Thursday, August 25, 2016

Famous Flavor

I was staying with my aunt in Arizona.  She left me alone in the house, and she told me to help myself to whatever I wanted in the kitchen.  I was craving some ice cream, so I went looking in the freezer.  There were a bunch of half gallon tubs of ice cream in the freezer, all unusual flavors that I had never heard of.  I attributed this to my aunt living on the other side of the country and shopping at higher end stores.  I could tell from the weight that a lot of the tubs were empty, or nearly empty, and so I set them aside and kept digging.

Towards the back, I pulled out a tub that caught my attention.  It was a pretty standard variation on the basic cookies and cream flavor, but what caught my eye was that the flavor had been named after a girl I had gone to school with.  I knew that it had to be her, because I remembered how much she liked those kinds of cookies.  I remembered her always taking them apart and dunking them in her milk at lunch time.  I couldn't believe that she had her own flavor of ice cream.  I wanted to find my phone, so that I could take a picture and send it to someone and show them.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Death of an Author

I went to live with the writer, William Mason, when I was still very young.  He was a distant uncle on either my mother or father's side of the family.  I wasn't clear which one.  He wasn't known as the famous writer back then, of course.  None of his work was published until after his death, when the managers of his estate collected all of his voluminous notes and scattered manuscripts, and some sharp editor went to work trying to wrestle it all into some more consumable form.  During his lifetime, however, he lived off a substantial inheritance that he had received at some point and he lived quite comfortably without being published or making any money off of his writing.

In fact, it was probably in light of his secure financial position that I was sent to live with him.  The day I arrived, a driver in an old black Hudson picked me up from the bus station and dropped me at the curb in front of his house.  It was just beginning to rain.  As I got out and stared up at the Gothic house brooding among a yard of dark trees, my uncle's manservant promptly appeared with an umbrella over my head, and he followed me up the walk with it.  He was very tall and he had to bend deeply to keep the umbrella near my head.  All the while, the rain pattered against his own back, and he maintained the same grave and silent frown on his face.

I was taken directly to my uncle's library, where he spent most of his time working on his writing.  It was a dark, stuffy chamber.  There were bookshelves along every wall and the shelves reached high up into the darkness farther than I could see.  The only light was from a dim desk lamp on a desk in the middle of the room.  There my uncle sat huddled in this little pool of light, writing something with a fountain pen.  I could tell from the cramped way that he held his hand that he was writing something in a tiny, tedious script.  He would spent hours every day filling each page with hundreds upon hundreds of tiny, tedious words, outpouring the feverish machinery of his relentless train of thought, and then he would hold each page briefly up to the light before blowing on it softly and then setting it aside to let the ink dry.

He rolled back from his desk, and I could see that he was in a wheelchair.  His grey hair was long and ratty in places and balding in others.  He took a pair of spectacles from his desk and put them on as he wheeled over towards me and he perched them on the edge of his nose as he leaned forward to study me as though I were an exhibit of some sort.  There was a long, awkward moment of silence.  I wasn't sure if I needed to say something.  Finally he made a grunt as though he were satisfied by what he saw and said, "You must be hungry," before wheeling back to his desk and leaving his manservant to attend to me.

He continued to be just as cold in all the years that I lived with him, growing up.  We rarely ever had normal, casual conversations.  Instead he would impart "lessons" or offer "instruction" meant to be edifying for my "constitution" and beneficial in reinforcing the fiber of my character.  His lower lip would always seem to protrude petulantly when he used these words and he would pat the stomach of his dark blue vest and roll away with an immense air of self satisfaction.  Once, I was sitting on the floor at his feet listening to one of these lectures of his, and he managed to roll over my fingers as he started away.  There was a sharp snap and I cried out.  "The floor is no place for civilized people to keep their hands," was all that he had to say.

He made efforts to get his work published.  He didn't need the money, but he wanted the prestige, the validation.  Sometimes, behind the closed door of his office, I could hear him having long, one sided arguments with his manservant, who also managed his professional affairs, contacting publishers and submitting his work to different markets.  The argument was always the same.  He was convinced that the manservant wasn't doing enough, wasn't going about things the right way, wasn't contacting the right people.  The manservant bore these harangues in silence and, I imagine, with the same stiff frown that he always wore on his face. 

As a result of his lack of publication, my uncle's family looked on his writing with condescending amusement.  To them, it was just some eccentric pastime that he puttered away at, something to keep a rich old man from feeling useless.  They would come by the house and find him in his office, and they would smirk and shake their heads and refuse to take him seriously.  "For Heaven's sake, you should let some light in here," they would tell him.  He would just scowl and try to dismiss them, insisting that he was busy working, but they refused to respect that and instead went on about getting lighter drapes and window fixtures for his gloomy office.  Even the lilting cadence of their voices seemed to shed unwanted light about the house.  My uncle seemed smaller, sillier, when they were around and I know that he burned with resentment at every minute that he had to endure in their presence.

Sometimes he would take this resentment out on me.  He began to taunt me with the fact that my parents had abandoned me to his care.  I had come there under the impression that my parents had died and that I had come to stay with him as an orphan.  He forcefully disabused me of this notion.  He showed me letters that they had written to him.  They went on and on about their happy, carefree lives.  They described beaches, sunsets, warm tropical places where they basked in childless luxury.  He read page after spiteful page of these letters.  I tried to defend them.  I had been sick often as a child and they hadn't known what to do; they hadn't been prepared to take care of me; they would have been there if they could.  But he brushed aside each of these excuses with a slow, triumphant shake of his head until there was nothing left but the pitiless fact that they just didn't care enough to raise their child.

So I grew up like this.  When I was about sixteen, my uncle became seriously ill.  Some sickness that he had harbored in his chest for years finally caught up with him and he took to his bed.  The manservant called in the doctors and there were grim, whispered consultations in the hallway.  Finally I was told that he wanted to see me one last time.  His eyes followed me intently as I came to the side of his bed, and he reached out his hand to me and struggled to speak.  He wanted me to get rid of all the manuscripts stored in his desk in the library.  "Burn them," he said.  "I was too hard.  There was no forgiveness there for anyone.  People want passion.  They want life and entertainment.  I gave them ... I gave them ..." He clutched my arm and pulled himself up, his eyes wide and wild, "I gave them nothing!" And he fell back against the pillow, all the breath and life gone out of him, his eyes staring ahead empty.

It was his most human moment.  It was the closest that we had ever been, and I noticed for the first time how bright and blue his eyes were.  I had never really looked into his eyes before.  I knew then that I couldn't do what he asked.  I couldn't burn his books.  I couldn't throw away all those years of work. I knew then that he was wrong.  He had to be.  I could see it there in his eyes.  I knew that there was something there, something in all those pages of cramped, urgent writing.  We just had to find it.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Seats of Judgment

A contest had been arranged between the President and the Pope.  All of their mistakes and misdeeds had been legally documented on paper, and they would both sit on chairs side by side as stacks of this paperwork grew from beneath them and lifted them to enormous heights.  Whichever one of them was lifted the highest would be declared the winner.  A large, stately manor had been chosen as the venue for the contest.  The two chairs were placed at the foot of the grand staircase in the main hall of the manor.  I was part of a small group of spectators brought in the witness the event.  It was a pleasant, sunny afternoon and we were all dressed in our best suits and ties.  We stood around in front of these empty chairs, waiting for the Pope and the President to arrive so that the contest could begin.

Someone saw the cars pull up outside and they ran in to tell us.  We all perked up and looked towards the door.  Cameras flashed all around as the President and the Pope came into the room.  The President smiled and made a huge wave, as though there were a large crowd gathered instead of just a small group of spectators.  This gesture itself seemed to swell our numbers and there was a loud roar of applause and excitement.  I think we were all mostly rooting for the President to win.  The Pope's entrance was more solemn.  He was accompanied by a cardinal in red robes.  His head was bowed and weak.  He tried to lift his hand to give some kind of blessing, but his old withered fingers trembled and he abandoned the effort and dropped his hand back to his side.  He made his way to his appointed chair with slow, struggling steps, and he had to brace himself on the arm of the cardinal as he carefully lowered himself down onto the seat.

Having taken their positions, the two men nodded to each other as a show of sportsmanship.  The President had a bit of a smirk on his face.  He knew he had the old man beat.  The Pope just turned away and hunched forward, studying the floor around his chair as though he wasn't quite certain where he was and what was going on.  An official came forward with a silver whistle and a pocket watch on a chain.  He stood with the whistle poised between his lips as he stared down at the pocket watch, waiting for the right second to begin.  Everything was perfectly still except for the ticking of the watch.

The whistle blew and the contest began.  The paperwork quickly piled up under the President's chair and he soared up high over the Pope.  He was still smirking at the Pope down below.  But then, to everyone's surprise, there was a sudden rush of paperwork under the Pope and he began to catch up with the President.  The President looked over in alarm as the piling paperwork brought them nearly side by side again.  The spectators below had to lift their heads higher and higher to see the two men soaring up to the vaulted ceiling of the main hall.

When it became clear that they were going to break through the ceiling and take this contest to literally higher levels, I felt a sudden need to know which one of them was going to win, and so I took off running up the grand staircase, trying to beat them to next floor above.  The grand staircase gave way to a smaller staircase that turned several corners and wound through darkly paneled corridors.  As I came to a landing lit by a small window, I heard the crunch of plaster and wood as they punched through the ceiling of one floor and flew right on up through the ceiling of the next floor.  I could see chalky dust and haze through the door of the small room down the hall where they had punched through.  Papers that had fallen loose from both piles blew about in the debris, as though there were sins to spare in the reckoning of either man's failures.

I mounted floor after floor, trying to get above them.  Finally, I came to what should have been the attic of the manor.  There was a trapdoor in the floor just above me.  But when I opened it and raced up though, I found myself in a sun room in what appeared to be some annex across the grounds from the main house of the manor.  There were oil painting portraits on the wall and there was a large window along one side of the room that looked out onto a sunny garden courtyard.  Things were much quieter here than they had been in the floors below.  There was a small group of women all in black dresses sitting on chairs and couches clustered around the center of the room.  They had tea cups poised in mid air and they looked over at me and considered the impropriety of my sudden arrival with a vast sense of scorn.

I was just about to say something to explain myself, when the ground below started to rumble.  The tea cups began to chatter against their saucers and the women in the black dresses began to look more and more alarmed.  They look at one another with wide eyes.  I knew that either the President or the Pope was about to come bursting through the floor at any second, right up under the coffee table.  There was no need to explain it now.  I just leaned against bookshelf across the room and folded my arms and smiled and waited to see which one of them it would be.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Fire Watch

I had two children, a daughter and a son.  We were living in a small house out in the woods, more of a shack really, with only a front room and a back bedroom and a rough kitchen.  It was the middle of winter.  The trees were bare and there were deep snowdrifts on the ground outside.  There was a desk against the wall in the front room and there was a glowing fire burning on the hardwood floor under the desk.  The couches in the front room had been pushed from their normal places and into a circle around the desk in order to be closer to the warmth from the fire.  The moonlight in the windows and the glow from the fire provided the only light in the room.

I was very tired and I stretched out on one of the couches under a flannel blanket.  The children were over by the desk.  The boy sat on the floor beside the fire, playing with a toy semi truck, driving it up to the edge of the fire and then driving it away, as though he were making deliveries to the fire.  The girl stood beside the fire, poking at it cautiously with a stick and trying to be careful not to let the flames catch on the hem of her night dress.  I called the girl over.  I told her that she needed to keep an eye on the fire while I slept.  She had to make sure that it didn't spread out of control and burn down the whole shack.  It was dangerous enough having it burn on the wood floor and under the wooden desk.

The girl seemed angry at being given the responsibility.  She stood beside the couch, pouting and fidgeting and glaring resentfully at the fire.  I reminded her that she was the oldest, that I could trust her to take care of the fire better than her brother.  I grew more and more drowsy, mumbling on and on, trying to reassure her.  I couldn't keep my eyes open for another second.  Just as I was about to drift off completely, I realized that I hadn't told her what to do if the fire started to spread.  I hadn't shown her how to put it out.  But I couldn't stay awake, and so I fell asleep, hoping she'd figure out what to do.

Friday, July 22, 2016

My Getaway

I went to visit a friend of mine who lived down in the city.  He said he had something that he wanted to show me in his basement, something I might be interested in buying.  He took me down to look at it so that we could settle on a price.  As we descended the dark, narrow stairs and made our way to the back corner of the basement through piles of dusty, overturned chairs and duct taped boxes, I noticed that something looked strange and out of place.  The back wall seemed a little closer than I remembered.  The ceiling slanted sharply there, and I even bumped my head against it.  I looked closer and saw that someone had nailed a few sheets of drywall together to form a roughly improvised partition.  It looked like it had all been done very recently. 

I turned to my friend and asked him about it.  "Something's different here.  There used to be a door here where you go could straight out to the back yard.  It's all been covered over.  Everything's been boarded up for some reason.  When did this happen?" He just shrugged like he had no idea what I was talking about.  There was a long moment of silence.  My friend seemed uneasy.  He brushed the sweat from his forehead and wiped it against the leg of his pants, pressing his hand a little too roughly against the fabric.  I could hear him breathing heavy in the close, stifling air.  Then I heard a soft thump behind the partition.  I saw my friend's hand twitch, but his face showed no sign that he had heard anything.  I knew then that something was up.

I scrambled back up the stairs and my friend scrambled up after me.  The kitchen was up at the head of the house, and the house sat on the corner of two city streets.  From the kitchen window I could see along both streets.  I looked out at the cars parked along the curb.  Most of the cars were empty and I could clearly see that there was no one in them.  But further down, about fifty yards from the house, I saw an orange and white van that had curtains drawn across the windows in the back.  I could just barely make out the grey smoke curling up from the tailpipe behind the van.  That was it.  They were watching, waiting in that van.

I just shook my head at my friend for betraying me, and then I ran for the door on the other side of the house.  I burst out into an alley between the houses, and I could already hear the scrape of the van door opening and the frantic voices of the cops piling out.  I climbed a fence into the neighbor's back yard and then over another fence and another until I came out onto the street on the other side of the block.  The cops were swarming in from all directions.  I crossed the street and took off running down the sidewalk, knowing that they were close behind.

I turned a corner and I stopped to catch my breath in front of a tall grey house.  I had eluded them for a moment, and I took a second to collect my thoughts and think about my predicament.  I hadn't done anything.  I hadn't bought whatever it was my friend was trying to sell me to set me up.  I had nothing incriminating on me.  I fumbled through my pockets.  The only thing I had was a disk, and I knew that the only thing on it was the rough draft and the final draft of a paper I had written for college.  I could hear the footsteps of the cops on all sides.  They had figured out where I was.  I stayed still and waited for them to come. 

I had the disk in my hand, and for some reason, just as one of the cops came around the corner and came into view, I tossed it away from me and it landed in the grass somewhere on front lawn of the grey house.  I wasn't exactly sure why I did it.  I wasn't sure if it had been a reflex, or whether I had done it to deliberately mislead them.  But the cop had seen me, and the mere act of throwing the thing away had given it an incriminating importance.  The other cops showed up, and some of them hunted around in the grass for the disk while the others handcuffed me and loaded me into a squad car.

Later, the disk would become a great point of contention for the police.  There had to be some reason I had thrown it away.  There had to be something on it.  There had to be something about it.  For lack of anything else to analyze, they scrutinized the two versions of the college paper that were saved on the disk, looking for clues.  They decided that the secret lay in the discrepancies between the rough draft and the final draft, that these differences must form some kind of code.  They brought in all the experts, all the specialists.  And all the while, the days went by, and I sat there in a cell, forgotten, wondering when it would all end.