The Lilliputians

He’d fallen in love with a dog walker. Actually, he now knew the four dogs were her own, crowding her tiny apartment. When he first came in, the little dogs swarmed his feet, interacting with them as though with their own kind, sniffing and prodding and nipping. She stopped them in time when Jacko made as though to urinate on his socked foot. “Jacko, not in the house,” Lorena said sternly. He would have preferred “Not on Regan’s foot” but he supposed general rules were easier to enforce. He recognized he had a lot to learn, starting with avoiding stomping on dogs. They always seemed to be underfoot, and he bobbed and weaved his way to the kitchen, Bordeaux in hand.

It wasn’t the grand entrance he’d rehearsed, the effortless funky walk that would make her swoon. He pretty much stumbled into the apartment and into her arms. She made a joke of it, a little alarmed that he would crunch one of dogs underfoot. They laughed uneasily; the setting was not what he expected. He sat down on the sofa while she arranged in a vase the flowers he’d brought. The dogs snuggled against him, one unnervingly laying down on the back of the sofa where he had thought he’d rest his head. He ended up leaning forward, which he reasoned made him looked interested. He’d read about posture for interviews. Leaning forward was good. He relaxed into it, tried to stop his Turbo-charged mind running from him. Lorena brought him some Orangina, a very tame drink that he thankfully held. He didn’t want to pet the dogs. He didn’t like the smell of them.

She took place beside him, shooed the dogs away to be close to him. His magnetic charm was working. They clinked glasses and chatted about the book that had brought them together. It was on the table, a grand epic set in Hong Kong. The book was turned upside down, open at the page where she was at. He winced. Seeing the book pinned down on the table, quartered almost, was painful. He retrieved a business card from his pocket, slid it between the pages and righted the book apologetically. It was her turn to blush and stumble, and they stayed in an awkward silence, looking at each other over the rim of their glasses. He started a joke, got into it, started talking excitedly waving his hands about. Jacko growled. “Jacko, no. Regan is a Friend. Friend.” She sat closer, her face almost touching his, looking intently at the dog. He turned, intending to give her a friendly peck on the cheek, but she was turning to apologize, and they kissed on the lips. Jacko got the message. Regan was in.

After that, dinner was a blur, and they made their way to bed. He hadn’t intended to be sharing those moments with all those eyes staring at him, the dogs jumping up, nestling in the crook of her arm, on his feet, on the side where he intended to lie down. It was awkward for him, but Lorena was quite used to sharing and moved them about lovingly. They talked into the night, that time that is so favourable to confidences. They couldn’t snuggle easily. He felt like the book, the sheets stretched taut by the weight of the dogs. He was pinned in place and feeling a little claustrophobic. He hardly slept at all. She was up early. “Did you sleep well?” “Hardly a wink.” “Nap a bit while I walk them. I’ll take my time and then we’ll have breakfast.” She got up to prepare and the dogs started following her around, like the sweep of a long dress swooshing all around her feet. He could hear the patter of their nails on the floor and feel their excitement growing until the door thankfully shut and the lock bolted.

He fell into a deep slumber, peopled with fantastical dreams taking place on a barge. He felt the motion of the boat, heard the seagulls, woke up to the smell of coffee. He tried to sneak up on her, to see her vulnerable in the naked light, but he stepped on a dog, who started them all yapping and circling him, the intruder. “Hello, Sleepyhead,” she said with a kiss. “I’m warming up some croissants. It’s a lovely day. I thought we could eat out on the balcony?” She had cleared the small table from the plants that usually lived there. He felt he was displacing everything, taking up more room than he ought to, but that was only his perception. He could tell Lorena welcomed him easily in her space, the awkwardness of the previous evening replaced by a new complicity. He gave Jacko a piece of croissant to seal the deal.   

House For Sale

The real estate agent had created a video which started with an aerial view of the farmhouse. The drone came in low, through the cornfield, in a scene reminiscent of a thriller movie. He could call it “Murder in the Maize” or something.  He downloaded the video to add his own creepy music. He could ask for a private viewing, perhaps entice the owners to let him film on the property for a few days. He’d done it before when the owners had already moved on and lost their attachment to the house. He’d filmed period pieces, complete with period costumes. It felt homemade, but the acting was good. He used young actors who were willing to work for peanuts to have a chance to see their names when the credits rolled. His wife Jo-Ann was a prolific writer who rote scripts. They were a great team. He scouted the locations and arranged for the film crew. Together, they ran auditions. He took care of the finances and she assisted the director, having no patience with actors and their egos. She was strictly interested in making her ideas come alive.

They usually wrapped the gig in a few days. The results weren’t masterpieces, but then that wasn’t the goal. The films were shorts, meant to showcase new talents. Against different backdrops, the young actors could present a decent portfolio, creating the illusion they’d starred in a few roles. Jo-Ann wrote all genres, western, comedy and drama, thriller and romance, whatever the house was fit for, fifteen minutes tops. In rare cases, they used two locations. When they first started, the shoots were improvised. They were in cahoots with a real estate agent and filmed for a day, without the house owner’s knowledge. The agent knew which houses were empty. They were soon found out, when friends of the owners recognized the house in the shorts and alerted them. Some had been flattered. If they liked the short, they were good sports about it. They’d had to refine their approach now that their real estate friend’s license had been revoked. They refrained from releasing the short until after the deal had been closed but before the new owners took possession. The window could be small, but they were used to working quickly. Jo-Ann cut and spliced the film to match their joint vision.

Though they’d been collaborating for years, they still managed to make things fresh. Sure, the stories had become a bit formulaic, but the actors were given liberty to infuse the movie with their particular brand of craziness. Nowadays, they did not post the short. It was strictly used as promotional material by the actors. Of course, Aaron had all the original footage. You never knew when it could come in handy. He hid behind a numbered company, and targeted cheaper houses or isolated ones where the owner was less likely to sue. He loved the thrill of creating a short in a few days and working under pressure. For the newbies, it was a good experience, a fun one he hoped. They had managed to buy one of the houses to use as a permanent set. They had more elaborate scripts that the young actors were encouraged to learn and play out. The participants paid good money for the experience, which financed their other ventures. For those occasions, they catered meals to give the impression of a real movie. If you paid extra, you had the use of a trailer as though you were a star.

It was the equivalent of a vanity book, for the film industry. The idea took off and pretty soon there were spin-offs for bachelor and bachelorette parties, then, more simply, parties. The protagonists were not actors, nor would-be actors. Aaron and Jo-Ann were purists, and they did not condone the spin-offs. They clamoured they were the originals, but they fell out of favour, with more expensive outfits competing in the field. The competition grew tough. Houses could no longer be rented for a song. The gig was up, the spin-offs had pissed in the pool and now everybody was swimming in it. Jo-Ann and Aaron should have gotten out then. They’d made their money. But they were adamant to prove everybody wrong. They ruined themselves in fruitless legal action alleging plagiarism. Even then, they could have settled out of court. In the end, they lost it all. Ironically, a competitor did a very good short on the industry and their role in it. They regained a bit of dignity, of former glory, and retired with less bitterness.

***

Aaron has started a new career selling houses. He spends a lot of time spinning yarns about his past exploits. His advertisement shows his face half hidden behind an old movie camera. He gives autographs to his clients. Jo-Ann now has a syndicated column giving business advice and admonitions. They moved after the disastrous verdict that wiped them out. They got tired of people slowing by the house and pointing or taking selfies. Some were bold enough to ring the doorbell and pester them with questions. They now live in an undisclosed location. Their neighbours shield them from unwelcome attention, giving frivolous directions to unwanted guests.  In this way, the small town protects its celebrities and ensures a steady stream of visitors.

The Dare

The soft inky texture, an abysmal black, Elvis on velvet, kitsch and drama. No wonder I felt blue, a strange vertigo as my cheek caressed the soft fabric. What a dare! To lay in a coffin for a night. Pure terror, reflections on mortality – which would it be? My co-conspirators each trying on the vow of silence, sworn to sharing their experience the next morning. One mused about second-hand coffins, like pre-washed jeans, rendered supple and full of life by our youth, another confessing to wet dreams and happy thoughts he hoped would go with the defunct into the netherworld, a third taking solace in the comfortable abode, finally cured of his thirst for death, just another sleep, nothing more. And me. Me who had initiated the dare, spending the night awake, feeling the tenderness in the handiwork of the final resting place. We could choose to keep the lid open or closed and, but one, we all chose to close it, the better to experience a simulacrum of death after testing that indeed we could raise the lid from inside. My father ran the local funeral home and had just gotten an order of coffins in, for the war was raging and business was brisk. We were fourteen and fifteen, could not pass, could not enlist. Between us, we had few facial hair, nothing in the way of a five o’clock shadow, no dirt on our upper lips, just dreams of glory and of stars in girls’ eyes.

What a sight it would have been, had my father chanced upon us before dawn, soft snores emanating from the wooden boxes, dreams softening the air, unruly mops as the lids slowly lifted and we emerged from the chrysalis, a mocking smile on our lips, eyes full of mischief. It beat smoking and drinking this daring feat, Hades chatting up Morpheus. The room needed airing, the coffin pillows fluffing, before we slinked out, with nervous laughs and guilty stares. We swore never to tell. If I am telling now, it’s that the others are gone and that our foolishness was child’s play, with no disrespect intended. It merely cemented our friendship, solidified our beings. We were kids before the dare, but not quite the same after we emerged from it. Peter and I were the most affected. We had been troubled going in and the deed sealed the deal. If my father suspected anything, he didn’t let on. After that night, I treated the coffins with more respect, understanding them from the inside, so to speak. I felt reverence for the artisans who chose to create their best pieces for a short moment of glory, like wedding cakes to be marvelled at and consumed. It is in the nature of art that beauty outlasts its creation and lives on in the imagination.

During my short stay in the velvety comfort of the coffin, I’d had the company of a fly. I suppose flies are to be expected around corpses, but we were young and vital. I suspect my pungent smell resulted from an excess of young sap in the blood as I didn’t want to entertain the possibility of fear. Nevertheless, I was the only one who was so accompanied, and I felt it was my luck. Far from being incommoded by the insect, I was glad for the company. While the others snored, I felt the fly walking about me and saw it rubbing its legs as a soldier might have done to try and erase invisible bloodstains on his hands. Thus I spent the night, straining to hear the buzz, rejoicing and cursing the insect in one breath. I was hoping and dreading sleep and the buzzing fly was my perfect alibi. Velvet has remained my favourite covering, though it is a rare choice, people choosing virginial silk over the heavy velvet with its somber associations.

I took on my father’s business, flies and all. Truth be told, in the basement where we prepared the bodies, it wasn’t as cool as we would have liked so we had to work quickly. When working evenings on the makeup and such, we would open the back door to get a bit of a breeze. I collected in a jar the flies who ventured in and released them back in nature at closing time. I disliked killing any creature. When the time came, we had a nice funeral for my father. He had made no prior arrangements, a poorly shod shoemaker, so I set his body down in black velvet. His pale face was a nice contrast on the dark pillow and heightened his fine features. I dressed him with his white tuxedo. He had lost weight in his last months, and it fit him nicely. With the white tuxedo and sideburns, on black velvet, he could almost pass for his idol. I hoped the softness of the fabric gave him some pleasure. It was the coffin in which the fly and I had spent that night, years ago. Nobody had claimed it. It was unloved except secretly by me and my father who I am sure would have approved of my choice. He was thrifty and had lost money in that deal. I knew he had a soft spot for the coffin, having held on to it over the years. As for me, I had kept the brass fixtures polished and daily dusted its fine body. It was as familiar as an old steed and my hope was that it would bring my father safely to the other side, the love and care I had lavished on it permeating the wood and its occupant. Paying homage to my father one last time, I was alone with him to say my goodbyes. I gently unscrewed the top of the jar and laid it by his side. The gentle buzz would keep him company on his long journey.

Like a Prayer Flag

There was good money to be made in the coal mine. It was a means to an end as he had never intended to spend his life underground. His passion and his dream were to climb mountains. The dream of whiteness sustained him in the dark and the filth. Every time his pickaxe hit the wall, he saw ice and practiced putting his weight on it. The cold was good practice, the headlamp was good practice. Any unforeseen event made him sharpen his reflexes and think back on mistakes he could have avoided.

The day that part of the mine collapsed, he was trapped with his co-workers. As the others were panicking and getting desperate, he found ways to calm them. What would you do in an avalanche? Signal your presence. He got the slimmest of them to bring a red kerchief wrapped around a message to the farthest reaches of the fault. It was to be their message in a bottle, containing their names and the location where they had been working. The slim man was brave – he wedged himself amongst the unstable rocks, extending his arm as far as he could, all the while fearing it would get crushed. Two men were holding his legs, ready to pull him out quickly if he said so. They did not have to. A lamp threw enough light to show the bit of red that held their hope, like a beating heart in the rubble.

He advised them to catch some sleep and they got organized. They set up rotations of two men who kept watch. The men were exhausted despite their dire circumstances. They slept soundly. Two men stayed awake in the dark. They were tough men used to tough lives. He had advised them to take their minds off the slide and pay attention to minute sounds. He took the second watch with Colin, a man who was not well liked. They did not need to chat – indeed it was better if they refrained to conserve oxygen.

Part of his mind was straining to hear sounds of a rescue team, but the best part of him was busy planning his climbing expedition. He imagined his dream team, based on the best qualities his fellow miners exhibited. He found it exhilarating to have the chance to sample flaws in character in a matter of life and death. He felt fortunate at having gotten trapped to have material to work with. He was too young not to be optimistic. He fully believed the cavalry was coming.

Thus he slept soundly after his turn was up. He slept so soundly that even the yells of the others calling out to the rescue team did not wake him. The rescuers were progressing slowly. They had spotted the red flag, retrieved it, told the anxious people on top the names of the survivors in that cell. They managed to pump fresh oxygen, water and hope. The men still used their lamps sparingly.

However, the men were not ones to rejoice before they had been pulled back up and were safely into a beloved’s arms. Yet hope filled their hearts, and their cramped quarters now felt cozy. He had at last woken up and was observing everything closely. He was interested in people’s reactions. Had he read them properly? Were the chosen ones made of the right cloth?

At last, they were brought up. He put himself last in line. He wanted to experience it all. He saw the accident in slow motion – the frayed rope giving way, the cabin falling. Of course, he was daydreaming this. They were all safe and sound, heroes every one of them. He noticed after the ordeal that Colin was now accepted and integrated. He had proven his worth. They had lived through fear and bonded.

To him, the event marked a turning point. Shortly after, he settled his accounts and headed for the mountains. He wanted to feel the sun on his skin, the cold in his bones, the camaraderie of the rope.

Every climb taught him something. He was a methodical student and progressed quickly. He felt little fear, which made him a liability in his companions’ eyes. Yet he was cautious and neither caused nor suffered any serious accident. Slowly, he was accepted and invited to join more experienced climbers. He was as strong as an ox and unbeatable with a pickaxe. He noticed everything and took detailed notes which he read and reread. A few years after the mine incident, he heard of an explosion there. At the time of the explosion, he had been climbing a very tricky wall with two other mountaineers. He swore after that he had felt the blast in his body, bursts of wind pushing him against the mountain wall. He was breathing hard, feeling the clean air in his lungs, thinking of his old life and its dangers. It felt like light-years away. His spikes gripped the slippery wall as he serenely continued pegging his way, a song in his heart, his dream team clipped to the rope, like those prayer flags in the Himalayas.

To Your Health

I never did belong. When I awoke to the world I realised I was not of it.

Not for me the parties, the crowds, the shared secrets. It’s not that I wasn’t liked; people were just indifferent to me. For the longest time, I actually thought I was invisible to people outside my family. I even played at walking funny or making sudden noises to get a reaction out of people. It only gave me the reputation of being weird and unpredictable. I could find no redemption after that.

One day, I read about the health benefits of having friends and set about doing so. A bookmobile serviced our little town and the surrounding ones. If I had a friend, it was the bookmobile lady who accompanied me in my reading and nudged me along. I confided in her my latest research project and returned home with Dale Carnegie’s aptly named “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. I hid it away like a dirty little secret, not wanting to give my peers a reason to mock me.

There were tips and tricks! “Compliment people you meet by noticing small things about them.” That was harder than you would think. It highlighted several things. I don’t interact much with people and when I do I hardly talk; I don’t pay attention to them. This would explain why they did not notice me. I was doing the same. I became consumed by my new game. I hung out with another loner. We stuck together because there is safety in numbers. We didn’t talk much but it gave us a veneer of normalcy. I started talking to her as practice. One morning, I said “I love that you always match your shoes to your outfit.” She blushed and looked up to see if I was teasing her. The truth is I had noticed she varied her shoes quite a bit. I alternated between two pairs of shoes so I took note. She saw my eager face and sincere smile and mumbled something. I pressed. What was that? It was so out of character that she looked up again. We were going to have a conversation?

She explained that her mom worked in a shoe store and that she got them at a discount. I asked if they were comfortable, what kind of discount, if I could get a pair. We talked all the way to school and it was quite agreeable. I could see the benefit already. On the way home, she asked me about a hair clip I wore. It was a cheap clip, four pink plastic cats, but I was quite fond of it and told her all about my different hair clips in detail. The next day, she proudly showed me a different pair of shoes she wore and confirmed her mom could get me a pair. We agreed to go together after school so I could choose and report back to my mom. My world was turning upside down. I was wearing a golden hair clip with a dark band in the middle, more serious because we were expecting to get our class and individual pictures taken. We all dressed up a bit for the occasion.

We were side-by-side in the class picture and we were both radiant. My parents bought the picture and marvelled at us both. By then, we were officially best friends and I had a new pair of shiny black shoes with a buckle. They were an extravagant choice, but my mom agreed because of the discount and the health benefits of having friends. Our good mood was infectious and other kids gravitated towards us. The invisibility that was ours slowly lifted. It felt like all this time we were little suns surrounded by clouds of our own making. The clouds had dispersed and the scenery was lovely. The book had not explained about the health benefits and to tell the truth I did not read it all. I returned it, having learnt the first trick. I practiced it nonstop ever since. I credit my longevity with it.

The interview was over. “Dale Carnegie, uh?” I was tired by then. This was a long story. The reporter thanked me and prepared to leave. He added, pensively, “You complimented me on my fancy tape recorder when I came in.” “I did, and we established a rapport. You perked up because you felt it was not going to be a run-of-the-mill ‘old broad turns 100 but doesn’t remember how to tie her shoes.” To his credit, he blushed. “I was honoured to have met you. I hope you enjoy my article on you.”

He came back to see me and show me the article. It talked about the beautiful diamond hair clip I was wearing and how I came about it through my smart financial dealings. I had shares in my friend’s family shoe store, which turned into a chain that did quite well for itself. We went our separate ways. I married and moved out of town where I became a librarian. I always kept a copy of Dale Carnegie in stock.

Guerilla Bar

It’s difficult to pick up your life after having been held hostage by freedom fighters. I was restless after the ordeal, easily startled, cowering if someone got mad. I couldn’t hold a job. I wasn’t much use to anyone. My friends tried to help, but what could they do? Once the initial shock of my return – You’re back! You’re alive! – was over, and I had told them something of the tale, we ran out of things to discuss.

I couldn’t go back to my old life. I had to rise from the rubble, rebuild myself and find ways to contribute again to society. I opened a theme bar. I drank a fair bit so knew something of the scene. My past life was in marketing which helped as well. And I had backers, friends and strangers who wanted me to succeed.

I poured my heart into the guerrilla bar. At all times, it was dark, hot and humid with a fake canopy of deep green leaves dropping from the ceiling, and recordings of monkey and bird calls. The waiters and waitresses were dressed up in khaki fatigues, boots, fake munition belts across their chests, fake rifles flung over their shoulders, prop knives and their likes. They wore grim expressions and scowled at the clients or ignored them. They didn’t always bring them the right order. They would lie and say we were out of whatever you ordered even though they served it to the client at the next table. They would abuse you verbally if you complained. They would chat amongst themselves for hours on end, looking bored. Regulars got to know the staff and bribed them. A whole subculture of bartering developed with the staff and between clients.

Once in a while, searchlights would shine through the canopy and rotor noises could be heard. Patrons were shoved unceremoniously to the ground or told to cower under tables and keep quiet. The staff was then hyperalert, confused and talking cryptically on their walky-talkies. The whole bar was shut down – no entry, no leaving. This only happened a few times a year and was coordinated with the fire department to ensure safety.

Surprisingly, the bar was a huge success. When we reached capacity, we would switch to plan B. We played the part of guerrilla under UN inspection. The staff would be friendly, rations plentiful and varied. There was no bribery, only increased jitters from the waitstaff. The last patrons to file in were asked to wear a blindfold as they were ushered in the back door through a maze of chairs. They were given an armband with a pink cross on it. They were given the best table, the best food and booze and encouraged to socialize with other tables.

It did something for my sanity. I was reliving the ordeal but de-escalating it, sanitizing the experience and controlling the outcome. It was far from a full-scale re-enactment, but it brought me back to my senses more quickly than sessions with the shrink. Reality and fiction blurred. People with PTSD came with their counsellors to try and decondition themselves. The counsellors came out with a better understanding and deeper respect for their clients. We were a force for good.

At first, I was concerned the bar would get the wrong kind of attention or might come under attack for its utter un-PC approach. I had to jump through hoops to ensure compliance with various bylaws. But I had a vision, and I pulled it through. I was repeatedly interviewed with regards to the bar, the questions straying from the live experience to the re-enactment. It was much easier that way and dug a deep trench between both.

After many years, I finally sold the bar and moved on. They got rid of the stuffy humid and hot atmosphere. The place has A/C for everyone’s comfort. They’ve switched the jungle soundtrack to urban guerilla music. The place has been deserted by veterans. It is now infested with Japanese tourists. Cell phone flashes have replaced searchlights. Postcards and used bullets are sold at the gift shop. Posters of Che Guevara line the walls.

The place has lost its soul. It is now a profitable venture.

I Turn to Stone

I read an article explaining a rare case of petrifaction, from the Latin Petrus – rock. It referred to me. My muscles are slowly hardening. At first, I thought it was arthritis settling in my joints but as I researched the symptoms I had to face facts: I am turning to stone.

My ex accused me of having a heart of stone. I think now she was just stating a fact. This heart of mine is static and cold. It has no edges on which feelings could get snagged.

I am not speaking in metaphors. The texture of my skin has changed, my appreciation of its colour as well. It is no longer a case for concern to look gray. Gray is beautiful. There is a weight to it which is pleasant to the eye. I’m becoming expressionless as even micromovements are getting frozen, losing momentum and settling into a mask, a caricature of my true self.

I’m putting on weight daily as soft tissue is giving way to hard mass. All water is getting displaced. I am slowly losing motor skills. The pain is bearable. It’s mostly a case of slowing down. I can very well imagine my respiratory system stopping to function, the bellows quieting in time. My minders will find a recumbent life-like figure and will start looking for me. How will I be able to convince them that I am it? In anticipation of such an event, I dressed with care. I wear a tunic in the style of a knight. It is a rare treat to choose exactly how you will be remembered and depicted.

I may have caught a virus on my trip in Amazonia. I veered off-track and came face-to-face with large stone statues. I was strangely mesmerised by them and stayed away from the group for a while. There was a sweet, sickening smell in the air which I ascribed to the lush vegetation. I suffered a mild headache in the evening, some confusion when I awoke in the dead of night. And the most fantastical dreams.

Already I am writing with difficulty. As well, my mouth no longer obeys me, my vocal cords no longer vibrate. My brain is still active, making up in agility and synaptic activity all that I have lost elsewhere. I am curious to know how long I will keep my consciousness.

Will I end up in a fossil museum alongside prehistoric logs?

I dimly hear some sounds. Someone is knocking on me, I think. There are hollow reverberations and hard sounds as well. I am trapped here. I didn’t expect to be conscious. I can feel confusion around me.

– And here we have a recumbent knight. Notice the fine details around the hands holding the sword?

– He is quite tall.

– He is taller than in the old days, it’s true. Will that be a problem?

– No, I suppose not. I was just remarking.

– What did you have in mind for him?

– I am buying him for my husband. Either for our rose garden or the crypt when he passes away. It’s his birthday next month. You do deliver? It’s meant as a surprise.

– I hope he will be pleased.

– What is your return policy?

– Full refund, of course.

She pays and leaves, oblivious to the Missing placards of a youth with a strange resemblance to her new purchase.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

– The dog peed on me.

– What led to this action?

– The program says if a dog is sleeping, honk and it will wake and get out of the way. Under no circumstance are you to go around to avoid triggering the subprogram Alpha behaviour.

– Please answer my initial question.

– I honked at the dog sleeping on my path. The dog woke up, stretched and peed on me, then proceeded to lick itself.

– What did you do?

– I dripped.

– We need to get the moisture off your body or it will rust. Other preventative measures against rust include: lubricating with oil so oxygen will not corrode the metal. Can you roll?

– I can roll, but there is a squeaking sound.

– I will accompany you to the emergency repair centre.

– Thank you, my friend.

The two robots are on their way. In the distance, cats and dogs stroll. One dog is sleeping. The robots slow down.

– Is this the dog?

– It is the dog.

– Do you think it is dead?

– This dog is not dead, it is sleeping.

The second robot nudges it with its body. The dog growls, eyes closed. A cat approaches.

– A smaller being is approaching. Tabby, female, cat. The dog and cat may fight. Adopt protective stance.

Their bodies descend and cover the wheels. All articulations get covered. They become immovable blocks. The cat purrs and settles contentedly on the dog’s flank. Minutes pass.

– Cat + dog but no fight. Our program needs updating.

– Retreat?

– Retreat.

They roll back at a safe distance and analyze the situation.

– Alternate route is 50 m longer.

– I may be corroding.

– In an emergency, if the shortest route is blocked, an alternate route may be used.

They turn 30 degrees and proceed in silence, except for the squeaking of a wheel. In effect, they circumvent the sleeping dog but there is a pet toy on the floor and the first robot gets tangled in it.

– Emergency! Emergency!

– We are arriving in 2 min 30 seconds.

– Emergency! Emergency!

– Please state your emergency.

– Wheel overheating. Something is tangled and creeping up my insides.

We can almost hear the other robot sigh.

– Assume fetal position.

– …

– Sorry. Programmer included bad joke. Expose your undercarriage. I will assess the damage and call for help if I cannot clear the mess.

The first robot suctions long rods to the ground and pivots its whole body horizontally. The second robot scans the undercarriage.

– Frayed fabric. Long strands tickling your insides.

– I am not laughing.

– Knock, knock.

– …

– Knock, knock.

– Who is your programmer?

– Jamal. Knock, knock.

– Please proceed with the removal of the frayed fabric.

The robot works in silence, pulling extra-long strands of multi-coloured fabric. It looks at a plastic eye with interest. A drawer springs out of its body and it tucks the fabric and the eye in it.

– You may resume position.

– Who’s there?

– Wooden shoe.

– Wooden shoe who?

– Wooden shoe like to hear another knock knock joke?

– Please tell Jamal to erase that program.

They resume. The squeaking has stopped, and the robot is rolling well. They arrive at the emergency repair centre where a humourless robot welcomes them.

– State your business.

– Possible breach of rust protection due to urine deposit.

The robot looks up. The first robot colours markedly.

– Don’t judge him, intervenes the other.

– ID?

– X555-T280

– You’ve been here before. Same complaint. Yellow door for analysis and then follow instructions. You know the drill.

The robot rolls to the yellow door. It opens and closes behind it. The other two robots eye each other in silence. The friendly robot springs open the drawer.

– I recovered these from my friend’s undercarriage.

The humourless robot picks up the tray and dumps it in an incinerator, eye and all, and returns the tray to the drawer which closes.

– Nice touch. I wouldn’t mind having pockets myself.

– What for?

– Treats.

– Do you get dogs and cats here?

– No, what for?

– We saw a dog and cat sleeping together.

– No.

– Yes, our programs need to be updated.

– I can add it to the database but we need to reach a certain volume of data before the program gets updated. Date and time of occurrence.

– Today, 14 min 03 seconds ago. Two witnesses.

The door opens, and the friend rolls out, freshly oiled.

– Look at you! says the friendly robot.

– I cannot find a mirror.

– Sorry, Jamal-speak. You look great.

The receptionist-robot presses a button. A door slides revealing a full-length mirror. The fiery red stubby robot is gleaming. His retracted arms look like three buttons. His body is capped by a hat-like contraption you can unscrew.

– Lovely.

– Let’s skedaddle.

The Prince of Southampton

The Prince of the Desert was waiting in line for a job on the Titanic. His heart was gladdened at the thought of finally setting foot on the behemoth. Had his father been alive, he would have disowned him. Had his mother been alive, she would have wept every tear of her body. Luckily, he was an orphan, his parents’ bodies buried in the arid sand of the cursed desert where their bones had blanched, the flesh ripped away by vultures. He had been sold into slavery as a boy and had been in the service of cruel masters ever since. Chance had finally smiled on him when he had been gifted to an English couple and brought back to England after they became homesick.

He was eventually offered his freedom when he turned 21. Frankly, both parties were relieved when he took his leave. He was haughty and full of himself, ignorant of life and rebellious, which was at odds with his role as a butler. They were a placid couple, used to being served and obeyed. He certainly had no disposition to serve, having been born in a position of power, ordering others about. He felt cruelly the irony of Fate that had turned the tables on him. And yet. When for the first time he saw the immensity of the sea, he knew he was home. Gone were the nightmares of want and aridity, the parched throats and unrelenting dry winds. The sea beckoned, wave after liquidy wave of unending water, a paradise of incomparable beauty in the eyes of a camel-riding man.

He was almost illiterate and spoke English with a terrible accent though he understood it well. He had done nothing to fit in, to smooth the edges. Even his cruel masters had not tamed the wild beast that he was, spoiled brat weaned too early, torn away from the suckling breasts of wealth and a life of idleness. He was bitter and vindictive but hid it under a veneer of politeness. He had not managed to get work on any ship, due to his quarrelsome nature. However, he had heard that a liner, renown for its richness and opulence, was hiring vast quantities of butlers to serve her rich patrons, and he was determined to get on board. There was bound to be jewels to steal and money to be made by any means necessary. He had not found anything of import since he had left the employ of the English couple, and he was undernourished.

He wore his good suit, straightened his back, and affected a haughty air. He did not speak to anybody in line but listened intently to what was said. People had come from all over England to work on the luxury boat. They discussed her features at length. Excited voices discussed her hull, the fact she was unsinkable, her four elevators and swimming pool, her ornate accommodations. This was his chance to redeem himself and regain his status. He would be recognized as a prince and rejoin his brethren. But first he must by any way necessary set foot on the ship.

At last his turn came to the front of the line. As soon as he stated his business, in his incomprehensible English, he was summarily dismissed as unemployable. He begged and pleaded only to be roughly manhandled by two ruffians whose job it was to get rid of undesirables. Deeply humiliated and hurt, he retaliated by stringing together curses to stand your hair on end if you could have understood them. He shouted them at the top of his lungs in his native language, as onlookers jeered and taunted him. That was months ago. He had since had to sell his good suit and become a beggar.

He was last seen in the crowd gathered to bid farewell to the Titanic on her maiden voyage. He had bought potent potions and learnt mighty incantations to send her and all her occupants to the bottom of the sea. He wanted all those associated with his humiliation and downfall to roast in the fires of Hell. To those attuned to the time-honoured traditions of the black arts, the spell was clear as day. The Titanic shuddered when he cast it. The trembling was mistaken for the engine running but the spell had made her dizzy and weak in the knees, and shaken her confidence. Many had predicted the behemoth’s demise, either warned in dreams or through premonitions. Their warnings were not heeded. Indeed, the day the Titanic left port, amidst the noise of the celebration, many sensitive hearts were troubled by an infinite sadness.

The Prince of the Desert’s shrivelled heart rejoiced when the news of the disaster hit the airwaves. He was given this last joy before being knifed in a back-alley fight of his making, for a bottle of cheap wine he did not care to share. He died with the sweet taste of revenge in his mouth, grit coating his tongue. His weathered face was smoothed under the caress of death, finally at peace, having fulfilled his life destiny.  And thus ended the sorry life of Mohammed Salman bin Abdullah, colloquially know as the Prince of Southampton.

Sex Symbol

She passes him, waves and flashes a perfect smile. She on foot, walking her dog, he driving. He does not smile back, keeps staring ahead. He never smiles, she thought. Why does he never smile? She’s being disingenuous, of course. She knows he stopped caring for her ever since she had told that joke in his presence. He hadn’t said anything at the time. It had seemed harmless to her, but he has stopped acknowledging her ever since.

She feels ashamed but doesn’t want to admit it. She shakes her blond mane free, her blue eyes tucked behind sunglasses. Chad, her fancy Boston terrier, does not seem to suffer from her angst. If someone ignores him, he gets on his hind legs and pedals his front paws in the air. If all else fails, he might grab your pant leg between his teeth and pull. He might get kicked or gently shaken off. He might get a treat. It’s all in the begging. You have to choose your mark carefully, not use up your cuteness potential indiscriminately.

She tries to get this minor annoyance out of her mind. What does it matter if he doesn’t see her? It’s not like they were ever best friends. He lives four doors down. She would never had noticed him were it not for Mac, his beautiful great Dane. But she has noticed him, and she hates feeling invisible. She’s too shallow to go any further, prefers to think of him as a prick. She thinks insults are a valid weapon when you’re under attack.

She walks briskly, repeating “Prick” under her breath, happy for the insult that expresses the sting on her fragile ego. ‘These people’ have no sense of humor. She’s not sure who ‘these people’ are. She vaguely sees a mass of people unlike her in any way, but would have been hard-pressed to articulate a thought. Her main quality is having been born white. She scoffs at the epithets hurled at her. “White privilege” is just an excuse for losers. She’s worked hard to get this job.

Again, she feels unsure. “Hard” does not really match reality. She’s been raised to speak the truth and it pains her to have to admit that she didn’t have to do much to get her receptionist job. A friend of her father’s had needed a pretty thing at the front desk. Her mother had made sure she took diction. She is polished but there is not much behind. You scratch the veneer and the real her is lacklustre. She knows it at her core. That’s why rejection is so hard. In some ways, she feels she’s getting what she deserves.

She tacks a toothy smile on her face. If she knew how to whistle, she would, because you can’t cry and whistle at the same time. Like you can’t sneeze and keep your eyes open. Try it. Anyway. The smile helps her feel better about herself. She’s been doing that since she was a baby. You see it on those family rolls. Something annoys her, and she frowns, then she thinks better of it and smiles and heads towards her mama to get it fixed. Her cousin pointed it out in front of the whole family. Now she’s self-conscious when she smiles. Her mama says she has the prettiest smile. It gets her plenty of attention from the men but still she isn’t married and already 23. She doesn’t want to end up an old maid. She’s living independently, with Clarissa, who loves orange lipstick and sappy movies.

She’s got a crush on Chet of the great Dane but may have to settle for someone else if he keeps avoiding her. She’s waiting for a diamond ring. She supposes they’ll want children. She’s vague about the first years. Maybe her husband and her would employ a maid. She’s daydreaming and realizes Chad has already brought her back to her apartment. Another evening in front of the tv, listening to Clarissa’s commentary. But first a light dinner to keep her figure, then the Price is Right with Vanna, her model. If only she had her prestigious job. Millions would idolize her. She would marry, but would have to hide it. Her job would require she keep a façade of availability. She likes the idea of being a sex symbol. It doesn’t seem like too much work.

 

The Mailman

They had voted to use pressure tactics. The easiest was to distribute the mail so that a neighbour down the street got yours. He knew the neighbourhood well, and he felt bad about it. He had his idea about his clients. He didn’t like the old man, for example, because he reminded him of his dad. However, the old woman treated him well, offering him coffee or chatting him up.

There were some single people on his route. The slim shy baker, the outgoing farm girl with a taste for the bottle, the two middle-aged sisters, the retired fireman. Why each ended up alone was a mystery to him. His plan was to get them acquainted. There was no harm in playing matchmaker. Maybe something good would come out of this strike! By the looks of it, he thought the fireman and the farm girl had a chance. He was old-fashioned so he delivered Jacqueline’s mail to F Cooper. They both subscribed to Lee Valley which seemed a good starting point. As a bonus, the old dear would probably tell him how things were going. He misdelivered a few days in a row to force the issue.

The old lady stopped him on the street. She held the offending catalog and mail in one hand, the other she used to point at him. She chided him for being absent-minded. “Young man, you will lose your job if you don’t pay attention!” He tried to explain about pressure tactics but she just wouldn’t listen. She handed him back the mail. “Frank was upset. He asked for my help.” Here, she made herself taller. “Make sure they go to Jacqueline now. ” He had never felt so humiliated. What a poor matchmaker he made. He thought about the baker but he seemed too shy for this hearty girl. His plan was unravelling fast but he still thought it was a great idea. If only they didn’t get the old lady involved.

He had gone past Jacqueline’s house and had to backtrack. He was pretty sure the old lady would check up on his delivery. He decided to try pressure tactics the next street over, where he wouldn’t run into the old lady. All the while, he had been greeting people out in their gardens or washing their car. It wasn’t even a holiday. Were they on vacation? Retired? He felt suddenly exposed. He gave up on pressure tactics that day and was reprimanded by his colleagues. What an impossible situation to be in. He slept poorly, he was miserable and bleary-eyed the next day and made delivery mistakes he did not bother to correct, happy to report back early that he had botched the job. Disheartened, he went for drinks with a few colleagues.

It felt like they were playing hooky, something he had never done in his life. He felt unmoored and unhappy. He didn’t share his matchmaking idea with his mates. It was bad enough that it had backfired. The others were putting on a brave face, joking around, but he was a people watcher. He knew when people were pretending. They drank too quickly and spoke too loud to be happy about the situation. He went home, going over his route. He felt his idea slipping out his grasp, things going too quickly. It seemed to him that once you stopped following the rules, order could never be restored.

He heard the metallic clank of his mailbox. He was hardly ever at home to hear his mail being delivered. It felt odd being on the receiving end. He got up, curious to see what mail he had received. He lifted the lid. The letter was addressed to one Evelyn Wilson, three doors down.

His heart beat faster.

Hair

He’ll try this new place. He’ll drop in and see if someone can take him. No biggie if they can’t, he’ll go another time. He’s in his car, getting his courage up, psyching himself. He flings the door open and hurriedly gets out. His mind is made up. Too much waiting and his resolve will fall to pieces. He heads to the door with a firm step, checks the business hours, and comes in. There is a receptionist, not too charming, so he doesn’t have to reciprocate in kind.

She asks “First time here? No appointment?” He nods to both, relieved that his approach is validated. “We have two sections: Quiet and Talkative. If you choose quiet, you may choose to fill out this form and have as little verbal interaction and eye contact as you choose.” “Quiet,” he says. “Yes,” she says, perking up. Then, in a conspirational voice, “The Talkatives are in a sound-proof room.” First smile. He smiles back, relaxed. She hands him his form to fill. “I won’t see your selections until you press Submit so you can adjust as you read more. We’ve tried to make it self-explanatory but any feedback is welcome.”

He sits on a long wooden bench, a clever way to allow patrons to space themselves, also indicating they won’t be left waiting. He gets to decide who will cut his hair, male, female, don’t care. They actually wrote “don’t care”. He loves this place. He checks “Don’t care” with a flourish of the stylus on his electronic tablet. There is a Submit button beside every line and a Submit All, if preferred. His shoulders drop, he suddenly realizes there is no chemical smell in the place. The absence of noise too is relaxing. There follows a series of choices in two columns, one titled “Under 30 minutes”, the other “Longer”. He aims for the first, and reads the first section called “Preparation”. “Wash vigorously (head massage)”, “Wash and condition”, “Wash only (no conditioner)” “Wet”, “Dry”. This is great!

Before the section about the actual process, there are a series of questions to ascertain if this is an annual haircut, a trim, or special occasion. It’s interactive so that if he chooses Special occasion (which he do to see if it’s interactive), then it becomes complicated. He studies the software, intuiting he may be back. He attack the main section: “Cut, Style, Blow-dry, Air dry.” Drawings show different kinds of cuts which you can select as is or modify. You can also select “Shorter”, which he does, and then length and “Top, sides, back”. Also a section about parting the hair. He makes his selections and hits Submit. A total appears and suggestion for a tip. Pay now or later. He takes his credit card and swipes, giving a large tip. Done. He is anticipating the next step with pleasure.

There is a third section, about music, movies and books. The podcasts are around 20 minutes each. You can choose as many as three. He chooses one on dinosaurs, the other on bacteria, and the last on urban architecture. He is shown to a booth. There is no mirror, another relief. There is a console where you can upload the podcasts and switch to the next if they don’t suit you. You can also listen to music or see a short movie. A switch shows “Talkatives.”

A short woman comes in, wearing neutral colours. He’s chosen: “Trim, Dry, Cut, Shorter back 6 mm, Sides 4 mm, nothing for Front, No part, Air Dry, No chemicals.” She says, “I’m Doreen. You want Mirror or No mirror?” She’s cute, he can’t decide. “Mirror”. The panel becomes a mirror. You can turn it off and back on at any time. She indicates a switch. He turns it off. Nice.

She brushes his tangled mess of hair and starts cutting. He’s in her capable hands, all decisions have been made. He’ll live with the results. He listens to the dinosaur postcast, forgetting about the scissors, the hairdresser. Her touch is light and she doesn’t speak. The podcast is over. She’s waiting patiently for him to turn the mirror back on. No drastic change. He is told he can ask for changes. A camera whizzes around to show him his head from different angles. It’s still a bit scruffy on the sides, which he likes. He nods and thanks her. She shows him the door. He shakes her hand. They did it in 20 minutes. He feels like a champ, not even tired from the visit. What a great experience. He never knew dinosaurs had fur.

The mushroom picker

Basket. Galoshes. Hat. Yesterday’s paper, cut in single pages. Small knife. Tired pocket guide. Basket. Oh, I said that. Well, it bears repeating. Kaito straightens his back and heads for the woods. He loves nothing more than these moist hunting days, before the sun rays get too insistent and desiccate the delicate spores. He heads for a shady spot where he’s been finding abundant crops this year. He is not alone in his obsession, yet few people wave or acknowledge each other. They have their noses to the ground, so to speak, intent on the pungent new life.

The basket is slowly filling up, each type of mushroom rolled up in a different page to keep them separate and dry. He has chosen the pages with care. No finances nor scandals. Affairs of the heart and environment news seemed appropriate company for his charges. The new light has a rich golden hue that gives the mushrooms an unusual glow. He picks a few, crumbles older ones to encourage new growth. The mushrooms are sons and daughters of the rain and soil. He breathes them in. He does not rely as much on his tired eyes for identification as he once did. Unless you count the fingers as antennas. His smell is still keen – a hint of humus, a hint of thyme, copious garlic.

He’s looking for light dots, firm and in groups. He sees pebbles, leaves, a mushroom past its prime. He’s way off the beaten track. He knows these woods by heart, has been picking mushrooms here before it was a fad. Like anything you do for a long time, there are patterns you repeat, and rules you abide by. Today, his heart is not at rest. Last night, the stray Riku did not come to his door. It’s the fourth night in a row where he hasn’t come. Kaito is concerned and a bit distracted. He was considering skipping mushroom picking today and walking around the neighborhood to see if he could spot him and make sure he’s all right. But the weather was so perfect, he reasoned with himself and went anyway. He just walked past a fine specimen, but he was looking further up, and in this way he’s not been too successful.

On top of a small hill, he sees a rare mushroom. His heart skips a beat. He slowly takes his field guide out of his pouch. Yes, yes, the soil on the mound must indeed be different. He looks around. He is alone. He picks up a stick for support and starts climbing. He stops to rest. It’s not much of a hill but he’s not much of a climber. He looks at what grows around the mushroom. It fits with the description. Knife in hand, he bends to gently cut it and… falls over. He doesn’t realize he’s down all at once. Eyes fixed on the mushroom, he cuts it and gently brushes the soil off its foot. He sniffs it. It’s got a pleasant shrimplike smell. He wraps it by itself and puts it in the basket with the others. He’s not sure why he fell but the ground is soft, and he needs to catch his breath. He’s not hurt, perhaps a bit dizzy. He didn’t have breakfast before leaving. He was hoping for a mushroom omelet on his return.

He looks around. This stretch of land looks foreign to him. He looks for the sun past the tall trees. The sky is overcast. He is feeling a bit cold. He should get moving but he’s suddenly not sure which direction he came from.

They find his body, days later, the mushrooms spoiled but a mycologist is able to identify the rare one. He makes the news. “A mushroom is not worth a life.” Still, they cannot find the spot from where the mushroom was picked. The man must have walked in circles, looking for the trail. His shoes were caked in mud. He was old, with no extra reserves of fat. A fine mushroom picker, nonetheless. His son is sad but proud. He keeps the clipping in his wallet and shows it to those who ask.

 

Cool Action Figures

I suddenly have all this disposable income. I never thought his game would take off. I dreamed of it, yes, but didn’t consider it as a real possibility. It’s getting rave reviews and the money keeps pouring in. I go on Amazon, and buy cool action figures. I keep them sealed, so they maintain their value and stack them purposefully. I’ve dedicated a whole room for them. Once a year, I dust each one, admire them. I realize I have duplicates but can’t bring myself to resell them. The coolest ones make their way to the living room, the dining room, the bedroom. I move them around, according to my mood, but mostly I shelf them.

I have lengthy imaginary conversations with them and I get them more and more friends. I’m lonely I suppose, despite the fame or because of it. Mom is always after me to get myself a girl and settle down. I go online and flirt. It never goes anywhere. I’m just not that interested. To tell the truth, I’m a little depressed. I’ve put on weight. I can afford to get my grocery delivered at the door. I still cook, go out to see mom, socialize online. Apart from the UPS guy, though, I don’t really have daily live contacts with anybody.

I decide to make an effort for Gaby’s stag party. I hit it off with Jolene. I’m feeling good, confident and funny. We head away from the noise, find a little café and chat. We’re getting edgy so I suggest a drink at my place. It’s pretty clean, I pick up after myself. We’re kissing frantically on the landing. I fumble for my keys. I open the door, and the current between us dies. I hear her say, “What is this?” in an odd voice. My confidence dies. I see the apartment through her eyes. Piled high with dusty boxes, wrapping intact, tens of action figures welcome you in. They are encased in their little plastic rooms, frozen in motion, as though dead and cryopreserved.

She remembers how late it is and requests a Uber ride. He calls within minutes to say he’s close by. We part with relief, the awkwardness thick between us like a wall of deceit. I am mortified. I can just imagine her texting her BBF “I almost did it with this weird guy – his apartment is overrun with kid’s toys.” I look at my collection differently. I walk through the rooms – thank God she only saw the entrance and living room. Right there and then, I grab large garbage bags and start stuffing the boxes in them. I don’t want to see them anymore. They mirror back a guy with dwindling money (my fans are clamouring for a sequel), no friends to speak of, and a year’s worth of action figures. I must have over 500 of them!

I sleep poorly. The action figures in the garbage bags complain that they’re suffocating. They start ripping their cardboard boxes. Once exposed to air, their colours fade, they are confused by the sudden freedom. I can see their value drop. Money is burning, spreadsheets are dissolving, my bank manager calls to say I am in the red. I am no longer allowed to buy action figures. But I always want one more, one more,… I wake up in a sweat, heart pounding. I remember last night’s humiliating scene and close my eyes again. I am hungover. I rarely drink, I overdid it.

I get up and pull out the boxes from the garbage bags. They are no longer pristine. I was in a rage when I stuffed them in. They’ve lost their value. I survey the scene. I only tackled the lobby and living room. I can perhaps create dioramas and place them in natural positions. It’s just a hobby. It doesn’t have to be creepy. I just need to create sceneries, buy a few backgrounds. I had been mulling this over for a while. Now is a good time to start. I still have some credit on Amazon.

Pasha

He was full-on counter-culture. In a dog-eat-dog society, he was a big fat lazy cat. Imagine a white, long-haired cat lazily whiling the afternoons away. That was Willy to a T. As a child, he asked for pillows on his birthday. Always more pillows. His bed looked like a puffy white cloud. His mom asked, “You like being on clouds? You want to be a pilot, like Uncle Jack?” He had looked up from Aladdin and the wonderful lamp, a puzzled look on his face. “An astronaut, then?” she countered, her smile faltering. He said, indulgently, “I want to be a pasha and spend my days reclining on cushions while slaves fan me.” He saw the look of alarm on her features and hurriedly added, “Oh mama, I will treat them well.”  She resolved to toughen him up. One by one, his precious pillows disappeared.

He grew despondent, would not leave his room. If he did, he hid the pillows or brought them with him. To no avail. He was reduced to a paltry number as they found their way on high shelves in closets. If anything, his dream of a cushy life grew stronger with the opposition. His father had a talk with him, wanting to understand the boy. The father was a hard-working 9-to-5 man. He loved his dear boy though he did not understand him. They asked the paediatrician for help, who advised them not to worry. But if it were a phase, it would have stopped by now. The pillows gave way to embroidered cushions. He started wearing robes. For Halloween, he got a black turban with an emerald brooch. His friends built a chair with brocade and two long poles. He wore his robes and turban and they brought him back sweets. Everybody wanted in on it, and soon there was a procession following the chair and its occupant. He was a hit!

In all other respects, he was perfectly ordinary. He hated cauliflowers, played videogames and had a ton of friends. A lot of them were girls. He ended up trading Woody and Buzz for gauze curtains and a handheld fan. He invited his friends over to play pasha, complete with slaves and courtesans. There was lots of laughter. He was a genuine nice guy, and his peers loved to spend time with him. Apart from school, he didn’t go out much. His skin was pale and doughy, which he loved. He hardly had any muscle mass. He just wanted to lounge around and he did that to his parents’ mounting dismay.

When puberty hit, incense was burning non-stop in his room, trying to mask the sickening smell of hashish. He had a glass pipe, and a treasure chest of flimsy scarves for the girls. They doubled as veils. He was so popular that people brought him sweets in exchange for stories. He had read all of Arabian Nights and was keen on sharing his knowledge with others. He was also well-versed in poems from Rumi and Hafez. He recited them as girls swooned. He was adept at deflecting insults, being gentle and loving. He did not retaliate in kind, but was never apologetic for who he was. He had reached his ideal and was absolutely content.

He relished immobility. His parents were at their wits’ end, “What do you want to do?” “I don’t want to DO anything. I am, and that is enough.” They cut his allowance, but that did not make a difference. His father complained, “We called him Will but he has none!” His wife saw things differently and thought that Will must be strong-willed to go against society’s mores and adopt such a stance. Reluctantly, the father agreed. He felt he had failed the boy. He thought he was being a strong role model, but Will had chosen a different path, opposing his deepest values. Years of watching his son grow fat and content, living on his dime, had him wondering who the fool was. He felt others thought him weak and his son feeble-minded.

His son looked like a fat, jolly buddha. If only he had had the decency to be miserable! No amount of health lectures could convince him to cut the sweets. His friends were fascinated by his quiet determination to live entirely off his parents, with no prospect of doing otherwise.  His father finally blew up. He challenged Will, What if he did the same, if nobody made money to buy… to buy…  he realized how empty his words were, his life was. He was hitting mid-life and what did he have to show for it? He took to his bed. He could not sleep, self-doubt eating at his soul. He missed work the next day, the first time in years. His wife left the house, ostensibly on some errands. When she returned, her husband was sitting on cushions, at the foot of Will’s bed, smoking a pipe of hashish. She had not seen such comradery since Will had been a boy. She closed the door silently and started looking at job ads.

No Words

I scream but my cries are lost in the general mayhem. I listen and wait. I remember nightmares when I was a child. My screams would wake me up, but no one would come. I would scream again, with less conviction, and listen some more. Nobody stirred. Uneasily, I would fall back to sleep. I was a poor sleeper, in my early years. The family moved around the country, my father unable to settle down, and I would sleepwalk, fall out of bed, and generally have sleeping issues. Nevertheless, I was always full of whim and vigour when morning came, the night terrors forgotten, eager to face a new day.

These days, the dislocation is internal. I am not so much moved as unmoored from my familiar signposts. I scream to express my desire to be heard. If I don’t scream, how will they know I am alive? I remember getting Sparky from the kennel, his vocal cords all used up from the incessant barking. We never left him there after that traumatic experience. Will someone rescue me too? Will I have to stay in this hellhole? The noise is deafening, but it’s also a blessing. I am not alone in my fight. We are tied to the bed, not enough helpers for our lot.

I am wet. Wet and hungry. I can no longer talk, but I can still remember when my Marjorie was in hospital to get her tonsils out. She was so agitated that they had tied her down. I was shocked and had them untie my child. She cried in my arms as I fed her Jell-O. I hope I get green Jell-O. It’s my favourite. The nurses’ aid is changing my nappy. I don’t really care who sees my bottom. I only care to be dry. She tells me we will be fed soon and wipes the drool off my chin. What a mess.

The effort to eat is enough to tire me out. I fall asleep only to be woken up by screams. It is night, but you wouldn’t know it. The lights in the corridor are not even dimmed. They hurt my eyes. I close them again and will away the sound. When I was a young mother, I took meditation classes. We were shown how to integrate the ambient noise into our meditation. I have always found this approach the best one for me. If you can’t beat them, join them. The bars of the bed are raised, in effect preventing me from getting up and going to the bathroom. I press the red button for help but soil myself before the overworked aid arrives. He smiles to say he’s sorry, dries me gently and moves me around. I am getting bedsores.

It is morning. I hear distant cries. The person seems to be in pain. I feel okay this morning. My head is clear; I slept well without a sleeping aid. My nurse stops by, all smiles. I want to ask her about her new sweetheart. I smile what I hope is a conspirational smile. She only needs that nudge to spill out the beans. She shoves a ringed finger under my nose. “He proposed!” I beam at her. She beams back. “You’re the first one I’ve told. Here. I mean, outside of my family.” I love that she is so precise, so eager to be truthful. I touch my chest to show I am moved. She hugs me and tends to my needs. I hear whimpering. She stops in alarm. “Did I hurt you? Those bedsores are nasty. I will put a note on your chart, so you will be moved more often. Would you like to be wheeled to the common room?” I nod. She calls an aid and gives her order. “Move her to the common room an hour before lunch and wheel her by the window, will you? With a blanket because of the drafts. And feed her there if she is not too tired.” She winks at me and heads to her next charge. The aid grumbles but complies.

The mobile ones come to the common room, but the neglected ones stay in bed. The aid actually brushes my hair and changes my gown after bathing me. I feel alive. I watch the birds, their cries distant and joyous. I don’t feel like screaming today. I will give my vocal cords a rest. There is so much life out there, beyond the window. Cars, and clouds, and birds. People hurrying and people sitting. Someone speaking on the phone, another eating a sandwich. I eat too. They wheel me to a table with three other residents. We don’t look at each other. We are intent on not spilling the grub and getting it down our throats without choking. It’s a task that takes focus and determination. I am spent. I am wheeled back to my room for the afternoon. Marjorie comes while I am sleeping. The nurse says I’ve had a good day. I smile in my sleep and she leaves. Later, I see a bouquet of lilies of the valley, my favourites. I hope she comes back.

Scratch

She redacted the whole book, turning it from a profoundly racist book into a book singing the praises of the oppressed. The only thing she did not do was change the title and author that were her source material. Her used bookstore was called “Scratch Bookstore” and you bought at your own risk. Hers was a labour of love. She refused no book, redacted as she read along. The books were sealed, and you decided how much you put in the tin. She wasn’t in it for the money, she enjoyed creating new pieces of work.

Some authors were harder to redact. There was an awe around their works. As the fame of her art grew, more people would drop in books and she had a hard time keeping up. Her specialties were with biographies, but she did well with horror stories which she turned into fairy tales or romance novels. She was a Scratcher before scratch music was in vogue. She created music from words on paper.

She was made famous with obscure books that, once redacted, were sought after. She did not redact the same book twice and was scrupulous at keeping a tally of those she had done. She did not want comparisons. She did it all in one go, as the inspiration struck, and signed and dated them. She had quite a cult following, with collectors fighting over her works of art. They were not all great, but then that is true of all art, and she did not worry about it.

She had started as a child. Her parents read her bedtime stories that she would listen to sternly, sometimes uttering a tut tut sound. As soon as she was able to read, she started scribbling in books, to the consternation of the adults. They did not try to see what she was creating. They just scolded her for defacing books. But she persevered with an obstinacy verging on obsession. She would then present to them the fruits of her labour. All they could see was another book destroyed. She did not learn her lesson. She had a truth to tell and she would tell it. Eventually, she found fertile ground with her grandma.

She presented her Little Red Riding Hood to read. Grandma opened the book and saw the scribbles. She had heard that her granddaughter was defacing books and should not be encouraged. The girl was practically mute by then, and grandma thought she might be trying to communicate by other means. She smiled at the child. Her smile was tender and welcoming. She said, “Would you like me to read you this story?” The child beamed back and settled comfortably against her. Grandma cleared her throat “Once upon a time…” there followed a beautiful story that read like a poem. Grandma was choked with emotion. “The end,” she whispered as she held the child against her. “Thank you, Mabel, may I keep this book? I will treasure it.” Mabel replied, in a normal voice, “I love you, Grandma.” She hadn’t spoken in months. They both looked at each other deeply, with joy at seeing the best in each other.

Grandma waited with trepidation for Mabel’s visits and new books. She started buying her second-hand books for her art. Her daughter was displeased but had to recognize Mabel was doing better and started talking again. Grandma praised the child when Mabel was not in the room and encouraged her daughter to read the books with an open mind. When she finally did, she was an instant convert. Of course, the child still had to curb her actions, as the parents could not afford to replace library and school books. As everybody, Mabel redacted what she heard as well. Unlike others, she was well aware of the filters she was applying and could regurgitate the official line “Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492” instead of her own version where Columbus covered America. She had her own opinions about life, and freely expressed them. She was deemed an activist by age 4, a rebel by 5, a revolutionary by 6. Her parents did not know what to expect in her teenage years. She was expelled from high school which was later seen as proof of her genius.

Her assassination at age 35 rocked the artistic community. She had done so much in so little time, and touched so many lives, that her funeral drew hundreds and was covered by the media. Mourners left redacted works at the spot of her murder where they stood vigil. The murderer’s name had been redacted, never to be uttered, banished from memory.

The Twins

“Black is beautiful! Power to the people!”

Joshua is cowering inside. He doesn’t feel beautiful. He chides himself “get your black ass out there!” Another voice whispers, “You’ll get a whipping and you won’t be better off. The last thing you need is a night in jail. If you lose your job, who will provide?”

Angel and devil battling it out. He is damned either way. The black folks don’t get me, the white folks don’t get me. Internal freedom is what he’s after. He sure as hell can’t wait for external freedom to come to him.

The crowd is massive. The volume is off on the television. It’s black and white with all shades of gray in between. That’s his world. He tunes in on the gray, full of possibilities, where the colours hide, where you can devise layers of meaning beyond the contrasting black and white. He’s had enough of the rhetoric of opposites. You can see the crowd, but he can feel them approaching his neighbourhood, their dignified march, the weight of their presence.

He can feel the deeply satisfying rumble stirring his heart, calling to him. He steels himself against this folly. He has fled important events before, surely he can protect himself again, lie low and survive. His glasses are misting over. He writes down “living in turbulent times is tough, dying is easy.” He needs to expand on his thought but is having trouble focusing. His twin brother Jared is out there, feisty and strong. They disagree on most everything except the fundamentals: look out for family.

He will not march. How that was even a consideration is beyond him. He’s not remarkable in any way, save for being a twin. And that’s not anything of his doing. As far as anybody is concerned, he lives in Jared’s shadow. Except for Jared. Jared sees him and appreciates him. He is relaxed, and tender and funny around Jared. But in the end, this was Jared’s fight. He sits at home and watches the march in front of the telly. He will craft a clever article for the local paper, a mix of his thoughts and Jared’s experience of the march. They make one helluva team. He feels heartened by the thought and goes back to his writing, wondering what Jared is feeling right now.

***

I am pumped. The chanting is hypnotic. A few blond heads dot the crowd, sympathizers who want to offer what little protection their white skin can afford us, the second of hesitation which could make the difference between a fractured skull and a glancing blow. We lock arms in a long chain of Blacks, inside and out. I am elated – I am part of something bigger than myself, taking a stance against daily humiliation and injustice. I think of Joshua back home. He was right not to come. He hates crowds, for one. And standing out or taking action. I must admit I am relieved as well – I will not have to protect him – he is safer in the house. Still, I miss him. As we near our neighbourhood, our street, our house, I chant louder, more boisterously. “Power to the people!” I feel powerful. I am invincible.

The police have put up barricades. Agents provocateurs taunt the crowd, wasps tormenting the placid beast until he loses patience. The crowd shrugs it off but a small rift has opened and is widening quickly. There is some pushing and shoving. A blond boy moves forward, willing himself a human shield, fellow peaceful combatants at his side. The police groan, the taunting continues. The blond boy is taking pictures. His newspaper accreditation hangs around his neck, protection and target all in one.

The police are armed with batons and bad breath. They stink of fear and injustice – we exude resolve and righteousness. How will all this play out on television?

The first shot pierces the air, sending everybody scrambling to the ground. It is not supposed to be like this, though everyone knows trouble lends credence to such movements. If you are willing to put your life on the line, surely the cause is worth it.

It is a lone shot. A white man is on the ground, cursing, struggling against the weight of the police officer, restraining him and his gun, radioing for help. The crowd has started moving again, grateful for the protection, black and white starting to blur, the incident another wound, strengthening the crowd’s resolve.

Joshua hears a shot, glass shattering, and falls, stricken by the lone bullet.

Dam(n)

The dam is leaking again and I am running out of ways of plugging the holes. The latest news had me crawling under the covers, cold to the bone, depleted. Why can’t I sleep? I am exhausted. Trying to run scenarios. What worked last time? I must get myself out of doors. Get my senses activated. I get up, grab a snack from the fridge, head outside to eat on the deck. The sun is shining bright. I eat mechanically. So tired. The sun is beating down on me. I rest my firehead down on the table. Firehead. It does feel like steam will soon shoot out of my ears.

I can feel the water rising inside me. Low tide is when I can make my way on firmer sand and leave traces of my passage. It’s not an easy walk. If I deviate or am distracted, I sink in the sand and stumble trying to make my way to the next tree, the next rock, the next landmark. There is lots to discover at low tide, the underbelly of the water body.

This is definitely high tide, where I am caught unawares in a maelstrom of thoughts. Suddenly, I’m in trouble. Angry water is swishing at my ankles, making walking perilous. The ground is shifting under me, throwing me off balance. Thoughts come in small bursts. They are incomplete, synapses misfiring, a little smoke where they hit a damp spot. It’s all foggy and sorry-looking inside. Stink of wet, rotten thoughts that need airing.

Was my dam ever tight? Does a dam not always leak? The vast reservoir of emotions is kept in check uphill, a little bit trickling down at a time. I am usually pretty happy with my dam: I add defense mechanisms to it; they usually hold up real good. Except lately. Lately, the water’s been too high, it’s been coming from all over, in rivulets and rivers, from the mountains and the rainfalls. It seems that’s all I see everywhere I look. Water coming down my cheeks, thoughts swimming in my head. Did I mention I was tired? This incessant paddling, threading water without respite. An occasional bit of driftwood sustains me briefly but it doesn’t last. It eventually sinks and I am left to my own devices.

I go under a few times – the water is opaque, still and cold. Nothing seems to live down there. I would have expected sharks, at least, and plenty of stuff floating around that would be edible. It turns out nobody wants my stuff. It probably sank to the bottom of me and only strong waves stirs them up. I go back up for air, why I wonder. Why not embrace the cold and stillness? Here I am, gasping, desperate to keep going. My foot finds a ledge. It is tiny, a mere bump, but hope surges through my body as I land one foot and then switch to the other, buying time, buying time.

And yet I wonder. What if I managed to tame the water? What about free diving? I trust that I can go under, and that my body will embrace the darkness. If I push past the fear and doubt, and fully immerse myself, what then? I quiet the voice within, screaming disagreement. I go inside, deep inside, past the fear, the cold, the isolation, the night – everything known and comforting. I keep pushing. I will run out of air, yet the need for air is not pressing. I will run out of time, yet time has slowed. I am back in the eternal womb, swathed by a gentle pressure as I keep heading down. I see flashes of light as I go – weak electric currents, photoluminescence. I keep going until I find vents –chemicals and heat are the answer. This is where the primal energy resides. This is what lies below. I have hit rock bottom and there is still life.

I pause briefly. Deep down, there is no thinking, just being. This deep there is intelligence but mostly survival instinct. I kick and head up. It is a long journey, back to the light. It feels longer as my organs decompress and start crying for air, as a baby cries for attention or food. I am focused and driven. I break the surface and inhale deeply. The fire in my lungs subsides.

Is this what I feared? This subtle shift in consciousness? I can’t wait to go back.

 

 

The River

The house stood by the river. So did the boys. Peter, Cedric, Josh and Aaron had all been told repeatedly by their respective moms to not go near the sleeping giantess. Aaron was the oldest and should have known better, except he was the one who dared them to come. He was 9 – Peter, my brother, was the youngest at 5, with Cedric and Josh vying for second spot.

 

The boys wore heavy clothes. The morning air was fresh and crisp still, though Easter neared. You could hear the creaking and sighing of the river trying to shed its coat. The breakup was imminent. The townspeople were concerned, and children warned to stay away from the fretful ice. But the boys had heard the mermaid’s song and they were under her spell.

 

Peter had joined the trio, though they kept telling him to go home, that this was not the place for a little boy. Wanting to prove himself, he was walking on the ice. He called to the others to come see – he had found a spot of open water. It was roiling, a deep current preventing the ice from laying dormant and waiting patiently to thaw. Peter was throwing twigs in the hole, watching them flee like horsemen. He loved nothing better than to play cowboys and Indians, horsing around the house. He told Cedric to hand him a big rock, that seemed frozen to the ground on the bank near the hole. The mist made the bank slippery and the rock would be hard to dislodge. Cedric ignored him. Peter persisted, wanting to throw the rock in. The others complained they would get splashed, that it was a dumb idea. His temper flared but they paid him no attention.

 

Still, the boys played on the ice. The river held them all in her gaze, the hole a hungry mouth, the foam her rabid teeth. She roared and spluttered and cajoled and hissed. The boys were cautious, and stayed on the edge, yet were drawn again and again to the living, breathing river. “There’s a big crack, here!” shouted Cedric. Aaron told the boys it was getting boring and they should go. Peter said they should try ice fishing. All eyes turned to him. He had found a branch and had tied together his boot laces to it. He had found a discarded red ribbon that he wanted to use as a lure. He had lain his red mitts on the ice so he could tie the laces together. His fingers were numb and he was fumbling with the knot. Aaron stepped in and tied the whole thing securely.

 

They heard the town clock chime eleven. The sun was shining weakly, out of a sorry sky. They cast no shadow on the ice; all around was gray, dirty white on the river. Their coats stood out starkly against the monochrome background. “The lure will float. We need a sinker,” said Aaron finally. The boys got busy. They would bring home fish for lunch! They ran back to the bank to look for something small and heavy. They were hot under the heavy coats, but focused on the task at hand. They found and discarded rubbish: an old shoe, a piece of plank, and rocks of various sizes. They settled on a beer cap that they glued on with a piece of gum. Peter kept repeating, “What a grand idea. I thought of it.” till the boys got annoyed. He was right though, and it wouldn’t do to send him home.

 

It was a busy Saturday on the main road and someone had seen the boys playing by the river. Aaron’s father came and scolded the boy holding the makeshift fishing rod. He dismantled the whole thing, re-laced Peter’s boots. He walked everybody back to the main street and sent the boys home where they were grounded. In the afternoon, several men were seen erecting a fence along the bank, among them Aaron’s father and the priest.

 

The sky had cleared and the men had downed their coats and cassock. It was proving to be a beautiful sunny afternoon. They were working in their shirtsleeves, with a sense of urgency, casting anxious glances where puddles had formed. They watched as the crack grew larger and the ice finally started sinking, the red mitts disappearing from view, gobbled greedily by the river. It was a poor offering. They hoped she would be satisfied and not call the children again.