Kij Johnson

Schrödinger’s Cathouse

I usually start a story with an image in my mind, or an exchange of dialogue. This is something where I started with a title. I mentioned to a writer I knew that I thought this would be a great title for a short story. She laughed and agreed, and then warned me that if I didn’t use it myself, she would. This set me on my mettle, and I wrote this is what was probably a record for me, one year from initial conception to finished story. I never thought of it as an autobiographical story, but, like everything else a writer does, it of course is. This was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Bob is driving down Coney Island Avenue in the rain. His dust-blue Tempo veers a little as he struggles with a box: something small, in brown paper, with no return address. He was going to take it home from the post office and open it, but he got curious at a stoplight, and now, even though the light’s changed and he’s splashing toward Brighton Beach in medium traffic, he’s still picking at the tape that holds the top shut. A bus pulls in front of him just as the tape peels free and the box opens.

Bob looks around. The room in which he has suddenly found himself is large. The walls are covered with vividly flocked paper, fuschia and crimson in huge swirls that look a little like fractals. He blinks: no, the pattern is dark blue, with silver streaks, like the patterns of electrons in a cloud chamber. The bar in front of him is polished walnut, ornately carved with what might be figures, and might only be abstract designs. No, it’s chrome, cold and smooth under his fingers. Wait a second, he thinks, and he remembers: driving his Tempo down Coney Island Avenue in the rain. The box. Bob blinks again: the walls are red and fuschia again.

There are people in the room: he sees them reflected in the mirror behind the bar. They are draped over the wing chairs, which are covered in a violent red velvet, or they walk across the layered Oriental rugs in poses of languor. They all wear suggestive attire: A lilac corset with lemon-yellow stockings. A leather jacket over a chain harness over bare flesh. Nineteenth-century women’s lingerie, with the crisp lace-edged white camisole and pantaloons that appear not to have a crotch, although nothing peeks out but pubic hair. A man’s red union suit. There is something unsettling about them all, but Bob isn’t sure what it is.

“Well?” The swarthy bartender wipes out a glass with a dirty towel and slams it onto the walnut bar in front of Bob.

“What?” he says, startled. The bar used to be — something else, he thinks. The man snorts, impatiently.

The people reflected in the mirror — what exactly gender are they? Bob turns to look: no, it’s very hard to tell. The men — the ones dressed like men, anyway — are rather small and fine boned, and the women — or the ones dressed in corsets and such — seem fairly large. They sit on what are now aqua leather couches, move across what is now pale gray carpet.

“Your drink?”

Bob licks his lips, which are suddenly dry, and turns around to face the bartender, whose mustache is blond, and curls up at the tips. His skin is very pale.

“Didn’t you used to be darker?” Bob asks.

The man snorts again. “What’re you drinking?”

“Gin,” Bob says distractedly. “I don’t even know where I’m drinking.”

Clean-shaven and dark-skinned, the bartender walks away still holding the towel. “But, my drink—” Bob starts.

The bartender snorts a third time and picks up another glass.

Bob looks down, and there is a glass of oily white fluid resting on the bar, which is now chrome, dully reflecting the blue-and-silver wallpaper. Wait a minute, he thinks suddenly. This cannot possibly be right. Where the hell am I, anyway? Bob squeezes his eyes shut.

“I know, it’s strange.” The voice in Bob’s ear is calm and slightly amused. A cool hand touches his wrist, strong broad fingertips resting against his pulse. “The first time here is very unsettling. You have to figure out the certainties, and then you’ll be better.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Bob says, eyes still scrunched closed.

“There’s always a bar, even if it looks different every so often,” the voice says, sounding as if it’s cataloguing. “There is always a mirror. The seating is always in the same approximate places. It changes, though; that can be upsetting. The beds upstairs — they stay. Well, of course, they would — after all, we are a whorehouse. And a bar. The customers never change: why would they? But members of the staff may change a bit. After a few visits, though, you’ll be able to recognize most of us most of the time. It’s not so bad. Open your eyes.”

“Where am I?” Bob asks.

“The Boîte.” The voice sounds amused. “C’mon.”

Bob slits one eye at his drink: the bar is chrome again, but his drink is still clear and oily-looking. With a sigh of relief, he reaches out, and snags it, lifts it to his mouth. The gin is sharp and spicy, ice-cold. He gasps a little and opens both of his eyes. A mirror: yes. The people are still there, reflected in it, or Bob thinks so: they could be different people. The aqua couches, with the blue walls; when he blinks: yes, red armchairs again, with the flocked wallpaper. Next to the NEC cash register on the bar is a little card with the Visa and Mastercard icons on it, and in handwriting beneath it: CASH OR CHARGE ONLY — NO CHECKS!

“Feel better?”

Bob does feel better; he takes another swig of his drink — still gin, still ice cold, still like open-heart massage — and smiles at his reflection. Still Bob. He turns to the person who’s been speaking to him.

She — if it is a she — is a redhead, with a smooth flat haircut that stops at her strong jawline. She’s wearing a fur coat with — apparently — nothing beneath it: Bob gets glimpses of peach-colored skin and downy blond hairs where the coat falls away from her thigh. She is wearing a single earring, a crystal like a chandelier’s drop in her left ear. Her? He thinks so.

A knockout, he thinks, if it’s a woman.

“I’m Jacky,” she says, and holds out her hand. It seems a little big for a woman’s hand, but maybe a little small for a man.

“Bob,” Bob says. “Um, where exactly am I? You said, but I didn’t quite—” He pauses.

“The Boîte.” She picks up a glass filled with something clear from the carved walnut bar. “It’s French. One of the Boss’s little jokes.”

“‘The Boss?’ “

“Mr. S. Mr. Schrödinger. You don’t get it?” Jacky pauses, tilts her head to one side. Her earring hangs away from her face. It’s in her right ear now.

Bob clenches his eyes shut again. “Jesus Christ. Go away.”

Jacky’s voice continues. “It’s your first time, poor thing; I bet no one’s explained any of this stuff to you, have they?”

“Just go away. You’re all some sort of dream.”

There is a sound that might be a fingernail pushing an ice cube around a lowball glass. “You know about the cat, don’t you? She’s around here somewhere, if she’s alive. Well, she is and she isn’t; I say it, but it never makes any sense to me either. Like the Trinity, not that they — it, I mean — has anything to do with us here. So,” she says, and her voice sounds like she’s spelling something out to a rather slow child, “This. Is. The. Box.”

Bob maneuvers the glass he still holds to his lips and drains it. Still gin. He opens one eye and glances sidelong at Jacky. Earring in the left ear. Was that where it was last time? The gin is starting to make itself felt; he can’t exactly remember. “So this is like limbo?”

“Sort of.” Jacky shrugs. The fur slips fetchingly, briefly exposing a broad smooth shoulder before she pulls it close again. “It’s a lot more like a whorehouse, though. I’m certainly thirsty.”

Bob leans across the bar and taps the bartender on the shoulder. “Another for the lady,” Bob says; he bites his tongue at the bartender’s sneer as the man turns his back.

Jacky sips from her full glass, and smacks her lips.

“Jesus, how do you guys do that?” Bob asks. “It was empty a second ago.”

Jacky smirks. “It both was and was not empty. It partook of both states at once. No—” she says and holds up her hand as Bob opens his mouth to speak — “I don’t know any more than that, so don’t ask me. I just know it works. Look at your glass: is it empty or full?”

Bob looks down. “Empt— No, it’s—” he stopped.

“Don’t think too much. Take a sip.”

Bob sips. Gin. He gulps. When his eyes have stopped watering, Bob says, “This is all too confusing for me.”

“Well, it would be. So are you interested?”

“In what?” he asks carefully.

“This is a whorehouse, what do you think?”

“Sex?” His pants seem to tighten when he thinks of it. But, the broad shoulders, the big hands— “Uh, Jacky....” His voice trails off.

She pouts a little. “Don’t you like me? I thought you did, I look just your type; but if I got it wrong, maybe the Madam can—”

“No,” Bob says, and swallows hard: he seems to be having trouble standing. “No, I like you fine, I like you best of everyone here, you’re very, uh, attractive. But, uh—”


The earring has changed places once more, he’s positive of it this time. Damn it, he realizes fuzzily, I’m starting to like the look. “You are a woman, aren’t you?”

“What possible difference can that make?”

“I, uh, just prefer women, that’s all.”

“I thought you preferred me?”

“Well, what are you?” Jesus, I must be drunk.

Jacky laughs something that would be a giggle if Bob were a little more sure of her gender, and drops her fur from her shoulders.

Jacky’s skin is smooth and moderately muscled, with dark nipples half-erect in the air. Jacky has soft ash-blonde pubic hair, with a small trail of fur leading down from her navel. What Jacky doesn’t have is genitalia: no penis, no breasts. She’s — Bob’s not certain of that she again — too muscled to look comfortably feminine, too smooth to be really male. Bob can feel himself shrivelling, looking at her.

Jacky tilts her head to one side again, as if she can hear the air being let out of his tires. “This is The Boîte, right? Schrödinger’s. So, what’s inside the box? Me. And I could be a pussy, or I could be a pistol.”

“What?” Bob is mesmerised by the sight of her body. Wonder what her skin feels like?

“You won’t know, of course, which I am until I come. Neither will I. You have to make me come first, and then I’ll turn out to be one or the other. And then we’ll really get going.”

“What if you’re male?”

Jacky leans forward until her face is inches from Bob’s. Her high — or low — voice whispers against his lips, “I’ll still be the best fuck you’ve ever had.”

Bob licks his lips. “I have to make you come first?”

She nods.

“How do I make you come when I don’t know what to do?”

“I’ll show you.”

“All—” Bob stops and clears his throat. “All right then.”

Jacky straightens briskly. “It’s a hundred a shot, so to speak, automatically withdrawn from either your Visa or Mastercard. Unless you’d prefer to pay cash?” Bob shakes his head. “Mostly they don’t,” says Jacky, nodding with satisfaction. “Visa then? Okay. We already have your number. Ready?”

“Yes,” Bob croaks. “Can we go upstairs now?”

Jacky leads him up a broad flight of stairs lavishly ornamented with statuary depicting fauns and satyrs being raped by nymphs — or is it the other way around? Bob’s having a little trouble focusing. He pulls at Jacky’s fur, which slides off her shoulders, but she keeps moving up the stairs pulling him along by the fur.

He catches Jacky at the door to a room and pulls her close, kissing her hard. He feels her body crushed against him, the flatness of chest and silky skin stretched over hard muscle. Her hand is sliding under his belt, flat-palmed against his belly, moving down until she has his rigid penis under his fingertips, pulling and pressing. Bob fumbles the door open and they cascade into a room that might be red or might be honey-colored. They pull apart for a second: Jacky drops the fur coat. At the sight of the body Bob hesitates again.

“What’s wrong?” Jacky says, moving to stand chest to chest with him. She is just his height.

“I just wish I knew you were a woman, that’s all.”

She laughs once, a low bark. “Except you never do know. You only think you do.”


The bus accelerates until Bob can see around it again. The box he got at the post office lies in his lap, its flaps folded closed. Rain’s smearing the windshield: Bob adjusts the timer and turns on the headlights before he remembers the cathouse. “What the—” he says aloud. The bar that kept changing, Jacky and that strange conversation, and the room-

So which was she-he? Why can’t I remember? Bob’s most of the way to Brighton Beach before he figures it out. The box is closed, after all.


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© 1997 Kij Johnson
Swashbuckling Editor Stories, Wildside Press, 1993
Introduction from Tales for the Long Rains, Scorpius Digital, 2001