The Incident, as we’ll call it, gave Elihu Wingate a few weeks of notoriety among his fellow psychologists. We know it’s hard to imagine, a gentle soul like Elihu Wingate the object of gossip up and down the West Coast.

“You’ve seen articles like this, in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s. The reporters follow the same arc: Ordinary Life Builds Up to Dramatic Incident. The incident isn’t described right away. The article hints at it, works up to it, maybe opens with a vignette of an ordinary day in the subject’s life, before everything changes.”

Try to throw a colleague off a cliff, and this is what happens.

Of course, we exaggerate. Gossip is always more colorful than truth, though the real version of events also contains a cliff-like structure, and the two men scuffling at the edge of it. We’ll get to that later.

You’ve seen articles like this, in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s. The reporters follow the same arc: Ordinary Life Builds Up to Dramatic Incident. The incident isn’t described right away. The article hints at it, works up to it, maybe opens with a vignette of an ordinary day in the subject’s life, before everything changes.

On a typical morning, Elihu Wingate drives downtown to his office, which is inside a turn-of-the-century building. He greets colleagues, researchers and secretaries, custodial staff and accountants. He sits at his computer in his corner office, studies data, writes reports, plans his business trips.

Elihu Wingate is an expert on the psychology of consumer behavior. This means that corporate managers everywhere, no matter what their product—lawn mowers or tax preparation services, flea collars or gourmet chocolates—want to hear what Elihu Wingate has to say.

After work, Elihu Wingate drives home to a pleasant suburban development called MountainView Estates. He has developed a post-divorce routine in his enormous, post-divorce house. He makes a salad, grills some salmon or halibut. He sits out on the patio sipping iced tea.

There’s no winter to speak of in this part of California. If we’d installed a surveillance camera on the patio and reviewed the film on fast forward, the only change in the long stationary blur of Elihu Wingate on his deck chair would be from short sleeves to long sleeves, iced tea to hot tea. Even the breaks in his routine are routine. Elihu Wingate’s two daughters, Iris and Orchid, are there most weekends, when the surveillance camera would catch more motion: a larger blur and two smaller blurs playing badminton or Frisbee, or jumping in the pool.

As the sun sets Elihu Wingate washes his dish and glass and cleans the grill. He goes upstairs. He checks his e-mail. Nothing.

He checks the junk mail box. Nothing.

He opens his favorite online video game, where he’s a test pilot for top-secret military planes. He forgets to check the fuel gauge. The plane crashes.

He tries a game he just bought this weekend. He’s an FBI agent creeping through a labyrinthine abandoned building, trying to get the bad guys before they get him. He’s shot by what looks like a twelve-year-old.

Elihu Wingate turns off the computer. He reads psychology journals in bed until he falls asleep.

There are warning signs before the Incident, to be sure. Months before, maybe even years. Little fissures opening up in the smooth, tranquil surface Elihu Wingate presents to the world.

It hasn’t been easy to get the facts. Psychologists are protective of their own. Most likely they’re afraid the whole melodramatic episode reflects badly on their profession. Or maybe they pity Elihu Wingate.

“Such a nice guy,” they keep saying.

“Elihu’s a genius,” his colleague Dan Keegan likes to tell people. “The brains of the operation. I just handle the practical stuff.”

In his booming voice Dan Keegan will list his colleague’s accomplishments. You’ll learn more than you thought you wanted to know about counterfactuals, upward comparisons, downward ones, Elihu Wingate being the first psychologist to talk about these concepts seriously.

“And there’s his research on regret, ” Dan will tell you. “Never even occurred to anyone before Elihu that regret could be a positive thing. Changed the field. Now everyone’s studying regret, hindsight, all that stuff.”

Lumbering Dan Keegan, he of the thinning hair and thickening paunch, may seem an unlikely cheerleader, but no mere pompom girl could match him in enthusiasm, loudness, and sheer size.

“Then he started relating all that to consumer behavior,” Dan will say. “Figured out how regret factors into negotiating strategies.”

He gets excited at this point, leans over, mimes a friendly punch on your arm and you feel like you’ve been cuffed by a bear.

“Have you heard his newest thing? Jury research. How hindsight affects juries in liability cases.”

“So what’s his secret?” you might ask as you move out of thumping range.

“Damnedest thing,” Dan Keegan will say. “People tell him stuff they won’t say to any other interviewer.”

If you can imagine the opposite of the glad-handing Dan Keegan, Elihu Wingate is it. Quiet, lean as a runner, dark expressive eyes with a touch of befuddlement. People instinctively sense that Elihu Wingate is the last person in the world who would ever make fun of them. So when he asks those boring interview questions (“What factors led to your decision?” “How do you feel about your decision now?”), they don’t just blurt out whatever occurs to them, they think about the question, remember more details. Whole other topics come to mind they never would have mentioned to someone else.

They agree to all kinds of tests: skin temperature, blood pressure. It’s always the people who talk to Elihu Wingate who volunteer to take MRIs, EKGs, even spend entire nights in the company’s new sleep lab, where their brain waves travel down electrode wires and turn into lines on graph paper, and Elihu Wingate, they’re sure, will make sense of it all.

It’s almost time to leave work. Elihu Wingate is alone in his large, sparsely furnished office. Late afternoon sunlight is streaming through the windows, and Elihu Wingate is watching the light and starting to feel an odd sensation, like he’s outside himself, or larger than himself. He feels a sense of oneness with the old building, an awareness of its granite-and-glass skin. Through the soles of his feet he can feel the foundations of the building rooted in the earth.

Elihu Wingate has no words for this experience. He is a scientist, and scientists know that people and buildings do not commune with one another.

He tries to hold the feeling at arm’s length, study it—a symptom of anxiety? Depression?

Dan Keegan sweeps in with the quarterly profit statement and sweeps out the weirdness, and Elihu Wingate relaxes into the familiar—columns and numbers, his colleague thumping him on the back and calling him ridiculous things like “champ” and “sport.”

“We’re rolling in it, guy,” Dan Keegan says. “This new jury hindsight stuff—pure genius. What these law firms pay you for consultant fees, you could buy another house, cash down. Or get yourself a boat, old boy. Help you relax, crank out the next moneymaker.”

Elihu Wingate knows that Dan is probing him for a new idea. Dan will try to convince him to keep it to himself, give Dan time to figure out all the money angles, keep Elihu Wingate the only expert for as long as possible.

But Elihu Wingate has never been this way. Before he publishes results, before he even crafts a study, he likes to float ideas—What if we don’t assume regret is a bad thing? What if we ask consumers about their purchases a month later? A year later? Moments before? What if we look at how hindsight works in jury decisions?

Dan Keegan throws his arm around Elihu Wingate’s shoulder. “Go home, slugger,” he says. “Get some rest. Keep those brain cells in top form.”

Don’t judge Dan Keegan too harshly. Sure, he’s got an eye on the bottom line, like any good businessman. We can’t all be sensitive and thoughtful in this world. Where would we be then?

Dan’s the kind of guy who’ll take you out fishing in his boat, and when you try to keep up with his beer drinking and fall over the side, Dan will lean over and lift you back in the boat, rub you dry with a big towel, and offer you another beer to warm you up inside. He’s that kind of guy.

At home after dinner, Elihu Wingate goes upstairs and turns on his computer. He opens his briefcase, sees a mauve-colored envelope that he hasn’t noticed before. Inside is a single sheet of paper, also mauve.

Once again, it reads, thank you for volunteering to answer our survey.

He doesn’t remember volunteering for a survey. He appreciates the irony. Surveys, after all, are one of Elihu Wingate’s specialties. He’s usually designing them, administering them, analyzing the results, not answering them himself.

Question 4. Looking back on it now, how much was determined by you and how much by fate?

How much does fate determine anything, he wonders, and how would we know? He wants to cooperate. It’s important that people answer surveys fully and truthfully.

Elihu Wingate tries to remember questions 1 through 3. He puts the document back in its envelope.

He checks his e-mail. Nothing. He types “search engine” into a search engine, chooses one he’s never heard of.

What would you like to know? appears on a plain white background, fades, appears again, fades, appears.

It’s a tantalizing question. He wants to know so much. Finally he types: Is anyone there?

He presses Return.

The window disappears.

He looks at the desktop. There is e-mail to check again. There are virtual planes to fly, bad guys to catch.

He decides to search for Her.

We haven’t been able to trace Elihu Wingate’s motivations for this decision. Why look for the woman this day, and not last month, last year? Ten years from now?

Why even imagine that an Internet search would do any good? He didn’t know her name, hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask her even though they’d talked the whole flight, Chicago to Sacramento.

They loved the same books. Campus novels, like Straight Man by Richard Russo and Moo by Jane Smiley. They’d each read a different Chuck Palahniuk novel and took turns describing the plots. Her favorite novel was Villette, by Charlotte Bronte. What was it about? “Ten words or less?” she said. “Depressed woman, whose one chance at happiness is destroyed at the end.” “I think I might skip that one,” he said. She laughed, as if he were making a joke.

She was a writer. They talked about plot structure, suspense. How to strike a balance so the reader doesn’t know what will happen next, but once it does happen, it seems inevitable.

She liked The DaVinci Code, something “serious” writers weren’t supposed to admit. Elihu Wingate told her the plot of Angels and Demons. “So it looks like our hero is doomed, but wait, the pope’s assistant finds the anti-matter canister five minutes before it’s set to explode. And then when our hero falls out of the helicopter you think it’s really the end, but wait, he lands in the Tiber River and the injuries are only minor…”

They were sitting so close now, leaning in to each other. He could feel her laughter thrumming from her arm to his.

Are you having trouble picturing our somber Elihu Wingate like this, being playful, joking around? So are we. But no matter. There he was.

And here he is, years later, sitting at his computer, determined to find her, as if the Web were a real web whose strings reached from him to her, and she would recognize the vibration of one particular string, remember the nearness of their bodies, their breathing.

He recalls the plot of her novel, something about a guy who steals a famous jewel, winds up floating on the back of a giant tortoise, though Elihu can’t remember what led up to this scene—thrown off a yacht? Survived a plane crash? He does an Internet search combining diamond thief, tortoise, novel. He sifts through pages of results, mostly marine biology sites and descriptions of action movies.

He finds a blog called Anonymous (Not My Real Name), posted by Scylla, a novelist who is detailing her laborious progress through the second draft of The Tattered Demigod. Which doesn’t sound like the title she’d mentioned to Elihu Wingate on the plane, but of course she could have changed that. The plot has changed too. From the posts he reads, Elihu Wingate gathers that the main character is a defrocked Catholic priest. At some point the priest samples tortoise soup in a Peruvian fishing village, but that is a minor plot element, and the jewel heist has disappeared completely.

Elihu Wingate writes Scylla a private e-mail, describes himself, reminds her where they met.

I would love to read your novel when you’re ready to show it to anyone, he writes. Then deletes it.

Are you still married?

Delete.

My wife has left me.

Delete.

Finally he cancels the whole e-mail.

She’d mentioned a husband, in passing. Said the husband never read what she wrote, wasn’t interested in fiction. Elihu Wingate said nothing about having a wife. By that time the troubles at home had already begun, his wife’s alternating week-long rages and month-long silent treatments.

Elihu Wingate was a sensible man. He couldn’t afford to think about getting involved with someone else. His wife would find out. She’d leave him and take the kids. Knowing her, out of spite she would move far away, or even if she stayed in the same city she would only let him see their daughters a few days a month at most.

They’d spent the whole flight talking. Then the flight was over.

It’s easy to make too much of this. That a few seconds of two strangers looking into each other’s eyes means they’ve made a connection that their words, their polite friendly words, could never touch. It would have been impolite, really, to flat-out say a ridiculous thing like “I feel I know you, I don’t want this conversation to end.”

Later, all he could remember were her eyes.

He was never unfaithful to Violet. She left him anyway, took the kids.

Elihu Wingate keeps thinking he’s bound to run into the woman again. Here again we can see another early fissure: that groundless optimism against the astronomical odds of the same travel itinerary. Complicated by his utter inability to conjure up her face in his memory.

He remembers that she has pale skin, and those eyes, brown and deep-set, slightly turned down at the outer edges. Dark, heavy eyebrows. But hair color? Shape of face? Nothing.

He keeps looking for her. It’s almost a relief to see a woman with dark skin, or a white woman with freckles or blue eyes, next to him on the plane, riding the same elevator, ahead of him in line at the convenience store. Not her. Not her.

At the office Elihu Wingate finds another anonymous mauve envelope in his briefcase, a single sheet of paper inside.

We’re so happy, it reads, that you’re still willing to participate in the survey. Here’s Question 5: Please provide details of a past accomplishment.

Elihu Wingate thinks hard. Getting a Ph.D. was a big accomplishment. But they’re not specifying a big accomplishment, just a past one, and anyway it would be impossible to list the details of years of graduate work.

My daughters and I put together a tire swing. He pauses. They want details. He wants to give them details, but everything he thinks about, how Iris giggled at him fumbling with the power drill, how Orchid pushed back her wispy bangs, how they got grass stains on their jeans, evaporates when he tries to put it on paper.

He slips the envelope back in the briefcase, notices the previous question there:

Looking back on it now, how much was determined by you and how much by fate?

You should change the order of your questions, he writes. Maybe these are graduate students, still learning how to shape a survey. At least he can answer it better now. He makes two columns: determined by me, determined by fate. He thinks about trees and drill bits and grass, and fate. He puts everything back in his briefcase.

Elihu Wingate returns to his empty house.

Except his house isn’t empty.

There are suitcases in the entrance, boxes in the living room. In the kitchen his mother is unpacking a cappuccino machine. She kisses him. “Your father’s out back. He thought those forsythias could use some trimming.”

“I seem to have forgotten that you were coming to visit,” Elihu Wingate says.

“We’re moving in, honey. It’s not good for you to be all alone in this big house. And you need to get more sunlight. We’ll get the swimming pool cleaned tomorrow.”

He goes to the living room. One of the boxes has been opened. A few figurines have been unwrapped from their bubble paper and set up on the mantelpiece. Elihu Wingate goes closer to inspect them. They appear to be statues of the Virgin Mary.

“Oh, you’ve found them,” his mother says, coming in from the kitchen. “I was thinking, you travel around so much, you could find others to add to our collection.”

“Is this Mary?”

“We need some color in this house, don’t you think?”

“You and Dad aren’t even Catholic.”

She pats his hand. “I know you like to visit museums when you go away on your business trips. Those gift shops should have some nice ones.”

Dan Keegan and Elihu Wingate are looking through a one-way glass window at a focus group being run by one of their assistants.

“They’re looking bored and irritable,” Dan says. “I think we might have to send you in, slugger. Bring on the heavy hitter.”

Elihu Wingate says, “Why don’t we ever ask people about their religious beliefs?”

“Interesting,” Dan Keegan says. “What’s the angle? Correlate it with purchasing behavior?”

“No,” Elihu Wingate says. “Just to know. Out of curiosity.”

Dan Keegan pities Elihu Wingate. He was always a sad sack, even before his marriage imploded in as public and humiliating a way as anyone had ever seen. That, along with moments like these, when he comes up with these weird observations, are what Dan Keegan will have in mind when he decides not to press charges. In fact, after the Incident, Elihu Wingate seems more of a tragic figure than ever.

That ex-wife of Elihu Wingate’s had everyone mystified. Who can say what really happened in that marriage? What’s known for sure, though, is that she (gradually? suddenly?) turned against Elihu Wingate, with that ferocity of ex-love that makes mere hatred look like mild annoyance. He reacted with gentle bafflement, and his more-or-less constant expression of injured perplexity only increased her rage. She stopped speaking to him directly, instead barraging him with angry e-mails. One such missive, detailing a long list of Elihu Wingate’s flaws (He forgets my birthday, He spoils the kids, He’s a spineless little twerp) she copied to everyone in his company, from his fellow managers to the people who distributed mail and ordered cleaning supplies.

Elihu Wingate sent everyone a written apology. “Well,” he concluded, “I guess all of you are now witnesses to the operatic breadth of the disaster that is my marriage.”

Nicely done, they all thought. Trying to recover a few shreds of dignity from a humiliating situation. Who wouldn’t pity the guy? The young woman in the mailroom made a point of never deliberately misrouting his interoffice mail. The cleaning crew made sure to use gently scented, environmentally safe cleaning products in his office. Even the window washers took extra time with Elihu Wingate’s office windows, and were quite proud of themselves for the superb effects created by in-streaming afternoon sunlight unmarred by soot stains and squeegee streaks.

Elihu Wingate checks Scylla’s blog and find a new entry:

You know there are people who make a living studying regret?

It’s Her, is Elihu Wingate’s first reaction. He reads on.

There’s a whole industry out there on it, psychologists writing all kinds of articles, and did you see that guy on CNN last night? And their conclusion—drumroll, please—regret’s a good thing, folks! All those surveys they do, asking people what they regret? They say things like, they regret not having kids earlier than they did, not having more time to spend with wifey or hubby. It’s all marriage and kids, happy happy joy joy.

Like those psychologist guys have never taken a walk down the aisles of a Walmart? Or hell, just look around anywhere. You’re bound to see some woman walking around hurt by whatever nasty thing her guy just said to her, or she’s dragging some whining brat by the hand, and the woman’s got this look on her face like, I am totally trapped. Like, how the fuck did this happen?

What world do these psychologists live in, I ask you. The world of Everything’s Fine the Way It Is. Bah.

Elihu Wingate opens up an e-mail window. It’s not like that, he writes.

He cancels the e-mail.

Elihu Wingate travels to Washington, to a law firm where he explains his newest research on jury response. At the gift shop of the Smithsonian Museum he picks up a small porcelain Virgin in a yellow robe and a tunic in shades of cream and goldenrod.

He watches his parents for some hint of an interest in religion. They don’t go to church. He sees no Bibles lying around, or other books with titles like Religion for the Previously Uninterested or Add Color to Your Life with the Virgin Mary.

Elihu Wingate’s knowledge of religion, such as it is, has been purely abstract. For him any given belief is merely an intellectual puzzle: the challenge is to figure out what psychological need is being met by that belief.

What humans won’t do, he marvels, to make themselves feel better.

New entries in Scylla’s blog. “A Rant Against Internet Cafés.” “Why Does Everyone Drive Like an Idiot?” Elihu Wingate scrolls back to the entry on psychologists—she’d titled it “Regretfully Yours.” Some readers have added comments, agreeing with her, complaining about psychologists. Elihu Wingate opens a New Comment window:

I don’t think you should dismiss the work of psychologists so easily.

He hits Post, sits back, realizes he’s forgotten to breathe.

He’s done it. He’s actually communicated with Her.

This should be good, comes the response from Scylla a minute later.

Maybe you can explain the methodology to me. What makes you think you can give people these questionnaires and expect they’ll actually give you the truth instead of plucking out some canned response that they think they’re supposed to give?

We have protocols, Elihu Wingate starts to write. He’s about to describe them when another reply from her shows up.

Do you know how hard it is to tell the truth, even anonymously, even to a stranger? How can you say, I wish I’d never met my spouse? I wish I had resisted that mindless ubiquitous pressure to become a parent?

Because when you allow yourself to think it, to say it to a stranger or write it down on a form, then you have to act on it, it grows inside you, creates this pressure, pushes you to the point where you eventually have to say to your spouse, I don’t love you anymore. Do you know how hard it is to say those words?

Elihu Wingate switches to private e-mail. No, he writes. But I’ve been on the receiving end of those words. And it was hard.

Sorry, comes the reply.

What’s happening? he wants to write. Your husband still doesn’t read your work? Scylla’s never mentioned that on her blog, never mentioned a husband at all. He wonders why she told him that when they were together on the plane, why that little piece of information broke free at 20,000 feet above the ground but is kept locked away from the infinite anonymous space of the Internet.

Question 7. What would you change?

These graduate students really need some guidance.

Change about what? Elihu Wingate writes. The accomplishment in Question 5? Or was it 6? Change about the limits of human ability, or change about the stuff in the Determined by Fate column?

He would have made it last longer, that afternoon putting together the tire swing. He would change the background of the picture. Up the driveway from the happy kids and father would be a house with a different mother altogether, or else a mother who didn’t fill every room with her anger and unhappiness.

At dinner Elihu Wingate reaches for the plate of roasted potatoes and almost knocks over a Virgin with his elbow.

“I’m not sure the dinner table is the best place for these statues,” he says.

“I quite agree, dear,” his mother says.

Elihu Wingate wonders where they’re getting all these Virgins. His parents don’t do much shopping. He thinks they might be getting them as presents from friends, who come to visit or send them in the mail.

One time he gets up in the middle of the night and stumbles over a Virgin that’s right next to his nightstand. It makes a gentle thud as it falls over onto the carpet. He turns on the light. Fortunately this one is made of wood, so she hasn’t been damaged. She has a disappointed look on her face, though. Elihu Wingate almost feels he should apologize.

“The house is getting a little crowded with these statues,” he says to his mother the next morning.

“I think you’re exaggerating, dear.”

“I got up last night and knocked one over. It was right there on the floor.”

“What a silly place to put a statue.”

“What do you think of the survey we’ve been getting?” Elihu Wingate asks Dan Keegan.

“What survey?”

Elihu Wingate goes home to his no-longer-empty house, his house now full of mother and father and Virgins, and the sounds of conversation and weed whacker and the fragrance of mown grass and the scented candle someone has placed in front of a large Virgin on the end table next to the sofa.

“Aren’t you afraid of the candle left burning like that?” Elihu Wingate asks his mother.

“I was about to say the same thing.”

Today Elihu Wingate’s house is even less empty than usual. His daughters are in the kitchen with his parents.

At first Elihu Wingate is confused. It’s not a weekend yet. Is it a school vacation? Was he supposed to pick them up? Or has something terrible happened to their mother? He can’t ask them—the school might have sent them here without telling them anything. And they might be emotionally scarred for life if he seems alarmed to see them here in his kitchen—

“It’s OK, Daddy,” Orchid says. “We’ve moved back in.”

“We have to take care of this old guy,” Iris says. “Can’t let him go wandering off.”

Elihu Wingate’s father fakes an old-man tremor, says to her in a trembly voice, “Which one are you?”

“The smart one.”

“Oh,” he whines. “You’re the mean one. Where’s the nice one?”

“You see?” she says to Elihu Wingate.

The Virgins are amassing in alarming numbers on the mantelpiece and the breakfront. Still, Elihu Wingate feels bad that he complained to his mother about them. While they’re sitting by the pool he suggests that perhaps one of the taller statues might look okay outdoors, and she hurries to bring out a three-foot-high plaster Virgin wearing a cloak exactly the same shade as the pool water. “She’ll keep us safe while we swim,” his mother says happily.

Elihu Wingate swims a few laps. When he surfaces at the edge he sees that the large pool-Virgin has been joined by a much smaller one. His mother glances up from her magazine and nods approvingly.

“You can never have too many,” she says.

Define too many, he wants to say. The question occurs to him again late that night after everyone has gone to bed and he is sitting down at his computer to check his e-mail. He reaches over for the mouse and there next to it is a tiny silver Virgin.

Elihu Wingate is starting to worry. It might be more than a quirk, this sudden surge of Virgin interest. There might be a serious mental health issue here. Humoring his parents might be doing more harm than good.

But Elihu Wingate knows he won’t confront them. He has been Elihu Wingate for forty-three years now, and he’s come to terms with certain facts about himself. A confrontation simply will not happen.

He finds a small cardboard box, nests some bubble wrap in it, and quietly goes through the sleeping house, weeding out Virgins. He takes several from the mantelpiece, plucks a couple from the kitchen counters, one from the shelf above the toilet. The candle in front of the large Virgin in the living room has been left burning again. He blows it out, but leaves the Virgin where she is. Her absence would be too obvious.

He takes the box up to the attic, places it carefully next to the kids’ Christmas and Halloween decorations.

Back in his room Elihu Wingate sits down at his computer and realizes he forgot to pack away the tiny silver Virgin. He puts her on the bookshelf above the computer, where he notices another tiny Virgin, this one carved out of green soapstone.

“You’re going in the next sweep, both of you,” he says.

He checks his e-mail. Scylla has written to him.

So tell me about the anomalous answers. Those people who didn’t spew out that dutiful pablum about marriage and kids and All That Matters in Life Is Spending Time with the People You Love.

What would you like to know? Elihu Wingate writes back. The next ten minutes is a flurry of e-mails back and forth.

Did anyone say that what they regret most is participating in a massacre?

I guess we didn’t recruit any war criminals for our study, he writes. He presses Send, then feels bad. He doesn’t want to sound snide. Why is he so defensive?

Maybe you should try asking the question in Bosnia or Rwanda.

I didn’t mean to make light of your question. You’re probably right. These surveys would yield very different answers under different circumstances.

He hopes she’ll invite him to do instant messaging instead of e-mailing. He doesn’t dare be the one to suggest it first.

OK, she writes, forget about massacres. What about abusing a child? Did anyone say they regretted that? It happens all the time, so at some point you’re going to land a child molester among your respondents. What about rape? Beating up a girlfriend? Cooking the books so employees lose pensions while the guys at the top make millions?

I admit there may be a problem in our methodology.

Damn right. The thing is, dude, those surveys and focus groups and whatnot can never really get at the truth. No one’s going to answer truthfully until you wrestle him to the top of a cliff, drag him to the edge, grab the guy’s collar, and say, “You’re about to die. What do you regret?” That, my friend, is how you get your answer.

“What do you regret?” Elihu Wingate asks Dan Keegan. They’re eating lunch in the conference room while they look over some focus group notes from their assistants.

“I regret you didn’t order me a roast beef sandwich,” Dan Keegan says. “But you made a good choice, sport, what is this, mushrooms in a grilled sandwich—”

“It’s a panini,” Elihu Wingate says. “Grilled portobello mushrooms, provolone cheese, roasted peppers.”

“Good man,” Keegan says. “Everything beginning with a P. Now I understand why no roast beef. And that’s totally OK.”

“Seriously, though,” Elihu Wingate says, “do you ever think about it? Things you would have done differently?”

“Should have worked on my golf swing more this summer. Should have got laid more when I was single—”

He stops. Everyone in the office tries to tiptoe around the topic of marriage when Elihu is in earshot. They tend to not mention dates, anniversaries. Some people have even stopped wearing their wedding rings at the office.

“Hey, this is fun,” Dan Keegan says. “I could go on like this. I should have bought and sold Enron stock the year before they went bust. I should have taken skiing lessons before I hit the slopes. What about you, sport? Any regrets?”

“I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

On his desk Elihu Wingate finds a green manila file, the type they use for survey results. The cover sheet, however, lists only a single question: “What do you regret?” At first he thinks this must be a joke from Dan Keegan and he is pleasantly surprised. A fairly witty effort, especially for Dan. But then he notices the supporting data along the bottom of the page: dates, ID number of database, respondent protocols.

Maybe, he thinks, those graduate students who were designing the questionnaire have decided to send him the results too. He wishes he could remember when he agreed to all this.

He turns to the response page, which also has only one item. These students really need help with their methodology.

Response 1: I regret that humans didn’t evolve hooves.

Elihu Wingate frowns. Discounting anomalous responses is one of the first things they teach you in survey design.

But later he can’t help thinking about it. He’s relaxing in a chaise lounge with a tall glass of iced tea while his daughters splash around in the pool. He imagines the sound of hooves delicately tapping along the patio tiles. With no opposable thumbs, he realizes, we wouldn’t be able to pull triggers.

He hears a delicate tapping along the patio tiles. He looks up and sees his wife (ex-wife), in sundress and high-heeled sandals.

“What are you doing here?” Elihu Wingate says, and hopes he doesn’t sound upset. The last thing he wants is to see Violet mad. He braces himself.

Her smile is a miracle. Lesser things (a toenail clipping on the floor, a misplaced towel) have sent her into a blood-boiled rage.

“Don’t you remember?” she says. “In the divorce agreement, I got custody of you.”

She and his parents sip iced tea and talk about landscaping ideas for the front lawn. Elihu Wingate and the kids play badminton. It’s a good evening.

After everyone has gone to sleep, Elihu Wingate thins out some more Virgins. He takes the silver Virgin and the one of green stone from his room. The wooden one in the upstairs hallway is too cumbersome to move, and one has shown up in his daughters’ bedroom, six inches high and made of moonstone, that the kids have fallen in love with, so obviously it has to stay where it is. But there’s such a crowd on the breakfront in the dining room that no one will notice a few missing. In the living room he’s so focused on the mantelpiece that at first he doesn’t notice Violet sitting cross-legged on the sofa.

“Are you okay?” he says, alarmed. “Didn’t you like the guest bedroom? Did we forget to put sheets on the bed? Let me take care of—”

“The bed’s fine.”

“Is the room too small? We can switch, I don’t need all that space—”

“Relax,” she says.

He doesn’t think he’s ever heard her say that word. He stands frozen in confusion, waiting for the next cue from her to let him know what kinds of abject and repeated apologies are expected of him.

Violet gestures toward the large Virgin on the end table, candle burning again.

“What kind of tealights did you get for that statue? I didn’t know they made ones that burn so long.”

Elihu Wingate sits down in the armchair across from the couch.

“Your mood seems better,” he says.

“Yes,” she says. “Lance helped with that.” She waves her left hand from side to side, pausing so he can focus on her wedding ring.

“Oh,” Elihu Wingate says. “Congratulations.”

“It’s so much easier just to like you, without feeling guilty that I feel no sexual attraction for you whatsoever.”

“These things happen,” Elihu Wingate says.

“Not a single spark.”

“Yes. You’ve made that clear.”

“But I’ve realized,” she says, “that I like you as a person.”

“Thanks, Violet. I like you too.”

Survey Results

Response 2: I regret that the moon is moving farther and farther away from the earth.

Elihu Wingate attends a conference in the Bahamas but gets to see little more than the insides of overly air-conditioned meeting rooms. He manages to do a little shopping and brings his parents a new Virgin.

“She’s gorgeous,” his mother says, and gives him a kiss. “Go unpack. Then you can meet Lance.”

Elihu Wingate knows that Violet has remarried, and that her husband is named Lance. He goes out back. The only other man besides his father is a tall, V-shaped thirty-year-old tossing a Frisbee with Iris and Orchid. He can only come to the conclusion that this indeed is Lance.

Lance has a dazzling smile, a firm handshake. His hairline shows not even a hint of receding.

“Great to meet you, E,” he says. “Heard all about you from the kids.”

E. He has been called E. This, Elihu Wingate reflects, is what it’s like to be accepted by the cool kids. He’s not quite cool himself—even Lance couldn’t pull off that miracle—but he has now acquired an interesting veneer of coolness.

Lance helps Elihu’s father break ground for a vegetable garden. He helps Elihu’s mother weed the perennials and arrange cut flowers in vases. He bakes cookies with Iris and Orchid.

He takes Elihu Wingate to the gym. “I’m headed for the free weights, E. But those machines over there will give you a great workout. The overhead pulldowns will do wonders for your lats.”

Elihu Wingate goes instead to the cardio room, starts jogging on the treadmill.

Survey Results

Response 3: I regret not having a sense of irony.

Scylla has a new entry on her blog: “Psych Is Big Business.”

Did you know how many psychologists work for corporations? Yeah, they go to all the trouble of getting a Ph.D., you’d think they’d be out there trying to help people with their problems, but no, they study us, to find out what makes us buy Brand A instead of Brand B when we’re in the supermarket.

Elihu Wingate sends her a private e-mail. Helping people with their troubles is only one branch of psychology.

Yeah, and the least lucrative one, I bet, is her response.

Elihu Wingate shuts down his computer, gets into bed and tries to read the latest issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology. Something to soothe him, or bore him into sleepiness. The house is silent in a comforting way, not in the way of an empty building. The kids and his parents went to bed hours ago. Even his wife and Lance have quieted down. But Elihu Wingate’s thoughts keep him awake.

Elihu Wingate has been successful and he knows it. Not that he cares about status and money, he cares about tackling difficult questions, gaining hard-won insights. But lately, Elihu Wingate has wanted more. A masterwork of some kind, a project that would change the entire field. What Alfred Kinsey did with sex, Elihu Wingate wants to do with—what? He is unable to think of something so basic to human life and yet so difficult to pin down.

Elihu Wingate hears a sound, or thinks he does. He listens. Nothing. He’s about to turn off his lamp when he hears it again, almost like a footstep, but smaller somehow, and muffled. Now a few more, thud … thud … , but too irregular, too halting, to be the sound of someone walking. Faulty plumbing, perhaps.

Elihu Wingate’s door opens. Virgins are standing on the threshold. Now they’re coming in, not exactly walking, more like waddling and swaying—these are statues, after all—a small crowd, the ones he put in the attic, mostly, but he recognizes some from other places in the house.

One of them waddles forward and clears her throat in a high-pitched, reedy “ahem.”

“We, the Associated Virgins of MountainView Estates,” she begins, in a voice that sounds remarkably like Queen Elizabeth of England, “do hereby protest our exile to the attic.”

The other Virgins are jostling each other, edging closer to Elihu Wingate. “Yes,” they chime in. “Indeed.”

Another Virgin nudges the one who had been speaking. “We have a list of demands,” she says in a stage whisper.

“Yes. And we hereby demand the following: (1) An immediate end to our banishment and release from the ignominiousness of bubble wrap and cardboard. (2) The construction of a grotto in our honor. (3) Offerings made daily to a representative of our choosing. Said offerings shall consist of a small dish of fresh water, an offering of chocolate, and a small, unostentatious vase of fresh flowers.”

(“When in season,” another adds.)

“Yes,” the spokesvirgin says. “When in season.”

“All right,” Elihu Wingate says. “Those are reasonable requests.”

This seems to quiet the milling crowd.

“I don’t quite know what to do right now,” Elihu Wingate says.

“It’s late. We suggest you turn out the light and go to sleep.”

“Good idea,” he says. He wonders where they’re going to go. The silence becomes awkward. “Maybe you’d be more comfortable in the living room,” he says. “I could help you—”

“We will stay here, thank you,” the spokesvirgin says, sweetly but firmly. “It’s not good for you to be alone.”

“Right. Of course.” Elihu Wingate turns off the lamp. “Well, good night,” he says, and in the darkness a chorus of small queenly voices wishes him good night.

Elihu Wingate looks up “grotto” in the dictionary and decides that a gazebo will be close enough. He chooses one made of rock maple with cedar shingles. He and Lance apply a golden-oak stain/polyurethane varnish to it and set it up in the backyard. They install shelves and nooks of various heights. His mother plants climbing yellow jasmine vine along the outside.

“They’ll love it,” Lance says.

Elihu Wingate wonders how anyone can look so blissful without being doped up.

“Don’t worry, E,” Lance says. “I’m not giving the kids drugs.”

Scylla’s latest blog, to Elihu Wingate’s relief, has nothing to do with psychology. Instead she seems to be ranting about the way creative writing is taught.

He looks at the date/time stamp. She posted it a few minutes ago. His e-mail program chimes. A note from Scylla.

I see you’re online, it says. You like the new post?

He presses Reply. Maybe we could talk about this in IM? My screen name is PsyE.

OK, comes the reply. What the hell.

That, Elihu Wingate reflects, is the likely response he’ll get if he ever actually asks a woman out on a date.

An IM window appears.

Scylla:        So, PsyE, what do I call you?

Elihu:        How about Brett Austin?

Scylla:        Really? Are you square-jawed? Teutonic?

Elihu:        OK, let’s go with Riley Windmiller.

“Riley suits you better,” says one of the Virgins on the bookcase above the computer. The others murmur assent.

Scylla:        I don’t do online sex. That’s for losers.

Elihu:        Not what I was looking for either. Actually I’ve never done it.

“You’re a virgin,” a Virgin says. They titter.

“I’d like a little privacy, if you don’t mind.”

More giggles, but they say nothing more.

Scylla:        So entertain me. I’m bored. And don’t ask me about my childhood or recurring
                   dreams or any of that other psych-crap.

Elihu Wingate struggles to think of non-loser topics. Finally he describes a consumer experiment he designed, involving samples of gourmet chocolates at supermarkets.

Scylla, it turns out, loves chocolate. Preferably with crunchy centers. Imagine there’s a choice, he tells her: chocolates with hazelnuts, with coconut, with toffee bits. Quickly she chooses the toffee.

Elihu Wingate closes his eyes, pictures himself in the supermarket. There’s a woman looking at the chocolates, she has intense brown eyes, a pale, somewhat oval face—he wishes he could fill in more detail.

Elihu:        Let’s say I had twenty kinds of centers instead of three. Hazelnuts, pecans,
                   cashews, almonds, peanuts, coconut. Some are mocha and some aren’t. Some
                   are dark chocolate, some are milk.

He pictures offering her one. She lets him feed her, then takes his hand and swirls her tongue around the melted chocolate on his fingertips.

Elihu Wingate has lost track of how many years he’s gone without sex, so the sudden intense arousal is painful and alarming. Not helped, either, by the chortling Virgins on the bookcase. Some of them are trying to shush the others.

Scylla:        Wait—all these choices — now I’m not sure what I’m going to buy.

Elihu:        Exactly. That’s what’s so intriguing. After a certain point, having too many
                   choices kind of paralyzes us — we start thinking about regretting all those
                   untasted options, and we end up buying less. And we psychologists learn
                   something interesting about how the mind works.

Elihu Wingate braces himself for her response, something sarcastic about how profitable these observations are.

Scylla:        This was fun.

Elihu Wingate is too shocked to relax.

Scylla: Good chocolate, good conversation. I’m nicely sated. We’ll have to do this again sometime.

She logs off.

Survey Results

Response 4: I regret not being someone else entirely.

There is some debate over whether the attack on the colleague was premeditated. Certainly Elihu Wingate was not in the habit of inviting Dan Keegan out to MacTeer State Park to go canoeing. That they ended up hiking along the High View Trail, that Elihu Wingate chose to sit down at the Scenic Vista Overlook rather than, say, a picnic table nowhere in sight of a cliffside, seems purely fortuitous.

Dan Keegan has told us he remembers a remark Elihu Wingate made as they waited in line at the canoe rental. A question he’d brought up once before, something about why they didn’t try studying religious beliefs, and Dan had responded by suggesting that none of their usual clients would be interested in such research. “And if you can’t fund it, you can’t do it. That’s a pretty simple law of research. Supply and demand.”

He can’t precisely reconstruct those moments at cliff’s edge, Elihu Wingate on top of him, grabbing his lapels, “Just answer the question! For God’s sake, do you understand that you’re hovering over an abyss?” and Dan, in retrospect embarrassed that he hadn’t been able to come up with anything more memorable than, “Dude, what’s up?”

People had never taken Dan Keegan for a liar, but there was a fair amount of incredulity in response to his story. Even Dan’s wife found it hard to believe that Elihu Wingate was responsible, even after Dan had taken off his shirt and she had run her hand over his back, felt the dents in his skin from being pressed down on pebbly soil.

Really, can you imagine the scene? Dan Keegan knocked on his back, scuffling in the dirt, dragged to the edge of a cliff? By Elihu Wingate?

The next day Elihu Wingate walks into Dan’s office.

“I regret,” Elihu Wingate says, “that I almost killed you.”

“Not a problem, sport. I regret that I couldn’t come up with a better answer to your question.”

They shake hands.

“See you at lunch.”

Elihu Wingate looks through his Pending file, finds Question # 4: What do you regret?

He considers writing, I regret studying regret, but that isn’t true.

Still, he would like to branch out.

I regret not studying religion, in a massive, systematic, groundbreaking way.

Elihu Wingate opens a document on his computer, a letter he’s composing to the editor of Social Psychology Abstracts. “When psychologists study religious beliefs, we claim to take a neutral stance on the truth-value of those beliefs, but nevertheless our underlying assumption is that the miracles, the communication with spiritual beings, the consciousness ascribed to supposedly inanimate things (rocks, rivers, etc.), aren’t actually real. What if we carried out studies with the opposite assumption: that a religious orientation is not something we make up to comfort ourselves, but an ability to perceive specific aspects of reality—a sense, if you will, like sight or hearing?”

Elihu Wingate wants to ask new questions, capture thoughts people think only to themselves, if that. He wants to be a voice that’s more like a breath playing against your neck, or your own breathing, or a thought that comes to you on its own:

When did you first think there was something more to this life? What made you wonder? What made you hope? When did you feel the connection?

When was the first time you thought this world was alive?

At home Elihu Wingate relaxes by the pool, glass of iced tea at his elbow. He closes his eyes, listens to the voices wafting around him: “Water’s great, not too cold.” “Your serve.” “I should weed the lettuce tomorrow.”

He feels tiny porcelain hands patting him, soothing him.

“There there.”

You I can believe in,” Elihu Wingate says.

“We know.”

Perhaps you’re wondering what part not to believe.

The lusciousness of the ex-wife’s new, young husband? His delightfully phallic name?

Those wistful conversations with the pseudonymous Scylla?

The fact that the Virgins sounded like Queen Elizabeth?

They were tiny, after all, and made of porcelain. What else would they sound like?

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