Stories

Fireworks, by Edward King

#america #fireworks #literary

Robinson sat over his cup of coffee. His eyes moved in time to the jazz playing over the stereo, flicking back and forth in his paunchy face. He was thinking about his wife’s nose.

He had just been brought two eggs over-easy, wheat toast, and strawberry jam, the same breakfast as always. The waitresses at the restaurant knew him by name. When he came in he sat down at the counter and waved and they brought him his breakfast and a cup of coffee.

“Hey, Robinson, what song is this?” said a waitress.

“‘In a Sentimental Mood.’ John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, 1963. Come on, I thought you’d know that one.”

“Oh—it’s just Pandora,” she said. “I don’t know all the songs that come up on it yet.” To change the subject, she said, “How’s your music stuff coming, anyway? How’re your students?”

“My students are good. The composition is going lousy.”

“Well, keep pluggin’ away. You’ll get it someday.”

“Thanks. Hey, what’re you doing on the fourth? You should come by and hear the band play.”

“Oh, sorry… we were planning a girls’ night. I probably shouldn’t mention this to such an upstanding member of the community, but we plan to drink until we’re unconscious.”

Discomfort flared up in Robinson. He didn’t know why and he ignored it. “Hey, I wasn’t always a teacher, you know.”

“Is that so?”

He smiled. “It is. I was a rogue once.”

“You?” she arched her eyebrows. “There’s no way. I picture you being someone who’s always on top of their shit. I bet you always get your lesson plans together on time.”

“Nah, I could see it,” said another waitress. “He’s got that look in his eyes. That look that real romantics have. Real artists. They’re always wild and self-destructive.”

Robinson’s discomfort grew as he wondered to what extent she was joking, but he kept the same half-smile on his face. He left a good tip on the table and tried not to think about it, but by the time he turned the keys in his car he found that he was furious.

He worked on lesson plans from twelve until three, and then went back to his house to scribble angrily on sheets of staff paper–his composition–until his wife got home at six. He welcomed her with a kiss; she asked how it had gone that day and he said, “Oh, not so bad. I think the horns are almost ready on the third movement.” He reheated dinner for her and they watched How I Met Your Mother until she fell asleep on the couch.

Watching Emma sleeping gave him butterflies. She wasn’t that much to look at–objectively, he knew that. She had a crooked nose. It was the way she used to play that harp, back at Juilliard, where he had fallen in love with her in the first place.

Even asleep, it looked like she had a smile on her face. How could she be so happy all the time? It was a miracle. He wasn’t that great.

Lying to Emma about his work always came with a twinge of guilt. He lied to his students, too, and his colleagues. He constantly held fast that jazz and big band music was “the only great American art form that’s left,” even though he hadn’t felt that way for years. “But even that pales in comparison to the work of the great European composers,” he would say. “Mahler’s Ninth Symphony–the most sublimely organized sound a human mind has ever produced.” He had always dreamed of writing his own great American suite of equal value, but in truth a new melody hadn’t come to him in years.

At first, he had been so shocked at his colleagues’ lack of appreciation for Mahler that he had bullheadedly forced the maestro’s Ninth Symphony into the curriculum. They still played it every year.

But he felt that Emma, too, was part of the problem. Every weekend they took to go skiing together, every concert he put on with his earnest but untalented students, to the extent that it made him happy, was a failure, keeping him from the life he was supposed to have.

Late that night, Robinson went out to buy milk. He drove home past the reservoir where the Fourth of July concert would be the next day. He could see the lights of Lincoln below the steel barricade. The night was unusually dark, and the town looked tiny and isolated down below.

Suddenly, something veered out into Robinson’s headlights: a cyclist. He almost ran straight into him. He rolled down his window and shouted at the cyclist, and to his surprise he saw the figure slow down.

Robinson pulled up beside him. “What the hell are you doing?” he said. “I could’ve run you off the road. The lane here is for you, you know!”

When the form of the cyclist emerged into the cone of his headlights, he recognized the unkempt hair and slouch of one of his students. Jared Blecher, alto saxophone, second chair, a student who obviously had talent but steadfastly refused to apply himself. In the glare of the headlights, he looked completely dazed.

“Damnit, Blecher, is that you?” said Robinson.

“What?”

“Are you drunk?”

“Mr. Robinson? Nothing, no–I was just.”

“What were you doing in the road?”

“I was just riding home.”

“After you were drinking? And you left your lights at home?”

He didn’t have an answer. Robinson sighed.

“Anyway, kid, let me give you a ride home?”

He let the kid put his bike in the trunk and they took the road that led back into town.

“Listen, Blecher,” Robinson began. “You’ve got your whole life to have fun, but these are important years. A lot of my friends… a lot of them fucked them up, and now they’re paying the price. Kids that were really promising, like yourself, and now they’re insurance salesmen or waiters or dishwashers. You keep hanging around with that crowd you’re in with and who’s to say where you’re going to end up, no matter how talented you are. And I’m not telling you this to scare you, I just think you’re alright and I don’t want you to fuck up.”

Neither of them said anything for a long time. Robinson put on a CD to break the silence.

“What is this?” said Blecher.

“You don’t know it?” said Robinson.

Jared shook his head.

“What?”

“Nothing,” said Robinson.

“What?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Robinson turned up the heat in the car. He took these roads at a fast clip, feeling the pull of the embankments on the wheel, pulling the same way they had the thousand other times he had taken this road at night.

They pulled onto the road leading back into town. They passed the football field, the drive-in, the old houses of the west side of town.

They arrived at Blecher’s house.

“Listen, I want you to get some sleep,” Robinson said. “You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

Driving home, Robinson thought about what he’d said to the kid. It brought him back to music school and his lofty ambitions. He had watched the demise of all aspirations of his friends from back then. A composer he’d thought was a genius now worked as an analyst at a tech firm; a brilliant pianist moved back to her hometown and played in a church. No one had reached their potential. And here he was, a public school teacher, conducting this ramshackle band.

At eight o’clock on July Fourth, Jared looked out at the lake, far from the crowded subdivision where he lived. He wished he didn’t have to practice the trumpet part to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony any more. What kind of song was that for July Fourth, anyway? He was young, and this was one of his last summers before he had to become an adult; he ought to be enjoying every last moment he had.

The song sounded like absolute ass every time he played it, anyway. He was pretty confident that some people were made to get good at an instrument and some were not, and that he, Jared Blecher, assuredly was not. Was he put on this earth to struggle and toil with something he was destined never to master? Was he not allowed to enjoy himself?

There was a party going on that night at Aaron Brown’s lake house. It didn’t officially start until ten and he was supposed to report for duty at the promenade at nine o’clock sharp. But there was no way the performance would go on for more than half an hour. If he went over there for a little while now, he could at least pregame, hang out for a while, hop back over to City Park at ten for the performance, and then go back. It wasn’t like Robinson had any real authority to punish him if he showed up late. Hell, it was the summer. He’d put his dress clothes in his backpack and change in the bushes behind the promenade. There shouldn’t be any problem at all.

He put the horn back in its case and set off on his bike for the party. He wasn’t going to waste any more time.

As he had done every year since he could drive, Robinson parked his car at the elementary school and threaded his way through big groups of teenagers to the lake. Law and order were suspended within the radius of the Fourth of July celebration.

Robinson had been to the fireworks display in Lincoln every Fourth of July since he was little, first growing up and then summers back from school, and he still looked forward to it all year. Barring his composition, it was the most important thing to him in the world–those kids all coming together to make something unified and whole.

He began his customary walk along the lake that he did every year, before everything was set up. Two kids walked by.

“I heard there’s going to be ten tons of fireworks this year,” said one.

“No way,” said the other. “They keep decreasing the budget every year.”

“No way.”

“Yeah, they decrease it every year so they can spend more money on cops. See, every year they bring in thousands of dollars from MIPs. It’s the only reason they can keep it going without selling tickets.”

“No way.”

The sun had just gone down and the sky was a dreamy swirl of colors. He thought back to the night before and looked back at his students, starting to set up their instruments. Where was Blecher?

He liked the kid because he was honest. He knew about students ditching band to smoke weed and his attitude about it was generally that boys will be boys, but what really got him about it was the dishonesty. It seemed that they not only went out of their way to create elaborate lies, but also that they were deliberately careless about clearing up the evidence–they actually left burnt-out joint ends all over the ground in the unused loading bay under the band room.

It was nothing like him. In high school, he had spent hours practicing the trumpet. When other kids went out, he stayed in and practiced. Other kids liked Prince and Duran Duran; he liked Beethoven. He would sometimes dream in music, and then he was filled with despair when he sat down at the piano and discovered that he couldn’t recreate what he’d heard.

Where was Jared? It was about all Robinson could take. He threw down his baton bitterly and decided he wasn’t going back to the bandstand.

The teenagers stood on the shore of the lake outside Aaron Brown’s house, across the water from where everything was being set up. It was almost dark; the sky was dark blue, the clouds were grey, and all the people on the shore were bathed in shadows. Jared couldn’t see anyone’s face; he felt like he was moving through some kind of underworld.

They took shots out of little white Dixie cups. Someone brought out weed, and Jared thought, well, it is summer.

Jared glanced across the lake to where they were setting up. He couldn’t get Robinson’s words out of his head for some reason. A drunk bike ride home in the summer. He was seventeen years old–who was Robinson to criticize? Had he never had fun when he was younger? It was bad enough having to think about applying to colleges, and then in four years having to find a job–how was he supposed to do any of that?

He forced those thoughts to be silent. This moment was what mattered. Looking at the dark shapes around him–he couldn’t see them but he could hear their voices–he felt free from everything that waited for him across the lake. He felt free.

He met eyes with Andrea Reid. She had a boyfriend who wasn’t here. He played tennis, and he always wore his headband around, even in class, which always struck Blecher as disgusting.

She was drunk. There was something in the way that she looked at him… he felt like she didn’t want him to break free of her gaze.

Some guy from his calculus class–Andy something–suggested that they go for a walk with Andrea and another girl he hadn’t seen before. Andy Something offered him a cigarette.

Blecher met eyes with Andrea. She was looking at him like she wanted to pull his clothes off. She had a boyfriend. This is what Jared would ordinarily have been thinking. But he had a cigarette and he took huge drags on it and blew them out without inhaling. He didn’t care. He felt like a man.

They locked eyes. Her face was very close to his and her eyes were filled with energy. Andy Noname and the other girl had gone off somewhere else.

They kissed. He let it linger a long time, feeling a strange dissolving feeling, overwhelming all the objections in his brain.

Robinson surveyed the scene around him. He was in the middle of a festival; he felt as if festivals like this had occurred the same way since the beginning of time, and would keep occurring forever. A group of students he didn’t recognize were sprawled across the curb with bottles of beer in their hands and he stood watching them for a while. Their faces were sublimely smooth and unconcerned. They joked and jostled around, flirted, put their arms around each other, all with ease. It was something he had never understood; everything to him was cerebral and thought-out. Even his students, perpetually late to class, unconcerned with practicing or technique, were incredible to him. The ease and lack of concern with which they existed in the world–it was like watching the gods lounging at Mount Olympus.

The fireworks started up. A barrage of them exploded in a burst of golden rain. He was surrounded by unwashed faces, children suddenly screaming, children running around, chasing lit-up electric toys around on the ground. A breeze started up, rustling the leaves in the trees, and he was cold.

Suddenly two memories hit him as strongly as the wind and the cold. The first was of a day, any day, in high school band–the crashing of the cymbals, the horrible roar of the tubas. Playing the alto. It was before his composition, before any of his talk of his “great American art form”; he had just liked playing music every day. The second was of his wife’s crooked nose.

Their first date had gone badly, he had thought, all those years ago. He had debated for what felt like hours over whether to lean in and kiss her, and then when he had gone ahead and done it she had tensed up and turned her head to the side. He was mortified; he didn’t make any attempt to get back in touch with her. He kept thinking about her, but he had a terrible memory for faces, and whenever he recalled her in his mind he had to start with her nose and work from there.

One day he saw her name on a poster for a recital on campus, and in a melancholy mood he bought a ticket, thinking he would sit in the back row.

The night of the performance was a Friday night in the fall of his sophomore year. He was becoming nearsighted and from the back, she was little more than a blur. He sat back there, thinking about the things she’d said to him, trying to rebuild her image in her mind, hardly paying attention to the music at all. He tried to picture going up to her after the concert and saying hello, but he couldn’t. He decided he wouldn’t do it.

Afterwards, tramping through the piles of red leaves on the way back to his dorm, he ran into her lugging her harp back across the quad. He had called to her and offered to help, just like that. It hadn’t been so difficult after all. She asked him why he hadn’t called her back, apologized if she’d been weird. His heart was beating like a rabbit’s.

He told people afterwards, and later on started to tell himself, that it had been that performance on the harp that made him fall in love with her, but that wasn’t it at all. The wind was very cold and it was starting to rain.

He wanted to stay out for a little while longer to watch the fireworks.

After the fireworks, both Andrea and Jared were still there–she with her shirt off and her dress pulled up above her hips, he with his shirt still on and his jeans off. Jared was covered with sand. It was cold. Andrea wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

She didn’t answer.

“Wasn’t it good?”

She laughed softly.

Suddenly he heard music coming across the lake.

But it wasn’t Mahler. It was something else–a saxophone playing by itself. A tune he had heard before.

He pulled on his jeans. Said goodbye to Andrea. His request for her number got another laugh.

He wandered over to where the sound was coming from. He found Robinson playing his alto, sitting on the curb.

“Hey, kid,” he said.

“Hey.”

“Things didn’t go as planned, did they?”

Blecher shook his head.

“It’s alright,” said Robinson.

Suddenly Blecher recognized the tune. It was “Body and Soul.”

Robinson had played it at the end of class the first day of his senior year. They were starting with a unit on jazz.

It was the last class of the day, September first, and nobody really wanted to be inside at that very moment. The music sounded strange–sour and acrid and littered with wrong notes. Backpacks were zipped up, papers put away noisily, conversations flared up. But something about the music held Jared’s attention.

When it was over, Blecher noticed that Robinson had teared up. A few kids giggled. He pulled himself together and said a few words to wrap up.

“You want to know what jazz is?” he said, trying to keep his voice above the commotion of twenty eighteen-year-olds who wanted to be outside.

“I can’t explain it any better than that.”

1+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

The Crystal Dragon, Part 12: Chase, by Edward King

#adventure #china #crystal dragon

LAST TIME, ON THE CRYSTAL DRAGON: OUR HEROES, Hammer and Laser, meet in an Internet cafe to discuss the “Cloud Mafia”—a band of criminal elements controlling the mining of the metals used to make phones and computers, those essential pieces of our modern lives—but their talk is interrupted by a mysterious grey-eyed man!
Read the past episodes.
Hammer and Laser thundered down the steps of the internet cafe. Behind, the grey-eyed man pursued them.

They crossed the street. A heavy stream of traffic blocked their pursuer.

He had one grey eye and one normal, and wore a dull grey dusty rumpled suit.

He stood there helplessly, blocked by a car.

Time seemed to stop. Though they were far from the ancient city center, Hammer felt that they were in the middle of the city—of the world. The present dilemma a seamless part of the tapestry of his life.

Hammer and Laser stood in a town in the midst of three skyscrapers. Children played in the space underneath the grey buildings housing sixty stories of families. Every necessity for life was there, packed into the corners of the dirty streets. In a general store, Bottles of water and packaged food crammed onto tiny shelves. Cramped Sichuan restaurants served spicy pepper dishes. A cell phone shop, a bank. A basketball court in the concrete lot behind the supermarket. At a table on the street, family sat around a steaming wok filled with peppers, long-stalked mushrooms and potatoes.

He thought of her: Alex. The wooden steps, the falling snow, his beating heart.

His eye caught the pink, shimmering lights of a KTV, a karaoke center.

A scantily-dressed model stood outside. Her sequined pink bra revealed her fleshy stomach.

Hammer thought, inexplicably, of Alex Long. The wooden steps leading up to her apartment.

Her body, sheets and bra, embracing him.

“What are you looking at?” said Laser. “karaoke?”

“No,” said Hammer.

“I don’t think that’s one of the legit ones anyway,” said Laser. “Or—depends what you mean by legit, I guess. It depends what you’re looking for.”

The grey-eyed man appeared atop the stairs. One eye watching them, the other grey, opaque.

“Run!” said Laser.

They ran through the smoky streets between the skyscrapers. Past a karaoke bar where skinny women stood below gauzy pink lights illuminating the street. Down concrete stairs.

They hopped across a board between two roofs.

The grey-eyed man behind them reached into his coat. When he withdrew his hand, it held a dull grey revolver.

“Duck!” yelled Laser.

Hammer ducked. A shower of sparks rained from the fire escape above his head.

They ran down the concrete stairs. Laser bumped a wok, launching food into the air.

The peppers landed on the grey man’s face.

“AHHH!” he yelled. “MY EYE!”

Hammer and Laser sprinted down the street.

“Sorry!” He yelled back, still running.

They were back outside the KTV again.

“In here,” said Laser.

They ducked into the entrance and ascended a set of glimmering LED-lit stairs.

“Who was that?” said Hammer.

“We just call him Mr. Grey,” said Laser. “He more or less runs the rare earth mining operation in this province.”

“That was your boss?”

“I don’t think I’m employed there any more,” said Laser.

Midway up the stairs, they stopped.

“I thought I saw her!” said Hammer.

“Who?”

“Alex Long. My ex.”

The wooden steps that led to her front door. The white snow falling softly on the stairs.

They continued up the KTV’s glimmering stairs.

In the inner entrance stood someone.

Alex! Hammer thought. At last!

But it wasn’t wasn’t Alex. It was—

粉一, she said.

Her skimpy clothing shimmered in the light.

6+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

The Crystal Dragon, Part 10: Internet Cafe, by Edward King

#adventure #crystal dragon

Hammer stood on the bus, holding the handle, swaying only slightly side to side at the bus’s violent stops and starts as it wove among disorderly lanes of traffic into the city.
He watched the tired faces of the people on the bus. They were a mix of laborers and office workers. A man wearing a rumpled shirt got up to let an old lady sit down. She smiled and thanked him.
The bus passed under red archways on the way into the city. The words passed by too fast of Hammer to understand. Billboards promoted engineering projects and the “Chinese dream” over photoshopped images of giant malls and industrial parks.
A sign read “Xi’an: 10 km.” Hammer closed his eyes and tried to get some sleep on his feet.
%%
The internet cafe was up four flights of dirty, graffiti-soaked stairs. Hammer was supposed to meet Laser here two minutes ago.
The girl at the front desk gave Hammer a sour look.
“Do you have an ID card?” she said.
“No,” Hammer said. “Do I look like I’m Chinese?”
“No ID card, no the computer,” said the girl.
Hammer was getting ready to put up a fight when Laser appeared from the stairs. “Forget about it,” he said. The front desk girl rolled her eyes, lit a cigarette, and returned to her screen.
Rows of teenagers sat along the internet cafe’s tables, wearing headsets. Rapt with concentration, taking breaks only when absolutely necessary. Cans of soda and styrofoam noodle cups sat half-eaten by their keyboards.
They sat down at a table with two computers in a quiet corner.
“Would you like some tea?” Laser asked.
He got a pot from the front, took the teapot poured the steaming neon-green stuff into plastic cups for Hammer and himself.
“I normally drink Pepsi but I know you guys like to experience the real China.”
“You guys?”
“Americans. Laowai.” He looked from side to side as he said this, as if he was suddenly self-conscious to be seen with an American.
“So, you’re working for an American company up in the mountains,” said Laser. “You must work for Nexus, right?”
“That’s right,“ said Hammer.
“The largest internet provider in the world. And now you’re penetrating China.”
“Yep.”
“And it’s for free, as long as it comes with a Nexus home screen. Nexus apps, Nexus store, all lines of profit going back to Nexus.”
“Hey, man, it’s just a job,” said Hammer.
“I’m just giving you crap,” said Laser. “Your Chinese is not bad, by the way. How long have you lived here for?”
“Two years,” said Hammer.
They had been slipping between Chinese and English through the conversation. Laser’s English sounded cribbed from American movies, with a twangy accent laden with slang.
Around them, the blue light of the screens reflected on the faces of the youths. They were taking valuable hours away from their studies to immerse themselves completely in the game.
Their eyes lit up with wondrous colors from the screens. Adventure, competition, victory.
Hammer eyed Laser’s clothes. They were cheap knockoffs, the kind you bought in past-their-prime malls that packed hundreds of clothes stores into their grimy colorful alleyways.
“So you work for the cloud,” said Laser. “Me too.” He grimaced.
“How’s that?” said Hammer
“Rare earth metals,” he said. “Mining.”
Suddenly it became clear in Hammer’s head. The explosion, Laser’s shadiness. He searched for his phone in his pocket and began mentally composing a text to Kip:
He’s with the cloud mafia!
That was what Hammer and Kip had taken to calling the rare earth miners. The mafia controlled the industry, exploiting others’ labor to extract the minerals that went to create the chips in our phones and computers.
An alarm bell sounded in his head: they were dangerous. He eyed Laser more closely. He had slicked-back hair over shaved sides, and wore a thin tough look as he put a cigarette to his lips. He tried to project world-weariness, but Hammer guessed they were the same age.
Hammer looked past the young boy leading an aerial assault on a European village to the front of the cafe.
Wait. Over by the counter. Was that—
Her! Alex Long. The wooden steps that led to her apartment. The mix of emotions they brought back: lust, adventure, trepidation, love. He’d left them far behind.
The girl holding the notebook at the front of the cafe could have been her. But he thought he saw her everywhere. Every Chinese woman the right age…
Laser saw him looking and turned around. He jumped, spilling his tea on the table and Hammer’s lap.
“We have to go,” said Laser. “We were followed. They must have seen me talking to you outside the mine.”
When Hammer looked up, the girl was gone but a man wearing a dark suit watched them. One of his eyes was normal and one was a dull grey.
They left the back way, keeping their heads low. Laser thundered down the steps, with Hammer close behind.

7+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

The Crystal Dragon, Part 9: Qinlings, by Edward King

#adventure #crystal dragon

Some time has passed since our heroes and heroines’ training in Siberia. Out in the world, with Oilberger and Siberia far behind him, Ben Hammer embarks on a new adventure…
From the top of the radio tower, Hammer scanned the mountains. They were blanketed by an impossible green.
He thought back on what had brought him here. What seemed real, what seemed unreal. Siberia. The fire. Hartman’s voice calling through the flames.
He watched a hawk, a speck, circling below.
He wondered, briefly, what Alex was doing now. Back home, it was night time on Sunday. She would just be making dinner. Something cheap and simple simple—a chicken quesadilla or some noodles. In the distance, the same sun he’d left in Colorado hung behind Mount Hua.
Suddenly, he heard a boom below.
Thick black smoke rose up amongst the green.
He radioed down to the outpost, which looked the size of a Monopoly house below him.
“Hey, Kip,” he radioed down. “I’m seeing some black smoke somewhere on the other side of the village. Any idea what that could be?”
“I don’t know, I just saw it too.” said Kip. “Wanna go check it out?”
”Sounds dangerous.”
Hammer met Kip down at the base of the tower, where orange butterflies circled above the ground. A stray dog sniffed at the wild strawberries that ran along the path.
They walked down the path, past laborers carrying mechanical parts and farmers carrying wicker baskets and tanks of water.
Kip had curly hair and an always-earnest face. The strong jaw that had blessed Hammer had never suited his personality, he thought.
“Should we wait for Gordon?” said Hammer.
“It’s up to you,” said Kip. “He won’t be back til night, I bet. By the time he gets there it might be hard to find the source of the smoke. If we go a little bit closer and watch from a good vantage point we should be safe.”
“Sounds to me like you’re the EXPERT, Kip,” said Hammer.

They set off on the pathway into town. They passed day laborers, shirtless, carrying shovels, into rice fields.
“It looked like it was just past the village,” said Hammer.
A highway ran along the river, and the village had grown alongside it. Blue motorcycles hauled wood and baskets of fruit along the road. Trash and liquor bottles littered the shore of the river.
They passed rows of concrete brick houses. All had red doors and most bore a large sticker of the character for “luck” upside-down. Tired laborers passed, sitting in truck beds and crammed into buses, squinting over cigarettes. The sky was blue above the little town.
They passed the junior high, its concrete block-built buildings painted blue, a basketball match in session under the noon sun.
Older kids waited in line for bowls of noodles in plastic bags outside shops, some with ornate golden characters carved above the entryway.
A Chinese man in his twenties crossed them on the path. He was about their age. He eyed them suspiciously.
“You shouldn’t go past here,” he said.
“What’s going on?” said Kip
“Listen. I need to get back to town,” said the stranger.
“You work here in the village?”
“No, town meaning Xi’an. I’m just an inspector here. …Listen, I’ve already said too much.”
He seemed determined to set off on his way, before he changed his mind. He pulled a card from his wallet.
“Meet me here tomorrow morning at 11. I’ll explain then.”
The card read:
“Laser Xu, cloud engineer. LUCKY 8 INTERNET BAR.”
But he must have given them the wrong one by accident. The card was crumpled and worn, not the kind of fresh business card you would hand to a client. And where the card should have read “cloud engineer,” a word was scratched out and rewritten to read:
“CLOUD MAFIA.”

2+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

Body, Soul, Murder, Episode 7: “Louis Gets Results”

#body-soul-murder #detective #jazz

Read the past episodes here.

Woody Bleeker, private detective, followed Maria up Broadway into Harlem. He was supposed to be helping her with her case—her cheating husband and the mysterious and malevolent Andiamo that seemed to be pursuing them—but he didn’t have any leads to speak of. A little following couldn’t hurt, right?

A cab honked, and Maria turned around to see what the noise had been. Woody ducked for a trash can, but he was too late.

“Mr. Bleeker?” said Maria.

“Mr. Bleeker was my father,” said Woody, removing a banana peel from his shoulder.

“What are you doing here?” said Maria.

“Well, my office is just up here, and—”

“—Your office is on the Upper East Side,” said Maria.

“This is my satellite office,” said Woody, improvising. “I have many offices. Anyway, what are you doing here?”

“Oh, I was just going to see a friend play some music. Louis. I suppose you might as well come along.”

%

Louis walked down the Harlem bar’s creaky stairs with a smile that made Woody like him, to his dismay. A saxophone hung from a strap around his neck.
“Hey, Moretti!” he called. “Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
“Oh, suck my dick,” said Maria.
“Well, I gotta get my tonguing practice in somehow. What’s up?”
“I… might need help with something. Something non-musical.”
They went to another bar to watch Louis’s quintet play. The trumpet player up front scowled towards the counter whenever the cash register rang. Louis played a mournful solo. The air was thick with smoke.

Louis sat down to join them and the rest of the band continued as a quartet. The piano player began to play a mysterious tune. It wound its way around the room, filling the air with expectation.
“Damn,” Maria whispered.
“I know,” said Louis. “I think he’s the only one of those Juilliard guys that doesn’t feel the need to play every scale he knows when he gets up there.”
The rest of the band kicked in, and the pianist punctuated the space between them with strange, spare chords.
“So, a little while ago,” Maria began, “I… took some pictures.”
“What kind of pictures,” said Louis.
“Well, I was, uh, naked in them…”
“I see,” he said. Woody didn’t detect any flicker in his expression—it was serious and empathetic. “So, what? You don’t want them to get out?”
“Oh, no, it’s too late for that. …They were supposed to be artistic.”
“Who took ‘em?”
“Some guy. Phil.”
“Your husband?” said Louis. His eyes didn’t leave Maria’s.
“So, what, he sold them? Have you talked to the police?”
“It’s worse than that,” said Maria. “They’re being used for a, a—”
Maria stopped and seized on something in her field of vision, behind Woody. “Is that guy staring at me?” she said.
Woody turned around, pretending it was some kind of stretch. Three men sat in conversation… but was there something fake about it? Had they just abruptly switched the topic?
Louis was getting up from the table.
“Hey. Louis—” said Maria.
Louis approached the table with absolute calm.
“Would you mind if I asked if you were checking out my friend over there?” he said.
“Hey, man, it’s a free country,” replied the one that had turned to face Louis. The other two were staring into their drinks. They suddenly seemed like scared college kids. Meanwhile, an air of confidence and—not menace—but power—emanated from Louis.
“Yeah, it’s nice for some,” he said. “Would you mind my asking if you know her from somewhere?”
“Yeah,” the bold one said, grinning. He was the most drunk, and suddenly seemed eager for a fight.
“We’ve seen a lot of her,” he said. “Harris here has touched a lot of her, too.”
“No I haven’t,” said Harris. The kid was terrified. “I saw some of the other girls, but she was never there when I went.”
“…Went where?” said Louis.
The bold one grinned. “The cathouse on 55th, man.”
Woody watched Louis. For a second, it seemed that he was capable of flipping over the table; of breaking the drunk one’s nose and casting the other two through the air and into the bar. Instead, he took a breath.
“Listen,” he said. “Whatever you might think, my friend is not in that kind of work. Now, if you’ll kindly pay up and enjoy the rest of your evening somewhere else, that would be much appreciated. My friend is going through a lot.” Though he was still calm, there was a note of danger hiding somewhere in his speech.
He turned and started back towards Woody and Maria’s table.
“I bet she has,” the drunk said, making a gesture in the air.
It happened before Woody could register what was happening. Louis was back at the other table, airborne, and the drunk was underneath him. Louis’s eyes were a centimeter from his.
“Now,” he said. “I happen to be a believer in nonviolence, and that’s why your head is still a solid and not a liquid; but nonviolence, while a noble goal, is not always the most expedient method for getting results. I employed the doctrine of nonviolence to try and get you to act like a human being, and not a drunk monkey that’s about to shit itself, in front of my friend. But if that doesn’t get results within the next five seconds, I will have to resort to violence. So what’ll it be?”

0
Send to Kindle
Standard
Blog

New feature: annotate posts

Edit: due to technical issues,  I’ve had to disable this feature for now. Check back here for any updates.

Original post:

I’ve been thinking about the possibility of annotating stories for a while. I first started thinking about it when trying to read finnegans wake, which is well known for being impossible to read. My thought was that James Joyce designed the book to be appealing to a mass readership by smashing together references to everything under the sun, and even different languages, together into one book. I think his hope was that it would take on life through discussion and analysis, but this never happened. This is partly because the book is a complete mess, but I think that the internet, being the glorious tangle of cultures and languages and opinions that it is, could provide some new insight into what has the potential to be a beautiful work of art.

This is where annotations could help. If you’re an author it could be to clarify a reference people might not understand, a plot detail you want to clarify, or some character background. If you’re a reader, you might have a question or comment on a story. Either way, ideally your understanding and engagement with the story will be greater.

Here’s how it works: create an account if you haven’t already, log in, and highlight some text on any story or post. Click the pen icon that appears and type your annotation.

The feature is enabled by the following software: https://github.com/denis-aes/annotator-wordpress. It’s a fork of a project that looks promising but hasn’t been updated for a while.

This is experimental, and there are a few potential problems. One is the potential for spam.

Let us know if you have any problems or see any bugs in the comments, on twitter or over email.

0
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

No We Will Not Limit Our Performance Time

#longreads #shortstories

#longreads: download, print, or read on kindle

David’s job, for the next few hours at least, was to order and staple the piles of paper lying in front of him. He had made things difficult by trying to print double-sided. He had stopped the printer as soon as he realized what was happening, but that had left about sixty copies with the odd sides printed upside-down. After deliberating over what to do for a few minutes (taking a bathroom break had helped), he had decided that the orientation error on the packet would just make things too difficult for everyone—who included, as Alan had been saying at weekly meetings for the last month, not only the upper echelons of the GPRL but also, if all the scheduling stuff got worked out, possibly even Jimmy Chen himself. Most importantly, it would reflect badly on Alan and everyone else that had worked so hard to put together the 1995 TBC Developers’ Conference.

Now, noticing the scent of toner coming off the warm piles in front of him, David knew that the only solution was to print out the odd pages separately, single-sided, and to finish printing out the remaining pages single-sided because double-sided was just too much of a hassle with that printer. It wasn’t just toner: smells of grass and maybe tar from the window were mixed in. But hence the four piles:

1) Cover pages.

2) Even pages with the back side upside down.

3) Odd pages, one-sided.

4) Concluding thankyou page that wasn’t a part of the main 32-page document.

Across the street, the construction workers were taking lunch, sitting aroung the picnic tables with their plastic lunchboxes. David lined up the first complete packet in the stapler, wondering what it would be like to work outside for a living—to go home from work each day not just satisfied with a good day’s work (a day of stapling and filing and report-writing, for instance), but physically exhausted—then he pushed down and felt a twinge of satisfaction as the staple ran through each sheet in turn and curled slightly underneath.
#

“I’m just trying to figure out why you left,” said Alan from across the table, before taking a sip of coffee.

“We have great benefits,” he said. “And of course, as your superior before you quit the company—as a manager—I would say that. But it’s true—you know it’s true, I know it’s true. You won’t find retirement like that anywhere, and that’s a fact.”

David smiled. “That wasn’t really it,” he said.

“Not retirement. So it was more healthcare or vacation-related?”

“It wasn’t any of that. I think it’s something that’s been coming out—building—since I was little. It’s actually tunneling, is what I’d call it.” David stated to worry that Alan wasn’t going to get the point, and he reddened. “Do you know what a culvert is?” he said.

“Is that like a short street?” said Alan.

“Sort of. Well, no. It’s actually a tunnel that a stream or body of water goes into—they use them for drainage as well.” David didn’t know if this was the technical definition, but he thought: best to march on.

“There was one in my neighborhood we always used to take the family dog to every day, my Dad and I. Well, every evening. I used to always wonder what was down there—I imagined all these tunnels connecting underground, and it was sort of this magical thing in my imagination, down there.”

Alan was very hungry, and he started to cut into his food. David worried that this might have been some kind of semi-conscious signal for him to get on with his story.

“So,” he continued, “one day I went there without my parents. I snuck out and stood outside the culvert. But it was dark, you know, and I could hear this, almost this puking noise. It was coming from inside the culvert, periodically. Do you know what I mean?”

“About the pouring? Or, the puking?”

“Well, more about the periods. Periodically.”

“The periods were periodic?”

“No. I was just saying that the puking noise came off and on.”

Alan looked confused. “Didn’t you say the periods periodically?”

“Did I?” said David. “I didn’t mean that.”

“Right, sorry. Carry on.”

“Sorry; where was I?”

“You heard the puking.”

“Right. I remember standing there with my hands on the bars and listening to it. And like I said, I used to imagine it was sort of magical down there.”

“Sorry—how do you mean magical?”

David considered his words. He had just run into Alan on the street; he didn’t have to tell him anything. Magical—the used to imagine a world underneath his neighborhood with castles and palaces, with everything up on high hills. Kind of this kingdom underground, waiting for him.

“Just magical,” he said.

“But I was standing with my hands on the bars”—Alan nodded encouragingly—”and just listening. And it was all kind of grainy, because of the darkness, but I imagined—” he wondered if he was giving too much detail, because he really didn’t have to tell Alan anything. “I imagined going in there, just to see what it was actually like, but then as soon as I went in these hands would grab me, sort of grainy like the darkness, and they would sort of hold me down—” he stopped. Definitely too much. “Sorry, this isn’t really the point,” he said.

“Right,” said Alan—”who was puking?”

“Nothing. I don’t know. No one was puking.”

Alan definitely looked confused. “The point is,” said David, “I’m a tunneler. That’s where it all started. I have to go down and find things underneath. Underneath—structures and systems. If there’s anything better I have to find it, even if I have to dig. Do you know what I mean?”

Alan put down his coffee and, after trying to think for a moment, said:

“I’m sorry—where what started?”
#

On his second day after he quit the company, on the way out to California, David pulled off the highway and stopped at a bar for lunch. The curtains were pulled shut inside, tinting the room red and darkening its wood-paneled walls to black. The sliver of white light through the gap in the curtains illuminated the coils of smoke rising above the men seated at the bar. Those coils, he thought, are never the same shape. They will always be unique.

He sat down in a booth across from the bar. The men there were all distracted by a band tuning up at the front of the room. The waitress came to take his order and said, “We don’t get bands in here often,” with a twang in her voice. He smiled in a way he hoped didn’t come off as condescending.

“Interesting,” he said. “I’ll have the french dip sandwich?”

“Sure thing. Fries or taters?”

“Ta-um, potatoes, please.”

“Sure thing, I’ll be right back.”

He settled back into the leather of his seat. There was a general haze of tobacco smoke, but in the sliver of light from the window he could see still see the individual swirls rising. He thought about walking over to play one of the old arcade games in the corner, but there was a nice warm feeling in his legs after being in the car for so long. The twang was charming, really; he would have to leave a good tip.

The band started to play. A guitarist and a bassist strutted around at the front of the room in tight fitted shirts, low-cut and revealing pale, hairless chests. He looked back to the bar. Most of the men there had white tufts of hair poking out of the collars of their shirts, but they seemed to be enjoying the music. It was a blues standard—they were singing about the sea, losing someone in the sea. David had never been to the sea.

His sandwich came, with a cup of sauce and a yellow toothpick sticking up from the top. It was hot; more swirls rose from the top. But not the same as the ones up at the bar, up above the cigarettes.

He noticed a change in the music and looked up. The singer had stopped singing and was walking around the stage, nervously David thought, while the guitarist played a strange-sounding solo. Maybe he wasn’t playing the notes in the scale. Or the key—David wasn’t sure what the difference was. Either way, the tufty-chested men didn’t seem to be enjoying it too much. Everyone in the band looked serious and concentrated.

He took a few more bites of his sandwich, each dipped in sauce. The blues is very structured, he thought. The same pattern repeats. He remembered a phrase he had heard, “chord changes.” The chords change—change and repeat, in and out like the sea. But the real thing, he thought, must be to dive underneath. He was starting to enjoy the music now, but the men at the bar definitely seemed upset. The guitar solo was still going, seemed to have been going on too long. The singer had resumed singing, but there wasn’t a melody any more—he was just chanting lines into the microphone with the same serious expression, about someone lost in the sea.

The tufty men were turning rowdy. All of them glared under thick eyebrows; one stood up and yelled at the stage, “Play some music!” The band seemed unfazed; in fact, the music was becoming looser and louder. David started to sway along, a smile breaking on his lips. He thought of his roommate in college and a punk song that fell apart at the end, only this lasted—was all falling apart. His eyes darted to the bar and back to the stage. The guitarist had abandoned his pick and was pounding on the guitar with his hands; the drummer kept a beat but the bassist struck one note rhythmlessly. He didn’t think they were playing the blues any more—new shapes were forming. Now all the men were yelling for the band to stop playing. David stood up and began to search for the money to pay, seeing one man take slow steps towards the stage. He was digging through his pockets–he knew he had the right change—when one of the men threw a bottle at the stage and he ran out in a fast question mark around the empty tables in the center of the room.
#

The office of the company that David worked for was on the second floor of a larger office building. On the day before he left for good, the little boy and his mother came in through the glass double doors at ten o’clock—later than she had planned. She settled in at her desk on the first floor, and the boy began to spread out his toys on the carpet in his spot under the desk. The little boy loved elevators, and his mother wasn’t always very good at keeping track of him when she was working; soon the toys were abandoned and the boy was making his way into the hall. He called the elevator and, when it came, ran his fingers over the two buttons that he could reach. They were blue and rounded, and they seemed to go back forever into the elevator, like a tunnel somewhere; the boy wanted to find out where it went.

David sat at his desk on the second floor, flipping between work and the office’s messaging program on his computer. He took a break for a moment to look around the room. Alice turned over piles of paper on her desk, her face distraught, searching for something. At the front of the room, Andrew asked Alan something while Alan, sitting, nodded patiently. Evan watched Alice intently, smiling and twirling a blue pen.

David looked back at his screen, where he had minimized all the windows. The background was a computer-generated picture of a lake. It looked very realistic; he had even wanted to visit it for a while. He brought back all the windows, put his head down, and tried to get to work again, but when he looked up the boy was standing a few feet from his desk, holding a little handheld game system. David looked around again: no one had moved except for Evan, who by Alice’s desk, saying, “I was holding the pen up the whole time you were looking for it! Isn’t that funny?” Alice’s face was serious for a moment and then she laughed unconvincingly.

David didn’t know exactly what to say to the boy, but he was going to say something, when Evan noticed him too and came over to help.

David turned his face back to his computer intensely—let Evan be sanctimonious, let him act the good guy in front of Alice. David had emails; he didn’t have time to help with anything like this; he had emails to check.

“Hey, can I get some help?” he heard Evan say. He was trying to pick up the boy. “Will you carry take this upstairs if I get the kid?”

He handed David the little videogame box that the boy had been holding. It had a gray cartridge plugged in at the back that David didn’t recognize.

“Thanks,” said Evan. “His mom or whoever must be up on the third floor. There are more offices up there, right?”

David shrugged and followed Evan to the elevator with the game in one hand, and with the other he pressed the deep blue elevator button that was his favorite feature of the office. He pushed the deep blue elevator button that was his favorite feature of the office and felt a familiar tug of acceleration as the elevator pulled him up to the third floor.
#

“First of all, just let me make it clear to you that we’re not hiring you back,” said Alan before taking a sip of coffee. “We just can’t—I think I could still persuade them even with the property damage but after that report that Alice wrote there’s just no way—corporate would never. But if you don’t mind me asking—Alice kept mentioning something about a game?”

David smiled.

“I used to play it when I was little—it was on a little gray cartridge with the label scratched off. It was something my Dad got from a garage sale, I think. We weren’t—you know, we weren’t exactly throwing down money on any yachts back then, so my dad had to get creative with what he bought for me to play with. It was strange. I had this idea that it was—I don’t want to say enchanted, but…”

Alan left a pause and then said: “Okay.” He had mostly played business-simulation-type games when he was little. He was imagining David’s game as one where you run an amusement park that successfully shifts business models to suit the times while retaining its core of family friendliness and fun and safety. “What kind of game was it?”

“Oh, I guess it was an adventure game. You just did normal adventure game stuff, you know, go from island to island and fight monsters and solve problems.” This information seemed harmless to share. “And once you finished every island there would be this little ceremony in your honor, with dancing and a little pig rotating on a fire.” He paused, remembering.

“But the strangest thing was that there were these vines that sort of encroached on you throughout the game. Like, they started as these harmless things that you just had to cut through, but as you went on they became more and more intrusive and they eventually started to fill up the screen and you could barely even play it anymore.” He wondered if he was explaining this adequately. “And, apart from that, it never seemed to end. There seemed to be an endless number of islands.”

Alan didn’t say anything. He had never liked games like that.

“Actually,” said David, still looking down. “That was kind of the reason I went out to California. …That’s where I ended up going, when I left.”

He really hadn’t intended to tell Alan any of this—he had just run into him on the street—so what was he doing now? But now he had started his thought and it would be strange just to leave it there incomplete, and so he said,

“I had had to find the man that made that game.”
#

He later came to an island that seemed to lack any particular features or tasks to complete. Wondering why it had been put there, he started to explore. He eventually came upon a tiny house just into the woods that covered the island. He went inside and found an old man sitting on the floor. The man didn’t seem surprised when David entered; in fact, he addressed him right away.

“There are twenty-seven thousand, seven hundred and forty villages in the world,” he said. “That’s three hundred and sixty-five times seventy-six. In order to finish the game, you have to visit every single one of them.”

He stepped aside to reveal a trapdoor, which he pulled up. There were steps leading beneath the house.

“But perhaps there are other ways,” he said.

David,11 at the time, looked at the stairs on the screen. He was eleven now. He thought of the culvert, of standing outside it and hearing that noise repeat and repeat. He pressed the button on the controller to talk to the old man again, but he was silent.

David left the island and, though he visited it again, he could not ever again provoke the old man to talk to him. He stopped playing the game soon after.

#

The elevator rose and bumped into its dusty seating on the third floor. The doors opened and David, Evan and the boy stepped out into a dusty nowhere: concrete floors, chairs and desks stacked up, fiberglass walls, light through plastic sheets. The music from the boy’s game echoed around tinnily.

“I was under the impression there was another office up here,” said David. He looked back: Evan was backing up into the still-open elevator doors, mumbling something about getting work done. So he dropped the act when Alice wasn’t there. David started to make a noise of protest, but there was no point really; he let him go.

He looked around. Sheets of ragged paper fluttered around his feet. Past the stacked chairs, the way was blocked by a row of large filing cabinets, forming a kind of wall. He couldn’t tell if it was all randomly placed or if there was some kind of system.

He wandered around for a while, talking to the boy, who was mute and receptive. He noticed that some of the walls, the concrete ones and the ones made by the bookshelves, had been painted. Many of them were painted solid colors. Some had kind of symbols spray painted on them, David thought maybe Chinese symbols; some had quite painstakingly detailed faces or scenes painted on them. And some of the bookshelves and chairs and desks were arranged so as to form what could be interpreted as sculptures.

For David, exploring this wasteland with the boy was oddly comforting, like imagining someone else’s life or seeing it in a dream. He asked the boy what he would like to be when he grew up, wondering what he would have said at that age. It was strange, he kept thinking, that all this was upstairs and he had never known about it.

They found an unstacked desk to sit down on and David took out his lunch to share with the boy. He noticed that the pattern on its plastic surface was the same as the one on his desk. They were like that for a while, David and the boy, both sitting on the desk and eating. Though neither of them talked, the noise of their crunching filled up the silence and it was alright, really, the two of them there together.
#

“Yeah, I always thought he was weird,” said Alice to Alan. He had called her there the day after David left in order to get the full story for the incident report. “Just, I dunno, he was always checking his email, and I remember thinking, who checks their email that much, you know? And he was really quiet, he didn’t really talk to anyone, but when he did talk it was like it was too much—it was just like, ‘alright, I get it!’, you know? Anyway, I wasn’t really all that surprised when it happened.”

The morning after David left, Alice had pulled into the parking lot at 7:00 a.m. This was an hour earlier than she, or anyone really, normally came into the office, but she had been woken up by the construction that had been going on for weeks outside her house and she figured she might as well get some work done early so she could have an easy afternoon, comparatively.

As she pulled into the parking lot, she remembered immediately that they were still changing the locking system and no one but Alan had the new card needed to get into the building. Shit, she thought. “Shit,” she said. And who was blasting music at 7:00 in the morning?

Because there was no point in going all the way home now, and because it was cold, Alice sat in the car with the heat on and fumed for a while. The sun was just beginning to rise. She thought she could see a light flickering in the second floor window of the office, but it might have just been reflections from the cars passing by or something. She gave in and started to eat the pasta she had packed for lunch, beginning to enjoy the novelty of being up so early.

At 7:28, the office’s cleaning lady pulled into the parking lot across from Alice and went into the building without noticing her sitting there. Alice put the lid back on her pasta and approached the glass door the cleaning lady had just entered through, wondering if the lady would be offended if she tried to speak to her in Spanish.

“So when I finally got upstairs, David was just sitting there in the middle of the floor,” said Alice to David. “He’d moved some of the desks out of the middle of the room to make room. And—I put a pretty detailed description of this in the report, but. There was music playing really loud, and now I could hear it was like videogame music, and he’d hooked up the big projector to his game. The shades were closed and he had it projected onto the back wall, so all the colors reflected off it and sort of filled up the room. It was such an old game, the screen looked like just a pattern made out of colored squares more than anything real. You know how those games look?

“And I know this is the first time he’s done anything like this, other wise one of the cleaners or something would have found out and told somebody.

“…But, anyway, I remember that on the screen was a picture of a room with a little old-man-looking thing standing in the corner. And David made the other little man, the one he was controlling, go down this staircase in the corner. He hadn’t seen me at this point, he just had his eyes locked on the screen and he looked… terrified, or really excited, I don’t know. But anyway, the man on the screen went down the staircase, and it was like the game broke.

“The credits started coming down from the top of the screen over the old man still standing there, but the music went all strange, it was got really loud and started making all these high- and low-pitched noises. It was terrible. And all the squares in the screen just started turning random colors, it seemed like, and so everything in the room was changing colors really fast. And then there was this other really loud noise, sort of a humming noise, and I thought it was coming from the game at first but it wasn’t, it was coming from the projector, and I know that projector is really expensive so I ran over to turn it off as soon as I realized what was humming, but I guess it was all already broken. Anyway, David finally noticed I was there then, and at first he just game me this look like… ‘What are you doing, I have to stop now?’ And then he seemed to sort of snap out of it and see that I was there. And he said something like—I put all this in the report, but—something like, ‘Alice, I’ve always thought you were alright, you shouldn’t let Evan treat you like that.’ And I was like: creep…” Alice was blushing, but Alan nodded her along still.

“And then he looked at me and he said, ‘Alice, I’ve decided something. I’m leaving.'”

Alan looked at her expectantly.
“And then he left.”
#

“I have to ask—what actually happened in California?” said Alan. “You seem more—confident, or well-balanced or something.” Though it really would have been difficult to rehire David, both of these qualities were listed under “highly desirable” in the GPRL’s Elements of Leadership handbook.

“I told you,” said David. “I went to find the programmer that made the game.”

“Yes, yes, but what did you actually do?”

David as silent. He would not be quantified. He had never meant to tell Alan anything. What is the thing called where you know what goes in and what comes out but not what’s happening inside?

At the table across from them, two women were arguing about someone’s romance. A child sat across the table in silence, drawing something with a crayon. The output isn’t all that’s important, though. The inner workings matter too! —The cogs and shafts and pullies.

A black box is what it’s called.

“I talked to him. Just once. And I spent some time on the beach,” he said by way of a reply. “That was it, really. I watched movies in the hotel room.”
#

The programmer’s name was Gregor Cisneros. He was forty-seven years old, but he had only been living in the United States for thirty-six. He had a sister back there who he didn’t talk too much any more. They weren’t on bad terms; it was just like that.

He worked in an electronics store inside of a little mall in San Diego where everything else seemed to be either boarded up or closed for the day when David got there. The only other person he saw sat behind the desk in a used bookstore, with his feet up, watching him through the glass.

David had found out that Gregor lived in San Diego from an issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly dated July 5th, 1990, purchased in a large cardboard box from an online seller. After a search through the issues in the box that lasted two days, David had found a review of the game “Super Baseball Tournament,” published by a San Diego-based company called “Technlovision, Ltd,” the company that appeared in the credits at the end of the game. The reviewer described the game as “broken and ultimately […] unamusing.”

When David arrived at the address that he eventually found, noticed a smell immediately upon opening the store. It clearly was a body odor, and so he knew that it should be off-putting, but it was not entirely unpleasant in a kind of coffee-like way. When the service bell rang, he was aware of a flurry of movement somewhere in the vicinity of the front counter. As he walked up to the counter, he had time to take in the contents of the shelves that lined the store: radios and televisions and toasters in various states of repair; devices that appeared to be Frankenstein’s-monster-like combinations of those three appliances and perhaps more; miscellaneous other experimental-looking works made of tinfoil and different-colored liquids and sometimes elaborately constructed wooden frames. Behind the counter hung a pair of old-looking and off-white curtains through which, as they were displaced by a gray and stubbled and wiry man, David could just make out a hammock swinging back and forth softly.

Since emigrating to America, Gregor was often described by teachers as “bright” or “pretty bright” but never outstanding or excellent.

The epicenter of the smell seemed to be Gregor’s feet.

David introduced himself. After he waited for Gregor to grab something unnamed from a back room, they left for a coffeeshop where they could talk. It was a new place called Sahasrara. A sign by the door explained that the sahasrara, in Hinduism, was the highest Chakra on the body and was supposed to represent pure consciousness or the death if the body. However, looking around, one could easily conclude from the average skin tone everyone at the café that this probably was not the deepest or most well-studied interpretation of the term. By the counter stood a bookshelf filled with hundreds of magazines and newspapers and miscellaneous publications, which the owners of the cafe intended to cover all genres and political leanings and intellectual levels. For instance: TIME. Climbing in Nebraska. Three Toothbrushes: an Experimental Literary Journal. Development of Beta-6 Keratins in Hypoglycemic Mice. USA Today.

They found a table by the window. Although David did manage to start a conversation about the game, with Gregor helping him along, and not stray back to topics like the food and the weather, it initially focused on technical details like the the music and the artwork. David vigorously complimented, Gregor vigorously deflected.

David had mostly lost contact with his friends from high school. He still looked back on his memories of them fondly, but strangely, although their relationships were founded on and developed mostly around a shared love for videogames, he had very few memories of actually playing games with them.

The questions that were the most important to David, the ones that he visualized himself asking Gregor, would have dissolved under much thought, much less verbalization.

The conversation turned to the fate of Technlovision, Ltd. When Gregor revealed that he had stopped making games because his publisher stopped backing him for financial reasons, David said:

“So it was the system! You didn’t want to join the supersystem.”

“What?” Gregor had said with his unplaceable accent.

“You didn’t want to be a subsystem. Because your game didn’t fit into what they thought they could convert into a number and sell.”

“Well, I suppose, sort of. I didn’t particularly mind being part of a system, or if I did I didn’t notice. I just wanted people to play my game.”

David thought this must have been a joke.

“But really, I don’t think it was much a system,” Gregor continued. “Just people.”

And he had argued, saying something like how he could not feel like a subsystem when those around him only tried to make him fit into a whole number or one with a certain number of decimal places when he was the space in between numbers, the endlessly unpatterned ones, and to define him in words when… and how could he live when he was constantly forced into units of time and mass that matched the decay of a cesium-125 atom or a bar of cubic zirconium in Sweden?

And Gregor had said:

“It’s just not like that. You have to find something without—beyond saying. A bird does not say. There is a bird in the sky that is always changing colors, and you only see it now and then, sometimes you don’t see it all the time.”

And David had looked out the window, half expecting to actually see something, but there was only a patch of blue moving through the clouds.

David left to go to the bathroom. He didn’t need to go that badly, he just wanted to kind of get a breath of fresh air. He sat down in the stall so that no one would see his head sticking up out of the top and think that was weird.

Scrawled in sharpie on the walls, among other things, was:

“School gets in the way of my passion.”

David let his head fall onto the plastic wall. He didn’t know. Did he have a passion? He thought about his school days. A presentation he gave on “Coral of the Sea”. Mrs. Marlson’s whole class had to give a presentation and that’s what he had chosen. He had come down late to dinner every night for weeks to research it, he had had dreams about reefs, viewed from above just a dark spot in the sea, but then he would be swimming in the dream through branches and caves, and further in he could see the texture and the individual polyps. Then when he gave the presentation he didn’t know what to say, he wanted a good grade so he tried to think about what Mrs. Marlson might want him to say; then he saw Julie Ackerman at the back, the one who never lent him her colored pencils, and he tried to talk about what she would want to hear, but then Todd and Steven and Jared were at the back too and none of this seemed to overlap that he could see so he just started listing everything he knew, everything he had learned about coral. He had gone until the bell rang and past it even; he could see everyone groaning and squirming in their seats. Never mind the fact that it would later be called an “attention seeking episode.” What about Julie and Todd and Steven and Jared—did they know what they wanted? Would they have done better? Because it was really the same thing problem now as it was back then, he thought.

When he came out of the bathroom there was a little stack of gray cartridges on the table with a note:
Sorry I could not stay—meeting I remembered with a customer. Call me
and I hope we can meet up again.
(888) 432-0092.
Your new friend?
Gregor Cisneros.
#

David eventually played through all of the games that Gregor left him in turn. None of them was as long as the one he had played as a child—the longest one took him only an hour or so—and nor were they similar in content, but each one reminded him strongly of that first game somehow.

In one, you crash land on the moon and you can hear messages from Earth over the receiver, but your transmitter is broken and you can’t send anything back.

In one, it’s just started to rain and a small puddle begins to form on the ground. The puddle seems shallow, but actually you can dive underneath and there are networks of tunnels connecting massive caverns. Ruby and heliodor encrust the walls of the caverns, and columns of emerald and topaz hold up the mighty ceiling. Everywhere is lit up with bright shafts of light, but there is no clear source.

In one, you explore a temple somewhere in the rainforest filled with statues of men and women and carvings of great battles and decisions and visitations from gods. All gathers moss.

David eventually more or less decided that Gregor had at some point gotten old and was no longer of any use, but he kept these games around and still played them. They began to take on huge significance for him, and he began trying to think of ways that he could disseminate them.
#

At the table next to Alan and David’s, the women still argued. Alan was still speaking, but David’s attention had turned. They were discussing a male lover; the woman who was involved called him a poet and a saint. The other woman, the one outside of the relationship, called him a shoddy journalist and a drunkard. Meanwhile, the boy had finished his drawing, and he held it up to show his mother. She kept talking to her friend, without looking.

“Excuse me,” said David—interrupting Alan, who was saying something about venture capital. David got up to walk towards the bathroom and, passing the table where the two women still talked, brushed the table on the side that the boy was sitting with his hand. When he came back from the bathroom, the boy was passing something through his fingers—something small, rectangular, and gray.
#

The morning he left California, David woke up in a hotel room. The sheets smelled like old detergent. He lay in bed with his eyes closed for a long time, waking up slowly. He had been dreaming about something—a childhood friend, someone he could talk to—but when he tried to piece things together, he found that he wasn’t even sure if it was anyone he had ever known.

He remembered the night he had spent in the office, playing that game from his childhood, before Alice had walked in. He remembered the name “Gregor Cisneros” scrolling down from the top of the screen, and deciding then to find him wherever he was, even if it was Chile or Japan or something farther away. After that there were the flashes of light and the sound. It was like everything was being compressed into one moment in time, one point in space. He had thought about it a on the drive out to California as he counted the telephone poles: he had decided it meant the end of boredom, the end of loneliness.

He thought of the day before: meeting Gregor, how disappointed he was. David had so many ideas about the game—that it contained all the other games he used to play, each one of them on one of the little islands; that the magic world that he told Alan about somehow led there; that maybe real moments and scenes or life itself were somehow encoded into it. Whether or not that was all true, he had expected a visionary in Gregor, and found that scrubby little man working underground. He squirmed a little under his sheets and shook his head.

He thought of the sunset that last night in California, when he walked along the beach. He had walked under the fishermen’s long lines, in between their tackleboxes and the wall that went down to the rocks and the sea. When the rocks widened into a strip of beach he took off his shoes and walked through the sand, feeling the waves periodically wash his feet. At some point he sat down and watched the sun over the sea. The light reached some special angle and shattered into millions of pieces over the water, like the pixels in his games. The clouds were lit up pink and orange, and the shapes they were whipped into seemed impossibly complex, like a jigsaw puzzle where each piece was a puzzle itself. He thought of something he had once heard about the molecules of water in our bodies getting recycled up into the clouds; and if the atoms in the clouds once belonged in him then was all that complexity in him too? But just as this thought was forming in his head he found that he couldn’t think it any more, and he drifted back to sleep in the hotel’s crumpled sheets.


Back to top

1+
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

Body, Soul, Murder, Part six, by Ed King

#body-soul-murder #detective

last week’s episode

Woody Bleeker sat at the desk in his apartment, his worried eyes roaming. He spent all day at the office tallying crimes. They were being committed all the time!

Music drifted up from the street with the warm summer air. What kind of world was this that he’d been placed in? A world of murder, a world of vice? Was there no order?

He left his office for the dark street. The warm air enveloped him.

He stopped in at a bar. Inside it was busy, and he had to jostle to get to the front.
“One beer, please!” he said to the bartender.
“Yeah, which one?” the bartender replied.
“Uh, which ones do you have?”
The bartender shook his head and started to serve somebody else.
“No, wait! I’ll have a Rheingold.”
“One Rheingold.”
The barman poured it out. Woody sat drinking it, watching the bar’s clientele.
They spoke in the rough tones of Manhattanites. Not one was perfectly formed, not one
spoke in soft flowing flawless syllables. Had they all committed crimes? Where did
that leave them?
Woody noticed two men enter from a side door. They got to the bar and were served
right away. They sat down at a booth in the corner and kept their heads low. Woody
listened to their conversation.
“Are we going tonight?”
“Not tonight.
“Why not?”
“We went two nights ago.”
“But they’re playing the Night in Tunisia movie. It’s brand new.”

Woody followed the two men outside. A clock tower above read five minutes past eleven.

They entered a building whose gaudy neon sign read “THE CRYSTAL THEATRE.” Grimy mirrors surrounded the doorway.

Woody followed them at a safe distance to a large, sloping room with a movie screen in front. The theatre was sparsely populated with moviegoers slumped low in their seats. The film was just beginning.

It had a paper-thin plot. A wealthy debutante came to New York and met a jazz musician. She was with her father at a whites-only nightclub. She met eyes with the musician during the performance. The film cut close-ups of both their eyes together and overlaid them with messages going between:

“After the show.”

“Where?”

“Do you know the Club Caliban?”

“No. I’ll have to sneak out.”

The theatre was plunged in shadow, only lit by the reflected light from the projector. Woody looked at the figures behind him and to his sides. He could have sworn he saw faces he knew, faces from his childhood. A man’s booming laughter filled the room at intervals.

The film’s two characters met up at Club Caliban, but they didn’t stay there for long. They left for a hotel room, and from there the film took a turn for the seedy.

Woody started to feel sick. He got up from his seat and went to the back of the theatre.

He ran into a man in the hallway with a thin mustache and long sideburns. Without thinking, he brought his badge out of his pocket, yelled, “you’re under arrest!”

The man’s eyes widened. He ran down the corridor. Woody pursued, but the man had disappeared into the night.

Follow Ed on twitter at @edjamesking

0
Send to Kindle
Standard
Stories

Body, Soul, Murder, Part Five, by Ed King

#body-soul-murder #detective #fiction #jazz #mystery #new york

It was Friday night, and Maria was tired. She sat at the window watching the evening traffic go by. The sound of Carol’s music wafted in from the next room, drowning out all the quiet sounds from the street.

Carol was putting on makeup, getting ready to go out. Carol Flanagan who played the guitar and wrote poetry. They never got along well. She had a boyfriend and spent maybe one night in five at the apartment. A space of time in which she managed to turn the bathroom and the kitchen into disaster zones and play records just loudly enough to be dully grating. She didn’t try to be a hassle; she just was. It was simply her way.

Why had Maria come to New York? For what—for Jazz? Was that really it? The strange melodies, the thumping bass. Had that been important enough to uproot her whole life? To leave her father?

The door slammed, and Maria was all alone in the New York apartment with no hot water.

She had lived in the city for six months and not made a single friend. To be truthful, the city horrified her. She was terrified of its dark alleys, its infinite variety. She hadn’t talked to her father.

Worst of all, she hadn’t been to a single jazz show. She lived right in the Village but she hardly ever left the apartment. She spent all day in her room, reading or listening to music. Late at night had become the only time she ever felt like eating anything any more.

A Turkish restaurant in the village had become her sanctuary. It was open late, and she left to go there now, unsure of how she would survive hours in the apartment by herself.

A man stumbled into the restaurant at one o’clock. His clothes were rumpled. He was thin, and he had a thin mustache and long, thin sideburns. He was drunk.

“Eddie!” he cried to the man behind the counter.

The counterman turned. “Phil. What?”

“Eggs. Bacon.”

Phil noticed Maria. He sat down next to her and held out his hand.

“Phil Ocks.”

Maria turned away.

Phil started to mumble to Eddie. His friends were all bastards, he didn’t need them, that kind of thing. Eddie paid no attention.

Phil gained interest in Maria again; he turned and looked into her eyes.

“You know, you’re beautiful,” he said.

She turned to face him.

“Do you really think that or are you just saying it?”

“I know it.”

He left, forgetting about his food. She regretted dismissing him so suddenly. Wasn’t this what she had come to New York for? Life, free from the chains of Lincoln? Meeting strange men, dangerous men?

She walked out into the street. Phils’ form was just beginning to fade from the cone of a streetlight.

“Wait!” she called.

He turned around. She ran to meet him. She looked into his eyes, and they were like a gateway to the life she had imagined for herself.

She slept with him that night. It was not how she had imagined it. He fell asleep in her bed and she found that she couldn’t stand to lie there next to him. She moved to the couch in the living room. It got cold in the night but she couldn’t bring herself to go back to her bedroom to get a blanket. She just lay there—she could hear him breathing—listening to him sleep in her bed.

When the morning came, he got up and came into the living room. He was hung over and very confused at first, but when he realized how Maria felt he apologized. He offered to make her breakfast.

Maria was genuinely sort of charmed by how sorry she was, and she let him. He brought a blanket out of the bedroom for her and she turned on the radio and sat there wrapped up on the couch, listening to the food sizzling on the stove.

They didn’t talk. He made a big breakfast for her but he just made a fried egg for himself and sat there eating it, not rushing, with his eyes down.

1+
Send to Kindle
Standard