This desert is one of 21 backgrounds included in psychologist Edwin Shneidman’s paper-doll set Make a Picture Story, also known as the MAPS test. It was used in the 1940s to analyze patients. Sheila Heti used it to ask Desmond, a bank manager, what he sees.

Desmond works as a bank manager. Every day he dresses up formally, and he takes pleasure in this and what it communicates of his seriousness and respectability. He takes pride in his work and considers himself something of a counselor to his clients, often people who are struggling financially. He sees his work at the bank as a way of helping people, and cares a great deal about them. He is traditionally masculine in the old-fashioned ways—hates to discuss his feelings, never cries, is suspiciously too certain about his beliefs, and is unwilling to consult others or ask for help and advice, which make him feel too vulnerable. He was a football player in high school. He is a dutiful son but does not seem to like his mother. He is straight—lives all alone, and hasn't dated since his early 30s (he's 40 now). He sees much art as frivolous and finds meandering conversations "a waste of time." Only with great reluctance did he participate in this, but he proved to be more imaginative than many of those I met with. Even though he disdains the creative side of himself, it clearly was very strong and very developed.

What do you see when you look at this picture, Desmond?

It's a town in Arizona or something like that, and there's a baseball diamond that's right on the edge of the desert, and sometimes—very occasionally—when the ball gets hit really, really, really far, somebody chases it. They chase it to this particular place that's just hazy, and you can't see it anywhere else. You can see a couple of baseballs around there. This boy was chasing the ball, and there's this specter of a naked girl who appears. Any time a boy gets here—he's chasing his ball—all of a sudden he sees the specter of this naked youth. And this fella is dressed as a doorman or a bellhop, and he's there to counsel anybody who might come by here, saying, "It's a ghost—it's a specter—please don't go 'cause you'll never come back. Just get your ball and leave." He's dressed like this 'cause people trust the information that bellhops and doormen have to give out.

So everyone who comes sees this girl?

Yeah.

And is she kind of ghostly?

Yeah. And she's huge, you know. And they only see her when they get to this point, when they're chasing their ball. And he says, "Please, please, you'll never get there and you'll be lost forever; please just take your ball and go back." That's his job, to stay there and beg the boys not to go. But they always go, as you can see. All the balls are still there.

They always go chasing after this girl and they never come back and they die somewhere in the desert?

As you can see, all the baseballs are still there, and he has this mournful look on his face 'cause he can see that this boy has already made up his mind.

Does he employ himself—is he a concerned citizen—or does the town employ him?

He doesn't work for anybody. He's just part of the same operation.

What do you mean, "operation"?

He's a ghost the same way she's a ghost. He's just part of the atmosphere. It's not a job. Taxpayers don't pay his salary or anything like that.

So he's not a real guy?

He's as real as she is. She's out there somewhere.

When you say "operation," it sounds like there's evil intent.

There's no intent. It's just part of the atmosphere. There's good and bad in the atmosphere, and there are things that people shouldn't mess with, and there are those who are concerned about people who choose to mess with things that they shouldn't mess with, pursue what they shouldn't pursue. There's no judgment in any of it. That's just how it goes. But anyway, this guy has got a very glum job because he has to see a lot of boys walk away and never come back. That's life.

Desmond's vision of a world beyond the threshold of reality, in which "specters" and ghosts appear, and which is "hazy," mirrors our ideas of a subconscious or unconscious mind, a world of "huge" figures that are "just part of the atmosphere," the atmosphere of our inner landscape.

Desmond is not an introspective man—he is a man of action, the sort who would be playing ball and knock it far enough away that he would have to run a great distance to get it back. This is the fifth picture we have looked at together, and I feel him growing irritated or distressed. He is "concerned about people who choose to mess with things that they shouldn't mess with, pursue what they shouldn't pursue," such as the symbols of the unconscious—people like me.

Desmond is, in fact, the well-dressed figure who is telling me and those like me—artists, psychoanalysts—to just "get your ball and leave." As if life is that simple. As if actions that meander or don't seem to point to a direct objective are a waste of time, and worse, a threat: "You'll never get there and you'll be lost forever."

The idea of the anima (the female aspect of the male psyche, represented by the girlish specter) is the "there" Desmond is sure he will never get to—the truly feminine part of himself. He fears it, fears even the idea of approach, and exists as a "bellhop" warning himself away. What is he afraid he will discover if he does finally meet that "large" specter? Does he really think, if he integrates his feminine aspects into himself, instead of becoming more whole, he will "be lost forever"?

Yet he acknowledges that the pull of the feminine is great—the boys "always go, as you can see." Frighteningly, however, in doing so, they lose their balls. They are castrated by their attraction to and integration of the feminine. Desmond has a low opinion of this transformation—as the bellhop, "he has this mournful look on his face," standing there warning me, himself, everyone (boys in particular) against venturing into that "hazy" realm.

On some level, he knows this encounter with the repressed feminine must happen eventually—"that's life." But he still stands guard, to warn people (and himself) away. And he may in fact never venture beyond "the edge of the desert." A lot of people don't. They live their lives cut off from aspects of themselves that feel uncomfortably "out there somewhere." We all have boundaries that we fear to cross, in case we "never come back"—lose ourselves as we know ourselves.

Yet why should we be turned away by the incredibly minor officials in ourselves who bar entry to these realms? It's not like a fire-breathing dragon stands at the threshold of the unknown. It's a "bellhop" or a "doorman." In fact, don't "doormen" hold doors open, invitingly? Perhaps Desmond will go there, after all, and will even return with his balls. recommended

Sheila Heti is the author of several hard-to-categorize books, including the novel How Should a Person Be?

Don't miss the rest of this series, including "What Do You See When You Look at This Bedroom?" "What Do You See When You Look at This Attic?" "What Do You See When You Look at This Bridge?" and "What Do You See When You Look at This Square?"