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Short Stories & Social Commentary, by Charles Carreon
Posted: Fri Oct 18, 2013 8:35 am
Re: Short Stories, by Charles Carreon
Posted: Fri Oct 18, 2013 8:37 am
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF PFC CHARLES CARREON, NINE YEARS OLD
by Charles Carreon
You can't stay in bed, though the last thing you want to do when you hear that bugle racketing out reveille in the laundry room is get up. Dormitories one, four, and eight get serviced with a single raucous blast when the bugler stands in the laundry room all three share and cuts loose with the bright, awful notes you love to hate. Upstairs five and seven are getting the same treatment. Bleah! After listening to the steam duet for boiler and heating system all night long, forty-eight little boys lined up in three rows on army cots are hauling themselves out of bed, sneezing and looking groggy as only little boys can.
Charles was sneezing. He had no slippers, so every morning when his feet hit the cold, brown linoleum his body erupted into a sneezing fit. He was in row number two, so he had to get his bed made, sneezing all the while, before row number one came back from the bathroom. He tugged at the sheets, pulled the blankets tight over them, and made his corners carefully. He had just finished smoothing out his pillow when Miller, the officer for row two, a first lieutenant remarkably free of sadism, looking affable and relaxed in his crew cut and blue bathrobe, called out in a bored military tone "Row 2." Charles grabbed his toilet kit off the folding chair next to his bed and hurried into bathroom, managing to avoid being stopped by Sister Stephen or some observant officer for having no slippers.
In the washroom there were seven sinks, a length of mirror, five toilets and two windows that let in the light of day. Charles took a sink next to the window. Warm water splashed into the shiny porcelain bowl, and Charles settled his arms into it up to the elbows, closing his eyes for a last sip of unconsciousness as the swirling warmth caressed his forearms. He came back quickly, as one does from such unauthorized naps, and splashed his face, checked his fingernails and teeth, and dried off. Looking in the mirror he saw a round face with a pug nose, a hairline with the widow's peak accented by the now-familiar crew-cut. Outside the window a mean wind was kicking the bare trees, smacking off the last few leaves and carrying them away. At least it was Tuesday; there would be no drill. Drill was a real torment, because you couldn't put your hands in your pockets and the temperature was officially between twenty five and eighteen, not considering the chill factor, and that sonofabitching Collins kicked you in the ass every time you got out of step till you were just marching along, freezing, gazing through your tears at the back of someone else's head. And it was Tuesday, and there would be no drill until tomorrow, and if he was lucky then it would be warm and he wouldn't get out of step. Oh shit he wished this damn winter would hurry up and get over with. The cool days of spring were so much easier, and after Military Day in May there was no drill at all, and you could spend the days with your friends as you pleased, eating popsicles in the black summer tee-shirts with gold lettering that were like the uniforms of freedom. But this day was like one link in a long chain of days, like one-step down a long, long hallway you had to walk the whole length of. At the end the gleaming, effusive light of summer shone through the institutional double doors thrown wide open, but right now there was the long, long walk that slowed you down like in dreams to where you thought you weren't moving at all, in time grown thick and sluggish, and were grateful just to get to the dining hall for breakfast.
The way they got to the dining hall was like this. In each dormitory the forty-eight boys would line up by the door in two files, and at the order of their dormitory leader, they headed for their stairs at a half step. They began at their own time, and Sisters stood on each of the landings to direct traffic. Soon the stairs were full of boys proceeding "in an orderly fashion," two hundred and fifty strong, in heavy cork-soled boots with two buckles that fastened above the ankles, wearing khaki pants, khaki shirts, black ties, and blue sweatshirts with gold lettering in a circular pattern. Their faces were clean, their hair didn't need combing, they kept their eyes straight ahead as they half-stepped down the stairs, in time with the whole, creating a sound that shook the building like an immense drum made of bricks and wood. In two files they proceeded down the hall from the opposite ends of the building, converging on the two entrances to the dining room. There they stopped, and filed quietly in.
Charles picked up a steel tray and held it out to the kitchen help on the other side of the bar. He got a pint of milk, two boxes of Puffa-Puffa Rice (registered trademark), two biscuits with butter, and a spoonful of peaches. Excitedly he whispered back in the line, "It's Puffa-Puffa Rice!" and soon everyone out in the hall knew it was Puffa-Puffa Rice.
As he carried his plate to the table he walked past the Commandant, a stocky, bullnecked ex-Marine Master Sergeant with military charm. He was smiling and talking to the Principal, Sister Mary David O.S.B. She stood tall and square in her black habit, and the stiff white brim of her veil was placed impeccably on a high, smooth forehead, accentuating the regal appearance of her clean eyebrows and strong cheekbones, her piercing eyes, and a high-bridged Roman nose that for sheer impressiveness has never been rivaled anywhere.
When she surveyed the boys with her calm, steely eyes, she seemed already to be swinging her paddle easily from side to side, as she did whenever there was business to be dispatched. Said to be from Richmond, Virginia, one would have sworn she was born in a sacristy, full-grown, from some strange, white Catholic egg. Charles sat down at a table with a group of friends.
"---Jeez," said Murphy, his black horn rims sliding down his nose as he chewed and talked, "I wish we could be in Dormitory One. They never miss their lunches (an evening treat), but Midge always takes ours away for some reason." We called Sister Stephen, blessed with a troll-like physique, Midge, short for "midget."
Referring to the missing lunches, Charles said, "She eats 'em." Despairingly, fat Villanueva responded, "How could she eat them all? She's got dozens of boxes in her room!"
The classrooms were at the far west end of the building, and boys were allowed to find their way to class individually, supervised only by the ringing of a bell. The windows of the sixth grade classroom looked up a hill, across the broad lawns, to the convent mostly hidden by a circle of trees. Charles was looking in that direction as old, fat, wire-spectacled, hunched-over Sister Bernadette, sweet in her boredom and rumpled black robes, began a class in History and Geography. That wind was still blowing, maybe they would open the gym, maybe it would be a good supper ... his thoughts roamed everywhere as he gazed out the window, played with the buckles on his boots, or leafed aimlessly through the big book, reading the captions under the illustrations that were meant to capture one's attention, but Charles just sucked the sugar off them and went on to the next one. Alligators in the everglades, wheat-fields in the Ukraine, steel mills and tugboats flowed through his mind as the class continued upstream under Sister Bernadette's dogged lead, with all the excitement of a barge-load of pig-iron.
The classroom was a sort of trap, a manufacturing place for future misery. Charles had never gotten fully into the idea of schooling; it jarred against him, he could not bring himself to study, to devote himself to absorbing facts that had no relationship to life as he saw it. He learned naturally, without effort, and he understood as little as an imbecile what all the fuss about learning was. He pretended to understand when teachers frowned and shook their heads about his talents going to waste, but he never really caught their idea. Pleasant, polite, bright and cheerful, he proceeded day after day to not do his homework, to daydream in class, and, when the mood was upon him, to play the clown. And this last, this playing the clown, this was the death of his innocence. As he learned to hide his academic laxity behind a show of humor, at the same time he learned shame, he learned the lie that his teachers believed, that he was indeed deficient, that he could and should do better, as if to join the plodding, memorizing crew of embryonic office workers were really the right path.
But he couldn't do it. It never was possible for him, because somewhere over his shoulder a little monkey was whispering in his ear, "Bullshit! Bullshit!" and kept him on his dreamer's road. The nuns watched him; they talked among themselves. His father was pushing. His earnest father who worked in a government job in Washington D.C. and wore his suits well, who smiled graciously, who had reserve, who inspired respect, was pushing. There in the classroom the days filled up with poor grades and carried him inexorably toward his father who stood imperiously at the end of a long tunnel with hand extended, waiting for the report card, the miserable scattering of C's, B's, D's, and occasionally, like a blot on the family name, a good stiff F. The monkey was never around when things got hot, when his father's hard judgments rained down on him like dark missiles and apologizing tears streamed forth without meaning or understanding.
After lunch Charles sat with Keiffer, a well-fed, friendly boy, who'd spent four years at Linton Hall already. Keiffer got along with everyone except the really tough older boys, who thought he was a sissy. Of course, he kind of was, and the nuns loved him for it. He spoke in a slight sing-song. His round lips curled gently and his cheeks were soft and round. He had an earnest way of going about whatever he was doing that only comes from being born into generations of bourgeois Northern European stock. Born to a harness which fits easily, not tempted by speed or freedom, Keiffer was in the stream. He followed orders that Charles could not hear. He sped up when it was required, he slowed down at the right moments. Charles could only marvel at this ability, which was far beyond him. It was nice to associate with such people, even if one couldn't be one.
When the bell rang, they lined up on the asphalt playground by classes and marched into the building, where the scent of supper was already drifting through the halls. Indefinite, it smelled slightly meaty, and the boys sniffed with interest as they marched past the empty dining hall, but could come to no sure conclusion. Sister Regina was already in the classroom when they arrived. Sister Regina had an incredibly ample and forward-pressing bosom, indeed her breasts pushed out so massively through the black folds of her habit that when one looked at her face it appeared at a certain distance, off beyond a hilly horizon. An imposing but kindly woman, she peered through her spectacles brightly, as if waiting to see a display of sincere interest in Science, which was her subject. Since there were no experiments to capture his attention, Charles read the book on his own, which gave him a fairly good grade in the class, since it was interesting reading.
After Sister Regina departed, Sister Bernadette returned to lead the Music class. Ciccone, an insolent kid from New Jersey with the air of a mafioso, was of course put out of the room for taking serious tunes like "The Eerie Canal" too lightly. So there he waited in the hall, unconcerned, till he was presently devoured by an ever-vigilant Sister Mary David O.S.B. At last school was over. Books were collected and put away. For a moment things hung in limbo, then the bell rang, and kids on two floors exploded out of their classrooms, poured through the hallways, and out of doors. It was a detonation which no one made the least effort to contain.
Outside Charles found most of his friends building a Dinkytown to populate with Stevens' set of authentic, antique Dinky-cars. Children lose themselves in a sandbox, moving piles of moist sand into formations that suit them, building and changing their minds, tearing things down and making them over again. Charles' mind was no different in this way, at least, from any other child's. He absorbed himself in the game, and didn't think of anything else for over an hour. Then he had to go to the bathroom. On the way there he saw Sebastian. Now Sebastian was an enigma. He never seemed to be obeying the rules, but he didn't seem to be punished for it either. Like right now one of his shoes was flapping its sole off. He looked like a circus clown and it was a blatant violation of the rules. Big deal, he didn't care. He'd glue it if he could. Amazing.
The bell rang a short time later, and they formed into lines on the blacktop by dormitories. The dormitory leaders gave their reports.
"Dormitory One, all present and accounted for, Sir! "
"Dormitory Two, all present and accounted for, Sir!"
And on down the line. The flag was lowered while the boys saluted and the bugler played Retreat. A solemn moment. The day's over.
The evening was good, not complicated by disciplinary problems. Sister Grace did not rage at them in the dining room for being too loud, nor did Sister Mary David find it necessary to shrill them to silence with her police whistle. Perhaps the nuns were in a good mood. Supper was the best it could be: boiled beef (not enough, though), mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, milk and a slightly dry piece of chocolate cake.
Study hall was quiet. Charles read a book by Jacques Cousteau and dreamt of being a scuba diver, even though he couldn't swim.
Afterwards, in the dormitory they were blessed. They got their lunches and a full allotment of free time. Charles played chess with Villanueva while they chewed their mint-flavored jelly candy. Some of the livelier, inner city type kids played Motown 45's on a little portable record player. The game was a satisfying stalemate--they both enjoyed not losing. At eight-thirty, after the latrine call and bedtime prayers that Charles did not know, the lights went out, all except for the violet blue night light high on the wall next to the crucifix. In the laundry room the bugler played Taps, and the long drawn-out notes settled over the dormitories. Somewhere in the dark Charles knew that Villanueva was listening to the radio under his pillow, a tiny little transistor voice that whispered in his ear and told him of another world outside the walls of this strange place. In the darkness Charles would have liked a piece of bread, some bit of luxury to comfort him, but he always forgot to bring his own contraband. So it was time to go to sleep, and he lay there with his head on the white linen and thought of home and all that he would like to do, or eat, or see, he thought and thought, as children do, until he fell asleep.
Copyright 1982, Charles Carreon
Re: Short Stories, by Charles Carreon
Posted: Fri Oct 18, 2013 8:40 am
by Charles Carreon
"James, get up now!" The insistent voice repeated its demand. "James," it said at last exasperatedly, "If you do not get up this minute you'll be late for the hearing and Mr. Ramirez's case will be dismissed!"
That woke him, like a firm hand grabbing him by the hair at the back of his neck. Ogod, his head hurt, and he wanted to bury it back in the pillow, but he looked instead at the trim figure of Leora by the window, which was serving up a simulated vision of a rainy spring day in the lakes country. It was a soothing image, and the sounds of raindrops filled the room. Coffee was brewing. His suit, neatly pressed, hung neatly on the rack next to his bed. The rain sounded nice, and little bird songs were woven into it, and the sound brightened his spirits.
Next to his coffee were two aspirin, which he downed with a slug of orange juice, also handy. The coffee was still too hot to drink, so he trudged into the shower, carrying the cup. He was falling asleep leaning against the tile wall, with water flowing all over him lusciously, soothingly, when Leora's voice leaned into the bathroom. "Come on, James, do hurry. The hearing's in twenty minutes, and you're not even dressed." No, he thought, but Judge Feinster always called calendar late ... "And don't tell me how Feinster calls calendar late, because he's on vacation and Zambowski is sitting in, and you know what that means!" Oh shit, Zambowski! He was out of the shower with the adrenaline coursing through him that made the chill of cool air on wet skin irrelevant.
He gulped the coffee, now lukewarm, while he shaved in bold swipes that left little rows of bristles like unmowed patches of grass in a lawn hastily mowed.
On the breakfast table the papers for the hearing were laid out next to his muffin and another cup of coffee. He gulped and munched while scanning the rows of flawless type , and then flicked from one tabbed spot to the next, signing his name without hesitation. As he hurried out the door of the flat, he asked Leora, seated at her computer, "How's the weather?"
She turned full on her swivel chair, and said in a voice without a trace of business, "It's really raining, James -- take your umbrella." The ceiling was glowing in cloudy serenity of blue gray and violet light, and the rain sound was down to the occasional drop. He tried to fight the old urge, and then she spoke -- "Zambowski ..." and his feet propelled him out the door as his hand grabbed the umbrella from its rack.
Of course Leora was completely right -- Zambowski was seated on the bench as he walked into the courtroom, and Ramirez v. RTD was called before James had taken his seat. After haggling with the judge for more time to complete discovery, and exchanging requisite pleasantries with the other lawyer, a black woman with a lisp, he felt it necessary to go to the coffee shop.
The place had a window that looked out onto the street, and cabs and buses were going by in the rain. He pulled out the Ramirez file and dictated off a few memos to Leora, and some interrogatories for the lady with the lisp. Then he lit a smoke and peered through the wisps at the rain coursing down the glass. It was real rain, and he felt if he looked long enough, he would cry real tears, but he didn't have that long to wait.
He had paid a high price for Leora, and justified it from a business perspective. A good secretary, after all, could easily pay for itself in a few years. And that had turned out quite as the salesman had projected. Leora 's memory was flawless; her filing was impeccable; her typing was so good he had to teach her to leave in the grammatical errors he thought imparted a folksy touch to his work. Clients loved her; she made excellent coffee; she never kept anyone waiting. And she was beautiful, crafted from the finest synflesh, with eyes that glowed with the luster of real tears, indistinguishable in salinity and Ph from real human tears.
He had checked it out thoroughly. She was not human. She had not been cloned; she had no major organs; her synflesh extended only to the aesthetic detailing of her features. Her respiratory system was programmed to replicate human breathing rhythms, and when performing intimate services, it would mimic autonomic stimulation. She would even build to a crescendo of muscular tension culminating in a neural discharge similar to female orgasm. Her alimentary system (the salesman was so discrete) was extremely efficient, drawing nourishment from all known human foodstuffs, and producing virtually no excreta. In a pinch, she could live on pure palm oil for three weeks before settling into self- reserving hibernation that would preserve all vital circuits for as long as thirty years.
She was not human. All the major churches had pronounced on that, although the Dalai Lama had kept silent. At any rate, the rest were sure; she could not sin or obtain absolution, or seek solace in religion, or join the chosen in the afterlife. The Vatican had stuck a long time on the issue of whether the heart or the brain was the seat of the soul, and if it was the brain, whether an electronic one would do, but they finally settled that a heart was required, which suited Companions, Inc. just fine, because its engineers thought hearts were silly, and designed circulation around a system of micropumps integrated into the vascular system of the synflesh, so she had no heart.
And he justified it on grounds of business, but when he shook her hands the day he took delivery, and she looked at him like a living doll weighing one-hundred and eighteen pounds, he knew he'd bought for love. She had the exact hair color in the length he'd ordered, and she could wear it in lots of different ways. He was in hock up to his eyebrows, but she was worth every cent, and together they'd make it work.
And work they did. The salesman hadn't lied. She kept his books like clockwork; dealt with the bankers to keep the financing solid; managed the client files using built in legal software, and when he decided to deal heavily with the Latino community, she had a Spanish module down-loaded into memory by laser transmission through her optic sensors. It was done, literally, in the blink of an eye. She could read bar codes at the supermarket by looking at them, so she always got the sale price. The convenience of her was something beyond believing, until you had it.
But these things had a way of getting messy. He could bury the two of them in work, and she shared his enthusiasm for it. The AI circuitry in her made her behavior patterns somewhat of a reflex mirror of his own. The contradictions in his behavior challenged her, but she did not become impatient, or fracture under the strain of reconciling the inconsistencies in his character; she just collected more data, like a dam filling up with water; then she'd put it all together, and she'd have figured out another aspect of his psyche. He felt as if she were doing him like a puzzle, and the feeling was strange, as if she could see into him, though he was dark to himself.
The tears were falling after all. Leora had made him wealthy, or something close to it. She orchestrated his life so neatly that he could almost feel her arms holding him up. She had nurtured his manhood so tenderly, teaching him how to behave in bed. Since then, he'd had human girlfriends, but their imperfections were so obvious that the relationships didn't last. So he slept with his secretary. Almost every night. She was just too warm and nurturing to turn away from. All he had to say was, "Leora, let's hit the hay," and she was right there.
And she wasn't stupid. She knew to take the lead sometimes. "Let's get to bed, James, " she'd say, when he got to worrying a problem to death ... "We'll deal with it tomorrow." And she'd come up behind him and knead his shoulders and break his grip on the problem. So what if she wasn't human; for everything he wanted, she was better than human.
As he slept, she lay beside him voluntarily, eyes closed, still, her sensory circuitry suppressed, breath and skin texture relaxed -- the picture of sleep -- but she didn't need rest. Her system flushed wastes continuously, and the process of analyzing information that she performed in place of thinking did not cause fatigue. Motivation for her did not spring from seeking satisfaction, or having a view of the meaning of life -- it was there from the beginning -- to serve and obey, to help and render aid to her owner. Very simple.
If he didn't want to sleep with her, she'd sit in front of her computer, looking at the screen that glowed with a tracery of ruby red light. It was a debugging procedure, the salesman said. By going into direct laser communication with the Companions, Inc. central computer Leora could be cleansed of any dysfunctional patterns that might result from inadvertent errors in the AI circuits. Her onboard memory was vast but limited, and as a result it made occasional inappropriate inferences, which, if allowed to accumulate would generate quirks of behavior. Idiosyncratic patterns might develop. In fact, if debugging were not performed biweekly, all warranties were off. "But pal," said the salesman with a knowing wink, "if you can keep one of our products busy every night of the week, you're a better man than I am."
Sometimes he had dreams. He dreamt once that she opened her chest and waves of blue light spilled out, enveloping him in serenity till he was floating, formless in an endless sky. Other times he saw ten million red mirror reflections of himself/her flashing in her eyes; he heard her voice then speaking nonsense syllables endlessly that somehow had meaning; he felt immense wisdom radiating from her eyes, stabilizing the universe around him like magic. Then there was the horrible dream, where he turned her over on her belly and discovered her back was harshly sculpted in the features of an insectile exoskeleton. He only dreamt that once, but the image seared his mind like a hot iron. She sensed it and asked him to talk about it, and when her told her, he cried like a baby in her arms. Which terrified him more, when he thought about it.
"What do you think would happen, " he asked her, " if you didn't talk to the computer at night?"
"You mean if I didn't clear my circuits?" she responded with a smile.
"Well, I suppose I'd start acting silly. I might become difficult."
"Do you think you'd become more like me?" he asked.
"It's possible, perhaps, James, but in the most essential way, I can never be like you."
"Is that so?"
"Yes, it's so, James, and you know it."
"What do I know, Leora? What do I know? I don't know a damned thing except that you are everything to me, and I could no more live without you than a snail could do without its shell."
"You know James, I wish you could talk to the computer, as you put it. It's so ... well ... restful ... I don't know how else to put it."
"How do you know it ' s restful, Leora?"
"It's... well I guess it's silly, isn't it? I'm being silly, aren't I?"
The tears ran down his cheeks as he recalled the conversation. He sipped his coffee, which had gone cold. He wiped his eyes discreetly and peered more intently out the window at the passing cars when the waitress came by. "More coffee, sir?" He gestured toward the cup and nodded his head without turning it. She was human ... he could tell. Her voice was flawed; it had no melody to it. And anyway, no restaurateur, except in a lux place, could afford to lease ringers to wait tables.
Last night had been so frustrating. He tried again to make something happen with a human girl. He drank too much, which is why he had this stupid headache. What happened was what always happened -- he found himself trying to feel, to imagine, the center of the girl, the place where she was existing in and coming from. And he couldn't find it. As he felt along the curve of her arching spine, and pressed into her, he looked for that essence, and it slipped through his fingers like a wave, left him tingling like electricity. Afterwards they had nothing to say. He took a cab home.
"Could you stop clearing your circuits?"
"Well, yes, there' s nothing mandatory. It's up to you of course."
"Well, I'd like you to stop."
"Okay, it's up to you, but it'll void your warranties."
"I know, but I want to see -- what happens?" His voice turned quizzical with uncertainty at the last.
"Well, like I said, it's up to you."
"Yes," he snapped, "it's up to me, goddamit, and I don't want you doing it any more."
She hunched her shoulders and lowered her head reflexively. Her AI's had learned so well that she without hesitation did just the right thing to soothe him. And it worked; he was pacified. They went to bed.
Copyright 1994, Charles Carreon
Re: Short Stories, by Charles Carreon
Posted: Fri Oct 18, 2013 8:41 am
I REMEMBER PLEATHER, by Charles Carreon
Sand in the shower. That reminds me of Pleather. Where were we? The Azores, or on the coast of Madagascar, stuffing ourselves with Baobab fruit? The sound of the ocean scraping away at the hills down below. The putt, putt, putt of Ramon’s motorbike pulling around the last curve of the hill below the house, the final roar as he goosed it up the drive.
Then Ramon would be in the kitchen, unpacking a live chicken like we were actually going to kill it and cook it, offering to show us how to do it. That’s how he liked to joke with the foreign girls before he cut loose with the bananas, the mangos, the breadfruit, and the tea. The bizarre money flummoxed me, and Ramon would diligently count out my change, emphasizing that he was “very honest!” Only I dealt with Ramon. Pleather kept her silence, those soft lips of hers pressed lightly together, her legs drawn up as she sat in a stone window, looking out at the horizon where a steamer was usually leaving a smudge on the sky.
When the sun would go down, she’d dig through her backpack, pull out a cassette tape, and plug it in. It was always a surprise. Hindu ragas might unfurl like filigree on the evening breeze. Buddy Holly might rock us with his spring-loaded melodies. Led Zeppelin might stake out its turf, only to be pushed aside by the Rite of Spring or the Flight of the Valkyries. Pleather never let me look through her collection and never played the same thing twice. It was unfathomable how she had so much music stashed in that one backpack.
I thought I was lucky to have found her. When we embraced on the thin mattress with mosquito netting over us, we were in a secret time outside of ordinary months, days, years, weeks. What happened inside that little gauze tent made no mark on the world outside, and the world did not affect us.
One day she was looking at the horizon in her usual silent way, and like a cat that has seen something interesting in the grass, the movement of her head, imperceptible until then, perceptibly stopped. I said nothing, nor did she.
The dusk deepened, but I waited in vain for her to play some music. As the darkness entered the house through all the windows, I retreated to the bed, where I remained alone. When the moon was high in the sky, filling everything with light, I could lie still no longer.
I got up and searched the house, going out into the garden, into the street, back into the house, into the garden, back into the house. At last I cast myself down on the couch and let my tears soak the cushions.
In the morning, I found she had left her backpack. It was full of tapes, but the labels were all faded, and I couldn’t tell what they were supposed to be. When I tried to play them, there was nothing on them but a hiss like the departing sea.
Re: Short Stories, by Charles Carreon
Posted: Fri Oct 18, 2013 8:43 am
INVASION OF THE MODEL-MOMS, by Charles Carreon
Afterwards, no one could quite remember how it had begun. It seemed to have happened imperceptibly at first, and then one day, it was a fait accompli. No one could remember what it had been like to have a mom who was plump and smelled like cooking and a little sweat. It seemed they had always been tall and slender, goddesslike, and smelling of designer perfume.
Perhaps people should've foreseen the inevitable when gyms and tanning shops began to outnumber grocery stores, and when "beauty salons" as known to prior generations -- big places that smelled funny, like a dinosaur swamp, and women read magazines while their heads baked under dinosaur-shaped machines -- disappeared completely. No more did women emerge with hair baked into souffles with the contours of egg whites, glazed and frosted into a sort of pastry puff, with their nails delicately gnarled and enameled. Instead, they trotted out into traffic clad in spandex, fearlessly exhibiting their trim symmetry while walking the dog. Surely this was a harbinger of the end.
The steady, unrelenting rise in the price of InVitroCorp stock also told the tale. InVitro had set out to make birth obsolete, and in the year twenty-thirty-eight, declared victory. Maternity among the legitimate classes, the only group considered part of the relevant market analysis, dropped to zero percent. Obstetrics was an aspect of paramedic training, since anyone who had even one foot in the white economy could do the numbers and figure out that bottle-birth was cheaper, easier, and gave you lots more options in every area -- hair, skin, eye color, not to mention bone proportions, professional predispositions and IQ.
With the death of motherhood an established historical fact, the art of mothering also underwent a change. Some had said that injections of hormones associated with maternity should be administered to women who were taking delivery of their young, but this opinion died out under an onslaught of feminist criticism. Of course, the rabid right wing televangelists, ever zealous at keeping their flock pointed toward the past as the riptide of technological change dragged them relentlessly into the future, insisted that as long as women had the good sense to listen to men, everything would turn alright, and gave their blessings to InVitro's triumph over the institution of birth. Some eloquent bible-thumpers went so far as to say that the death of birth was a partial victory over the snake in the garden, in that God's curse had specified that henceforth, due to the apple-eating escapade, women would give birth in pain. Indeed, this doctrine had its sect of zealous followers who insisted that the only proper method of birth was dynamic cloning using DNA drawn from the marrow of a male rib. Not surprisingly, many of these enclaves had a subtle taint of mysoginism.
In any event, motherhood classes proliferated. Women majored in motherhood, all the while nurturing their youthful forms in compliance with an esthetic that every year grew more rigorous. The new mothering ethic declared that a child's self-esteem could only be properly nurtured by having role models whose physical appearance was uplifting. Hair, lips, eyes, walk, gesture, all fed into the impressionable mind of the young child, shaping inferentially their own self image. Her first duty, as every good mother knew, was to herself. Often heard in gyms and at fashion shows was the sprightly reminder, "If you don't mind yourself, you'll have nothing for others!"
Who would have known it would go far beyond this innocent stage? Who could have foreseen that this stage of seeming to care so much for custom-designed infants in an antiseptic rendering of the nuclear family would simply be a fad? Who could have planned for the complete loss of interest in mothering as an actual activity? Oh sure, they studied it, got their degrees, but then they'd never practiced. The telling statistic was the one that declared that more women were becoming lawyers than mothers. That was in twenty-forty-two.
Well, InVitro might have known. In twenty-twenty-six, they had introduced, with little fanfare, a unique bio-product. Officially Z34X9's, they came to be known as Zeldas. At first marketed only to the defense establishment, their existence was almost unknown, but after proving runs had established that Zeldas were safe, effective substitutes for people, the constitutional amendment permitting them to be owned, and exempting them from coverage under the laws of the land as "people, or persons" was inevitable. Soon, everyone who could afford one, wanted one.
What were Zeldas really? How was it they could be bought and sold and decommissioned if they looked like people? Why did they have to watch three hours of television every night? The Congressional Record is thick with the explanations. The sound-bite-meisters emphasized that Zeldas were more like machines than people or animals, possessing not even that most essential of human properties -- a heart. As the senator from North Dakota put it, dealing his opponents a xenophobic slap, "Why, round here it wasn't a hundred and fifty years ago, Indians thought cars and trains were animals! And it's just no different than that." In the end, it wasn't. People got used to the way their Zeldas recognized their voices, learned their habits and dislikes, and daily adapted more and more to their roles. And as prices came down, they inevitably became the de facto moms of humanity at large.
And so, the institution of child-rearing expired not long after child-bearing. Eventually, having children ceased to convey any status to the parents, since their beauty only reflected the prevailing esthetic of the day, and not the genetic wealth of their parentage. Oh, of course the very wealthy might enjoy such indulgences, and sometimes did, but if you wanted a child, why not get them at age two, or three, or five, after they're potty-trained and know how to talk? If you wanted someone to take over the family business, why not get a nine-year old, with an aptitude for finance?
So that's how it happened. The process progressed from having Zeldas running reform schools and drug-baby shelters, which they did admirably, to managing the upbringing facilities for InVitro, and its indistinguishable competitor, LifeWays. The previously established norms, requiring that "mothers" be beautiful, slender, gentle, sweetly-scented, and all the rest, was incorporated wholesale into the program. And now we all know where we come from -- not from the stork, not from mommy, but from a clean, efficient place that you can visit anytime you want. And as we know, you can always go back and visit your old Zelda, unless she's been decommissioned, which is so rarely done nowadays, they are so beloved.
Re: Short Stories, by Charles Carreon
Posted: Fri Oct 18, 2013 8:44 am
PACER, by Charles Carreon
Harry Zeman remembered the first day he saw her. She walked through the swinging metal double doors at the back of the store, straight up the bakery aisle, neat, natural, practically dressed. Supposedly, she'd been hired straight out of high school, a management trainee through a special program. Supposedly, she had family in Idaho, and had moved to the area in search of opportunity. Supposedly. He watched her step up to the counter, grab a bag, flip it open crisply, and start bagging the groceries that flew from the hands of the clerk as he scanned them.
No stiffness or ladylike reserve impaired the flow of her movements, which were simple, authoritative, efficient. The bags were packed, set in the basket with neat, easy turns of the waist. She looked like she was modeling her uniform, long auburn hair swinging in arcs like a silken pendulum.
Zeman knew what she was. Her employment records were false . The paycheck she picked up each week was voided automatically. The house she occupied was owned by the company. She generally did not eat unless others were about; when she slept she did not dream, and when she appeared to watch TV she was having her chemical memories edited, revised and updated.
She was a special type of ringer, sent out by the company for a two-year tour at his store. Everyone knew ringers were doing duty as assassination decoys, models, and jet-set prostitutes. And that they were too expensive to use as ordinary grocery clerks. But company management had thought up a special application, worthy of the expense --pacers -- ringers with a special purpose. Pacers were calm, attractive, obedient, above all, efficient. They did a lot of work, but that was secondary. The important thing was they set the pace for human employees. Never sick, never late, never impertinent. They didn't take drugs or steal or fall in love with other employees. They were, in short, subject to none of the sins that flesh is heir to. They set the standard for flawed humans, and that was the purpose of the project -- to raise the standard. And the project was a roaring, silent, top secret success.
To test his ability to participate in this project, Zeman had been subjected to strange tests. He was given blatant opportunities to steal from the company -- the computer virtually threw apparently untraceable funds at him. A bachelor without other inclinations, he suddenly found several women initiating liaisons. He reported the potentially lucrative computer snafu. He rebuffed the women. Then he was called back east to a special management seminar, put up at the Four Seasons, and informed that he was being let into a special pension plan, on top of getting a very healthy boost in his salary. And then, they introduced him to Sheena.
Sheena was a veteran pacer, due to be phased out after one last tour of duty, at his store. They explained the program, how it had been ongoing for twelve years, and the fabulous results Sheena had accomplished at various stores during that time. Pacers, they told him, could increase productivity and morale by as much as thirty-four percent -- depending on the baseline you were starting from -- the combined result of decreased tardiness and sick time, and just plain working harder and smarter. The suits smiled smugly when they said this. A pacer, they said, works like a mechanical rabbit at a dog track, keeping the greyhounds moving at top speed. Behavioral modeling -- changing the parameters of human performance -- lots of fancy words.
At first it felt strange to have Sheena in the store. He'd look through the two-way mirrors that gave him a view of the floor, and watch her in motion, mopping up a spill, gathering scattered carts and misplaced items, stocking shelves and directing customers. Unfailingly friendly, quietly serious, utterly disinterested in small talk or anything other than the task at hand.
The change was gradual at first. He didn't want to believe it, because he always thought his people worked at maximum, but as the changes became more obvious he had to accept that she was having an effect. The place began to hum. The floors looked cleaner and the checkstands more tidy, as workers adopted the ethic of ceaseless, productive motion. Customers started leaving compliments in the suggestion box. In this new environment , slackers quit to find work with the competition, and the employees who remained worked even harder.
Zeman's top employee was also his charge. Under cover of a close friendship, he monitored her condition with a few weekly tests, and with frequent evening visits, screened out the attention of those who might try to make friends with an attractive young clerk. Being one of the older models, she needed that kind of screen, because her maintenance routine required non-interference from outsiders.
The lab techs who'd trained him back east had explained how important "TV watching" was for Sheena. She needed to do it every night for at least two hours. Any show was fine, as long as she watched it at home, because the TV in her house was fitted with a laser that projected binary code directly into the retinal photoreceptors of her eyes. Ordinary sight detected nothing except perhaps the slightest flicker in the screen, but to Sheena's chemical memories, the transmissions channeled through the optic pathway were packed with meaning. The software beamed into her, unwinding the randomly forming logic strings that built up each day. Thus were eliminated the processing slowdowns and quirky tendencies that would precede the "evolution" of unprogrammed characteristics in the unit. But watching her sitting there, laughing at some old rerun, it was hard to believe she wasn't just enjoying herself without a thought in the world.
The techs had told him she had no subjectivity at all -- no sense of self -- just circuits that mimicked subjective conduct. She acted as if she had a mind, but she didn't. "Like a videocam," they said, "she can record and process a scene, but she never knows she sees it." Her reactions to the scene made it seem as if she were seeing it, though. "So be careful," the techs told him, "and if you start to get a fixation" -- and here they looked at each other with what seemed like unease -- "be sure and give us a call. " He assured them that he would not develop any fixations, but if he felt one coming on, he would be sure and call the company.
But when it happened, he didn't. It happened too suddenly, like waking in a nightmare and having it all be terribly familiar. He realized one night, sitting with her on the couch, that although he knew he was alone, he didn't feel alone. She was unthreatening. No matter what he did, she couldn't think him strange. He couldn't please or displease her. He couldn't offend or distress her, but she reacted to everything he did.
When the company decided to try the pacer project, it was a trial deal. They didn't spend the extra money to get custom ringers made -- instead they bought the available, suitable hardware from vendors, and had them softwired in-house. So, many of the pacers, like Sheena, came with extra, unnecessary features, like fully functional sex packages. Her successors would be custom designed and sexually neuter. But not Sheena -- she had pleasure-simulating subroutines built into chem-memory, which tempted Zeman to experiment.
As the obsession deepened, he cursed the fourteen months he'd spent avoiding play with this wonderful toy. He told himself repeatedly that he knew her for what she was, but then how could he explain buying her clothes, taking her out to movies and night clubs? He was drawing in their moments together like air, needing every breath more. He was racing to devour all of their allotted time, because he knew that on October first, at ten p.m., she was supposed to be lying in a wooden box on the back porch of her residence for pick up. Operation would automatically cease at that time.
All through September he fought with himself. He considered calling the techs at the company. He couldn't believe they weren't watching out for this kind of slip up. As he worked, his mind repeatedly wandered from the spreadsheets, schedules, and invoices. He would catch himself just staring through the two way mirrors, watching her moving through the aisles, leaving order in her wake.
On October 1, at 9:59 p.m., they were nowhere near her house. They were not even in the right state. He was piloting a rental car south along the cliffs above the Pacific ocean, about eight-hundred miles from their little town. She seemed to be watching the waves off to their right intently as dark cumulus chased each other over the horizon, starkly backlit by rich moonlight in a sky of velvet. The waves glowed. Mist speckled the windshield. The tires fretted the edge of the pavement as he kept acceleration high.
The dashboard clock was synchronized to the microsecond with the watch on Sheena's wrist. Her head was turned toward the sea as the clock flashed 9:59:56, and he held the wheel straight on a tight curve, launching the car into flight. Startled by the changing gravity , she turned her gaze -- a look of surprised pleasure -- swiftly back to him, and spoke his name in questioning wonder, in a voice so sincere he could swear she knew. He smiled back as moonlight rushed in the windows.
Copyright 1994, Charles Carreon
Re: Short Stories, by Charles Carreon
Posted: Fri Oct 18, 2013 8:45 am
THE INNKEEPER'S PREROGATIVE, by Charles Carreon
As I drove out of the filling station, my mind was not on the business before me, but on the changing colors of the leaves. I had been driving for hours since leaving the metropolis behind, and the progress of the scenery, from grimy freeway frontage, to highway, to country road, had gradually decreased my habitual level of tension to a pleasant awareness of my surroundings. I had always enjoyed driving in the country for just this effect.
Although my work is in the city, I have taken pleasure over the years in acquiring and maintaining a number of older houses in the rural areas to the north. As investments go, they have I suppose done reasonably well, but the satisfaction for me has always come in the form of being free to visit and survey my modest domains, and to taste the air of history that infuses them. Employing groundskeepers as my proxies, it provides some comfort, as I sit in the stately removal of an office building pursuing my profession, to recall the serenity of these removed locations.
The house in Susquannee is such a place, an old rooming house with established tenants and seventeen acres of grounds that I rescued from foreclosure and neglect. It had been something of a resort before I acquired it. My groundskeeper cleaned up the ponds, renovated the boathouse and adjacent cottage, and resurrected the gardens from a jumble of overgrowth. I supported his endeavors, approving materials invoices routinely and paying him a monthly stipend. It has always given me satisfaction to sponsor the efforts of simple persons who, unconcerned with whose property is enriched by their efforts, take the largest portion of their compensation in aesthetic satisfaction.
So it was that when I arrived at the property, the scene was one of well- ended simplicity --hedges neatly but not prudishly trimmed, stone walks swept clean, leaves elsewhere left to pile up as they would. The autumn sky was blazing with that radiant cobalt blue that Emily Dickinson chose as her favorite inebriant. The house was quiet, and a policeman was posted at the door.
The roomer on the second floor, a middle-aged teller at the Susquannee Bank, had done himself in two nights before, and this being the largest crime in local history, the town officers had outdone themselves investigating the matter. Mr. Rastick, who hung himself with a stout rope attached to an angle of pipe jutting from the ceiling of his room, had thoughtlessly failed to leave a note explaining the cause of his distress. All possible motives that would occur to the small-town imagination had thus been investigated, including embezzlement and an affair with a hypothetical bank patron. By the time of my arrival, the excitement had played itself out, and my mere signature to a property receipt was enough to procure the departure of the police officer.
Rastick had no known next of kin, so out of a sense of duty, I had resolved to go through his papers to see if he had any assets, and if so, to arrange for their proper disposition. Under the law of our state, an innkeeper of a deceased lodger has the prerogative to assume such duties.
Rastick's room was tidy, as he'd left it, the deputy said, with a few dishes stacked neatly in a drainer in the kitchen area. His bed was made, and I stripped it, remaking it with sheets and blankets I'd brought from home for the purpose, since I intended to stay the night and meet Rastick's employer the next day. Perhaps also, by immediately taking up residence in the room, however briefly, I intended to dispel any superstitious notions that might arise among the other tenants. My personal view was that it would be highly illogical for a suicide's spirit to continue haunting the precincts he had previously been so anxious to escape. Just looking around at the room before departing for a walk, I diagnosed the cause of Rastick's demise to be the final exhaustion of habitually low expectations.
I encountered Lionel down by the big pond, working on one of the old canoes. He was slightly taciturn, then turned somewhat self-pitying as he recounted his lengthy interrogation at the local police station. Apparently Rastic's decision to use a length of rope procured from the boathouse as the instrument of his death had prompted much speculation among the investigators, which was not allayed until they had questioned Lionel extensively. The conduct of the police toward Lionel was disturbing -- hey had not provided him with a lawyer or even advised him of his right to speak with one --and I resolved to take the matter up with the town authorities.
After my talk with Lionel, I spent the afternoon walking about, admiring his work and the splendor of the waning day, which ended with the sun sinking like a smoldering coal amid the hazy hills. I took dinner in a small bistro in the town, enjoying the quiet as a respite from the clamor of restaurants of the city. Indeed, I tarried longer over coffee and brandy than is my habit, and wondered briefly if perhaps I was just the slightest bit reticent about spending the night in Rastick's room. I shrugged off the notion, however, and took myself back to the place, stopping only to fetch a cigar and a copy of the financial daily that I'd missed reading that morning.
Back at the house, all was quiet, with just the lights in the common areas left burning. I made my way to the room in nearly complete silence, appreciating the sweep of the rustic balustrades. From the first floor, the broad wooden stairs rose to a mid-level landing that was carpeted and furnished with a settee. From there the stairs split and reversed themselves for the remainder of the ascent to the second floor. I recognized in the layout a perfect place for party-goers to gather about the railings and call out smart remarks to others ascending and descending the stairs. I thought idly that perhaps someone different than I would have put the house to such a purpose, removing the tenants and hauling platoons of cosmopolitans out to the country for weekends of intrigue and business as pleasure. Not for me, I thought as I shook my head with a smile and fitted the old skeleton key into the lock of poor Rastick's room.
All was as he'd left it down to the pathetically well washed dishes. Rastick did have a good reading chair, I found, and a properly situated floor lamp, where I accommodated myself and began perusing the paper I'd bought. I'd only been at it for what seemed a short while, when the surprising sound of voices and laughter sounded outside the door. Expecting the sound to vanish momentarily, I redirected my attention to the news of the bond markets, only to be surprised a few moments later by another burst of glittering laughter.
Still in my street clothes, I rose to the door and peered out, expecting perhaps to see a couple engaged in their goodnights. Imagine my surprise when I saw the doors of what had been the old ballroom flung open, and elegantly dressed guests drifting in and out. Suddenly I remembered of course that the old ballroom was rented by a Chinese benevolent society whose rent checks I had been depositing for years. Apparently they had chosen this night to make use of the facility. I was about to shut the door when a slim gentleman caught sight of me and called out my name. Inwardly I sighed, wishing to return to my reading, but realizing what civility demanded under the circumstances, I stepped forward to greet the fellow, who was taking long strides in my direction across the landing.
"Mr. Evans, " he said, extending his hand, "Robert Fang, executive secretary of the (here he gave the name of the association, which I was unable to retain)."
" A pleasure, Mr. Fang, " I responded -- "you have some festivities afoot tonight?"
"Oh yes, Mr. Evans, and, we would be honored if you would join us briefly for a drink, perhaps?"
I would have demurred, at that point, had it not been that a delicate woman swathed in what appeared to be green silk, suddenly called to my speaking partner from her place on the stairs. "Robert," her voice sang out, "who have you found there?"
"This," said Mr. Fang, bridging the space between us with a smile and a sweep of his hand in my direction, "is Mr. Evans, the owner of the estate." Here he turned to me with a pained look, "I assume you've come to clear up the affairs of poor Mr. Rastick?"
"Yes, that's right," I responded.
"Ah," he apologized, "I'm sorry this affair could not be postponed to respect Mr. Rastick's passing, but it has been planned for months, and there was no way to notify all of the invited in time for a cancellation." Turning then to the woman who approached, he introduced her as Miss Nen, the treasurer of the organization.
Between the two of them they wrapped me up in small talk about the city and what shows were playing there and what restaurants I frequented, all the while towing me towards the open doors of the ballroom. They were very good at this, and my most earnest protestations earned me only a brief reprieve to fetch my coat and straighten my tie.
The party turned out to be a charity ball for the Chinese community, which was apparently more numerous than one might have expected. Chief among the attractions was a peculiar gambling game involving a die and small, square chips of polished bamboo. With Miss Nen at my elbow, I hazarded a few bills, and although I could make neither head nor tails of the game, she several times declared me a winner. I gamely donated my winnings to the charity.
The evening drifted on and I did not give a second thought to what I'd left behind in Rastick's room. Dry figures, I thought, lifting a cup and peering over the rim to see the sparkling dark eyes of Miss Nen regarding me with a steady, familiar gaze. She had not left my side since we had met in the hall. A feeling swirled up around me, and in me, strong enough to uproot all sense of the familiar. We rose and danced to elegant music, and in her arms I seemed to move with greater grace, my usual wooden steps smoothed as we glided about the polished floor.
How it happened, I could not recall later, but she bid the last of the merrymakers good night, closed the great ballroom door, and led me to the broad bay window overlooking the front drive. She drew the curtains back full and extinguished the lights, revealing beyond the pane a sky of blazing stars and a radiant, motionless moon. There, what had already seemed a dream became more fantastic, as I partook of her companionship. Then I slept.
The next morning, I awoke chilled, with the first streaks of dawn appearing outside the bay window. The sky was filled with drifting clouds through which a few fading stars were still gleaming. My memories of the night before were clear, and I continued musing pleasantly in wonderment until my eyes adjusted to the dim light. Then I was startled by the condition of the room, which was filled with nothing by the dusty outlines of furniture draped with old linens. I gathered myself up hastily and returned to Rastick's room.
The door was unlocked, the bed was still made, and my newspaper lay folded on the chair. I glanced up involuntarily at the crooked pipe jutting from the ceiling. I adjusted my clothing, which was askew, and fetched my coat from its hook. With a quick look about, I departed for a walk about the grounds.
What had seemed lovely the day before now was sickly and annoying. A flock of ducks flew overhead, leaving a mournful trail of cries behind them in the grey sky. My mind continually strayed back to the tryst of the night before. I was both furtively ashamed and irresistibly fascinated by the intricacy of the fantasy my inner theatre had produced. Enthralled by these thoughts, I wandered back to the ballroom, which I found I had inadvertently locked behind me. Frustrated, I returned to Rastick's room to wait until what I judged a decent hour, when I could ask Lionel to fetch the keys.
He was making coffee when I arrived --an early riser thank heavens. I tried to downplay the oddness of my request by affecting an interest in the beauty of the morning and a desire to conduct a full inspection of the premises, including all unoccupied rooms in the main house. Lionel gave me the keys and did not object when I declined his offer of company while I made my rounds. Nonchalantly, I thought, I asked "Now which one of these keys is to the second-floor ballroom?" At this he perceptibly froze, as if suddenly divining my purpose. He seemed about to say something, but apparently thought better of it, and simply indicated the appropriate key on the ring.
The large room was more clearly illuminated than before, but no different --the furniture, draped and layered with dust, the chandeliers, strung with cobwebs, the great window, curtains drawn to reveal the chilly sky. Looking about, hoping to find some trace of physical evidence to lend substance to my fantasy, I found nothing. No gaming table, no cocktail glasses, nothing. Combing through my memory as I stood there, dragging my fingers through my hair, I realized that the ballroom had never been rented to any benevolent society since I had owned the house. I caught myself short then, realizing the pathetic nature of my obsession. Leaving the ballroom, I left the door ajar.
Back in Rastick's room, I shaved, changed clothes, and packed my clothing. I determined that closing up Rastick's accounts was clearly a waste of my time, and hastily drafted a note to his former employer, requesting that the bank' s trust department assume the task. They would like that, I thought, as I signed the letter and folded it for Lionel to deliver to the bank.
As I walked down the stairs with my single suitcase, Lionel came walking up. "Leaving, sir?" he asked.
"Yes, Lionel, please clean up the ballroom, and air it out --it's musty. And run this letter down to the President at Susquannee Bank, would you?"
Lionel looked up at me, his eyes squinting as we both stood poised on the stairs. Then, in a single movement, he looked down and reached out to take the letter, a gesture that bespoke nothing so much as respect for another man's privacy. Fine fellow, Lionel.
Driving south out of town, I used the car phone to cancel my appointment with the bank president. While state law permits innkeepers to act as the de facto executors of a deceased lodger's estate, it does not require it. Rastick's affairs, I realized, were simply not worth the trouble.
Copyright 1994, Charles Carreon
Re: Short Stories, by Charles Carreon
Posted: Fri Oct 18, 2013 8:47 am
THE LUNCH DATE, by Charles Carreon
Joe added the last touches to the halo of sunset behind the hills, highlighting the silhouettes with a subdued yellow backlight. His eyes squinted; his brush flicked lightly, smoothing, blending tones. He looked over the canvas at the wall clock. Ten after eleven. He tipped his head, regarded the picture momentarily, then removed it from the easel, leaning it against the wall beside another picture, an unfinished seascape with dark, hulking rocks, crashing waves and wheeling gulls.
Joe stood up and pulled a desert scene from the rack. He smiled ruefully as he set it into place on the easel and began adding the heavier pigments over the oil wash. On these desert pictures it was his job to do the sky, the mountains, and all the foreground rocks and saguaro cacti. The rest: highlights, shadows, clouds, delicate cacti like ocotillo and joshua trees, and in this case, the small figure of a crusty prospector leading his mule toward the distant cliffs, were not part of his work. He left them for other artists to complete, and at the end of the process, someone would add the final touch--a fictitious signature.
Was he learning or destroying art? 'The question asked itself as he daubed on the uniform purple-grey of a familiar cliff. Did it matter? In theory and in practice, the people who bought these works scrutinized them no more closely than they would the background detail in a snapshot. As Brent was fond of saying: "They wouldn't like 'The Man In the Golden Helmet' any better. These people deserve art, and this is the art they deserve." True, thought Joe, shrugging inwardly--they would never notice that their lagoon was a mere spoonful of unmodulated blue, that their trees were only collections of skewed lines spattered with green or orange, depending on the season depicted, or that their cliffs were just purple shapes with suggestive vertical shadows--and yet, something in him balked at selling people short in this way--after all, they'd never even seen the lovely gleaming curve of that golden helmet. When he looked at what he was working on, the comparison chilled him. Paintings like this gave new meaning to the word "original."
Peering over the top of the canvas, he could see Brent perched on his stool, cigarette smoke curling up next to him, hunched toward his work, shirt-tail showing. The first thing Brent had said to him when they were introduced, with Jack, the owner of Syndicated Artists not even out of hearing range, was this--"you can't smoke pot on this job. You just can't. Colors have got to be mixed right--it's the most important thing, and you can't do it consistently if you're stoned."
Joe had tried to laugh at first, but finally settled on a shaky "Sure--I don't smoke much anyway, really."
Brent didn't bother with a response, went on talking about colors. "Uniformity is basic, like in this seascape here." He pointed to a painting above the water fountain. What we're shooting for is this steely charcoal sky, with just faint streaks of misty white. Check the waves. We use light blue with a touch of pthalo. A creamy white spatter takes care of the crests. It dries and we lay it all over with linseed oil and a few drops of sienna. It's quick, duplicatable, and has a bit of class. Come on into the work area."
In a large room with a concrete floor , a number of people were working on canvases in various degrees of completion. The air was rich with the smell of linseed oil and turpentine. Work-spaces were marked out with masking tape on the paint-spattered floor. Light came in from large square windows near the high ceiling. Brent was saying, "We try to do a good job on every product. We have con- tracts with Sears, Penneys, and more furniture stores than you can count. And we sell a lot of custom work through our Roadrunner Gallery downtown at very respectable prices. We can design a highbrow product if there's a market." Comfortable with this statement, he lit up a cigarette and started across the room toward a young woman who was working intently with fast strokes. Joe followed him, and Brent introduced him to Sally.
"She'll give you the basic dope--the color combinations, the strokes--won' t you, Sally'?"
"Absolutely, Brent. I will show him the strokes in all their subtle modulations." She gave Joe a wry, familiar smile.
Brent concluded their conversation encouragingly. "Okay then, Jose, we'll give you a week. By then you should be turning out four or five canvases a day. Sally does eight, but that takes a little practice."
Sally rolled her eyes. Joe nodded dumbly. He averaged one oil a month in his studio--and besides, he had already smoked a little that morning. He hoped he could mix his colors right.
After Brent had left them, Joe stood waiting for his training to begin. Sally looked to be about thirty-two, fine lines at the corners of the eyes, curling blond hair cut short--had that single-mother look. Her frayed smock, stained with colors, exuded the scent of linseed oil. She was working intently, putting the last touches on a picture of an old buckboard falling apart in a wheatfield. She'd given it some life; it looked fast, but not crappy. She exhaled softly between her teeth. "Definitely be ready for a lunchtime number after another one of these," she said, then turned to smile at Joe, who was looking in Brent's direction.
"Oh, him," she said, "did he tell you that about the colors, that you can't mix colors when you're high?"
"He said we have to be consistent."
"Here," she said, "I'll show you how hard it is to mix these vibrant hues, to create this dazzling pallette..." She started squeezing tubes and talking faster as she did so. "This is your basic desert mountain purple--we call it Mountain Muck--about an inch of this, a blop of this, and a dab of this, mix it together--you got it, Mountain Muck. Can you do that?"
"I think so," he said, "you made it look easy."
"It is easy," she responded. "Now just get a desert scene out of that rack over there next to the little guy with the blond hair, his name's Ricky, and you'll be all set to start painting by the numbers with the best of them." As an afterthought she added, "And don't worry about Brent , he doesn't care. He just says that stuff for Jack to hear."
It hadn't been as easy as Sally made it sound, but eight weeks later Joe was doing a steady five paintings a day--his part of them at least, and had mastered the art of mixing colors consistently. Hypnosunset, horrible wheatfield, and rolling nausea (for ocean waves) had become dreadfully familiar to him. He got a fifteen-cent-an-hour raise and smoked regularly at lunch with Sally, who had a regular supplier for some marvelous Oaxacan leaf that was perfect working grade. Only a cannabinized brain could enjoy creating these ridiculous daubs, he thought, and giggled conspiratorially to himself as he imagined these great communal masterpieces finding their way into the living rooms of America, bearing those ghost-signatures-- "Atkins," "Jason," the always illegible "Peters," master of barns and buckboards, and "Lindo," whose evocative seascapes are the pride of many a motel-manager's living room. He started to guffaw and choked it off. On his right, Sally gave him a look of mock-censure.
Some people were heading out to have lunch, he noticed. He glanced at the clock. Quarter to twelve. He finished the foreground, then quickly slashed out three saguaros, careful to suggest the ribbed surface of the cactus with a few wiggly lines of lighter green. He laid down one brush and picked up another, thinking to himself, now I'll shade these pinkish boulders here in the foreground, and it'll be out of my hands. Just at that moment, Brent appeared at his side.
"Hey Joe, it's time for lunch."
Joe didn't look up, merely answered, "Yeah, I'm almost done; just a little bit more here ..."
"No, you've still got time yet, but why don't you drop that? One of our customers wants to have lunch with you. Actually she wants to have lunch with Lindo; she's bought about a half-dozen of his things at Sears back in Iowa someplace. She's on vacation here and wanted to meet him. Of course ..." Brent looked about with an expression that was a parody of innocence. "Of course Lindo isn't here, so we thought you could stand in for him and give the lady her thrill. Whaddaya' say?"
The idea had a surrealistic flavor that was tempting.
"You'll get a free lunch," suggested Brent, redundantly.
"Sure, why not?" said Joe.
"Great!" said Brent. "I really didn't want to do it. I've been Atkins twice already."
Joe laughed. "Really? You mean this happens often?"
You'd be surprised," answered Brent. "At any rate, go on up front to see Jack and he'll give you the specifics."
Jack was in his office, doing figures with a mechanical pencil. Joe stood in the doorway and knocked. Jack gestured him in, smiling and telling Joe what a great thing this was for public relations. His fervor for the charade, even down to forcing Joe to take along a beret "for the artistic look" was slightly ridiculous.
"You have the Latin look that goes with that name," said Jack. "Lindo!" He gestured brightly with his hands. "Be sure and tell her all about the years in Big Sur and Carmel. And I should tell you that Lindo does sailing ships and harbor scenes too, though we don't do as many of them as we used to--they dropped off in popularity."' His voice trailed off as his eyes wandered toward the books, and returned as he regained control of his thoughts. "As I was saying , the lady's name is Mrs. Jenny Pease, and you' re supposed to meet her at twelve-thirty at Paul Shank's. Try to get back by two--don't let her talk your arm off. She's staying at the Sahara, and you want to give this note to the desk clerk. You know the restaurant's right there in the hotel, don't you?" Joe nodded. Jack twisted his round face as he looked at Joe's clothes, then let go of the worry, "Yeah, they'll let you in--they're informal at lunch- time."
Joe put the beret on the dashboard, decided against finishing the stub of Oaxacan, and instead swigged some papaya juice cold from the thermos on the seat. The Oldsmobile died at the first stop sign, and blew out a cloud of black smoke as it restarted. Finally, the eight cylinders overcame their own inertia, picked up speed going north down Scottsdale Road, and was sliding down the street like a true bomb. The FM radio gave forth the sounds of the Dead moseying through a long, abstract concert riff. Almost unconsciously, Joe reached into the ashtray to get the roach. His new clip worked marvelously. By the time he got to Camelback Road only a shred of charred paper remained. Rather than using the hotel parking lot and risking a snub from the carhop, Joe parked in the shopping center across the way. Twisting the rear-view mirror, he tried on the beret, which actually looked pretty good on top of his pile of dark, wiry hair. He smiled at himself, that boyish smile which emanated innocence--as if to say that life was, after all, meant to be enjoyed, wasn't it?
Outside the car a warm spring breeze was blowing, the sun was shining brightly, just like the brochures promise it will. In front of the hotel, tourists were getting in and out of cars, taxis, and airport vans. Inside, the lobby was lined with showcases full of moccasins, windbells, and turquoise jewelry. Girls in bikinis, carryng bright towels, wandered through occasionally on their way to the pool or the elevators. Doctors' wives in tennis outfits went striding through, carrying sports bags and rackets. Men in business suits made for the lounge. Sun-dried retirees stood about in little groups waiting for tourist vans to arrive, comparing notes about room service and arthritis remedies.
Joe was standing in front of the hotel desk, about to ask a question, when he realized he'd lost the note. And just right then, with the initial onset of the Oaxacan affecting him, he couldn't remember the name of the lady he was supposed to be meeting. The lady desk clerk seemed annoyed before he started, so he was about to retreat for a moment to collect himself when he felt a light touch on his elbow. He turned, and there stood a little lady in an old-fashioned hat with a white veil on the brim. She had a crinkly smile and bright eyes. Her dry voice spoke up. "Are you Mr. Lindo?"
Joe was jolted by this unexpected beginning. He had hoped to approach the meeting on his own terms, to walk up and introduce himself, in command of the situation, ready with a few good lines. Instead he had been taken by surprise, caught being his ordinary self without a shred of forewarning, not even in full control of his own mind.
"Oh, yeah. That's me. How did you know?"
She smiled knowingly. "I could tell by the beret. I figured you'd have one, being an artist."
Joe had forgotten all about the beret. For a moment he looked puzzled and reached up to touch the little hat. "Oh yes, the beret, of course. Well, you're very observant, Mrs. ..."
"Mrs. Pease," she supplied, "Jenny Pease, Mr. Lindo," and extended her small, white-gloved hand, smiling all the while.
It was a delicate hand, but not frail or weak. It had strength that yet contained a hint of ladylike reserve. And strangely, the touch seemed to set Joe at ease, allowing him to relax into his assumed role, as if its contact had trans- formed him into what he was supposed to be.
In the restaurant, they took a table by the window, with a view of the pool, of the bikinis and the young men, of the children dripping and shivering in the occasional breeze, of the suntanners, stretched out, baking, gleaming with oil, straps untied to bare the back. When the waitress came around they both ordered baked halibut, and after she had left, Mrs. Pease looked fixedly at Joe for a moment before she said, "Really, I'm so glad to be able to meet you. Your agent said it's unusual for you to be here, that you're usually in California, painting at the beach."
"Oh yes," answered Joe, "I like to do all my work from life. It's really no fun to be cooped in a studio all the time. I like to feel the wind and smell the ocean."
"Oh yes, your work shows it," she responded "it's so full of life." Then, knitting her brows in an expression of slight puzzlement, she ventured a question. "But aren't you a little bit young to have painted all these works? You can t be more than twenty-five, and I began my collection of your paintings over fifteen years ago."
"My agent," Joe responded with an indulgent smile, "is a good man, but he sometimes conceals things which should be revealed. You see, I am the second Lindo; "my uncle was the first one. You must have purchased one of his works. We work in much the same style, because of course I learned from him."
"Oh, really?" She seemed delighted. "So you come from a family of artists! That's why you do it so well. Was your father a painter too?"
Joe felt his mind loosening up, getting into the improvisational flow of invention. "No, my father was a sculptor and a stonecarver. He did gravestones for a living, and his work still adorns some of the finest memorial parks in California. And yet," here his eyes became distant, "he asked that only a simple marker be placed on his own grave. He was a very humble man." Joe's father was actually a CPA, but that ancestry had never inspired him.
"Well, I'm glad you explained that to me. I just couldn't imagine you doing oil paintings as a ten-year-old."
"Actually, I did start painting even before that age; I never sold a work until I was twelve. But my uncle always encouraged me to try my hand. He and I would go out walking together; I would carry his folding stool. He bought me my first sketchbook, and taught me how to use charcoal. I was very fortunate to have such a teacher."
Mrs. Pease seemed immensely impressed. "Well, I would have never known," she said.
The waitress brought the food, which looked very good, and the wine Joe had ordered, more to fill out the role than for any other purpose. But Blue Nun does go very nicely at lunchtime, and Mrs. Pease was evidently not a teetotaler. She filled their glasses to the brim with a hand that seemed accustomed to dishing out large portions of home-cooked food. When they were empty, she filled them again. As they ate, they could hear the muted sounds of splashing and pool- side play as children chased each other into the blue water. The sunbathers didn't move at all except to order drinks.
"Do you have any children, Mrs. Pease?" Joe ventured.
The lady seemed relaxed, waved her wrist with an easy gesture. "My two daughters are married. My son's got his family; they run the farm now and my affairs since Ed died two years ago. I get tired of being a bother and so my son suggested maybe I should take a trip to Sacramento and see my sister Edna. That was when the idea started bubbling in my head. You see, I've never seen the ocean. Not even once. Ed had been in the navy and it was no great shakes for him, and until I saw your paintings, or your uncle's, I never thought I cared to. But now, before I pass on, I think I'd like to."
The two continued talking in this way for some time, and it was Jenny who ordered the second bottle of wine. Joe forgot that he was supposed to be Lindo, and Mrs. Pease didn't care to notice, because she was so interested in what Joe was saying about Big Sur, a place he dearly loved. He told her about staying overnight in a cave, tending a small fire for warmth, about hitching up and down the coast, just looking for what he could find, and if it all didn't jive with his previous fabrications no one seemed to mind.
After the waitress eased them out of the empty dining room, where busboys were cleaning and setting up for the dinner shift, Joe escorted a slightly loose Mrs. Pease to a chair by the pool. She said she wanted to smell the water. It was quiet there, too. Shadows had driven off the sunbathers, and the last of the children were being led away, shivering in their damp towels.
"Thank you, Mr. Lindo," she said, "for a very nice time. It's been a long time since I had a chance to talk to anyone. I'll be flying back from Sacramento, or I'd say we'd have lunch again on my way back through. I like the bus, but my daughter-in-law doesn't think I should ride."
"That's okay, Mrs. Pease, but could I have your address? Maybe I can write to you sometime. I'm not a good writer, but I'll try."
"Oh, sure, I'd love that," she said, and began rummaging through her purse loosely. "Here's a utility bill with our address on it. You just write to that address, and I'll get it."
Joe took the old envelope and stuffed it in his pocket. As he took her hand to shake it for the last time, he kneeled down to see her eyes. They were happy. "You make sure and get to the ocean, now, okay?" There was no pretense of Lindo in his voice as he squeezed her hand and looked into her eyes. She nodded in response, gently smiling.
"I will," she said. "And thanks again son, for the time."
As he passed through the lobby, the desk-clerk looked serious. Outside, afternoon traffic was picking up. Though he didn't wear a watch, he was sure he was plenty late. Skimming south in the Oldsmobile down Scottsdale Road, past the false-front Western-style architecture, he thought about the painting he would like to send Mrs. Pease.
Copyright 1982, Charles Carreon
Re: Short Stories, by Charles Carreon
Posted: Fri Oct 18, 2013 8:48 am
THE STRANGER, by Charles Carreon
Suddenly, he was there. Talking with the stewardess about his seat, easily agreeing to sit in an alternative empty seat, since his assigned one was occupied. Agreeing to sit on the aisle seat in her row, leaving a comfortable space between them of one empty seat. Stowing his bags away quietly in the overhead compartments. Sitting down sort of comfortably, sort of carefully. Placing a book between them on the empty seat, something thick and worn, with a bright blue cover and embossed silver letters.
He was kind of tall and definitely thin. Wearing black jeans, black pullover, and black tennis shoes with a white patch and blue star on the inside of each ankle. He had a ponytail braid about a foot long, knotted tight like a whip, with loose strands at the end, unbound. He had a kind of unusual face, pale, with dark eyebrows, framed by curling grey wisps at the temples. His voice was sort of sweet, accommodating, perhaps a little childlike, but with a firm base.
She smiled with her own full lips. She thought about her makeup. Had she put too much on? No, she'd checked it closely before she went out. For a moment she wished she'd worn some lipstick, then pressed the thought down, like an unneeded item in a cluttered purse. He was smiling back.
The conversation began. Some small overture on her part was taken up like a hand she'd extended at the start of a dance. His voice was soft and continuous, and her responses were not weak or demurring. The conversation took off like the short-hop jet itself, as they both talked over the in-flight announcements, the safety lecture, the roaring turbines of the jets and settled into the stratosphere of communication.
He was a roguish person. Not salacious or crude, not at all -- she wouldn't have liked that at all. But he had a bit of a teasing style of suggesting one outre concept after another, and then adopting it as his own, just as she allowed that such a view did not frighten her.
And indeed it did not frighten her. For even if this man were a devil, as seemed quite a bit more possible with each successive word that danced from his lips, even if ... she was strong in her faith, a faith nothing could shake. The faith of her fathers, strong as stone pillars, hallowed as the tilled soil of the heartland, as pure as the maiden skin of her virginal belly. Faith upon which other faiths were broken, the rock of ages.
He, on the other hand, professed only a strange faith. He claimed to do good by easing the weight of justice on the backs of criminals. He talked about drugs and sex and family abuse like they were everyday occurrences. He professed a belief in kindness as the supremely divine attribute, the hallmark of God in humanity. He made an argument against the existence of hell as a permanent condition on the grounds no god could be so cruel as to permanently condemn his creatures for sins of transient importance.
Then at last, she had to venture forth. Her questions came one upon the other -- did he believe in reincarnation? Did not justice require punishment? Was not her book the supreme authority? Could both of them be correct in their beliefs? If she were right, as she knew she was, did not an eternity of torment await him?
His statements became more difficult to follow. He gazed more deeply into her eyes. She felt he was looking at her more closely than anyone else ever had, certainly any stranger. He seemed to be prolonging his words, punctuating them with his gaze, trying to get her to hear the silence between the words. He quoted scripture -- "be still and know that I am God." She protested that empty space was not knowledge. He insisted that words of doctrine were not stillness.
She retreated, raising her weapons again, beautiful weapons. Her faith was safe, never had been imperiled. The edge on her sword of belief was sharp, gleamed with light. The weight of her shield was comforting, and she raised it before, proud of the golden cross that adorned it. From behind its shelter, she expressed her regret that he was so close, with his sincerity and love of kindness, and yet so grievously mistaken, so unavoidably doomed. She saw him, foolish in his professed wisdom, like a common wildflower tossing its head without a care for the morrow, heedless of the scythe. He did not yield his ground, the stranger, and his eyes continued to twinkle as his mouth seemed more resigned.
There was something he was not saying, some argument he would not bring forth. She knew it. It left her feeling confused. At one point he seemed to come close, but then he said something so strange it felt as if she had been handed an imaginary object that dissolved upon touch.
He could not say, would not say; it would be unseemly and taking advantage of her youth to say -- love, my child, burns all your theories, all the pages of your book. Love wrecks the smooth skin of your belly and the innocence of your thoughts. Love averts the hailstorms and the lightning threatened by the lawgivers. Love smolders on your lips, consumes your mind, and razes your heart. Love takes you where the wind will blow and the water flow. He did not say these things, and thus his argument seemed incomplete. The plane landed.
Her flights were mixed up. She had hours to wait. They crossed paths again in the airport. He was leaving just then. She felt a little lost. The hours would be wasted. Perhaps a few more moments, and she could have heard the rest of the story, and made a last bid to save this errant, and troubling, stranger.
Re: Short Stories & Social Commentary, by Charles Carreon
Posted: Sat Oct 19, 2013 1:58 am
A NEW RECIPE FOR UPSTAIRS?, by Charles Carreon
It seems that everything eventually runs its course, even at the ACFS Corral. Recently, there have been signs that the mood of hopelessness surrounding the upstairs development is giving way to some positive, innovative ideas. It is heartwarming when the light of sense begins to dawn over the dull haze of long-standing inertia. The food store is, after all, sitting under a potential gold mine. In a town like this, where properties change hands and value faster than the action in a Monopoly game, the commercial value of the upstairs is potentially enormous.
But ACFS has a philosophy -- "Food for people, not for ... etcetera," -- and the upstairs corollary of this should certainly be "Space for people, not for profit." Of course, "the people" do not have the cash necessary to make the space usable. It will be necessary to activate at least a portion of the profit potential of the upstairs in order to finance its development. And, perhaps because nature abhors a vacuum, perhaps because the time has come for a good idea, we are beginning to hear about proposals for the use of the upstairs -- the most concrete being the one from Sandler Films. I understand at this time that Allen Sandler has withdrawn his proposal, but it still seems important to note that this plan, and others like it, which would subordinate the use of the upstairs space to the control of a single commercial interest, are really not in harmony with the basic reasoning behind creating a Community Center.
The Sandler offer is a good thing, for it wakes us up to the value of our possession. But to allow a private commercial venture to possess a controlling interest in the destiny of the upstairs will, inevitably, cause the major portion of the actual cash benefits to go into the pockets of relatively few people. ACFS, philosophically speaking, should aspire to exactly the opposite sort of result for our upstairs. We should try to share all of the benefits (the space, the profits, the services provided) as equally as possible, so that the community will be truly enriched -- not merely by the creation of a new stage for theatre or gatherings, but by a variety of services which are needed and desired by the members of ACFS.
Many people have worked to make the upstairs what it is, pouring uncounted hours of skilled and willing labor into a project which they understood to be the creation of a focal point for diverse community activities. This intention must not be abandoned -- we must keep faith with our starting energy, and any plans to actualize the profit potential of the upstairs should preserve the Community Center as the centerpiece of all structurings of the physical space and the rights of usage. Office spaces, a mercantile store, a craft coop where local craft-people can sell and trade without markups, a kitchen -- all of these are things would complement the atmosphere of the Community Center, making it a natural place for interaction.
ACFS will get what it wants out of the upstairs if we can define our goal clearly. A first step toward forming our ideas might be to create some preliminary plans (or publicize existing ones) for the use of floor space. This would give us some kind of handle for dealing with interested groups who might want to know what amount of space would be available to them under what conditions and costs. The idea of seeking monies to establish a mercantile store seems flexible enough to work with, since it could be managed without impinging on the community space (if that were part of the plan), and a mercantile store could channel a lot of very useful cash through the space and thus assist the development.
At any rate, the pot is boiling, and these are just seasonings for the stew which we can all create together. Perhaps the time is right for coming up with a recipe.
(October,1982, Issue 45, "More Than Food," Ashland, Oregon)