Kipper's Game

A Novel


By Barbara Ehrenreich

Read by Molly Parker Myers

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From the New York Times bestselling author of Nickel and Dimed comes a futuristic thriller about science, love, politics, and social disarray.

Della Markson is searching for her son, a brilliant, nihilistic computer hacker who has invented an addictive computer game. She teams up with her former professor, Alex MacBride, an academic has-been desperately in need of a publication and a drink, is looking for the papers of an obscure, long-dead neurobiologist. As they stumble through a suburban landscape littered with broken marriages and blighted careers, they discover that their personal quests are of great interest to mysterious others, and that they have been drawn into a grand design full of wondrous possibilities and perilous meanings.

For Della and Alex live in a hyper-real world of strange portents and accelerating decay. Caterpillars are destroying the trees. A cracked but eerily lucid evangelist preaches apocalypse on a pirate frequency. And in the renowned biological research institute where Della and Alex work, escaped laboratory animals roam the corridors, hazardous wastes leak unchecked, and a lethal new disease is outwitting the researchers. The search for Della’s son and Alex’s missing papers turns out to hinge on the ancient quest for the ultimate purpose of human intelligence and life.

A startling feat of the imagination from one of our sharpest social observers, Kipper’s Game is a daring and sophisticated adventure at the interface of science and metaphysics, human love and the equally human hunger for knowledge.


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The caterpillars first appeared in April, unannounced, a scientific wonder and subject of much high-level speculation. They were a grayish color, invisible against gravel or the usual curb-level debris of discarded newspapers, cans for recycling, broken toys. At first there were calls for action against the invaders, but by mid-May they excited little comment except when manifested in bulk and measured in pounds. In an expensive country suburb, a barn roof collapsed under their weight, revealing, to its outraged owner, the presence of several squatters—a woman and two men—whose crushed bodies were pulled out by the volunteer fire department and donated, unclaimed, to the university medical school.

It was the trees that the caterpillars were after, including the huge stoic elms Della looked out on from her kitchen window. The caterpillars attached themselves to the leaves, first turning them the deep gray of an unforgiving November, and then leaving them, at best, as lace. By June, most of the trees for miles around were bare, investing the sky with the brazenness of a sunny day in the dead of winter.

But there was not much sun, because the other constant that marked the change in Della’s life was the haze. It seemed to her that it arrived to shut down the sky in the same week she found out her marriage was over, which she learned accidentally, by picking up the phone at 11:00 p.m., only to find that the line was occupied by two voices which seemed to know each other far better than she knew anyone, including her husband, who was one of the voices. The other voice, the female one, was teasing, cajoling, insistent. Leo’s was fretful, agitated. She did not listen long enough to hear them in sequence. They seemed, rather, to be rushing toward each other, overlapping, cooperating in some sort of counterpoint, in the second before she said, “I’m sorry,” although “sorry” was a pretty lame word for it.

After that night, the haze never fully lifted for weeks, and the sky became the color of milk, only less normal and reassuring. But she did not, in the first few seconds after she put down the phone, understand that this was the end of her marriage. It was something grotesque and unexpected, that was all. She leaned on the kitchen counter, waiting for Leo to come out of the den, where the other phone was, and watched an ant move across the counter toward the scent of water in the sink. More and more appliances these days have digital clocks, she had noticed—stoves, microwaves, automatic coffeemakers—giving them an appearance of intelligent expectation, as if they were also waiting, or moving purposefully on toward some destination of their own.

She watched the ant’s progress against the forward motion of the clocks, caught in that place where things may still be reversible, where the door still seems to stand wide open to the safety of the minute before—before the police car arrives, before the roof collapses from the weight of gray, foreign life, the moment before time forks and one branch goes off gray and withered.

“Out of the blue” is how she would describe it to Miriam, but this was not true. It never is, unless you are willing to admit that the blue is not as empty as it seems when you are in it. Looking back, you can always see that it harbors some dark spot approaching from a distance and a direction where you would not normally think to look. Things had not been good between her and Leo for many months, a fact which Della blamed on herself and all the time she put into her mother’s care, and then her mother’s dying, and then all the work it takes for someone to be entirely dead in the sense of property and law. At the time Leo’s distance seemed to represent deference for her involvement in these things, or, more likely, the natural shrinking of a man away from anything organic, like sickness, menstrual periods, or grief.

The night before the phone call she had been thinking of things to do that might reverse the situation. A confrontation, a hurt and studied coldness, perhaps a trip away for a few days, though where she might be welcome on such short notice, where a sudden visit might be thought natural, she could not imagine, for it was not like her to go anywhere overnight without great forethought and preparation. Or she might simply walk around the mall and have dinner by herself in a clean little place with croissant sandwiches, where a woman alone would not be a subject of prurient thoughts, would be only a shopper. Meanwhile, her not being home to make dinner would send a powerful signal of revulsion. Leo would have to confront her absence, which she had reason to believe was far more dignified and imposing than her presence.

But the mall was not the same as it was when she would take Steve there after school for a snack and a stop at the computer store, where, even when he was small, he was taken as seriously as if he were grown-up and had his own credit cards. There were other computer stores that Della sometimes drove him to, but she preferred the mall with its energy of acquisition and self-improvement. After Steve left home, though, the mall seemed to withdraw into introspection. Renovations were announced in upbeat PARDON OUR APPEARANCE! signs, but closings and dismantlings were also in progress, until the mall eventually reached a steady state of disrepair and abandoned promises. Huge drapes of plastic sheeting hung from the see-through plastic ceiling, which let in rain now, and starlings. Paper cups and Styrofoam containers drifted along on the floor, piling up against the benches made deliberately uncomfortable to discourage teenagers and vagrants. From the aggressive interiors of the clothing shops, clerks looked out on the fake outdoors of the mall interior—a part of the world that had died, somehow, in captivity.

So she went to the mall only briefly, at around seven, for a sandwich and a turn through the department store, where it was perfectly natural to move indecisively from one section to another, fingering things or turning them over to look for the price. She would have walked longer in the mall, for the sake of walking, but there were so few people around at this hour that those who were present seemed to have been chosen on the basis of some subtle defect they shared. A boy of about ten caught her eye across a counter by breaking suddenly into an abrupt, sardonic laugh. She smiled slightly in complicity, but his face had shut down again, and when his mother pulled him away he did the laugh again, and then again from a greater distance, related to nothing.

*  *  *

The actual fight took no more than twenty minutes, and even that was probably more time than they needed. When Leo walked in she could see at once that he had already appropriated the anger that should, by right, have been hers. His face was shining with it. An illicit smile worked around the corners of his mouth, already smudged at this hour by liquor and something stronger. In the fifteen minutes on the phone after Della’s intrusion, the teasing voice had worked changes in him. With this woman, you knew where you were. You were actually somewhere, moving along a line of development, involved. While Della was more of an environment, linked to the house and its comforts, but static. You could eat a whole meal with her and not remember anything that was said, the two of them opening their mouths only to eat or to speak about the food, words meeting bites until there was not even food to talk about.

“I would like a little privacy in my own home, if that’s not asking too much,” Leo started, leaning with one hand against the counter to establish his claim.

Della hung back in what she still believed was the moment before disaster. “My God, Leo, what’s the big deal? I wasn’t listening in. I was dialing the weather. How was I supposed to know you were on the phone at eleven o’clock at night?”

So far, she thought, I’m clean, I’m not involved. Nothing’s going to happen. Leo went over to the cupboard in silence and poured himself a half glass of Scotch. Only two years ago he drank wine or rye, and now it was Scotch, a sign of change for anyone willing to see it. “Do you have to drink that? That’s the fourth one tonight. No wonder you’re so worked up.”

“That’s it, the fucking end.” He finished the drink in one gulp and smashed the glass down on the ant, or by this time a related ant. “I can’t live like this. Can’t you see you ruin everything? You ruined Steve, yeah, the kid’s a faggot, a drug addict, all we know. And you’re ruining this”—the word came uneasily to him—“marriage. And you want to know why? Because you got nothing on your mind, nothing to do, day in, day out. You’re not even interested in me. You’re interested in the fucking dry cleaning, the fucking upholstery, your fucking faggot son…”

“All right,” she said, heating up, “who was she?”

That was the signal, apparently, for doors that had been swinging loose on their hinges for decades along corridors connecting girls to old women, mothers to lost children, suddenly to slam shut in the new wind that was moving things. He swelled up with a righteousness he had been waiting all his adult life to fit into. Entitlement smoothed his face, red now with drink and a confused sense of destiny. “Didn’t it ever occur to you, in your permanent trance state here, that someone could be interested in me as a human being?”

He looked at her defiantly, almost gloatingly, as if she were an authority figure in the process of public humiliation. “Well, you just mull that over, Della,” he said, turning to leave the room. “You just think on that, huh? And in another twenty years or so maybe you’ll figure out what’s been going on here. Because you want to know the truth about you, Della? The truth is, you don’t have a life. You’ve got nothing going except whatever this is”—he waved to include the kitchen and the hallway—“this monitoring operation. Monitoring and maintenance, that’s what you’ve got going here. Well, you want to know the good news? The good news is, I’m still alive. What d’you think of that, huh? After twenty years of this I’m still alive.”

It was the idea that she wasn’t interested in him that held Della after he left the room and stamped, with a snorting sound, up the steps, because here there might be legitimate blame and hence the possibility of apology and renewal. Miriam had once asked her what she knew about Leo’s business, and Della had been surprised by her own vagueness. He was, by his own description, an “entrepreneur,” though what he built up, traded, or invested in had become increasingly abstract over the years. There were involvements with real estate, with “investment products,” and now he worked out of a rented office on what he called “business services,” meaning putting things together, people and products, setting things up. Once, with manifest reluctance, he had asked Steve to help him with a program for monitoring cash flow and debts. Steve helped with equal reluctance on his part, and when Della asked him what it looked like, from a programming angle, his dad’s business, Steve said, dumb, so dumb it strained his mind.

Of course she was more interested in Steve. But this hardly seemed disloyal, since Steve was the one thing that redeemed their marriage. When he was nine, Della was called in to the principal’s office to be told that her son had registered an IQ in the genius range. Steve would need an enrichment program, which would be established in the fall, budget permitting. The family would need counseling, because this kind of gift was a fragile thing, easily shattered by the unprepared parent, who would not know how to handle the odd conjuncture of childish emotion and adult-level cognitive powers. Della felt deeply affirmed, as she had when she was pregnant, radiant with invisible promise. But Leo had insisted that the test be readministered, that they know for sure what they were dealing with before they had a bunch of know-it-all shrinks breathing down their necks, making the kid feel like a freak. Steve dutifully took the test again, scoring a scant average, and when Della confronted him, he said, yes, he figured it was better not to let anyone know exactly what you had, because then they would want to take it away.

If Steve was an odd child, it was because of his extraordinary intelligence, Della reasoned, a feature which Leo never acknowledged and which even the school system seemed to lose sight of after years of listless performance on Steve’s part. There was only one disconcerting event in his development. When Steve was fourteen he began to spend time with a classmate named Carl, meeting over their computers after school and communicating by modem until late into the night, while all four parents slept and assumed that their sons did also. Della tried to like Carl and include herself in some of their discussions, but they might as well have been passing notes behind her back, there was so little she could really follow. Then, when both boys were seventeen, Carl hanged himself from an exposed pipe in the basement of his home, leaving no note.

Suicide can cast an unflattering light on its survivors, for where death has found a niche, who knows what other extremities may have dwelt? There was some unpleasantness between the families, suspicions of a dare or of a game that went too far, though no one knew what the boys had been working on or playing with. Steve just seemed to withdraw more after Carl’s death, spending more time alone with the computer or sometimes reading in his room till dawn. But Leo was transformed by the event, and came to regard his son as a criminal for whom only the crime had yet to be discovered.

After Steve left for college, and especially after he left their lives a second time for good, Della had addressed herself to finding what Leo called “a life.” She hired a housekeeper and enrolled in courses at the university, which is where she met Miriam. Then, when her mother’s mind began to fail, she was required, naturally, to fill in for it: making doctor’s appointments, driving her mother to them, doing the shopping. It would have been easier if her mother could have moved in with them, but Leo rejected the idea outright. So she spent her time driving around the oblique triangle defined by her house, the campus, and her mother’s house. One leg of the triangle was highway, bordered with just enough trees to contrive the impression of a rural immensity beyond, so that it might have been some other state far to the west. Another leg was a heavily trafficked four-lane street cluttered with shopping centers and freestanding stores with limited offerings, such as auto parts and lighting fixtures. The other leg, between the two houses, wound through neighborhoods whose blistery paint and unclipped shrubbery announced some shift in the economy, although Della could not remember what, exactly, the newspapers had taken to calling it.

*  *  *

When Leo came back downstairs, the hair around his face was wet from splashing himself with cold water. For a moment, coming down the steps, he had looked foolish, like a small boy in need of correction, but seeing Della still standing there, in what he liked to call the trance state, the place she had been slowly retreating to over the years, brought up his anger again. “I’m leaving, Della,” he said, from the kitchen doorway, using her name to indicate that things had already moved onto the plane of legal interaction, beyond reach of tears or pleading. “I’m going to join the land of the living.” He walked to the front door: “Not that you give a shit whether I live or die,” and slammed out.

The rest of the night moved fast, as if propelled by diet pills. Della checked that all the doors were locked for the night and then checked again, including the windows. When there was nothing left to do for the house, a task defined itself. She brought the stack of family photo albums into the kitchen, turned on the overhead light, and began at the beginning, with the wedding pictures, moving through baby Steve, little boy Steve, toward the present, where the representations were fewer and more random: Steve posed in the front yard, ready to go off to college, the fat all gone from his face by then, which had grown thin and dark and ironic. Leo and Della dressed up for someone else’s wedding, standing in front of one of Leo’s new cars. Steve and Della together, him tall enough to put his arm around her shoulders, casually, both of them smiling at some joke he had told, some joke that Leo didn’t get.

Photographs are the enemy of memory, usurping it with little slogans where whole essays should stand, and this was good, Della thought, because she was now an enemy too. At two in the morning she finished going through the albums and got up to get a pair of scissors. Then she went back through the albums with the scissors, cutting Leo out of every picture he appeared in and making a pile of his faces, some small and red, some large, clearly lined, demanding. For a long time she looked at the excised faces, moving them around on the table like pieces in a game, looking for the point of betrayal, seeing what might emerge from the different patterns she could make with them, but finding only their shiny surfaces, which repelled the light back up to her eyes.

After she had scraped the faces together in a pile and put the pile in an ashtray, she started back through the albums again. Here was a revised, improved, family of herself and Steve, moving jauntily through infancy, first day of school, sixth-grade graduation, unhindered by the headless body that now and then showed up in the margins. Leo drove him out, she allowed herself to think. This was the fact that Leo’s departure uncovered. But cutting Leo out wouldn’t bring Steve back. And for the first time she felt the white rage that precedes absolute loss: Steve is gone. The one special thing in her life, marking her off from every other sleepwalking woman in the mall, and now he was gone.

When the gray light from the window began to overpower the fluorescence, she fixed herself some coffee and a muffin and sat down to make a list. “1. Call Miriam,” she wrote, and “2. Exterminator.” But the list, so easily completed, frightened her. It was not at all clear how one began a day, just now, or determined when it was over. “One day at a time,” they say, but this assumes that there are days, with visible edges, succeeding each other in proper sequence. Leo’s leaving had already fused two of them together, and it was possible that the rest were already blending, ahead of her, into one smooth-walled tube through which she would be condemned to wander sleeplessly forever. For no matter what you thought of Leo, and Miriam had come close to saying straight out that he was an asshole, he knew how to slice the substance of time into manageable segments: breakfast, dinner, evening, weekend. These, she saw with new respect, were the footholds by which people survive the ascent to wherever they are going, and without Leo, there was only a terrifying smoothness where no human foot could hope to rest. She took up the list again and wrote “3.” Then left it blank.

*  *  *

After that, Miriam pretty much took over. She arrived a little after nine the morning after Leo left, bringing doughnuts and a vial of Valium. In the days while Della slept or sat in front of the television, Miriam dealt with lawyers, locksmiths, realtors. It was Della’s decision to move out of the house, at least she had thought of it, but Miriam was in charge of the move, and brought in Maisy, the cleaning lady, for two days of packing and cleaning, at almost twice the normal pay. Miriam cooked too, or arranged the takeout food on the table for the three of them. There was something remotely mirthful about these meals, which Della strained to grasp. Miriam would light a cigarette after eating, in defiance of the departed Leo, who had outlawed smoking once he had given it up himself. Maisy would take a second helping, no need to rush, and from the look on her face Della could measure how far she had fallen: from the employer class, someone to be evaded and outwitted, to the level of common women.

After lunch on the second day of Maisy’s presence, Della excused herself to go lie down, leaving Miriam and Maisy alone at the kitchen table. “You know what she needs,” Miriam said, “she needs to get out of here, get a job, meet someone decent. This is not the end of the world. I mean, she’s a good-looking woman. There are support groups for this.”

Miriam had her own business, and her cards said “Programming Consultant,” although what she mostly did was word processing for professors and graduate students at the university, dissertations, grant proposals. She was attracted to Della as a person of superior intelligence, but who had somehow failed to connect with the world. It was her theory that the very bright were inevitably slightly lazy, slightly off-key because it was so easy for them to coast, while the so-called stupid worked overtime to compensate and thus developed, by sheer will, a kind of second brain, layered over the imperfect one.

“I tell you what she needs,” Maisy responded. “She doesn’t need a man. She’s been through men. She needs her boy. She needs to find that boy.”

“But he’s grown-up, don’t you think.” Miriam had not thought of Steve as a factor. He was in the past, something else for Della to move beyond. But Maisy had been around when Steve was still at home, while Miriam was still more or less a newcomer in Della’s life. Maisy and Steve were friends, Della had said, if friendship is possible across such a distance of age and condition. Many times she had come home from some errand to find Maisy and Steve sitting in the kitchen, locked in what looked like an earnest discussion, the boy thin and tense and the large African American woman.

“Not so grown-up he doesn’t need a mother. A boy just drops out like that and no one goes out and looks for him. What kind of people. Blood doesn’t end, you know, just because a door slams shut.”

“Well, a whole year, he could be dead.” Miriam shrugged. “The last thing Della needs.”

Maisy waved her hand to push the thought away. “He’s not your suicide type, her boy. For someone like Steve, the time to die, he would take that as his deadline, time to get it all done by. He’d be working toward that deadline, getting stuff done.”

She paused to consider some unsolved problem in her mind. “And you look at those trees out there, maybe a deadline laid down for every simple fool on earth. Time running out. I could see that years ago, working in this neighborhood, when they built those houses on the corner. Tear down living trees to make a house out of dead ones they bring in. Kill some trees and bring dead ones in from somewhere to pile up over the grave. You put that together and you know it can’t keep on going like that. You run out. And now with the caterpillars, we’re all speeding to the end, got to get stuff done.”

Miriam felt left out of some assumption here. “Well, what exactly did this kid ever do? Gets into one of the best colleges in the country, for computer science, God knows how, because his grades were nothing, and drops out, after less than two years, comes home, bums around, gets a job at the university—running errands for Dr. Leitbetter, I think, out at the Human Ecology Complex—then what? Vanishes into the mist.”

“You be surprised what that boy is on to. Someday everybody’s going to get a big surprise.”

“Well, it doesn’t help Della, does it?”

“Her son would, someone would find her son.”

Miriam frowned. As far as she was concerned, Steve was no more related to Della’s situation than the trees were, or the caterpillars. If you went around seeing everything connected, soon all the pieces would lock together into a whole, and where would you be? Standing outside, trying to follow the plot. It’s the disconnections that provide the space for a person to move ahead in the world, make their own decisions. Leave yourself a clear path, this on this side, that on the other. But it couldn’t hurt to check out some of the local computer bulletin boards for some trace of the lost boy, maybe post a message of her own.

“Only thing is,” Maisy continued, rising with the dishes in one hand, “he wouldn’t go by the name of Steve. He would go by the name of Kipper. I don’t even know if she knows that. What he was doing, he said you need a code name, you don’t want someone to jump in, try and take it over.”

*  *  *

Upstairs, there were boxes in the hall, stacks of garment bags, a vacuum cleaner with its hose uncoiled. Della thought of sleeping, and then thought of sleeping as something she had done already, had tried and it hadn’t worked. The boxes containing Leo’s things had LEO written on them hugely in Magic Marker, like graffiti left by some spiteful child. She looked into her own bedroom—no, the master bedroom—and watched as it seemed to recede into the regrettable past. It was this strange receding of things that made her desperate to move. Even the kitchen with Maisy and Miriam in it could be seen only across a gap of years, perhaps decades, in which people unknown to her had grown up, moved on, or died, and others had forgotten their graves.

There were the twenty-eight Valium Miriam had given her and the seventeen sleeping pills she had found in the bottom of one of Leo’s drawers. She had not made a decision about this, and was doing her best to prepare for the move like everyone else. In her version of the move, though, only the clothing and furniture and kitchenware continued on into the open spaces of the known future. She ended here, perhaps in what the others would still see as “this afternoon.” But first there was something she had to do, the only goodbye that mattered, because Miriam would never understand anyway.



"In an intriguing fusion of subject and style...Kipper's Game splices a treatise on knowledge into a spooky-music intellectual thriller."—Entertainment Weekly
  • "Wonderfully imaginative."—Library Journal
  • "Ehrenreich...makes full use of her Ph.D. in biology to create an America on the edge of environmental ruin and anarchy--where doomsday prophets and powerful corporate entities vie for control. Complex and convincingly bleak."—Kirkus
  • On Sale
    Jan 7, 2020
    Hachette Audio

    Barbara Ehrenreich

    About the Author

    Barbara Ehrenreich (1941-2022) was a bestselling author and political activist, whose more than a dozen books include Natural CausesLiving with a Wild God, the award winning essay collection Had I Known, and Nickel and Dimed, which the New York Times described as “a classic in social justice literature.” An award-winning journalist, she frequently contributed to Harper'sThe NationThe New York Times, and TIME magazine. Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, when it was still a bustling mining town. She studied physics at Reed College and earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University. Rather than going into laboratory work, she got involved in activism, and soon devoted herself to writing her innovative journalism.

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