Medusa sculpture Cuba

The Machine: What ifs

In the event you were concerned, The Machine is not dead. I picked it up again a few weeks ago when I started a writing class that focuses on how the heck to put a story together. Story is my challenge, which I defined in mid-August while taking a creative essay class. Story is what happens between A and B. It’s the PB&J slathered between slices of warm, chewy bread. It’s the journey between Earth and Mars. The how the heck did we get here?

Maybe you already knew this—it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it—but, sometimes, I need a flashing billboard and dancing cats before something clicks into place.

Several months ago I started TM with a narrative voice, but not much else. That voice took me through a few pages, then stopped. Some writers can just create a character who then wanders around, creating adventure, and voilà! a story is born. I’ve never been able to do this. My characters are usually some sliver of me, so they generally find a nice corner and beat their heads against the wall, because that is how you discover the meaning of life.

The class I’m taking has opened the story enormously so far, just through the writing of What if? questions. What if I wake up one morning as a gigantic bug? What if my family finds me repulsive and locks me in my room? What if my fairy godmother observes my distress and beams down a handsome prince to save me? What if that prince refuses to kiss my pincher lips and now we’re both locked in this room together? What if my sister, who has always loved me and is distraught at my transformation, peeks through the keyhole to check if I’m alive, sees the prince, falls in love, steals him away, and they are married that evening?

It’s kinda fun. Not that I had fun creating my own list—it was a little frustrating at this stage when I don’t know my character or the world well enough, but the list-making did bring a lot of great questions to mind, and I have a loose idea now of where the story will go, so my character can stop beating their head against the wall now.

This is a draft, and feel free to tell me your thoughts: likes, false moments, where I should add unicorns.

What Ifs:

What if TM has always been an oddball, on the outside of the circle, because they didn’t get the unspoken social rules or fit into any groups, because of their overly analytical nature?

What if this lead to intense loneliness, which TM ameliorated through books?

What if this caused huge conflicts with their mother, growing up, because she didn’t understand their behaviors and related conflicts (bullying)?

What if this led TM to disconnect even more from their emotions, further preventing them from relating to others, at times? Though this doesn’t mean they completely lack sympathy or empathy; it just takes a lot to get them to feel.

What if TM moves out as soon as they turn 18 and get their housing allotment, further straining the mother-child relationship?

What if TM’s affect prevents them from getting a job, since most available require intensive personal contact and TM always fails the culture interviews, even for the few computer-based jobs?

What if TM practices “normal” human behavior at home then uses this at interviews?

What if it doesn’t help but catches the attention of Sara, who is intrigued?

What if Sara contacts TM and manages to get TM a job in one of the few non-interpersonal areas, namely link clicking?

What if Sara and TM become best friends, possibly lovers?

What if Sara is someone TM can relax with, emote more with?

What if an antibiotic-resistant plague (The Loss) begins sweeping across the world?

What if Sara gets sick, but TM doesn’t notice?

What if Sara convinces TM to see a psychic with her?

What if the psychic tells TM to go to the water?

What if this doesn’t make sense to TM, especially given the water restrictions, including access to the ocean?

What if Sara dies a few days later?

What if TM locks themself into their apartment, numb, waiting for the plague to stop spreading?

What if TM loses their capacity to escape into books?

What if TM survives because of the way their building is designed—ea. apt. is its own unit, nothing connects, an experimental unit?

What if once the All Clear sounds, 50% (or some horrific number) of the population has died?

What if this includes TM’s mother?

What if TM inherits their mother’s cat, which, btw, their mother could have left to any number of friends, and let’s not go into what the cat did to their mother’s corpse.

What if TM doesn’t understand keeping pets, including cats?

What if TM considers killing the cat or somehow getting rid of it?

What if TM changes their mind and keeps the cat? [maybe Sara loved cats]

What if the inability to read, the cat in that tiny apartment, and loneliness drive TM into the world?

What if they respond to Marcos’s (work overseer-type) attempts at friendship/relationship?

What if Marcos is very popular, wealthy, and introduces TM to a different class of people?

What if TM, again, acts normal in order to fit in?

What if TM succeeds (perhaps the complete lack of emotion, due to grief, is the ticket) and becomes popular among these friends?

What if this popularity spills into professional life and TM skyrockets up the ladder, an odd combination of faking it ’til you make it with totally rational decision making, plus the world’s a thinner place.

What if Marcos, initially attracted by the depth he saw in TM, is confused by this changed and obviously fake behavior? [Why does he wait so long to confront?]

What if he confronts TM about the change?

What if this confrontation triggers the grief over Sara’s death that TM has been refusing to feel, like the pebble holding up the mountain until the elephant sneezes?

What if the shame, guilt, and anger causes TM to lash out at Marcos in a pretty unforgivable way?

What if everything else comes tumbling down as a well, the faking it no longer an option?

What if TM finally takes the psychic’s advice and goes to the ocean (now they can afford it, too)?

What if this is the beginning of a transformation?

What if TM decides to escape into the world of their favorite book (must have some sort of water theme)?

What if TM decides to build a boat, which is illegal?

What if TM finds someone who will sell them wood and hide it in a certain place near the ocean?

What if TM works on the boat in secret?

What if Marcos finds out (something about keeping tabs on them, huge sums of money moving around)?

What if Marcos threatens to report TM?

What if TM goes into hiding (with the cat), in a cave near the ocean, working on the boat?

What if TM swims daily, and the transformation continues, something about the grief and loneliness healing?

What if TM’s sudden fall from popularity and financial activity (boat materials bribe) catches the attention of the media?

What if the media finds TM on the beach, probably because some people saw TM when they visited the shore?

What if the media tries to get TM talking?

Again, what if TM escapes, this time to the ocean, with no plan?

What if the aborted interview and the escape are broadcast?

What if TM isn’t arrested, even though their activities are illegal, because, well, entertainment, also, 50% of the world just died, priorities are different?

What if at some point during this journey out to sea TM simply accepts Sara’s death, their difference…maybe some other stuff, and this opens the emotion barrier that opened with Sara, that had been closed in childhood.

What if that leads them to turn the boat around and go back?

What if Marcos is there to greet them, whisk them through the throng and back to safety (his apology for the role he played in this)?

What if TM resettles, this time in a slightly larger microapartment, with more space for the cat?

What if someone reaches out to them, another oddball, one who watched the escape story?

What if they become friends?

What if TM finds a community?

Theme:

This is a story about someone trying to connect with others.

This is a story about social contradictions: valuation of the emotional over the rational while automating the workforce, life; valuation of individuality over conformity while being increasingly able to avoid introspection and interaction with difference; possessing increasing amounts of personal information about each other while knowing less and less.

*** *** *** ***

And please enjoy this Medusa sculpture from Habana. Unlike The Machine, she bristles with emotion.

theresa

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bus from cuba

Re-creation, or now what

Here I go again, re-creating myself, this time into a writer slash editor. Except it’s not so much re-creation as acceptance of the fact that those are the two things I am best at AND enjoy, so I might as well suck it up and try to survive doing those things. Despite a degree in playwriting, I’ve avoided the writing/editing life because I don’t understand how to break into it, and it feels so insecure, hopping from job to job, with no guarantee of the next, and I like security. Sure, I quit a steady job and left my home to teach in a foreign country, but I knew I’d have a place to live, with enough food, what my plans would be for the next ten months, and that I’d have someplace and someone to return to at the end.

Hmm…as I qualified my statement, the bullshit meter sounded. Did I really know what would happen over that year? A lot of crazy can happen under the umbrella called “teaching and living in another culture.” Methinks my tolerance for the uncertain is higher than I realize. Also, don’t I have a fairly secure living situation now, too, as I look for a job? (Hello, retirement savings!) So, really, self, what’s there to fear on this next adventure? A little credit, puh-lease. I’m too hard on myself, I’ve been told. Often.

Wow, you have just had the joy (or annoyance — I have no idea how you’re feeling) of witnessing a successful moment of self-therapy. Hugs all around. I actually feel a little more confident, and I need all the help I can get because it was tough putting on my brave face last week, Week Two of the Quest for People to Pay Me.

Week One was energized and hopeful as I crafted a decent resume, slogged through the clunky platform known as LinkedIn, discovered a few jobs that excited me, and brushed up on a long overdue skill. Week Two, on the other hand, was more of a kid-sized mood roller coaster as I filled in tedious online applications and crafted writing samples (Sell us toothpaste! Come up with awesome medical topics for our blog!). But the mood roller coaster may have been due more to the daily hot chocolate-induced sugar and caffeine crash than the dark hole that is job searching. I’ve been reluctant to admit that, however, because it feels so right to settle cross-legged on the round tuffet between the coffee table and couch with a cup of syrupy hot chocolate as I open my laptop to start clicking job links. A bright spot that coffee (decaf) cannot replace. It is with reluctance and baby dinosaur fist waving that I thrust the cocoa powder from reach. Here’s to Week Three being approached with more of the verve from Week One.

I’ve also been lost as to how to approach this blog. As the header says, it’s here to chronicle my attempts to take over the world, but now that I’ve returned to a world I’m much too familiar with, sometimes the attempts simply don’t make for blogworthiness. I don’t want to post about my breakfast or other dull minutiae from life. So I’ve been quiet, unmoored and searching for the voice again. I think the restlessness relates to my last post about avoiding passivity. That death of life is creeping in much too quickly, helped along by long days searching through job listings, the morning routine of scooping the cat box and watering the garden, the (occasional) evening routine of planning and making dinner. All those tasks are part of life but don’t make a life. It’s easy to get caught up and not look beyond them. I need that manifesto.

Here is something larger than me. I’m doing transcription, and a little PR writing, for a photographer who is interviewing and photographing engaged or married gay couples in celebration of the June SCOTUS decision, one of the few bright reports from the US during my absence. I’ve always been a softie when it comes to love stories. Check out the project.

So long,

theresa

P.S. I’ll probably post pictures from Cuba for awhile, unless you’d like pictures of my cats.

On Passivity

Hello, World! it’s been awhile. I last wrote from Honduras while sitting and sweating in a gray plastic chair, aged laptop burning in my lap, and semi-effectual fan quaking above. Now, after brief stops in Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and Cuba, I report from my new-old home of Portland, Oregon, USA, chilled from the AC, with a large striped orange cat snoozing in my lap and construction wailing, pounding, chopping, grinding, drilling, and clanging outside.

It’s a different world [sound cue] physically, socially, economically, emotionally. The roads are paved and I’m anonymous. The papayas are barely larger than my hand and cost twice as much. I bus or bike anywhere without consideration to the area’s safety and wince at the frivolity of my $5 almond milk decaf latte (vegan again). People’s eyes don’t meet mine as we pass, and I sometimes pass them while holding hands with my partner. New Seasons, our overpriced local grocery chain, carries several varieties of kale chips and half a wall of energy/protein bars. Hot water and drinkable water are available with only a turn of the faucet. Passivity, born in comfort and strengthened by the option of relying on another to make tedious and sometimes important decisions, because choices carry risks, big and small, slowly creeps in.

And I fear that disconnection from life more than the zombie apocalypse. Perhaps more than the thought of another Bush presidency.

Last year’s steps away from a secure job and comfortable home were not passive. As a teacher, a job that consumed my waking hours for the first several months, reliance on someone else was not an option. I made decisions all the time, sometimes bad ones. I can’t deny that there were passive aspects in my life, which lead to my not learning Spanish as well as I’d hoped, but/and/or several others have suggested that I be gentler with myself on the language matter, given how much energy I expended in trying to be an awesome teacher. Ultimately, I’ll have to decide how to frame that memory.

The few weeks of solo travel after school ended were the highlight of my year, because they weren’t passive. I knew and (usually) did exactly what I wanted, like earning my Open Water diving certificate, visiting random art galleries in Antigua, Guatemala and swimming and scrambling through the beautiful Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in San Ignacio, Belize. Not only was there no one else to make decisions for me, I didn’t want there to be. I didn’t want to compromise my limited time, and there were so many delectable options, life adventures awaiting. I had moments and days of unqualified happiness (and a few of distress). Now, I’m back to before, and while I’m not the same person, I’m similar enough that if I’m not careful, I could slip back into my previous life, especially as I face challenges, like job searching [any leads welcome] in a town that builds apartments before infrastructure.

My passivity springs from fear of the unknown, of discomfort, of displeasing others, and from assuming that everyone knows the answer better than me. It comes from unhappiness and feeling trapped. It comes from rejection and failure. Also, comfort. Too much choice (First World Problem). Obligation. Inadequacy.

I’m searching for a manifesto, akin my beginning entry on the eve of my departure. A manifesto of self-action that makes bold, confident declarations. I don’t have one, yet. I do, however, have an ongoing list I started several months ago as I looked ahead to the pitfalls of my return. A list of things I’ve wanted to do for some time but haven’t:

  • join Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers
  • archery
  • learn swing dance, among others
  • kayak
  • go beautiful places in nature
  • incorporate more music into my life
  • take writing classes (check! I start a personal essay class on August 4)

There, that’s the list. Pursue action that brings joy and fulfillment. Easy enough, right? While the sun is out, anyway.

The returned,

theresa

The Machine (4)

Prior parts.

[indignation] What the hell kind of advice is that? Return to the water? 

Advising someone to use swimming or bathing or hot tubbing as a physical therapy against forthcoming grief when the nearest body of water requires a swimming permit that costs more than most make in a year month, the public pools are too expensive for the public, and water rationing prohibits use of bathtubs, is like throwing a firefighter an empty fire extinguisher to use on a raging flame. Sure, I considered not bathing for a week and collecting my daily water ration in some type of barrel, but how much comfort can be derived from sitting in a tepid, dusty barrel-bath. Better to recall that we are mortal, with unspoken expiration dates. Better to place the photo in a difficult to reach place beneath the kitchen sink that can be reached only by removing the dishes and soap and the wood cover hot glued over the picture, so that it cannot be held and stared into the long mornings and evenings, until the person isn’t remembered, only the person in the photo, who is someone else entirely, an idealization, a shadow, a moment.
***
The water is climbing higher and higher up my leg
The water is above my ankle and slipping to mid-calf.

The water has slipped above my ankle and is climbing to mid-calf. Crane-like against the dock presses my other (right) and wedged into a smallest gap between planks are my fingers. Any moment (past the knee) gravity will overcome my grip and pull me in, where I desperately want to be, in the satin ice of the water, wrapped in its cocoon.

A barely perceptible whine, shudder of ripples against the dock. I wrench myself up and out, teeth clenched, panting. The patrol boats are white, and this one, it’s too far off to tell, but it could be. But it could also be illegal fishers or someone who bribed the right officials for a permit. I slap my palm against the dock, then the edge of the dock. Hard, then harder. The boat is gone; the water smooth. It’s ridiculous that this water was cleansed if…no, of course it should have been cleansed for the life that belongs there…and for the rich, of course the rich…the beach is barren because no one can afford…I can’t afford…

(Fuck.)

My clothes are off/lumped on the dock and I’m in the air, I’m in, dear God, oh am I in, pouring between the sweetest sheets, skin vibrating/throbbing with a gazillion pricks/an army  as each hair erects, each pore welcomes this cleansing/purification. Surface. Breath(e). Face upward and float. Green earthy tendrils slowly creep from my hair, back, heels, heading/curling/creeping deep into the water to make anchor. I am an island, a mangrove; let fish nestle among my roots and birds and monkeys caper in my branches above. I can/will bring/invite life back into this world. But not human life—we have enough of that. No one has said it aloud—yet—but one day it will be said publicly that The Loss was necessary. We were too many, barely any part of the earth remained without our footsteps and clutter. Now there are open spaces again. Some politicians are calling on followers to replace those that were lost, so, mindlessly, their sheep engage in production sex, but when they hold that tiny human they’ll realize that their grief remains and the child will grow up beneath that shadow.

We get too attached and expect permanence. Attachment limits our ability to accept that the world is changing every second and there’s practically nothing to hold onto. No one is permanent and we shouldn’t convince ourselves otherwise. All that time and energy wasted on grief could be spent on…making really delicious tacos. [seriously?] Okay, that’s flippant, but rather than pointlessly wallowing, I wish I had spent that time…

…those hours…

…weeks…

…making really delicious tacos.

I don’t know. I spend a lot of time massaging the twitch from my clicker finger. Maximizing the space in my miniature refrigerator. Holding my hand over the door handle to the outer hallway, searching for an urge to exit into the public sphere, to move away from the stench of my skin, without a destination. Listening to my lower neighbor speak EXTREMELY LOUDLY to her pet fish, Marbles. WE’RE ALL GLAD THAT MARBLES IS VERY HAPPY ABOUT HIS FLAKES. NO, WE ARE NOT JEALOUS. I don’t understand people who talk with fish.

Some fish still live in the deepest parts of the ocean. Gorgeous exotic fish with neon colors, nightmare fish with inch long fangs, practical fish that make their own light. Every few months I check out a vintage National Geographic photo book about deep sea fish. It must be so quiet down there, and deadly; darkness often brings violence. Many of them haven’t changed since their beginning. Their world is so constant that they haven’t had to make adapt or die plans, unlike the rest of us.

Even with my eyes closed I can tell I need to leave to catch the last train. [too quick?] Skin sodden with water I attempt to propel my upper body upright, but my bones are too soft and my muscles refuse to contract. Evidently I will be sleeping here tonight, perhaps forever, and my neighbor can bring Marbles to nibble my flesh as it gradually peels away. What is the reason for returning to that apartment? Without books I spend too much time watching nonsense on my tablet or dust build up in the corners or peeking into the refrigerator.

But, no, I will be found and fined for exposure and swimming and the fees will be much too high to pay and I’ll have to carry their weight forever. The urge for life is already waning without that additional burden/impediment.

Eyes open to the dusky haze the world has become, its corners softened. I spin around to find I’ve drifted a surprising distance from the dock. I roll over, breast stroke, heave myself up, shake off, dress, lift my leaden feet to the train station. I don’t know if its the dusk or the hours spent with closed eyes, but everything is slightly blurred, as if I suddenly needed glasses, and sounds are muffled. While buying my entry code, a couple passes by to the exit, laughing as if through a bag of cotton. Heavy as my limbs are, they continue to tingle softly. The daily pain in my shoulders and wrists is absent. I shuffle around the room several times before I find the well-marked direction to the platform. I’m just a little bit drunk, I think.

As I wait, I nibble on the ridges of my wrinkled fingers, pass them over my cheeks. Because of the hour the northbound platform is empty. Several southbound trains stop and expel/birth commuters across the way. Chattering, fatigued, bright, dark, only their blank backs glance toward me. I’ve played the ghost today, maybe so much so that the northbound train—there’s the light down the tunnel—will hurtle past and I’ll be left on the platform, staring at the diminishing red tail lights.

Yet it slows to a stop and the doors clop open. Then I board, back to the city.

——————————-

Photo by Tim Laman from National Geographic

My gross keyboard

The Machine (3)

Read (1) and (2). I’ve started including the notes to myself and potential edits, just in case anyone’s curious about my thought process.

Some time ago I went with a friend to a psychic. My friend was—taken in The Loss—a great believer and insisted I try at least once, to the point that she paid the fee equal to ten days of clicking. “I’ll hate you if you don’t,” she said, handing me the damp paper ticket. I didn’t then, but I see now the slight shaking of her hand and the pale amber tint to her eyes. The early stages. We’d been given pamphlets by the government and received messages over the emergency network, and the disconnected had received personal visits regarding the signs. ATTENTION AND TIME IS EVERYTHING. I’d laughed, as you do, as I do when the border between serious and humor is unclear. And that day it was.

Did she know? Because…. No, I can’t give you that, the last of her. Not yet. We’re still strangers and I have too many questions. How did you survive The Loss and how much did it cost? Or did you even know about it, living so far up here? Was it something you only had to read or watch? 

We entered a white, windowless room: that was the first oddity. The second was the lack of incense or candles burning. In fact, the room was lit with bare industrial bulbs and completely spare but for three chairs, one of which was occupied by a man in a brown suit. He faced the wall, away from us. For the first fifteen minutes of our meeting I saw only the back of his head. Black hair, wavy, freckles, slightly jutting ears, and erect posture. I couldn’t see or hear him breathing, but the freckles gave away his humanity. gave him away.

She pushed me toward the right chair, sat in the left and [something about tension leaving her body? or that will happen when he mentions the end is coming.] Of course, my friend had been through this, none of it surprised her. 

She turned to me and smiled (that smile!) then walked strongly/forcefully/boldly to sit in the left chair. Sara grayed early and wore her hair long. Today it was in a single braid, rather than her usual two. As was her habit when sitting, she snatched up the braid and looped it into a bun. How many times had I watched her do this? Why didn’t I see that she could now wrap it five times? [like the implication, but this seems weak to blame self for. Or she now has one instead of two braids, whereas her hair was too thick like that before.] LOOK FOR HAIR LOSS. Why are we so pathetically unobservant? Why isn’t there a billboard or pamphlet or emergency alert for that?

My footsteps twanged/bounced off the walls like plucked rubber band as I crossed to the remaining chair; and an image of me sitting on the tile to remove my shoes flashed, but that was a ridiculous idea, who cared if I made noise, and my shoes stuttered and squeaked as I stopped/halted and continued in the same moment and was sweating as I sat, without scraping the chair, beside Sara. She squeezed my hand with hers. ARE YOU SUDDENLY COLD? But Sara was often cold and her fingers swollen and numb, both from poor circulation and nibbling at her cuticles. She said it was genetic and carried a pair of gloves with her, even in the summer.

“I got laughed at a lot in school,” Sara told me once. “No one ever wanted to touch me during handholding games. Ew, the glove girl. She’ll make you sick. But I had such a great collection. Grandma had saved my mom’s from when she was little and Grandma had made most of those, because gloves are usually so boring. I had stripes and spots and flowers and plaid and every single color you could think of. The hardest part of getting dressed was figuring out which to wear that day. Mom said she could read my mood from the gloves I chose. Now they’re mostly worn out and in a box somewhere, and I’m stuck with the boring ones.”

I mimed putting gloves on, but Sara only smiled and turned to face the back of his head again. So this is the back of a psychic’s head. Looks pretty normal. Is the facing away stuff real or is this part of the hocus-pocus bullshit, to create some air of mystery so we’re sucked in? Sara’s breathing became deep and regular, almost as if she were asleep. Not that I could hear it or anything in that room other than the irregular pounding of my own heart. I attempted to match Sara’s breaths but that just made my heart beat faster and louder, like those torso sized drums in marching bands that keep everyone stepping together. Except this was making me fall apart: sweat started dripping down my face and arms and blackness began creeping in from the sides of my vision until I was just about to lean over and put my head between my knees, like you’re supposed to do in a faint, and he turned around.

Here’s the part where I describe what his face looks like. I can’t. I have no memory of it. I assume all the parts were there, but I couldn’t tell you even if threatened with metal splinters beneath my nails scorpions and the rebirth of my mother. His voice reminded me of a recording I saw about the old candy making process, where people tugged on thick ropes of sticky sugar and folded it back and pulled and folded it back. His voice was deep and strong like that, and as he spoke the sound seemed to be pulling something from me, something I struggled to keep and relinquish simultaneously.

[My weakness at description is painfully evident here.]

“I’m only borrowing it,” he said. As I let go a slow chill spread across my chest and down through my groin. Goosepimples rose; my lower back ached. I leaned closer to Sara and, I realize now, to him. My hand was enveloped in his own—did I give? did he take? all agency had drained away, my head throbbed—enormous hands, with blunt fingernails and fine black hairs on the knuckles, I wanted to pet like a small animal. I flexed my new hands, because they were mine now, both mine and his, and across from me sat Sara and my now empty body but it wasn’t me there but him, staring out from my eyes….

I’ve tried to reconstruct the hours we were in the room, but I’m putting together a puzzle with half the pieces missing, and the pieces that are there, I can’t look at directly, but with a side eye. Most of what I see is Sara’s eyes, practically glowing amber in the falling darkness. And I’m suddenly very sad. His voice speaks from within my body. My/his throat vibrates deeply. “You must return to the water. It will help you deal with what is to come.” I stop breathing then, for just a moment as I let go of the bridge railing and fall forward, as I had so many times before while my finger click click clicked, and gasp only when my body slams into the water, my lungs filling, my arms flailing, my eyes seeing only another’s. And they are closing.

[Note to self: tense issues]

My gross keyboard

The Machine (2)

Read (1).

At eight hours, the screen darkens, my total clicks of the day flashes in neon-green, along with my day’s wages, at 2 cents per click. The supervisor stamps me out of the room and I collect my paycheck from the machine outside. The few friends I have envy this daily payment, but it’s only a reminder of my expendibility. Any day now, computers will be able to perform this job better and more quickly. I could arrive at my early am tomorrow to find that the bathrooms have been ripped out—because computers don’t shit—and the clocks taken down—because computers don’t care about smoke breaks. No notice or warning, and I would walk back down the stairs and stare into the rising sun, which I can’t see from The Room. I’d probably have to cover my eyes from all the light. And then

And then

Well, I’d have to look for something else, wouldn’t I? Not the easiest task for the immobiley inclined, especially when the buildings are so tall, with all those stairs to climb. Employment insurance for people in my inclination group is expensive as hell; I’d have to work double time to cover the premium. Company knows it’s just a matter of time before they’re paying for me to keep on my ass. The government requires it but the look the other way fee is cheaper. I pay it, buy a little dinner, and bank the rest.

I like (liked?) reading prediction novels, the old ones that guessed what life would be like now. They amaze me, what people thought would happen and what they were right about and did happen. We still have physical books; they aren’t popular. A lot of jobs have been replaced by machines, but that doesn’t matter so much because the antibiotic resistant plagues swept through and killed a lot of us off. They’re under control again. For now. God still exists but Jesus has been disowned, a twist of logic I’ve never understood, but I wasn’t raised a believer. For what it’s worth, people seem to be nicer now, if I understand the past correctly. But that could be from The Loss, not the disowning. I try not to think about people or people thinking if I can. Doesn’t get you much.

Microapartments stuck. They’re one reason The Loss spread so quickly: 5,000 in a building, sharing a water and air filtration system. I sleep on the refrigerator and brush my teeth over the toilet. The kitchen table flips over into a closet. The dishes are stored beneath the sink, which doubles as shower. I have one of the more experimental models, which is one thing that saved me. The entire building was a test hub and none of us are connected. My next door and across the hall neighbors died. I closed the divider and read What We Lost about fifty times.  When I’m insomniac, I hear Betty shouting to her lover that the paint on the walls still isn’t dry. The shit that sticks in brains. After the All Clear sounded, I showered and waited in line until a clicker got sick and I was rehired.

That’s when my mother died.
******
Marcos is staring. Marcos stares at me around his computer, kitty-corner from mine, always, even on days when I don’t get my window seat. Otherwise, my neighbors change.

Everyone has noticed. “Marcos loves the Machine,” they whisper. No, they don’t whisper. They speak it to each other casually, in my presence, when I pass, or in the bathroom. One day, no doubt, it will flash across the monitor when reporting my figures for the day. The system can be hacked, and has been, that day my paycheck was five times higher than it should have been. Everyone’s. We were silent and the hack wasn’t reported until a weekly supervisor stamped out. The company tried to block our paychecks, but it was too late. It couldn’t fire so many of us because that would have been noticed and the hack been reported. We kept our money and our silence.

That cold, dry afternoon of unexpected wealth I took a train to the coast. It was warm and hazy, and I slouched at the end of a dock, waving my shoeless feet over the calm blue water. The fish haven’t returned, but it’s been only ten years since this area was declared Returned to Original (RTO). RTO and PR (Permit Required) for any human based activity, like swimming or boating (row and motor). But, a weekday afternoon, the beach is barren. I hold my breath and slowly, slowly slink a foot lower until it makes contact. Still silence. Deeper, deeper until I’m panting with the exertion of resisting the desire for my entire body to feel the cool slipper spreading over it. Thanks to the hack, I can afford the contact penalty; I cannot afford the swim penalty.

Some time ago I went with a friend—taken in The Loss—to a psychic. My friend was a great believer and insisted I try at least once, to the point that she paid the fee equal to ten days of clicking. “I’ll hate you if you don’t,” she said, handing me the damp paper ticket. I didn’t then, but I see now, the slight shaking of her hand and the pale amber tint to her eyes. The early stages. We’d been given pamphlets by the government and received messages over the emergency network, and the disconnected had received personal visits regarding the signs. ATTENTION AND TIME IS EVERYTHING. I’d laughed, as you do, as I do when the border between serious and humor is unclear. And that day it was. Did she know? Because….

No, I can’t give you that, the last of her. Not yet. We’re still strangers and I have too many questions. How did you survive The Loss and how much did it cost? Or did you even know about it, living so far up here? Was it something you only had to read or watch?

My gross keyboard

The Machine

I don’t know where this came from but it interests me more than the other entry I’m working on and might be more honest:

It wasn’t always like this. My days stretched between pre-dawn to post-sunset darkness, and in the light, I carefully, slowly turned the pages. Then, when the time came, I swung my arm to the chain above my head, pulled, and was clicked back into the dark.

Now, I almost never finish a book. I walk the aisles of the library, salivating over titles, book covers, and synopses. I gather a stack of the promises of escape and slide them across the scanner into my bag, which I struggle to clip shut, and pedal home with the promises digging into my back. Sweaty, home, books stacked against the false living room/kitchen/eating area divider, I stare at the titles from the reading chair, and choose that with the greatest promise of erasing the divider and cement floor and tomorrow’s 5am alarm and cold shower. But the words are crap. The words are obviously someone else’s, that person wants to manipulate me, and after a sentence or few pages my eyes slip, the book slips to the floor. Then I reach across for the next. Until everything is on the floor.

My mother died last year, and before you say this inability to read is some fallout from that, let me tell you that I didn’t love her, that she was a woman not to be loved, that her embraces were cold and she left the hearts of men and women behind her, and mine.

Do you love your mother? Do you ask yourself why? Why are we shocked at the lack of love but not its presence? If you tell me you didn’t love your mother or your father, I promise I won’t treat you any differently. I won’t offer sympathy or sad eyes or a pat on the back. Instead, if you brought this up while we were discussing dinner, I will find this a curious segue and return to the original topic. If you insist on returning to your segue, I will order pizza and then sit with you to discuss what you have chosen as our follow up issue.

Some coworkers call me The Machine. The truth is that we place far too much value on hormonal fluctuations that cause someone to love one day and hate the next. Why is this useful? Instead our efforts should be on monitoring and controlling our responses to red, blue, and the numbing effects of beige. That I didn’t love my mother is irrelevant. Did it cross your mind that she might not have loved me?

This recent stack is the most useless. I’ve held the books but can’t open the cover. The idea of attempting escape seems useless. Time is neutral. It moves. Tomorrow always comes.

I am the first, I arrive before my fellow clickers and our overseers, and I flip down the toilet seat in the last stall and perform the day’s first flush. I secretly fear (fantasize?) that one day I will find a dead body sitting on the toilet in this last stall. A coworker or one of the cleaners, perhaps a client. Again, hormones, but I can’t deny them.

My place is in The Room, the largest space in the office filled with long brown tables, narrow, crowded on each long side with computers. At the end of each row is a box of white or black mice, new and shiny or repaired and greasy. I sit in the corner farthest from the door. This is the corner with the window, the size and height of a bathroom window, but it’s a window. It lets in no light or air and its purpose is unclear for that reason, but it does let in faint birdsong. City Park is across the street from our building. City Park has trees and grass. The grass is covered in birdshit because this is the only place in the city with trees. Some days it is hard to breathe, and I walk to the park, cover my feet with plastic bags, slip on a poncho, and wade in. I place another plastic bag on a bench and sit. Imagine the smell. Imagine the cool oxygen.

In the dark of The Room, the monitor glows to life, my left hand moves from my lap to its far too familiar position around the mouse, and I start clicking. An hour passes and The Room is hazy with a hundred forefingers clicking the required minimum of five times a second. Light on blank faces flicker. The Oxymachine rattles off and on. A mouse is ripped out and dropped to the floor, “Replace!” yelped, and a replacement passed hand to hand until it is attached and clicked. This takes time and the forethinkers keep the day’s replacement in their laps. Click click click trill woot trill woot click click click trill trill trill comes in. Sometimes the song’s rhythm slips into my forefinger.

At eight hours, the screen darkens, my total clicks of the day flashes in neon-green, along with my day’s wage, at 2 cents per click. The overseer stamps me out and I collect my paycheck from the machine outside. The few friends I have envy this daily payment, but it’s only a reminder of my expendibility.