Archive for April, 2017

Storytime: Years.

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

“Happy birthday,” said his mother.
“Happy birthday,” said his father.
“Happy birthday,” said his brother. “Now make a goddamned wish, I’m hungry.”
His mother bopped his brother on the head. Carefully. It was a hard head, and her hand was small.
Joshua looked at the cake in its squat, icing-crusted, soft-cored glory. But his eyes were on the candles. Little wax cylinders.
“What are they for?” he asked.
“Each of those is a year,” his mother told him. “One two three four five. You’re five!”
Five years, melted on the spot. Wax dribbling down their sides. Burning up.
“Can I have something else?”
“You don’t like cake?” his father asked. “But you asked for chocolate. Are you sure? We might have some ice cream-”
And they went on and on and eventually Joshua got some cake, even if he hadn’t managed to make himself clear.
But he remembered that, and regretted that. And when the cake was done and the day was too, he crept downstairs from his bedroom – avoiding all the proper floorboards and tiptoeing at all the right times – and made his way to the garbage can.
Five little half-melted blobs. Five years.
Safe now.
That morning, his parents found him awake early, bolt-upright in bed, staring out the windows. The candles bobbed at his side like fireflies, swirling between him and the world.

A camping trip, and home with him came the paddle and a recording of the slap of water-on-wood.
The cat died, and its grave travelled home.
A book he’d read ten times over.
A passing thought, stewed on for too long.
Term papers, thesis papers, research papers, a full Phd. defense.
Seventeen pop songs, one after another.
One more thing, one at a time, over and over. More baggage for the trek, piled on top and all around.

“I do,” he said.
“I do,” she said.
More words.
Clap clap clap
The knife moved through the cake, and into the wall. The dancing was a little awkward with it in the way, but they managed.

The dog’s first steps.
The baby’s first nap.
The broken tire from the interstate.
All swept up and carried along.

“There’s this girl-”
The conversation only got more embarrassing from there. And it folded in, and tied itself off, and slid into the spot set aside for it. It covered half the breakfast table.

A sore back, an x-ray.
An argument, an apology.
An entire collection of increasingly-comfortable chairs.
A broken tooth, and its cap.
Another dog.
Around and around they spun.

“I do,” she said.
“I do,” she said.
Clap clap clap. His arms were stiff by the end of it, but he was happy.
A different cake, a different cut, and another brick in the wall. He had three chairs to himself on all sides.

A new desk came in and the old one came along with him.
They moved, and the entire house followed. So did three of the trees, his favourites for years.
They went on a trip to the Caribbean and half of the sea came home on the plane. It was damp around him, but it clung tight and would not let go even as it sogged its way through years of words and scribblings.
Words aloud, too. Conversations with dead men and women. Pet names for pets, for grandchildren. Swirling eddys of half-overheard arguments from his childhood. All wrapped in tightly.

It had been a lovely birthday. The cars were lined up around the block. One of them was larger, faster, stronger, and had flashing lights on top.
“Is it not safe to move him?” asked his daughter.
The paramedic shrugged. “Well, it could be. Well, it could be not. Well, if I’m honest, it’s awful hard to tell what with that thing around him. Well. Y’know.” She scratched her elbow absently. “Well. Any drinks left?”
“You’re on duty, aren’t you?”
“Well, yeah, but I’m not driving.”
The bed loomed over the two of them and the whole rest of the party, monolithic in its scope. Inside, on top of the covers and under eighty-eight years, he lay. Breathing or not, hard to tell. He couldn’t see his family behind the layers of his adolescence, adulthood, and god knew what else. He couldn’t touch anything, couldn’t move his arms – pinned down under an infinite weight of accumulated past. He couldn’t even hear his own heartbeat anymore, past the lull of a thousand memories whispering.
Five candles in front of his face. Blinking out one after another, no matter how hard he squeezed. They were dripping through his fingers, running, running away from him, and he was very worried he’d be trapped there, all alone with himself.
Oh dear.
Had the way out always been that simple?
And with a slow sigh that was neither particularly happy nor sad, the high wall of years faded away and the world saw his face unobscured for the first time since childhood.

Storytime: Splashes.

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

Blue sky, warm sun, white clouds and green world.
It was a good days, so I decided to spend them on the river. Just me and the boat, listening to the splash and thrum and whistle of hours and years and centuries sliding by under the keel. Shut your eyes and dangle your fingers in the millennia. A good way to spend a while.
Someone yelled. I didn’t know the language but most human languages are pretty similar. This was the sort of yell that said ‘hello.’
I opened my eyes again and looked shoreward, where there was a woman and a spear and a basket and berries and a dead lion the size of my boat, in no particular arrangement. And some flies, but they were just arriving.
“Hey, did you see that?” she said. “Wow. Bit of a close one. What’s that thing you’re in?”
“A state of temporal flux,” I said.
“No, I mean the wooden thing.”
“Oh. Woops. It’s a boat.”
“Nice trick. Hey, I’ve got a trick too. Wanna hear it?”
“See that cliff over there?”
I squinted. There was a cliff over there.
“See that ledge on that cliff over there?”
I squinted harder. There was a ledge on that cliff over there.
“See that shadow underneath that ledge on that cliff over there?”
I squinted hardest. “Ow.”
“Careful. But there’s a hole in there, a hole in the rock. And I live in there, where it’s pretty dry when it rains and it’s hard for anything to sneak up on me. It’s a nice trick. And you can’t fall out of it and drown, either.”
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s a good trick you showed me. But I’ll stick with the boat.”
And I stuck out the oars again and left that behind me.

Just up the river someone called me again. It was basically a halloo, whatever those are.
This guy was dressed to the tens. Nines were probably hand-me-downs for his nieces and nephews. ‘Robes’ didn’t even begin to describe it. There were multiple funny hats each inside the other, like nesting dolls. Very stylish.
“Hey moron,” he was telling me, in that kindly way of the aristocrat, “didn’t you know that’s my river?”
“Woops,” I said. “My bad. Won’t do it twice.”
“No fooling. Because when you come ashore, I’m going to have my guys gut you. You have any idea whose river that is?”
“And who’s yours truly?”
I thought about this. “No idea, sorry.”
“Me? I’m the big boss around here. Look at this. You ever seen a thing like this before?”
There was a muddish, squarish thing in his hands.
“Is that a brick?”
“Damned straight. It’s my own idea. And see that bluff over there? See that palace on that bluff? See what it’s made of?”
“Slow down, slow down.”
I looked, one after the other.
“Okay, yeah. I’ve got it. Go on.”
“Bricks, baby. Nothing but grade-A, one-hundred-and-ten-per-cent sun-dried, fire-hardened, mass-produced, artisanal, fabricated, calibrated, finest Brick with a B. I’m not living in no tree. I’m not hiding in no cave. I’m through with hunting, and with gathering, and with doing much beyond eating these little round grapes people bring to me. They’d peel the grapes if I asked them to, you know.”
“But the skin’s what gives it texture!”
“I know, right? Still, they’d do it. That’s what matters. Hey, you gonna come ashore so I can have my boys gut you?”
“Thanks,” I said, “but maybe later.” And I swung out the oars again and stroked for later as hard as I could.

I overshot, I did. Barely three pulls and BANG I bumped into a pier, attached to a shoreline, attached to a city. All three were concrete, steel, and a smear or three of seagull shit.
A seagull screamed at me.
It screamed louder. Never worth it with those folks.
“Hey down there,” said someone above my head.
I relocated my head and its angle, correcting the view. There was someone above me, burning a little bit of dead plant matter in their mouth.
“You’re on fire,” I warned them.
“This? No, it’s electronic. Hey, you’re not from around here, are you?”
“It’s the boat. It’s a little old-fashioned. Also, you’re parked where my yacht goes.”
“Oh dear.”
She shook her head. “I’ll sue you later or something. You got any idea what goes on around here? Hey, let me tell you what goes on around here: whatever you can imagine. We think of towers, bam, towers. We think of planes, bam, planes. We think of dragons with polka-dotted scrotums, bang, flash, pazow, dragons with polka-dotted scrotums.”
“I don’t see any.”
She laughed at that so hard she nearly choked. “Not here, stupid. In here, the real place, the only thing that matters.” She heaved something over her head, arms straining.
It was a glass screen with some heavy metal attached.
“Digital, kid,” she said as she put it back down. “Digital. If it’s not online it’s not real. And if it’s online, it’s obsolete.” She raised her hand high and showed me a glistening black thing like a dead beetle. “I mean, just look at this. Here, y’know what a Blackberry is? Not the fruit, the electronic, the symbiotic, the Personal Digital Assistant for your Personal Digital Age, the tool, the universal remote for your miserable dumpster fire of a dead-end life.”
“No,” I replied.
“Good,” she said, “because it’s fucking garbage ten times over.” She threw it in the river, where it sank with a sploop. “Hey kid, hey c’mere, you wanna buy an iPad? An iPod? An-”
I rowed upstream in a real hurry.

Actually, I rowed a bit too hard. Wrapped right around myself, almost got stuck in the Big Crunch. Would’ve been a real mess if I hadn’t brought a punting pole with me. As it was I got turned around for a few billion years and by the time I was headed home I was tired and hot and sweaty and in no fit state to recall exactly which way I’d come in by.
So when I went by the shore again, I was shocked to see most of it was underwater. There was nothing there but rust and grime and empty, dead streets. And the woman was sitting there next to it, staring at a seagull.
The seagull was staring at her. It was doing a better job.
“Hello?” I inquired.
“FUCK,” she shouted, and she lunged, and she missed. “DAMN. PISS. That was my dinner you stone-aged jackoff.”
“My bad.”
“No, no, you’re good. Look, at least you’ve got a boat. You know what I’ve got? Storm surges! Dust bowls! Shortages of electricity, water, food, and entertainment, and nowhere to go but down. And you scared off my dinner! Mine! You have any idea how many French fries that little shit’d taken off me? I was owed a collection!” She spat at me, then glared in fresh anger. “Hey! Gimme back that saliva! I’m dehydrated!”
“Sorry,” I said. And I booked it.

Bump! Not looking where I was going again! I’d bounced off a burning barge.
“Oh dear,” I said.
“You said it,” agreed the man with robes. These were even nicer than his last set, except for all the arrows sticking out of them.
“Oh dear,” I said.
“Yeah, twice now,” said the man with the robes. “Listen, I uh, I might need to mention this. You know what the downside of having a nice big house is?”
“Well, I’ve just got this boat.”
“I had like, ten the size of this one, and twelve bigger.”
“They were! Nice! Nice and big. But you know, you know what OW jeezus the downside of all that stuff is?”
“Fill me in.”
“People start asking why they can’t have some too.”
“And then you gotta have ‘em decapitated.”
“And then they get cranky and grumpy and then you get fourteen arrows through your liver.”
“Sometimes that’s the way it goes.”
“Yeah!” His eyes were brighter. “Yeah! You’re right! How ‘bout that, huh?”
And he died, so I left.

I stopped by the first shore again before I pulled in for the night. I felt like I needed closure.
“Me too,” said the first woman. “You ran off right while I was talking last time.”
“Sorry. Bad habit of mine.”
“Don’t mention it. But man, I’m glad you came back. I’ve got to talk to someone about this. See, there’s this idea I’ve had.”
“It’s called a ‘brick.’”

Storytime: Tidying.

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

“It’s my fridge, you see.”
The man behind the counter looked unimpressed. It came naturally to him, but he worked hard at it anyways. He stood as a corpse.
“I uh uh I spilled some ah orange uhm juice and it went under and gosh y’know I just thought well I’d wipe it out with toileetttttttt paper and then it well it just fell apart and now I’ve got a cl, a cl, a clot of garbage wadded up under the fridge and do you – do you think you could-?”
“Here,” said the man at the counter. “Scrubby on a stick. Here. Soap for your scrubby on a stick. Here. Extra disposable scrubs for your scrubby on a stick. Pay me.”
Herb smile beamed, or at least warped. “Thank you. Thank you!”
“Pay me.”
“Oh. Uh. Right.”

The fridge was hard work, and the terrain was to its advantage but it was vanquished in the end.
Then, because there’s nothing worse than a scrubby on a stick without a target, Herb cleaned out his fridge too.
“Sparkling!” he smiled.
Then he stopped.
The counter could use a bit of a scrub.
Halfway through the counter, his eyes drifted to the cupboards.
And then, as the cupboards were behind him and his last disposable scrub was falling from bloodless fingers, his gaze fell to the stove, and turned bleak.

“I’m, uh, very sorry to just come back again and b-b-b-other you like this, but you see, well, but it’s the thing is the thing is the stove is just, just grimy, and, and…..and. And.”
Herb’s sentence trailed off into the deep woods and vanished forever.
“Boy, I could’ve warned you,” said the man at the counter. “You wanted to clean just one thing. Know what comes after one? Two.” He plunked down an ominous cylinder (spray-nozzled, with extendible hose) on the counter. “Here. Now scoot.”
Herb scooted. And ten minutes later, he sprayed. And ten minutes later, he woke up on the floor and opened all the windows immediately and then read the fine print on the spray bottle more carefully, or in fact at all.
“Wow,” he said.
He opened up the stove and looked inside. The gleam blinded him. Dark spots danced in front of his eyes.
“Wow,” he said. “Ow. Ow. Ow ow ow ow ow ow OW.”
The world faded back into view. But the dark spots were still there. Dancing on the windowsill.
Herb’s brow furrowed. The rest of his face followed suit, like an accordion.

“I well I know I’m sorry to cause a fuss, a fuss you know but well I was just wondering if it was possible, not too inconvenient, if you had a moment, of your time, not too busy, uhhhhhhh-”
The man at the counter stared into the space beyond Herb’s ear. It was a familiar space to him, if an empty one, for it was all that stood between him and the building’s exit. Some days it felt so very much larger than others.
“Flies!” blurted out Herb. And then he giggled.
“Flyswatter.” Whack. “Tissues for fly gut wiping.” Whack. “Fly gut stain remover.” Whack. “Newspaper in case flyswatter is too small for the king fly.” WHACK.
“Thank you! Lots!”

“More stain remover?”

“Something to, well, wipe off a, wipe off a, a couch, maybe?”

“You know I just vacuumed and uhhhh the uhhhh floorboards could use a p, polish, and I was wondering if-”

The clock crawled on the wall like an insipid inbred spider, and the shelves grew emptier. And as the shelves grew emptier, Herb’s abode grew cleaner.
And as the man at the counter had noticed, Herb grew filthier. He looked like something that’d been found at the back of a septic tank, but stickier.
“SO IT’S A FUNNY THING,” he said. “BUT do you maybe have anything a bit….tidier?”
The man at the counter reached under it. Under the counter was a box. Inside the box was a small safe. Inside the safe was a featureless sphere. Inside the sphere (velvet-lined) was a tiny bottle suspended in a web of fine-linked titanium chains, each able to hold an automobile aloft indefinitely.
He threw the tiny bottle in a plastic bag and handed it to Herb.
“Here,” he said. “Dilute it in an Olympic swimming pool and go nuts.”
“Thank you thank you thank you THANK you thank YOU thanks bye.”

And the problem occurred at home, as Herb hadn’t seen the Olympics since he’d been old enough to choose his own news.
How big WAS an Olympic swimming pool anyways?
Well, it was big enough to swim in. But what did that mean, anyways? A full stroke without touching the bottom? Herb could touch the bottom in the local gym’s swimming pool when he was ten years old, even in the lap lanes. It wasn’t that important, obviously.
And when you got down to it, swimming was just kicking. And paddling. And that meant you just needed enough water to fit your arms or maybe at least one leg in. Really, when you thought about it, everyone was swimming with their lips whenever they had a drink. Wow. That was deep.
Herb blinked. “Ahahahahahahahhahaha. Pun.”

And then, with the best intentions, Herb filled the sink with half an inch of water and poured the bottle into it.

He really was remarkably clean when the team pulled him out.
And, even in a dinghy old lead-lined vault, he stayed that way for at least forty years. Didn’t even need to dust him.

Storytime: Overheard Outside the Chicago Field Museum, December 2000.

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

“What is it?”
“Look in here.”
“I’m looking, mom, but I don’t see –”
“Through that window. You see?”
“What are they?”
“Those are your grandmother’s bones.”
A long, slow silence, broken only by the shuffle of thousands of human feet.
“They’re awfully big.”
“Things were bigger back then. We were bigger back then.”
“When? Is this about before the buildings?”
“Before that. A long, long time before that.”
“They look like rocks.”
“They are. She’s turned to stone. See how heavy she is now – once she was as light and hollow as you and me.”
A siren sounded, approached, arrived, and departed.
“Can we go for lunch? It’s almost time for the man with the br-”
“No. First you need to understand what this means.”
“I know, I know. It’s a big old-”
“That’s two important things you just said. Think about what they mean.”
“Big and old?”
“Exactly. Think about time, my son. Think about time that exists beyond your imagination, and what it does to us and the world. Think about being big, my son. Think about life that spends generations on a scale unimaginable to us; above our heads, below our notice. Think about spending aeons with flippers; claws; wings. Think about what your grandmother did, and how she lived. Look at her teeth, each half as tall as you are, and stout to boot. Look at her legs, built to run and chase. Look at her bones, and what has been done to them. There they stand, alone in splendour, held high above everything else in this place. Think about what they think of her, and tell me this now: what is the lesson that is being taught here?

The son preened himself over three times in nervous thought. His eyes darted among the great concrete skyscrapers from building to building, height to height, and despite his best efforts his conclusion became inescapable.
“Everything dies, no matter how big it is.”
“Good!” said the mother approvingly. “Very nearly correct. And?”
“I don’t know.”
“Everything dies, no matter how big it is, but as long as you look good first, it doesn’t matter. Now come on, it’s past time for the man with the bread to show up in the park.”
And in a flurry of feathers, the bones were alone again.