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.