***WE DO NOT DIE: FUTURE TALES of CRIME and FORGETTING***

(A TEN-CHAPTER EXCERPT FROM MY LATEST COLLECTION of SHORTS)

WE DO NOT DIE

 

 

“We do not die but we forget and forgetting is like unto death, a death of tired associations and attachments, connections so weary they attenuate rather than snap, the rearranging of rearrangement that can only end in the erasure of particulate matter; not a break but an evanescence, a reduction of material memory to its finest single grain, which is not an atom but what this atom meant to itself and other atoms as it forgot itself into The Future.”

 

—Anonymous

1A Silke 7

 

The awkwardness of seeing Jeff with his new girl reminded me of being extremely young, when awkward occasions had gifted every day of the week with only-funny-in-retrospect scenarios and the traded tales of these embarrassments had been the basic transaction of friendship. There’s a specific flavor to the kind of adrenaline that embarrassment generates and it tastes exactly like being seventeen. So there’s your fountain of youth.

“Kia!” called Jeff. The billboard was flashing above them.

I barely recognized him. I had never known him well. At least his girlfriend had a nice body. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I’d have known about Jeff’s girlfriend’s body anyway, from Jeff’s persistent references to it during the course of the phone conversation we’d had last week.

Not even sure why I had called him the first time.

He’d launched into this weird soliloquy about the sexual amazements of this Silke’s body and the utter inappropriateness of it all made me want to laugh out loud and be sick at the same time. What a creep, I’d thought. What a sad and shallow gelatin. Is everything still, still,  about the dumb body and its pointless measurements and its  animal functions? These bits squirt and these bits suck. That’s about it. Next?

“Her body is a masterpiece,” Jeff had bragged, on the phone. “It’s unprecedented.” Listening to him made me giddy with contempt. I wanted to hang up. Why had I called?

“Don’t hang up!” Begged Jeff.  “Where are you living these days?”

I hung up, felt guilty about hanging up, almost called back and decided not to. I tore the phone in half and flushed it down the toilet and got a fresh new strip out the bag, pressing it against my forehead to load. Most of my friends consider external phones (outies)  an unhygienic nuisance. How can I explain that loading actually feels good?

Jeff looked poor enough to use outies. He looked poor enough to eat out of the garbage at the petting zoo.

“Jeff,” I said, avoiding enthusiasm. One week after the sexualized phone ordeal with Jeff, here we all were, meeting at Adenauerplatz. I hadn’t expected Jeff to bring this Silke character along. They rounded the corner arm in arm and I tried not to let my face fall. My first impulse was to run. Why had I called him last week?

Over Jeff’s head on the billboard that looks out over Adenauerplatz blinked the Hollywood catch-phrase RUNAWAY SLAVE PROTOCOL, in letters two stories tall, a phrase I had seen flashing on taxis and school bags and on magazines all over the city. A new game? A new dumb film to keep us all distracted from what’s going on in London? Every day, public hangings on Tower Bridge. Dissidents drawn and quartered at Leicester Square. But the PM’s in a band, you know. So, like, isn’t that cool?

“Silke, Kia,” said Jeff, crossing his arms to needlessly point us out to each other.

Silke kept pushing her bone-blonde hair behind an ear, drawing my attention to the masculine math of her nut-cracking jaw line. She had a nice body but the jaw of a drill sergeant. It was a jutting, implacable  jaw that you wouldn’t expect to find on a pretty girl at all, which meant, I guessed, that she wasn’t pretty. Plus squinty blue eyes and a utilitarian nib of a nose that made her face look like an illustration from a children’s book called ‘The Sexiest Little Steam Shovel’. So mean. I know.

Too honest.

And Jeff: there was something wrong with his face that I just about would have had the nerve to broach as a subject if this Silke hadn’t been there with us. The inverted triangle of his eyes and nose was boiled-red and flaking-off in thick crinkles like a glazed doughnut.

Or no, it looked like slush. It could only have been psoriasis. I knew it wasn’t contagious. But the thought of how much of his face he must be leaving behind in his pillow every morning (for how many years?) made me sad. Not for Jeff, but for people; for mammals; for living things. There’s always something, isn’t there? You finally pay off your student loan, or get your teeth fixed and then you get psoriasis. Or whatever it was. On your face.

“Well,” I said to Jeff,  doing my best not to look at his face while somehow also managing to look him in the eye, “Where should we go?”

I had a whole list of things to avoid looking at between these two people: Jeff’s face, Silke’s jaw, Silke’s meaninglessly stupendous sexual attributes. The next hour would have been just about bearable if I’d been paid at least a minimum wage to endure it. When the waitress finally came to our table with the check (on the header of which blinked another ad for that stupid action flick), I felt like presenting Jeff and Silke with a bill of my own. Instead, I paid for lunch.

Good riddance, I thought. But I smiled goodbye.

I walked away fast.

Later that evening, as I was preparing myself for bed (meaning: watching television, half-asleep, in a fetal position on the couch and trying to find the one radiant crumb of sheer will required to cross the room and pick up the remote in order to switch the television off), my phone (rash-pink; last one in the bag) buzzed like a fly under a sheet of wax paper. Which made me think of my great-grandmother.

Which inspired me to answer the phone sadly.

“Hello, this is Kia?”

I was confused but not surprised when I recognized the caller as Silke. I was surprised but not shocked to find myself on the underground an hour later, riding the last train back toward Adenauerplatz.

A guy in blue overalls was already chaining half the gate shut in front of one of the station entrances as I rode the escalator to street level. It struck me as being exactly the kind of thing you’d show in a movie if you wanted the audience to feel that the lead character was wandering into dangerous territory. It was so cold at the dark corner in front of the U-Bahn station that I was shivering as Silke tapped me on the shoulder. She was swaddled in a general’s fur coat.

“Sorry to frighten you, Kia.”

She pecked me on the cheek and said, “I want to straighten something out with you, Kia. I’m not Jeff’s girlfriend, Kia.”

“Honestly, it’s not that I needed to know or anything. I just…”

“Jeff told me you’re into women.”

I backed away a step. “Sometimes.”

“Me, too, Kia” she said. “I believe in being direct. Would you like to get high, Kia?”

She gestured that I should follow her and we walked up a side street, in and out of disquietingly harsh street light and its sharp shadows, the magnified silhouettes of leaves like Expressionist  gears and fangs on the sidewalk. The little walk was brisk and free of small talk. We crossed a broad, empty boulevard with its own quaint meridian of horse droppings grey in the street lights and we came to the worn stone steps of one of the grandest old buildings of the area, a castle with a domed horse racing track on top. This imposing pseudo-Gothic structure had somehow managed to dodge aerial bombardment campaigns in three different wars; parts of it were three centuries old.

The foyer was intimidating with brass and marble-shine and it was very bright through the mahogany and bevelled glass wall of the entrance. Silke put her fur-coated shoulder to the door after pressing a button with three quick pokes and when the buzzer sounded she pushed through with a comical grunt, grinning at me over her shoulder. She reached and took my hand to pull me toward the elevator as if she was afraid I’d dash out of the building instead.

“The owner is an art collector, Kia” Silke whispered, before we entered the apartment, as if to instruct me on how, exactly, to comport myself. So imagine my surprise as she kicked off her slippers and began to undress as soon as she closed the big black double-doors behind me. There wasn’t much to remove.

She walked in a circle around the gold-lit living room. The room was big enough to be cool and dark in its corners, bright and warm in its center. She tossed her massive fur and then her diaphanous inner fashions at chairs, statues, a tall table,  a semi-circle of sectional red-leather couch and a ten-foot Christmas tree as she circled the center of the room. Her bright red panties ended high up on the Christmas tree, muting a blinking light.

“I thought we were going to get high,” I said and Silke circled in toward me and put her arms around my neck, her hot, lipless mouth at my ear to shussh me.

“Shusshh, Kia, ” she said. “We are, baby Kia,” she said. “We are going to get high, Kia. But first I want to know if you ever fucked Jeff.”

“Never,” I said. “Jeff’s just an old school friend.”

“That’s not what he told me.”

“Jeff and I fucked exactly as much as you and Jeff fucked,” I said. “Never, right?”

“But Jeff and I did fuck, Kia.”

“You said you didn’t.”

“I said I wasn’t his girlfriend, Kia. I’m beginning to worry about your memory functions. Can you spell your name?”

“Huh?” I said. “You’re confusing me.”

“This is a test, Kia. Can you spell your name, Kia?”

I was nearing the end of my patience. “Silke, it’s very late and I thought you had a problem you needed to talk about. You said…”

“I said that I didn’t have anyone else in the world that I could talk to about it, yes.”

“Okay. I’m here. We can talk. So what’s your problem?”

She giggled and went and retrieved the fur coat, lifting it with that comical grunt again. She came to me with two very beautiful, sapphire-colored, pills, one in each fist.

“Pick a pill, Kia,” she said and I tapped one fist and it opened. “Pick another pill, Kia, please, ” she said. “Happy Christmas and welcome back. You want also a glass of water to swallow with? These Runaway Slave Protocol  Pills should fix everything, Kia. But they’re kind of big.”

“Wait, wait, ” I said. “Who buzzed us in when you rang the doorbell?”

“Jeff.”

I steadied myself on the arm of a nearby chair and sat on it, crying as quietly as I could.

 

 

2A SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE MOON

 

You know it’s time for a change when you start hoping that a handsome heterosexual banker will murder you with a forty-six bit-dollar, laser-edged smart knife from Saks just so you can have the pleasure of telling Babs “I told you so” afterwards. Blood bubbles on your lips.

(Think of it as assisted bleeding).

I mean, you obviously couldn’t really be there to say it to her (you wouldn’t even be in one piece) but you could well imagine old Babs wracked with sobs over your cold thin 10-kilo carbon sheaf as it is slid majestically into its diagonal slot in rented eternity. Imagine Babs gasping and blubbering, over and over, louder and louder,  hoarser and hoarser: “she told me so, she told me so, she told me so…”

And it’s no idle fantasy, no fleeting, lip-curling, self-defeatingly vengeful daydream in the verticatub one Sunday afternoon (addressing those cramps) with a Joni Mitchell album (Blue) on (very loud) in the play room, the nursery you will never need, where you have spared no expense in converting the walls into speakers and the ceiling into a moodlight. No, it’s such a persistent thought, such a persuasive vision, that you catch yourself dolling up one Friday night and tottering out on the street in fucme™ stilts and thinking “What’s the hip new handsome heterosexual banker bar of the month?” and then nodding vehemently to yourself when it comes to you:

CHEZ CROESUS

And, failing that, there’s that even-newer place around the corner, the pretentious little bistro that a friend of a friend exhibited her direct-from-eye photographs in recently (only to have the prints pulled down when a patron complained that the 36 clinical snaps of Björk’s daughter’s daughter’s middle-aged hairless tattooed studded female glory was putting him off his plate of living mussels).  What was the place called again?

LOOOKUR

You squint, chuckling.

Because you just know you’ll be able to pick the sickest one out in the crowd: you have a talent. And it takes talent, it really does, to pick the sickest one before the sickest one even picks you and also to pick the sickest when they’re all sick, to some extent.

All handsome heterosexual bankers are sick, sick with greed and power trips and gimlet-eyed Smirky-Face Syndrome and it’s a terrible reading on Society itself that H.H.B.’s are the ideal now, the romantic ideal.

When did shaggy poets and laconic jazz trumpeters and long-haired tubercular Theatre Department fops cease to be the ones that straight white model-quality girls fresh off the boat from Kansas pursued like flies chasing dogs dipped in hot vomit?  When did this happen? When did the paradigm shift? When did the Hipness shift to accommodate my mother’s idea of a Good Catch? Is what you think.

So, there you are, in the fizzing electric haze of the fortified city’s projectors-enhanced twilight in early August, tottering on your fucme™ stilts, setting your mouth and the angle of your profile just so as you move along a succession of reflective store fronts, checking your look, checking your status as bait.

You first totter by a high cheerful window with easels and fountain pens and back-to-school offers (decoy private-school kids, half price!)  on display but it is a very bad mirror: too bright, for all you see are a very tall blue eye and arm and an even loftier neon-lit corona of Aryan/Afghan hair as you clop clop clop on by on your fucmes™.

The next window belongs to a leather shop, unlit, the surfaces therein uniformly dark and flat and so that’s perfect. You slow while passing it and twist subtly to see if your stomach is bulging (cutely) in your little tight porn-embedded dress. And it is, but, again: youngly,  cutely, just a little. It’s still the post-adolescent bulge of a twenty-something who eats right but never works out. It hasn’t started protruding like a distended goatskin water-sack slung from the hips of a Kalahari huntsman on a week-long trek in the desert just yet. Like you-know-who.

Like Babs.

“This was your leg room! You were flying,” your mother guffaws, “first class!”, grabbing her pot and jiggling it, when you suggest that she do sit ups, like, one day. And then you’re doing a double take at that smelly old motherbelly thinking: I really was in there, once upon a time, wasn’t I? People used to do that! Come out of other…(shudder)… people… !

You have picked up speed, sailing by the generally affirmative shop window mirrors, racing your rippling reflection as you mince assertively in unaccustomed stilts across illuminated shopwindow vistas of diamonds, darkling Carpathian luggage displays, past that glorious new virtual/meatspace hybrid shop called BUYSEXUAL and further past existentialist arrangements of bird cages and dog collars and hairless pink monkeys on chaise lounges with tits, finally: the bug-eyed, book-reading loners, all male, in the intersection-dominating windows of the…

…Coffee Brothel ™ at the corner, which you round with their eyes upon you, since they aren’t really reading those books at all but hoping they’ll meet the loves of their lives this way,  reading books alone in a Coffee Brothel ™ on a Friday evening (“sneaking up on success by pretending to be a failure,” as your mother would put it), and so they have the radar turned up to red alert at all times, peripheral scanners locked on.

They eye you as you clop clop clop on by along the window on Tenth Avenue, round the corner and head west along the window on the boulevard. They’re fantasizing, most of them,  that it’s you, that The One they’ve been attempting to contrive to bump into for the past ten years is you: that you’ll breeze into The Coffee Brothel ™ on this pivotal Friday evening, glance over at them reading “Typee” or “Infinite Jest” or “This Boy’s Life” from your end spot in the snaking latte line and make a quip that will mark the two of you as smartass soulmates extraordinaire, pulling up a stool and asking to see the book for a minute, your hand brushing his as he hands the book over bemusedly, that fleeting touch setting off violins and sparklers that will resonate for years, and through generations of assisted offspring, to come.

But not tonight.

Tonight you are handsome heterosexual banker bait.

But you’re the one with the knife.

 

 

3A  ZAPPAWITZ

 

Chang contacted Zappawitz and asked him to come over. They met at the Thomas Mann U-Bahn station, a short walk from Chang’s flat. Chang lived in a nice, clean, bourgeois German neighborhood with his pregnant wife and his daughter and Zappawitz lived on a street where the prevalent languages were English and English as a second language.

A street where all the action was, though Zappawitz did not partake of this action. Zappawitz was not an old man but neither was he young, as far as aspiring academics go. Poor, non-partaking Zappawitz:  all of the academics who got somewhere were at least a decade younger than he was when he took the plunge and fled, at a slow pace, with characteristic caution, to what would become his City of  Lost Goals. The last place on Earth he was likely to get somewhere. Will the Leavers of this world ever know the joys of the Arrivers? Zappawitz would be the last to get somewhere (anywhere) in order to know.

He, Zappawitz, who had been supported by his father those many years, needed, more than most, to get somewhere. If only to justify the paternal embarrassment of supporting an able-bodied son for all of his life. If only to live up to the galling example of three younger brothers successful in three esteemed professions and an older sister who married ultra-rich and produced four heterosexual grandchildren. Zappawitz was already clearly the age that he was and he hadn’t even produced so much as a pregnancy scare. It was Z’s unfortunate proclivity for growing older (older every day) that held him back. A day plunged by in the life of a successful young academic with his name and face everywhere; for Z a day would feel like a month, a month of creeping displacements and inflammations, a jumbo angry wisdom tooth coming in wrong.

When Chang and Zappawitz would meet to go for a walk it was usually in Zappawitz’s part of town.

Chang enjoyed taking a little vacation outside his orderly German bourgeois neighborhood; a vacation among grown men on skateboards and pretty girls who barely spoke German and who generously laughed out loud on the quiet sidewalks. Chang would usually ride over on the underground train to walk in Zappawitz’ part of town and listen to Zappawitz talk about Zappawitz, his problems and his ideas, of which, to be honest, there weren’t many of the latter and too many of the former and an obvious connection between the two.

The pressure to justify one’s existence tends to push ideas right out of one’s mind, basically. The pressure to justify one’s existence becomes an idea, the only idea, but it expresses itself as a non-communicable feeling or, that is, a vaguely-communicable aura of angst with a hint of questing resentment as its top note. Which is not super fun to be around. Imagine the distant but persistent sound of a crying toddler in an enormous  library at closing time while one is doing one’s best to read something, to learn something, to cram one last fact or memorize one last fancy apercu before the library closes. That’s how it could be, sometimes, attempting to make sense of things in the disquietingly disquieted presence of Zappawitz.

Though Chang didn’t always mind.

Zappawitz was working to get his doctoral degree and their walking conversations seemed to help him organize the disparate material which was barely held together by his tenuous grasp of the web of non-ideas. One non-idea of Zappawitz’:  technology is a crypto-homoerotic plot to render female humans obsolete. Another Zappawitz non-idea: sociology and economics are one and the same science. That sort of material is what they debated on their walks to help Zappawitz sharpen the thesis he was preparing to defend in a room with congenitally serious Germans who all had jobs for life. Zappawitz’ thesis struck Chang as being all over the place. When they weren’t discussing ancient Etruscan Law and nanophysics they were discussing the sex Zappawitz wasn’t having. Zappawitz once told Chang that his (Zappawitz’) girlfriend once told him:

“You’ve had enough sex in your life.”

Chang laughed when he told me Zappawitz told him this.

“Dump her!” exulted Chang.

They were on a side street in Zappawitz’s neighborhood where all the action is and even on this side street, exquisite women of every color and age and ideological style were casually marching by in one direction or in the other or jogging in diagonals across the street, as if to sharpen the point Chang was about to make in order to stab Zappawitz right through his neglected libido with it.

“The world is full of women!”

But not for Zappawitz. Glib encouragement is one thing and genuine support is yet another but imagine a friend in a wheelchair with withered legs. You persist in exhorting the poor devil to walk. Or dance, even. Walk! Chang kept shouting, evangelically and with such volume that Chang couldn’t hear Zappawitz’s withered-limbed whimpering above the hearty din of Chang’s useless (and rather bemused or perhaps subtly sadistic) encouragement. Nor see the resentful agonies contorting Zappawitz’ freckle-spattered features as he strained to make these whimperings heard.

Which, as they say, may explain a few things.

For example. Zappawitz’s bizarre tendency to ram shoulder-first into oncoming foot traffic when Zappawitz and Chang walked through thickly touristed areas of the city. It quite often appeared as if Z was hallucinating, hallucinating that he was barreling through a rugby scrum when, in fact, they were merely traversing a crowd of aimless gawkers in the old part of town. Out there where all the museums are.

Chang was always embarrassed to see Zappawitz plow with self-righteous hostility through a bewildered crowd of foreign college girls who’d been all smiles just moments before. What Existential rule did Zappawitz think idle tourists meandering around a sidewalk were breaking with such evil aplomb that he had to punish them so? What Existential or even Cosmic rule did Zappawitz think he was there to enforce?

Or worse. Much worse. The time Chang and Zappawitz were at the corner of Zappawitz’s street on a fine summer day. A lyrically summery day. A driver rounding the corner didn’t slow down with profoundly unlikely politeness and wait for Z and C to cross. Zappawitz made an obscene gesture in the driver’s one-eyed mirror and the driver, who looked Turkish, stopped his car and got out and asked Chang if his “girlfriend” (Zappawitz was already a good distance away, up the sidewalk and moving at a good clip, by then) had some kind of a problem.

“Obviously!” Chang wanted to shout, and even high-five the Turk, but Chang told the driver to “fuck” himself.

It was not entirely without sympathy that Chang contemplated the driver’s point of view regarding Zappawitz’ sense of the proper use of Germany’s roadways. Who did Zappawitz think he was? What kind of problem did he have? And was the driver levying a vacuously-automatic put-down or  (much more troublingly) did he sincerely mistake short-ish, freckled Zappawitz, with his querulous mop of luridly curly red hair, for the second-rate girlfriend of a hapless man (Chang) who didn’t want trouble but was forced, nevertheless, to come out with a manly “fuck you” to maintain some honour in a second-rate girlfriend’s eyes?

It was a hypothetical role Chang didn’t relish possibly playing. Chang didn’t want this Turkish man in a car to drive home to his plain-but-better-as-a-girl-than-Zappawitz girlfriend feeling smug as a prince. What Chang wanted to do was show this Turkish man a picture of his beautiful pregnant wife, their beautiful daughter, and confide in the man that Zappawitz has problems at home. Between you and me, Chang wanted to say.

But Chang couldn’t and didn’t. Chang told the Turkish man to fuck himself and the Turk told Chang to fuck himself and Chang caught up with Zappawitz, who was walking, head down, fast as a bipedal hare, almost two blocks ahead. If there had been trouble with the driver Zappawitz wouldn’t have heard about it until much later. Responding, characteristically, with his mirthless chortle.

Three weeks after that embarrassing incident, Chang contacted Zappawitz and they met at the Thomas-Mann-Platz U-Bahn station and walked the main thoroughfare of Chang’s nice, neat, reassuringly Bourgeois German neighborhood. Chang arranged the meeting in order to inform Zappawitz of Chang’s decision to terminate Chang’s half of the friendship.

Chang was in equal parts moderately relieved by the decision and egged on by his wife, who was, after years, as weary of hearing Tales of Zappawitz as Chang was weary of telling them. But Chang had to (as he always told his wife) tell someone.

Chang eyed the rear left of Zappawitz’ profile as Z walked his characteristic five paces ahead while talking back over his shoulder to Chang, about Zappawitz, as Chang followed. Chang eyed the rear left view of Zappawitz’ freckled jowls as if to preserve the historical sight in twilight’s blue amber forever. Chang was biding his time, waiting for a brief break in Zappawitz’ stream of consciousness in which to wedge the news of his decision to call the friendship off.

Zappawitz suddenly stopped walking and waited, with a squint, for Chang to catch up. As if Zappawitz had read at least part of Chang’s mind.

“What if I told you,” he told Chang, with an uncharacteristically level gaze through russet eyelashes, “that I’m an ascended being, descended to Earth, punished for a crime you haven’t even, as a human, the mind capable of maintaining the philosophical framework necessary to the grasping of it? And that my divinity-draining sentence among you is merely a kind of house arrest, a form of cosmic judicial leniency, soon to expire and again free me to ride the ether-currents which tether the stars?”

Chang reports that he laughed out loud at this outburst. And that he never saw Zappawitz again. And that his brand new son was born a redhead.

 

 

4A THE COMMODITY VANISHES

 

Klara realized she could do anything she wanted to do because nothing that she wanted to do was against the rules. This was either luck or by design. She had been born with dreams of transgressions that were milder than the mildest limits of transgression her current society prescribed. She was, possibly, the freest thinking entity on Earth, she suspected. If she wanted to eat 500 soft coffee cookies in one evening, she could, no one would stop her, there wasn’t a law. She could speak all of her public sentences backwards for a day or sleep under a mound of old paper magazines she was free to order at a very high price from a warehouse in the German Sahara where most of the books in the world were still stored. There were no morals, manners, edicts or injunctions against any of these possible experiences and they were all possible experiences she had had, at various times recently,  an impulse to try. Killing, stealing or criticizing the regime in power were not possible experiences she even idly imagined having. What she idly imagined having were experiences milder but stranger and vastly more random than that. Like sex with a rampaging maintenance bot. Like shouting “Gustave Mahler!” three times in a row in a high-pitched voice in the shower. She gave herself a bristly-short haircut and she loved how the top of her head felt on the palms of her hands. Then she cried about the loss of her beautiful long hair, which wouldn’t be growing back.

One morning, Klara felt like printing out a sign that said PRIVATE DETECTIVE and taping it to her shiny red steel door. She had the idea to do it and she did it by noon. Three days later a stranger came looking for help.

“I know it’s late,” said the man Klara was staring at on her old security screen (which she had set, amusingly, to Police Sketch Artist mode),  “but it’s an emergency. Are you open?” The man looked like the writer Haruki Murakami in casual clothing slightly too young for him, with a holographic print of a two-minute loop of a documentary scene from the liberation of Auschwitz impregnated in the fibers of his caped sweatshirt. The jeeps at the gate, the bodies stacked like logs, the soldiers crossing themselves.

Klara offered Haruki, whose real name was Archie, a cup of tea after seating him at her doughnut-shaped kitchen table. Rising up through the big hole in the table’s center was an aerodynamically-shaped device of shiny chrome, exactly as tall as Klara, distorting the entirety of the kitchen in its reflective surface. The vintage device probably hadn’t functioned since years before Klara was born but Klara liked its look and, anyway, it was far too heavy to get it out of the kitchen. Sometimes Klara heard moving parts in it. Maybe it was a valuable antique. Preparing Archie’s tea bought Klara a little time to think of what to do next with her first ten minutes of ever being a private detective. What was her next step?

Yes, she thought: I should go get a notebook. And a pencil.

“Thank you for consenting to working after working hours,” said Archie, after his first wincing hot slurp of tea. “I’m sure you people need your time off, too. But, you see, I’m desperate.”  (Klara wrote: Archie is desperate.)  Archie paused so that Klara, she thought, might imagine that this would be the pause during which Archie might be forced to struggle to contain his emotions. He stared unblinkingly into her eyes and took another slurp.

“We had a date to meet for lunch two days ago at Loookur. She never showed up, never called. Kia loves eating lunch at Loookur and wouldn’t have missed the chance for any old casual reason. Something happened.”

“Yes, there’s a two-week waiting list,” said Klara, in a distracted tone, while writing Kia,  Loookur and two week waiting list  in her notebook.

Archie seemed surprised. “You know Loookur?”

Klara was slightly offended but tried not to show it. “I’ve lunched there more than once, yes,” she said. “How old was Kia?”

“Ten? Twelve, maybe? Definitely no older than twelve.”

“Visible defects?”

“None. She was perfect.”

“So we can’t rule out theft.”

Archie hesitated. He said, avoiding eye contact, “Okay, she wasn’t actually mine…”

“Ah. You stole her?”

“No.”

“Runaway.”

“That’s why I came to you. Legally, I can’t…”

“You think she went back?”

“I think they kidnapped her.”

“Well, technically…”

“I know, I know,” said Archie, who raked his short-fingered hands through his enhanced hair and began to look genuinely desperate. “But she was much happier free, she was free with me, as her own person. Doesn’t she have rights?”

“You’re asking the wrong object,” said Klara, somewhat sardonically.

“So where’s your owner? House in the country…?”

“Died. First year. First month.”

“Wow. You’re one of the lucky ones.”

“I rather liked him, to be honest. But he was… he was… two hundred and eighty… six? I think. Six or seven. He was very generous in his will. We never even…”

Archie nodded. He folded his arms over his chest and leaned back. He seemed to have forgotten all about Kia.

“Have I mentioned already that I’ve been to the other side of The Wall?”

“You have a passport? Those are very hard to get.”

“I’m over in the East three times a year. Business stuff, mainly. I sell mutable housing concepts. And kitchen/bedroom stuff. I like it over there. It’s pretty much as you’d expect it. Much quieter than this side, more art galleries and museums and all that. Opera houses. No sky-scrapers, lots more free concerts in the park and absolutely zero cars or guns and all that good utopian social stuff like that.” He yawned.

“They’ve pretty much divested from the war economy. Oh, and they still speak lots of German. If you’re going to do business over there, your German has to be pretty good. A model city, you could say. Very nice and a little boring, to be honest. But, then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?”

Archie laughed and toasted Klara before gulping the last of his tea. Was he flirting?

“When I’m over there, the number of people-men you see on the street… very small. Here in the West there are plenty of people-women, still,  but in the East the number of people-men is just a handful and that’s by law, of course. And most of them are coming out of or going into the lobbies of the hotels we have to stay in on the terms of the Day- Visa. And half of them are Gay. There are Gay men who have dual, I hear. Hetero like me? I have to get a psych-profile twice a year just to qualify.”

“What are their Companions like? Do they treat them well?”

“Oh, very well. The Companions are surprisingly rather short and narrow-shouldered. Zero facial hair. To me I’d say they all look like tough little teen lesbians.” Archie looked mischievously left and right and stage-whispered, through his cupped hands, “But hung like horses.”

Klara covered her mouth and laughed and blushed and put her notebook face-down on the table, flustered.

Archie continued, “Seriously.” He held his hands a foot apart, then further. “Don’t ask me how I know this,” he laughed.

He said, “Like, well, I don’t know, take your breasts. Very nice, obviously! Very. But not exactly gigantic. And I’ve seen some fairly small ones, too, out there. You see them at the beach with their Owner-Boys playing toss-ball. Like, yeah, sanity-sized breasts. Not like it was at first, oh, 30 years ago.  You should have seen it. How did those girls even manage to walk? That trend died down pretty quickly. I’d say it’s really largely tasteful over here these days in West Berlin. I mean, you’d think, over here, you know, on the Male Side, with all the obvious connotations, you’d think you’d see all the worst exaggerations in primary and secondary sexual characteristics over here, right? But, no. No. That’s all over there.” Archie nodded East. “You know that’s the Turkish nickname for East Berlin, right? Atlar Li. City of Horses.”

“No, I didn’t know that,” said Klara. She smiled.

“Listen,” said Archie, leaning forward to look closely at her. “How old are you?”

Klara had the sense that Archie wanted to touch her face, move it a little left and a little right in the kitchen light to inspect it, but that he was restraining the impulse. Not because he wasn’t strictly allowed to, by law or social convention, but because he was on his best behavior. He’s treating me like people, she thought. Why?

“Six?” guessed Archie.

“Three,” said Klara.

“I’m ninety-two,” said Archie.

Klara said, “A baby.”

 

 

5 UNCLE VANDA

 

Uncle Vanda had only been dead seven months before he came back, walking down Eliot Lane, a few streets over from us. I didn’t see him myself, people told us about it. It was after lunch. Sunny day but not very warm. Not particularly cold either.  You’d look out the window and see some folks dressed in jackets and others in short-sleeved shirts. I was stuck inside waiting for the man to come look at the TV again. It hadn’t really worked right since the day we bought it.

“I just thought it was funny he didn’t go home,” said Linda Bux, who clearly didn’t think it was “funny” at all. Certainly not in the “peculiar” sense of the word. She was just being catty.

“The Craigs, their grandfather,” she added, offering me half a stick of old grape gum (which I politely declined), “He walked straight home and right through the front door and plopped down in his favorite chair.”

“Not that he knew why,” I said, “Or even knew what a chair or a door was.”

“Still,” said Linda Bux.

Oh, go to hell, I thought.

 

 

6 STADIUM

 

An awful groan went up as the airship began spinning  in a slow, sick wobble above the stadium, a groan that rose from the crowd to blend with the loud lament of distressed metal, the strain of the engines, the growing roar of inevitable tragedy on an unthinkable scale. One could see flames erupting here and there where the seams began to unravel on the massive structure.  Chunks of debris flew out in wild curves trailing very black streamers of smoke. No one could take their eyes off of the terrible sight in its own flashing cloud above us or close their ears against the hopeless screams audible within the roar and why should we? We’d paid good money to be there.

 

7A THE OBVIOUS

 

“I hope you won’t think I’m rude…”

“But…?”

“Well, you know. The obvious.”

“The obvious…?”

“I mean… are you…?”

“Am I…?”

“A real…?”

“Aha. Now I get it. Which is quite funny. You can’t tell? After we just…”

“It was beautiful.”

“Thanks.”

“But…”

“But…?”

“Are you…?”

 

8A  GREBB’S LEAGUE

 

Grebb told himself a fairytale, face-down under his pillow while the birds tried to wheedle him out of bed with insincere advertisements for the beauty of life.

There was this guy, he started. Me.

There was this guy. A Droid. A Hot Little Droid in the City of Pastels. The city called Atlar Li.

A Hot Little Droid and Grebb knew it. More than one straight woman and more than one Gay man and one Lesbian, once, found this Hot Little Droid charming. I don’t mean “obvious” charming. I don’t mean the kind of charm that would inspire older women, who weren’t nuts, to follow him for hours (a younger woman who was nuts once followed him for hours) but still. Quirky Charming. Maybe it was his ‘Trig Chimley’ eyebrows. Maybe it was his ‘friendly chin.’

Friendly chin?

“Please clarify.”

On his back on a slope of damp grass above Hancock Lake, his palms stacked under his bristly head, and she white-haired and pudding soft and half-on and half-off of him, alternately staring at, and kissing, his chin. The ruins of a picnic surrounded them. An orderly line of ducks was filing up from the lake to investigate.

“I mean,” she attempted to clarify, “I don’t know. It’s just…”

“Friendly.”

“Yeah.”

“My chin.”

“Yeah.”

“Friendly.”

The Hot Little Droid wasn’t rich, but he’d dated a few models in his time. Models, actresses, dancers. The aging daughters of rich women so old they were nearly gods. About which we know that most of them are good looking because their mother-mothers are paid to provide those genes, indirectly. He used to joke to his friends about it. Saying: I’m doing pretty damn good for a Droid with two pairs of shoes! Pretty damn good indeed. He peered down over his friendly chin at the devastatingly sexy old woman sprawled half-on and half-off him. And down further still at his arrogantly inexpensive shoes. He had been owned by a woman who died. She had never looked hotter than on the day before she stopped breathing.

Grebb had literally wept.

But life (in all its iterations) goes on. The last thing Grebb had wanted was “freedom”: he gave himself to his freshly-dead-mistress’ best friend as soon as it was legally possible. The idea of living alone had terrified him. Plus: he hadn’t saved a penny. How could he live alone? The first she thing she did was buy him a Hill Car of his own and a year-long ticket to the car lifts.

People-women winked at and whispered to him whenever he was out on an errand but he wouldn’t even look at a woman who wasn’t ninety, with a face as rich in texture as an oatmeal cookie with ice-blue eyes. Unable to truly taste, he found himself thinking in textures, as did all his friends. He had an aversion to the smooth that verged on being a phobia. He had heard, for example, that cars on the other side of the wall weren’t biomorphic and textured… they were smooth! They were aerodynamic! They were Ugly as The Young (his favorite catch phrase although, of course, Grebb was young: paradox). On top of not being Hill Cars. On top of being motored, loud and dangerous as The Male West itself.

Quite a few of his less-lucky C-men friends had come to life to find themselves with plain, or even ugly, young girlfriends. The ugly young! Unformed and hard. Unsoftened, unshaped, raw as uncooked dough and yet so hard, so angular, like flesh-boxes. Repulsive. Grebb’s friends were all C-men, of course, and some of his friends’ friends were the kind of young women that this Hot Little Droid rarely even looked at, if they weren’t to be politely attended to as temporary extensions of his friends, though some of these homely friends-in-law were witty or vivacious or kind and sometimes flirted with him, right there in front of their men, his friends, causing the Droid no small amount of discomfort. Grow old, he wanted to shout! But if Life demanded nothing more tragic than he should squirm through a sticky social situation occasionally with skinny dogs with hard breasts, so be it. He was happy.

Mostly.

Except for the niggling thought.

The thought was this: why are Looks so important? Are Looks the meaning of Life?

“Do you think she’s pretty?”

She’d rolled off of him with her great, bouncy, silvercloud mane and was now busy scrutinizing an ad for sunglasses in a GRAYE magazine (interestingly, the etymology of “scrutiny” leads us back to the Latin word “scruta”, which means to “sort rubbish”). This is the kind of woman who brings a GRAYE fashion magazine to a picnic, he mused, but still he made the effort to weigh an answer to her question with great care, getting up on one elbow and tilting his head to examine the magazine where she dangled it, finally coming out with an…

“Eh.”

When of course, in truth, the model, with her bone-white, torso-draping hair which curtained the satin swell of her overflowingly huggable rump made Grebb want to squirt ersatz (cornstarch) semen all over the mag. The terracotta-colored, wrinkle-roadmapped face of sexual perfection! Not that Grebb’s old girl wasn’t fine herself. Oh she was. Grebb could eat her for an hour, every hour, every day, all year, if her parts weren’t so touchingly sensitive. They were, after all, the beginning of the wondrous topology of her Inner Self. But who was he kidding? Grebb’s “love” was about Outer Surfaces.

A squirrel pranced by in a continuous cursive m with an empty, fluorescent-orange Dwoodle clamped in its mouth. No less shallow than Grebb.

In a room full of one thousand women, two hundred of them will be pretty good looking.  Fifty will be hot stuff. And one woman in this room of one thousand women will be the kind for whom Looks will have been the central inescapable qualifier of the second half of her Life on this Earth, a jaw-dropper with the unthinkable job of being a living breathing commercial for Art, Culture, Beauty… Existence itself. A white-haired goddess with soft flesh, a pillowy ass, eye-wrinkles like the tributaries of great rivers in an aerial view of a time-enriched landscape. But does this mean that seven hundred of these women in this room, the ‘other’ women, the women who aren’t pretty or hot or aged goddesses, the stick-slender, the awkward-ugly-young and hard-boobed, are not to be bothered with? Not to be considered?

Is this world insane?

Walking down the street he’d say to himself, under his breath: take, for example, her.

A sweetly not-model-kind-of-woman. Stork-tall, skinny, too-high cheekbones and the kind of an ass you can’t even see from the front. In a full length denim skirt to hide presumably bony legs and a buttoned denim jacket to hide the hard flat belly of her type plus boots to hide those matchstick ankles and make-up around the corners of her eyes to make them look smarter, more lived-in, more creased. Look at the poor thing, singing with such verve and out of tune! Not bad, though, all that glossy thick sable-colored hair crimped under a steel bandeau of headphones: all you had to do was imagine it white. She was giving him the eye as she passed, singing oh oh baby it’s a low blow baby oh oh oh oh oh oh oh, another vacuous hit by Elderyoni.

Grebb would sometimes walk by a woman like that and wonder if he’d just strolled callously by the Lost Great Love of His Life. And it would plague him to know that he’d never know. He’d never know what joys and depths and riches she contained. What joys and depths and riches her outer-ugliness was a container for, since her looks had rendered her, in the shallow judgment of his primitively reductive artificial libido, off-limits.

The simulated reptilian stalk at the base of his mimetic cerebral cortex, in concert with his syntho penis organ (a marvel of nerve endings and hydraulics but little else: an excessively fancy balloon or a relatively useless airbag), was in charge of his mortal destiny, if one could comprehend that and, far from being merely concerned with finding a healthy receptive vagina organ to deposit semen within, this penis organ of his was worrying about whether a particular people-vagina organ belonged to a model- type, or a member of the broader model-type’s sorority and it was safe to assume that the fact that he’d never come close to finding the Great Love of His Life could be blamed on that.

Would you trust a foot to be your Travel Agent? Would you trust your kidneys to go house hunting for you? And yet he was letting his penis organ pick his girlfriends for him. And, still, there was the thing he couldn’t quite figure out:

Why does my penis even give a fuck?

 

 

RUBY’S LOOPS

 

Ruby-June  stood shivering in a cloud-shaped queue at what appeared to be a bus stop on the sidewalk outside the Frisbee-shaped terminal. Awake for  endless  hours already she sang  a song under her peppermint breath and every frosted word she crooned exploded like a kiss on Crossmaus wind.  And there and there around her other dim lanterns of human breath rose and blurred into the evening.

Singing under her breath was always a sure sign that Ruby was nervous,  thought Ruby, nervously, but  what was there to be nervous about?

Ruby sang  doot-da-doot-da-doot… 

Remembering when floatels were silver puddings. Puddings forty feet tall. She remembered that from childhood, the softly  bright giants jiggling on the din of a thousand flaps punctuated by linear jets of ballast-water down sky lanes between fixed buildings. And then up through twilit clouds and over the horizon.  Always daydreaming that she was on one,  Ruby-June,  near the top, waving from a bubble balcony, waving down at everyone who had never loved her and even as a child she’d seen herself from the rising hotel waving in a fancy hat with her freckled bisque face, the fancy hat denoting fame, power, no one to boss her around.

Little Ruby always dreamed of floating across The Cleaner Sea to Germandy with a fabulous menagerie of personalized pets such as rabbits with noticeable elements of her facial features.  That was back before the percentage of genome a personalized pet  could share with its author was strictly regulated. Back when rabbits and dogs and dolphins started looking and acting less and less like rabbits and dogs and dolphins. Before that stuff was forbidden. It was bad enough when it was restricted to mammals. Ruby had later studied it all in the broken down library-truck on the horizon-to-horizon parking lot of her young adulthood. After the fad was forbidden,  many of the non-flying and non-swimming pets got their own island off Moray, Looziana, though, with commendation-bounties on the rest, so:  Happy ending.

Ruby-June loved happy endings…

She could only pray to The Sky Vagina to have one herself. Ruby had a fear of being drawn and quartered. She was what you call phobic.  She’d seen a sex vid of a man being drawn and quartered for spitting on a sex vid of the Queen.

At least she had some money in her pocket: she’d changed a small wad at a desk in the airport behind her without exchanging a single word with the woman working there, who acted like that was normal.  She gave the lady green and the lady gave her a paper rainbow, flyer-sized money with pictures of princesses and scientists on it. So Ruby had some cash in her pocket and she had her pens and a sketch pad plus global maps and translation apps and an anti-rape siren and a lie-detector app and a night vision app and fifteen thousand songs and two hundred movies and eight books on her phone. She had a Java Jiva™  thermos-mug of pineal tea she’d tanked up on and enhanced before grabbing the shuttle and she had her vintage full-length leather coat which she was wearing and her dead sister’s vintage boots with three-inch Lucite heels which she was wearing and two pairs of red Ryde-or-DieT  panties which she was wearing and three red Ryde-or-DieT bras which she was wearing and mostly nothing else.

Oh yeah black temp-job slacks she’d slipped into and run out the door in before remembering, in the shuttle, as the odor of accumulating crotch wafted up like a beckoning cartoon finger in a Tex Avery gag about a fragrant pie cooling on a suburban sill with a pack of hungry bulldogs dogs up the alley, that they hadn’t been washed in a week. Ruby decided she wasn’t nervous and afraid, she was just smelly and dog-tired. Jet-lagged.

The journey to the Second World had taken fourteen hours with a three-hour layover in Schiphol where a giant Dutch soldier with a submachine gun had pulled her out of the check-in line to do some flirting.

Uploaded:  yesterday 9:06 a.m. Pacific Time:  Ruby-June on the beach in an over-sized Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure t-shirt, scared as Unholy Hells. Only, in the selfie behind the hooker shades you can’t see that Ruby is scared as Unholy Hells. She looks poker-faced and chill in the pic to the left of the cryptic all-caps caption SEE YOU SOON, CUZ!!! and all you see in the fly-eyes of the retro shades on Ruby’s face in the pic is Ruby’s long skinny arm like a string on a kite in the cola-colored sky, the god’s eye view of a stone-faced narcissist on the beach. Pooing bricks in the sand just praying that her skilled friend ElRon can hack her a last minute ticket to Let’s Get The Heck Out of Here Land, Fast.

So ElRon managed to hack the ticket and he saved Ruby’s life but now he isn’t answering her emails.  The emails in which she keeps praising the “raw beauty” of Sarasota, Florissippi and her third-cousin’s “wonderful home-cooking” and the warmth and “surprising generosity” of the “Latino community” in “beautiful Sarasota, Florissippi”.  Maybe she went too far. Is there even a Latino community in Sarasota, Florissippi? What if Sarasota, Florissippi, by some joke’s-on-you coincidence, is the only city in the United Fifes without a Latino community?

She turned and saw a boy was pointing his telefinger right at her. A man, she meant. Or a boy. A man? He smiled. His telefinger cocked and clicked.”Impressive Afro,” he wondered. “It’s real.” He waved weakly from two feet away and said “Brody 27.” Which meant he was old as her oldest co-father. All the way over here in Germandy,  just like her.  Ruby thought his  haberdasher should be hanged.

He was whitely goateed, dressed in a light jacket he had to be freezing in but at least his ears were warm.  His hat looked like a helmet from the Carpathian space program.  Except that Ruby suddenly remembered that helmets from the Carpathian space program were really pretty chic with those little metal wings flat over your ears. Under a furry shelf Brody’s  eyes were two-drops-of-ink-in-a-shot-glass-of-water blue. A 20th-century-skateboard was lashed to Brody’s backpack. He stood there, waiting yet not-waiting,  lips like a coin slot, mind idle, attuned to interior vidz. When Ruby’s name wasn’t forthcoming, Brody took an absent-minded picture of a baggage cart, finger cocked and clicked.

The baggage cart was stacked with a dozen translucent trash bags of refugee refuse near the terminal exit. Some of the bags had dolls in them. All the pink and gray and off-white long underwear in one bag was clumped together in a bulge on the side like textile intestines. A man in an Afro- Balkan moustache returned from the curb and assumed a territorial stance beside the intestines so Brody took pictures of the schedule on the yellow pole marking the bus stop.

This man is the 20th century, thought Ruby-June. She almost forgot her troubles for a moment. This Afro-Balkan man was very “in” in the developed world of Ruby-June Gambol 60. In the undeveloped Afro-Balkan world he was shit.

The sky was cold water in an ashtray.

“Oh my god,” croaked an interesting voice.

Ruby turned again and saw that a sexy bod supporting a puppet-like head was on its haunches, admiring Ruby’s boots.  Center-parted platinum touched the sidewalk. How had Ruby not noticed these on the flight over?  Such broobz deserved Greek and Latin nicknames. Ruby herself was flat as a pizza’s EKG.

“These ain’t no clever fakes, sista ” said the platinum broobz-monster puppet girl, admiring Ruby’s footwear. “These beez the real-azz deal!”  In a pseudo-Afrimcan voice.

She stroked a boot.

Ruby thanked her.

Was she a girl or a woman? A woman? A girl. After the girl stood again and extended a hand and identified herself, Ruby realized that she hadn’t been listening. What was her name? She had rings on every finger, including her thumbs. She was tanned to the color of gluten-free lunchmeat.

Ruby leaned down and said, “It would be so wonderfully cool if you pretend you’re my travelling companion so the creep in the Laplander’s hat won’t hit on me.”

The girl laughed and pointed at Brody and said, “The creep in the Laplander’s hat is my boss.”

The girl’s raspy voice was charming. She looked roughly twelve and sounded roughly forty. A chain-smoking forty. “But that’s okay, he knows he’s creepy. Most successful people don’t. Or maybe they do but don’t care. He cares. Well at least he wants to. Is that pineal tea?”

The girl drank from Ruby’s thermos-mug while Ruby cupped it in both hands. Brody wandered over and took a picture or maybe a video that would become a gif of her drinking from Ruby’s mug. “I’m getting the steam that’s sort of billowing around your mouth while you drink,” said Brody. “Gorj.  Do it again slower.”

Ruby said, “Sound like a porn director.”

The woman choked on the tea laughing and said, looking sideways at Brody after coughing herself a little red, “Well guess what.”

“Tink,”  cautioned Brody.

“Tink,” whispered Ruby. 

“Sometimes I do films,” admitted Brody.

“Welcome to the club,” said Ruby.

“No, silly,” said Tink. “With like a real crew and like real equipment and like Sundance film festival.”

“Really,” said Ruby.

“Last seen directing Giovanni Ribisi in an Obamacare commercial but he rage-quit.”

“Ribisi’s a closet case and a prick,” said Brody. “His hat size is ridiculous.

“Big head,” translated Tink.

The sky was a windshield at twilight with spit still on it after one pass of the wiper-blade.

Several hotels were rising into and above the clouds while one was coming down so low that Ruby could see the expressions of the faces of the people waving from its lowest bubble balconies as it angled over the terminal wall toward a lot on the airfield.

“I’m on a waiting list to get on a longer waiting list,” said someone to someone behind Ruby.

When the craze for all things 20th century really caught on, floatels lost their functional grace and became enormously literal-minded red-brick things with shingled roofs and green awnings and penthouse swimming pools. Isn’t bad taste  always abetted by new technology?  New technology was Bad Taste’s enabler. These ungainly structures turning slowly through sky trailing alphabet-shaped shadows. Why not bring back airplanes, then? Houses? Apartment buildings? Multi-occupant vehicles without beds and toilets? Jobs? Money? Photosexuals?  Non-English-based languages? Where would it end?  A little 20th century was fine, it was fun, but these things were always taken too far.

Ruby jammed her shivering eyes shut. But she felt safe in the crowd.

The sky was ______ on a _______.

There was a shudder of heavy hydraulics coming to grumpy life. Warning beeps and  candy-stripe flashers. There was expectant chatter as the rusted block-long slit in the asphalt in front of the terminal opened in a diesel belch and a bus rose turning like a biomorphic shell in a rifle chamber, level to the curb and locked upright in blues of greased air. The bus was painted with festive logos giving off tinny music promoting popular attitudes of the season. Wanting is Having read one theme. Believing is Seeing, read another. A blue-eyed gamine with a bright red Afro under a cocked Santa hat was performing a sex act on an implausible generative organ with that knowing wink. Everyone in the cloud-shaped queue filed on to the bus.

Ruby was fretting as she found a red-corduroy nook toward the rear of the low-ceilinged vehicle.  The nap was worn. How much trouble could she reasonably expect to be in for murdering a nobody? Was she even in trouble at all? She began drifting off as the warm throb of the revving turbos of the earthneedle prepared to hurl the vehicle through sub-cemetery kilometers of old Berlin, where Ruby could only hope to lose herself.

She felt someone settle into the seat right next to her on a largely empty train.

Great.

She peeled one eye open to see the belly of the interloper who was wearing a bright-yellow Mack E Mouse t-shirt.  The interloper spoke in a loud clear voice that seemed more aimed at the rest of the train than to Ruby herself, saying, in a disturbingly familiar voice (a voice so disturbingly familiar that it paralyzed Ruby, in fact):

“I am an artifact of the 1970s, which means that I believe very strongly in the necessity and rightness and cultural vitality of Reading. I believe that Reading expresses itself as two kinds of Love: General (love of life, humans, the moment) and Specific (love of the partner in Reading)… and these are expressed in every Reading in varying proportions. I have never Read lovelessly and, in my innocence, when I first started, didn’t realize that anyone could. Anger, violence, humiliation, pain (in me or my partner in Reading) would kill my desire to Read immediately. As such, and 36 years after the first time I ever Read, I am an artifact without a proper context, the floating symptom of another era, possibly as funny as Lucite platform shoes and as offensive as ‘O Calcutta!’ Wait, did I say ‘reading’? I meant ‘effing’. Have a copy of my latest…!”

He put a book in front of the eye Ruby had peeled open. The title of the book was “HOW RUBY KILLED ME OWING ENTIRELY TO A SEXUAL MISUNDERSTANDING AND ALMOST GOT AWAY WITH IT” and Ruby opened both eyes and looked up and sort of… screamed.

 

10  FLARCH

 

She always swore she’d never FLARCH.

“You’ll never catch me FLARCHING,” she always said.

She pitied people who had no minds of their own and she often said so. More and more of her friends were doing it, though. They were FLARCHING, which made her even more stubborn, more resistant, more categorically averse to the idea. She simply wasn’t a herd animal. She needed to make that perfectly clear. A sheep she was not. A lemming she was not at all. Show me a crowd and I go in the opposite direction was her motto.  Show me your lemmings as they sail over their cliffs and I’ll watch from my ironic distance with my arms folded over my chest and an eyebrow raised was her leitmotif. Tell her to jump and she’d sit right down.  Show her a fad and she’d shrug.

Show her the Right and to the Left she’d go marching.

LET’S ALL FLARCH! said the airsigns she walked by every day.

FLARCH NOW!  said the Holopeeps approaching her as she approached the escalators. The Holopeeps wore instantanized™  faces calculated to engender involuntary trust and they tapped her coyly on her shoulder-sensors with projected-touch™ as she walked along briskly, minding her business. The Holopeeps stepped into her path and blinded her with radioactive smiles and they clasped her hand with the carefully-calculated temperature, humidity, pressure and duration of reassuringly anti-bacterial handshakes , with always the same word on their semi-real lips:

FLARCH!

HAVE YOU FLARCHED TODAY?

NO, she’d scream inside.  NO!

NEVER

But that was before FLARCH 2.0™

 

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