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 They’d had to refine their approach now that their real estate friend’s license had been revoked.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.