Our fair city was graced on January 2nd with a perfect snow – just enough to be pretty, not enough to get in the way. It melted as soon as it hit pavement but stuck to the trees and the foliage. Snow also threatened the following day but succeeded only in filling the air with moisture particles that reflected the available light. The world seemed to glow. Zero wind and temperatures just above freezing. A perfect photographer’s day.
Today I’m beginning a series of about a dozen works captured on that day, each with very little applied from the photo artist’s toolkit, each work in black and white (I still like to call it ‘noir’). It’s as near to straight photography as I get, hell and gone from the abstract work I’ve been doing. All were captured with my Nikon1 V3 using a superb 1Nikkor 18.5 lens.
I’ve always found January and February to be creative deserts. Once in a while, the universe grooves an easy fast ball your way. It would be rude not to say ‘thank you’ and smack it into the bleachers.
* * *
The child sat low, behind the pilot in the cockpit of the starfighter, half asleep and oblivious. Dropping smoothly out of light speed the craft skirted the edge of an asteroid belt, then just as expected the first raiders appeared, and the pilot plunged the starfighter into it.
Raiders were faster but with the move into the belt had to quickly reverse thrust. Advantage went to the pilot who knew where he was going. He fired off lasers to the left, then to the right, then back to the left again as he danced around tumbling space rocks. He positioned the starfighter behind a large one where the raiders could only wait for him to leave its shadow. When he did it was a quick shoot down a narrow corridor the pilot knew would circumvent a choke point where more raiders would be waiting; so quick a turn made in the shadow of the big asteroid that what few raiders saw it, missed it. The starfighter cruised free of them for the moment.
But this part was tricky. The pilot could be quick but due to the narrowness of the corridor also had to be extremely cautious. A spinning boulder or even another raider might pull in front of him at any moment. The child seemed to become more alert now, sensitive to the perils. The pilot steered left into a new, even narrower passageway, then right, then left again, then finally emerging into the clear with just the slightest yield to assure himself he wouldn’t move straight into something. He opened the throttle now. The raiders had been slowed by their own bottleneck. The pilot could see them closing but knew they would be too late, and sure enough he hung the starfighter right, under the umbrella of the planetary defenses and coasted into its atmosphere.
Then everything changed. The pilot’s grip on the controls eased. He could feel the starfighter’s connection to the ground as movement slowed and became measured; the starfighter itself morphed into a more sedate configuration, the cockpit surrounded by glass, the controls simplified. The child rustled behind him, gathering her possessions in anticipation of leaving the craft. And finally the pilot moved carefully into the drop off lane and neatly stopped, just up from the yellow school busses and the throng of teenagers mulling their way towards the building.
“Here you go, kid,” he said to his daughter.
“Thanks, dad,” she said, unbuckling in the backseat.
“Got your horn?” he asked because more than once she’d left her coronet in the car, her ambivalence for playing it overriding her memory to take it.
“Yes, dad,” she held it up, annoyed with his question, “And my backpack, and my lunch, and look,” she announced sarcastically, “I even got completely dressed and put my head on straight!”
“Ok, ok,” he said. “Mom will pick you up after band practice. I’ll see you tonight. Have a good day, I love you.”
The ‘love’ part always softened her a little. He hoped it wasn’t because he didn’t say it enough.
“Thanks, Dad.” She climbed from the sedan and closed the door. Of course, at fourteen, the ‘love’ part was less likely to come in the other direction.
He watched her join the stream of classmates into the building, used his laser – now his turn signal – before pulling away from the drop zone, slipping past the busses and the other parents. As he moved out of and away from the school zone everything changed back; his focus sharpened, the sedan re-morphed into a starfighter, he punched the rockets and roared back into his imagination.
Tea On The Porch
Every cycle around went faster. Every cycle, he burned off more fuel. Less fuel propelled him forward with greater urgency towards the inevitable. If he didn’t break. If he didn’t completely wear down.
Every cycle clicked off like a clock moving faster. Like calendar pages flipping. Twelve turns, each proceeded by ritual shifts effected at exactly the right moment. Unless … unless … NOW! He flicked the paddle shifter that split second later sending him deeper into the corner, breaking that little bit later, and got his nose there before his competitor who had no choice but to let him through. The competitor would attempt an undercut and take the inside on the next turn, but he knew that and blocked accordingly, and once past that turn the competitor could not keep up. But pushing had cost him. He felt himself slip just that little bit closer to too much. The wear, if not his competitors, was catching up.
“2.6 seconds back,” came The Voice in his earpiece. “Nine laps remaining. Plenty of time”
He said, “Left front is nearly gone.”
“Leader is worse off. You’re faster,” and then the motivational psychology, “Take it too him.”
‘I have been,’ he thought, ‘every time around’. Twelve turns, open throttle down twelve straights. Faster, faster, that little bit faster than everyone else. ‘Plenty of time’, he replayed The Voice’s statement in his mind. ‘To do what? One more pass? One more race?’ Flying down the back straight. Hard around the last hairpin, barely staying within track limits; a slip would have put him in the gravel. Blasting along the front straight and across the start/finish to turn one, perfect downshift, perfect breaking, perfect turn-in, perfect acceleration out. Rhythmic. Hypnotic. His perceptions wide, absorbing the peripherals as they rapidly came and went like seasons, each section its own environment, colors, sensations as relevant to the nature of each turn on the circuit. The roars of the engine, the wind, the tires against the track, the crowd and the helicopters whirling above with their cameras tracking his every move, all of it muffled to a whisper by his thick helmet. Gliding past as smoothly as taking tea on the front porch.
“2.2 seconds,” The Voice broke his concentration. ‘The Voice’ was not in rhythm. It came according to someone else’s priorities, as confining for his mind as the track limits. His entire existence confined to a narrow and predetermined path.
Turn five, another left hander, followed quickly by turn six back to the right; slip … slip … the wear was increasing. ‘Focus’, he thought. The Leader had taken tires six laps earlier than he had; that meant he should be six laps fresher. Six laps less wear. But there were now seven laps to go. “1.7 seconds,” came The Voice. But he knew he was going to have to ease off through the turns or wear down too soon. The Voice could not make that decision form him.
After the start/finish, “1.5 seconds; you’re slowing.” The Voice would be worried now, its context not perfectly synced to his own. Another start/finish took him to 5 laps remaining. “1.2 seconds. Now’s the time to go after him.” He knew if he could get to under 1 second the Leader’s tow would create an aerodynamic vacuum that would suck him closer. By turn ten and entering the back straight he felt that tow grab him. He could see the Leader slipping around even worse than he was, taking the turns even more cautiously.
“3 laps to go,” at the start/finish line, “and .4 seconds behind. You’re on him. Make it happen.”
Now the stalking began. Catching was easy. Passing, like comedy, was harder. He began matching the Leader’s movements around the circuit, shift for shift, break for break, looking for moments the pace was a tick slower than his own, like a pick pocket seeking an opening, a weakness. Twelve turns. Then another twelve turns. Over and over and over. Tick. Tick. Tick.
“Last lap,” The Voice came once more as he sailed across the start/finish, the roar of the engines echoing between the crowded, cheering grandstands made surreal and hushed in the reality of his dense helmet. He tried not to think of it as the ‘last’. What was the point of ending? Twelve more turns around one more circuit. The inevitable would take care of itself. Shift and accelerate. Shift and accelerate. Seasons streaking peripherally by. Rhythm. One more pass … NOW!
Remember, this started with the photo art. I began adding prose this past October at first as a lark, then kept it up because I like doing it, then committed to it because writing arguably drives me more than photography. Or at least as much. It didn’t take long for it to get more attention than the photo art. But this – this the blogging and the social media - started as a means of marketing the photo art.
I created 118 works of photo art this past year. A little less than the year before, and a lot less than the year before that, and deliberately so. My work has become much more complex in the last couple years and takes much more time to create. I wanted to emphasize quality over quantity; just a couple posts a week. Of those, I’ve added 69 of them to my permanent portfolio; a much greater percentage than normally winds up there, so the quality over quantity thing is working. Of those, certain works become my favorites.
To be the best of something during a year like this may be depreciating, and by any measurement it was a weird year. I started the year focusing on crowds and people, and then the pandemic hit and everybody went home. I promised myself I wouldn’t do florals this year and ended up doing some of the best florals of my life. I captured images more with the iPhone more than the Nikon because I found myself in situations in which I needed to be discrete. Weird. So without further ado, here are my five personal favorites from the year as the door hits its ass on the way out.
1. Alone In A Crowd
I love the color, the abstraction, the detail of the individual and the color bleed. It became one of my favorite works the moment it was finished. And I can never exhibit it or sell it. The work emerged from photographs captured at the St. Louis Art Museum, and as it features another artist’s work it can never stand as my own. It will live in a prominent location on a computer, and otherwise hardly see the light of day. Life’s like that.
2. Color Of The Day
Probably got the most attention this year, as far as social media hits. This rack of T-shirts was a marketing gimmick for the opening of a local ice cream shop, and shows why I consider it necessary to have a camera in my pocket (iPhone, in this case) at all times. Taken about six weeks after I completed ‘Alone In A Crowd’, it’s fairly clear how the earlier work informed the photographic capture for this one.
3. From The Labors Of Starving Artists
Particular corporations pay good money for staffs that design just exactly how to put products on shelves, in this case, vegetables picked by migrant workers for pennies an hour. It’s art. It’s just sitting there. But unlike ‘Alone In A Crowd’, it’s part of a constantly changing landscape, and doesn’t become art until somebody captures it and does something with it. Happy to be that someone. It’s interesting to me that my favorite three works are all wider than the standard 2:3 scale. Don’t know that it means anything, but it’s interesting.
4. Pickin’ Veggies
No, the initial photographic capture here did not come at the same time as the previous work, but it did come from the same place, the same aisle, even, just further down. I like the colors, the use of extrusions, and the contrasting human figures. Mostly, I suppose I like that I was able to produce a work involving people when Covid was making that difficult. Which I suppose is not a good reason. Critically, the work doesn’t really have a focal point (an ongoing weakness of mine) and it can seem sort of a blob. But, hey, art is personal.
5. High And Madison
Call this one the Top 5’s token noir work; there weren’t a lot but there were other noir works this year, as the following slide show demonstrates, and some of them actually sold (not this one). And, I suppose, the same lack of focal point mentioned with the previous work could be reflected here as well, though I personally am very happy with the composition. I love the infrared effect of this one and the eeriness the filtering achieved. There are techniques here I’d love to use more often, but the lighting has to be very specific for it to work.
* * *
Finally, in no particular order, the rest of my top 25 works are here in this slide show.
What sail appears on the larboard tack with greater promise, thought I, as the Captain opens his glass and peers into the distance. Light breezes, a gentle Caribbean Sea, the bluest of skies and we sit square in the path any Spanish treasure ship must take for the distant safety of Cadiz. “Mr. Lambdin,” the Captain calls to me, his first lieutenant, “Please take the ship fifteen degrees larboard and send a midshipman aloft with a glass to survey our new friend.”
“Aye, sir!” says I, and give the appropriate commands to the proper crew, the ship heeling to its new course in good order and Midshipman Dewey scampering as high as the main mast crosstrees to scan the horizon. As the minutes pass in high anticipation what was a bare smudge on the horizon becomes more defined as sail advancing towards us. “What say you, Mr. Dewey?” I called.
“She’s Spanish, sir,” the spry midshipman hollers back. “But something’s amiss.” He climbs down, rushes back to the poop deck to report more clearly. “Most definitely Spanish, sir, I can make out the ensign, and a big ‘un! But she’s maneuvered not at all, even though clearly she must see us. And her tack is off for the wind and sails spill their winds lubberly.”
The Captain ponders this.
“Be a good hour or more before we’re up to her in this wind,” I tell the Captain.
He nods. “Send the crew to their breakfast, Mr. Lambdin.”
The crew rush to their biscuit, knowing full well quarters would be called thereafter and they would man their guns for battle. Already I can hear the murmurs of “treasure ship” amongst them. I move closer to the Captain and say quietly, “If indeed it is a ship of the line…”
“Which seems likely,” the Captain told me.
“…our frigate would be greatly outgunned.”
“Are you suggesting we decline battle?”
“Not at all,” I say, “As we approach bow on bow we could heel and present a raking broadside.” Well aimed, such an onslaught would send shot through the length of the Spaniard, wreaking havoc, destruction and death at a fantastic rate.
“It would even the odds considerably,” the Captain agreed, “Unless of course its captain gave orders to heel at the same moment placing us broadside to broadside, doubling and then some our number of guns.”
“Placing us at an extreme disadvantage,” I nodded.
The Captain leaned closer to me. “But if indeed she is at hazard …” He let that trail off. A ship handled so in this part of the sea carried a particular possibility. “Please take the glass forward,” he handed his over to me, “Keep sightings to yourself.”
“Aye, sir,” I said and moved quietly to the forecastle, making light small talk with the crew as I went. I watched off and on until the big ship had closed to less than half, no more than 40 minutes off now, and moved back to the Captain who cocked his ear close to receive my report. “I don’t see it,” I told him. “But the ship is barely making headway, perhaps moving only with the current.” He nodded. Then I told him, “It does, sir, sit exceptionally low in the water. Whatever it carries, it’s loaded to the gills.”
The Captain nodded. Moved away. He checked that the crew had finished with breakfast, which it had dispensed with quickly, and shouted, “Beat to quarters if you please, Mr. Lambdin!”
I had only just opened my mouth to shout the order before the young drummer struck up ‘Hearts of Oak’ and the crew rushed madly in every direction to take their posts, royal marines climbing the shrouds and rat lines with muskets with standing orders to pick off the officers as opportunity provided. The Captain watched the big Spaniard carefully, then gave orders to adjust course to pass to windward – clearly, he wanted to be upwind of the ship if possible. But as we crossed that invisible line by which the guns were in range it was clear the Spaniard was in no condition to fight, its sails hanging loosely, and its gun ports closed. “Haul in all sail,” the Captain ordered, and the topmen scurried aloft and made it happen. We would coast to within two cables. No reaction by the Spaniard. No activity seen.
By now, every officer and the more experienced crew had a sense of things. The Captain called for the second lieutenant. “Take a small party over to her. Do not board her, sir. Take a look over the rail if you can do so without having your head blown off, then report what you see back to me.”
“Aye, sir,” the second lieutenant touched his tricorne hat and called for the boatswain. Everyone watched as the small barge made its way between the ships with still no notice from the Spaniard. The second lieutenant made his way up the hull by the boarding battens, ducked his head over the top a couple times, then raised himself higher and made good observations for several minutes before returning.
“I seen it, sir,” he said to the captain once back onboard and hurrying to the poop deck. “The Yellow Jack,” he named the flag to be hoisted by ships in quarantine. “It’s sprawled on deck where it’s fallen, likely poorly winched, sir. Men are lying sick or dead all about.”
The Captain nodded, looked at me from tops of his eye sockets. “Plague,”
Those men what heard him whispered to those next to them, and on to those next to them, and word went like a hot wind.
“Seems clear, sir,” I agreed.
The Captain clasped his hands behind him. “Well, gentlemen,” he said, “What we have before us is all human enterprise; enough gold and silver waiting to make us all rich beyond our dreams. But if we proceed to take possession business as usual we die before we can spend a farthing of it.” He gave me ‘the eye.’
I stepped towards the rail and shouted to the waiting crew below, “What bastards among you think themselves immune!?”
As the sun rose above the frosted forest on Klemogad’s 50th birthday he was taken aside by his father, who said to him, “Even had I not been there for the birth of you and your five siblings I would know by the curly hair on your feet that you are now an adult elf.
“But, Klemogad,” he went on, “On this, your Day of Ascension, I must tell you that of all my 83 children you have presented me with more trials than any other. You have an impulsiveness that requires a discipline I cannot give you, and an inventiveness which we simple woodland elves cannot harness. You are old enough now, and you must go to the Village. Only there will you receive the purpose and the stern direction you need. You must go to work for The Fat Elf.”
So the following morning, his head still hazy from the food and drink of the previous evening’s libations, he gathered up the huge cloud-cloth that had been prepared for him and took it to the clearing. There on a knob of earth he fastened himself to its harness and on a proper gust of wind tossed it into the air. It unfolded itself as the breeze filled it and lifted Klemogad’s tiny body into the air with a firm jerk. With its control reigns he steered it higher where the gusts were even greater and then, a quick look back at the dew sprinkled woods twinkling in the morning light, he steered himself north.
He seemed to float serenely amongst the clouds, though he knew he was actually moving at a spectacular speed. Hours and hours he glided smooth as the mulberry honey he loved on warm biscuits, until the first buffeting told him he was getting close to the barrier which protected and hid the Village from the world. He felt in his pocket for the piece of granite crystal his father had given him, and as he gripped it, he could feel it extend its radiant energy around him. That energy would see him through the barrier. As the buffeting increased he saw a dark blob coming at him, growing larger, FAST, and he realized that as he was entering the barrier something else was coming out! He jerked the reigns hard to the right, barely missing the onrush of hoof and antler and sleigh that flashed past. The turbulence of its wake sent him and his cloud-cloth spinning. He pulled at the reigns and managed to regain a semblance of direction, but he was rapidly losing altitude, the cloud-cloth having torn in one spot. He fought for control, pulling the reigns hard in an attempt to slow, disoriented by the haze that enveloped him. Then the haze dissipated, and he found himself settling into a giant fir tree that was adorned in ornaments. He grabbed hold, aware that all around were buildings and chattering, excited elves. A few ornaments went crashing to the ground many feet below.
He slipped from the harness and climbed down. The air was sweet with cinnamon and nutmeg and vanilla. Clapboard cottages and buildings, seemingly made of gingerbread, surrounded him. He hit the ground and found himself in an open square, the elves attention directed towards each other and not about him at all; they had, in fact, hardly noticed him. An elf came in his direction, veered into the tree, and threw up.
By now confused, he stepped towards a nearby group sitting in the snow against a bench. One was asleep, two were half-asleep and singing, but the fourth, holding a bottle, smirking, watched him approach. “Howdy, pilgrim,” he greeted him.
Klemogad nodded a guarded hello, scanned the merriment surrounding him, and asked a disbelieving, “Is this The Village?”
The elf chuckled. “Yes, yes, pilgrim, you’ve reached Santa’s Village. Let me guess; you hit your ascension and your old elf figured you were too much trouble and sent you packing, am I right?”
Klemogad nodded. The elf tossed him a fresh bottle that’d been at his side. “Drink up!”
“What is all this,” Klemogad asked.
The elf said, “Kris Kringle has hit the air! It’s Christmas Eve. He’ll be gone all night. This is our time to party!”
“Oh,” Klemogad said, eyeing the bottle in his hand.
“Work office is that way,” the elf pointed. “Get yourself assigned to a workshop tonight and tomorrow nobody will remember you’re new and you won’t have to go through that new elf orientation nonsense.” He waved towards another elf and a girl stepped next to him. Klemogad’s eyes went wide as Christmas stars; he’d never seen a girl like her. She was mesmerizing! Her eyes seemed to bore into his, and she smiled bemused. The elf asked her, “Could you take this newbie over to the work office and get him signed up for something; hey bud,” he said to Klemogad, “What do you like to build?”
Klemogad blinked at him.
Again to the girl, “Yeah, probably should get him signed up for ‘general’ or maybe ‘clean-up’ so he can get his bearings. After that, you can do what you want with him. Oh, and pilgrim,” he went on, “Don’t ever call him ‘The Fat Elf’ here.”
She took him by the arm. “Let’s go, tiger.”
“Party hardy,” the elf told him. “They’ll let us sleep tomorrow, then starting the day after you’ll work your ass off.” Klemogad felt the girl pulling him away like an elfin cloud-cloth taking him to a new world. “That’s what we do here,” the elf called after him. “Bust our asses cranking out what’s next.”
The white Santa beard smelled like peanut butter.
That was because the last officer that used it had stuffed his face incessantly with peanut butter filled crackers from vending machines during the previous shift. There were even crumbs still in it. The beard was also supposed to be both fluffier and whiter, but by then was old enough and ragged enough it looked like something a drunk subway Santa would wear. As that was what he was pretending to be undercover, he supposed that was alright. But it disturbed his own sensibilities of what Christmas was supposed to be.
He was part of a team of three undercover officers dressed as Santa effecting a rotating surveillance of the subway looking for pickpockets and purse thieves amongst the Christmas shoppers. The stations smelled oily and trashy, and the trains were odiferous with body odor and mold. They were crowded with tired, stressed people lugging packages and sacks on and off the trains. Holiday angst bubbled amidst a plethora of shifty characters seeking exploitation of it, half-dozen of whom he’d busted for various infractions over the past week. He stood to the side while scanning the bustle getting on and off the latest train and recognized the complete dearth of Holiday cheer anywhere around him, including within him.
He noticed at that moment a tired young woman carrying two big bags and leading a small girl by the hand. The little girl saw him and stopped dead, which pulled the woman to a stop, which clearly annoyed her, which she was also clearly too tired to fight. The little girl pointed at him excitedly. Seemed to be saying ‘mommy’. The woman sighed as the little girl pulled her towards him.
“I don’t think Santa has time…” the young woman was trying to pause everything.
“Santa!” the little girl stopped in front of him and shouted. He tried to smile at her. The young woman also tried to smile, wearingly, as he did indeed look like less than a legitimate Santa character.
“Hi, there,” he said.
As he sounded sober the young woman said apologetically, “You’re the first Santa we’ve seen.”
He sized the young woman up in a second. Clean but cheaply attired. Dragging her daughter with her shopping because there’d been no one else to watch her. No wedding ring. Carrying bags from discount stores, so not much money to spend. Worn out as she tried to squeeze Christmas shopping in between work. “What’s your name,” he asked the child, and she happily told him. “What would you like for Christmas?”
Her face lit up excitedly. “PlayStation!” she exclaimed.
Her mother gave him such a low expression he knew there was no possible way she could afford to buy her child anything even remotely close to a PlayStation. He recognized the same juxtaposition between Christmas expectations and reality that had soured his own mood. “Wow, cool!” he told the little girl, then asked, “What do you suppose I should bring your nice mommy?”
That seemed to jar the little girl’s thought process. She was still smiling, but she looked with bright eyes at her mommy. An expression came about her he’d seen in children when he knew they were subconsciously drinking in perceptions well beyond their ability to understand. “Well,” she began after a pause, “My Mommy would really like a better job. And a coffee maker that actually works.”
He knelt closer to her. “I’ll try really hard, OK. Jobs are very difficult for Santa, but maybe if you help me. If you’re the best girl you can be, help mommy around the house and stuff, maybe together you and I can make it happen.”
“Okay!” the little girl said happily. She looked back to her mommy, then back to Santa, then said, “Maybe you could just put that PlayStation towards a coffee maker. That and a toaster!”
“You’re a good girl,” he told her, “I’ll tell the elves to get busy on it!”
“Thank you, Santa!” she beamed as her mother half pulled her away, mouthing a ‘thank you’ as she did.
The officer watched them disappear up the stairs and actually felt something akin to Christmas come over him, but with as much lament as warmth; warmth that he had tried to do something good, lament that it wasn’t enough. If he knew where they lived, he’d have a Mr. Coffee on their doorstep that very day. And a toaster.
But he didn’t. And now smelling both regret and peanut butter, he looked up and saw a woman halfway down the platform, trying desperately to hold onto the thin strap of her purse while a guy tried to yank it off her shoulder, and he shouted, “Stop immediately” and sprinted towards them.
I remember when Grandma came to live with us in an excited avalanche of hugs and happy tears. Oh, and curses. “It’s so damn good to see you two little shits,” she blathered as she squeezed my little brother and I into a soggy sandwich.
“That’s just the way Grandma talks,” Mom told us. “And don’t repeat it.” Dad suggested that Grandma was a good reminder that for every curse there was a better, more intelligent word to use. That advice stuck as the adult ‘me’ began my career as an editor; of course, it works in the opposite direction as well. No two-cent word is above replacement by a good “god damned”.
Mom and Dad warned us Grandma was coming to live with us a couple weeks before she did, and that we’d have to get used to it. But to my thinking things got way better. Grandma had been alone and sad on that spread down in Hawkins County, Tennessee, since Grandpa passed the year before. Mom said as the oldest it was her responsibility to bring her up to Chicago, even though we lived in a condo about a third the size of the house my Uncle, her only other child, had in the suburbs. Uncle thought Grandma would be an “unsettling” influence on my cousins and insisted, instead, that he knew of good ‘retirement villages’ nearby. Grandma told him in no uncertain terms, “You ever try to put me in one of those places I’ll have your balls for lunch with green tomatoes and sausage”.
Besides, Grandma had always loved visiting us in the city and loved living in it even more. We had a fourth-floor condo just north of downtown, not far from the Red Line, which she had figured out within a month. “God damned ‘L’ will take my ass anywhere I want to go”, she said. She went downtown at least a couple times a week and up to Wrigley a couple times a month. Even down to Comiskey on occasion. She started taking me to the Art Institute fairly regularly; I guess I was 10 or 11 by then. She loved the impressionists and I loved Lichtenstein.
Her arrival meant my brother and I had to share a bedroom, but that was okay. We set her room up with her own TV and a reading chair, but she mostly liked the front room where she watched every single Cubs game possible and spent most of it complaining about those “shit for brains” out on the field. But on those occasions they won, oh she would be in a good mood, laughing and dancing around the condo. Grandma liked to sit out on the balcony a couple times a month and smoke a cigar. Dad never failed to get a chuckle out of that sight; little old lady sitting outside no matter the weather smoking a cigar so big she could barely wrap her hand around it. She kept her whiskey drinking back in her room, mostly late at night. I never got the impression she did a whole lot of it, but I could have been wrong. Dad, who was something of a scotch snob, tried to introduce her to the more expensive, celebrated brands, but she preferred the cheap stuff.
Uncle never liked the idea of her living in the city and thought her wanderings dangerous. He distrusted the city’s diversity and bustle. He’d bring up the retirement village thing every now and again, and she’d cuss at him for an hour. Irony was, Uncle grew up sort of a ‘mommy’s boy’, and Mom used to tell her, “You know, you’re the reason he turned out this way because you’re the one who doted on him.” Grandma would tell her she had to as Grandpa was always trying to beat his ass, which she never experienced because she was a girl. “Well, you over did it,” Mom said.
It was Uncle’s genealogy work that brought the most hostile reaction. Uncle had done extensive research tracing our family all the way back to the second boat into Jamestown. There were just two slight holes. Hawkins County was the epicenter of peoples identified as ‘Melungeon’; early America multi-ethnic families of European, African American, and Native American backgrounds who migrated to frontier regions, settled near each other, and intermarried. In Uncle’s family trees there was a great-great-grandfather and a great-great-great-grandfather whose wives could only be identified by a first name. ‘Mary’ in the first case, and ‘Sarah’ in the second. That was a dead giveaway to a person of color being drawn into the family lineage. To Uncle’s thinking, that meant a Native American. “Your Mom and I are 1/16th Cherokee,” he happily told me during one family dinner, clearly delighted by the romance of being part Indian.
“Horseshit!” Grandma fairly spat at him. “You’d like to whitewash that your ancestors include freed slaves, you asshole! You’re more like 1/32nd black, by my reconning. Pull your god damned head out of your god damned ass, you’re as white trash as the rest of us whether you want to be or not! Shit for brains dumb ass!”
I was in my freshmen year at college when she had her first stroke, and in my sophomore year when she had her second, bigger one. After that she was confined to a wheelchair and slurred as much as talked, so Uncle finally got his wish, and she was moved to a nursing home out in the suburbs. She lingered three more years, passing right before Christmas when I was in my first year at the publishing house. Uncle gave a eulogy in which he called her a sweet angel, which, when we got back to the car, Mom cut loose on. “That despicable son of a bitch,” she groused, and Mom rarely cursed, so I knew how pissed she was. “He’s already sanitizing her memory to fit that elitist, pious, racist pea brain!”
I’ve wondered since if that is actually a common approach to memory. We fill gaps in our family trees with the ancestors we’d like to have. Our lives are a conglomeration of complicated emotions, selfish motivations, and flawed perceptions; do we reorganize the past into rationalizations supporting what we’ve done to ourselves? We’re addicted to ascribing order to chaos. Is any of it worth a good god damn?
When the big sedan pulled to the pumps it concluded a half hour of inactivity consistent with this time of night at the quick shop. It was an older car, American-made with an inefficient gasoline engine, and beige. Out of it stepped a beige man; big, older, American made. The clerk watched him study the gasoline pump as though it were modern art. ‘Just swipe a card’, the clerk thought to himself. He hit the ‘Pay Inside’ button instead.
The clerk had come back to town after his mom got sick, his dad having passed some years before. Nobody wanted this shift because it was, indeed, so boring. There was enough small industry and service business on this side of town that the quick shop saw good traffic over the workday and just after, but the evenings were near deserted. Few lived close by and there weren’t any fast-food places; there was just no reason to come over here. But this was where the two-lane came into town from the west, so there were sporadic travelers coming in or going out who needed a fill-up who rationalized staying open. Like the beige man.
As he finished and walked slowly towards the quick shop a pick-up pulled in. Beige Man studied the driver as he deftly worked the controls of the pump and swiped a card. He reached the door as a little electric car also pulled in and plugged up to one of the new charge units. Beige Man watched that too before finally pulling the door open and entering.
“Evening”, the clerk said cheerfully. He didn’t really feel cheerful; he just said it that way. But at least, he thought, he was interested in this guy.
Beige Man nodded, mumbled what might have been a ‘hello’, announced the price indicated by the pump as if asking a question.
“Okay,” the clerk said.
Beige Man slowly took cash out of an old wallet and handed it to him. He handed him his change back. Beige Man seemed to be eying him as he folded it into his wallet, then asked, “Could you help me with some directions?”
“Sure, I’ll try. Where are you heading?”
“Well … there’s a town I’m looking for. I lived there once when I was young. I just can’t recall the name.” Then he proceeded to describe the town. He described a village with several churches and unmarked streets where everybody knew everybody, and nobody felt a need to lock their doors. All the businesses were owned by local guys and everybody worked somewhere. “We could get two TV channels, but later a third one came in on the UHF band, so we had all three networks then.”
And the clerk thought, ‘Networks?’
He talked about some of the buildings that were there, a railroad that came through regularly, how people went about their day. “There wasn’t any of this,” he swept a hand back outside.
“Any of what?” the clerk asked.
“Well,” Beige Man tried to explain, “Those crazy pumps with all the buttons. Or any of that,” he seemed to point at the guy finishing with his pick-up. That guy was not beige. He was a different shade.
“What d’ya mean”?
“Are you sure he paid for his gas?”
“Sure, he used a card.”
“How do you know he didn’t cheat you?”
The clerk checked his monitor. “Shows right here that he paid.”
“Yeah, but how do you know?”
“Doesn’t happen that way,” the clerk told him.
Beige Man shook his head. “And I don’t know what the heck that is,” he nodded at the electric car where the driver, not a guy, shade indeterminate, stood checking her cell, waiting the 15 minutes it would take to get back to a 75 percent charge.
“You’re sure this town is around here?” the clerk asked, attempting to pull the conversation back towards relevance.
“Yeah!” Beige Man replied, by now a little more excited. But then he seemed to retreat into confusion. “I actually thought it was just back up the road,” he pointed west down the two-lane. “That last town, or maybe the town before that.” He tried to fill in with more details, hoping it might jar the clerk’s memory. He talked about family gatherings and reunions in the park. He talked about Fourth of July celebrations and a big Christmas tree on Main Street everybody drove around, no problem. No traffic lights anywhere. One municipal police officer, who rarely had to do anything but give out a warning ticket. No one out of place.
The clerk thought, as Beige Man talked, that he’d heard his mom talk about things like that, about how things were as a girl when the town was smaller. He thought of her laying in her room where she spent most of her time now, and how he’d sit with her when he wasn’t working. He’d moved his computer there and turned it so she could watch him make art using a graphic drawing tablet. Seeing his abstract art emerge on his monitor seemed to spark her thoughts, but her recollections were not pleasant. What Beige Man described fondly, she described as ignorant and backward.
“Tell me,” the clerk interrupted Beige Man in mid-sentence. “Are you looking for a place, or a time.”
Beige Man stopped talking. A hopeful expression became slack-jawed and he broke eye contact. He looked back outside; the other drivers were gone. A few seconds hesitation before his head and shoulders drooped and he mumbled a ‘thank you’, then moved somnolent out the door.
He found the young, fragile creature just past a short rise, huddled against a small, rocky outcrop, shivering as much in fear as in the piercing cold wind that accompanied the enemy as it closed in. His horse deftly stepped down the rise, brought him close, then stood stationary as he gathered the small calf in his arms and remounted with it tied across. He clicked his tongue and shook the reigns just a bit and the horse knew to retrace its steps around the outcrop, back up the rise and towards home. Finding the lost little creature had in and of itself been a miracle. Getting home past the enemy, past Winter, through the icy, ferocious blizzard about to spring at them, that might be the harder part.
Beyond the rise stretched a treeless plain where the gale swept unopposed from the horizon. Snow blew in a straight line, icy as knives, increasing in volume as he went. He huddled lower against the calf hoping to combine their warmth. The horse’s neck plus the wide brim of his hat helped shield them just a little, but the tips of his gloved fingers curled around the reigns, had lost their feeling. He tried to control his shivers. There was little he could do from this point. His horse knew what to do.
His mind began to drift as they moved across the featureless landscape. The freezing cold, the whiteout of the snow and the howl of the wind seemed to have placed them in an alien void hostile to existence while at the same time as vulnerable as a blank canvas. As it drifted his mind began to paint. Short brush strokes, warm colors, impressionistic at first, then overlaid by flashing, broad, modernistic lines in vibrant hues. A summer world. A peaceful garden. A golden plain under a blue sky. Scene after scene supplanting each other as though a gallery of every pleasant vision he’d ever known were rolling through his brain, the exhibition moving while he remained immobile. The gale’s flat howl now overlaid by music from every song he’d ever heard played on a Saturday night in a hot, stuffy hall crowded with warm, laughing, dancing, drunk bodies.
He wasn’t sure how long they’d been at it, but he sensed the second the gale slackened, and knew they had dropped into the broad depression that encompassed the house and the barn and the outbuildings. The horse seemed to raise his head and increase his canter in pride. He saw bright light in the windows of the house, likely steaming with the scent of supper. He knew the calf would soon be safely snuggled into a warm bed of hay. He knew the horse expected his muzzle would soon be buried into a bag of oats. He knew he would sleep in his own bed that night, dug in naked under thick blankets next to his woman. And in his mind he saw a painting of it all that was indestructible.
The hammering woke him, as it always did, and lately woke him more often. It was the thing that came next that terrified him.
He didn’t lay there long, in the dark next to his peaceful wife, once it started, because once it started he knew what was coming, and he knew if it came while he lay there his wife would sense it and she would no longer be peaceful. That probably bothered him more than anything else, more than anything it might do it him. He knew he was doomed. But his wife, she hadn’t done anything to anybody; nothing but give her love to one such as he, and he would do what he could to protect her from it. He slid quietly from the covers, rustling the bed as little as possible, moonlight leaking through the window curtain illuminating his robe on the chair. He put the robe on and stepped into his slippers and slowly closed the door behind him, silent but for the slow hammering that only he could hear.
He knew the best path to the living room, the path least likely to find any creaks in the floor, the path away from his girls’ room and least likely to draw their attention. Just enough moonlight guided his steps but drained all the color and joy his wife had swirled into their home; drained and desolate, just like him. He filled up most of a tumbler of scotch. It would help now, and he would need it later. Sat in the big ottoman under the window next to the bookcase in the moonlight. The trick would be to finish the scotch and get through the terrors and then back to bed before his wife woke. He didn’t always make it. She must be sleeping lighter because she’d been catching him more often. She always came right over to him and knelt beside him and put her head in his lap and said, “There, there, my love, it’s alright. It’s all over. There, there,” and it was as though she were trying to suck the pain out of him, take it upon herself, her sweet innocence soiled by his sins, and he just couldn’t have that. His girls might be hurt next if he couldn’t fix this, he feared, and his son, his strong and brave son, he thought, he’s already started to figure it out. He knows there’s something wrong. He was out on his own now, his son, working construction and probably looking at military service himself soon, but he still came home for Sunday dinner and looked at him with such perceptiveness that he knew, he knew, his son sensed something wrong. And he knew he was going to have to sit his son down soon and tell him.
He’d tell him, “I was just a kid, then. Not even as old as you are. I didn’t get shore leave very often, so me and another guy went down to Hotel Street. Always a crowd of sailors up and down there on Saturday night drinking cheap beer. Not good beer, either. Just cheap. You’ve no idea, but we drank it because it was all we could afford and we really wanted to tie one on, you know?” He imagined that his son would nod and smile in empathy. Just understand what he was saying a little, that’s what he really wanted. “Trouble was, along with all us sailors there were also marines, always so damn superior. I’ve always hated those jarheads. Sure enough, we got into a drunken brawl, then missed curfew, and wound up in the brig. That’s where I was Sunday morning when the bombs fell.”
He gulped scotch, the hammering loud and clear, looked across to where he imagined his son was sitting. “If we’d made curfew, I’d have still been in my bunk. I’d have probably gone down with the ship. With all my buddies. As it was, when everything got sorted out they put me on guard duty at night, right there on the dock next to my sunken ship. Right where my buddies were entombed.”
He took another long draw; he couldn’t look his son in the eye even in his imagination. “When the Arizona went down, she didn’t completely flood. There were air pockets, and there were men in those pockets. Living men. But nobody could get to them, see. Not without endangering themselves. Word came down to stop rescue attempts so no one else would get killed. But those men alive in those pockets, they had hammers, and they began hammering the hull to let us know they were there. But we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t do anything but stand there and listen to it.” Another long draw, emptying the tumbler. He crossed the dark room to fill it again, sat back down. “First there were several guys hammering, then just a few. One night, there was just one, me standing there alone on guard, middle of the night, listening to that one guy slowly hammering. Then all of a sudden it just stopped. Dead silence. And I’ve never been so scared in my life. I started trembling head to toe, teeth chattering. Took me hours to push it back down and keep it there.
“But, son, since then, and more often lately, at night when the world is quiet, that hammering…“
And it was right then, there in his chair in the dark by the window, that the hammering in his head stopped. And the terror engulfed him as a cold wave, icy and menacing. He gulped his scotch, spilling much of it down his chin, squeezed his eyes as tight as he could, his whole body in combat with his brain to push the terror back down, down, into the dark water. Then his wife’s head was there in his lap and her soothing voice saying, “There, there. There, there.”
Clothes on her back, two guitars in the backseat (one acoustic, one electric), the run-down vehicle itself, and several hundred dollars from cleaning out her account via the cash machine on the way into work at the restaurant on the edge of her small town. And she still wasn’t sure she was going to go through with it.
Saturday night – Marshal allowed “light and low” electric instruments after 8 p.m., so she grabbed her electric. He’d agreed to “let” her play for zero pay between sets so long as she continued waitressing for wages as cheap as he could get away with. Oh, and she had to stick with lighter country standards, and had to do it in that soft, pleasant voice he called “lady-like”.
Her own stuff, her own style, only she knew about it.
Mom might have caught a note or two as she composed and practiced it in her room, always with the volume running through headphones. If she had, she’d dealt with it by pretending otherwise – same way she handled anything unpleasant. Dad certainly had not and would have hit the roof if he had. Just wouldn’t tolerate nonconformity in any daughter of his. Neither he or Mom greatly approved of her waitressing at a place that served liquor and hosted live music nor could they understand why, a couple years past high school, she hadn’t already married. What about that nice Petey who went to their church and whom she’d gone to the movies with a couple times and clearly thought more was going to happen that was or ever would. Every part of her life felt repressed, channeled, prescribed.
She’d plotted this night for months. Now, if only she had the guts.
Apron went around her waist at 4 p.m., right on time. Surprising how many people went for supper that early. Marshall was running his chicken fried steak special – that always drew the folks into the single dining room with the bar to one side and the tiny stage on one end. Larger, slightly younger crowd by five-thirty, six. Couples on dates by six-thirty. Band, ‘The Rodgers’, all guys over fifty-five, began tuning at seven-thirty. Traffic changed over to drinks and finger food. Eight o’clock, The Rodgers began their light set of country standards. Dad came in and perched at the bar, mainly talking to Marshall behind it. Petey was already there with a couple buddies, watching, smiling at her. Forty minutes and The Rodgers ended their first set. Now it was her turn.
She took up her guitar, caressed its smooth surface. First songs nice and light, soft ‘little girl’ voice she’d been coached in. Third number, nice and light, soft ‘little girl’ voice, but she’d deviated to Joni (hardly standard) and turned the volume on the guitar one notch higher. Dad looked annoyed. Marshall smiled as it ended but held his palm out and moved it down – the ‘lower volume’ sign. “Let’s hear some more Loretta”, he suggested in that voice that was not really a suggestion. Petey smiled and nodded. Just an extension of other’s will, she thought. No one is really interested in hearing me.
At that moment she lost all fear blowing up her life. All nervousness disappeared. Her intestines went iron. Her hand squeezed the neck of her guitar in a lover’s clench. If it had been a gun she was set to massacre the room. She cranked the volume all the way up.
BAAM came the first chords so loud half the room jumped. Everybody shut up. Marshall and her Dad both jerked their heads towards her, mouths agape, eyes wide. Loud, quick, driving chords followed. Marshall took a half step in her direction …
… came the first lyrics. She gave him a glare that froze him. That nice and light, soft ‘little girl’ voice was gone. This was Janis, Amy, Melissa channeled, less sang than shouted, less shouted than spat …
To how I’m telling you this works
She pounded that guitar, screamed at the mic, stopped her heel in time, gyrated her hips, shoved her pelvis towards the room and told them what she thought. Looked right at her Dad for the line …
Head up your ass view of the world
… looked right at Petey for …
Insignificant boring junk
… looked right at Marshal for …
Cheap-ass petty dictator ruling a deep-fried empire
And then she started cussing. Her fingers bearing down on the frets up and down the guitar neck in rapid strokes, reloading bullets. Frustrations, repressions, expectations violently rejected.
I will not be propagated!
Propagate yourselves away from me!
Away from me!
Away from me!
Take your tiny insecurities and
Propagate yourselves away from me!
BAAM BAAM BAAAAAAAAM she hit her last chords; let them hang and fade, finally slid her fingers up the guitar neck and brought it all to a close. Two guys in the back started cheering. The rest of the room sat motionless, in shock, literally and figuratively, white. She unplugged and headed to the door. Marshal gave her a dirty look. She gave him a dirtier one back. She jumped into her car, vaguely picturing her Dad’s confused, almost wounded expression, pulled the route to East Nashville’s alt rock scene into consciousness, and buried the throttle.
Master Lee sits just there yonder upon Traveler. They is the only ones not muddy, not hunkered down in the ground. I hope there ain’t no sharpshooters across Union way what can see him and be good enough at shootin’ to put a ball in his brain. Master Lee’s about all we still gots.
Funny me seein’ him now I’m fixin’ to vamoose. Maybe I’m only seein’ him ‘cause I’ve already made it far enough back. Come night, I’ll be gone. Me along with about half the army, done tricked away, gone home. Home where’s we should’ve always been. Ain’t just that we’s hungry, though I’m here to tell you powerful damn hungry we are. I actually managed to get myself in on a bit of coosh some nights ago but had barely aught before and hardly aught since. Men down to catchin’ and eatin’ what rats still be around.
Thing is, lookit Master Lee over there – clear to me he been eatin’; maybe not high on the hog but starvin’ he ain’t. Getting’ by fine, it seems, and got a couple slaves attendin’ him besides. And see, that there’s the thing; ain’t just that we’re hungry. We been fightin’ and dyin’ and now starvin’ to hold on to some sort of a life we ain’t had and ain’t never gonna have anyway. I’ve been doin’ this from the beginning. I got whooped up into a ruckus early on and I was there in Montgomery with my troop and I heard Jeff Davis and that Stephens vice president get up there and lay their hands on the good book and then go speechifying, and I heard them say then, right then and there that this here war is all about the slaves. That Stephens guy got up there and went into a tirade over how bad the Negro is and how this slavery stuff was a God given right and ain’t no Yankees gonna tell him different. That be close to four years back now and I admit it riled me up, but the thing is I don’t see now how this slavery thing is my affair at all. They got all us poor whites fightin’ so’s the rich whites can have slaves that just makes them richer and look more so down on us poor whites doin’ they biddin’. And I don’t see no more how they biddin’ matters a hoot in hell.
So I’m a gonna get; leave this Petersburg place in its mud. Hell, I dunno what’s gonna happen. Don’t know how those rich whites‘ll manage without their slaves or how the slaves will manage without them; don’t believe they know either. Don’t know that anybody’s really thought about it. Don’t know how we’re all gonna treat each other afterwards; don’t know that I care. DO know that it cain’t be much worse than I been gettin’ treated, basically lied to and used from the start. Not all a us figured that out, but a bunch have and I’m off to join ‘em. Home to my Mama; guess she’s still there, anyways. (I know Pa ain’t – saw him fall). See how the farm still is – hear’d there’s been lots of destruction. If it ain’t; if it’s all shot up, well hell, I hears California’s nice.
“Fifteen minutes out,” said the navigator sitting next to him in the SpaceX Dragon 2 capsule as it moved towards the International Space Station, glimmering some distance ahead of them. That distance, he could visually see, was slowly closing. Mission control chimed in, said, “Approach to ISS nominal”. Higher and to the left in the small capsule window a three-quarter Moon hung, and to the right of the moon, a bright dot. The bright dot was moving.
“I have a visual on asteroid 680671 Sinole,” he said, “Right where we expected to see it”. After a minute of silence, Mission Control again, “Astronomy section reports 680671 Sinole continues on course well beyond the Moon’s orbit and will not cross Earth’s path. No worries.”
“Twelve minutes to ISS dock,” the astronaut to his left, the navigator, announced. “Approach continues nominal,” agreed Mission Control. Two more astronauts to their right and left completed the row of four, three men and a woman. Behind them, he could sense the silent fifth astronaut in the row behind them, which could accommodate up to three.
Wait, wait, he thought. Five astronauts? I only remember training with four, including myself. Why were five there now? He couldn’t remember a role for a fifth. He thought about turning to look but knew the seat wouldn’t allow him to turn his head that far. He remembered the fifth astronaut boarding the capsule, assisted by the ground crew like the rest of them.; nobody thought it unusual. He hadn’t thought it unusual. Why was he confused now?
Disorientation might indicate a problem. He checked the gages on capsule oxygen and pressure levels. Everything looked fine. “Ground, what’s your read on crew health?” He felt his navigator turn slightly to look at him, curious why he’d make the request, then check the gages himself. “Crew health is nominal, commander. ISS approach also continues nominal,” ground reported.” Navigator turned back to his own station. “Eight minutes,” he said.
“Everybody awake?” he asked, only half joking. The other three in front chuckled and responded to the affirmative. “What about you back there?” he asked.
A couple seconds. “Fine”, came an acknowledgement.
He thought, this just feels weird. He looked again at the asteroid. Its course seemed to have curved. Now this is just too weird. “Control … “, he began, then came an unexpected flash of intense light. “What in the hell!” someone cried out. They squeezed their eyes tight for the several seconds it lasted. Static burst through their headsets. “Control!” he shouted. The light faded away.
The ISS was gone.
“Control!” He looked for debris. There was none. No sign of an explosion. It was just gone. “Control please acknowledge!” He looked to the asteroid again and saw that it had moved closer to them. Much closer, and it suddenly seemed too artificial to be an asteroid. “Control!” Static.
“They’re no longer there,” came the voice from the back row, the fifth astronaut, speaking so calmly, even soothing. “No one is.”
He let that sink in a moment. The other three astronauts next to him seemed to be unconscious. He tried to switch frequencies on the radio.
“It’s not the radio,” the voice came once more. “They’re gone.”
Very peacefully the voice said, “It’s okay. It’s alright. It wasn’t your fault. We made a mistake; design flaws. We decided to undo.”
“Nobody felt, even thought, a thing. We simply returned everything to a previous state. Like it never happened.”
He shook his head, fought back nausea. “Like what never happened?”
“Humans,” the voice said. “We made mistakes in the design.” He looked at his hands, quickly turning them, examining. “No, not in the physical,” the voice said, “Although we should have given you greater tolerance to radiation variance. No, you were too resistant to diversity, too resistant to change, too self-delusional, among other things. We left too much to what you would call ‘survival of the fittest’, and it proved ultimately maladaptive. Homo sapiens were soon to be replaced. We didn’t like how it was evolving so we decided an undo was in order.”
His head spun. He had to fight to control his breathing, then felt a calming wave engulf him like a tranquilizer taking hold. “But we’re still here…”
“Yes, as are the crew of your ISS. They are safe. You and your colleagues will be as well, shortly. You will live perfectly comfortable lives; we wanted living examples in case we decide a redesign is possible.”
“Who are you?” he asked, No answer. “Were we really that bad?”
“No,” the voice said. “We kept all your literature, all your art, and all of your music. THAT part was unexpected. And frankly, because of it, we don't know what the hell to do.”
Sheer exhaustion likely simply took over as he stood leaning on the axe handle, leaning the direction towards his cabin down the hill, towards his pregnant wife preparing some meager something for supper as she sat on a chair out front, towards the open ground leaning towards the river a quarter mile beyond. A light breeze lovely with autumn scents ruffled his hair and cooled the sweat dripping over his body. Six months since he spied this section of ground. He’d cleared trees to add to the open ground that he could cultivate in the spring. Four months since he’d completed the tiny 10x10 foot cabin that would protect them through the winter. Three months since they’d exhausted the last of the dried beans and cornmeal they’d brought with them. Two months since he completed the small smokehouse in which he could cure enough meat to see them through the winter. Two weeks since he’d seen his nearest neighbor who worked a farm a couple miles distance, and that only close enough to wave. Six hours since he’d climbed this slight rise, intent on felling and chopping up one more tree, adding one more tiny bit to what he might one day call a farm. One more tiny bit to his world. And two hours since he’d swallowed the last of the water he’d carried up with him.
He gazed at the scene in front of him and he tried mightily to see in it the pastoral scene his sister had painted to hang over the mantel of their father’s home back in Connecticut. A beautiful scene of a neat farmhouse and barn, straight rows of healthy crops and fat livestock, all happy under a blue sky and a yellow sun. It had captured his imagination as a young man; he’d felt drawn into it. He could see himself as part of the artwork, contentedly nurturing its little world. It had so enraptured him he’d felt compelled to bring his young wife west to coax from the wilderness just such a paradise. He’d stood near to this spot many times over the past six months and thought of that painting and projected it onto his little farmstead, and he tried now to do it again.
But he couldn’t.
The world before him seemed only roughly hacked out of the earth, ragged and torn, a propagation of toil and poverty. He felt lightheaded, dizzy; he felt as though he were somehow above himself, floating like a spirit, trying to grab a vision of present and future perfection that refused to achieve focus. He felt so tired; so worn out. He let his head drop. He wanted more than anything to simply lay down, close his eyes, and let the world go dark.
He walked slowly back to his wife, instead. Plopped down on the ground next to her. “You worked yourself too hard and didn’t drink enough water, didn’t you?” she asked him, and he just nodded and reached for the water jug next to her. “I told you, more clearing can wait. You needs spend your days foragin’ and huntin’ and fishin’ and adding to our food stocks. Trappin’ a pelt or two might also bring a few dollars we could surely use.” He shrugged. “Darlin’,” she asked, “Wouldn’t you like to spend a couple days down at the river just fishin’? Just fishin’ and sittin’. Look how tired out you are.”
He took another swig of water. “D'ya ever wonder if I’ve brought you to ruin? If this was the right thing to be doin'?”
She gave him that look of hers; that look that strongly suggested foolishness on his part. “You’ve seen me getting’ sick many a morning of late?” she asked. He nodded, slowly, because he always proceeded cautiously when foolishness on his part was being suggested. “Well, that’s what all this is right now,” she said and swung her head in such a way as to indict the land around them. “Just a little morning sickness.”
Five thousand drones were looking for him. They hovered over the city in a persistent hum, sniffing the twilight for a particular electronic signature they were programmed to read as his, no idea who or where he was or what he looked like. They were programmed to detect what he was thinking.
They could read every signal from every device. Everything was connected. Every computer, keypad, monitor, SSD, appliance, lightbulb, plumbing fixture, door lock, garage door, thermostat, security camera, etc.; by rigid and harsh laws, everything every human being touched was connected, every action communicated to the immense databases that categorized, analyzed, and judged. Every word or brushstroke from every artist was in particular noted. The Authoritarians brokered no deviance. Their databases programmed the drones to look for specific signals that had been targeted as indicators of inappropriate thought – in particular, words as they were being written, images as they were being created – and then to move rapidly in. Anything tagged to his writings were tops on the list.
But he had a way to hide.
The device was so illegal its detection would result in his disappearance into a permanent quarantine facility first established during the pandemics of half a century earlier; “unhealthy thinking” being the Authoritarians current version of a pandemic. He had determined the best time to use the device was between 6:30 and 10:30 PM – that was when residential sections emitted the greatest electronic signatures, the density of which could help hide him. Every apartment in his building and every building around him was crackling with activity. He took the 1 inch by 2 inch by .35-inch device out at 6:50PM and placed it on his keypad, effectively blocking electronic impulses from getting through and storing them. He moved his fingers rapidly across his keypad; each position represented a letter, each series of strokes represented words. Every sentence added to his newest paper. He’d been working on it for several weeks, no more than 30 minutes a night in case the block turned out not to be perfect. Tonight, he finished the paper and prepared to upload it.
He was not a writer by profession; he was a social scientist. Almost a year ago, he had become an outlaw by publishing a 10,000-word thesis with the following title and synopsis:
Factors Contributing To Homo Sapiens Evolutionary Failure
It broke the status quo in several ways. First, it suggested that diversity, which The Authoritarians discouraged, was actually good. Second, that acquiescence to change and adaptation was actually good. Third, that ideas of inferior peoples were a superstition. And lastly, it suggested that human beings under the leadership of The Authoritarians would one day be supplanted by The New Ones.
The New Ones, who had begun emerging with the pandemics would replace Homo Sapiens, just as Homo Sapiens had replaced Neandertals.
He had written three more papers after the first; this would be the fourth. Each reinforced and documented the premise. Each paper had rapidly gained support, including many other scientists who wrote their own papers confirming the premise. Increasingly, people were coming to believe that human’s maladaptive behavior could be changed; they could coexist with The New Ones. Just not under The Authoritarians.
This, of course, put The Authoritarians right out of their water.
He effected the ‘send’ command; the new paper began attaching itself in tiny snippets to every electronic signal it could find. Every time a light switched on, a channel changed, a toilet flushed, every keypad stroke, refrigerator opening, toaster popping. Every signal had a bit of the paper hiding in it. Even if a drone sniffed it, it couldn’t track it, and certainly couldn’t track it to him.
Took about five minutes to upload. He hid the device once more. He wanted to peak out the blinds covering the windows to see if drones were moving towards him but knew such an act would look suspicious. He sat, quietly, and listened. He could hear their hum in the background. There was no change in them. After a while he got a beer from the fridge. He wondered if The New Ones drank beer. He wondered if there would be any cross breeding, like there was with Homo Sapiens and Neandertal. He wondered if The New Ones, so unaffected by any Authoritarians malfeasance, knew of his papers. But he also knew, from their point of view, that it wouldn’t matter.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.