while he was out bird watching early one fine fall morning. After the funeral, his widow came across an unpublished notebook among the papers on his desk. It was a day-to-day record of Skeets' progress following the operation. Mrs. Sayre instinctively knew this was the instrument that not only would save her late husband's name from obscurity, but handsomely endow his meager estate as well.


Excerpted from Gray Matters by William Hjortsberg. Copyright © 1971 William Hjortsberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Gray Matters,
1. Hive,
2. Pupa,
3. Imago,
4. Drone,
5. Larva,

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