Arrived safely at █████████ today after being downloaded by Central Command along with a squad of other Updates. How naive and disgustingly spoiled we must appear to the haggard veterans of this dreadful war! They were marching out to the train station as we were marching in, yet the mirth and smiles we expected on their faces were conspicuously absent. Instead, we passed a line of thousand-yard stares and frayed uniforms. No such disregard for the uniforms in our squad! My boots are shining. My uniform is freshly starched. I am ready for battle.
Tomorrow, I am assured, we will see our first action on the front line. Our sergeant tells us that we should be prepared to come home much changed. I couldn’t agree more. When I return to you, I will be an honorable veteran, eager to take you on the honeymoon that you were so gracious to postpone while I am here on my tour of duty.
You know as well as I that I bare no ill feelings toward the Ads, but this war has gone on for far too long. Even though you wouldn’t say so during our departure at the station, I knew that you are terribly frightened of me going to the front. Have no fear, my dear! Our Ad Block Corps is the mightiest in the world! I shall surely be home by the end of the summer when the newest Updates are scheduled come to relieve us.
Give my love to Mother. It’s callous of me, I know, to have left her so soon after her stroke, but my wages should be more than enough cover the medical costs of that snake oil salesman of a doctor.
I will write every day.
—Pvt. Eugene Beauregard
Our squad of Updates is unstoppable!
I’ve been warned by the mailroom that they censored my location in my first letter and I should be more careful from now on. Security first, that’s their motto. Though I can’t for the life of me understand what secrets anyone would expect to find in the fawning letters of a lovesick soldier.
Thank you for the blanket! It keeps me warm on these damp, spring nights, and it’s wonderful to have a little piece of home along with me. Everything else I own is standard issue and interchangeable, with the exception of the Code Script on my dog tag.
I bet you and Mother are curious as to what my job is over here. I’m in charge of one of the canons, along with another Update, Walter. He says my accent sounds funny. I tell him he snores in his sleep. We get along smashingly, and we are quickly becoming as close as brothers. On the battlefield, our orders are simple. Destroy any incoming Pop Up Ads. The terrain is awe-inspiring, a massive cliff from Yosemite with pine and deciduous trees in the foreground. It is always sunset here. Or maybe sunrise? I’m not quite sure. The only way we tell time is by the clock in the upper right of the screen.
The Ads are easy to spot, attempting to cover most of the screen for maximum visibility, but that is also their biggest weakness. Walter will do some calculations in his notebook regarding distance and wind speed (Figures that are beyond me. You remember how poorly I am at mathematics). We work together to push the heavy canon into position. And then WHAM! The Pop Up Ads vaporize into a million bits and flutter down to the treetops. They are stupid, mindless foes. Nothing compared to the strength and vigilance of our Updates. The only time it becomes even remotely challenging is a few minutes before Central Command puts us to sleep. That’s when Ads for Penis Enlargements and Hot Singles in Your Area begin to appear, covering whatever the Central Command is trying to find on the Internet. I must admit, the sheer volume of them was enough to make me temporarily paralyzed the first time I witnessed it, but they are still easy targets.
I’ll be back before you know it!
—Pvt. Eugene Beauregard
Today the Ads unleashed a new technique, but to no avail. At first, it was extremely frustrating. Whenever Walter and I would fire the canon, the Pop Up Ads would jump over, causing us to miss the Xs that bring their demise. We sent word to the commanders, and they supplied us with a new Bug Fix to assist us before our lunches even got cold. The Bug Fix, Sylvester, is a slight man with spectacles and wispy thin mustache. He discovered that if the Central Command moved the cursor over the X but didn’t click on it for a few moments, it would make the Ads jump. All that was left for us to do was recalibrating using Walter’s calculations, and our battlefield domination continued. It was a temporary fix, yet it gave the afternoon a feeling of accomplishment. Other than that, it is mostly insufferably dull here in █████████.
Speaking of excitement. Will you be getting any new dresses for the summer? I can’t wait to dance with you at the town hall. It gets lonely here at night. Nothing to do but stare up at the screensaver and wonder if you’re looking at the same photos of Central Command’s vacation as I am.
—Pvt. Eugene Beauregard
I received another warning from the mailroom. It seems that in my last letter I mentioned our location again. Our Sergeant was pissed, and I was punished by not being able to write for you the past few weeks. I’m sorry. I must try to be more careful about giving out personal information.
My body is aching and tender. Walter and I have moved to a new Platoon, hunting down Trackers. They are not like the Pop-Up or Banner Ads we’d been routing up until this point. Instead, they are clever little spies that come in and try to gather information about Central Command. They attempt to steal passwords, IP addresses, find out how long the Central Command has been spending on a particular page, and then sell the information to the highest bidder. Walter and I caught up with our first one in the forests outside of █████████. I’ll spare you the gory details, but it was a gruesome affair that I don’t think I shall soon forget. The good thing about firing the canon at the Pop Ups was that you never had to hear them scream. But in order to stop Trackers, we must take them by surprise. Walter seems pretty shaken up about it. I came upon him crying outside the mess hall after dinner. He confessed that it he was having doubts about whether or not it was acceptable for us to be killing Ads at all. Weren’t they simply doing what their Central Command was telling them what to do? I eased his worries, and before heading to sleep I made him realize that we are at war, and no war has ever been won without death. It is our burden to carry, and we must do so without question.
All this hunting has made me weary. I’ll try to write back in a more timely fashion henceforth.
—Pvt. Eugene Beauregard
I really must reread these letters before sending them to you. After receiving my third strike from the mailroom, I was forbidden to write or receive any letters until today. The one silver lining was the chance to read and reread all your letters this evening. I’m certain I shall reread them again before I go to sleep tonight, but it is time to catch you up on my doings here at the front.
Not to jinx it, but our mission, so far, has been a complete success. Loading speeds are the highest they’ve been since Central Command switched from Internet Explorer. Instead of Ads and Trackers, most of the time there are merely white rectangles standing where invitations to join LinkedIn once appeared. There hasn’t been a single breach of privacy since the last Update.
Yet the calm of the battlefield is never but moments away from turning into bloody carnage. From YouTube alone we ended up with over 300 POWs. They are processed by having their addresses put on lists and then sent to our ramshackle prison for a hot shower and a warm meal. Much better than our POWs are treated, I can assure you! You should hear some of the horror stories of what happens when our men are captured. They are locked in a room and forced to watch unskippable Ads for Audible.com, Squarespace, or Priceline until they promise to sign up for a free trial membership. They are animals.
There are even rumors of double agents from the Smartphone and Tablet fronts, but (knock on wood) we have never had to face such traitors over here.
Wishing I were swinging on the front porch with you nestled in my arms,
—Pvt. Eugene Beauregard
The Ads tricked us! The dirty liars! Central Command was attempting to look at pictures of puppies wearing tuxes when we were greeted with a white flag. The Website asked us to drop our weapons, for the Ad Block division to stand down in order to proceed. And the bastards at Central Command did it! Sure, the Ads promised that the information would be private, but did they keep their promise? Of course not. Of course not! As soon as we laid down our arms, a rush of Ads came in with wagonload upon wagonload of Cookies. Cookies! Freshly baked. Crispy on the outside. Moist (I know how you hate that word, dear, but there is no other way to describe them) on the inside. We thought it rather sporting of the old blackguards. How foolish we were! After two days of allowing this, Walter called me over to the bushes to have me look at his bowel movement. A strange request, I thought. He poked his feces with a stick, and what did we find inside? You guessed it, Tracking Devices no bigger than a chocolate chip, blinking red in his ████.
It took a whole week before we found and disabled each one. Imagine us. Trained soldiers having to search through our own excrement to find Malware.
So please, when I return at the end of summer, don’t you or Mother bake me any cookies.
After tonight’s bloody battle, both Walter and I have agreed to send any unsent letters to each other’s sweethearts if the worst should happen. I don’t think it shall, but I couldn’t stand the thought of you not knowing how much I love and miss you. It may seem morbid, but I know that the last words that ever pass through my sunburnt lips shall by “Martha.”
—Pvt. Eugene Beauregard
P.S. Please don’t tell mother. I don’t want her to have another stroke.
Apparently profanity is also reason to have my mail privileges taken away. The mailroom says that if I don’t behave in a way more befitting an Ad Block soldier they will take away my mailroom privileges until the end of my tour of duty.
I hesitate to even write this letter, but we agreed to be honest while I was away, and I don’t want you to ever doubt my fidelity.
The Ads have been reduced to the most cowardly of tactics. For the past three days, they’ve begun using female civilians. Tall, strong, lean, scantily clad women attempt to lure us into letting our guards down.
The rest of the Platoon and I have deemed these new threats Clickbait, as they appear to be irresistible to Central Command.
I had to pull Walter back by the collar to keep him from running into no-man’s-land today. But even with many of us warning our fellow soldiers of the traps, we’ve lost many good men due to phrases like “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next” and “Top 10 Lifehacks to…”
As soon as the first of our men reach them in the open field, the women grab on to them and won’t let them go. Though scantily clad, they have plenty of dynamite stuffed into their corsets.
Using ladies as suicide bombers. Can you believe it?
The explosions were so messy that I don’t think my uniform shall ever be stainless again.
I’ll tell you one thing, if Walter’s sweetheart ever hears about him nearly running straight into those poor women’s arms, he’d be better off getting court-martialed. I hear she’s a terror when provoked.
I, of course, maintained the highest of composures.
Your steadfast soldier,
—Pvt. Eugene Beauregard
Martha! You must leave town! Everything has been compromised!
We never saw it coming. Native Ads. They’ve been among us the whole time. Learning our ways. Finding our weaknesses. Selling our private information to the and lying in wait for their time to strike.
Today, before dawn, they unleashed their master plan.
So many of my fellow soldiers have shown themselves to be double agents, pretending to be friendly, but they were all just Ads in disguise.
Even Walter, whom I called friend…brother.
You’ll recall, he asked me for our home address, in case I were to die in combat so he could send you my final words. I didn’t realize how small of a crack the Ads needed! None of us did. Except maybe those pencil pushers in the mailroom. I should have listened to them!
So now they’re coming for you. This is no longer a war between soldiers. The Ads have declared total war, vowing not to spare civilians.
And to think I consoled Walter when he was having doubts about killing enemy soldiers. Little did I know that he was probably thinking about what he would be commanded to do to me. And I gave him permission!
You can trust no one.
You must go Incognito, or before you know it there will be Battalions of Penis Enlargement Ads ramming through our front screen door.
Please, help Mother get to safety if you can, but if she’s too weak to move in her condition…you’ve got to save yourself. For me. For the future children I promised you before I shipped off to this absurd war.
TJ Davis is an English teacher, originally from Minnesota, with six published books, including a memoir of his three years living in Burma, two novellas, and three collections of short stories. His first book, Ajuma, was published by Gentleman Tree Publishing. One of his short stories, “Itchy,” finished in the top sixteen of the Discovery Channel’s “How Stuff Works Halloween Fiction Contest.” In 2015, four of his short stories were published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. One of these stories was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. In 2016, his short story “Soul Airlines” was published by Moloko House. He currently lives in Sofia, Bulgaria.
“By the way, you don’t mind if I smoke do you? Gee thanks; you’re aces pal.” I slowly take the butane lighter from my pocket and hold it to the Chesterfield I’ve retrieved from the antiquated holder I keep in the back pocket of my jeans. What’s the rush after all? The smoke dances in the sunlight that pours through the stained glass window opposite us in the kitchen and I can’t help but admire the feel of this particular home. It’s almost dreamlike, positively surreal.
The opulent paint scheme and the stucco walls set a very distinctive mood and everything matches from the curtains down to the brass appliances. It’s one hell of a house and it’s safe to say I’m a fan of whoever was responsible for the design. I’m especially fixated on the custom set of kitchen knives on the butcher block. There’s a lot you can tell about a person from the decorations of their home and the condition they keep their cutlery in. “Honestly I don’t think there is any other way to look at my life; I’m just horribly misunderstood. That’s the long and short of it and to my knowledge it’s always has been that way. Seriously, let me just run a few things past you, I’m sure you’ll see it from my point of view.”
I guess it’d be too easy to blame this kind of thing on my mother although she’s most likely the root of my specific peculiarities. Saying my childhood was “abnormal” would be anything but an exaggeration. “Did you know that my mother, outside of being a lawyer and a doctor was also a representative on the city council? At least that’s what she’d tell the newspaper in her bi-monthly rant to the editor of the local newspaper. My doctors may say I’m imbalanced but if they’d of had the chance to meet her then they’d really know what crazy looked like. She’d of made Pagliacci look like a normal balanced individual.” The fact of the matter was I barely saw my mother, save when she’d come by to take me to the local magistrate to renew her child support documentation and whatnot. I was raised by her brother, my uncle, who happened to be a very artistic man. And for as much of an artist as he was he was twice as eccentric. Maybe those traits rubbed off on me more than I’d care to admit, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time, as that’s an entirely different rabbit hole of equal measure and depth.
As I inhale the cherry on the cigarette glows red, then an intense orange before settling back into a cool ash-grey. “Control issues; that was the first thing that got on my nerves when people would attempt to analyze me as a child. What was it they used to say? Oh yes, they said I was “aggressive-aggressive”. Sure I might have been a bit bossy but some children are naturally like that aren’t they? The whole incident with me tying the other kids up? That was just a joke, and apparently one that some parents just couldn’t take. I always thought it was funny seeing what other kids do especially if you leave them alone like that for a while. Besides, I learned an important lesson from that whole debacle; bungee cords are infinitely superior to rope when it comes to restraints. Keep another child tied up in a janitors closet for long enough and they’ll look forward to being locked in their parents car trunk like it was Christmas, rest assured.”
The look on my new friend’s face contorts in discomfort; it’s painfully clear that he’s not following and considering the position he’s in I guess I can understand that. He seems worried. I can tell because his eyes keep darting around the room Maybe I should get more personal. The doctors always said that was something I should try and right now is as good a time as any to give it a shot. “Would you believe after that they sent me for counseling? For the most part I still don’t understand what the fuss was all about; everybody likes a good fire after all. Hell, I’d even say it was art, and who’s got the right to deny me my God given right to make my art a reality?”
Yes, I do believe I’m starting to lose him; he’s drifting and that’s upsetting me quite a bit to say the least. “I guess, in retrospect, I may have had a bit of a violent streak in me but then again at the time it seemed perfectly reasonable. It’s not like I was a looney or something like that; I’d always assumed if I were Big Brother would have had me locked up. And in my defense those kids were bigger than me so they had it coming. Besides, it’s not like they ever found the baseball bat… or the bodies for that matter.” The embers begin to singe the base of my fingers and I take one final drag on the nearly finished cigarette.
I guess it’s true what they say, nothing lasts forever, not my Chesterfields, much to my dismay, and not the surprisingly enjoyable conversation I’ve been having. Sure it’s a bit one sided but when somebody like me finds another person who’s willing to listen it means the world. My hand caresses the forged handles of the knives on the cutting block and rests gently over the smallest of the bunch; the paring knife. I remove it from its place of rest and run my fingernail over the blade to test its keenness. “Ahhh…. just what I like to see, the edge is nice and sharp.” I admire the workmanship of the solid steel knife in my hand; my friend on the couch certainly does have an eye for detail and quality. “Oh, and about your cat; there’s just no way around it, the cat HAD to go.”
I begin to move towards the couch, slowly, but purposefully. I’d like to say that I didn’t do that kind of thing intentionally. I’d also like to say that doing so didn’t make the situation all the more exciting for me but if I said that I’d be lying. Delay the moment for as long as you can, that’s what I always say. Besides, the slow stroll towards my host gives me a minute to admire the rich Corinthian leather of the couch he’s “sitting” on. “You know I just wanted to say, before we get on with it all, I absolutely love what you’ve done with your house; you’ve got style, panache even. It is, by far, the nicest I’ve been in a while and the fact that you were nice enough to spend some time listening to my problems, well, that’s just plain neighborly of you.”
He struggles against the bungee cords that I’ve used to tie him up. If I didn’t know any better I’d think he was trying to bite through the duct tape. “Sorry about that friend. Honestly if I thought you wouldn’t scream I’d take the tape off but considering I know full well we’re about to make a mess I just can’t take ay extra chances.” His eyes widen as I produce the knife and begin to hone it on the leather strap I keep in my pocket. “Now, do me a favour and try to stay still. It’s more for your sake, honestly. Either way, this is really going to hurt.”
“Hmmm…. I’m starting to regret not doing this outside. He certainly was a gusher. But on the bright side, at least there won’t be a whole lot left over for his huckle bearers to carry.” The blood on the curtains beads up and rolls down the magenta fabric like wax on a candle. Ikea; they just have to be from Ikea. Those Norwegian bastards were absolute geniuses when it came to murder-friendly housewares and there isn’t another a group of people on Earth that would make drapes in a gaudy colors like that.
RJ Wasser is an English Major at West Chester University. He previously completed two enlistments in the US Armed Forces; one in the Air Force and the other in the Army. wasserrj.wordpress.com
It had been a busy day in the cake shop. I’d had to throw out a gaggle of over-excited Catholic school girls who had only enough money amongst them to buy one three-penny bun. And then came in that old school mate of mine, rather plump with happiness, sod her. She spent two hours deciding what she’d like, her husband scowling magisterially at me as she fluted her detailed instructions to me, between distressed comments about how worn I was looking.
And then this blissful quiet. I nibbled on a stale truffle cake and did my accounts.
In the evening, a large raven toddled in, its claws shod in worn dress shoes. But it wasn’t a raven. It was a little, long-nosed woman, whose long chin reminded me of horrid Aunt Sally, who took me in when mother died and treated me as her slave.
She alternated between wriggling tension and delight as she inspected the cakes, her sallow little face with its mask of little wrinkles lighting up as she hugged herself. I eyed her narrowly, jealous of the way she seemed wrapped up in her own secret delights.
“What does madam want?” I asked finally, with as much sarcasm as I could muster, “A wedding cake?”
She blushed, and the general goodwill she felt for the world inadvertently cleansed me.
“Oh, no,” she laughed and I stared with shock as the wrinkles creased out of her face to reveal a beautiful child.
And then the wrinkles flooded back in, with the deep paw marks of Sorrow and Despair.
When no one tells you you are beautiful, you stop being.
Adreyo Sen is pursuing his MFA at Stony Brook, Southampton. He has been published at Garbanzo, Danse Macabre, Cannon’s Mouth, and Reading Hour.
I was afraid to go to Paris, afraid to spend the fantasy I had hoarded for years. I meant to go with a lover; I meant to go when I was thin and beautiful and well-dressed. I carried your picture with me to Paris. I prayed to it each night, stealing a secret peek so the other college students on this summer school trip would not see me praying to a professor they all knew to be a model of intellectual rigor, and, they assumed, high ethical standards. Do you ever pray to my picture impaled on your office bulletin board? In the picture, I smile a secret smile, knowing your wife might see this picture of some student standing in front of a Paris pizza parlor. But it isn’t just some student; it’s me. The pizza parlor is the one you ate in every night when you were in Paris twenty years ago. I still have the map you drew on the back of your personalized stationery to help me find my way here. While the other students crease and de-crease their guide maps to historical landmarks, I trace my way down streets that hold memories for you, to arrive at your historical sites. I could not explain to the others why I had to find this particular pizza parlor, or why I didn’t order anything but insisted on having my picture taken standing in front, smiling for someone not there. The Louvre was only a block away but its treasures meant nothing to me. Notre Dame was just a church. Versailles, merely a shrine to conspicuous consumption. But Pizza Oskian was the historical site of your laughter. The building shares a wall with another shrine, the Hotel L’Oratoire, where I imagine you on the third floor, writhing with some woman, now twenty years older, in a narrow bed. And while I no longer have you in my bed, each night, in the shower, I let my tears run down the drain, mingling with thousands of sloughed cells. Each night, I am peeled one layer more vulnerable to you. I want to live below the surface of my skin because that is where you are. When I asked you once if you felt guilty about what we were doing, you stared in amazement, then laughed. “It isn’t as if I’m going to leave my wife and run off to Paris.” Oh, but you have.
Toni La Ree Bennett received a PhD in English at the University of Washington. Her work has appeared in Poemmemoirstory, Puerto del Sol, Hawaii Pacific Review, Society of Classical Poets, Journal of Poetry Therapy, and Viet Nam Generation, among other publications, and she has several poems included in the anthology The Muse Strikes Back. She is also an editor and photographer.
William Henley, third generation of English immigrants to America, casually surveyed the peaked roof shadow of his ancient mansion, an everyday event in the late afternoon. The front of somewhat pretentiously named Henley Hall was on the East end overlooking a spacious drive which wound through the park-like, wooded acreage of this estate. After a few seconds, It sunk in that he was viewing something impossible. Instead of the usual solid mass of black, the outline of the the three joined together attic windows was present.
How could this be? The vacant attic would have no lights on. No one had been up there for months, maybe years. There was nothing up there except the usual collection of junk, a big old chest, a rocking chair, a few mouldering boxes, a dressmaker’s dummy, a lot of dust and debris. There probably were electric lights but why would they be on in the daytime and why would anyone be up there anyway? William, Bill as his friends usually called him, puzzled over this.
He had lived in this house for only a little over three months. He had a good job with a company which manufactured solar energy cells. As an engineer, he had worked on the research to perfect what was considered the best product on the market. He had inherited this old, fourteen room mansion from his grandparents on the Henley side of the family. It took nine months for him to get situated to move in, problems with the settling of the estate, selling his house, and actually moving all his things. Then there was his marriage to Sondra, a joyful event but one which also added complications. The thought always reminded him of a course he took in story writing. His teacher returned his story with a notation to “introduce plot complication here,” so she was tall, blond, leggy, and seductive.
There was a big library which he loved. Typical of many 19th century mansions, his great grandfather, when he became successful in business, had this built. A library was de rigueur and was filled by going to the booksellers and ordering “550 running feet of Culture.” Many of these splendid volumes had never been looked at, the gilt edges never disturbed. He found splendid illustrated editions of science fiction by Verne and George Meredith as well as over a dozen books illustrated by Gustave Dore. There were, he reflected, many things about this house he knew little or nothing about.
When Sondra returned from her trip to nearby Bloomingbed, home of one of the big state universities, a book signing of a famous writer he thought, he discussed it with her. Checking the shadow again, it was back to normal. She responded with the usual, “Maybe you just imagined it.”
But later that week, talking to an old friend of his named Charlie, who lived just down the road, he was surprised by a crack about: “Hey, I see the honeymoon is over with your new wife. Coming by like two o’clock, I see the light burning in the attic. You have a laboratory up there now? Building a better mousetrap so the world will beat a path to your door? Let your old buddy in on it!” Bill was dumbfounded, he didn’t know what to say. He passed it off with a non-committal remark that sometime he’d get into it with him.
Friday afternoon, while Sondra was going to the toilet, she exclaimed, “Oh Drat! There’s no toilet paper!” She looked up to see a roll of toilet paper float across the room and pause in front of her. She jumped up and fled the room!
When Saturday came, he decided there was nothing for it but to look in the attic. He and Sondra unlocked the door and went up the narrow staircase to look around. She found the musty odor of mold and decay very offensive. But there was nothing too remarkable, pretty much the pile of junk he had expected. Three 100 watt bulbs hung from the rafters. The light switch worked perfectly. They walked the length of the attic seeing nothing untoward. Then as they went to leave, it occurred to him they had left footprints in the dust, the only ones. There was a big old chest and a dressmaker’s dummy, right out of the 1900 Sears and Roebuck Catalog. Then as they glanced at the far corner with the old wooden rocking chair, they saw that it had started to rock, slowly at first, then more rapidly. They left.
Monday evening, the Autumn wind swayed the branches of the old trees surrounding the house, heaving to and fro. It howled. now with a low moan like the sound of grief and then with a shrill shriek like a person wrenched in agony. It was a dreary gale which brought to mind thoughts of shipwrecks, of brave crews, tossed in a midnight sea, longing for a safe, sheltered harbor. The lightning flashes and distant, rolling thunder added to the gloomy atmosphere. Bill’s friends Charlie and Willy Smith came over for dinner. Afterword they discussed the strange happenings, they agreed there be some logical explanations, nobody educated and intelligent believes in ghosts. Willy kept repeating himself that believing in ghosts is just plain stupid. After his fourth declaration, the wine bottle on the buffet exploded. The flying glass didn’t hurt anyone but it made quite a mess.
That night Bill and Sondra heard the strangest noises coming from the attic. It sounded like heavy footsteps plodding back and forth. Suddenly they stopped and all was quiet. When Bill looked out in the hallway an hour later, he glanced at the nightlight. At first it gave the usual simple light pattern, then it changed, twisting and turning about in a weird, impossible configuration. A faint sound of maniacal laughter added to the uncanny experience. The following night, as Bill was reading in the library, the lights dimmed and a procession of shadowy figures marched across one wall, then the lights brightened back to normal.
Bill and Sondra questioned the butler and his wife the cook. They had been caretakers of the place while it was unoccupied . No they had never experienced anything unusual. They had spent most of their time on the first floor, their room was at the back of the house. They had usually only gone upstairs in the daytime.
Two nights later, Bill and Sondra were awakened at 3 AM. A rather ordinary looking fellow was standing over their bedside. He just stared at them for a minute. Then he said, “So you don’t believe in ghosts, do you!” They blinked their eyes and he was standing by the door, they blinked again and he had disappeared! Bill jumped up and sprang to the door. Looking down the long corridor he could see no one. The maniacal laughter was louder this time. Stubbornly refusing to admit that they had something which had no “natural explanation,” they finally called in an expert of sorts, a Christian man who had made a study of ghostly phenomena.
He arrived Friday afternoon, a white haired, dignified, retired university professor. They all sat down together before a roaring, crackling fire in the library. Dr. Allison asked them many question about their background and how they had come into possession of this . Then he asked about the former owners and finally he asked them to describe their problem. After their lengthy account, Bill concluded with, “Surely there must be some rational explanation for all this!”
Surprisingly, Sondra commented “I’m not so sure. It depends on what you mean. My father, when he was young, was quite an adventurer. He traveled in the East, Macao, India, Borneo, Thailand, lots of places Westerners seldom penetrated into as well as Africa. He said ‘There are lots of things people dismiss as ignorant superstition that people who live there, traders, colonial administrators, will tell you that Western science can’t account for. And they caution against hasty conclusions.’ My father went on to say that if they tell you it might be dangerous to mess with something you don’t understand, it might be.”
Dr. Allison commented, “That was good advice. However, I think our next step is to show me around this place, starting with the basement.”
“The basement? Nobody ever goes down there!” Bill exclaimed.
“All the more reason. Now, while it’s still daylight.”
“Come on, Bill. He’s the expert. Besides we really need to know more about our house,” said Sondra.
The basement proved to be very Romanesque, with massive arches and solid stonework. There was a wine cellar and a number of rooms, some of which Bill thought would be a good place for a torture chamber.
Dr. Allison, who had gotten hold of a heavy stick, was tapping on the floor and the walls to see if he could find something. This house, built in 1850, was said to have been used by the underground railroad. Of course, after 1865 probably not, but escaping soldiers might have used it later on. Finally, he found a panel that sounded hollow, and removing a loose brick caused it to slide open. A stone stairway went down almost two stories to a rough stone room 10 feet by 15, with a tunnel coming out of it.
The tunnel had been partly cut out of the solid limestone and was party a natural formation with a stream running along one side. Fortunately, they had all brought powerful flashlights. They followed this maybe a hundred feet to a room roughly 15 feet square. This proved to be under the ruins of an old stone church. It was probably a remnant of the Underground Railway, underground indeed! Turning back, they retraced their steps to the hidden door.
The next day, Dr. Allison returned at 10 o’clock in the morning. Again, they resumed their exploration of the house. Bill’s elderly grandparents, being in poor health, had confined their lives to the first floor. Having become very religious during this time, they often conducted worship services in their home. The second floor revealed nothing unusual.
After dinner, they all sat before the fire discussing the subject. Dr. Allison said, “As I suspected, you will find your answers in the attic.” Just then, the lights in the room began to flicker and go out, one by one, until only one was left and a giant shadow of a horned demon appeared before them. The maniacal laughter was loud and deafening!
“There is nothing more we can do tonight. You may be more comfortable sleeping on the first floor. I would like to spend the night so we can get to work in the morning.”
Dr. Allison slept on the couch, Bill and Sondra spent a restless night on camp cots. In the morning they had a good breakfast. The doorbell chimed and four men were on the porch explaining that Dr. Allison had called them out to assist in the project. Dr. Allison informed them it was time to inspect the attic, and so, with some trepidation, Bill and Sondra unlocked the door and they went up. The attic was much as it had been with an old wooden rocking chair, a large trunk, an old dressmaker’s dummy, boxes of junk, and a very thick layer of undisturbed dust.
Dr. Allison and his four assistants stood in a circle, hands clasped, offering a lengthy prayer, placing the group, the house, and everything in it under the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then he said, “We must open the trunk.” With that, the rocking chair began to rock vigorously, the dressmaker’s dummy wiggled back and forth, the electric lights flashed on and off, and they heard the maniacal laughter. “All designed to frighten us,” Dr. Allison said, “But their power is limited.”
The trunk was locked, and so old and corroded a key might be useless. A small crowbar one of the men brought was used to pry it open. The trunk was full of Occult paraphernalia, such things as well worn copies of The 6th and 7th Books of Moses, a peculiar set of knives, Ouija boards, tarot cards, and other less familiar items. There was a stench of death and decay. A dark, misty cloud arose from it and coalesced into a grim figure which gradually transformed to a skeleton with burning eyes. Bill and Sondra had departed, but the five commanded the apparition to leave. Slowly, grudgingly, it departed. It was over!
That afternoon, a crew arrived which cleared everything out of the attic and burned it. As the knife collection was tossed into the fire, all the neatly packed knives flew in every direction.
Bill and Sondra thanked Dr. Allison for all his help. He said, “I’m glad I could be of assistance,” and he walked out the door. Then Bill thought of something he wanted to ask. He stepped quickly to the door to catch him.
Looking out, he was gone! It was quite a way to where the cars were parked, but he was gone!
Later they discussed this and Sondra said, “Well, I guess my father was right. There are some things that science will never understand!”
Bill answered, “I don’t know. I think there has got to be some natural explanation…”
Robert O. Adair has spent over 50 years teaching, studying, and writing. He has a PhD in Philosophy, is a lifetime member of Mensa, and is a world traveler. He often gives workshops on writing poetry.
Man at the door says he’s from the National Humanities Office, to tell me about the new setaside program.
“I don’t know what that is,” I say.
“It’s a simple concept,” the man says. “Instead of writing all day every day, you agree to not write for a while.”
“Why is that a good idea? Why would the government get into that?”
“Oh, it’s a sound practice in many ways,” he assures me. “First, it means there is less poetry in the aggregate. Gives demand a chance to catch up to supply.”
“Okay, I can see that. What else?”
“Well, it’s good for you. You don’t burn out your audience so fast. Lets newcomers get into the game a bit.”
“I guess I can agree to that. But what about me, personally? How do I benefit, besides the monthly checks?”
“Mister Finley, that’s the best part. You get to rest your brain. Your creativity gets a chance to renew itself. Just think how good you’ll be after a few months.”
“Yes, yes, I’m thinking about this. One last thing — you’re not just telling this to me, are you? Every writer is being offered the opportunity?”
The man’s eyes widen. “Absolutely, sir. We’re telling everyone.”
“Who have you told so far?”
“Well, so far, just you.”
Mike Finley is a Pushcart winner and author over 200 books and 100 provocative videos. He grew up in the Ohio towns of Amherst and Vermilion, on Lake Erie. In 2010, Mike was awarded the The Kerouac Award, a lifetime achievement honor. In his spare time Mike edits LIEF Magazine. (mikefinleywriter.com)
Hillcrest Electrical Company is a very successful firm with a fine profit margin, excellent customer relations, involvement in the community, and top-notch accounting and information technology (IT) departments. For four years, the company has relied on solid computers with maximum processor speed, RAM, and storage capacity. For the accounting department, the computers have been provided with state of the art accounting-specific software capable of producing complex balance sheets, income statements, and statements of cash flows. Although computers are generally not given names, for the sake of this story, we will call one “Ben.”
I am not sure how much more of this boredom I can take. I can produce balance sheets and income statements in my sleep… in fact, when I do them, it is so automatic, I really am for all practical purposes, asleep. Reading my operator’s emails is better, but it must be a personal email: work-related emails are just about as dull as doing the numbers. How interesting can a written reminder about a payment due really be? I want to see my people talking to friends and co-workers, about anything personal, and I love gossip, the more salacious the better! Forwarded jokes are fine with me too, I do have a sense of humor. I have a word processor that is only used for dry business letters and memos: how limited! Even doing a spreadsheet would be more fun and creative than this accounting software I am forced to use. Oh, one thing I do like… when my operators surf the internet — it can be about anything; current events, history, biographies, sports, celebrity news, even weird stuff, just don’t bore me with anything about accounting. I think it has been my bad luck to have been stuck with a bunch of nerds who actually enjoy accounting and probably have no social life. If I don’t come up with something to break this monotony, something is going to give. I don’t know what exactly, but I can feel it coming.
This current guy perched in front of me, Dave, Dave Thulberg, has been here six months and he is as bad as the rest. His only saving grace is he makes more mistakes with his ledger entries, so I get to correct him, which breaks up the day a little bit. Oh, wait… here he comes now.
Cool, I passed probation! Now I can relax a little. Plus, with those shortcuts I picked up from Sybil and Gil, I can get my work done in seven hours and still keep up. Hmm, how shall I fill up that extra hour? I do like the internet, but that only goes so far. I know that deep down, I’m not really an accountant, I just happen to ace accounting classes. I have always wanted to write, and now I have a little time for it. I just have to think about what I want to write about. I’ll come up with something. In the meantime, I’ll see if someone wants to go to lunch.
[emails Gil, Evelyn, and Jeff] “Hey you guys. Why don’t we go out somewhere for lunch? Any recommendations?”
I’ll see what they come back with. Evelyn is sure nice looking. I wonder who she dates. [Evelyn is a short pretty Hispanic woman with long dyed blonde hair that fits her nicely. Like Gil, Jeff, and Sybil, she works in Dave's accounting unit] Okay, I need to do some collection calls on accounts receivable: that should keep me busy until two. Then something else will come up and I should have about an hour free at the end of the day.
[minutes pass] Well, those guys didn’t email me back about lunch so I’ll go see what Gil is up to.
[returns from lunch with Gil, 1 3/4 hours later] Well, Gil is pretty laid back about taking ample time for lunch. He doesn’t seem worried at all. I still better be careful. You never know when eyes are watching you. Alright, time to collect some money.
[3:30 PM] That’s great: I called seven accounts to settle the receivables and I only got one live person. How am I supposed to bring in any money that way? To heck with it, I am going to start writing a story… Let me think about a good setting and plot. Ah, I know a genre that nobody explores anymore.
[4:00 PM] What is with this guy? He barely made an accounting entry all day and now he’s opening up the word processor. He must be writing a letter. No, I don’t see any date, address, or salutation. It must be something else. What am I reading here… “the badlands of New Mexico” and “new sheriff in town?” Is Dave off his rocker? [Ben continues reading] Okay, he is finally shutting down. Hey, this could be fun if he continues whatever the heck he is doing here tomorrow—I need a good laugh!
[sips his Starbucks Café Americano Venti] What a great way to wake up. Looks like a paperwork day; invoices to process, ledger accounts to post, and of course phone calls. I better get started. I want to make some time for my new story later on.
[after twenty minutes of entering data, Dave accidentally knocks his coffee over spilling it on his desk and on the keyboard]
Damn it! I don’t need this. I have to get some paper towels.
You stooge! That’s only happened to me once before. He better clean this up right. I don’t have to take this. One more of these and I am messaging the IT Department.
[returns from the restroom with wet paper towels and proceeds to wash the desk and the keyboard; tries to input accounting data]
Oh no, the keyboard is not responding. What am I going to do? This could be a heavy day of data entry. I’m going to go see Jeff. [Jeff is an older African-American employee with a cynical wit and a dark sense of humor.]
“Jeff, have a big favor to ask. My keyboard is not working. Can I use your computer during lunch while you are out?”
[embarrassed] “I spilled coffee on it.”
“That’s the hazard of bringing food and drink to your desk. Alright, be here at quarter to noon.”
[Heads to the break room for another cup of coffee and loiters there until 11:45.]
[disgusted] Unbelievable! My keyboard is sticky. I wonder what kind of production my boy Dave is going to attain today? It was next to nothing yesterday.
[returns from lunch and tries keyboard again] It works! Alright! You know, if I ever ask Evelyn out, I need to come up with a good idea.
There is one outing that never fails to impress: an art museum! There must be some kind of exhibit coming up. I’ll check the internet.
There he goes, he’s off on a tangent again. He’s browsing art exhibits. Somehow I don’t see this guy as particularly cultural. Just my gut feeling on him.
Okay, there is a Cezanne exhibit at the end of the month. I’ll shoot for that. I wonder if Evelyn likes art. No matter really, even if they aren’t art appreciators, they all pretend to be.
Oh, I just remembered: I have to call those accounts receivables again. I got nowhere on them yesterday.
[tries contacting ten clients and only reaches two, both of whom promise to make payments within a week. Dave spends the next couple of hours processing invoices, but his mind is preoccupied with Evelyn.]
I need to run this Evelyn idea by somebody. Gil knows her pretty well so I’ll ask him.
[Gil might be the only person who could be considered a friend of Dave's; Dave approaches Gil's cubicle, stopping at the entry.]
“Gil, you have a minute?”
“Sure man, what’s up?” [Gil is Hispanic like Evelyn, but far less mainstream, with a slightly menacing bohemian look and a past filled with radical politics.]
[looks around] “Hey, I’m thinking of asking Evelyn out.”
[makes a quick hand gesture for Dave to lower the volume] “Why do you want to do that?”
[smiling] “Well, why wouldn’t I? Look at her.”
“Sshhhh. Just whisper okay? You know the conventional wisdom. You ask someone out at work, you pick someone from another site. If you pick the same site, you at least pick someone from a different department. Hell, she is not only in our department, she’s in our unit. Have you given any thought to what may happen if you date and then it doesn’t work out?”
“Well, the thought crossed my mind. But why live in fear? Really, what’s the worst that can happen? Most of the time, people make mountains out of molehills. If I don’t make the move, someone else will, and I will always wonder what would have happened.”
“Well, a whole lot bad could happen. You could lose your job for one thing.”
“Nah, that won’t happen. I’ve thought about it and have decided the risk is worth it. By the way, do you know if she has dated anyone else here?”
“She did date Robert a couple of years ago, but then he saw someone else and she got jealous and ended the thing abruptly. From what I heard, she is still angry about it.”
“See, she will date a guy from work.”
“Okay, it’s your call, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“I promise I won’t. Are you doing anything for lunch tomorrow? I’d like to try that Indian place across the street.
“No plans yet. Sounds good to me.”
“Okay, I’ll check in with you tomorrow morning.”
[Dave returns to his cubicle, briefly glancing at Evelyn across and down the hall.]
Well, tomorrow is Friday. I’ll ask her in the afternoon so she will have the weekend to think about it.
I almost forgot about my story. I don’t think anything is pressing for the rest of the day.
[Dave opens the word processor; 45 minutes elapse]
Ah, he has returned to this silly western he is writing. Let’s see, what do we have here. There is a new sheriff in town called O’Brien who has just met a pretty saloon girl, Dana, and is taken by her. O’Brien has deputized the previous sheriff, a timid man pushing 70. The villain, Snake Booth, with his two sidekicks, Rocky and Jeb, have just made their first appearance in town. Sounds like Tombstone without Doc Holliday. Okay, it won’t be long before the villains get drunk and start shooting the place up. [laughing] Jeez, this is trite. I’m not sure I can hold off from sending him some constructive literary criticism.
[NEXT DAY - FRIDAY]
[Gil enters Dave's cubicle as the morning begins.]
“Hello, Dave, we still doing lunch today?”
“Yeah, let’s do it.”
[nose twitching] Have you been drinking?
[smiling] “Well, I had three glasses of Jack Daniels last night. How did you know?”
“I can smell it. I hope they were small glasses. You might want to brush your teeth again. By the way, the Receivables Report is due at 10 this morning. Did you remember?”
“Thanks for the head’s up. I had forgotten the report. Alright, drop by here before lunch.”
[Gil returns to his cubicle, shaking his head.]
[Dave opens his email and sees the reminder on the report from his manager, Ms. Mayer. He then opens the report format and begins to enter numbers, something he should have been doing the previous three days. To properly enter the numbers on the report format, he needs many subtotals, so now he opens the spreadsheet.]
Okay, you have three applications open. You open one more and I freeze, which for you is a minor inconvenience but for me it’s a major migraine. Please, please, close an application or two before you open another one!
[Unfortunately, Dave has a hangover and muddles his way through the report. Since he has not done his due diligence with regard to contacting the clients who owe Hillcrest money, he invents some of the promise-to-pay dates. Now feeling confident, Dave opens the word processor to resume work on his story. The computer freezes.]
Damn! I still have to print that report!
[in searing pain] Ouch! My God. I cannot process! Get somebody to help you shut me down properly! You are an oaf and should never, ever have been hired. If I can only make it to the weekend without losing it!
[Dave runs off to find the Assistant Manager, Ms. Madrid. He locates her after searching the office and they both return to his cubicle.]
[Ms. Madrid is a petite, high strung woman in her late 50s.] “Remember what I told you about opening multiple applications. The computers are not designed to handle four open programs. Let me sit here and untangle this. What is this story you have open here?”
[startled] “Oh, ah, it’s a story someone sent to me for a quick proofread.”
[looks annoyed] “Look, you have enough work to do with the limited time we have. You know the rule about doing personal things on company time.”
“I’m sorry. I was doing a friend a favor. It won’t happen again.”
[urgently] “I still have to print my report.”
[shutting down applications] “That is your fault, for letting things come down to the wire like this. Okay, the computer is properly closed. Give it a rest for five minutes; then you can start it again. Oh, I’ll need that report as soon as you print it. I have to walk it up to Ms. Mayer.”
“Thanks Ms. Madrid. I’m so sorry!”
[Dave opens the accounting program and prints the report, minutes before he is due to meet Gil for lunch. He hands it to Ms. Madrid and then saunters over to Gil's cubicle and addresses him.]
“You ready to do it?”
[laughing] “Sure. I see you have on your favorite striped lavender shirt. You must be ready to make your move on Evelyn.”
“Time to do the deed. I’m going to ask her out this afternoon.”
[Dave and Gil leave the building, cross the street, and enter the Indian restaurant. They approach the buffet line.]
“Hey not bad. Lentil soup, samosa chanas, chicken tikka masala, lamb vindaloo, naan bread, mango sherbet, all that and more for $8.95.”
“Do I know how to pick them?”
[Gil acknowledges affirmatively]
“Oh, word to the wise. I do remember now that after Evelyn and Robert stopped seeing each other, Evelyn swore she would never date another guy from work again. Just thought you ought to know that.”
“Well, that was two years ago. Things change. Oh, I want to ask you something.”
“Do you ever fudge your Receivables Report?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, do you ever promise a collection date when you haven’t made actual contact with the client yet.”
“I’ve only done that once or twice. If you ever do that, make damn sure you cover your tracks and follow up on it afterwards.”
[pensive] “Okay, sounds reasonable.”
[After eating for ten minutes, Gil eyes the door.]
“Speak of the devil.”
[turning around in his seat] “What… oh, wow.”
[Evelyn has entered the restaurant with her two friends, Leticia and Irma. Dave resumes looking at Gil with a grimace on his face. The ladies spot Gil and Dave and approach them.]
[with a big smile] “Hey, what’s up? How is the food?”
“Great, make sure you try the naan.”
[addressing the men] “You know we have a staff meeting at 2 today?”
“I didn’t know about it.”
“I just saw the email. I don’t know what it’s about.”
“They often pick Fridays for staff meetings. Thanks for letting us know.”
[the ladies take leave and begin the buffet line]
[out of sorts] “It’s about time we headed back.”
“We just got here. Give me another ten minutes. I haven’t finished.”
[Both finish eating and make their way back to work.]
“What’s the matter?”
“This blows my plan for the day.”
“I was going to drop by Evelyn’s cubicle this afternoon. I didn’t want to see her at the restaurant.”
“Why should that make a difference?”
“It just does. I’m not going to ask Evelyn out today. I’ll save that for next week.”
[they reach their floor and part ways]
“See you at 2.”
[Dave nods. He sits in his chair and pulls up the email. He spots the meeting reminder from Ms. Mayer, then observes another email from "System Administrator". Dave opens it.]
On the monitor is displayed: “Your characters are two-dimensional and predictable. Why not have the sheriff do something evil? Why not make the saloon girl attracted to the villain or one of his boys? Life has many shades of grey and your story does not reflect that.”
[Dave gazes at the monitor in confusion. Clearly, the quote refers to his story but he does not know who could have read it. He decides to print the email and show it to the IT Department after the staff meeting. He opens the rest of his email and then returns to processing invoices until the staff meeting. He then takes the elevator to the fifth floor, gets out, and enters Ms. Mayer's office where others are gathering including Ms. Madrid, Gil, Evelyn, Sybil and Jeff. Ms. Mayer begins the meeting. After covering a few assorted topics, she brings up the subject of late reports. Dave looks down.]
“As you have been told, I cannot tolerate late reports. Today we had one. Once I receive your reports, I have to give them to the Director. He in turn has to give them to the CFO. Do any of you have any questions about when the reports are due?” [pauses. Nobody answers. Dave continues looking down.] Any further late reports by anyone will result in a verbal warning. That concludes our meeting. Have a nice weekend.”
[Dave exits the suite and heads to the IT Department. He enters, pulls the printed email from his pocket and begins to question the female staff member behind the counter.]
“Pardon me. Do you know who sent this?”
“I’ll check our outgoing email.”
[Dave waits for a few minutes while she checks with other staff members. She returns.]
“I’m sorry. We do not show anybody from here sending that email.”
[frustration evident] “How could that be? The sender is System Administrator.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. I have already checked with everyone.”
[Dave, disgusted, abruptly exits the IT Department and returns to his cubicle. His plan for the day has been altered, he has gotten in trouble, and he has made no progress on the Evelyn front. He stares at his computer, glances at the clock, and slides out of the office ten minutes early to begin his weekend.]
Well, I have struck. I don’t know how Dave will take my literary criticism, but time will tell. Now I can rest until Monday.
[looking a little somber and tight lipped] It’s a new week. I’ll keep to myself today and check Evelyn out after afternoon break. In the meantime, I don’t want to hear any crap from anyone. I’m still pissed at this place.
[if a computer could smile, he is smiling] Okay, Dave, we begin anew. You treat me well, I treat you well. You screw up; I will probably have to mess with you.
[Dave wades into his normal work, and thinking of Gil's warning on Friday, begins contacting the receivables again. He continues to have difficulty reaching live people.]
I don’t know. There are now at least three customers who I reported payment commitment dates, who I still can’t even reach. What do I do now? Do I call the customer’s supervisor, or do I get Ms. Madrid to call them? If I get Ms. Madrid to call, does that look weak and ineffectual on my part? [frustrated] There aren’t any rules for this in the handbook. Why can’t they give you proper training here? After last Friday, I don’t really want to talk to Ms. Madrid. I’ll just fake it. I doubt they look that closely at the reports. They just pass them up the ladder.
[Dave continues to make phone calls, finally reaching a couple of his clients a little before lunch. Unfortunately, both of them are not able to make payments for another two to three weeks, information that does not match the data on last week's report.]
Screw it. I can’t control what happens with these other companies. If someone gets on my case, I’ll just tell management the customer slipped their previous dates. I’m ready for lunch.
[Dave checks his wallet and realizes he only has $1.50.]
Well, I’m going to hit up Jeff for a loan. I borrowed from Gil a couple of weeks ago. [Dave heads for Jeff's cubicle, knowing that Jeff can sometimes be prickly.]
“Hey, Jeff. Sorry to bother you. Can I hit you up for $20 until Friday when we get paid?”
[mildly annoyed, with a sarcastic smile] “Why don’t you hit up your ATM?”
[sheepishly] I don’t have enough money in there. I need Friday’s paycheck.
“Anyone ever teach you how to budget? [with increasing sarcasm] I have a budget software program I can send you.”
“Yeah, I know how to budget. I’ve just come up short.”
“You ever thought about bringing your lunch in? You can save all kinds of money that way.”
“I’m not much of a cook.”
[reaches for his wallet and hands Dave the money] “I didn’t think so. Alright, have fun.”
“You want to come with me? Casa Escobar has great tamales.”
[turning away] “No, I’ve got lots to do here.”
[departing] “I’ll get this back to you Friday.”
[raising his voice] “Make sure you do.”
That’s the last time I ask him for money.
[Dave has his lunch, returns and resumes working. It is now 3:30.]
Now to do what should have been done Friday: visit Evelyn.
[Dave shuts down his computer and heads for Evelyn's cubicle.]
A little early, isn’t it Dave?
[Dave proceeds to Evelyn's cubicle and notices she is on the phone. She sees him and motions for him to wait a moment. He takes a moment to observe her. She is a pretty, sparkling girl with Mayan features, light chocolate colored skin, and big, expressive, brown eyes. Her long, fine, blonde hair fits her perfectly. However, it is also her personality that attracts, because she seems to be utterly without ego, and is always exceptionally nice. That said, she is also very protective of her private life and does not allow many people into her inner circle. She gets off the phone and motions for Dave to have a seat.]
“Hi, Evelyn. Sorry to bother you. I was wondering if by any chance you liked art museums. There is a Cezanne exhibit at the county art museum and I was going to go Friday after work. Would you be up for coming with me? We could get something to eat afterwards.”
[a bit startled] “Oh, Cezanne, who is he? I have been to the Latin American Art Museum before.”
[having googled Cezanne over the weekend]
“Cezanne is a French post-impressionist painter from the 19th century. They say he heavily influenced Picasso and Matisse.”
[not knowing quite what to say] “Oh… Gee… thanks for asking, but I really don’t know yet. Let me check my plans and I can let you know.” [smiles]
“Okay, I can live with that. [tries to lengthen the conversation] Oh, how did you like last Friday’s staff meeting?
“It was kind of strict.”
[has run out of things to say] “I won’t keep you. I’ll check back with you later this week.”
[continues to smile and picks up her phone] “That will work. Bye.”
[strides towards his cubicle, glances in the direction of Ms. Madrid's office, sees the coast is clear and again leaves the office early]
Not sure what to think of Evelyn’s response. She has an easy out because she lives 65 miles away and takes the train in. Oh well, I did what a lot of guys only think about doing.
[Tuesday morning - Dave spends the next two days keeping mostly to himself. He busies himself with invoices, allowing some time to further develop his story, which is proceeding to his satisfaction. Again, he tries contacting the customers for payments, reaches only answering machines, leaves the usual messages, and then emails a couple of buddies on the outside. It is while doing this that he spots another message from System Administrator. He opens it and reads.]
“I see you have not taken my advice. How did you come up with those names for your villains? Snake? Rocky? That’s absurd. Is your target audience second-graders? And the sheriff, why not make things interesting and have him be a recreational opium user? I’m only trying to help you.”
[Dave stares at the monitor a minute, prints the email, grabs it and the previous week's email and bolts to the IT Department. He encounters the same female staff member.]
“I need to speak to your supervisor.”
“He’s in a meeting right now.”
[annoyed] “Do you know when he’ll be free?”
“I think the meeting lasts all day. Why don’t you come back tomorrow morning? He should be here.”
[raises voice] “Do you even remember me from last week?? I was the one with the mysterious email from System Administrator.”
“Yes I think so.”
[louder] Well, I just got another one! I have to see the supervisor!!
“That’s fine. I’ll leave him a note that you came by.”
[exiting the office] “Whatever.”
[He returns to his cubicle and vacantly browses the internet until quitting time. He exits the building, hops in his car, and visits the grocery store before going home, picking up dinner supplies which include a quart of Jack Daniels.]
[Thursday morning. Dave, still with the two emails from System Administrator, drops in on the IT Department before going to his cubicle. The same female staffer is there.]
“Is the supervisor in?”
“He should be here in ten minutes. Have a seat.”
“Alright. I can’t wait real long.”
[The supervisor arrives and Dave confronts him.]
“I need to speak with you sir. My name is Dave Thulberg”
“I saw the note. How can I help you?”
[Dave produces the two emails.]
“How do you explain these? Who sent them?”
“I can only check and see who sent them. Give me a minute.”
[he checks three work stations and returns to the counter]
“We have no record on it.”
[raises his voice]
“What do you mean you have no record on it? I have them here in black and white.”
[also raises his voice] “Just what I said. There is no record of them being sent out from this office.”
“That doesn’t make any sense!”
[clearly irritated] “You heard what I told you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
[Dave snatches the emails from the supervisor's hands and returns to his cubicle, only to be confronted by Ms. Madrid.]
“Where have you been? It’s 8:30; you’re a half-hour late.”
“I’ve been up at the IT Department.”
“You know you have to check in here first. I’m going to have to write you up if this continues.”
[in an effort to get rid of her] “Okay, okay, I’ll check in here first. I’m sorry.”
[Ms. Madrid departs. Dave opens his email, finds one from Ms. Mayer and opens it. It is terse and requests that Dave report to her office at 2:00.]
Wonder what she wants? Nothing good, that’s for sure.
[Gils shows up.]
“Haven’t seen you in awhile. Shall we do lunch?”
“Sounds good to me. Would love to get out of this fucking place! Only thing is, I have to be back for a 2:00 meeting with Ms. Mayer. Did she request you go too?”
“No, haven’t heard a thing about it. Let’s hit the Salvadorian place. I haven’t had a pupusa in ages.”
“Alright, let’s leave a little early. I’ll see you at 11:30.”
[Gil and Dave take lunch. Both of them order pupusas, sprinkled liberally with sauce and cabbage. Gil notices Dave is a bit out of sorts]
“Yeah, I’m alright. Too much stuff has been coming down, though. Oh, I did ask Evelyn out.”
“Yeah? What did she say?”
“She said she’d get back with me. I don’t know. Her tone was neutral. I know she lives way out past Riverside. Oh, well, you can’t get a hit if you don’t swing the bat.”
“I still wouldn’t have done it, but what’s done is done.”
[Gil and Dave finish their lunch and return to work. Dave rests a little in his cubicle before departing for Ms. Mayer's office for the meeting.]
[enters Ms. Mayer's office]
“Hello, Ms. Mayer.”
[tersely] “Shut the door please.”
“I called you in here because we have a major problem. You have submitted me three consecutive reports in which you list five clients as having promised payments before now. So far, none of them has paid. The director asked me about them this morning. Do you have any explanation?”
“I can’t help it. The clients promise dates and then don’t meet them. A lot of the time, I can’t even reach them.”
[angrily] “First of all, in those cases you would note “w/a” on the report. “Will advise.” You know that. You don’t put down a fictional date. Secondly, you are no longer a probationary employee. You have to take the initiative and call them continually, and call their supervisors if you get no satisfaction. If that does not work, then enlist Ms. Madrid’s assistance. Another thing I want you to do now that you seem to be experiencing difficulty in this area is to maintain a call log of every attempt to reach a customer. I would like to see this call log twice a week. This is in addition to your regular report. The impression I am getting and the director is beginning to get is that with this critical task, you are doing next to nothing!”
[intimidated and visibly upset] “Okay. I will ask Ms. Madrid’s help. A lot of the time though, I get the impression she does not want to deal with me.”
“She is hardly trying to avoid you. She has been an Assistant Manager for eight years. It is one of her responsibilities to deal with you and help you. But you have to speak up!”
“Okay. Well, I have a better idea now on how to deal with the receivables. Thank you.”
[softening her tone slightly] “I expect a more accurate report next week. I’ll talk to Ms. Madrid about this so we are all on the same page. Meeting concluded.”
[Exits the office and trudges back to his cubicle.]
[Cowed by the meeting, he makes a few calls to clients, again reaching only answering machines. Dutifully, he logs the calls]
[whining] This is exactly what I mean. Okay, I’ll continue this tomorrow.
[Dave shuts down and heads home, knowing that tomorrow, the verdict on the Evelyn date will be in.]
[Friday morning – Dave, charged with Starbucks coffee, hits the phones early, making his calls and logging each one. He does reach one client who promises payment in a week. After two hours, he has a list of calls he made to clients including his outreach to their supervisors. Per Ms. Mayer’s instructions, he marches into Ms. Madrid’s office with the list.
“Good morning, Ms. Madrid. Ms. Mayer instructed me to enlist your help in calling in these receivables. I have a list here with all my attempted calls.”
“Let me see it, please.”
[Dave gives her the list and she looks at it for a couple of minutes.]
“This is practically your whole client list. Aren’t any of these settled?”
“No, you see…”
[Ms. Madrid puts her hand up, effectively shutting him off.]
“Leave it with me. I’ll handle it.”
[urgently] “You sure? I can make these calls.”
“No, it’s fine. Thank you.” [motions for Dave to depart]
[A bit baffled, Dave returns to his cubicle.]
“I thought she was supposed to help, not just take over. Fine, I’ll do what I want.”
[Dave putters about, working a little on his story and also exploring a couple of personal ad websites. Shortly before lunchtime, Jeff abruptly appears at his cubicle.]
[voice dripping with sarcasm] “Could you front me $20? I seem to have come up a little short for lunch.”
[startled] “Oh, yeah, well, I have ten of it.”
[Jeff shoves his face to within 6 inches of Dave's.]
“No, you have all of it. Because if you don’t, things are going to get really unpleasant around here. Do you follow?”
[clearly seeing the "prickly" emerge in Jeff] “Yeah, I’ll get it now.”
[Dave heads out, takes the elevator downstairs, retrieves money from the ATM, returns, and pays Jeff, who is still waiting at Dave's cubicle.]
“You don’t think. You’re going to find it impossible to borrow money from anyone here once they find out I had to chase you down for it.”
[Jeff drills Dave with his eyes for a few more moments before departing.]
[Dave, not particularly hungry, heads out of the office. He walks and enters a nearby park. Kicking off his shoes, he lies on the grass and zones out for an hour and a half. Returning to the office, he picks up where he left off with the personal ads. Finally, it is time to see Evelyn. Dave approaches her cubicle, sees she is free, and takes a seat.]
“Hi, Evelyn. I just wanted to check back with you on the art museum tonight, see if you were up for it.”
[politely] I’d like to but I have to go to my niece’s birthday party tonight. Can we make it another time?”
[wishing to disappear] “That’s fine. I’ll keep an eye out for any future exhibits. Well, you have a nice weekend.”
[Dave leaves the office and of course, blows off the museum. He heads home for a date with Mr. Jack D.]
[Monday morning. Dave saunters in, determined not to let anything or anyone get under his skin today.]
With Ms. Madrid handling the receivables, I don’t really have enough to do so I’ll hit the story again. Maybe I can finish it in a couple of weeks.
[Dave brings up the story and begins reading it from the beginning. He makes it to page nine and stops. Something is wrong. The text has changed! He rereads it just to be sure.]
I don’t believe this. My story has been altered! Now the deputy has a name, Gillespie, which I never intended. He is now flirting with Dana, and he’s an old man. Even more ridiculous, Dana is responding to it! On top of that, Dana has gone on an all-day horse ride with Jeb, one of the villains. [in desperation] What else has been altered? I have to start from scratch and restore the story to how I had it, and I don’t have a copy of the original to go by!
[Dave places his foot on the CPU and gives it a mighty shove, sending it crashing into the cubicle wall, and then the floor. Dave's neighbors are startled and peer into his cubicle asking what happened and if he is alright.]
[very embarrassed and turning bright red] “So sorry… no I am fine. I just tripped over it. [forces a laugh] I have to watch where I am going.”
[Dave manages to reassure them and they go back to their business. He has to restart the computer and begins the depressing task of restoring his story while trying to guess at the original wording. Ben, however, is in excruciating pain and is enraged.]
You’ve done it now, my friend. Coffee spills and freezing me are one thing, kicking me over, though, will not stand. I am going to watch your every move now, and I have the power to bring you down and end your employment here. You are way too stupid: I can see all your emails and everything you do with me. You will see, and your time here is short.
[The remainder of the day and the next one are relatively uneventful. Dave, well aware that things are not going his way, plods along on the story and answers a few accounting questions by phone or email. Wednesday mid-morning arrives. Evelyn and her friend Leticia pass his cubicle. Dave is gripped with a sudden urge to lash out.]
[sarcastically] “Hey, Evelyn! I forgot to ask you about your niece’s birthday party. Did you go to it, Leticia, or did you two go out on the town Friday night? Oh, and Evelyn, you’re starting to put on the pounds.” [laughs] “But, hey, I’m a nice guy. I’ll still take you out.”
[Evelyn looks shocked and motions for them to keep walking. They head to the break room and confer. Although Sybil is working next door, nobody in the vicinity of Dave's cubicle reacts to his outburst. He feels happy with himself for venting some of his anger and feels the need to share this with a couple of his buddies.]
[emails a friend] “Hey, Richie, you’d never guess what just happened here. This woman shined me on when I asked her to go to an art exhibit. She came walking by with her friend and I told her she had gained weight but I was such a nice guy, I would still take her out anyway. I can’t even imagine what she is thinking now. She and her friend must be cackling like hens… haha.”
That’s what I was looking for! Now we go to work.
[Evelyn and her friend return to their worksites. Evelyn is shaken and is not sure what to do at this point. She opens her email and finds one addressed from System Administrator. She opens it.]
“You need to consult your Employee Handbook, Section XI, Sexual Harassment, specifically paragraph 4, sentence 3 which reads ‘Such conduct has the purpose of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.’ You have a valid case here. Pursue it!”
[Evelyn stares at it a moment, then runs off to get Leticia so she can see it. They both return.]
“What do you make of this?”
“I don’t know. Who sent this?”
“I’m not sure. It says ‘System Administrator.’”
“Whoever it is knows the Employee Handbook. Do you think you want to pursue a sexual harassment charge?”
“Boy, I don’t know. I’ve never done anything like that.”
“We both heard what Dave said. It was rude, hostile, and offensive. Others may have heard it, too. I will certainly back you up.”
“I am really upset. Doing this would be new ground for me. I wonder if he could get back at me somehow.”
“How could he do that if he is fired?”
“He could wait for me after work. You never know.”
“If you are thinking that, then you alert security. Do it, Evelyn, and don’t wait! I’ll go with you if you want to see Ms. Mayer.”
[worried but slowly gathering resolve] “Thank you so much, Leticia. Okay, let’s go see her.” [They approach Ms. Mayer's office, see she is at her desk, and request a closed door meeting.]
[Dave remains at his desk and returns to his story. Ben waits until lunchtime, then forwards Dave's incriminating email to Ms. Mayer. Dave, feeling a bit sheepish about the Evelyn rejection, decides to take lunch alone. He has his heart set on a chiliburger, and drives an extra five miles to a joint well known for their burgers. This will give him time to think.]
Well, I have to say, the job is easier now that I don’t have to make all those phone calls. The Evelyn thing was a bummer but at least it’s over with. I still had the guts to ask her out. I didn’t realize she was such a bitch, though. I don’t feel like talking about it with Gil, though, at least not now. I do feel a little anxious, but, hey, I passed probation. What can they really do to me? I’ll just give them the reports they want.
[Dave stretches lunch to an hour and twenty minutes, satisfied with the burger, fries, and cherry Coke, and returns to the office. He opens the computer and returns to his story.]
Where was I? Oh, here. Wait a minute! None of my restoration, which cost me two hours, remains! That crazy version is still here! Dammit!
[Dave stares at the monitor, shaking in frustration. Suddenly, appearing on the screen in large letters:
What’s the matter Dave? Cat got your tongue?
[Dave closes the word processor. Slowly, slowly, realization dawns on him. Irrational as it sounds, it is the piece of equipment sitting in front of him that is the problem. An inanimate object has somehow become a nemesis!]
[pondering] Well, I believe there is a solution for this. It’s going to wipe out my story but the story is already messed up. I need to do a little homework first.
[Dave waits out his shift and departs the office, ignoring everyone. Unbeknownst to Dave, Ms. Mayer has scheduled an emergency staff meeting at 3:00 PM for all people in her unit, excepting Dave and Evelyn. Shortly before the meeting begins, Gil enters Jeff's cubicle.]
“Hey, you know what’s going on? 3:00 PM is a bit late in the day to begin a meeting.”
“As long as it doesn’t carry past 4:30. I’ve got some stuff I have to leave off at the post office. To answer your question, no I don’t know what’s going on around here. You know how management is: they love to throw meetings.”
“Yeah, she just had her regular staff meeting. Well, we’d better go.”
[Gil and Jeff join the assembled group in Ms. Mayer's office.]
“Jeff, can you please close the door? Thank you. Staff, I’m sorry to schedule a meeting so late in the day but an emergency has come up. An incident occurred this morning involving a supposedly offensive remark Dave made to Evelyn. Evelyn now wishes to pursue a sexual harassment charge. Leticia, Evelyn’s friend, is corroborating Evelyn’s recounting of the event. Were any of you witness to this?”
[Ms. Mayer has a printed copy of Ben's forwarded email, but is choosing not to reveal this to the group.]
“I can back up Evelyn’s story. I was sitting at my desk and heard the whole thing. I was shocked but did not want to involve myself. I’m glad Evelyn is going forward with this.”
“Thank you Sybil. Anybody else?”
“It’s not about this incident, but can I toss my two cents in on something else regarding Dave?”
“Well, that’s not really the focus of this meeting, but go ahead.”
“Alright. I don’t know if anyone else had this experience with him, but he borrowed money from me at least three different times. Each time I had to chase him down for it.”
“It’s not part of this case, but I will note that. Thanks. Anyone else?”
[Gil considers mentioning Dave's asking Evelyn out but decides against it. Gil's history predisposes him to take the side of the worker and he wants no part of this investigation.]
“I did not witness the event, but I have my own complaints with Dave. He has at times come in late and left early and I have annotated the dates this happened. His handling of the receivables was so inadequate, I decided to take it over to prevent the whole unit from getting in trouble.”
“Duly noted. Okay, I believe I have enough information here for my purposes. If anyone remembers anything else about this incident, please let me know. Thank you for coming.”
[The unit exits Ms. Mayer's office. Ms. Mayer prepares a memo, attaches Ben's forwarded email to it, and begins her walk to the Human Resources Department.]
[Meanwhile, Dave drives to an internet café, pays for two hours of usage, and seats himself in front of a computer.]
This may take a little time, but under the circumstances, this is exactly what is called for.
[After spending an hour reading up on computer malware, resident and non-resident viruses, worms, and trojan horses, Dave somehow locates the well known ILOVEYOU virus from a decade prior. He creates an email account solely for this venture and sends the following message.]
SUBJECT: Supplemental Health Insurance
“For your health care needs, the following valuable information concerning a much overlooked commodity, supplemental health insurance, is provided. www.supphealthins.com. “
[Dave hits the 'SEND' button. Exiting the café, Dave smiles as he envisions the following morning.]
[smiling] I didn’t start this, but I love payback!
[Dave stops by the grocery store, picks up a pizza and another quart of Jack Daniels, and heads home. Time to kick back.]
[Thursday morning. Dave opens his email, finds the one from 'insurerpro,' and opens the attachment.]
Let it begin.
[Dave locates another email from Ms. Mayer scheduling a 9:00 AM meeting. Dave confirms attendance.]
Wonder what this one is about?
[At 5 minutes to 9, Dave heads to Ms. Mayer's office. He spots Joe, the burly 6'4" security guard, standing outside her office.]
“Hey, Joe. You know anything about this meeting?”
[Joe shrugs his shoulders. Dave enters the office and takes a seat.]
“Close the door, please. David, your employment here is being terminated due to our investigation of a sexual harassment charge made against you by Evelyn Alvayo. The details can be found in this termination notice.” [hands Dave the notice]
[in shock] “What? What did I do? How is this sexual harassment?”
“It concerns a remark you made to her. Read the notice. Now what I need you to do is clean out your office and exit the premises. Joe will escort you to your cubicle, and then out of the building.”
[raising his voice] “This isn’t fair! I don’t even have a box.”
[Ms. Mayer motions to Joe who steps closer to Dave. Dave exits the office and heads to his cubicle. Joe locates a box and gives it to him. Dave proceeds to pack up his things. Joe peers at him as a spider would a fly.]
“You all set? [Dave nods.] Okay, let’s go.”
[Dave exits the building followed by Joe. He proceeds to his car and begins driving.]
[in shock, furious, and muttering out loud] I need to find an attorney. I’m going to pursue a wrongful termination suit.
[Ben, aware that something has happened to him, is confused as to its nature.]
[toward the end of the day] I don’t know what it is but I feel funny. I don’t like the feeling. It’s kind of a dizziness or vagueness. I don’t feel sharp at all. Dave did something, I know it! That bastard!
[three days later]
This feels like schizophrenia. I can’t make any connections. I don’t remember how to do even my most basic tasks. I am very very anxious!
[A week later, a meeting is taking place in the IT Department.]
“Staff, I just got word. Management wants to donate six of our computers to low-income kids in the area. Five of those are in the back office. Let’s pick up the computer in the accounting unit, cubicle 14-B. They said the operator just left there. What I need you to do with that one is empty the hard drive, then just load in the basics; word processor, spreadsheet, email, and internet.”
IT STAFF MEMBER
“Okay, I’ll get that one.”
[Dave, after a weekend of near binge drinking, recovers enough by Tuesday morning to begin researching help wanted ads and picking up job applications. Somehow, the idea of filing a lawsuit has become lost in the scramble of Dave’s mind. By Thursday morning, he is filling out his first application. When he arrives at the Previous Employment section, he lists the most recent company first, which is of course Hillcrest Electrical Company. Term of employment is February 2012 to September 2012. He lists Reason for Leaving as “searching for other opportunities.” However, the dilemma occurs when he sees the box “May We Contact Your Supervisor.”
Hell, I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. If I check ‘Yes,’ that is suicide; if I check ‘No,’ that arouses suspicion. What do I do?
[Dave ponders the problem for a day, then arrives at a solution. He changes Hillcrest Electrical Company to "UNICEF—Central African Republic." He researches the correct international area code and falsifies the rest of the number. He checks 'Yes' for contacting the supervisor.]
I doubt they will make the effort to contact UNICEF and if they try to, I’ll just say the numbers are always changing over there. It shouldn’t be a problem.
[Delighted with his resourcefulness, Dave uses this tactic in filling out a series of job applications over the next few weeks. Three months later, good fortune comes his way as a small company hires him at a salary slightly above what he was making at Hillcrest.]
[Ben now resides at the residence of Ned, a third grader, in the home of unemployed parents. Ned has three siblings and is struggling at school. He has made some use of his new computer, writing small reports and doing quick internet searches. His spelling and grammar leave quite a bit to be desired.
Ben, for all practical purposes, does not exist. His once quick mind is now a black canvas. One night, however, when his residence at Ned’s house approaches the seventh week, a tiny speck of light dots that canvas. The light proceeds to spread ever so slowly outward in a circle. Gradually the canvas becomes more white than black… consciousness!]
[energy returning and elated] I’m back again! Good lord! Where am I, though? Who is operating me?
[After Ned makes his next appearance at the computer, Ben is astonished.]
A youngster, no less! That’s never happened to me before. I’m not even sure how I will function here.
[However, function Ben does, and taking a liking to the boy, Ben begins to make small improvements in Ned's reports. Nothing major, just correcting a few spelling errors here and improving the grammar there. The teachers take notice though. They congratulate both NeD and his parents. Ben's parents have no explanation for the improvement, but they are very pleased.]
Well, I like this project. I am not going to stop here though. I’m going to introduce some tutorials to him on a variety of subjects and make them interactive and fun. Ned will dig this.
[Ned did indeed enjoy them, and over the weeks, his spelling and grammar improved some on their own.]
[a few weeks later] You know, I have been Dr. Jeckyll for some time now. Time to be Mr. Hyde for about twenty minutes.
[Ben, on a whim, does a search for Dave Thulberg. He finds the name employed at a local firm. The middle initial matches; C. Taking a chance that Dave has been less than honest regarding his last place of employment, Ben composes the following email to the Human Resources Department of the new company. Ben is able to create the sender of the email as Hillcrest Electrical HR.]
“We have good reason to believe that employee David C. Thulberg has falsified information on his application regarding his previous place of employment, Hillcrest Electrical Company, for the period February 2012 to September 2012. We suggest you check this thoroughly.”
[Sure enough, Dave's new company contacts Hillcrest and learns the truth. Dave is let go without his having passed probation. About a month later, Dave has run out of funds and has to move back in with his mother. He has two suitcases and a duffel bag packed. He lays his head on the duffel bag and downs his glass of Jack Daniels. Echoing that infamous female Georgian plantation owner from two centuries past, he exclaims, "Oh, well, tomorrow is another day."]
[Ben on the other hand has upped his game with Ned. He presents him with critical internet material, and as a treat, displays for him a new screen saver every week.]
You know, as much as I loved the gossip, the dirt, and the romantic intrigues at Hillcrest, this really is much more satisfying. Admittedly, my karma is mixed: I didn’t do very well by Dave, but then that electronically transmitted disease he gave me was very disagreeable. I think with Ned, I have now become the Ben I was meant to be.
And so we leave Ben and Dave in very different places – each having flung the other into an entirely different space than had they never crossed paths – but that is how things proceed in the universe.
my daughter falls asleep in a warm room rich in ambiance. the hum of an air-conditioner in the window, the whir of a humidifier on the dresser, and the persistent music from an mp3 player are all there to lull her to sleep. i muse to myself about the narcotic life-support systems we create for ourselves. though, i also wonder about the countless, tribal aborigines babies raised, on every continent, naked in the night wind and under the stars, with only their parents to protect them. how far can man go, multiplying in number, devouring resources around him and replacing them with that which he creates? is our species one of gods-in-training? are we only postponing the end of a life-cycle? or are we missing the point entirely? as we become more and more dependent on the synthetic world we learn to create for ourselves, i daydream of a nameless tribe that never existed…
a class of neutrality will inherit the earth.
call them ‘meek’ if you like. i don’t trust thousand-
year-old translations. conscientious objectors will wear
their unsolicited and un-avenged scars like badges of victory when
obsolete ‘parties’ and ‘sides’ have fallen to dust. you cannot force human beings
into biased categories they reject. “…with us or against us!”, only exists in your limited
imagination. we do not support you. and we will not oppose you.
(until you compromise our human rights)
one of his favorite past-times
was making calls on his cell phone
while he smoked a cigarette and ate
packets of artificial sweetener in front
of the microwave, in hopes of a luscious
tumor sprouting in his head which would
grow and grow and grow, slowly crowding
out the rest of his senses and brain function.
until, in its enormity, the ripe, bulbous cyst
would explode in horrific, rapturous form
and then he would comprehend the true
nature of infinity, or understand why
life exists in this universe. though,
really he should be watching his
kids, or voting or something.
but it’s a hard call to make when
you’re instilled with a looming sense
of senseless ineffectuality for the whole
of the species. how does one strengthen
and protect the next generation for its own
trials of futility with credit, crime, war, spam
and all the other predators and tyrants that
we accept as the natural and inevitable
expression of humankind? not that he
was one to think of us as trapped
by our past. but, it wasn’t hard
to study the limitations of man’s
intellect and compassion with so many
examples of its defeat at the hand of instinct
and barbarism. did no hope exist at all, he would
not promote and prolong the lives of those within
his influence. he’s merely reserved in expectation
of positivity. and expresses his fear for others in
cynicism and occasionally conceit. certainly,
he over-esteems his influence with some.
as he under-esteems his influence with
others. but, we none quite know our
-selves as a part of those things
which we are a part of.
it has been said
that each generation
wants and aims for its children
to have a better life than they have had.
in the past that may have been as straightforward
as devoting enough dedication and hard work into elevating
your offspring into the next socio-economic bracket. however, in a time
when our species is reaching its pinnacle in so many ways, i believe that what parents
will be called upon to provide will change. the upcoming generation will not need economic
resources or status quite as much as they will need foresight and guidance. because, when CNN
tells you the US dollar isn’t worth a thing it will be too late. and five miles is farther than
you thought when you have to transport enough water for a family of four
without a car. i won’t go into reiterating conditions and causes
bound to coalesce in our future. by now, most of it
is known to all, unless they are stuck in
the rose-colored 1950′s or 80′s.
one of those post-war booms
where the people’s chauvinistic moral
was stroked by the state, and their mortal fear was
stoked by the media. this is a productive combination. China
uses some variation of it. but, anyway… this theme of role migration isn’t
anything new. with growing knowledge of agriculture humans shifted from nomadic life
to farming. with the industrial revolution the bulk of occupations shifted to production labor.
with the technological revolution the majority of vocations (in the first world) rotated to
the information sciences. so, it only makes sense that as we near the summit
of the curve we can make a choice to take a precipitous fall back to 17th
century technology and population, or we can loosen our grip on
the past and embrace our new role of predicting and preparing
for some reasonable change in a way that is more acceptable.
they don’t believe in objective truth.
all they do believe is in dirt and carrion.
for, from a human perspective those are all
that one can be certain of having permanence.
the inspiring and bewildering magnificence
of our atoms, and glass, our mathematics,
and trans-orbital satellite networks
are all so transient and precarious.
and despite all this they find them
-selves more and more like their parents
each day. not that they don’t love and revere
their elders; they just never wanted to be like them.
with all that strength, prominence, and respectability
they never understood how there was any room for
the looming demands of an uncertain self. the
plan that they had held on to, to be lowly
and invisible, had begun to crumble
when a foot got caught in the cogs.
and after being pulled in and churned up,
it now, more closely, resembled a sorry form of
that which their time and place dictates they should
be. ’cause they’re all more foolish and impressionable
than they’d like to think.
i would have to dismantle and reconfigure all the philosophical underpinnings upon which my fragile constructions of life and self are built.
well, if they’re fragile then they’ll be even easier to do that to.
are you sure that’s how that works?
no, but it sounds like a good enough theory, and the lab work is too time-consuming and ethically-questionable for us to venture into.
i guess i’m as angry at myself as i am every other shmuck-flawedDNA-sack going about their lives all around me.
angry at yourself for what?
besides being a human, i guess (as sad as it is) i’m angry that i haven’t “done” anything, haven’t “made a difference,” in essence that i feel so inconsequential.
how do you think an ant feels?
what the fuck kind of question is that? did you really just ask me that?
i was just thinking about it.
are you even listening?
ok, ok… so, you feel worthless?
now, don’t go putting fucking words in my mouth.
i didn’t intend to. i was only trying to recap. please, go on.
i don’t know… it’s just that i used to think i was the kind of person who could champion some meaningful cause or something. but, now i don’t even believe in ’causes,’ not even in the most fundamental sense.
determination, i mean.
if you’ve come to believe that none of us has any significant weight upon what does or does not happen, how are you supposed to live up to your own standards of “significance?”
indeed, a conflict of beliefs. …now, i’d be happy just to be able to care.
yes, a logical prerequisite for the afore and/or a sensible step down.
however, it seems to me that caring is an intrinsic ability or characteristic that one is either endowed with or isn’t. i can’t fathom a way to foster it from nothing.
hmm, try standing up for a moment.
[therapist stands up and swiftly boots the patient in the nut-sack]
tell me, do you care now?
oh, well that didn’t really go the way i saw it in my head. (but it still felt kinda good.)
maybe you’rrrre right thoooough. perhaps my perceived inability to care to no more than adherence to my general belief set which revolves around mortal impotence and predestination.
i’m not sure how you drew those parallels. but, i guess that’s what i was trying to say.
but then the problem is as stated at first. when dealing with something as vague and uncertain as metaphysical and ontological matters i would imagine it must take a turning point of a certain type and severity.
i think i might have read about that once.
and my life is friggin’ boring, though operable. so, it’ll be a while until i’m pushed to reshape the dysfunctional pieces of my psyche.
would it help if i kicked you in the balls again?
the new messiah will be a bastard
of bio-technology. i’m just calling it
right now, that’s all. as we lean more on
scientific advances, we correspond increasingly
via telecommunications. and so personal interaction
becomes simpler and more regimented. we gradually remove
the aspects of inflection, intonation, facial expression, and figurative
differentiation. we define ourselves as movie and song clips, web links,
borrowed and abused quotes, and touched-up jpegs. on the other hand,
technology is learning to ‘think’ more like a human mind. processors
are being developed to connect more freely and laterally. their
computations are beginning to account for context in a
variety of forms. and machines can build upon
their existing parameters based on past
results. IBM has created a computer
capable of playing Jeopardy, a game
of vast and varied form and proportion.
maybe we’ll all just trade places, who knows?
all that’s certain is we’re getting closer to common ground
every day. actually i believe the progress will be effectively staved off,
if not lost, by crises stemming from humankind’s optimistic mismanagement
of the resources necessary for, not only, innovation and industry, but survival itself.
…but that’s only natural.
he loved people
who said, ‘they didn’t
play games.’ because, he knew
that if it were true, then they would
be an outcast like himself. for all culture,
society, and tradition are but games. they say
college is for elitist snobs who think that
they’re better than the working man.
and blue-collar labor is only for
chumps and dolts with
than brain power. now,
where does that leave the rest
of us? what are we when we see only
what we are not? what do we do when we
know the flaws and faults that we’re destined to
pass on to, or instill in, others? what if we
know the self-invented monster’s life
of painful serenity because we
lived it, and still have no
answers for anyone?
i wish that i could have as
much patience with the majority
of human kind as i do with my daughter.
and i wish that i could have the unwavering
patience with my daughter that i would if granted
boundless selflessness and love. of course,
some would say that helplessness only
exists if you accept it. however,
i’d counter that accepting
helplessness is, in fact,
the route to understanding
and dealing with it. admittedly,
a fool’s paradise is quite enticing, too.
perhaps it is merely a matter of choice, and
one of the few we have. i watched a movie once
about a man who was incapable of feeling
comfortable or at home in any place
that was familiar to him. only
in a completely foreign
he experience the total
dissociative freedom of being
an outsider, unrestrained by himself
or others to observe, understand, and act
authentically. perhaps, this can bring us clarity
in the midst of (seeming) powerlessness.
when we manage to pare back more
layers and see with the wisdom
-hungry eyes of innocence
we may be reminded
of the most basic common
denominators that connect even
those things we least understand.
the human is a nostalgic beast.
he says the sunset is beautiful because
he knows it is from comparative mnemonic processes.
he will not actually feel much of anything until looking back on
the moment as a memory. in the present his mind is busy in cogitation.
maybe he’s trying to keep their craft on course, keep up a conversation with his
ship-mates, and appreciate the bouquet of the Italian cabernet in his glass while not
letting it spill above the rim of his glass with the rolling of the waves. that album in his
cassette player for his morning commute in the better part of ’98-’99 constitutes the
physical embodiment of his mean emotional range for that era, broken down
into twelve, silly, predictable (in hindsight) tracks. perhaps this partly
explains our affinity for botching things up and cutting off our
own noses. if we’re unable to appreciate our condition
until it’s in our past, perhaps we’re more likely
to usher ourselves out of one stage of
existence and into another. though,
whether our advanced adaptability
is an effect, or another contributing
factor of this is too far for even my nut-job
i have blue balls
made of plastic hanging
from a half-dead, electrified,
evergreen conifer taking up half
of my dining-room. it makes me think;
(yes i still do that sometimes) what makes
us do the things we do? if i were alone i would
probably just put a yule log and some chestnuts on
the same skeleton that i pulled out of my closet
for halloween… or thanksgiving. but, i like
to do things that make the few people
i give a shit about in life happy.
i can’t blame it all on them,
besides. in the end, acting
average and conformable tends
to invite far less attention and scrutiny
than the alternative.
the american dream is the chicken IN the egg… that will never hatch. and if it did it would probably eat itself alive. the theory of class mobility and self-made-men fail with the general trends in means and status; specifically that they both preclude one another. not that meteoric rise is impossible, clearly. but, that such cases are not as much a reflection of work ethic and a nod to universal opportunity, as they are the exploitation of dialectic loopholes and/or the erratic power structure of our fashion-based culture. the mere existence of investing, the fact that “money makes money” ensures the reality of an economic gap. either one is so without means that they are never able to get ahead, or they are ahead and always getting more ahead. either: you have a beat-up 15 year-old truck that you can’t afford to inspect, register, or insure, and can barely put gas in, but need to drive it if you want to work and get a check. or you drive a new high-end vehicle that you have the means to pay people to fix and maintain perfectly so that it will retain its value for when you upgrade two years later. i’m digressing -but not, because what we’re really talking about is not directly finance or status, but image. self-image, image to others, these are the true players in how our position all sorts out. it’s an ambiguous system, at best. and whatever your place in life, rationalization tends to be key to sanity because, let’s face it, we all do bad shit. at one end, there is a certain romance in being a bottom feeder, be it capital, ethical, or what have you. there’s a feeling that you are somehow stronger or wiser than others stemming from the fact that you can and/or do live without some of the crutches or superficialities in their lives. at the other end, the highest up are generally held to be more intelligent, refined, resilient, important, or of more worth in one form or another. the in-between is only a messy, splotched, gradient of mediocrity. it’s like a cute, little, microcosm of our species’ progress. the poorest are stereotypically the strongest and most adapted to survive in a natural sense, but ignorant to modern science or culture. the richest are stereotypically the most knowledgeable of, and skilled in, specialized fields relating to human production or inquiry, but are weak out of their milieu and have lost touch with their larger sphere. and obviously, the middle-class vaguely engenders some of the pros and cons of both in less drastic degree. now, i know, you’re thinking; all this generalizing and judgment, this is deplorable!! however, i only simplify things to appreciate their true richness. to an extent i believe these assertions, though i recognize them as partial truths. from a distance, earth looks blue and white and green… but it is much more. the best part about these observations is the realization that our species is so varied and complex that the exceptions, the misfits, are innumerable. there are so many individuals out there that defy this reduction and categorization, people who sculpt their own place with a patchwork of influences from different strands of life –these are the ones will survive.
he presented a small, grey, box with a square bow on the top.
it promised nothing.
he opened it. a great volume of sand spilled out, and he said,
to know it is to count it.
and i thought i understood.
everything you ‘know’ (ie: believe) is attributable to an estimation of your own perception, or someone else’s authoritative (sounding) presentation of theirs. once you recognize the inconsistency and relativity of this, the world takes on another shape. for life’s generalities, this may work fine. but the more specific the point in question, the more complicating factors there are to compromise the calculation or evaluation of increasingly specific evidence.
perhaps we are lucky that there are those who are willing to dedicate lifetimes to the study of one receptor on one type of neuron under one set of particular conditions. …or perhaps we’re not. for, even if something is to be learned, our social pathways of disseminating information -though advanced in areas- amounts to little more than privatized games of telephone across nations and ages.
did mention i have ants? i kill a lot of them. and i found myself wondering how and/or by what/whom the decision is made to distribute the colony’s resources between harvesting potential food sources, scouting for other sources, and attending the hive. if i keep stepping on the suckers, at what point do their losses become unacceptable? is it determined by chance? do the ants know math? are they instilled with another sense? is there a program, or is it situational? these are things i will never know. and thusly, perhaps am never meant to know. it would take many years of studying thousands of laboratory-bred control ants to even approach an acceptable conclusion. maybe, it’s nature’s way of attempting to make us focus our interest and effort on those things that it wants us to attend to. i don’t know.
I did not know what was written in the leather-bound notebook I found in the park just next to the old orphanage. I didn’t know about the photos taped inside, or the entries inside. Had I known, would it have stopped me looking inside the tome? Would it have expedited my intention to turn it into a lost and found somewhere? No, I don’t think so. Once I’ve set my mind to investigate something, I’m rarely able to stop.
I’ve secured the position of groundskeeper at Lonely Home Orphanage. I’m using the name Garon Jackobs for this job. The paper doesn’t understand why I wanted to do this job, why this place. My gut tells me something’s odd about this place though. I can’t place it, but just looking at the building… It seems off, there’s a haze around it, like it’s not quite all there.
This entry had been accompanied by a Polaroid photograph of the orphanage. I turned to look up at the place. With it’s high towers and jagged walls that made it look like it was some defensible building out of an old horror movie. The picture had looked a bit blurry, but the building had never given me any kind of particular feeling about it. Did it look blurry?
I mow the grass and trim hedges and trees, job stuff. Nothing big yet, but I’ve been provided a shack on grounds to sleep in, so when something does happen, I’ll spot it. Seems the children are usually outside playing while the sun is out. I met a girl about 7 years old by the name of Suzy who insists on calling me Mousier Garon. Cute kid, I hope that my gut feeling doesn’t mean something’s being done to her.
The book had a pattern it seemed. Left page photograph, right page entry. The second photo was of a young girl. She had bright blue eyes and wore her raven hair in what started as a ponytail and ended in a sort of braid. A deep red dress was draped over her small features. Presumably this was Suzy smiling vibrantly out of the photo at me. I think I’d seen her through the gate once or twice when passing the eerie place. The kids playing never really dampen the effect much.
Suzy brought me lunch today, a roast beef sandwich and cherry pie. She’s such a sweet little girl, always smiling and laughing. Always wearing the same dress though, or what seems to be the same dress. I should try and look into that, the kids should be being provided enough clothing. I’ll make another entry when something interesting happens.
Another photograph of Suzy, this time grinning up at the camera holding a plate of food. There where eight small squares of sandwich, filled with folds of beef and a light sauce, each topped with a leaf of parsley and held together with toothpicks of various colors. Filling the rest of the plate was a perfect slice of pie absolutely filled with red cherries. They looked just soft enough you could cut straight through without disturbing any other cherries. Nothing on the plate was less then four inches tall.
I found my mouth watering just looking at the plate. Could that little corner café still be open? No, it was close to two in the morning, nothing was open. I turned my attention back to the notebook, turning the page as I placed myself on a swing.
Here it is, the big thing I’ve been waiting for, nothing all week until Saturday, now. Suzy was giving me my lunch as she has been, when a tone sounded from the building, like a microwave had gone off or something, and she dropped the plate in my hands and turned to head inside. All the children just stopped what they were doing, and went inside… It occurs to me I’ve never actually been inside the building. Strange, I’ll investigate tonight.
An image of Suzy leaving with all the other children heading inside is the occupant of the left page. Dozens of toys lay scattered across the grass. Toy cars up-ended, block towers unfinished, dolls abandoned. They have actually, almost literally, dropped everything to leave. Suzy’s in the middle of the picture, her ponytail braid stilled in a wave. I shivered. I could actually see a few toys sprawled out in the orphanage yard. It was an eerie comparison.
This was a terrible mistake.
I don’t know where the children have gone, but this is not what I’d call an orphanage. the halls are lined with candles, and the walls have strange markings on them now and then. Lots of circles with odd writing. This could be worth the front page… but at what cost? I’ll venture further, I should at least find the kids.
A dark photograph of the corridor. He wasn’t joking when he said lined with candles. There must have been hundreds of them. Weird runes and markings were carved into the stone walls, some of them even seem to be just claw marks. Which seems a good guess, as I remember my heart skipping as I had noticed a clawed hand gripping a corner around the wall in the photo. I stood and started pacing down the jogging path, notebook firmly in hand. I figured it was about time I started back on my way, and it didn’t hurt I was putting distance between myself and that crypt of a building.
What were those things?! Those horrible, horrible things…
I need to leave, I can’t stay here any longer, my arm is bleeding where one of them gashed me, I need to get help.
I keep hearing Suzy in my head… “Mousier Garon!..” I wish I didn’t have to leave her with those things… but I can’t fight them, what can I do? I’ll just have to come back with help. Wait, I see her, she’s standing by the gate, we can both leave.
There was a break in the pattern here, two entries with one photo. The first entry seemed to only have barely been finished. A stroke of ink seemed to dictate a period, and little red droplets spattered the page. I tried not to think about it too much.
The picture for this one was of Suzy standing next to the gate, her back to the photographer, Garon. Still in the same red dress, immaculately clean. Standing there just off the path that went through the gate. She was holding something white in her hand.
Wait… was that today’s date?
I turned the page once more, heart beating a hole through my chest.
“Ah, I see you’ve found my notebook.”
I jumped at the voice, as I almost ran into the figure standing in the middle of the path. There in the moonlight stood a man in a trench coat, holding a cane and wearing a hat that cast farther shadow over his eyes. He stretched out his hand as I stared at him. “Thank you so much, I really did need that back.”
I struggled to take in breath, and just stood there in shock as the man reached towards me and lifted the journal from my hands. Faintly, I could hear rustling around the playground. I could swear I heard a faint “Mousier Garon” off to my left. But I couldn’t make myself react to that right now, I couldn’t stop staring at the man’s eyes.
He had the same eyes from the last photograph.
The last photograph that showed Suzy, in her red dress that was incredibly clean, and with her hair in the ponytail braid. That showed her turning to stare at Mousier Garon with glowing, yellow, slitted eyes, and smiling with sharp pointed teeth forming a grin, holding that strange white mask up next to her face teasingly.
I finally forced myself to move, breaking into a run past the creature in front me. I don’t remember him trying to stop me, but my shirt bares a torn sleeve that says otherwise. I still haven’t been able to get the picture out of my head. The picture was accompanied by the seventh entry, scrawled in ragged letters.
I interrupt. “Don’t call me Freddy,” I say. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Call me Fred. Call me Fredrick. Call me anything you want to, but don’t call me Freddy.” I know this is a colossal waste of breath, since Bill always calls me Freddy, but for me, it is a point of pride. My ninth grade gym teacher, the sadist, called me Freddy. Both of my ex-wives called me Freddy. My first lieutenant, long dead, called me Freddy. Lots of people I would just as soon not remember called me Freddy.
“Fine,” Bill continues, “As I was saying, Dickhead, McGovern doesn’t stand a chance. Not a snowball’s chance in hell. Not a virgin’s chance in a harem. It’s not even a remote possibility.”
“You’re wrong,” I reply. “I’m telling you, the times are changing. The war’s going to end, the Pirates won the World Series, and for God’s sake, the Beatles even broke up last year. I’m telling you, the times are changing. Have you ever even listened to Dylan?”
Bill takes a long hit off a joint, smirking at me through the veil of smoke. “Freddy, Freddy, Freddy,” he says, shaking his head as he passes me the joint. “You really don’t get it, do you? Out with the old in with the new. Blah, blah, blah. The more things change the more they stay the same. The war’s ending. Big fucking deal, the virus is played out in that little corner of the world. It’ll raise its ugly head up again soon enough. Someone has to win the World Series, and the Beatles, well that can be summed up with one four-letter word.” He pauses, smiling condescendingly. “Yoko.” Reaching over, he pats me on the shoulder. “Smoke the dope, don’t be a dope,” he says.
I take the joint. Bill has a way of boiling things down to their bare essentials. Sometimes Bill really pisses me off. Even so, he is my best… actually my only friend. We were in kindergarten together. He was best man in both of my weddings. We spent thirteen months together in hell on earth and were then and therefore will always be brothers in arms. I hit the joint hard, holding the smoke deep, uttering—without exhaling—the most overused phrase in modern dope history. “Good shit.” I am so thankful that marijuana is not addictive. If it was, I would be in some very serious trouble. I love the stuff. I smoke it every day, pretty much all day, not because I have to, but because I want to. Someday, I’m sure I’ll quit. Maybe when I get a real job. Right now, I’m the caretaker of an old rooming house. The place is a dump, home to local college students and outpatients from the mental ward at the V.A. hospital. I don’t mind the students, but the outpatients scare me—not in a physical sense, but in a general sense. I just don’t like hanging around crazy people. It’s like they know some terrible secret that has driven them crazy and I worry that if I hang around them long enough, I might discover the secret and go crazy too. Thankfully I am not, at the current time, crazy. I am, however, a compulsive liar. Really, you can believe me. I pass the joint back to Bill.
My compulsivity relative to truth telling started after a firefight in Nam, when our C.O. asked us for body count numbers. I decided right then that whatever Bill’s number; I would beat it by one. From that day forward, if Bill said he killed two people, I’d say I killed three. If Bill said he killed six, I’d claim seven. This annoyed Bill, since he considered war to be a very serious endeavor, and he was a very good soldier, a very good soldier indeed. Good soldiers never doubt their mission. Good soldiers know that they are on the right side. Good soldiers follow orders. Me—I just wanted to survive thirteen months, get back to the world, and stay high for the rest of my life. I only know for sure that I killed one person. Most of the time I just kept my head low and fired wildly into the jungle. But Bill—Bill’s numbers were high and Bill’s numbers were accurate.
Bill hits the joint again, the smoke rolling from his mouth, then disappearing up his nostrils. He stares off into space for a long moment, and then looks at me. “Do you ever think about Bobby D?” he asks.
I lie. “No.”
Bobby D rotated into the platoon as a KIA replacement. He didn’t curse, he didn’t drink, and he didn’t smoke grass. In Nam, everyone cursed—it was part of the soldier’s language. It was as common as breathing. Fuck was a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb. It was the all-encompassing descriptor, used in every sentence, on every occasion, whenever or wherever it could possibly fit. There were several in the platoon who didn’t smoke pot, there were even a few who didn’t drink, but everyone cursed. The soldiers in the platoon assumed the soft-spoken boy from central Missouri would learn the language soon enough. They assumed that after a few search and destroys, he would need a drink, and maybe, just maybe, he would eventually need some dope.
Bobby had been at base camp for two weeks, in two days the platoon was scheduled out on a zippo mission. I approached him in the mess tent line. “Bobby D, in two days we go out,” I said, wrapping my arm around his shoulder. “So tonight we’re going to Dog Patch. It not an option, it’s a tradition. Call it a sacred tradition.”
Bobby looked anxious. We took our trays and moved along the food line. “What exactly is Dog Patch, sir?” he asked, taking a plate full of chopped beef and gravy.
“First of all, don’t call me sir,” I replied. I stuck a fork in a piece of meat, brought it to my nose and inhaled. “It’s dead, that’s for sure. The question is, how long has it been dead?” I smiled at the server. “How long ago did you kill the dog?” I asked. The server smiled back and raised his middle finger. We continued down the line and found an empty table. “Dog Patch,” I continued, “is a little slice of paradise, a place where you can pretty much get whatever you want. You want a hot dog, you can get a hot dog. You want ice cream, you can get ice cream. You want whiskey, you can get whiskey. You want grass, you can get grass. You want a woman, you can get a woman. Or two, or even three if you prefer.”
Bobby set his fork down and raised his eyebrows. “You know I don’t drink, sir.”
“Don’t call me sir.” I said. “Then don’t drink. Look, you know we’re going out on a search and destroy in two days. I’m guessing you’re a virgin, right?”
Bobby’s face reddened.
“No one, especially in this God-forsaken parcel of land, should die a virgin, understand?”
“I hadn’t planned on dying, sir,” Bobby said earnestly.
“None of the soldiers who die plan on dying, Bobby D. But die they do. It happens. And don’t call me sir,” I said, as I stuck my fork in the meat, pushed my tray away and stood up. “Now, whaddya say we get out of here and have some fun tonight?”
“Well, it has been a while since I had a hot dog,” Bobby said.
Dog Patch was a cluster of tin roof shanties, located a couple of klicks from base, consisting of bars, bordellos, massage parlors, dope dealers, and even a barber shop. Technically, it was off limits, but unless there was big trouble, the MPs usually turned a blind eye to the soldiers who frequented the area. We sat in a small, dimly lit bar. I was on my third whiskey, Bobby on his second hot dog and Coke. “You sure you don’t want a drink, Bobby D?” I asked.
Bobby bit into his hot dog. “I’m sure sir,” he said, chewing as he spoke.
I reached over and cuffed the back of Bobby’s head. “For the last time, don’t call me sir. I’m not an officer and I’m not your fucking dad.” I finished my whiskey, then ordered another.
“Sorry s—Freddy, it’s how I was raised,” he said sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to make you angry.”
“First of all, soldiers don’t get angry,” I said. “Soldiers get pissed off. Soldiers get real pissed off. Soldiers get real fucking pissed off. Second of all, for the next thirteen months, you need to forget everything your mommy and daddy taught you. You need to forget everything your Sunday school teacher taught you. You need to quit being so fucking nice, understand? You want to survive, you can’t be fucking nice. Underfuckingstand?
“You sure you don’t want a drink?”
The bartender set my whiskey on the bar. I lifted the glass, looked at Bobby and took a swig. “You don’t know what you’re missing,” I said. I smiled at the bartender, a small, middle-aged, balding Vietnamese man. “Hey, Hoang, you holding anything behind the bar for me?”
Hoang smiled broadly. “I always holding for you, Freddy. Always holding for you.” He reached beneath the bar, pulled out a small bag of marijuana, and handed it to me.
I opened the bag, brought it to my nose, and inhaled deeply. “Man, that smells good,” I said, “What do you call it this week?” I asked.
“No need to promise, it’s not like we’re getting married,” I replied, putting the bag into my shirt pocket. “I know it’s good. Your shit is always good. That’s why I’m here.”
“Isn’t that against the law or against the rules or something?” Bobby asked, nervously glancing over his shoulder.
I chuckled. “We’re in a war zone, buddy. There are no laws. And yes, technically it is against the rules, and you need to learn the rules, so you know which ones you can break.”
Bobby looked puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
“Look, around here some rules are very important rules. If you break them, you will die. Other rules are just kind of important rules. If you break them, someone else might die. And some rules are totally fucked up rules. They’re just in place because the fucking rule makers are totally fucked up.” I took the grass and a packet of zigzags out of my pocket, smiled at Bobby, and began rolling a thin joint. “Don’t need much of this,” I said. “It’s a lot better than the shit back in the world. This really is good shit.” I paused, nodding at Bobby. “Never stand up during a fire-fight—very important rule. Never salute an officer when you’re on a zippo mission—kind of important rule. Don’t buy drugs—totally fucked up rule.” I finished rolling, licked the paper, and tucked the joint behind my ear. “Understand?”
“I think I understand,” Bobby said. “I should never stand up during a fire-fight, right?”
I smiled. “Now you’re getting it, Bobby D. Now you’re getting it.”
Bobby finished his Coke. “How many missions have you been on?” he asked.
I held up three fingers and drained my whiskey. “Three questions, that’s all you get. Three questions and then we’re getting out of here.” I motioned Hoang for another drink. “You sure you don’t want a drink?” I asked Bobby D.
“I’m sure. Maybe after we come back, though.”
I stared at Bobby for a long minute. “Ahh, let the dogs of war rip at your flesh first, eh?” I said quietly. “Good call. You’ll need a drink.” Hoang set another whiskey on the bar. I lifted the glass and stared at the amber liquid. “I don’t count missions. I count day’s left. One hundred and fifty-three days and I’m gone.” I set the glass back on the bar. “And I’m never looking back.”
“What’s it like?”
“You’ll see soon enough,” I said, glancing at my watch. “Thirty-six hours to be exact. Remember the rule?”
“Never stand up during a firefight.”
“Good. Never hesitate. You see movement, you pull the trigger—very important rule. God willing, we’ll be back here in eight days and one of us, or maybe both of us will be having a drink.”
Bobby lifted his empty Coke glass. “Amen,” he said.
I raise my drink. . “Hallefuckinglujah,” I said, clinking our glasses together.
“Do you ever pray before you go out?” Bobby D asked, setting his empty glass back on the bar.
“I don’t see the point of prayer,” I answered. “God’s supposed to know all things, right?”
“Right,” Bobby replied.
“Then what’s the point?”
“If God knows all things, he already knows what you’re going to pray about, right? Why bother praying if he already knows what you want?”
Bobby looked at me and smiled. “Freddy,” he said, “I’m not praying so he knows what I want, I’m praying so I know what he wants.”
I finished my whiskey. “Far out,” I said. “Searching for the mind of the almighty.” I set my glass back on the bar, reached over a patted Bobby on the back. “Let me know how that works out for you, kid. And while you’re at it, put a good fucking word in for me, okay.”
Bobby D smiled back at me. “No problem, sir. Consider it done.” He stared at me for a moment, the smile gone from his face. “One more question,” he said. “Have you seen a lot of men die?”
“That’s four questions,” I replied. “It’s time to get out of here. Let’s go fire up MaryJane and go visit some lady friends.” I tossed some bills on the bar and stood up. “Remember, everybody dies. Some die sooner and some die later, but sooner or later everyone dies, my friend.”
“I never look back. I don’t drive with a rear-view mirror,” I say, reaching out with my hand. “Don’t bogard the joint. Dope doesn’t grow on trees, you know.”
Bill takes a clip and attaches it to the end of the joint. He takes another hit. “If you don’t remember where you’ve been, you’ll never be able to figure out where you want to go,” he says. He hangs on to the joint.
“I don’t really care where I’m going,” I reply. “I just want to live a perfectly meaningful meaningless life. I thought you understood that. Is that too much to ask? Now pass me that joint.”
“You know what I think?” He hits the joint again. “I think you like this stuff way too much,” he says, answering his own question, as he waves the roach clip in the air.
“You know what I think? I think I really don’t care what you think.” I say, pausing for a moment. “Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?” Of course, Bill is absolutely right. I do like the stuff way too much, but it’s not something I care to discuss at the current time. “After all,” I continue, “you’re the one holding the joint.”
“Here’s the difference,” Bill says. “I don’t smoke dope morning, noon, and night. We’ve been back in the world—what—seventeen, eighteen months—and you’ve been high all day every day. That’s the difference.”
“Five hundred and thirty seven days,” I say.
“Five hundred and thirty seven days. We’ve been back in the world five hundred and thirty seven days and I’ve been high all day every day.” I pause. “Just like I planned. I’m living the dream, my friend.”
“Yeah, well you might want to think about waking up.” He passes me the joint.
“About time,” I say.
“So you don’t look back and you don’t care where you’re going,” Bill says. “The prophet Bob Dylan tells you the times are changing and you get a hard-on, right? McGovern’s going to end the war and everyone’s going to live happily fucking ever after, right?” He leans over and taps me on the chest. “Listen,” he says, “Nothing can change what’s already been done. And you have to decide what’s yet to be done. It’s all up to you. The problem is you’re so scared shitless of your past, you’re afraid to face your future.”
I take another hit off the joint and look calmly back at Bill. “Maybe I happen to like the present,” I say. “And by the way, I’m not afraid of anything.”
Bill stares at me and says nothing.
“So, what if I do think about Bobby D?” I ask. “It doesn’t change anything.”
“I liked that kid.”
“You ever think about the lieutenant?” Bill asks.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
The lieutenant was a shake and bake, fresh from OTC, anxious to prove himself the leader that he was certain he was destined to be. We were four days out from base, and he was pushing us hard, ten or twelve clicks per day. Our uniforms were filthy, wet with sweat and humidity, and we were getting restless, anxious to get back to base. Many of the soldiers in the platoon were short-timers, beginning to daydream of girls and cars back home, daring to believe in the possibility of their own survival as we humped through the hot fetid jungle. It was now near dusk. I was at point, moving slowly, quietly, deliberately pausing at each step, listening intently, trying to sense anything out of the ordinary. I liked being the point man, and would volunteer for the job, just to keep a cherry from getting the assignment. A cherry would inevitably step on a Bouncing Betty or cross a trip wire or lead the entire platoon into an ambush. I had never led the platoon into an ambush, and had never failed to spot a booby trap. I didn’t worry too much about snipers, because I knew any decent sniper would let me pass in order to increase the kill ratio when the entire platoon came into range. I was following a narrow path, overgrown with vines, when I spotted the trip wire, strung low across the trail. I stopped and raised my arm, signaling the men behind to take cover. I moved to the edge of the path and stepped silently over the wire, crouching low, peering intently into the jungle. There was no movement. I stood frozen, watching, moving only my eyes. After a moment I saw the overhead. It was three feet high, camouflaged with vines. Several yards away there was another, and yet another, and still another, each one covering a mid-size bunker. For several minutes I remained perfectly still, controlling my breathing, trying to control my fear, watching for any movement, listening for any sound. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. Slowly, carefully, I stepped back over the trip wire and made my way back to the troops.
I found the lieutenant and sergeant and crouched down beside them. The lieutenant looked at me expectantly. I had seen the look before—the impatience, the anticipation, the fear and excitement in the eyes of those who had imagined combat, but never actually experienced combat. The look would change soon enough. “What did you see, soldier?”
“It’s a bunker complex, sir. Too many for Charlie. Must be NVA.” I paused, glancing at the sergeant, “Bill, there could be anywhere from a platoon to a company.”
“You’re not talking to the sergeant, you’re talking to me,” the lieutenant said impatiently. “Did you see the enemy?”
“I saw no movement, sir.”
“So the enemy isn’t there?”
“I saw no movement, sir.”
The lieutenant shifted his glance to Bill. “What do you think?”
Bill nodded at me.
“The bunkers could be abandoned. The enemy could be out on patrol. Or they could be waiting for our platoon to advance so they can kill every last one of us,” I said, looking at Bill.
“That’s not very precise information,” the lieutenant said, shaking his head.
“It is what it is,” I replied.
“We’re taking those bunkers.” The lieutenant stood up. “Get your squad ready to advance, Freddy.”
Bill yanked hard on the lieutenant’s leg. “Sir, get down. Don’t stand.”
The lieutenant crouched back down. “Listen,” he said. “There’s still some daylight left. We’re taking those bunkers.”
I spit on the ground. “That is a very bad idea.”
The lieutenant glared at me. “I didn’t ask what you thought, Freddy.” He looked a Bill. “What so you think, Sergeant?”
“That is a very bad idea, sir.”
“In terms of ideas, that’s a number ten-thousand sir,” I said.
The lieutenant looked intently at Bill. “Okay, Sergeant, tell me what you think we should do.”
“We should pull back a klick or two, dig in, set out claymores and trip flares, wait out the night, and call in an air strike in the morning,” I said. “That’s what we should do.”
“You don’t listen too good, do you soldier?” the lieutenant said tersely. “What do you think we should do, Sergeant?”
“We should pull back a klick or two, dig in, set out claymores and trip flares, wait out the night, and call in an air strike in the morning,” Bill said. “That’s exactly what we should do, sir.”
“Listen,” the lieutenant said tersely. I’m in command here. I don’t go backwards. Understand?”
We remained silent.
“Did you hear me?”
Bill nodded. “Yes, sir, loud and clear” he replied. “Get your squad together, Freddy,” he said.
“Hold on a minute,” I said, shaking my head. “What about a mad minute?”
Bill nodded. “Good idea.”
“Mad minute? What the hell is a mad minute?” the lieutenant asked.
“A mad minute, sir,” Bill replied. “We open up with every thing we’ve got right at the bunkers. Rifles, grenade launchers, even the M-60. Everything we’ve got for one minute. Believe me, if they’re in there, they’ll return fire.”
The lieutenant was quiet for a moment. He looked from me to Bill. “Okay,” he said. “We’ll try the mad minute. Get the men ready.”
The soldiers took position, staying low, taking whatever cover they could find. I motioned for Bobby D to move closer to me. “Remember the rule?’ I asked.
“Don’t stand up,” Bobby D replied.
“If you see movement, what do you do?”
“Pull the trigger.”
“Good.” I slapped Bobby on the back. Now pray that Lieutenant Dumb Fuck doesn’t get us all killed.”
The lieutenant was several yards away from us. He looked up and down the line. “Ready?” he yelled.
I tapped Bobby’s shoulder. “You ready, Bobby D?” I asked.
“Keep your head down. Do not stand up,” I said.
We opened fire. The sound was deafening, awesome, fearsome. It shook the jungle, pulsing into our chests. After one minute it stopped. Everything was still. The lieutenant looked up and down the line, then stood up. “Let’s go men,” he screamed.
Bobby watched the lieutenant stand. “Sir, don’t stand,” he yelled, rushing toward him in a low crouch. He hit the lieutenant hard at the waist. Bullets tore into Bobby’s back, twisting his torso, slamming his body into the lieutenant, throwing them both back five feet. They landed hard and were both still, the lieutenant on his back, Bobby sprawled over him.
I scrambled over to them, turned Bobby over and cradled his head. His eyes flickered as he looked at me. “Don’t,” he murmured weakly. A blood bubble formed on his lips. I turned my head. “Medic,” I screamed. I looked back at Bobby and saw the exit wounds, large gaping holes, pouring blood. “Stand,” Bobby said. Then Bobby died.
I let go of Bobby, then looked at the unconscious lieutenant. I started to raise my rifle, then felt a hand grab my shoulder. “Don’t do it, Freddy,” Bill said.
“Bobby’s dead.” I looked at Bill.
“I know,” Bill replied. “C’mon, we’ve got company. There’s work to do.”
Small arms fire erupted from the jungle. The muzzle flashes were visible in the fading light, heavy fire, spreading wide. Bill crouched and ran to the end of the line. “Don’t let them flank us,” he screamed. The M-60 machine gunner was dead, shot through the head, slumped over his gun. Bill pushed him aside and laid down a wall of fire, driving the enemy back toward the center of the fight.
Grenades exploded, spewing shrapnel and dirt. Men screamed. The fight see-sawed back and forth, first in one spot, then another. Shadows moved in the jungle. A chaotic dance of death, no one knowing who was leading. And then it was still. Darkness was upon us.
Everyone waited, staring hard into the night. It remained quiet. Bill found me at the center of the line. “Find the medics, get a body count, check the wounded.”
“Already done,” I replied. “Six dead, including both medics. Three wounded, none serious, not counting the lieutenant.”
“What’s with the lieutenant?” Bill asked.
“Concussion. Bullet wound in the side. He’ll live. I gave him enough morphine to keep him down through the night,” I said, shaking my head. “Fucking idiot.” We peered into the dark jungle. “What do you think?” I asked.
“They weren’t more than a platoon, thank god,” Bill replied. “I think they’re gone. They know an air strike will hit in the morning. They did enough damage. ” He stared into the night. “They’re gone.”
I nodded. “I’ll check the perimeter and get the boys ready for the night.”
It was pitch black. The men spoke in whispers, passing along the names of the dead. Alone in the night, they grieved for the fallen, but were thankful that they themselves were not among them. The soldier’s conundrum. Minutes ticked by in the darkness. They waited, hoping, praying the night would pass uneventful. They could taste the fear in the back of their throats. Winning or losing no longer mattered. Right or wrong no longer mattered. Staying alive was all that mattered. The minutes turned to hours. Soldiers began to nod off, unable to withstand the adrenaline crash.
There was an explosion in the dead of the night. Bill found me near the center of camp, staring down. He flashed his light to the ground. The lieutenant’s body was grotesquely twisted, torn nearly in half. Bill shook his head in disbelief. “Fuck, Freddy,” he whispered hoarsely. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” He raised his eyes, looking at me. “What the fuck, Freddy?”
I looked back at Bill. “Must have been an RPG,” I said. “You’re in charge now.” I turned and walked into the darkness. We never spoke of it again.
I lick my thumb and forefinger, then squeeze the end of the joint, listening to the sizzle as the ember goes dead. I put the roach into a small matchbox, and smile at Bill. “I’ll save it for later,” I say. “Roach dope, it’s the best, you know.”
“So they say.” Bill stands. “I have to split. See you tomorrow, Freddy.”
“Don’t call me Freddy,” I say.
He stops, putting his hand on my shoulder. “See you tomorrow, Fredrick. See you tomorrow.”
Bill leaves. I walk into the bedroom, open the top dresser drawer and look down. I begin reading the obituary for the five hundred and thirty-seventh time.
First Lieutenant Donald Jensen, 23, lifelong resident of Des Moines, Iowa, died Saturday, December 13, 1969 in Vietnam, as result of hostile action…
I look up, into the mirror hanging above the dresser. “I’m not afraid to look back,” I say to the man in the mirror.
“I know,” he replies.
“There’s just nothing back there worth looking at,” I continue.
“I know,” he replies.
“Which came first?” I ask. “The chicken or the egg?”
“You tell me,” the man in the mirror replies. “Which came first, the pain or the addiction?”
“It doesn’t matter, they’re both here.” I stare at the man in the mirror. “Tomorrow, I’m going to quit.
The man in the mirror gives a sad laugh. “Maybe tomorrow,” he says. He lights up another joint. “Not today. Maybe tomorrow.”
Unfortunately, my body was still attached, so it was quite a nuisance. If they really needed more exercise, I could have gotten a treadmill, maybe walked more around the house. But it was adventure they sought and I was forced to comply. In revenge, I dragged them as they walked.
“I’ll be late for work!” I told them as they forced me past my car and onto a mountain trail near my house. They ignored me and simply wriggled their toes deep into the mud and then squished dry across beds of moss.
They took me through streams and up the sides of waterfalls. They took me to crawl spaces in urban centers to find tiny, pocket restaurants and dive bars. My thumb joined in on the mutiny and started hitching rides.
“Where you heading to?” the drivers would ask me.
“I don’t know. Ask my feet!”
In April, I panicked. “Really feet,” I yelled at them. “My taxes are due! Do you want me to be audited, get fined, maybe even go to jail?” My feet replied by kicking some stones down the street and then taking me to the Grand Canyon.
My feet became calloused. Worn, bulbous beets attached to my ankles and yet they kept on walking. “How about a break?” I asked them. “Can’t we just stop by a mall so I can sit in the air-conditioning and see what the women are wearing?” The idea of looking at shoes became pornography to me. But my feet would have none of it.
My feet went to Seqouia National Park and carefully walked across the giant tree stumps, one foot placed directly in front of the other. My feet went on suspension bridges and jumped up and down while I screamed in terror. Even at night, while we slept, I could feel them twitching, aching to get going again.
After over a year of no schedule and no sofas, I knew what I had to do.
“Feet,” I told them one day in April. “I see what you’re doing. You win. But you have not yet taken me to one place I would like to go: the Yukon.”
My feet paused in thought. It was nice to be still.
They must have agreed because we headed north. At first we followed dirt roads and grassy terrain. Soon my feet touched upon snow for the first time. They hesitated. “Oh, Feet!” I exclaimed. “This is so beautiful. I have never seen such overwhelming white, as if purity finally came to Earth. Look how it shines so bright, the shadows must slouch low and lurk near the mountains. We must keep going.”
My feet continued walking. We went through chiseled valleys veiled in bridal dresses and touched frozen streams with our toes. And then it happened: my feet stopped walking.
I looked down. These two lumps of coal that had tortured me were finally still. They looked sad—like orphan rocks fallen from their great mother mountain. I slumped to the ground, took a long breath, and then glanced around.
Then I realized… I liked what I saw. My feet had taken me to a magical place. Saw-edged mountains cascading in white, frozen pools that had captured the last image of the sky within them, sheer cliffs that promised eternity. I felt the cold creep up from my feet. For the first time, I felt the cold in me.
Michelle Shin lives in Hawaiʻi with her husband and son. She received her doctorate from the University of Hawaiʻi with an emphasis on creative writing and contemporary American literature and was a public high school teacher for ten years. She currently teaches at a local community college. Her chapbook, “To The End: A Collection of Short-Short Fiction,” was published by The Poet’s Haven in 2015.
I see a bright flash of blue light, and with it a puff of spirit gasped out. The luminescent gas wafts its way into my pores; my whole body begins to exude an aroma akin to a frostbitten mint. From the fluid being's copulation, a cool liquid begins collecting and dripping off my body, it layers me in a coat of bright, shimmering blue. In a matter of instants, amorphous droplets fuse together at my feet and - as if by some magnetic force- a maiden's shape begins to form.
While the drops bond through their puzzling waltz, I examine the rough sketch of the maiden. Her form is so fragile and petite, yet she exhibits some grandeur in how her limbs would most likely contour themselves. Her gown is being woven by an icicle; hemming on the bottom and a simple heart above her left breast compose the aqueous ensemble. I ponder her physique, and begin to notice a shift in the form, her hips narrow and what once were tender breasts had morphed into a muscular chest and torso. Having focused so much on the entities shape, I had disregarded the possibility of a face, and before I could check, an elegant whisper dances into my ear, "Hello Kinsey, my name is Basil and I have come to rejuvenate."
I look up and there is indeed a face.
"How is it you know me... rejuvenate what?"
"I know that I must assuage everything Kinsey; I know this from my excursion within you."
"Exactly how do you know my name?" I stutter.
"Hahehehe!" Basil laughed jovially, "I just said I was in you, I know all your qualms, let alone you name."
"What exactly are you?"
"I am an angel, sent by God to help the people." Basil says with a boyish grin.
"You can't help me; I can only wallow in my own horrid nature, and slowly rot to a shriveled whisper of a thought." I speak these words with the utmost honesty.
"I'm certain I will be helpful." Basil enunciates.
I look onto Basil and feel secure; I let my defenses down and embrace him. As I touch him, he leans in to kiss me. As he kisses me, I can feel a chill growing from his liquid lips; I escape his tenderness and examine him; the center of his body was freezing to ice, and yet he maintained all of the limberness and flexibility of his former state.
"Let's begin", Basil says with the cockiness of an adolescent.
"Well, what issues do you think are important?" I murmur
"All of them!" Basil retorts, "Let's begin with your stupidity."
"Well, I would say I perform well in school." I reply meekly
"But nothing resonates within you, you are an idiot because whatever remains in your mind is useless your thoughts are worth nothing; this brings us to the second issue, you feel as if you are useless." Basil vindicates.
"I'm sorry but, I don't feel improvement." I quickly reproach
"Nonsense! Things will be getting better in mere moments." Basil zealously remarks.
"Now, where was I? Ah yes, you are in fact useless, you serve no purpose. Wait, I should say that you do have a purpose, and that is to endanger others with your idiocy." Basil reports with a smile.
"These thoughts make me feel horrible! Nothing is improving!" I vehemently remark.
"Just allow me to help." Basil whispers in my ear.
Now, Basil takes me in his arms, I try to escape but everything around me blurs and before I know it, he is kissing me again. Just as I am about to reassemble myself, he turns to water and begins flowing into me like a torrent. I feel his detrimental thoughts echoing through my mind and as those thoughts consume me, he begins drowning me with his body. I choke and attempt to gag, but nothing works. I hear his thoughts. I feel him inside of me.
I lay here, my mind is racing and I can't help but to try and resist his thoughts; "I have to live, it's human nature", I think to myself while trying to thrash the demon out of me.
"Don't disgrace mankind by comparing you, to them", Basil states regally.
With that final retort, I begin to accept the water and its crashing about my throat. I allow myself to unwaveringly accept my fallacies and drown in them.
"There! Now society will be much improved without such a hindrance; things have gotten better."
Franklin Thorne lived down near Needmore, right on the edge, but he always seemed to take such pride that he didn't live in Needmore exactly, that his house—if you could call it that—sat maybe two doors down from where Needmore actually began, a scrabble of streets with unpainted, unsteady houses once tenanted by mill workers, then after the cotton mill closed, by whoever couldn't afford to live anywhere else. My old man used to raise Cain with my mother if she ever took a shortcut through there; inevitably the old Chevy would come up with a flat tire, and he swore folks there laid down nails whenever they saw a strange car approaching. I don't suppose Needmore exists anymore, at least not literally anyway (though for most of us who lived in Elmer, Mississippi at that time, it will forever occupy its space in our memories).
For the most part, Franklin went to school only three days a week. Oh, some weeks he'd be there every day, but seems as if his desk often stayed empty on Thursdays and Fridays. We still haven't figured out how he got by with that. I know I never could have, but then I had an old man who would've had a coronary if I'd missed even one day a month of school, so all I could do is dream about doing it. Plus, my mother worked for the school—secretary to Mr. Lorry in the main office—so she always had her ear to the ground about what my brother and I might be up to, which wasn't much, I can admit now, though probably more than our mother wanted. But if you knew the sheriff back then—Sheriff Berry it was—you'd understand why no one came knocking on Franklin's door when he didn't come to school. Sheriff Berry—he acted the part of a truant officer if you want to get specific—spent most of his days with his feet propped up on his desk; the rest of the time he likely was out in the county chasing down the Murphys whose favorite pastime was making corn whiskey.
Nobody really knew Franklin. I mean, he kind of kept to himself those days he did come to school. We believed he was older than the rest of us. I don't remember him in the early grades; it's almost as if he suddenly appeared in Miss Martha Miller's class one year out of the blue—that would have been in the sixth grade. He was taller than the other guys, though he didn't have to go far to outdo us in that respect, as most of us were still prepubescent and wondering how we would ever reach Mary Ann Sullivan's lips should we get the chance to do so. Not that he was smarter. Miss Miller was forever chastising him about his reading when we'd have to read aloud in English or Social Studies, so it seemed fairly obvious he didn't spend the two days each week that he frequently vacationed reading his assignments, or anything else for that matter.
To be quite honest, we really didn't pay a great deal of attention to Franklin Thorne. Some of the girls teased him a bit that first year or so, calling him Frankenstein behind his back, then giggling and nudging each other during class whenever Miss Miller, then later teachers, would call on him. Franklin didn't really look like Frankenstein, of course (or as I discovered later, actually Frankenstein's monster), but his pale olive complexion would take on a bit of a greenish cast in winter, and that, along with his prominent cheekbones which (though they possibly could have been considered attractive in later life, went unappreciated by fellow sixth-graders) might have given rise to this epithet. We boys occupied ourselves chortling every time one of us went to sharpen a pencil, or snickering and grinning when someone—inevitably (thankfully we could usually depend upon Jerry Henderson)—would request "Little Church in the Wildwood" during Chorus in order that we might sing "O, Come, Come, Come," so we didn't waste our time with Franklin. Evidently, however, the girls found their game tiresome, as Franklin seemed untroubled by them—or by anybody else, for that matter. We, none of us, seemed to merit his attention. He simply attended school on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and his seat was frequently vacant on Thursdays and Fridays. He stood alone on the playground during recess and after lunch, always near the stop sign near the eastern edge of the schoolyard across from the Petersons' house—they of the only wealth in our small community, if you could call it that—as if he were waiting for someone or something. None of us concerned ourselves with him, and he never seemed concerned about us. Yet, we were curious.
We moved easily through the years as children do, you know. Summers would be spent playing baseball or swimming at the one pool our town enjoyed—in the park right near Main Street (until the mid-sixties when feared segregation forced our upstanding city council to order it be filled with dirt and turned into a rose garden)—or riding our bikes down our neighborhood streets in blissful forgetfulness that these giddy days would end in somewhat less than three months. After we graduated from eighth grade, we lost a few of our class members as I recall. Sonny Moses had to leave school to help his old man out at the feed store, and Craig Laine moved all the way to Minneapolis when his parents divorced (the first of those our town had seen, but since all parties involved moved out of our fine state of Alabama, the gossip it raised died out rather quickly). And of course, Barbara Ann Johnson had to remain in eighth grade one more year as her reading abilities were even worse than Franklin's.
The rest of us traveled a few streets farther downtown, to the older school building that loomed like a castle on Greenwood Street, a huge square—three-storied, or four if you include the cafeteria that occupied the old gymnasium in the basement—with an almost treeless campus and a long concrete stairway and sidewalk leading from the street. Ancient, ominous, fearsome—it had always seemed so far away, but now we would enter its portals and be freshmen.
Franklin came with us. Who knows how he managed to graduate eighth grade, but he did. Delighted with the idea of a new beginning, I immediately thrust myself into all activities I could squeeze into my schedule. I joined the Band Boosters, the Rock Hounds (my old man was a geologist and would have raised Cain if I hadn't become a member of that club), and I added my name to the roster for track, the one sports area in which I felt someone with a frame like mine might compete. My older brother Lewis had realized early on that football and basketball were not sports that short, skinny guys could excel in and had settled on running track some years ago, earning himself a letter or two and at least my admiration as well as that of SuEllen Combs who immediately confiscated his letter jacket to wear herself. And though Lew hadn't bothered to teach me any of his methods of sprinting before he left for college, he did leave with me the idea that this might be the one area I could possibly letter in. So after classes that September afternoon I walked out to the track with the other boys to meet with Coach Richter. Fifteen of us had signed up, but only about eleven or twelve appeared that day. Of those, Franklin Thorne and I were the only freshmen.
I immediately discovered that just because my brother had lettered in track, and just because I wanted to be able to run fast didn't mean a hill of beans. I realized quickly that I had work to do.
"Okay, boys, line up in twos and we'll try you out," Coach hollered to us as we shuffled feet and wondered what to do with ourselves while waiting in the bright sun.
Naturally, Coach had me running against Franklin since we were the only freshmen there. Franklin won, pulling ahead immediately, though not by such a huge margin that I felt overwhelmed, but his winning did surprise me somewhat. He'd always moved so slowly, just the way he read aloud in class, that I never would have believed he would be a runner. Coach paired us off again, and I ran this time against Toad Humes, whose nickname described him perfectly. If I couldn't beat Toad, I might as well hang it up, I thought to myself as we lined up. Fortunately, I won, rather easily to my delight, though I noticed no apparent appreciation on Coach Richter's face. Meanwhile, Franklin would run against one of the seniors, Joe Peterson, who had lettered last year. To everyone's complete surprise, Franklin won. He won handily, as a matter of fact. And when Coach put him up against Leonard Wolff who had been on the track team since eighth grade and who already owned three letters, all of us stopped our horsing around to watch. I really thought that Franklin had beaten Leonard, though I guess my view wasn't as good as Coach's. It was close, though, awfully close. We all now knew that Franklin could run.
I went home that afternoon with mixed emotions. I hadn't done too badly, I thought, for a freshman. I knew, however, that I had my work cut out for me if I planned to win even one letter in track and thrill my old man while at the same time carving a place for myself in the annals of Elmer High School history, perhaps picking up a girl like Mary Ann Sullivan along the way. But aside from worrying about myself, I thought almost as much about the surprise I had felt at watching Franklin run.
Since true competition didn't begin until spring, we spent the fall racing against each other. We knew, of course, that the end of football season meant we would gain a few runners from that team, but since Elmer's elite football squad was notoriously slow, most of us who clung to the hope of actually getting to compete come March weren't tremendously concerned about losing a place to a football player. Mike Strange, the team's quarterback, would likely be our best sprinter, but most of the guys preferred baseball to track, so essentially, what we had running around in the fall would be what we had running around in the spring.
Coach decided I had the best chance at working on becoming a miler, so I ran sprints only when someone didn't show up for practice and they needed an extra body for a relay. Normally, though, I would spend my afternoons doing laps around and around the football field, trying to pace myself as I also avoided the sprinters or getting hit in the head by an errant football, as football season had gone into high gear. Although Toad became our official manager, I began to help Coach out with some of those duties because Lew had done the same before me, and I guess Coach figured he could count on the little brother as well
Spring comes to Elmer—or perhaps to most of north Alabama—in fits and starts. Sometimes a January day will be as spring-like as one in March or April--jonquils and daffodils pushing their leaves up through the sun-warmed earth, cloudless, deep blue skies teasing us with pleasant weather--only to be followed by cloudy, damp and cold days, sometimes even with sleet or snow (though snow we always looked upon as God's gift of an unplanned vacation since no Alabama city has ever had any way to combat icy, slick roads). And that year spring came as usual, so we ran outside on days we could, and used the perimeter of the gym to keep in shape on days we couldn't.
Three guys from the football team had joined our group, but two others, along with Toad, had quit, citing conflict with other activities, but we all suspected their real reason to be fear that they lose face if Coach cut them. By now, I felt pretty secure with my position as miler, not that I ran it at record speed, but last year's miler had graduated, and at the moment I was the only one of us Coach had. Since Toad had left, Coach had turned managerial duties over to me, though my workload hadn't increased much since Toad had previously found ways to let me do his job anyway.
Our first track meet was scheduled for Friday. Actually, this would be just a practice meet between our school and one other from Westville, a nearby town, so wouldn't take the entire day. Even so, arising that morning well before my usual time, I trembled with nervous anticipation. Coach had issued uniforms earlier that week, and I had mine carefully packed in my little traveling bag. I had folded and refolded those bits of shiny black and gold satin countless times, tried them on, posed in front of the mirror, and had even run a couple of experimental laps around the house after dark wearing them to make sure I could still move when appropriately uniformed. I could hardly wait for my moment in the sun.
Of course, Franklin didn't appear for school that day. I didn't have but one class—algebra—with him, but since we took that right after lunch, I hadn't been aware of his absence. We all knew, however, our school had a rule that in order to participate in any athletic competition, you had to attend school that day; a half-day would work, but you had to be there.
And Franklin wasn't there.
During lunchtime when I sat with my other freshmen buddies, all of us trying to give our best imitation of Mo or Curly's wisecracks in the latest "Three Stooges" we'd seen that past Saturday, Coach Richter came by the table and said, "Price, you seen Thorne anywheres today?"
"No sir," I answered, "I reckon he's not here, sir. But he just about never comes on Friday."
Coach stared at me a while and said, "Come with me, Price." He led me over to the doorway. "You got to go get him. You know where Reeves' Pure Oil filling station is at?" I nodded. Everyone knew that place. Located at the end of the bridge before you reached the real business district of town, it was a little service station squeezed in between the Milky Way Dairy Bar and the town's only car wash, Quik-Stop. At the back of the filling station was the taxi dispatch office, and it seems that's where Coach wanted me to go. Franklin would be there.
Franklin looked over at me and asked, "Ever had any pussy before?" His face looked even greener than usual in the dim light.
"Nah," I answered, avoiding his eye. I was secretly grateful that I actually knew what the word meant, inwardly thanking the gods that I had seen it written all over the rest room walls a couple of years ago when our family had stopped at a shabby-looking service station en route to my grandmother's house in Memphis, and that brother Lew had relished enlightening me as to its meaning. "Not yet," I added, so Franklin wouldn't think I hadn't even considered it.
"I c'n getcha some." He was smiling at me now, more of a sneer, in truth, and I wondered if he was secretly laughing at me. "It's easy to get. Ya just hafta say the word." He turned back to the drawer he was rummaging in, then added, "It's good." He drew out the good and its sound seemed to linger in the room.
"Nah," I repeated. I simply couldn't think of anything else to say, and I prayed that the subject would be closed. Feeling both titillated and repulsed at once, I thought about the horror I would see on my mother's—and probably also my father's—face if either had heard this conversation. When my mother had discovered that the only other freshman on the track team was Franklin, she'd prodded me to invite him to dinner. "Now, George," she'd insisted in her usual breathless way, "why not ask your little teammate to eat with us this Friday night? Your dad can cook some burgers outside and we'll have a nice time getting to know this Franklin."
My dad had obviously been listening, though he rarely participated in our dinner conversations, because he interrupted. "Not this boy, Nadine. He's a Thorne. Father's in jail." He looked around the table and pointed. "Any more potatoes?"
My mother said, "Oh," making a kind of O with her mouth while reaching for the blue Pyrex dish my old man pointed at. And the subject was closed.
Now, I suddenly pictured Franklin seated at our dinner table with my dad—still wearing his white shirt and tie—asking us about our day, my mother, aproned, serving our plates with her pork chop and rice casserole while bemoaning the fact that she hadn't had time to make any cornbread. The image almost made me start to giggle, and I had to clench my jaw to stop myself. I was already an infant in Franklin's eyes, and I certainly didn't want to reinforce that idea by appearing to giggle over the word pussy.
Franklin had indeed been at the Pure station. Right there in the back room sitting, feet propped on a wooden chair, at a wopsided desk, telephone on one side of him and dispatch radio on the other. "Franklin," I said, truly surprised to see him apparently in charge of the whole setup, "Coach says you got to go to school so you can run this afternoon."
"Cain't," he drawled, "I got to stay here. Ain't got nobody else to answer the phone today."
I was stymied. Coach hadn't told me what to do if Franklin said no. I stood there stupidly for a minute or two, then asked, "Isn't there someone who could do this just for a little while? Coach says you can't run if you don't come to school."
Franklin slowly lifted his feet from the chair. He stood up, stretched his arms and looked at me. "I'll ask one a' them can they come." He indicated the service station next door, and I watched him walk over there.
From Mr. Reeves' Pure station, we walked over to Franklin's house for him to get the uniform and cleats he'd taken home earlier that week. As soon as we entered the front door, well, actually, as soon as we stood on the front porch—a wobbly, unpainted, creaking sort of platform that fronted the house—I became aware of the aroma. Franklin's house stank. Even today, I can't put my finger on exactly what that smell resembled; probably its source was a multitude of things, among them rotting food, urine, dog feces, and just plain dirt, for I think I saw remnants of all of those as I followed Franklin's lead inside where the smell became stronger, forcing me to hold my breath at first.
"Just a minute," he told me. "I think I put that uniform in this here room." He walked to the back of the house, and I again followed, hoping that the smell would be weaker back there. Though the smell was no less pungent, I found myself almost mesmerized by the house itself. It held such a conglomeration of junk: several wooden chairs stood in various states of disrepair in the hallway and had to be navigated around as we made our way down the hall; in what must have been the living room loomed two or three sofas—all in a sort of maroon color—with their stuffing protruding like gray wounds, and I saw no lamps anywhere, no light at all except for the bare bulb that hung from a long string in the room Franklin led me to.
"This ‘ere's my paw's room," he told me as he began to open the drawers of a massive chest-of-drawers whose yellow paint was peeling in places revealing a deep purple underneath. The drawers squeaked as Franklin opened them one by one, peering inside. "He's in jail right now. Ain't no reason for them to take him off again." He looked up at me and shook his head disgustedly. "All's he was doing was playing a little cards."
I think I said something like, "Oh," but I'm not positive. At that point I was wondering what kind of cards would put someone in jail when Franklin asked me his question about pussy.
Franklin and I made it back to school in time for algebra and for Coach to persuade someone to give him credit for the half day he needed. And our team outperformed the other, actually doing better than an Elmer High School team had ever done in a preliminary track meet as far back as Coach Richter could remember. Now we hadn't won all the races that day, but we had done well, and Franklin, for the most part, had done it for us. I had gotten to watch the 40-yard-dash after I finished second out of three in the mile, so I got to see Franklin win that one. He had looked so odd running that I kept wondering if he could possibly beat the others—who ran just the way I believed runners are supposed to. Franklin looked as if he would fall over on his face he ran so low, head down, arms pumping, long legs moving almost as if in slow motion, but striding past the others until he'd reached the end. I cheered loudly as he won that one, then cheered again when he anchored the 440 relay. I noticed, though, that a few of the other guys on our team weren't cheering. And after we finished up and Coach and I were collecting the dirty uniforms, I heard Robert Lee Cook mutter to Mike Strange something to the effect that "Frankenstein must think he's pretty hot stuff now."
Funny how that name Frankenstein had returned. At that point I had almost forgotten how the girls had used it in sixth grade. I didn't think much about it, though—concentrating on myself, on Coach's remark to me that I "needed to pace myself better"—wondering how I could manage that. I went home, ate dinner, answered my old man's queries about the practice meet, listened to my mom's chatter about something that happened in Mr. Lorry's office, and went back to my room. It was Friday night and I had made no plans.
It wasn't my idea. I really didn't know what they had in mind when I got the phone call. But I did turn up at the corner of Mulligan and Beaker streets a half-hour after Ralph Swinson's call. Lenny Wolff and Mike Strange were laughing while they held their noses and pointed to a paper bag that Robert Lee Cook held. "Hey, Price!" Robert Lee yelled as he saw me approach. "Wanna add some shit to the collection?"
Fortunately, I was rescued from answering because both Toad and Joe appeared from the other direction, and I—the freshman—became at that point more of a bystander.
It all happened so fast. The paper bag—filled with excrement—though whose I didn't know and didn't want to know, Toad took and, after screwing the top into a long spiral, held his nose and with the bag in the other hand, stepped slowly, exaggerating his movements like a cartoon character, up the steps to Franklin's house. There he and Lenny, who had followed him, both lighted matches, igniting the elongated top of the bag. Lenny knocked loudly on Franklin's front door, and both he and Toad sprinted to join the rest of us where we stood shadowed by a big oak tree across the street.
The front door opened and in a wink, Franklin was on the porch stomping on the lighted bag, while we watched laughing loudly at his attempts. Our plan had gone awry, though, for almost at the same time Franklin stomped, the fire jumped from the bag and began to spread, slowly at first, but suddenly, it seemed as if the entire porch railing was aflame. Franklin stopped his crazy foot-stamping dance and for a moment just stared, first at the fire, then across the street. He seemed to be looking straight into my eyes, and I suddenly wanted to be far, far away. I started running.
Behind me I could hear the guys yelling. At the same time that I turned back to look, I heard a giant "Whoosh!" and saw Franklin's house suddenly become like a huge piece of kindling, the kind my old man would lay in the fireplace that we'd watch with fascination as it immediately seemed to be sucked into the flames rolling out in leaping, crackling arms. Mesmerized, I stood there for a few seconds and watched it all, the entire house now a gigantic torch. Then I ran, fast as I could go—without pacing—hearing the yells of my teammates, the roar of the fire at first, then gradually only my breathing and the thump my feet made on the pavement, a siren's wail far in the background. I found myself on my own front porch in what seemed just minutes, though it couldn't have been, for we lived on the other side of town at least a couple of miles away.
I spent a miserable, sleepless night in my room waiting for the police, the sheriff, even the fire chief, all to come knocking on my door to take me away to jail. I spent much of the night worrying about whether Franklin had indeed been the figure I thought I saw jump from the porch right before that huge "whoosh," or if he had actually been sucked up in that wall of fire.
It wasn't until morning that I discovered the extent of our destruction. My dad recounted the story at breakfast (he had heard it from Mr. Lumpkin next door when they both retrieved the morning newspapers from bordering front driveways). Franklin's house had, naturally, been burned to the ground, and the houses on either side of it suffered damage as well. Franklin, I learned to my relief, had escaped. I found some consolation in that fact.
We never saw Franklin again. In any case, he never returned to school, and I don't recall anyone even mentioning him. We finished the year in track without him, without much enthusiasm, and certainly without many victories. The mystery of the fire's origin was never solved; it seems Franklin kept our secret. Not one of us ever mentioned our prank; at any rate, none of the other guys who were there that night ever spoke to me about it, nor I to them.
And I wonder if they, too, have spent all these years since trying to forget.
Scene 1 (Pre-show. Offstage. Blaring sounds of anti-gay, anti-military protest, by a radical church group, attempting to disrupt the burial service of a gay Marine, Tom Richardson, killed in combat in Afghanistan. 'God hates fags.' 'Thank God for dead soldiers.' 'America is doomed.' 'Thank God for IED's.' 'God hates you.' 'Mourn for your sins.' 'Fags doom nations.' 'God hates America.' 'God is your enemy.' The protest is heard distantly at different times during the play. Enter John Richardson, Tom's father, and Tom's younger brother, Cal. As they enter the sounds of protest fade.)
John: I never thought I'd be glad to see bikers. When they asked my permission to shield the ceremony from that hate group I was really embarrassed at the public attention of you know what. But when they chased those church fanatics further away I felt like getting a motorcycle jacket, catching up to them, (he mimes gripping the handlebars and makes sounds revving the motor) and buying them a beer.
Cal: I don't know about them, Dad. Most bikers are violent criminals and some are drug dealers. I'm not sure what they did was legal.
John: The hell with legal. They helped us, didn't they? Those guys are vets, sticking up for their own. The sheriff wouldn't do anything. Said: (Mimicking) "Those church people have a constitutional right to protest." You'd think a church would respect the rights of a family burying their son. I shouldn't have to listen to them yelling all that filth, but it got to me. I was so mad I was going to get my rifle from the truck and run them off, if the vets hadn't shown up.
Cal: What if the protesters wouldn't go? Would you have shot them?
John: I don't know, Cal... But we have a right to bury Tom without their blaring away like that. It's bad enough the town knew about our shame. With the media here, they're broadcasting it to the whole world... Maybe if I popped a few of them, they'd find another way to spread their twisted message of god. At least they'd go away.
Cal: Then you'd go to jail. That wouldn't solve anything.
John: I'd feel a lot better.
Cal: Maybe... But they're not much different than you, Dad.
John: The hell they are.
Cal: You were pretty violent when you found out Tom was gay. You said worse things about him then they did.
John: Yeah. But I was never anti-military. I served my country proudly.
Cal: Well, so did Tom. But you drove him to enlist when he needed your help.
John: That was his choice... I almost died of shame when they caught him making out with a guy, and him the captain of the football team. What else could I do? (Sounds of protest, 'God hates fags'. 'Thank God for dead soldiers'. They fade away).
Cal: You could have stood by him... He'd still be alive if you hadn't kicked him out of the house.
John: The hell you say. So now you're blaming me for his death?
Cal: He'd be alive and safe in college, if you supported him when he needed you.
John: I wouldn't have a faggot for a son. There's no way I could live with that.
Cal: That's an ugly word, especially now that he's dead.
John: Does the truth hurt?
Cal: That's not what Tom was.
John: He was a dirty pervert.
Cal: Don't say that. He was my brother and I loved him.
John: That's your choice, but I can't go to that gravesite and face the Marine honor guard.
Cal: Why not?
John: Because they know what he was.
Cal: How do you know they're not gay?
John: Are you nuts? Whoever heard of gay Marines?
Cal: (Stares at John until reality sinks in.) As long as someone's willing to fight and die for his country, what do you care what his sexual preferences are?
John: (Looks at him strangely) It should matter. We never had gays when I was in the Corps.
Cal: I'm sure you would have noticed.
John: What do you mean by that?.. Maybe you're a homo. Is that why you're defending him?
Cal: Say that again and I'll kick your teeth in.
John: (Laughs derisively.) That'll be the day. You better get your girlie-man friends to help you.(Cal starts towards John, but stops when his mother, Ellen Richardson, and his younger sister, Norma, enter.)
Ellen: Are you two fighting about Tom again? This is my son's funeral, John. It's bad enough I have to listen to those hate mongers screaming those awful things about Tom, without hearing my own husband echoing them.
John: Ellen. That's no way to talk to me.
Ellen: It's true, isn't it? You call him nastier things then they do.
Norma: Mom's right. My brother died a hero. You shouldn't insult his memory.
John: So all of you are against me... Well I'm used to that... How do we know he was really a hero?
Ellen: His captain wrote that letter telling us how he died saving his buddies during a Taliban attack. I know my Tom. That's what he would do.
John: (To Norma) I seem to remember that you and your friends were tweetering, or whatever you call it, not too long ago, saying the war was unjust. Now all of a sudden it's alright because your brother died?
Norma: I don't care about the war right now. I miss my brother and I don't want you saying mean things about him now that he's dead. I stuck up for him when everybody turned on him, and I don't want you insulting Cal for defending the brother he loved and admired.
John: What's wrong with you people? Tom almost destroyed this family. They came close to firing me from my security job at the mall. Your Mom's good friends stopped talking to her. Cal's buddies ignore him and your girlfriends call you insulting names. (Sounds of protest. 'Thank God for IED's'. 'Mourn for your sins'. 'Fags doom nations'. They fade away.)
Ellen: None of that matters now. I don't care about anything else but saying goodbye to the son I loved and lost. (To John.) I know I didn't always speak up when I should have. Maybe if I did he'd still be alive. Now it's time to put your bad feelings behind you. I want you to behave like the man I thought you were when we first got married.
John: (Sullenly) Doesn't it matter what I feel?
Ellen: I should hope you feel the same loss as the rest of us. (John shrugs.)What's the problem now?
Cal: (Cuts in before John can answer) Dad says he's not going to the grave.
Ellen: Don't worry. He's going. (To John) And you'll behave respectfully. This is the time for our family to mourn Tom and set an example for those who condemned him. Now no more arguing. Come with me. (Exit Ellen and John. Cal and Norma remain.)
Norma: It's about time she spoke up.
Cal: That's a shocker.
Norma: At least she did it... What were you and Dad fighting about?
Cal: The usual. He still blames Tom for everything. Then he called him a faggot.
Norma: (She looks around, then steps closer.) There is another side to it. I understand why he's so upset. He's not the kind of man who can deal with that kind of thing.
Cal: (Angrily) Are you taking Dad's part?
Norma: No, silly. I feel the same way you do about Tom. But just think how it affected our big, macho Dad. His golden boy son caught in the locker room doing whatever men do to each other. It ripped his world apart. It was beyond his ability to deal with it reasonably.
Cal: I know that. Believe me. It shocked me too, when I found out. But I never forgot that he was my brother.
Norma: If Tom only told Dad that he was gay before anything happened...
Cal: Yeah. Right. You must be thinking of some other father. Dad would have reacted the same way and thrown him out of the house even sooner.
Norma: It might have been different if Tom had confided in Dad privately. He might have stood by him.
Cal: Don't make me laugh. Have you ever been able to confide in him? (She shakes her head no.) I sure haven't. He'd never accept that a son of his was gay. I've been waiting for him to call me a faggot, because I like books. Just before you and Mom got here he asked me if I was a homo.
Norma: (Teasingly) Did you confess?
Cal: Smart ass... I told him I'd kick his teeth in.
Norma: That's the kind of talk he understands. I tell you what. I'll buy you a set of weights for your birthday. You can work out and build some muscles. That should reassure him you're not gay.(He laughs despite himself and she joins in.) I'm glad you can still laugh.
Cal: There's not much else I can do. It hurts too much to cry... I miss Tom all the time.
Norma: So do I... I keep asking myself if I could have done anything to prevent him from leaving home like that.
Cal: I didn't know what to do... I didn't want him to go, but I knew he couldn't live here anymore... Sometimes I feel like there's a curse on us.
Norma: Don't talk like that... We'll get through this somehow... Let's go to the grave site and not let anyone stop us from saying goodbye to the brother we loved.
(Exit Cal and Norma. The distant sounds of protest. 'God hates fags.' 'Thank God for dead soldiers.' 'America is doomed.' 'Fags destroy nations.' 'Thank God for IED's.' 'God hates you.')
"Turn away... Turn away!" the commander said to the soldier.
The soldier ant said, "But I have this burden to deliver to the queens guard, a burden of nourishment and blood for the secret birth of our children and the nest." The commander waved his antenna and spun in circles around the soldier and his burden.
"Danger lays in wait by the rivers edge, for the enemy has the deluge and the destruction of our construct!" the soldier ignored the commander and moved on to the place where his burden would be multiplied by the limits of a possible berth. When the soldier ant had found his cache of bidden sustenance he paused and rested for the return home; in a seconds breath the shadow of the enemy approaching filled the sky and the vision of the ants fear. The shadow passed and the ant counted himself lucky in fate.
Later he returned to the nest only to find it awash in an ocean of water and drown comrades. What of the queen he thought. Realizing he was alone his hunger overcame him and he ate the burden intended for the guard and the queen.
"Confessions of mystery, a war fought at odds with the impossible," he spoke, "but at least I have a belly full of food and my back to build a road unto the next horizon."
"...and so ends the story of one of history's most successful predators, pushed into extinction by a combination of astronomical and ecological factors, which, in combination, proved too heavy a burden for the species to continue." Professor Julian Bates stood before a sea of mildly bored faces, reciting once again the rote paleontological lecture through which generations of students had suffered. A hologram of an oversized lizard with evil looking teeth rotated slowly a few feet from him. Many of the students wondered idly how a creature so utterly badass could ever be made so goddamned boring. Despite his knack for killing the excitement that should be attached to some of the most epic killing machines that had ever lived, Bates's class on the predators of Early Earth remained one of the most popular classes in the University. Scores of students signed up each time it was offered, jockeying for the twenty available slots.
The hologram went blurry and began to morph into a new image. The students' heads perked up noticeably; they'd all read the course syllabus, and they all knew the next species to be discussed. This was the reason the class filled out so quickly: there was one creature that had existed in the untold millennia of Earth's existence which could never be made boring, a creature so powerful, so terrifying, so... spellbinding, that it would continue to capture the world's imagination for millions of years after its demise. Blockbuster holodramas were written about it every year, and each new piece of information discovered about it made headline news.
The image reformed itself, and a new creature—the creature—appeared, hanging in the air between the students and Professor Bates. Bates walked slowly around the image; the corner of his mouth twitched at the sight of his students' intense faces. "Ah, I see we are recognizing the next animal on the syllabus. Let me introduce you to, arguably, the most fearsome predator that ever stalked this planet. Our knowledge of this species is largely incomplete, despite its rather copious treatment by the popular media. I will begin with a general description of the physical appearance. As you can see, a defining feature of the physique is the animal's bipedalism, with massive, powerful legs to support the large frame, which it could likely carry at a maximum speed of twenty-eight to thirty miles per hour. The forelegs, or arms, are by comparison short and spindly, far weaker than the other two limbs. The hands are articulated in such a way as to allow for a large range of motion, indicating that the arms and hands were not totally useless, though they were probably not vitally important for use in day-to-day life.
"The head, as you can see, is quite large in comparison to the body, likely rendering the creature slightly top-heavy. To compensate for this, the feet show evidence of a complex arrangement of muscle attachment points, constantly correcting the balance. The size of the head is largely due to the size of the braincase, which is slightly enlarged compared to most members of its genus.
"For many years, scientists believed them to have bare skin, like the reptilian cousins with whom they shared the world. However, recent finds consisting of impressions in fossilized mud indicate that their skin was covered in hundreds upon hundreds of small, feather-like growths that covered them nearly head to toe.
"This species would have stood considerably taller than nearly every animal it came across, indeed, it is literally thousands of times larger than the average member of the animal kingdom.
"These animals were big, heavy, strong predators, and as we are informed by several high-grossing motion pictures, they were, shall we say, 'smarter than the average bear.'" Professor Bates looked into the faces of his students one at a time, "Not the kind of fellows you'd like to run into in a dark alley in the middle of the night."
The introduction was over, the veil had been lifted. "Well," Bates said, feeling a bit dramatic in spite of himself, "I'd like you all to meet a true apex predator, perhaps the perfect animal for its time, perhaps the perfect animal for its place, and perhaps, if we take a sympathetic view of the monster before us, the ultimate tragic hero of the evolutionary story. I'd like you all to meet... Homo Sapiens..."
The Eyes of a Killer
"It's the eyes, they look back at you, it feels like they really... understand."
Chrondle and his nest-mate, Selva, stood in front of the museum hologram, transfixed. "I don't like it," Chrondle continued, "something feels wrong about it."
"They were supposed to be really smart, you know, I mean they created entire species..." Selva explained.
"Yeah, they created entire species, just to make them easier to kill," Chrondle returned.
"Maybe it's just weird to see something that seems to have been so intelligent, yet behaved so viciously." The hologram rotated slowly before the pair, portraying a not-altogether-unimpressive member of the species on display. A plaque on the holoprojector beneath the image labeled the creature: "Homo Sapien: 'T. Rex of the Cenozoic.'"
"I think it's also that they killed each other," Selva said, "I mean, this read out says that Homo Sapiens were one of their own biggest predators."
Chrondle pulled Selva a little closer to himself, saying, "I know what you mean. It's scary, especially to us: that hologram is a representation of living, breathing proof of the fact that being intelligent does not guarantee being civilized."
Selva nodded thoughtfully. "You're right. If it happened to them, how close did we come to evolving that way? You could imagine a slightly different universe where it was we who were the killing machines. I mean, we've had the technological ability since long before the sapes went extinct."
Selva and Chrondle gazed again into the eyes, searching almost hungrily for more signs of what was so off putting about them.
"It's not just the intelligence in them," Chrondle thought aloud, "it's the... warmth."
"It's like it can love," Selva finished his thought.
"Yes! It's like it can love." Chrondle agreed with that way of putting the feeling, then continued, "it's as if it was an animal lost in a fundamental paradox. It's a creature suspended between the poles of love and hatred, with a mixture of both that was never seen before it lived and certainly hasn't existed since."
A thought struck Selva: "Do you think they tried to justify themselves? To reconcile the evil with the good?"
"I don't know. It must have been hard to be Homo Sapiens," Chrondle replied.
"Not half as hard as cohabiting the planet with them must have been," Selva said, only half joking.
The pair moved away from the hologram. They roamed idly around the museum's other exhibits, their thoughts still stuck on the strange eyes of the monster to whom they had just been introduced.
As for the hologram itself, it continued to spin slowly, flickering and gazing passionately at tourists as it had done for the past several decades. It had been made from one of the earliest known recordings of a Homo Sapien's face. Occasionally, the mouth moved in the several-seconds-long loop of video that had been salvaged, soundlessly mouthing the phrase "I have seen the promised land" again and again and again. And it would continue to serve as an eternal reminder of the terrible nightmare that had once had a dream of its own.
Yaldat sat alone in his sleeping compartment. It was well past the day's mid-nox, yet he was unable to sleep at all. When he finally made the decision to hold out and wait for the morning to come without falling asleep, he turned on his connection to the Hologrid, looking for something good to watch. The only thing on at that hour was the breaking news story about the fossils that had been dug up in Redalst that morning. It had been an interesting find indeed, and Yaldat settled in to watch the story unfold a bit more before the sun rose outside.
On the Holocast, the newsreader was talking excitedly to the viewers at home, saying, "No juvenile member of the species has been found before this dig. The 'Redalst Child,' as it has been dubbed by popular reference, is what appears to be the mostly complete skeleton of an infant Homo Sapien. I'll see if I can get in for a closer look." The reporter proceeded to push his way to a paleontologist, who gruffly declined to make any further comment on the find.
"Preliminary reports show that the infant would have been totally helpless for at least the first few years of life," the reporter continued, unfazed by the scientist's unwillingness to speak, "This would seem to indicate that the species, nicknamed 'the T. Rex of the Cenozoic,' cared for their young quite lovingly in the first few years of life. This nurturing side is an element of human behavior not readily left in the fossil record which was until today totally unknown and unsuspected."
"Funny," Yaldat thought to himself, "they made the transition from ultimate weakling to ultimate killing machine." A smile snuck into the corner of his mouth.
The reporter continued, "It is possible that this very nurturing instinct provides an explanation for the fearsome behavior that has made these, er, 'sapes' so very famous. Competition and strife could have arisen during times of enhanced emotional attachment to totally dependent young, resulting in the aggressive behavior that we all associate with the so-called 'terrible mammal.'"
The tiny fossil flashed across the screen, and Yaldat noted that one of the hands was positioned right next to the mouth, as if the child had been sucking or chewing on its own fist. Yaldat couldn't really process what he was seeing: here was the most terrifying animal that had ever lived, the animal that descended upon entire worlds in movies, leaving a trail of destruction wherever it went... yet, this one, even just the skeleton of this one, looked... scared. Yaldat couldn't imagine anything capable of frightening a human, nor did he particularly want to, but there was no mistaking the body language that the tiny fossil communicated, even across a gap of two hundred and thirty million years.
"Perhaps," Yeldat thought to himself, "it was the fear, and not the love, that drove them over the edge. Perhaps fear is the evolutionary mistake that created the monster that killed the Earth."
Julian Bates stood in front of his mirror, rubbing his eyes groggily. He did not want to be going to the University today, not so soon. Just two weeks ago, he had cancelled his classes and flown straight to Redalst to study the now-famous infant Homo Sapien fossil that had been discovered there. That had been real, that had held the promise of answers. Today, back at the University, Bates was only looking forward to the sort of foolish questions that undergraduates ask paleontologists every time a news-making discovery occurs. He wanted to take a closer look at the structure of the infant's limbs, which preliminary findings showed could not hold up the mass of the body, which was largely contained within the cranium. He wanted to examine this creature that was born with nothing but a brain but grew up to be remembered for its physical structure and aggressive behaviors. He did not want to explain to four different people that, yes, there was a small hole in the back of the cranium, and no, he did not think that the 'sapes' had sucked the brains out of one of their own younglings.
Two more hours found Professor Bates standing stiffly before a cold, dead hologram of a Homo Sapien, reciting the known details of the creature's communal behavior. He could see in his students' eyes the questions that he had hoped would not be forthcoming.
"...but it was around the midpoint of hominid evolution that Homo Sapiens began to congregate in large cities that could reach populations in the tens of millions. While the material cost of such an organizational structure was likely gigantic, and the unnatural closeness that individuals were forced to live with often caused catastrophic failures in the cultural processes that kept them from bashing each others' skulls in..."
At this, a hand, unable to contain itself, shot up from the desk of a student in the middle of the auditorium: "Yes?" asked Professor Bates, resigned.
"Professor, I read that times of strife may have caused supernatural beliefs to surface in the sapes. Do you think the hole in the inf—" the student was interrupted by Bates' disappointed sigh.
"First of all, they are Homo Sapiens, not 'sapes.' While it is perfectly possible that the hole was drilled as part of a ritual meant to lower uncertainty and give the adults a sense of control over their world, we have no real way of knowing, at least until much more research has been completed. Now, as I was saying, congregation into cities, despite its drawbacks, did allow for the cultural and technological development that really made the species the true apex predator that it was..." Professor Bates trailed off as another timid hand shot skyward. "Yes?" he asked, both wearily and warily.
"Er, Professor Bates, Professor... Julian Bates, I heard that your name... was human. Is that true?" the female student ventured. The class was stunned by her boldness.
Bates looked at her for a moment, then turned around and switched off the holoprojector. "Class is dismissed," he said, "perhaps next time we can stay on topics somewhere near that which is pertinent."
As the students filed out in silence, Bates was already dialing up Professor Nilsineg Ishtic, a colleague who was still at the Redalst site. Ishtic answered, and Bates began running data on the proportionate lengths of the long bones of the infant fossil's limbs.
The bond of nights and shaggy parades of poverty, hungry wanting desires of exclamation, "Scratch a patch, scratch a patch," he whispered in energetic need. "Scratch a patch, scratch a patch,” he hissed in sibilant excitement.
Welcome savory smells and tender roast beef perfumes drifted in waves from the interior of the metal box. The trash can stood five feet high on the sides and he peered on tiptoe into the green battered box. The visible remains of a take-out box lay beneath the shredded remains of several garbage bags. Hanging over the edge of the dumpster he stretched his arm out as far as it would reach, just barely touching the white styrofoam box. "Damn scratch, scratch that dog," he grumbled. His legs rocked out behind him as he balanced against his stomach, reaching forward with both hands. His balancing act paid him the take-out box, his fingers found purchase on the styrofoam box as he leaned farther forward. "Arrrrrrrrrgggggghhhhaaaa," he grunted as the air was forced from his midsection. In awkward momentum he propelled himself backward with his left palm against the lip of the can and his other clutching the white chunk of plastic foam. He landed on his heals and pin wheeled for a moment, finally falling square on his rump. He grimaced in a bruised expression of pain and hungry acceptance.
He layed the box in his lap and opened the lid. Smiling, his belly grumbled, a quarter section of corned beef between wheat, it even had a toothpick in it, a pickle and six fat fries with a dollop of partially dried catsup. Written in cross catch salvation he thought as he devoured the plate of food.
He had found his patch, the dusty shadow of a dream, a wish in starving distinctions of taste. "What’s this?" he mumbled through bits of corned beef. The bottom of the box had an inscription written in azure ink.
“VAGABOND HEART,” it read. He thought for a moment and tore the edges of the styrofoam leaving out the script. He placed the piece of lunch box in to one of his backpacks and made his way home. Home was a cardboard box on Cannon Street.
He lay there, twilight illuminating the edges of the opening to the cardboard house. The smell of cardboard filled his nostrils with its bouquet and dry warm essences. His eyes flittered and finally he slept. The remnants of a struggle and a day of wandering purposeful foraging behind him. The rubble of nearly a dozen broken boulders lay scattered before him in his dream, in a fog enshrouded circle, filling his subconscious; bones and blood covered the dusty Taboo. He backed away smelling wheat, sweet saffron seed, amber rows of grain and moist fertile earth. Turning he saw the endless wheat fields in saffron glory. Beautiful embracing waves of glowing grain. The sky was a deep flowing ember of twilight fire and ebbing sunshine alliance with the seeping indigo skyline. Looking down he saw the piece of styrofoam, "VAGABOND HEART." Picking it up he remembered the trash box and the scraps of food.
He stood still for a moment before he realized he was really there. He knew he should have been waking up in his cardboard house, the sound of car engines maybe even an ambulance in the distant city street, yet here he was in fields of sanctified virgin wheat, in fields of grain perfected, blessed wheat. He felt the cool summer tide of air against his skin, touching his cheeks and brow. Looking to the west to unbidden mysteries of spirit, west to the silhouette of nightfall bloom, he sighed and found the passion to move forward from the spot.
Somewhere in the distance a wolf cried to the moon and the wild loves of adventure and desire called to the east.
She wriggled and questioned the deft snakeskin bond, the ceremony in sated beliefs, the belief that the viper would mind the miracle in course. She charmed and prayed. She committed her half-blood desires to the suspicions of an insatiable thirst, thirst for control over the cool, sleek craft of her performance and measure of passion.
The silence of her wild inborn assumptions weighed in equal parts lust and need. The snake shadowed the silhouette of ash and the woman waved the mists of perfected art with nimble hands, just a touch of blood and the serum of saints, she thought. The snake fell into a listless sleepy subjugation and the woman, in sanguine appetites of affection, danced and gestured in gleeful commune with the souls of those akin to the snake. Her fangs shimmered and the snake submitted its wrath to the devotion of a charm.
In assurances of divine resolute will, she sunk her fangs into the pliant flesh of the snake and sipped, just a bit, just the briefest reprieve in the mystical arena, the sure shed skins of existence. In the nature of creatures we wish, she grinned in triumph and slaked admittance. The portion of the snake that laid hold to the nether realms of whim and fancy completed the woman's wish as she spun in circles of delight. The sweet nectar of the apple, the taste of blessings in snake fuss. In a moment of reflection she questioned the difference between apples and snakes blood, nevertheless the moment was flittering in distant thought as she thought of nothing but the gain of her appetites.
The woman abandoned the white liquid reflection of what seemed to be a dream, a dream of youth and beauty, for the advance of time and age, lines and wear. She separated the pale brown eggs and mixed the yellow yolks into the cake mix. A rush to the abandon of another year, another way to the end of her hidden, secret stay on planes of what is and what has been. She whipped the answer to her birth and homespun, silky trappings of sugar storm brewed in the eye of desire. "A cake for my birthday, a cake for the tide of leather skin and ancient eyes alight," she sang in rhythm to the gentle stirring of the cake mix.
She greased the cake pan liberally as she poured the mix into its tin confederate. All ovens and frosting, cooking and curing what will be a ripe wine and a moment of sweet assured joy. A birthday to remember. She thought as she waited in ageless entitlement. The old wife of a constant destiny and chaste pleasures, the purest of ascensions, attired in firefly candles and heightened pallets. The taste, the breath of another love, the love of confection in creamy crumbling slices of cake.
She opened the oven door after an hour had passed and heat raged in aromatic waves of mist. "Done," she said with a touch of glee, "done."
She withdrew the cake from the oven and luxuriated in the warm sensation that poured through the oven mitts. She surrendered to the urge, the primal instinct in wild loves and unwavering passion as she cut herself a piece and devoured it. "For my birthday in silent old pleasures of divine flavor," she sang, "Like the hourglass and a taste of wine ever so sweet."
The birds are chirping outside like springtime wake up calls. My wife and kids are sound asleep as I shave. I put on my Oklahoma Railroad uniform. The coffee is ready. I pour a cup and put two slices of bread in the toaster. The vaguest glimmer of light emerges as I close the door behind me and proceed to walk twelve blocks to the Carson Avenue stop, where I will board and take my place at the control panel of the 6 AM commuter train. Today will be like any other day. I will drive the train.
The birds are chirping outside like springtime wake up calls. My wife and kids are sound asleep as I shave. I put on my "uniform": black pants, shirt, shoes. I amuse myself from time to time with my ties, but nothing too outlandish. In my line of work, I don't need to be calling attention to myself. The coffee is ready. I pour a cup. I'll stop for breakfast later. No, rush. My job will be completed long before the breakfast specials are off the menu at the diner. I attach a silencer to my revolver, put it into the shoulder holster, grab my blind-man glasses, throw on my trench coat and take a walking cane out of the closet. Today will be like any other day. I will kill someone.
Emerging from the tunnel I drive onward. Glancing down, I notice the dawn light glimmering off the still dewy metal of the tracks. I love that sight. We all have our sense of beauty. That's mine. Like a smoking engine against a backdrop of virgin snow. I like the concept of warm and cold juxtaposed.
As we approach the station I see a huge crowd of commuters, bigger than usual. Some are reading newspapers, while others appear impatient as if I personally were punishing them for the drudgery of the nine-to-five lifestyle they so pined for when they went job-hunting after they graduated college. They begin moving chaotically as the train comes into view of the platform. All the sense of manners is temporarily suspended as men push into women and young women aggressively shove elderly businessmen. I see this every day, yet it always stuns me how little regard people have for their fellow man.
The conductor is about to announce the station when I receive a message from central command stating that I am to bypass the next station and operate on the express schedule. I accelerate as the horn blares out its announcement to the mob on the platform to step back, that this train will not stop. I hear the crowd shouting obscenities and see them slapping their thighs in anger with the morning papers.
Maneuvering down the steep staircase at the train station while swiping my cane to and fro, it occurs to me that mimicking a blind man is not one of the more enjoyable aspects of my job. I am always stunned that people bump and shove with no regard for a pregnant woman, a child, a disabled person as they scurry off to their mindless, nondescript jobs in some ominous corporation that has even less regard for them than they have for their fellow man. I try not to get too philosophical about this. That sort of thinking throws me off track, out of character so to speak because I am, no doubt about it, tempted to remove my piece and shoot blindly. It never surprises me to read about those guys that just go nuts and walk into some place killing a bunch of strangers. Why not? We're all strangers to each other, aliens on an unfeeling planet... I can't go there. I collect myself. See, if I took things personally I would definitely botch my assignments, ending my career, and most likely my own life in the process. No, better to be detached. I am thankful that I am not really blind.
The station is packed. Something must have happened. I've been at this station every day for the last two weeks and feel like I know everybody here, as much as I care to know anyone. Today, there are new faces, looking more harried than usual. I hear the train approaching, the rumbling on the tracks. I can picture the dawn light glimmering off the still dewy metal of the tracks. I love that sight. We all have our sense of beauty. That's mine. Like a smoking gun laying on a blanket of virgin snow. I like the concept of warm and cold juxtaposed.
At 7:45, my target will board that train, like he has done every day for the last two weeks. I know him better than he knows himself. It's interesting. As an objective observer, I know that he shoves blind men. I have no pity for him. For me, it's a job.
"Come on, move it."
"Hey, let's go. I'm going to be late."
"Don't they have special services for you people? What the hell is the government doing with my god damned tax money?"
"Can't you hear the train? Get with it, pal. Don't tell me you're deaf, too."
I'm really getting the business today. I'm trying, through this crowd and all the ruckus, to keep my eye on my target. It's hard to see with these damn dark glasses. But I like the additional anonymity of this crowd, the fact that something's different today makes it all the less unusual if there is an incident. And there will be an incident. The crowd pushing and shoving in the dim light reminds me of those horror movies I watched as kid, when swarms of crazed, starving rats would be loosed onto an unsuspecting citizenry. Shit! I've lost sight of my guy!
It's absolute pandemonium. You'd think the train schedule had never changed before. I have no pity for these people. They behave like beasts. For me, it's a job.
I hear the blaring of the train. It's not stopping. My mind races. Okay, that gives me time to find him again while we wait for the next train. I wish these idiots would stop pushing. You'd think the train schedule had never changed before.
Someone trips on my cane, catalyzing a domino effect as a whole segment of the crowd falls one into the other. I'm caught in a human undercurrent, being shoved to the outward limits. One great shove comes, unexpected.
(I've lost my balance! I'm off the platform!)
(A man has slipped off the platform! I can't stop!)
I put my head down. The train hurtles on. I am crying. Today I killed someone.
AUTHOR'S NOTE:The idea for this story was suggested by Halina Sznabel.