Sunday, December 13, 2015

Lessons in Lunacy

I was taking a night class.  The classroom was full of chattering students, but only half of it was lit, seeming to signify the lateness of the hour.  There was no teacher there to instruct us.  Instead, a tall cart bearing an old television had been wheeled into the room by some unknown person and set up by the chalk board under the lit portion of the room.  On the television there was a black and white image of a man in a lab coat wearing horn rimmed glasses.  He was giving a lecture about the moon, which barely anyone was paying attention to.  But at one point he paused in his lecture and lifted his right hand and pointed his finger upwards, as if to indicate something above the frame of the TV.  He had a smirk on his face as he did this, as though he were divulging some wicked secret.  Everyone followed the direction of his finger and looked up towards the ceiling of the classroom.  There we could see the moon in the sky above us, glowing unbearably huge and full as though it were only a few feet away, every crater, crack, and crevice sharp and clear.

This sight caused a stir among the students that threatened to break out into pockets of full blown hysteria.  But one girl in a brown sweater, who I recognized as the top student in the class, stood up and managed to restore order.  She proposed that we all go down to the administration office and complain about this outrage.  None of us were sure what the administration office was supposed to do, or even quite what the nature of the problem was, but it seemed to be as reasonable a course of action as any other.  We rallied behind this girl and we all marched out as a group into the hall behind her.

The lights were on throughout the school, but all of the other classrooms were deserted.  There were papers and notebooks strewn about the floors in the classrooms and the hallways, giving the impression that everyone had just up and fled the building in a tremendous hurry.  As we navigated the hallways, I made my way up to the front of the group next to the girl in the brown sweater.  I tried to ask her exactly what the plan was, but she stared resolutely ahead, determined to give the administration office a piece of her mind.  She barreled ahead, bent towards her goal.

But then we came to an impasse.  The hallway we were following suddenly came to a dead end and we were confronted with a bank of vending machines.  The girl just nodded and scrunched her nose at this.  She turned back to the group and told us that this wouldn't be a problem.  She said that a certain combination of coins placed in each machine would cause them to slide apart and reveal a secret passage behind them.  She collected all the spare change from the class.  Everyone counted the coins out in their palms and then passed them forward.  We put thirty five cents in one machine and sixty five in the other, and they pulled back and swung open like a set of secret doors, just as the girl had promised.

The passageway behind the machines was dark and impenetrable.  The class hesitated go on, but the girl stirred them all to action just as she had before, and everyone followed her into the darkness.  We stumbled around a bit, but there was a light from the open door of a room somewhere up ahead, drawing us all forward.  We crowded in the doorway of this room, the girl at the head of the group and a few people behind her, straining to see over her shoulders.  The room was set up like a studio of some sort.  There were maps and charts of the planets on the walls, and in the middle of the room there was a television camera.  There was a mannequin set up in front of this camera.  It was only the upper torso of the mannequin, supported on a brass pole.  It was dressed in a lab coat and horned rimmed glasses, and we could see that it was the same man that had been on the television back in the classroom.  It still had that same smirk carefully painted on its face, and its finger was still pointing skyward.  The significance of this pointed finger suddenly dawned on me, and I turned to warn the rest of the class, but it was too late.  I could already see their eyes drifting upwards.

Monday, December 7, 2015

My Private Junkyard

Every car that I had ever owned was parked in my driveway.  I kept having to pull them out and rearrange them, trying to get them all to fit, getting entangled with the busy traffic out on the street in front of the house.  I had to get behind the wheel of each car one by one and find the right key on my key chain and start them up, some of them having sat for years collecting dirt and dry leaves.  They carried different scents from different seasons in my life, forgotten debris, scraps of paper stuffed into the seats, all of them dense with memories.  I got to where I almost forgot when and where I was, looking out the dirty windshield on some hazy Friday afternoon of time itself, cars gridlocked everywhere. 

I ended up pulling some of the cars into the fenced in back yard.  I knew that the tires would tear up the grass and wear muddy ruts into the ground, but I wanted to keep them all, now that they'd come into my possession again, now that they'd all been so vividly recalled.  I got them all to fit to where I could close the wooden gate and lock them in.  It took me hours.  I was sweating from the effort and my t-shirt was dirty from climbing in and out of the vehicles.  I went in to take a shower and I glanced down from the upstairs window, and I could see all the cars packed in tight around the house.     

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Old School

I was driving along the back roads of our town. I had a passenger in the car with me, a ninety year old woman hunched under a dark hood, only her jaw and the hook of her nose visible.  As we passed by an elementary school, she suddenly spoke up in a voice that creaked like a door that hadn't been opened in years.  She said that she had been a teacher at that school a long time ago.  I nodded and looked over at the school.  It was just a small, one story, brick building.  Across the school yard, on the far side of the building, there was a road which led directly off from the school property.  I could read the sign that was fixed in the ground at the start of the road.  It said "Lathymore Road."  Something struck me as cold and sinister about this road and the dark leafless branches of the trees which formed an arch at its entrance, like claws with long scratching nails.

My passenger explained the source of my misgivings.  She said that there used to be a facility down that road where they would take the children who habitually misbehaved and they would perform lobotomies on them in order to make them a bit more manageable.  She told me that the rest of the children didn't know the exact nature of what went on down that road, but there were rumors.  At recess they would stay far away from the entrance to the road and play their games on the other side of the school yard.  So the road became a forbidding place, overcast with the stale air of suspicion and neglect.

The woman spoke again and I could hear the emotion in her voice from somewhere cold and far off.  She said, "I remember that first day of school every year.  I would stand at the window of my classroom and watch as the mothers brought their children across the yard.  They would be smiling.  The children would be smiling.  None of them knew that before the day was out I would be sending at least eight or nine of the children down Lathymore."  And then she was done and her head fell forward.  I could see that beyond the scratching branches there were houses on Lathymore now, and I had to assume that the facility that she spoke of had either been abandoned long ago or had probably even been torn down.  Those dark days were far behind.  But I had to wonder if there were ever nights when the wind blew a certain way, and the people in those houses would have that sudden chill and that same hint in the air of something terribly wrong.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Grains of Sand

I lived down on the ocean that summer.  The sun seemed fixed far out and low over the waves in the afternoon sky, never moving.  A thin veil of haze passed across its surface, dimming it to a pale white that was softer on the eyes, and yet everything under its light was drained of color like an old foreign movie.  I was staying in a high rise apartment building that was right down on the waterfront.  A tall monument rising out of the sand with walls made entirely of glass, you could see every floor, layer upon layer, and the people within, silent marionettes performing all the endless variations of the waltz of life.

A blonde girl that I had gone to school with lived a few floors above me.  I dropped by to see her.  She lay on a lounge chair in the middle of the living room, wearing a black bikini and basking in the sun.  There was no need to leave the apartment; the sunlight came right through the glass.  She looked just the same to me.  She lifted her sunglasses and smiled up at me and spoke in french with subtitles.  She told me that she had been here all the while, staying fit, eating healthy, the hour never advancing.  I took this in as I looked out the window at the sun and at the long, deep shadows cast by every object in the grey room.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Falling Stars

There was a carnival down on the town's square with games and concessions set up all along the street.  I went down there on a Saturday morning.  There was a booth where a man did amazing things with soap bubbles.  I stopped and watched as he blew a bubble for a little girl in a brown coat who stood before the booth in rapt anticipation.  He blew the bubble in the shape of a toy soldier.  I could make out the shape of the tall hat and the bayonet slung over its shoulder.  He just kept blowing the bubble bigger and bigger.  It grew up higher than the surrounding buildings on the square.  It grew up higher than the ferris wheel spinning across the way.  It stretched high into the sky and the little girl strained to look up, but it grew higher than she could see.  It grew to fifty thousand feet or more.  It grew beyond the blue sky, out into space, towering over our tiny little planet.  Then, unable to keep its shape in the void of space, it finally burst, raining down in droplets of flickering light.  The little girl giggled ecstatically as she raced around in circles, trying to catch the falling stars.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Bugs

Some men in suits and sunglasses showed up on my doorstep one day.  They took me to a secluded compound out in the wilderness, where they had me working long days in a lab, providing only occasional breaks for walks around the property trailed by armed escorts that kept their distance.  There was this one big, old tree that I liked, out at the far corner of the fence line.  I always passed by it on my walks.  It was a great place to stop and rest and think.  Somehow staring at the tree and its gnarled roots helped me focus my mind and sort out the problems I was working on.

In the few months that I had been working in the lab, I had helped create a system that would allow all the governments of the world to monitor everyone on Earth, wherever they were, whatever they were doing, twenty four hours a day.  I had developed the system by reverse engineering software from an exterminating company that combined motion tracking with surveillance technology.  The system gathered a database by marking, coding, and cataloging everything that moved.  It had been designed to track cockroaches; now it would track humans.  As far as implementation was concerned, there was little difference.

I had misgivings about my role on all of this, of course.  I didn't want to see everyone constantly monitored any more than anyone else did.  But I felt better somehow, being involved.  Someone was going to do this, and at least I could be there to make sure it was done right.  Plus, being on the inside of the project had given me the chance to design a glitch into the software that would be accessible through a back door in the program.  That way I could crash the whole thing if it started getting out of control.  I just had to keep this glitch a secret, and pass it on to my successor, and they could pass it along to someone, and they would have to safeguard it though the generations, until it came time to bring the system down.  I turned from the tree and nodded to the guards.  I was ready to get back to work.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Late Night Television

I found a brittle newspaper clipping tucked away in the pages of an old book.  It was a news article about a tragedy that had occurred on set during the filming of an episode of a popular black and white science fiction show from the 1950's.  The episode was called "The Last Race."  The exact details of the tragedy were extremely vague and enigmatic.  The article just mentioned that something had happened in the background of a shot.  It didn't say how or when or what.  But I was quite familiar with the show, and I watched reruns of it nearly every night before I went to bed.

One night as I was brushing my teeth, the episode in question aired.  I sat down on the corner of the bed and leaned towards the TV to better scrutinize the screen.  "The Last Race" was one of the later episodes in the show's run, and the show's failing budget was apparent in the episode's extremely simple composition.  The episode consisted almost entirely of a wide shot of a small winding race track lit up with flood lights at night as race cars zipped around the tight turns.  The story was supposed to be set some time in the future, involving a final race for the fate of humanity.

At one point in the story one of the drivers wrecked his car.  The episode cut to shots of him leaning against a rail at the side of the track where he had crawled away from the wreckage.  These shots were the only other shots in the episode besides those of the race track.  At one point, near the end of the episode, the driver delivered a climatic monologue grasping at all the potentials of mankind lost to trivial and barbaric spectacles, establishing the rather labored twist that the last race was actually the human race.  And that's when I saw it.

In the background of the monologue shot, just beyond the floodlights that shone on the injured driver, there was a crowd of extras gathered behind the track's railing.  These people were there to represent the audience watching the race.  In the middle of the driver's monologue, just at the very edge of the frame, I saw a distraught woman that seemed to stand out from the crowd.  Rather than cheering on the racers, as the extras were presumably instructed to do, she looked about frantically, clutching at a handkerchief.  Then she looked directly at the camera with tormented eyes.  It was that way that she stared at the camera that really caught my attention and made her stand out.  I could see that something was horribly wrong.

Then, driven by who knows what inner turmoil, the woman unexpectedly climbed the rail and ran out onto the track.  All of this transpired in soft focus at the corner of the screen.  I might never have noticed it if I hadn't been looking.  As the woman ran out of the shot, I could see the flicker of the headlights of the cars zipping by out of frame.  Then an arm from the crowd reached out frantically after the woman and the fingers of the hand curled into a claw as though something had slipped beyond their reach.  I could only see the arm and the hand, but it wasn't difficult to piece together what had happened.

The episode continued with no acknowledgement of what had transpired in the background.  After the driver had delivered his speech, he slumped limply against the railing, having apparently expired.  Just at the moment that he died, just at the exact moment, the woman appeared again in the background behind the rail, standing still and staring towards the camera with those same tormented eyes.  And then in a blink she was gone.  It was as though her image had been inserted into a single frame, just as the driver was dying.  Maybe an editor had grabbed a shot of the woman from earlier footage in a clumsy attempt to try to smooth over what had happened and to maintain continuity.

I didn't know what to make of it, but I found the whole thing very unsettling, especially that final out of place image of the woman.  I couldn't get it out of my head.  I decided to go downstairs to get something to drink, but all the lights were off down there.  I crept down the stairs, still shaken by that uncanny feeling.  It was pitch black.  I couldn't see anything.  I stumbled around in the dark, trying to find a light switch along the wall.  But when I flicked the switch it did nothing.

I started to panic.  I felt like there was something down there in the dark with me, staring at me as the woman had stared into the camera.  I kept trying switches but nothing worked.  I felt my way along the walls and the furniture, contoured shapes in the blackness.  I gave up on trying to find a switch that worked.  I just wanted to get back upstairs.  I found my way back to the staircase.  I could feel the rough carpeting along each step as I climbed up on my hands and knees.  I lifted my head to look to the top of the stairs, where I should have been able to see the light from the bedroom.  I saw nothing.  Just more blackness.  I knew then that it wasn't the switches.  It was me.  I had been stricken blind.                   

Friday, October 9, 2015

Cigarette Butts

I went to work on a farm that fall.  I was sixteen, young and full of energy.  It was a cool and cloudy afternoon, and I had on my blue jean jacket.  There was a lively bustle about the place.  From the barn I could hear the hiss of steaming water through the screen door of the kitchen up at the house and the washing of the dishes dirtied from lunch.  I could hear the machinery out in the fields.  I was hanging up a pitchfork on a peg when I saw a long black car come down the gravel driveway.  It was my uncle, stopping by to see me.  It was break time just then and everyone came up from the fields to smoke and sit by the trees around the house. 

My uncle had borrowed my cigarettes and he tossed the pack to me.  I fumbled the pack trying to catch it and spilled about half the cigarettes out on the ground.  I went to pick one up and light it, but it broke in my hand.  The workers around me all laughed.  I tried to pick up another and suffered the same result.  As I kept trying to pick them up, the cigarettes grew older and stale and dirty, no longer freshly fallen from the pack, until finally I found myself picking up nothing but the crushed and spent butts that had been long scattered around the yard.

The laughter around me dispersed as though carried off on the wind.  I raised myself up on old, tired, and cracked joints and there was no one around me.  My uncle and the workers were gone like ghosts.  The barn and the house were empty, long deserted and collapsing into ruin.  The sun poked through a cloud and shone in a cracked upstairs window of the house in diminished radiance as the day went cold and wasted silence prevailed.  The cigarette butt in my hand had been extinguished ages ago, in completely different days gone by.  I tossed it back to the ground.