The Dice Man
Being a fictional psychotherapist’s account of his descent into mayhem
The poker that evening was a disaster. Lilian and Arlene were exaggeratedly gay at first (their bottle of gin nearly empty) and, after a series of reckless raises, exaggeratedly broke thereafter. Lil then proceeded to raise even more recklessly (with my money), while Arlene subsided into a sensually blissful indifference. Dr Mann’s luck was deadening. In his totally bored, seemingly uninterested way, he proceeded to raise dramatically, win, bluff people out, win, or fold early and miss out on only small pots. He was an intelligent player, but when the cards went his way his blandness made him seem superhuman. That this blubbery god was crumbling potato chips all over the table was a further source of personal gloom. Lil seemed happy that it was Dr Mann winning big and not I, but Dr Felloni, by the vigor with which she nodded her head after losing a pot to him, also seemed vastly irritated.
At about eleven Arlene asked to be dealt out, and, announcing drowsily that losing at poker made her feel sexy and sleepy, left for her apartment downstairs. Lil drank and battled on, won two huge pots at a seven-card-stud game with dice that she liked to play, became gay again, teased me affectionately, apologized for being irritable, teased Dr Mann for winning so much, then ran from the table to vomit in the bathtub. She returned after a few minutes uninterested in playing poker. Announcing that losing made her feel a frigid insomniac, she retired to bed.
We three doctors played on for another half-hour or so, discussing Dr Ecstein’s latest book, which I criticized brilliantly, and gradually losing interest in poker. Near midnight Dr Felloni said it was time for her to leave, but instead of getting a ride crosstown with her, Dr Mann said he’d stay a little longer and take a taxi home. After she’d left, we played four final hands of stud poker and with joy I won three of them.
When we’d finished, he lifted himself out of the straight-backed chair and deposited himself in the overstuffed one near the long bookcase. I heard the toilet flush down the hall and wondered if Lil had been sick again. Dr Mann drew out his pipe, stuffed and lighted it with all the speed of a slow-motion machine being photographed in slow motion, sucked in eternally at the pipe as he lit it and then, finally, boom, let loose a medium-megaton nuclear explosion up toward the ceiling, obscuring the books on the shelves beside him and generally astounding me with its magnitude.
‘How’s your book coming, Luke?’ he asked. He had a deep, gruff, old man’s voice.
‘Not coming at all,’ I said from my seat at the poker table.
‘I don’t think I’m on to much of value.’
‘Un... Un. Huh.’
‘When I began it, I thought the transition from sadistic to masochistic might lead to something important.’ I ran my finger over the soft green velvet of the poker table. ‘It leads from sadism to masochism.’ I smiled.
Puffing lightly and looking up at the picture of Freud hung on the wall opposite him, he asked:
‘How many cases have you analyzed and written up in detail?’
‘The same three?’
‘The same three. I tell you, Tim, all I’m doing is interpreted case histories. The libraries are retching with them.’
I looked at him, he continued to look at Freud, and from the street below a police siren whined upward from Madison Avenue.
‘Why don’t you finish the book anyway? he asked mildly. ‘As your Zen says, go with the flow, even if the flow is meaningless.’
‘I am going with the flow. My flow with that book has totally stopped. I don’t feel like pumping it up again.’
I became aware that I was grinding a die into the green velvet. I tried to relax.
‘By the way, Tim, I had my first interview with that boy you had sent to QSH for me. I found him – ‘
‘I don’t care about your patient at QSH, Luke, unless it’s going to get into print.’
He still didn’t look at me, and the abruptness of the remark stunned me.
‘If you’re not writing, you’re not thinking,’ he went on, ‘and if you’re not thinking you’re dead.’
‘I used to feel that way.’
‘Yes, you did. Then you discovered Zen.’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘And now you find writing a bore.’
‘And thinking too,’ I said.
‘Maybe there’s something wrong with Zen,’ he said.
‘Maybe there’s something wrong with thinking.’
‘It’s been fashionable among thinkers lately to say so, but saying, “I strongly think that thinking is nonsense,” that seems rather absurd to me.’
‘It is absurd; so is psychoanalysis.’
He looked over at me; the crinkles around his left eye twitched.
‘Psychoanalysis has led to more new knowledge of the human soul than all the previous two million years of thinking put together. Zen has been around a long time and I haven’t noticed any great body of knowledge flowing from it.’ Without apparent irritability he let out another vigorous mushroom cloud toward the ceiling. I was fingering one of the dice, nervously pressing my fingers into the little dots; I still looked at him, he at Freud.
‘Tim, I’m not going to argue the merits and demerits of Zen again with you. I’ve told you that whatever I’ve gained from Zen is not something I’ve been able to articulate.’
‘What you’ve gained from Zen is intellectual anemia.’
‘Maybe I’ve gained sense. You know that eighty per-cent of the stuff in the psychoanalytic journals is crap. Useless crap. Including mine.’ I paused. ‘Including... yours.’
He hesitated, and then bubbled up a chuckle.
‘You know the first principle of medicine: you can’t cure the patient without a sample of his crap,’ he said.
‘Who needs to be cured?’
He turned his eyes lazily into mine and said:
‘You analyzed me. What’s the matter?’ I shot back stare for stare.
‘Nothing the matter that a little reminder of what life is all about won’t cure.’
‘Oh, piss,’ I said.
‘You don’t like to push yourself, and along comes Zen and tell you to “go with the flow.”’
He paused and, still looking at me, dropped his pipe in an ashtray on the small table beside him.
‘Your flow is naturally stagnant.’
‘Makes a good breeding ground,’ I said and tried a short laugh.
‘For Christ’s sake, Luke, don’t laugh,’ he said loudly. ‘You’re wasting your life these days, throwing it away.’
‘Aren’t we all?’
‘No, we’re not. Jake isn’t. I’m not. Good men in every profession aren’t. You weren’t, until a year ago.’
‘When I was a child. I spoke like a child – ‘
‘Luke, Luke, listen to me.’ He was an agitated old man.
‘Well – ?’
‘Come back to analysis with me.’
I rubbed the die against the back of my hand and, thinking nothing clearly, answered:
‘What’s the matter with you?’ he said sharply. ‘Why have you lost faith in the significance of your work? Will you please try to explain?’
Without premeditation I surged up from my chair like a defensive tackle at the sight of a shot at the quarterback. I strode across the room in front of Dr Mann to the big window looking along the street toward Central Park.
‘I’m bored. I’m bored. I’m sorry but that’s about it. I’m sick of lifting unhappy patients up to normal boredom, sick of trivial experiments, empty articles – ‘
‘These are symptoms, not analysis.’
‘To experience something for the first time: a first balloon, a visit to a foreign land. A fine fierce fornication with a new woman. The first paycheck, or the surprise of first winning big at the poker table or the racetrack. The exciting isolation of leaning against the wind on the highway hitchhiking, waiting for someone to stop and offer me a lift, perhaps to a town three miles down the road, perhaps to new friendships, perhaps to death. The rich glow I felt when I knew I’d finally written a good paper, made a brilliant analysis or hit a good backhand lob. The excitement of a new philosophy of life. Or a new home. Or my first child. These are what we want from life and now... they seem gone, and both Zen and psychoanalysis seem incapable of bringing them back.’
‘You sound like a disillusioned sophomore.’
‘The same old new lands, the same old fornication, the same getting and spending, the same drugged, desperate, repetitious faces appearing in the office for analysis, the same effective, meaningless lobs. The same old new philosophies. And the thing I’d really pinned my ego to, psychoanalysis, doesn’t seem to be a bit relevant to the problem.’
‘It’s totally relevant.’
‘Because analysis, were it really on the right track, should be able to change me, to change anything and anybody, to eliminate all undesired neurotic symptoms and to do it much more quickly than the two years necessary to produce most measurable changes in people.’
‘You’re dreaming, Luke. It can’t be done. In both theory and practice it’s impossible to rid an individual of all his undesired habits, tensions, compulsions, inhibitions, what-have-you.’
‘Then maybe the theory and practice are wrong.’
‘We can perfect plants, alter machines, train animals, why not men?’
‘For God’s sake!’ Dr Mann tapped his pipe vigorously against a bronze ashtray and glared up at me irritably. ‘You’re dreaming. There are no Utopias. There can be no perfect man. Each of our lives is a finite series of errors which tend to become rigid and repetitious and necessary. Every man’s personal proverb about himself is: “Whatever is, is right, in the best of all possible people.” The whole tendency is... the whole tendency of the human personality is to solidify into the corpse. You don’t change corpses. Corpses aren’t bubbling with enthusiasm. You spruce them up a bit and make them fit to be looked at.’
‘I absolutely agree: psychoanalysis rarely breaks this solidifying flow of personality, it has nothing to offer the man who is bored.’
Dr Mann harrumphed or snorted or something and I moved away from the window to look up at Freud. Freud stared down seriously; he didn’t look pleased.
‘There must be some other... other secret [blasphemy!] some other... magic potion which would permit certain men to radically alter their lives,’ I went on.
‘Try astrology, the I Ching, LSD.’
‘Freud gave me a taste for finding some philosophical equivalent of LSD, but the effect of Freud’s own potion seems to be wearing off.’
‘You’re dreaming. You expect too much. A human being, a human personality is the total pattern of the accumulated limitations and potentials of an individual. You take away all his habits, compulsions and channeled drives, and you take away him.’
‘Then perhaps, perhaps, we ought to do away with “him.”’
He paused as if trying to absorb what I’d said and when I turned to face him, he surprised me by booming two quick cannon shots of smoke out of the side of his mouth.
‘Oh Luke, you’re nibbling on that Goddam Eastern mysticism again. If I weren’t a consistent self, a glutton at the table, sloppy in dress, bland in speech and rigidly devoted to psychoanalysis, to success, to publication and all of these things consistently – I’d never get anything done, and what would I be?’
I didn’t answer.
‘If I sometimes smoked one way,’ he went on, ‘sometimes another, sometimes not at all, varied the way I dressed, was nervous, serene, ambitious, lazy, lecherous, gluttonous, ascetic – where would my “self” be? What would I achieve? It’s the way a man chooses to limit himself that determines his character. A man without habits, consistency, redundancy – and hence boredom – is not human. He’s insane.’
With a satisfied and relaxed grunt he placed his pipe down again and smiled pleasantly at me. For some reason I hated him.
‘And accepting these self-defeating limitations is mental health?’ I said.
I stood facing him and felt a strange rush of rage surge through me. I wanted to crush Dr Mann with a ten-ton block of concrete. I spat out my next words:
‘We must be wrong. All psychotherapy is a tedious disaster. We must be making some fundamental, rock-bottom error that poisons all our thinking. Years from now men will look upon our therapeutic theories and our techniques as we do upon nineteenth-century bloodletting.’
‘You’re sick, Luke,’ he said quietly.
‘You and Jake are among the best and as humans you’re both nothing.’ He was sitting erect in his chair.
‘You’re sick,’ he said. ‘And don’t feed me any more bull about Zen. I’ve been watching you for months now. You’re not relaxed. Half the time you seem like a giggly schoolboy and the other half like a pompous ass.’
‘I’m a therapist and it’s clear I, as a human, am a disaster. Physician, heal thyself.’
‘You’ve lost faith in the most important profession in the world because of an idealized expectation which even Zen says is unrealistic. You’ve gotten bored with the day-to-day miracles of making people slightly better. I don’t see where letting them get slightly worse is much to be proud of.’
‘I’m not proud of – ‘
‘Yes, you are. You think you’ve got absolute truth or at least that you alone are seeking it. You’re a classic case of Horney’s: the man who comforts himself not with what he achieves, but with what he dreams of achieving.’
‘I am.’ I stated it flatly: it happened to be true. ‘But you, Tim, are a classic case of the normal human being, and I’m not impressed.’
He stared at me not puffing, his face flushed, and then abruptly, like a big balloon bouncing, arose from his chair with a grunt.
‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’ he said a chugged toward the door.
‘There must be a method to change men more radically than we’ve discovered – ‘
‘Let me know when you find it,’ he said.
He stopped at the door and we looked at each other, two alien worlds. His face showed bitter contempt.
‘I will,’ I said.
‘When you find it, just give me a ring. Oxford 4-0300.’
We stood facing each other.
‘Goodnight,’ I said.
‘Goodnight,’ he said, turning. ‘Give my best to Lil in the morning. And Luke,’ turning back to me, ‘try finishing Jake’s book. It’s always better to criticize a book after you’ve read it.’
‘I didn’t – ‘
And he opened the door, waddled out, hesitated at the elevator, then walked on to the stairwell and disappeared.
After closing the door I walked mechanically back into the living room. At the window I stared at the few lights and at the empty early-morning streets below. Dr Mann emerged from the building and moved off toward Madison Avenue; he looked, from three floors up. like a stuffed dwarf. I had an urge to pick up the easy chair he had been sitting in and throw it through the glass window after him. Distorted images swirled through my mind: Jake’s book lying darkly on the white tablecloth at lunch; the boy Eric’s black eyes staring at me warmly; Lil and Arlene wriggling toward me; blank pieces of paper on my desk; Dr Mann’s clouds of smoke mushrooming toward the ceiling; and Arlene as she had left the room a few hours earlier; an open, sensuous yawn. For some reason I felt like starting at one end of the room and running full speed to the other end and smashing right through the portrait of Freud which hung there.
Instead I turned from the window and walked back and forth until I was looking up at the portrait. Freud stared down at me dignified, serious, productive, rational and stable: he was everything which a reasonable man might strive to be. I reached up and, grasping the portrait carefully, turned it around so that the face was toward the wall. I stared with rising satisfaction at the brown cardboard backing and then, with a sigh, returned to the poker table and put away the cards, chips and chairs. One of the two dice was missing but when I glanced at the floor it was not to be found. Turning to go to bed, I saw on the small table next to the chair Dr Mann had been lecturing me from, a card – the queen of spades – angled as if propped up against something. I went over and stared down at the card and knew that beneath it was the die.
I stood that way for a full minute feeling a rising, incomprehensible rage: something of what Osterflood must feel, of what Lil must have been feeling during the afternoon, but directed at nothing, thoughtless, aimless rage. I vaguely remember an electric clock humming on the mantelpiece. Then a fog-horn blast groaned into the room from the East River and terror tore the arteries out of my heart and tied them in knots in my belly: if that die has a one face up, I thought, I’m going downstairs and rape Arlene. ‘If it’s a one, I’ll rape Arlene,’ kept blinking on and off in my mind like a huge neon light and my terror increased. But when I thought if it’s not a one I’ll go to bed, the terror was boiled away by a pleasant excitement and my mouth swelled into a gargantuan grin: a one means rape, the other numbers mean bed, the die is cast. Who am I to question the die?
I picked up the queen of spades and saw staring at me a cyclopean eye: a one.
I was shocked into immobility for perhaps five seconds, but finally made an abrupt, soldierly about-face and marched to our apartment door, opened it and took one pace outside, wheeled, and marched with mechanical precision and joyous excitement back into the apartment, down the hall to our bedroom, opened the door a crack and announced loudly: ‘I’m going for a walk, Lil.’ Turning, I marched out of the apartment a second time.
As I walked woodenly down the two flights of stairs I noticed rust spots on the railing and an abandoned advertising circular crumpled into a corner. ‘Think Big,’ it urged. On the Ecstein floor I wheeled like a puppet, marched to the door of their apartment and rang. My next clear thought swept with dignified panic through my mind: ‘Does Arlene really take the pill?’ A smile colored my consciousness at the thought of Jack the Ripper, on his way to rape and strangle another woman, and worrying whether she was protected or not.
After twenty seconds I rang again.
A second smile (my face remained wooden) flowed through at the thought of someone else’s already having discovered the die and thus now busily banging away at Arlene on the floor just on the other side of the door. The door unlatched and opened a crack.
‘Jake?’ a voice said sleepily.
‘It’s me, Arlene,’ I said.
‘What do you want?’ The door stayed open only a crack.
‘I’ve come downstairs to rape you,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘just a minute.’
She unlatched and opened the door. She was wearing an unattractive cotton bathrobe, possibly even Jake’s, her black hair was straggling down her forehead, cold cream whitened her face, and she was squinting at me without her glasses like a blind beggar woman in a melodrama of the life of Christ.
Closing the door behind me I turned toward her and waited, wondering passively what I was going to do next. ‘What did you say you wanted?’ she asked; she was groggy with sleep.
‘I’ve come downstairs to rape you,’ I replied and advanced toward her, she continuing to stand there with a widening and perhaps wakening look of curiosity. Feeling for the first time a faint hint of sexual desire, I put my arms around her, lowered my head and planted my mouth on her neck..
Almost immediately I felt her hands pushing hard against my chest and soon a long-drawn-out ‘Luuuu-UUke,’ part terror, part question, part giggle. After a good solid wet arousing kissing of her upper dorsal region I released her. She stepped back a step and straightened her ugly bathrobe. We stared at each other, in our differently hypnotized states, like two drunks confronting each other, knowing they are expected to dance.
‘Come,’ I found myself saying after our mutual moment of awe, and I put my left arm around her waist and began drawing her toward the bedroom.
‘Let go of me,’ she said sharply and pushed my arm away.
With the mechanical swiftness of a superbly driven puppet my right hand slammed across her face. She was terror-stricken. So was I. A second time we faced each other, her face now showing a blotch of red on the left side. I mechanically wiped some cold cream off my fingers onto my trousers, then I reached out and took hold of the front of her robe and pulled her to me.
‘Come,’ I said again.
‘Get your hands off Jake’s bathrobe,’ she hissed uncertainly.
I released her and said: ‘I want to rape you, Arlene. Now, this moment. Let’s go.’
Like a frightened kitten she hunched down away from me with her hands tugging her robe at the throat. Then she straightened.
‘All right,’ she said, and with a look which I can only describe as righteous indignation, began to move past me down the hall toward the bedroom, adding, ‘But you leave Jake’s bathrobe alone.’
The rape was then consummated with a minimum of violence on my part, in fact with no great amount of imagination, passion or pleasure. The pleasure was primarily Arlene’s. I went through the appropriate motions of mouthing her breasts, squeezing her buttocks, caressing her labials, mounting her in the usual fashion and, after a longer time bucking and plunging than customary (I felt through the whole act like a puppet trained to demonstrate normal sexual intercourse to a group of slow teenagers), finished. She writhed and humped a few too many seconds longer and sighed. After a while she looked up at me.
‘Why did you do it, Luke?’
‘I had to, Arlene, I was driven to it.’
‘Jake won’t like it.’
‘I tell him everything. It gives him valuable material, he says.’
‘But... this... have you been... raped before?’
‘No. Not since getting married. Jake’s the only one and he never rapes me.’
‘Are you sure you have to tell him?’
‘Oh yes. He’d want to know.’
‘But won’t he be tremendously upset?’
‘Jake? No. He’ll find it interesting. He finds everything interesting. If we’d committed sodomy that would be even more interesting.’
‘Arlene, stop being bitter.’
‘I’m not bitter. Jake’s a scientist.’
‘Well, maybe you’re right but – ‘
‘Of course, there was that once...’
‘That a colleague of his at Bellevue caressed one of my breasts with his elbow at a party and Jake split open his skull with a bottle of... bottle of... was it Cognac?’
‘Split his skull?’
‘Brandy. And another time when a man kissed me under mistletoe, Jake, you remember, you were there, told the guy – ‘
‘I’m remembering – so look, Arlene, don’t be silly, don’t tell Jake about tonight.’
She considered this.
‘But if I don’t tell him, it will imply I’ve done something wrong.’
‘No. I’ve done something wrong, Arlene. And I don’t want to lose Jake’s friendship and trust just because I’ve raped you.’
‘He’d be hurt.’
‘Yes, he would. He wouldn’t be objective. If he’d been drinking...’
‘Yes, he would...’
‘I won’t tell him.’
We exchanged a few more words and that was that. About forty minutes after arriving, I left. Oh, there was one other incident. As I was leaving and Arlene and I were tonguing each other affectionately at the door to her apartment, she in a flimsy nightgown with one heavy breast plunging out and cupped in my hand, and I more or less dressed as when I entered, the sound of a key in the door suddenly split through our sensuality, we leapt apart, the apartment door opened and there stood Jacob Ecstein.
For what seemed like sixteen and a half minutes (possibly five or six seconds) he gave me that scrutinizing look through his thick glasses and then said loudly:
‘Luke, baby, you’re just the guy I want to see. My anal optometrist? He’s cured. I did it. I’m famous.’
Back upstairs in my living room I stared dreamily at the exposed one on the die. I scratched my balls and shook my head in dazed awe. Rape had been possible for years, decades even, but was realized only when I stopped looking at whether it were possible, or prudent, or even desirable, but without premeditation did it, feeling myself a puppet to a force outside me, a creature of the gods – the die – rather than a responsible agent. The cause was chance or fate, not me. The probability of that die being a one was only one in six. The chance of the die’s being there under the card, maybe one in a million. My rape was obviously dictated by fate. Not guilty.
Of course I could simply have broken my verbal promise of following the dictates of the die. True? True. But a promise! A solemn promise to obey the die! My word of honor! Can we expect a professional man, a member of PANY, to break his word because the die, with the odds heavily against it, determined rape? No, obviously not. I am clearly not guilty. I felt like spitting neatly into some conveniently located spittoon in front of my jury.
But on the whole it seemed a pretty weak defense, and I began vaguely hunting for a new one when I became ablaze at the thought: I am right: I must always obey the dice. Lead where they will, I must follow. All power to the die!
Excited and proud, I stood for a moment on my own personal Rubicon. And then I stepped across. I established in my mind at that moment and for all time, the never-to-be-questioned principle that what the die dictates, I will perform.
The next moment was anticlimactic. I picked up the die and announced: ‘If it’s a one, three or five, I’ll go to bed; if it’s a two I’ll go downstairs and ask Jake if I can try to rape Arlene again; if it’s a four or a six I’ll stay up and think about this some more.’ I shook the die violently in the cup of my two hands and flipped it out onto the poker table, it rolled to a stop: five. Astonished and a bit let down, I went to bed. It was a lesson I was to learn many times in subsequent casts; the dice can show almost as poor judgment as a human.
Luke Rhinehart (George Cockroft), The Dice Man, 1971