SUBTOPIAN MANIFESTO V. by trevor d. richardson . The in-between nature of Subtopia can be seen most on the outside of whatever side there was.” Outside sides without obstruction. You’re at a crossroads and An outsider can take the road less traveled or march allegiances to influence the decision.
clearly by the outsider. Like Bob Dylan put it, “Always of things you’re left with options open. You can see both with no lingering attachments you really can go anywhere. the beaten path. It’s the outsider’s choice and he has no
I tend to think of myself as an outsider. I always felt I didn’t belong, but it was an inversion of this idea of the outsider that can see both sides of whatever he encounters. In my case, seeing both sides of things came naturally, it was the way I perceived things even from childhood, and it made me an outsider because I never saw the logic in choosing one position over the other. For much of my life it’s made me a shade of what I would like to be, feeling incomplete and dispassionate to everything I came across. But in recent years I’ve turned it around, I’ve used it to find strength, to see the value of all things and to diminish the strength of people’s negative arguments. That, perhaps, led me directly to starting Subtopian. A magazine and, ideally, a community of like-minded individuals that all feel the in-between state of the world they live in and even feel a level of “in-betweenness” in themselves. Subtopian is conceived of as a place for outsiders to come together and realize they are not alone. Moreover, it’s a place to use our perspective from the far side of the room to see how the pendulum is swinging, which way we’re headed, toward doom or deliverance, and to maybe become a voice pushing us toward truth, justice, and good. Walking the path between Paradise and Apocallypse calls to mind the notion that in society there are no final answers. The pendulum swings both ways and never stops moving. Peace, government, morality, as with life itself, are constantlly evolving. Moreover, as deemed by the laws of natural selection, the ones that can’t adapt, that stop evolving, go extinct. Evolve or die. It’s the law of the universe and the fool’s folly to ever dream of resisting. Like rocks lodged in the current of a river, you eventually get worn down, eroded into sand and washed away. On this day on the borderline between May and June, 2012, I find myself wondering if so much of the corruptibility that has entered the hearts and minds of my country and my people can be chocked up to inflexibility. You hear talk of “preserving the nation” or things being “Un-American” or this isn’t what the “founding fathers” had in mind. Someone on the inside might think this is the vernacular of a group devoted to tradition and patriotism. As an outsider, as a Subtopian, I hear a refusal to change, to grow, and maybe that refusal is at the heart of our increasing failure as a nation. We are writing and rewriting legislation day by day to try to keep things as they are rather than let them evolve as they should and, as I have already established, if you stop evolving you die. The choices our leaders consider to be in the best interest of preserving “the American way” are in fact arbitrary motions that are stifling the growth and diversity of our country. Tradition be damned. The American Way can best be described as what we’ve always called it, a dream, and one that everyone in this country except our leadership is striving to wake up from. This outsider, like many of you, from where I’m sitting, is afraid that if we don’t learn to do things differently we will shortly be looking at our own extinction.
Table of Contents
Static Music Reviews
Common, Dear Andrew Norman
SHORT STORIES Subterran Presents... Hypocrite Wedding Corin Reyburn REGULARS
Pearls for Swine: thoughts from a mad hermit Late Nights, Early Mornings 19 Kirby Light DYSTOPIA
Road Notes Red White and Blue Herring Jeff Costello
Not A Problem Jeff Shaffer
REGULARS Stuck on Repeat Hero Worship Rachael Johnson SHORT STORIES Nazareth Rachelle Taylor ESSAYS Wunderland in Candyland Katie Wilson
The Leadership of Science Fiction: Our New Moral Compass David Renton
Overturning Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Why That’s Way More Interesting Than It Sounds 25 Trevor Richardson SERIALS
Collaborating with Angels 28 Rob Lee CRITIC’S CRITIC
A Critique of A.O. Scott’s Review of “The Avengers” 14 65 Arthur Brand SERIALS Dystopia Boy >> 0.5 Trevor D. Richardson
Andrew Norman is a 3rd year Creative Writing Major at Corban University out of Salem, Oregon. A poet and avid musician, Norman is involved in several groups both on and off campus and is our chief designer and staff music critic here at The Subtopian.
Not A Problem Jeff Shaffer
Have you started the spring cleaning charade yet? Are you falling for the lies? I’m telling you JUST SAY NO! Every year, right when winter ends, up pops the crapola. On TV. In the papers. “Time to get organized.” Says WHO?? “Clear Out The Clutter.” Why do these people care about the clutter of strangers? Who died and put them in charge of my cleaning rags? Maybe the freaking rags are under the kitchen sink because I PUT THEM THERE. The Murphy’s Oil spray cleaner smell counteracts the rotting celery odor from the garbage pail, okay? The realtors are in this scam neck-deep, in case you didn’t know. I just got an update on all the home sales in my neighborhood, and the envelope included a happy little propaganda rant telling me how to “Keep It Simple (Keys To Organizing Your Home).” Here’s an idea for the Mop Œn Glo Mafia: Zip your cleanup claptrap into someone else’s body bag. Mine¹s already occupied. “We can all use a little order in our lives.” That’s what it says on the Keep It Simple guide. I think Stalin and Hitler said the same thing. The handy guide also claims that if I’m “having trouble finding what you are looking for, it may be time to reassess your organizational skills.” Got news for you Ku Klux Kleaners: maybe we didn¹t really CARE all that much about finding the thing we were looking for. Or maybe, just possibly, it turned out we found something ELSE that works JUST AS GOLLY DANG GOOD THANK YOU ANYWAY. I love the sentence that tells me not to worry about discarding items that might have sentimental value. They admit “it may cause you some temporary separation anxiety, but the space you create will make up for the loss.” Dear Keep It Simple Headquarters: time for a news flash -- space is always here, sometimes filled, other times empty. If you think space can be created and destroyed you are OUT OF YOUR CLINICALLY DERANGED MINDS. Here’s a simple suggestion: leave everything right where it is. You don’t know which room you’ll be trapped in for days after a meteor flattens the neighborhood. That box of corn flakes hidden under the sofa cushions could save your life someday. Newspapers stacked on the coffee table? Coats piled on the floor in the front hallway? Makes sense to me. Someday you’ll have the wonderful experience of feeling like the floor is tipping sideways and a voice in your brain screams, “Hang on, buckaroo, we’re goin’ down!” Then you’ll appreciate the importance of a padded landing area. And for the love of all creatures great and small NO YARD SALE. Try spinning straw into gold if you want but don’t for a nanosecond think the neighbors are going to start a bidding war for your old shower curtain or that rug from Cost Plus the dog barfed on after he ate everything in the cat box. You’re okay, the house is okay, everybody be cool. Spring is a time for new beginnings, we get it. You want to take that big first step toward a better tomorrow? You want to keep it REALLY SIMPLE? Go have a cheeseburger. pp
Jeff Shaffer has been authoring essays and fiction for more than 25 years. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications including The Christian Science Monitor, The New Yorker, Bark, The Wall Street Journal, and Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. He has a collection of work entitled “Humor Without Borders” now available on Kindle and is a guest columnist at NWBookLovers.org which is run by Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. His column is called The Shelf Talker and is all about life in a local independent bookstore. 4
Red White and Blue Herring
A condo complex in Orange County. An upper and a lower section, divided by a tennis court. In the lower section there are a couple of Mexican families, the widow of a traveling salesman who became severely demented in a very short amount of time, and died. Just like that. Some younger people live there, with small children, another single woman or two. A random sampling, mostly. Nothing unusual really, not much to notice And then there is the upper level, with something you can’t help but notice. Flags. Old Glory, the Red White and Blue, hung from nearly every doorway. As though some unseen force has planted all the Patriots in the upper section. Immediately the analogy of the rich people on the hill occurs to me. “Them” up there, “us” down here, although there doesn’t seem to be much economic disparity in the complex. Just, apparently, political. A friend lives here, on the lower level of course, and the neighbor who lives in the small midsection between the levels tells me he heard that “liberals” live in my friend’s place. Is he joking? I almost asked if he knew of any Jews in the complex. Smart-ass. But I restrained myself. This is a county often touted as a “conservative stronghold.” Land of Mickey Mouse and Richard Nixon. Driving along the coast in San Clemente, I would look up on the bluff and wonder which of those places might have been the Western White House. 5
In the Bush One era, the term “wrapping oneself in the flag” became a media cliché. Because the president was doing it. And nobody seemed to care that the flag-wrapping was to hide a lot of dirty business. It’s occurred to me that if I wanted to do something traitorous, first thing I’d do is get a flag and plant it right where everyone could see it was mine. But suppose a person is just a minor sociopath, an abusive husband or father, a small-time ripoff artist, or just has something nasty to hide? What better way to keep the neighbors fooled than hang that flag out? As HST said, “We’re just good patriotic Americans like yourselves.” * The Real Americans, cheering on the wars. One of the ladies on the upper level is so loaded on booze and pills she falls out of her chair, right on the pavement under her flag. (This happened just the other day). Who comes to the rescue, dragging and carrying the helpless woman up to her bedroom? The Mexican cleaning lady. In this right wing sea of anti-immigrant sentiment, people from south of the border are keeping the boat afloat. Aside from the falling-down woman, the flag people are generally a surly bunch. No friendly waves, nods or hellos on the upper level. One is suspect, apparently, until proven sufficiently “American.” There’s a Stepford sort of atmosphere around all this, something phony in the air, but the better analogy might be Margaret Atwood’s Christian-fascist parable The Handmaid’s Tale. Here, the subjugated concubines utter the expected “praise be” in public, as it just wouldn’t do for the women to be suspected of having any doubtful or disloyal thoughts. Are the flag people really one-dimensional, hyperpatriotic? I don’t know, but they sure want you to think so. *Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Stuck by Rachael Johnson
Hero Worship Heroes—they’re worth their weight in gold. It’s no
Even when not counting the obvious examples of
surprise, then, that a team of them is worth over a bil-
Thor, the god of thunder, and Wonder Woman, an Am-
lion dollars at the world-wide box office. Along with
azonian princess, superheroes are really just modern
the laurels for the highest grossing opening weekend,
gods. Both are immortal, possess inhuman abilities,
The Avengers is on track to break $500 million with
and yet still resemble us in our humanity. Even Bat-
record speed, beating out Avatar. It has also surpassed
man, a supposedly “normal” hero, cannot die without
The Dark Knight in nearly every time-appropriate cat-
being brought back to life, nor could his feats ever be
egory, making Earth’s mightiest heroes the pinnacle of
matched by any human even if they DID possess all
superhero cinema, at least for now (The Dark Knight
the same resources. Yet, these heroes aren’t so far re-
Rises comes out July 20th).
moved as to deter our fanatical self-projections. Just as many ancient gods were womanizers, jealous wives,
And why not? The big screen has never before seen
and party animals, today’s superheroes are faced with
a team up between characters so power-packed and
relationship troubles, personality disorders, and drug
interesting that they each have their own solo films. It
addictions. And still, the similarities don’t end there.
doesn’t matter whether you’re a hardcore comic fan or the casual movie-goer, there is something universal
Even the stories, those vehicles in which we come to
about being entertained by super-powered humans,
know both the gods and superheroes, share the com-
and as the numbers would suggest, the more the mer-
monality of “let’s see how awesome we can make
rier. Sure, it’s easy to see how this isn’t a new idea.
this.” For example, the cornerstone stories of the
After all, The Avengers are a comic series going back
Greek pantheon, the Titanomachy and the Gigan-
to 1963, and even that was in response to DC’s Justice
tomachy, involve all of our “heroes” fighting the best
League of America (1960), which itself was a reincar-
mindless monsters that can be born of human imagi-
nation of the Justice Society of America (1940). Yes,
nation: the titans were terrifying personifications of
it’s taken seventy years of comics and five (arguably
nature, and the wrathful giants had snake coils for
six) movies for this cinematic event to come to frui-
legs. If you get a kick out of watching the Hulk fling
tion, but it also gave us what we’ve wanted for thou-
a villain around like a ragdoll, then you’d also enjoy
sands of years: a pantheon.
watching Athena toss the island of Sicily onto a hor7
regulars rendous monster. If you’re more into Iron Man blast-
The world is then consumed in fire and, and when it’s
ing aside drones, than you’re sure to appreciate Hep-
reborn from its ashes, some of the gods are also being
haestus throwing rockets of red-hot metal to vanquish
reborn (Lindemans) because the gods we hero-worship
his adversaries. (Parada)
can’t really die.
Even chronological sense is tossed aside in the pursuit
Likewise, the Avengers or any other superheroes are in-
of awesomeness; whereas Captain America is unreal-
capable of truly leaving us, precisely because we worship
istically frozen for 70 years, the fan-favorite Hercules
them/want them around. Our superheroes pass the years
fights alongside the other gods even though the Gi-
with only the rare occurrence of aging, and even then,
gantomachy precedes his birth. Further, Norse my-
their youth is quickly restored if that’s what we want
thology already has its grand finale planned out in the
(such as with Dick Grayson’s Robin). It is worth noting,
Ragnarok (also known as the Götterdämmerung). In
and is perhaps an apt finish to this article, that while our
it, all the gods and monster-villains face off in a battle
devotions are indeed fueled by the human and inhuman
so ultimate that it culminates in everyone dying (even
attributes of our superheroes, it is also our devotion that
Thor falls to the giant serpent Jorgamund’s poison).
gives them immortality, just as with the gods of old.
Sources: Lindemans, Micha F. “Ragnarok.” Ragnarok. Encyclopedia Mythica, 5 Dec. 1999. Web. 21 May 2012.
Parada, Carlos. “Gigantomachy - Greek Mythology Link.” Gigantomachy - Greek Mythology Link.
Carlos Parada and Maicar Förlag, 1997. Web. 21 May 2012.
Rachael Johnson, a fresh voice in the Seattle writing scene, offers her regular column,“Stuck On Repeat,” which puts a unique spin on current news stories by taking a look back at other moments in history where the same thing went down. It’s true what they say, history repeats itself.
We met up with Arlo outside of Elsinore. His name wasn’t really Arlo, of course, just like the city wasn’t really called Elsinore. But those, at least, are names I can remember. Arlo was a singer back in the 20s, I think, and Elsinore was a city in a story some guy named Billy wrote about a man who killed his mom and knocked up the lawyer’s daughter.
scapula. Insistent is a better word. “You got the time?” he mumbled, beating the heels of his muddy cowboy boots insistently. was.
Anyway, we met up with Arlo two miles outside of Elsinore. He had dirt streaks on his face. Not from crying, I suspect. It looked more like he’d been walking through a mine somewhere, looking for diamonds or gold or whatever it is that grows in mines. He had a broken watch on his wrist and a small flower in his hair. I wanted to comb it. His hair, I mean, not the flower. It was long and black tangled like a bunch of snakes nesting around his ears. It used to be braided, I think. Put in dreadlocks, with little red and yellow canvas ribbons woven through it like a volcano had erupted on his head or something. “You got the time?” he asked, tapping the heels of his brown cowboy boots impatiently. I shouldn’t say impatiently. Arlo didn’t have an impatient bone in his body, not an elbow or a kneecap or a 9
I did and told him so. He didn’t ask what it
The others stayed in the road, sitting, standing, talking amongst themselves. I couldn’t hear any of what they said. Nights are too quiet around here. I wasn’t worried about them—no cars ever came through at night and if one did they’d see the headlights long before it plowed over them. “I was over at the church earlier,” Arlo said. “Jesus is naked somewhere. They’ve got boxes going to Jerusalem.” I almost scoffed. We all knew that. They sent boxes everywhere, no surprise if Jerusalem were on the list. You never knew what might be in them. As for naked Jesus, I’m sure there were a lot of them wandering around somewhere. Everybody’s naked at some point in their lives. We’re born naked, for Christ’s sake. Adam and Lilith were naked when they
planted that garden across the river. We’re naked when we shower, we’re naked when we shit, when we fuck. I never saw the problem with it.
I hadn’t tasted in ages. I didn’t know the churches could afford it. Then again, I hadn’t been to all the churches. We went to the small ones, the wood and aluminum numbers where the people stood shoulder-to-shoulder and a little old man would pat you on the back for joining in for the chorus of “Pow’r in the Blood.” Half the time the bathrooms in those places were out of soap or towels. The people talked to us more at those but we could just ignore them. The bigger churches in the cities, the ones with all the windows and the statues—those were the ones we avoided no matter how hungry we were. The men in those churches were too quiet, the women had something vicious in their smiles. We had a guy named Vic with us once at one of those churches and a woman in a white habit took him by the hand one night and led him back behind the parish. We never saw him again.
Somebody laughed behind us. A coyote sound. Were there coyotes here? I’d heard they were afraid of people, maybe if we were all laughing they’d stay away. I didn’t have my knife anymore.
Arlo grunted as if in agreement. “I helped.”
“You helped what?”
“I helped fill them.”
“You helped fill what?”
I sat on the ground in front of him. I’d never seen the inside of those boxes before, only the boxes themselves being loaded onto vans, onto trucks, on the television news going off to Haiti, to the Congo, all those other islands where people wore white linen. “What’d you put in them?”
We didn’t have to worry about that with Arlo. Large brick buildings scared him. He wouldn’t go near one if they were serving cream soup or fucking veal.
He shrugged. “Don’t remember. They gave me some soup.”
“Have you seen Baby?” I asked him. Baby walked with us from Denver to Detroit one summer, the Double-D tour. I remember her being a pretty girl with short blonde hair and chipped fingernails.
“I figured.” We’d all had soup in the churches. They gave it out for free and usually no one bothered us. The only thing they required was that we let them pray over us and nod and say “amen” every so often. Everyone can say “amen,” I imagine, even Arlo.
“No.” He looked a little confused. I realized he’d only joined up with us after Baby left and probably had no idea who she was.
He looked up at me. His eyes were still blue. Or hazel. I never could tell the difference. “You wanna know what kind it was?”
“Shit, no. You know better than that.” It wasn’t the truth, not really. A guy named Paul over in the road with the others had two quarters in his jeans pocket, which I guess made half of something. He’d showed them to me once in Syracuse, and all through Elsinore he’d kept a hand in that pocket as if someone were going to jump out of an alley at any moment and rob him.
He eyed me almost hopefully. “Got any money?”
“Potato.” He grinned, showing his small, slightly crooked teeth.
“That the kind with cream?”
“Uh-huh.” His head bobbed enthusiastically.
“It’s cool, man.”
My stomach lurched. I felt like vomiting. We’d had some cold chicken that afternoon, the divided breast of a skinny bird from some dead old woman’s refrigerator. Cream soup was something
That’s all the money I’d seen in an age. Nobody had jobs. There were hotels in a few of the towns but we wouldn’t risk staying in them. We slept 10
outside like all other animals, curled up in our jackets, nestled against one another for warmth. We built a fire if we found enough wood and an old car from which to siphon gasoline.
know what’s going on. Messages from family, from old friends, from those people one suddenly found themselves with one day, walking toward nowhere like we all did. The chances of actually finding a note addressed to oneself were dismal, but every once in a while it was nice to check, to be sure.
Arlo had a fire going. It wasn’t very big, but he probably hadn’t been expecting us. Paul had matches; he’d be able to take care of it.
I wasn’t in line that day. I’d stopped looking for messages when I found out my friend Sal had died. I was pushing through the lines, trying to get to the side of the street when I saw Arlo, looking up at the sky like he expected rain. Our eyes met for a second and I thought that was the last of him.
“I got a girl now,” Arlo said. “She’s coming back.”
“Oh? Where’d she go?”
He shrugged again. “Said to meet her here. Two days.”
We never talked about that first encounter. I didn’t know whether he’d gotten a message that day or not.
I didn’t know if he meant two days from now or two days ago. It might have been two weeks. We learned to stop worrying about sudden disappearances. People came and went easily, they felt some instinctive pull to the west or the north or the ocean and there they went. Baby did it. Arlo did it. I might have done it myself if I didn’t suffer from this goddamn pack mentality, or whatever you want to call it. Most of the time they came back or we found them or they found other people to look out for them. The only time we felt concern was if it happened like it did with Vic. I’d never trusted strangers. It’s a wonder that I trusted Arlo as much as I did, considering I’d never known him very well. Some people you can just tell are good kids. I met him the first time sixteen miles out of Nazareth. He had a guitar slung upside down over his back. He was waiting in line at the post office there. Not for the mail, no one ever got mail anymore, at least no one we knew. Some rich asshole probably still got letters and bills and catalogues, the President, maybe, but none of the nomads who populated the streets. But there were still messages at the post office, there were billboards and corkboards filled with notes and signs and handwritten personal ads that accumulated there in hopes that the ones to whom each was addressed would pass through. Charlie, come home. To Alice Michaels: the baby is fine, we’ve got milk and everything now, we love you. CK, if you’re still dreaming about the hungry man call AF, I 11
Paul let out a yell, a joyous whooping cry. It startled me at first; none of us were accustomed to sounds like that anymore. They were dancing in the road. There was no music; we heard only the sounds of their feet on the pavement, their voices, the friction of their clothes as they rubbed up against each other. It was really only Paul doing the rubbing. I couldn’t remember the girl’s name. They’d been holding hands for the last week or so. I figured they were going together. Arlo didn’t seem to notice them. “It was good,” he said.
I looked back at him. “What was good?”
“The soup. Had real potatoes in it.”
“Did it have bacon?”
He nodded. His eyes were wide again. “Yeah. Little bits of it. Probably fake. Tasted good, though.” “I bet so.” My stomach grew ears and rumbled, teased at the mere mention of artificial bacon. I’d learned in the past couple of years that to be teased with the prospect of sex and let down was only slightly disappointing when compared to hearing about food you hadn’t eaten. “I played for them there at the church,” he said. “Amazin’ grace, how sweet the sound.” That wasn’t surprising. Everyone knew that song, we all
sang it at the churches when they wanted us to. It gave us something to do together other than stand around half-freezing at night and it made the congregation feel like they had done something good for us.
“Hey, I’m shutting up.” I looked down at the ground, at the shadows the fire sent over my legs. They were dancing too.
“That where you left your guitar?” I asked.
“Who’s that guy over there?” He pointed at my friends in the street, specifically at one in the middle of their arrhythmic mass.
He shook his head. “Used one of theirs. Tuned it. My girl took mine. To play when she got cold. She’s coming back.”
I squinted into the dark. “His name’s Paul. He’s a good guy.” He was somewhere between sixteen and twenty-five, the same as Arlo, but I couldn’t call him a kid. Arlo was a kid; Paul was a guy.
My girl took my guitar and… Sounded like it would make a good song. A song about what, I didn’t know. I was never musically inclined. I could sing a little and come up with a few words every now and then, but nothing more. My girl took my guitar but what did she do with it? See—that’s the problem. I can only come up with so much and then there’s nothing. And that’s the most important part of the song. Why did she take the guitar and where’s she going with it and what’s she going to do with it once she gets there? That’s all that matters, really.
I nodded even though it wasn’t the truth. Arlo hadn’t seen him before but Paul had been walking with us for seven months or so. He patted his empty pockets. “You got anything to smoke?”
“You gonna come with us again?” I asked. I was starting to feel impatient. It was much darker outside than it had been when we’d left Elsinore, even despite Arlo’s fire. The others were laughing and it made me nervous somehow. I think I expected something bad to happen and ruin it all. A car wreck down the road, maybe. Or coyotes.
“What do you like?”
He shrugged again. “Anything. Something sweet, maybe?” “I got nothing.” I hadn’t had a cigarette in about a month and much as I liked Arlo, if I’d had one I wouldn’t have thrown it away on him. Maybe his girl would bring him some if she ever came back.
He gave a noncommittal shrug. “I don’t know. She said she’s coming back.”
“Then don’t make me.”
My girl took my guitar and went to the river. No, that wasn’t right. Sounded like a song ten other guys had sung before.
“Do you believe her?”
“Yes.” No hesitation. He’d never had such conviction before. About anything—his guitar, his boots, anything.
“Why’d she take the guitar?”
He looked confused for a minute, finally smiled. “It’s a long walk.”
“Some people don’t come back,” I reminded him. “Baby didn’t come back.”
His eyes darkened into wary, irritable slits. “Screw Baby,” he spat. “Screw her. Screw that bitch with her mother’s name.”
“She play, too?”
“No. Just chords. Just G and C.” He gave a boyish grin. “But she looks pretty when she plays it.”
I held up my hands. “Don’t say that, man.” I wasn’t chastising him. Arlo was a good kid, he just didn’t know what came out of his mouth sometimes. “You don’t wanna say that.”
“Where’d she go?”
“Down the valley. I didn’t wanna go with her.” A second later he added quietly, “I’m scared of low altitudes.” 12
“You in a flood once or something?” I started scratching my name in the dirt with a rock.
I nodded at him and leaned forward to pat his shoulder. The fire was dying. He scampered around it almost like a child. A few seconds later his shadow was indistinguishable from all the others.
He thought for about a minute, his eyes aimed up at the black tarpaulin sky. “Don’t remember.”
From somewhere down in Elsinore came the sound of sirens. pp
That would have been interesting. My girl took my guitar at the end of the show, said it’s been floodin’ down the valley below. Better than nothing, I suppose.
Rachelle Taylor is a native of the Appalachian region
Arlo went quiet. Quiet, but not silent. He hummed softly under his breath, a haphazard melody like wind blowing heavy raindrops against a steel building. For a moment he looked beautiful.
of Virginia, where she grew up with a funny accent and a deep appreciation of the cheaper things in life. She is an avid fan of comic books and anything that in
I finished my name and proceeded to carve circles around it. A spiritualist healer told me that Jesus did that too sometimes. He was drawing in the dirt once when a group of priests brought a woman before him, a sinner. She’d gotten herself caught picking a naked apple off the Tree of Acknowledgement. They threw her down at his feet and shouted, “Stone her! Give her pills, give her needles, for God’s sake, stone her!” I often wondered if the priests were dressed like those at the church where Vic disappeared, if the woman looked like Baby.
some way, shape or form falls in to the horror genre.
The woman, the story went, cried. This Jesus—who was not, to my knowledge, naked—looked at her and started drawing shit in the earth. “If any of you got to piss,” he said, “you’d better go do it now. This is going to take a while.” And one after another the priests left, and no one ever knew what he’d written.
write something that reads like Flannery O’Connor
During her undergraduate college career she majored in art, religion, and English, but only actually finished one of those degrees. After receiving her MA in English she lived briefly in New York and is currently holed up in an English flat where she hopes to devote more time to her creative writing. While she is still developing her narrative voice she aspires to one day
I didn’t know what happened to the woman or where Jesus went after that. That wasn’t the important part. That was never the important part. What was important was what he wrote in the dirt, and what was in those boxes going to Jerusalem and the rest of the world. That’s what nobody ever talks about. They have their bullshit ideas but that’s all. I think it scares them, it scares them to know that the most important part of any story is what didn’t get said or put in the newspapers.
and H.P. Lovecraft had a child together and that child wrote a book and drunkenly dropped it in a ditch one night where it was picked up and edited by a nameless, absurdist hobo. Her all-time favorite quotation regarding writing comes from Flannery O’Connor, who wrote that “The two worst sins of bad taste i fiction are pornography and sentimentality. One is too much sex and the other too much sentiment. You have to have enough of either to prove your point but no more.” While she doesn’t necessarily agree with the sex part of O’Connor’s statement, she tries to follow this advice religiously. Her work has previously appeared in
“I’m going to go over there,” Arlo said. “I need to learn how to dance for when she comes back.”
The Blotter, Neon, Gertrude, and Gloom Cupboard. 13
“Your brain will turn to mush if you watch that garbage,” I heard Sarah’s grandmother holler from the kitchen. The aged voice mingled with the commercials flashing before us, our mouths watering with the appearance of juicy McDonald’s burgers and crisp tangy hunks of Chile’s chicken. We were soon to be disappointed by the mushy macaroni and cheese Sarah’s grandmother had been concocting in the kitchen, a dark room where the instructive glow of Kraft commercials could not reach and bring clarity. Sarah and I were in first grade, so young that our towhead glows hadn’t yet tarnished and our lunchboxes were of Barbie and Disney strains. The oozing bowls of overcooked macaroni were served to us on TV trays once the made-for-TV Disney movie came back on. Sarah lived with her grandmother, and afterschool snacks at their house followed a very formulated pattern: watch a movie on television and eat. These were the days before homework, before we gained the burdensome awareness that would have tugged at our little consciences to help cook or do odd jobs around the house. Instead, ignorant of all the slimy pans in the sink or the smell of dirty laundry piling up in distant bedrooms, we sat with half a pulse on the floral velvet couch spooning ourselves oversized mounds of pasta. We watched in wonder as bratty made-for-TV actresses attempted to loosen the burden of their controlling parents. Sarah’s grandmother would go off into the other room somewhere, to knit, or crochet, or read – we neither knew nor cared what old people busied their ridged lumpy hands with. I didn’t have cable in my house like Sarah. After I would leave with my mother to go back home, Sarah would remain on the couch in the dim living room for hours. She’d answer the phone slurping a grape soda, her conversation distant as the low hum of audience laughter snuck through the phone receiver. It was like talking with a coma patient. In the years that followed our first grade play dates Sarah had begun wearing fishnets and overalls like those worn in the movies by the older girls, the ones we weren’t supposed to idolize but whose attitudes and lifestyles we craved for ourselves. The bubblegum lipstick, frizzy hair and denim jackets all convinced Sarah that this was the life. Smoking, drinking, sneaking out – her grandmother in the bedroom, Sarah ventured on to other channels where older women, teens and college students, experimented with threesomes and designer drugs in the comfort of leather-seated Ferraris and beach mansions. The boys were fiercely attractive, the girls all thin and Barbie-like, fishnets under shorts under jackets, layers of decadent rebellion. Sarah drank it in place of her soda. She gobbled up the Ken-like pecs and Beverly Hills malls on MTV in place of the mushy macaroni and canned cardboard her grandmother placed in front of her. Sarah stopped eating for eight months. Social scientists conduct studies on girls like Sarah all the time, which newspapers then discuss, which college students then cite on their own papers, arguing that media systematically breaks down self-confidence in young girls. It’s a subject so played and spent that now we’re conditioned to know it as we’re conditioned to know that microwaves give you cancer (they had it wrong, everything gives you cancer now). The scribbled supplemental pictures for the articles always present a pencil-thin girl frowning into a floor-length mirror. Within it a gourd-shaped version of herself scowls back, stretching out the tiny tee shirt they both hide in. Suicides, bad grades, lashings out, crying fits, they all have decidedly stemmed from this unfair comparison between the model-actresses of Hollywood and the pre-pubescent girls who would die to be them. Christian camps are now focusing more attention on the matter, and it’s not only the middle and high school girls arriving with sleeping bags and Bibles tucked under their scarred arms who have problems, it’s their toddler sisters whose bellies are still egg-shaped and whose eyes still glisten too large for their curious heads. The same blame game has been played with violence in movies that leaks its way into the minds of young boys. The argument 14
against violent films has become a drink routinely ordered by conservatives and parents that find the whole thing repugnant (and other expensive adjectives). Video games revolving around shooting and war also shake their way into the bloody cocktail, affording parents the argument that knife fights are a direct result of their son’s exposure to “Call of Duty.” Nobody has paused a moment and considered how much media has changed, how fifty years ago the same dismemberment, beatings and murder-suicides still rattled domestic and criminal families but they were kept under wraps. Our culture has changed from a silenced world of suburbia into a crumbling feeding trough of juicy gossip and scandalous drama, the bloodier the better. To make the argument that film has pushed our youth into lives of crime has no more validity than to say watching the local news at 5 drives them to the same end. If the public is doing it, young Johnny thinks as he watches the red tape stretch across a bloodbath illuminated by police lights, then why shouldn’t I? It’s the same reason Sarah started wearing fishnet tights. It’s that desperation to belong to the whole, even when the whole is a giant garbage can. It’s perpetuated by every form of media we can produce. Get laid, don’t be a loner. Wear makeup, don’t be a hag. Get rich, don’t be a hobo. Get thin, don’t be a fat ass. The list stretches on into eternity. From every angle Johnny is told that happiness is out there, but it’s conditional. The utopia exists when each baby step has been addressed along the way, and media is here to help him reach that goal. Do’s and Don’ts are the keys to success – right? I didn’t see a lot of happiness in Sarah’s eyes throughout her anorexia and addiction to media. I say addiction because from the outside, media looks like a slave trade. The days of entertainment are long gone – in their place all that remains is a system of conditioning as advanced as in Brave New World. Ever notice that the cycles of repetition in the conditioning machines roughly match the amount of time the average American watches TV? Look it up. Everything that comes shining through the black box is colorful, vivacious, sexy, bold and grand. The television industry survives on billions of dollars that are pumped through its wiry veins annually, and there are people paid more money than you’ll ever see to act like an idiot on a weekly basis. Call it escapism, call it brainwashing – It’s no accident that you couldn’t turn it off after the first three hours of inanity. Television isn’t the only media that’s migrated from integrity to insolence. Film’s evolution can be seen throughout the 20th Century when subjects shifted from moralistic masterpieces like The Sound of Music to brash wakeup calls like Pulp Fiction. Both portrayed a time in cultural history – but the time was not a result of the film. Oscar Wilde once asked if art imitates life or if life imitates art. The general philosophy of the West has shifted from one of monotheism to one of nihilistic existentialism, and therefore visual art shifted from religious themes portrayed in reverence to meaningless themes created to convey life’s hopelessness. Film sees your car chase, and it raises you an explosion. You see the explosion and raise it a robbery. Everybody is trying to get the best hand, just like everybody is trying to belong to the whole – and when you have the best hand in the game of violence you’re sitting in the wooden throne of a dictator and surveying your dystopian wonderland with a greedy fire in your eyes. The sex, the murder, the greed, the selfishness; media is out there patting your back and telling you it’s all right, that others are doing it, millions are doing it, and Johnny, it’s okay if you do it too. Sarah and I began to go our separate ways before she became anorexic, when I’d come over and she’d scream at her grandmother with the high-pitched screech of the television movie actresses. “You’re just so controlling!” she shouted one time, throwing her TV tray onto the wooden floor dramatically. I wanted to say “cut” and tell the film crew she must have been imagining that they could all go home, but the next thing I knew she had stormed into her bedroom where I heard more crashing. Her grandmother stood still in the kitchen, gripping a bowl of pot stickers that sizzled in their oil and sent steam into the old woman’s face. Behind the fog building on her glasses were eyes moistening without restraint, her wrinkled checks flushing as she bit her lip. I sat motionless, helpless on the ugly floral couch between the broken TV tray and turbulent bedroom. I was too young to have the right words. All I could do was intently examine the Turkish rug at my feet, the stains that had made it old, soiled through time like the mind of my friend the TV actress who believed anything if it came through the glowing black box. After middle school Sarah had begun eating again and was released from the hospital. Her relationship with her grandmother seemed repaired, but how could I know from the outside where I remained a spectator of little support. I never asked if there was a television in her hospital room, or a plastic cup of grape soda. I never wondered if they got a new Turkish rug or if they started going out to eat. The only thing I really knew was that those social science studies, the news articles, the pencil-thin girl in front of the mirror, they were all right. I saw it consume Sarah over the course of her weight-obsessed youth. I saw the anger in her eyes when she yelled at her sensitive grandmother. I couldn’t help but wonder if years of bitterness and rebellion could’ve been prevented at Best Buy, or Video Only, or wherever they bought their television set. “Kill Your TV” was a stenciled message that began appearing on sidewalks and railcars in many of the nation’s urban jungles thirty years ago, and it is a message that, if given more attention, could have steered our culture away from the waters of a wailing dystopia into the calmer seas of optimism. A utopia will never be reached with media’s help, despite the constant message that media tries to sell the public. Nirvana is transcendent, conditional in ways that have nothing to do with Pepsi or McDonald’s, fishnets or car chases. Messages of truth need to be chewed and digested, thought about critically with questions and objections. Sometimes the truth is unattractive and smells like a grandmother’s haphazard macaroni; sometimes it takes along fast to see the real truth. But anybody can swallow a spoonful of sugar. 15
I t w a s a l w a y s t o o l o u d . To o l o u d , t o o dark, too claustrophobic. Not enough n a t u r a l a i r- - a l l t h e a i r i n t h i s r o o m h a d first been filtered through at least eight purifications tanks, then inhaled and exhaled through approximately 40 to 60 pairs of lungs, she estimated. She s u c k e d i n a d e e p b r e a t h , a l m o s t c h o king on the sterility of it, then quickly c o m p e n s a t e d b y s n e a k i n g a f e w p u ff s f r o m t h e s m a l l a c u - t a n k a ff i x e d t o t h e right side of her torso--a lightweight aluminum regulator that was accurately calibrated to the air molecule ratio best suited to her individual needs.
a w e e k o n S a t u r d a y n i g h t s . S h e h a d n ’t m i s s e d a n i g h t s i n c e h e r 1 8 t h b i r t h d a y, 11 y e a r s a g o , 2 0 7 4 , s a v e f o r h o l i d a y s a n d t h e r a r e b e t t e r o ff e r. S o m e p e o p l e s a i d t h a t H y p o c r i t e We d d i n g w a s j u s t l i k e a n y other NightChapel in the district, but Lux disagreed. Despite her aversion to t h e m u s i c ’s v o l u m e a n d t h e t h i c k n e s s o f the crowd, she felt there was something classic about the place. The décor of the N i g h t C h a p e l s e e m e d t o c h a n g e h o u r l y, but a few constants remained--the walls were always painted black, the glassware always expensive, and the constant flickf l i c k e r i n g o f n e o n s t r o b e s w a s e v e r p r e valent--nearly blinding, but in a brilliant array of colors.
L u x w a s a r e g u l a r a t t h e H y p o c r i t e We dding NightChapel--she attended once
She seated herself at the far end of the b a r, o r d e r i n g a H a z e P o p o n t h e r o c k s a n d t w o s h o t s - - o n e o f P l u s 1 : Vi s i o n a n d one Minus 1: Sound--once the bartender f i n a l l y g l a n c e d u p a t h e r. L u x w o r e t h e same basic outfit every time she came to the NightChapel--knee high suede b o o t s , d a r k g r e y. B l a c k w o o l m i n i s k i r t with two pockets in the front and two in back. Crisp, white poplin shirt with s h o r t , p u ff y s l e e v e s , t h e t o p t w o b u t t o n s undone. Silver charm bracelet, dangling w i t h l i t t l e t r e e s , f l o w e r s , f a i r i e s , g o blins, and other creations she had never seen, matching earrings. Her long, pale brown hair done up in a tussle of waves p i n n e d l o o s e l y t o g e t h e r. P l u m - c o l o r e d lipgloss and eyes outlined subtly with charcoal crayon.
they let Gyration-mode on their acu-tanks d o t h e t a l k i n g f o r t h e m . O n e w a s a s t a t uesque, handsome blonde, meticulously c o i ff e d ; y o u c o u l d t e l l b y h i s c l o t h i n g t h a t h e h a d c r e d i t s t o s p a r e i n h i s a ccount. The other was a petite, tawnyskinned boy with liquid green eyes and wax eyebrows. After whispering something in the taller m a n ’s e a r, Ta w n y p r o d u c e d a p a i r o f s h i n y, r e d I n f a t u a t e p i l l s f r o m t h e l e f t back pocket of his jeans--the strobes caught their hue and they sparkled and g l i s t e n e d , p u l s a t i n g s l o w l y l i k e t r a n s l uc e n t , g e l a t i n o u s w o r m s . Ta w n y f e d o n e to his partner and one to himself, letting its alcoholic-strawberry taste linger in t h e h o l l o w o f h i s c h e e k b e f o r e s w a l l o wi n g . Ta w n y a n d B l o n d i e ’s p u p i l s d i l a t e d , wide saucers inviting anything in, the faint sheen and pale blush on their faces illuminated by every flash of the neon strobe--turquoise, magenta, violet, and l i m e w e r e t h e c o l o r s i n t o n i g h t ’s r o t a t i o n .
E v e r y n i g h t t h a t L u x w e n t t o t h e N i g h tC h a p e l , s h e w e n t i n s e a r c h o f s o m eo n e s h e w o u l d n ’t m i n d p a r t i c i p a t i n g i n C e r e m o n y w i t h . We e k a f t e r w e e k s h e had observed couples, triples, pairings o f e v e r y t y p e - - b l a c k , y e l l o w, f e m m e , d e m i , s t o n e r, q u e e r, j o c k , b a l l e r i n a , h a n d i c a p p e d , g e e k , s o l d i e r- - m o v i n g together like drugged molasses on the d a n c e f l o o r. T h e r o u t i n e w a s a l w a y s t h e same. First, one of them would produce a handful of Infatuate pills--you could either bring your own or procure cheap o n e s f r o m t h e w a s h r o o m d i s p e n s e r. T h e couple swallowed the pills, and within m i n u t e s t h e i r b o d i e s w o u l d m o v e i m p o ss i b l y c l o s e r t o g e t h e r, h a n d s d i s a p p e a r i n g beneath pieces of clothing and filtered breaths being shared. Minutes later they would abandon the main level and head t o t h e b a s e m e n t , d e s c e n d i n g b y t h e E levate lift in the center of the room, its interior lined with plush maroon velvet and complimentary electrodes and its max capacity at 108.
L u x o r d e r e d a n o t h e r s h o t o f P l u s 1 : Vis i o n f r o m t h e a p a t h e t i c b a r t e n d e r. B y t h e t i m e s h e l o o k e d b a c k , Ta w n y a n d B l o n d i e h a d e n t e r e d t h e l i f t h e a d e d f o r t h e b a s em e n t , s q u e e z e d i n a l o n g s i d e a p p r o x i m a t ely 60 to 70 other people, she figured. She injected her order as soon as it arrived, enjoying the immediate sensation of the N i g h t C h a p e l ’s c o l o r s a p p e a r i n g i m p o s s ib l y b r i g h t e r. W h i l e s h e c o n t e m p l a t e d o r d e r i n g a n o t he r, a m a n s e a t e d h i m s e l f n e x t t o h e r. H e was dressed in black, with sand-colored hair and friendly eyes. From out of town p r o b a b l y, L u x t h o u g h t . “What are you having?” he asked. She held up the plastic syringe--it was shaped like a ball, with a short, pre-sterilized needle sticking out of it. One squeeze of the plastic ball and the dose was injected.
To n i g h t s h e w a t c h e d t w o y o u n g m e n a s 17
“ P l u s 1 : Vi s i o n . H a v e y o u t r i e d i t ? ” “ Ye a h , I h a v e b e f o r e , b u t t h e l i g h t s a n d colors in here are already pretty powerful. I u s u a l l y t a k e o n e o r t w o M i n u s 1 : Vi s i o n s a c t u a l l y, a n d m a y b e a c o u p l e P l u s 1 : Ta s t e s i f I d o n ’t h a v e t o w o r k t o m o r r o w. ” H e paused, regarding her with what Lux felt w a s a b i t o f t h i n l y v e i l e d s y m p a t h y. “ I f I ’ m o u t o f l i n e t h e n j u s t p r e t e n d I d i d n ’t s a y a n y t h i n g . . . b u t y o u d o n ’t l o o k l i k e t h e t y p e o f p e r s o n o n e n o r m a l l y f i n d s i n a N i g h tC h a p e l . I m e a n t h a t i n a g o o d w a y, ” h e said.
Corin Reyburn lives in Santa Monica, California,and
“ I c o m e h e r e p r e t t y o f t e n a c t u a l l y, ” L u x said.
enjoys single malt scotch, felines, and the use of unconventionalinstruments in rock n’ roll music. Corin’s
“ O h . We l l , d o y o u u s u a l l y g o t o C e r e m o n y then? I mean, I’m not asking for you to... with me that is...well not yet.” He laughed a p o l o g e t i c a l l y. “ S o r r y, I h a v e n ’t b e e n o u t t o o n e o f t h e s e p l a c e s i n a w h i l e , m y r o o mm a t e t a l k e d m e i n t o i t . C a n I g e t y o u a nother drink?”
poems and stories have appearedin Free Focus, Silicon Valley Debug, Clutching at Straws, QuantumMuse, and M-BRANE SF. Reyburn works as a freelance web designer whenthe thought that one might need to
L u x r e g a r d e d h i m s t e a d i l y. H i s e y e s w e r e a bright, glowing brown and his skin seemed t o c r a c k l e w i t h f a i n t e l e c t r i c e n e rg y. H e s m i l e d a t h e r w r y l y a n d d i d n ’t s e e m u n g e nu i n e . Wa r m t h a n d l i g h t r a d i a t e d f r o m h i m while the strobes danced across his face-turquoise, green, magenta, violet.
earn some money strikes, and is currentlyworking on a speculative fiction novel about underground waste. See infrastratos.wordpress.com for more work and
It must be the Plus 1 upgrades, she thought. She took a sip of her Haze Pop, now mostly just melting ice cubes. “ I ’ m g o o d , b u t t h a n k s a n y w a y. ” S h e s w i v e l e d a r o u n d i n h e r c h a i r, f a c i n g t h e d a n c e floor again. The drums, bass, and synth thump-thump-thumped to a steady beat and lights flitted across skin, illuminating each individual for less than a second--magenta, turquoise, violet, lime. She preferred to watch. pp 19 18
late nights, early mornings I pace. I’ve always paced. Ever since I was a child. I pace. I pace in times of elation and I pace in times of despair. My mother tells me frequently to stop pacing when I’m around her. People have told me that my pacing makes them nervous. I’ve seen it make dogs nervous as well. Pacing, it helps me think. Pacing is a form of Buddhism, or walking is rather. I take long walks at night also. When I was younger I would do to playgrounds and swing on the swings, hours almost, just thinking. Repeditive motion calms the waters of the mind, or at least that’s what I like
to think. It’s always worked for me. Paced around in my parents garage, smoking a cigarette, and wondering what the hell I was going to write for this article. I pace. I’m a pacer. Walking, pacing, movement helps me talk as well as think. Pacing is meditation. Know what I’m sayin? Mostly when I pace I think, of every thing, of nothing, of in between things. I’m rarely bored. Thinking is very entertaining. Why the hell am I using so many passive verbs in this article? Buddhism is an interesting religion for it’s gratuitous 19
amount of contradiction at the heart of the religion. Buddhism in a nutshell: gain enlightenment. To gain enlightenment and remove yourself from suffering, and thus the wheel of death and rebirth, you must separate yourself from all desire…except for the desire to gain enlightenment. Strange contradictions. Buddhism is an interesting religion as it doesn’t concern itself with the creation of man or the world around him. It, more or less, promotes being righteous—for lack of a better word— for the simple sake of being righteous and having the benefits of such a state, a state
won her over enough yet. You’ve won her over enough to sit on your dick but not your dick exclusively. Is it a strange test? Am I making enemies out of windmills? I’ve lost my mind. This article just isn’t about anything. Not anything at all really, just ramblings on a strange night. Laid on the floor of a girls apartment tonight and read a book about religions to her. The part was about Buddhism. She seemed antsy for me to leave. I always wonder if someone is coming in after me. Would hate for things to be like that between her and I, but I’m rambling. I really should be pacing instead
called nirvana, which is also a good band. A band that is not early emo music. I am hard pressed to put nirvana in the same category as My chemical romance. And romance, what of romance. Buddhism states—as I understand it—that we are all different from one moment to the next, so trying to keep things the same is futile…damn, I have forgotten where I was going with this. Damn. I had a good point too. Oh, right. I don’t believe there is such a thing as change, only fulfillment. The seed is meant to become the rose… or the weed. Maybe I’m wrong. I usually
of typing. I recommend pacing in your life if you can. It’s good stuff. Religion. It’s killed a lot of people. Mohammed, Buddha, and Christ are like some type of strange three stooges. I could see them slapping each other around. Damn. This is a strange nervous night. Nothing seems right so I write. “Strange memories on this nervous night,” for some reason I’ve always remembered that line from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The book not the movie. Just kidding. Sex would have been nice tonight. I
am. Romance, what of romance? If we are not the same from one minute to the next, then what? Does that mean that love can be killed or created from one minute to the next as we are not the same at any given time. I don’t feel any different from several seconds ago. Damn, this is gnarly shit. I should be pacing while thinking about this, that usually helps. What does it mean when a girl says she isn’t going to call your relationship “exclusive” does that mean she is fucking someone else, or you just haven’t
have found that I don’t like girls who are really skinny. Elbowie sex is never good. Hmmm….I’m hungry. These are the things I think about at two thirty in the morning. I wish I were having sex right now. Maybe this article will get me laid. No clear narrative structure or interesting thoughts are happening here, just meaningless internal monologue put down on paper. If you’ve read this far, I congratulate you. You really have no life. But neither do I. I wish I were getting laid right now. 20
me more than you should. If she married me, then what? Would we move into her tiny studio apartment and start having kids? It would not make this feeling go away, like something itching at the base of my back, in that one spot I just can’t reach with my hands. I can’t make myself happy let alone anyone else. I can’t fix my own problems, let alone anyone else’s problems.
I’ve never really had much luck with women. Got my first girlfriend in high school, kept her nearly five years and haven’t had one since. I kinda like it but there’s this one girl I just don’t know about. She looks great naked, well tanned, perfect shape, perfect legs, cute feet. I don’t have a foot fetish, but there is something about a girl in bare feet that exudes a feeling of playfulness and sex.
Sometimes I will go on long drives at night. Stop somewhere out in the hills and look at the stars, I’ll look back towards Portland and see the light pollution in the distance. People.
Ramblings. I used to walk a lot at night. When the mind is calm, answers come forth. Buddhism speaks of this as does the book Fahrenheit 451. Every one is in a rush and have no time to sit and reflect, so much is expected of us, people can’t just stop and think for ten seconds to find answers. I don’t rush, not as I used to. It’s not health, just not healthy. I used to walk a lot, late at night. I found a fondness for lighting. The way a street light might cast beams through the leaves and branches of a tree fascinate me. I know a girl whose eyes change when certain lights hit them. I have written much about this. I wonder how much this matters to her.
A plague of humanity. If mankind died, every other species on the planet would thrive. Just like that thing with Israel and Palestine. If Palestine put down their guns there would be no war. If Israel put down their guns, there would be no Israel. Religion. For something that may or may not be real there certain is a lot of death and thought and money put into it. My first girlfriend was religious. We didn’t have sex for two years because of it. Well, eight months, but for some reason I’m told that that first time didn’t count. Five good thrusts before being told to take it out, that’s counts right? Terms and labels. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about those two words and their adjoining concepts, while pacing, of course. I know a girl who thinks we’re not in a relationship. But if I went out and fucked another girl, she’d be hurt. I’ve seen the jealousy come out before. But we’re not “exclusive.” It is what it is. You can call an apple an orange all damn day long, but at the end of the day it’s still an apple. If I fucked someone else, she’d be hurt. Names mean nothing.
I have written many things. How it works is I write for a while, I get up and I pace, then I write more. Pacing and calm thought make the waters crystal and answers come forth. The importance of calm reflection just doesn’t exist anymore in my country. “It’s you,” my friend Josh tells me. “You’re like this all the time. You just need to learn how to get over it.” Ah, my friend, my Buddha, you enlighten 21
reviews I need a cigarette and I need to pace. Pacing, reflecting, thinking, figuring, planning. Much of it comes at night, something about the late late hours of the morning that bring the shadows out to see you, all alone in the house. Buddha said that all suffering came from our desires. So to remove suffering we must give up desires. What I have known of desire dictates that this is true in every sense of the word. It don’t matter how you feel about religion. Desire and suffering go hand in hand. Any man who has yearned for a woman he cannot have knows this. Christ, so many scents women
Kirby Light isn’t real. He’s an
have. So many different types of hair. So many different laughs and shapes.
illusion. He’s been published
Despite popular misconception,
in various online and offline
I pace all the time. I walk, this is how I find answers, wading through the strange jumble of memories that come at me like tidal waves. Confusion, my constant companion. Thought, my only weapon. What am I saying? Where was I?
magazines and you can find his ebooks “Cheap Thrills and Night Terrors” and “No Solace for the
Innocent” on the Kindle store.
Pink Floyd always reminds me of when I was a child. I remember living in Alaska and walking through trees and hills, along clear lakes and rivers, sun never setting, everything forever young in the forest of my mind. Now I’m just a young man getting old, only a scattering of meaningless thoughts and memories, held together by a string of years. Where does the time go? Where-does-the-time-go? pp
The Leadership of
Science Fiction: Our New Moral Compass
by David Renton
Ever read Carl Jung? He wrote about “ancient or archaic images that derive from the collective unconscious,” this was used to interpret dreams or explain why we are afraid of the things we’re afraid of. A recent trend in fiction has brought us our newest fear archetype: dystopia. This is just another word for Apocalypse, Armageddon, the end of the world. Which, like most categories of fear archetypes, is nothing new at all, it’s as old as the Bible, the Greeks, the Norsemen and beyond. But still, “dystopian” feels like a new word and it’s circulating around, passing itself off as a new idea.
vampires, or the dark. That is the power of fiction and, some might say, the power of science fiction. We’ve worked out our demons on imaginary Earths and thrown our suffering on the shoulders of dream selves for so long that we’ve developed a keen sense of what looks and smells like political corruption. Is it possible that the recent American outcry against our leadership and the rich, ruling class could be traced back to the visions of Orwell, Huxley, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and dozens, hundreds of others? Are we now looking at a new moral compass developed by fifty years of required reading?
Within this one ancient and newly popular archetype there are many different visions of the end of civilization. Some have elements of a Biblical narrative, fire from the skies and all that, others are manmade, supernatural, alien, or caused by the uprising of some grueling Orwellian hoard. The authoritarian vision of dystopia has been growing in the collective unconscious since the days of Hitler. Stories from all kinds of writers have been brought forward and woven themselves into the popular lexicon -- Big Brother, the Thought Police, Huxley’s orgy-porgy, and even new arrivals like The Hunger Games are bringing their warnings to the table. But where is all this headed? What am I trying to tell you with this rant?
In the old days, you read the Bible and the precepts in that book lit your way. Now you can read a comic by Alan Moore or take a college course on Ray Bradbury and you get a good steady look into where we might be headed. And there are common threads to this category of dystopia that all of its contributors seem to agree upon. They describe leadership ruling by fear, the disappearance of civil liberties, an exterior threat to the homeland used to rally citizens to the flag, martial law, and extreme surveillance of the population.
Consider that as the fictional elements of a grim, authoritarian future under the boot of this or that ruler have worked their way into the world they have become a part of us. These new fears are as deep-seeded by now as the fear of werewolves,
When you consider the moral code established by dystopian writers, a kind of leadership by fiction, then it’s no surprise how often you hear people encountering a bit of seemingly mundane news and saying, “That’s it, the end is coming.” We used to refer to the end times by examining the description in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. Street corner doomsayers would wave their signs harkening the judgment of God Almighty, but time is change 23
the DCAC, Domestic Communications Assistance Center, to help cops track the goings on of tech-savvy criminals. Their goal is broad, sweeping almost the whole of all wireless communications, but including capturing Skype conversations, listening in on mobile phone calls, and so on. Since 2010 there has been a push toward more federal funding in the area of online surveillance and the FBI even approached the Obama Administration with legislation that required all websites, manufacturers of technology (hardware and software) and Internet Service Providers to build in “back doors” to their various products. Basically, they wanted the government to require easily accessible doorways in the source code of pretty much everything vaguely related to communication so that they could pipe in with a few keystrokes. We are now looking at the next phase of that plan, an organization designed to make the world of technology more manageable for the powers that be.
and today, more and more, you’ll see them referencing 1984 and Brave New World every time the government creates some new, suspicious legislation. With that in mind, let’s look at the facts. With each passing year, US Congress passes more and more legislation that increases the power of corporations and the so-called One-Percent. People protest almost daily, but their voices are not heard. They are afraid of losing themselves, of losing their democracy to this power grab. We are kept fearful of outside forces that hate us, that want to attack our nation and as such we remain at war for the sake of “security.” Eight out of ten cars sport some kind of bumper sticker that says something about our troops overseas, a vast cross-section of the population rallying together around that exterior threat and the subsequent patriotism and idealism that follows. We aren’t looking at martial law yet, right? But we have seen it nearly any time an emergency comes our way. Moreover, we do live in fear of the world outside our borders and, to some degree, even our own leadership.
Maybe they’re right to do so. Maybe it is too easy for the bad guys to do bad guy stuff. But the instincts instilled in us by our dystopian moral code have to kick in when we hear about government officials installing surveillance programs into everything we use from day to day or, in this case, creating a new agency with just one mandate: listen, and when you can’t, invent a way to get the job done. Sure, they’re probably just there to be a resource center for federal, state and local police that are out of their depth. Sure, the DCAC is probably just the cop version of Geek Squad. But our Spidey Sense must be tingling, right? It seems fishy, doesn’t it? For my money, it feels like yet another dystopian seal has been broken. Even if something like this has been created with the purest motives that doesn’t mean it won’t be abused by someone someday. It’s happened every other time we’ve tried to manufacture a more secure world, why shouldn’t it happen again?
To use a biblical term, “the seals have been broken,” if this isn’t Dystopia it’s pretty damn near. But then, there’s this surveillance issue, the dictatorial need to monitor the population, watch out for rebellious tendencies, and quell uprisings before they start. This element of Dystopia inspired Orwell’s Thought Police and dozens of other similar Gestapo style forces. But surely that isn’t really here in America yet, is it? Overlooking the obvious examples stemming from The Patriot Act and many acts that followed, we now have recent legislation allowing for the seizure of any US citizen suspected of terrorism, we have legal wiretapping of phones, the proposed SOPA bill to regulate the Internet and tons more. With the right kind of eyes you can almost see them tightening the noose. There is also this new surveillance branch of law enforcement. The New York Times reported recently that the FBI has secretly formed a new branch with the purpose of developing technologies to aid in eavesdropping on wireless conversations and Internet communication.
In the Subtopian debate between where we’re headed, Utopia or Dystopia, my money is on Big Brother. He’s just better funded. pp
Read The New York Times article at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/27/us/27wiretap. html?_r=1&pagewanted=all
As it stands, law enforcement officials are having some challenges keeping up with the almost exponential increase in new media technologies, to help keep up with the changing world they have formed 24
United v. Federal Election Commission and Why
That’s Way More Interesting
Than it Sounds. Corporate Personhood. You’ve probably heard
they want, say what they want, or air films about
the term circulating more and more in the past
whatever argument they want and, since corpo-
few years. Whether or not people understand
rations are American citizens now, why can’t
the ins and outs of the legislation doesn’t change
Citizens United criticize Hilary Clinton? The
the fact that we’re all aware of a slow, steady,
logic is sound, albeit completely absurd. In the
increase in the rights of corporations over the
end, the Supreme Court caved and Citizens Unit-
course of the past few years and, in some cases,
ed became a constitutional amendment affording
even decades. The next giant leap for corporate
corporations the right to influence elections.
personhood took place back in 2010 with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Now, in the wake of current events such as the Occupy Movement or the political climate sur-
The basic rundown is that the nonprofit Citi-
rounding the attitude toward the rich, big busi-
zens United had a film criticizing Hilary Clinton
ness, special interest groups, or the “One-Percen-
that they wanted to air during election season.
ters” people have become increasingly threatened
Election laws at that time prohibited them from
by this decision. And with good reason, the
sharing the film, but Citizens United overturned
American election system was built on the phi-
that under the First Amendment. Basically, US
losophy that all men are created equal. This
law states that a corporation has the same rights
means that every vote should be counted equally,
as an individual. They can be sued as a single
no one should have more influence than anyone
entity, they can sue back, and all sorts of other
else otherwise the system breaks down com-
wonderful privileges short of casting a vote in an
pletely. But how can every vote count equally
election (for now). Under Citizens United v. FEC when we’re so obviously giving over the power the individual rights of the group (how silly does
to influence the nation to a select few? Aver-
that sound) were being oppressed insofar as they
age Americans are afraid that their votes don’t
were not able to voice their opinion to influence
count anymore, that they’re just mixed up in an
the election. An American citizen can do what
elaborate charade and that the real power is going 25
utopia on behind the scenes with the rich power elite.
bit by bit, like company stock.
Maybe some of those people get a little paranoid, maybe they don’t have all the facts and some-
According to People for the American Way, the
times their fears and arguments seem ill-founded,
but even if they were one hundred percent wrong there is still one glaring fact that can’t be denied:
“In Citizens United, the Court ruled that corpora-
the American people don’t like the way their
tions are guaranteed the same free speech rights
country is headed and yet they are powerless to
as real people to influence elections, thereby
do anything to change that fact. Doesn’t that say
ruling that governmental restrictions on corpo-
something? The majority of Americans disap-
rate spending to influence elections are invalid
prove of the way things are going, yet the only
and unconstitutional. Only amending the Con-
tool we have to effect change is voting in a fresh
stitution can fully secure the American people’s
group of people that still live, work, strive and
authority to regulate corporate influence in our
fail within the same corrupted system. We don’t
elections and restore our democracy.
have the tools to change things, no matter how much we want to and no matter how much we’re
“Americans have become increasingly distressed
told we do. That, I think, is significant.
at the toxic effects of unrestrained corporate and special interest money that is influencing our
Anyway, the point of this story is that people are
political… As activists have mobilized and pro-
trying to fight back and that is why this story has
tested across the country, it is time for Congress
been categorized as a glimpse into Utopia and
to explore in earnest the range of resolutions that
not another sign of doom at the end of the tun-
have been introduced to undo the harmful ef-
nel. According to People for the American Way
fects of the Court’s decision the critical debate
(pfaw.org), fifty American organizations have
about how the Constitution should be amended to
come together to present a signed petition to the
return our democracy to the people.”
House and Senate Judiciary Committee calling for a reversal of Citizens United v. Federal Elec-
This is a huge moment in history, it will likely
tion Commission. Following over 350 teach-ins,
be overlooked by larger mainstream media, but
courthouse protests, and other political events
the issue of growing corporate power in America
across 49 of our states, this letter is the sum-
cannot be emphasized enough. It is serious. It is
mation of a lot of hard work from a lot of de-
a threat to everything we hold dear, and for too
voted groups. They have all signed in the hope
long we have quietly sat back, voting or more
of bringing attention to the adverse effects of
likely not voting, and hoping that our few sec-
this amendment. The petition will be presented
onds in the ballot box would be enough to secure
on the second anniversary of the decision and,
and preserve the nation for four more years. The
whether it succeeds or not, it should be noted as a
truth is the contrary. It takes citizen involve-
win for those proud few that are working to pre-
ment. The more we fear that our representatives
serve their country rather than let it be sold off,
are being controlled by wealthy special interests 26
utopia the more we must get involved, take control, and keep a sharp eye on where things are headed. The reason things have gone as far as they have is, in large part, due to our own complacency. But this moment in time gives me hope. It means people are standing up to self-govern, to create their own democracy rather than let it create them, and that, I think, is the real ticket to our future and why this story falls under a win for Utopia. I hope this can be taken as a sign of things to
Trevor Richardson is the founder of The Subtop-
come. I would refer the reader back to Subtopian’s first issue. We interviewed Kody Ford of a
ian Magazine and the author of American Bastards,
small undertaking called Directing Democracy.
publixhed by Inkwater Press in Portland, Oregon.
In it he described a plan to travel America, hold-
His short stories have appeared in numerous publi-
ing events for political education, the making of
cations including Word Riot, Underground Voices,
a documentary film, and culminating in a signed petition in the form of requested legislation to
and Doomology: The Dawning of Disasters, an
overturn certain flaws in the American legal
anthology published by The Library of the Liv-
system. Here we see the same thing taking place
ing Dead. As the managing editor of The Subtop-
again only it isn’t just the “little guy,” this is a union of fifty larger institutions, businesses, and
ian, Trevor invites anyone to submit news related
nonprofits saying enough is enough.
stories that can fit into the category of Utopia or Dystopia as part of our ongoing chronicle of the
For more information on this story visit:
http://www.pfaw.org/press-releases/2012/02/50organizations-present-letter-congress-requestinghearings-constitutional-a#.T7rtZl2eqIE.facebook Signatories to this protest letter include People For the American Way, Public Citizen, Common Cause, Communications Workers of America, MoveOn.org, Free Speech For People, Move to Amend, Public Campaign, Greenpeace and African American Ministers In Action. 27
Chapter Two -- Living Everyday Living
The Critic’s Critic
Arthur Brand Critiques “Superheroes, Super Battles, Super Egos: Robert Downey Jr. in ‘The Avengers,’ Directed by Joss Whedon” A Review by A.O. Scott of
The New York Times Published May 3rd, 2012
We live in a world of diversity, conflicting perspectives, needs, desires and abilities. There is an apparent trend in mainstream film reviews, especially the upper crust “elite” critics, that fails to recognize how different movies represent different intentions. Movies come from different backgrounds and so they come at you from different angles. What I mean to say is the filter used to analyze movies regularly fails to recognize that diversity. You can’t judge “Knocked Up” by the same system you use to judge “The Aviator.” Get me? Some of us, myself included, have begun to recognize a kind of homogenization in the movies that are critically acclaimed, Academy recognized, award winning or otherwise thought of as good.
Keeping that lack of diversity in mind, it’s ironic that New York Times critic A.O. Scott was recently blasted on Twitter by actor Samuel L. Jackson for his negative review of “The Avengers.” The movie is all about diversity. It’s about people with different backgrounds and abilities coming together to solve a common problem. I read up on the recent Twitter battle between Jackson and Scott at The Hollywood Reporter and they honed in on one quote in particular, “The light, amusing bits cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre.”
It is this monochromatic system that is to blame for the current state of things. When looking for the same types of character development, the same types of drama, turmoil, or writing teaks, you only succeed in allowing for one type of “good writing” and leave out a vast majority of what else is out there. Furthermore, you leave out a huge cross-section of moviegoers in the world, only appealing to those that like or enjoy The New York Times, Academy nominated idea of noteworthy film. And there is a definite style there, you can’t argue. What gets good reviews is one type of movie and everything else is systematically raked over the coals. That, I think, is the appeal of this “Critic’s Critic” idea. The big, successful critics don’t allow for much diversity and somebody needs to call them out now and again.
Personally, I couldn’t disagree more. The “hectic emptiness” and “bloated cynicism” are not that at all. They’re there to deliver a message, and it’s one that was lost on the likes of Mr. Scott because his uptight film expert eyes couldn’t see past the surface tension. Overlooking the potential absurdity of alien invasion or inter-dimensional vortexes, ancient gods that look like washouts from Twisted Sister or giant green men, there is this one underlying current: the world is in trouble and nobody’s singular talent or solution is the right one. It takes all kinds. It takes all of 64
us. Moreover, the heaviness, the cynicism witnessed in the movie centers around the dark sides of each hero. But that darkness is there to say that your flaws, your curses, might even have value. It isn’t just your intrinsic virtue that is going to save the world it’s your baggage, your mistakes, the worst moments of your entire life.
something away from the work you’re critiquing, from yourself as a critic for not getting that, and from the system you work for by encouraging a diminishing return on variety.
Think about that. Tony Stark has a magnet in his chest that prevents shrapnel from moving into his heart and killing him. He got it while being held captive by terrorists and it is, for all intents and purposes, a daily reminder of the worst experience of his life. Bruce Banner, AKA the Hulk, has his inner demons, his emotional frailty and monstrous temper so amplified that the littlest thing can morph him into a city-devastating leviathan. Captain America is only alive in this time period because he sacrificed everything to stop a megalomaniac villain in the 1940s. He went down in a plane over the arctic and was recovered nearly seventy years later, thawed and returned to life. Every day Captain America lives from then on is a reminder of what he has lost, what he gave up, and how much his country has abandoned in his absence. Thor, a man from a different dimension where the ancient Norse gods still live and thrive, goes to great trouble to get to Earth to offer his help. He is only involved because his adoptive brother, Loki, hates him so much that he is working out a vendetta against the world, our world, Thor loves so much. The point is that I think you’d be hardpressed to find a single character in the story that isn’t damaged, but it’s that damage that gets them in the fight, and in most cases it’s their pain that made them the heroes, the superheroes, that they are. And they’re all different, they’re all diverse, and their diverse abilities come together to save the world. In an industry increasingly guilty of recognizing only one particular kind of movie as “good” and disregarding all the rest, I find it compelling that the movie to spark the kind of controversy as what went down between Samuel L. Jackson and A.O. Scott is a movie about different types of people, backgrounds, and values. I’d like to see this become a wakeup call to the critics out there. Different movies have different values too. Some are crafted for lighthearted fun, some for gripping action, others for laughs, tears, or philosophical edification. But in trying to fit every movie into the same bullet point rating card you take
At a certain point, my dear movie critics, your followers, your readers, begin to wonder if you’re being contrary for the sake of being contrary, or if you’re just too short sighted to know that different types of movies need to be watched in different ways. If you sit down to watch “The Matrix” with the same glasses as “The Godfather” of course you’re going to think it’s bad. In the same way, when A.O. Scott sat down to watch “The Avengers” I have to wonder if he had the right glasses on for a big spectacle, comic-inspired intergalactic light show or if he watched it with his Academy Award-colored glasses and missed the point entirely. Maybe this isn’t very journalistic of me, maybe I shouldn’t be choosing sides, but I just want to end by saying, good flick, Mr. Jackson, we’ve got your back. pp To get the whole New York Times review by A.O. Scott visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/movies/robertdowney-jr-in-the-avengers-directed-by-joss-whedon. html Read The Hollywood Reporter story at http://www. hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/avengers-samuel-ljackson-slams-ao-scott-ny-times-review-319966 P.S. Subtopian’s Editor wanted me to add a little side note. In the spirit of all the “Avengers” talk this issue, we have an extra bit of news from Utopia. Marvel Comics just recently created a special superhero for a singular young boy. Anthony Smith requires hearing aids but recently started refusing to use them. He said “superheroes don’t need hearing aids.” His mother, obviously concerned, wrote Marvel and asked them to create a superhero that uses hearing aids in order to encourage Anthony to use his again. Marvel agreed. The result was “The Blue Ear.” If you want to feel a little more hope for the human race you ought to visit the blog of the artist and get the whole story: http://fans.marvel.com/trades_department/ blog/2012/05/24/the_blue_ear
Thought Chip Record: Agent Emmett Anders 09/0@/30 :: XX:XX PM
I jump awake in the mud and look around, not sure where I am. The sun is gone and I’m all cold and sweaty. I light another smoke and see my hands all shaky from the nightmare. I can barely hold onto the match to get it to the end of my cigarette.
A voice says, “You’re fine, Joe.
“Who said that?” I ask, looking around wildly.
It came from above me, again it says, “You’re fine, Joe. Relax. It will all be over soon.” Peering down at me through the hole is a pale man with slick, dark hair and gray clothes. He’s smiling down at me, trying to comfort me like a daddy would. It’s Mr. Smiles. “You?” I stumble to find the words, “But, you’re… I can see you.” “Can you?” he asks, “That’s good, I’ve been trying to get through to you for some time now, kiddo. You need my help.”
“Okay… um, what – what do you want?”
He’s see through, well, ish, see throughish, like a ghost or maybe a hologram.
“You’re a hologram!
You’re one of them!
Get away from me!”
I jump out of the hole and run through him, slipping in the mud like a big dummy right when I get out of the clubhouse. I hear him yelling my name, but I know the truth. He’s an alien projection trying to look like something familiar so I’ll trust him. Probably doesn’t even realize that Mr. Smiles isn’t real, they probably thought I’d just go home with him or something.
Stupid, dumb, stupid aliens.
I run to the only place that makes sense – I run to Audrey. The first tap on the window wakes her softly and she sits up, rubbing sleep from her eyes, apparently uncertain if this 67
is real life or a dream. It’s a funny room. Pink girly crap but with camouflage, comic books, and Lord of the Rings posters. Her bed is covered in stuffed animals, flowery blankets, quilts and a Spiderman pillow like mine. I tap the glass again and she slides out of bed and pulls the window open sideways. “Joe?” she squeaks, yelling in a whisper, if that’s possible, “What the hell are you doing here? Are you nuts? Everybody’s looking for you. Cops were here and stuff.” “Hey, Audrey,” I say, smiling, suddenly feeling the mud and crap all over my face as usual, “Miss me?” She laughs and pulls my shirt like she wants to lift me inside through the window. I climb in and have to smile at the messiness and the superheroes and explosions mixed with Barbie and princess stuff around the room. Audrey says, “Joe, before you say anything, I want you to know that they wouldn’t let me help you when you were in the court and stuff. I wanted to, but they wouldn’t let me.” “It’s okay, I know,” I say, grabbing her hand, “Listen, Audrey, um…I’m going to go away. I can’t stay here anymore. I just came to say good bye.” “Good bye? Are you nuts? You’ll get killed. Besides, what’ll you do if you need somebody to fix you up again – or help you with other stuff? Obviously I’ll have to go too.” “You will?” I ask, feeling shocked and relieved at the same time. “Only, I can’t just run away with a boy. I always told myself I would only run away with somebody that I really loved. That’s the only way to do it right. And we have to do it right, right? Of course we do. So there’s no other way, we’ll obviously have to get married.”
“We can’t get married, we’re too little.”
“Hmm… that’s true,” Audrey muses, “I know! on.”
Here, put this
She fumbles in a big purple trunk and pulls out a top hat 68
and a clip on bow tie. She gets my hard hat and goggles and aluminum foil off and has the hat and tie on me before I can even say anything. Audrey cinches a white belt around her nightgown, an oversized white tee shirt with bold letters that read, “Can’t Touch This.” Draping a loose mess of tule over her head she picks up a pile of toy flowers, one fake dagger by the blade and a Transformer action figure and holds them all together like a bouquet. She says, “There should be music for such proceedings, but this will have to do.” I just say, “Um…okay,” and look around nervous, we’re totally gonna get caught any minute. I decide to fold my hands in front of me like grownups always do in movies. Audrey says, “Okay. The wedding has started. Do you, Joseph Blake, promise to love me and only me and do what I say and take care of me and be funny and be cool and be super-strong and always be there to rescue me when I’m in trouble and, most of all, love me as long as you both shall live?”
I smile dumbly and say, “I do.”
Things just got awkward and I feel like she’s having second thoughts, but Audrey nudges me and says, “C’mon, now you say something. Make it really good.” “Oh, right,” I say, standing up straighter and looking at the ceiling, “And do you, Audrey Adele Lamb…”
“Hey, you remembered my whole name.”
“Shh. You’ll mess me up. Ahem. Do you promise to never preach at me and to always be there to fix me up and to help me fight crime and to always have pretty hair and never make it too short and poofy like those creepy old ladies at church and to always, always, always choose me and stand up with me no matter what, or who is there, or anything else, so I’m not alone and you’re not alone and we’re happily ever after as long as we both shall live?” Then a voice, another, different voice in my head, says, “They pause again, happily awkward together, a schizophrenic flower bouquet between them.”
And I say, “How was that?” 69
“I do!” Audrey smiles and wraps her arms around me, kissing me through her toy veil. Hollywood kisses. together.
Their mouths are closed, faces pressed
“No, wait,” she almost yells but stops herself, remembering the hour and the sleeping giants in the next room, “This is wrong. We forgot the rings!” Now we’re searching the floor for rings and I come up with a toy Green Lantern ring and a plastic daisy that I learned how to twist into a circle when I was at the park once. We do the ring part of the wedding and Audrey puts a wise looking teddy bear in the position of the priest. That other voice says, “In the eyes of God, witnesses, teddy bear preachers and toys, they kiss bashfully, two silly children, playing house, playing love, and knowing in that silent corner of the heart that they are really saying good bye.” Her lips stay longer than the other times she kissed me and it’s nice. But then I hear the door open. I see my feet up over my head and feel myself crack into the wall. It ain’t that easy to knock me out anymore though and I’m on my feet, ready for a fight. My fists feel like cannonballs, knuckles white and something makes me feel grown up – like my eyes might actually be scary. The cheap shot came from Mr. Lamb, the dad, and he’s got Audrey on the other side of the room lecturing and yelling, “Goddammit, Audrey, what did I tell you about this kid? He’s bad news. Don’t you understand that? I mean, look at you two. You’re too young to be acting this way and he’s…well, he’s obviously just a jail bird waiting to happen. You can’t keep this up. Life is hard enough for people like us without you latching on to a felony in the making.” I feel too many emotions and something comes over me. I already landed a hard fist into the man’s kidneys before I even know I did it. He screams in pain, catching me off guard with a back hand to the jaw sending me across the floor a second time. A dark-haired woman in a sky blue nightgown grumbles into the room, rubbing her eyes. Mr. Lamb yells for her to call the police. That’s all I need to hear, say “police” and I make a 70
break for it. The man tries to stop me but I crouch low and punch him square in the marbles, watching him double over in pain and diving out of the still open window. I decide to wait in the shadows to make sure she’s gonna be all right. I see a lot of “But, Daddy” kind of talk, the police come in and stay for too long. Finally they leave and then the parents are on her again. Eventually everything goes quiet.
I should go.
She’ll be safer with me gone.
“Her eyes wander the blue shadows of her childhood sanctuary,” it’s Mr. Smiles, there beside me in the bushes, narrating, “but the gaze is different. Things have changed. I know this look. It’s an expression of confusion, one of confounding gall that comes when standing at the precipice of a new canyon blocking your current path, it’s the look we all get when we learn that our childhood has ended, but we lack the vocabulary or wisdom to form this sensation into words. Audrey looks around at her play things and they seem foolish, small and irrelevant. Right now, this moment, everything in her room has ceased to be hers. These things belong to that other girl, the one that lived here prior to midnight tonight.” I watch as she climbs out of bed and crosses the messy floor to a big mirror. She takes off her wedding dress tee shirt very gently like it’s a, what do you call it? Like a ritual or a sacrilege. Yeah, a sacrilege. She folds the shirt into a neat square and ties it up with her white belt. Her dress is carefully buried at the bottom of her purple trunk. Mr. Smiles says, “Stowed away like a relic, but not to be forgotten.” With this ritual complete she nods to her reflection and crawls back into bed, naked except for her cotton underwear, and pulls the covers over her body up to her chin with a look of determination and sadness I don’t understand. Mr. Smiles says, “I understand. ding night. This is important.’”
It says, ‘This was my wed-
“Why are you here? What are you doing here? You aren’t even real and now you’re watching Audrey? What’s wrong with you?” 71
“You watched her too, Joe.
I go where you go now.”
“No, I don’t want that!
I run off in a random direction, just trying to get away.
You’re one of Them.
Stay away from me.”
Don’t go that way!” Mr. Smiles yells.
When the alien holograms tell you not to go that way you can be pretty damn sure that’s where you ought to run to. So I do. I run right through the woods to the street, his voice behind me the whole time. It’s an alien spy in a cop’s uniform that grabs me from behind. It all happens so fast. Now they’ll take me back to the hospital and Dr. John will brag. Like that time before there’s cuffing and doors slamming and deep voices telling me things I don’t understand. Two cops get into the car with me, one of them laughs at my clothes.
“Have you seen this kid?” he asks his partner.
They giggle like big, dumb stupid cavemen, laughing at the clothes I found in the shed. I’m going back. They’re taking me back to the boy’s hospital. THEY. The They. Them. They have me now. That’s all you can call them, everybody calls them that. We call them THEY. Or THEM. I’m going back. I should have listened to Mr. Smiles. Maybe the spirits didn’t come to me as an animal. Maybe they came to me as Mr. Smiles. Maybe it wasn’t Them at all. There’s a quick flash in my head, like in a dream when there’s something there that don’t make sense. I’m an old man strapped in a leather chair and my body is shaking. Something has grabbed my brain and won’t let go. I shake, it hurts, and then I pass out. Darkness. Sleep.
Thought Chip Record: Agent Emmett Anders 09/@L/30 :: 000101 AM
“Psst…Joe, you there?” asks that voice again, “It’s me.”
I wake up and look around.
I’m in the hospital, in a bed.
“I know it’s you,” I say, sighing. “Joe, you don’t have to talk, you can just think and I’ll hear you. You don’t really want them thinking you’re crazier than they already do, do you?”
He said doo-doo.
Mr. Smiles is in the room with me now. He’s over by Anthony’s poo, but he doesn’t seem to mind. I think he probably can’t smell. He says, “Joe, I tried to warn you, but I understand. You thought I was an alien. I’m not, Joe, I’m really him.” “You really are Mr. Smiles?” I ask, think, or whatever you want to call it. “I am, Joe. I want to help you, but you have to trust me. We have a chance to make you into something great, a seer, a skeptic – a man of ability. But first, you have to be a good boy and do like you’re told.”
“Really?” I think-ask, “Why?”
“You need to go home, Joe.”
“Home? What home? My mom hasn’t talked to me in months and months. She doesn’t care about me anymore.” “That isn’t true, Joe. She misses you a lot. She’s very sad, I’ve seen her. It’s that doctor-boyfriend that’s the problem,” Mr. Smiles scoots a little closer and says, “He’s playing you two against each other.”
“What’s ‘playing against each other’ mean, Mr. Smiles?”
“It means he tells your mom that you hate her and don’t want to see her and then he tells you that she’s disappointed in you and doesn’t want to see you. He’s lying, Joe.” 73
“Why that rat bastard… I’ll get him.”
“No, Joe, you can’t get him. You have to be good. You have to get out of here, but it won’t be easy. Dr. John doesn’t want you out. He likes having you here, out of his way so he can be with your mom all by himself.” A picture flashes in my mind and I flinch – Mom on her knees in the dirty trailer carpet, her head going back and forth and her hair going back and forth and Dr. John going back and forth. I think about aliens blowing up the world for being bad. I try to squeeze it out of my mind by pushing my eyes shut real hard. “How do you know all this?” I think-ask him.
“I’ve seen it.
“Watch over me?
I watch over you.” Like a guardian angel?”
He really is a spirit. my first try?
Did I learn the power of dreams on
“Yeah, like that, sort of,” Mr. Smiles says it really nice, like it makes him happy.
Are you here to protect me from the aliens?”
“Don’t worry about that, Joe. of trouble.”
Just worry about staying out
He flicks out of sight for a second and then he’s hard static lines like a television losing its signal. Mr. Smiles bends and loses color and focus and then he’s white snow – then he’s just gone altogether. A high-pitched noise like an electric whistle gets louder and louder in my ears, only not really in my ears, in my head. It pounds like a drill, long and constant and growing, behind my eyes and then I sort of can’t see anything anymore, but my body tenses up like that time at the lake when I got so cold I shivered until it hurt. Then everything is gone. I hear voices, fading in, quiet and getting louder, like they’re far away. Everything feels underwater. It’s all out of focus like when you swim with your eyes open but then things start to clear up. There’s Dr. John. He has his hand behind my neck and he looks real worried. 74
“Hey, Joe,” he says, “Welcome back to the Land of the Living. Can you sit up?” I sit up slow and achy. He holds a small flashlight up to my eyes and looks at them stern and serious as he flicks the light side to side, shining it in like he lost something. Dr. John says, “You had a seizure, Joe. means?”
You know what that
“Like when people shake a lot for no reason on the TV?” I ask. “Yeah, like that, Joe,” he smiles, “Only there’s always a reason for it. We just don’t know what your reason was. I’m going to have some X-rays taken to see what’s the matter, okay?” “It was the aliens,” I say, feeling kind of blurry. As soon as I say it I know I shouldn’t have, but it’s too late now.
“What aliens, Joe?”
“The ones that took me. They put their devices in my head so they can track me. That’s where I got this, see?” I point to the jagged zipper of stiches on the side of my head, but John just shakes his head. “Joe, I’m fairly certain aliens wouldn’t use a suture to stitch you up, we had always assumed this was done by a paramedic because you hurt yourself in the woods.” I think back, but it’s all a blur. I can’t remember how I got here. Were there paramedics? Why do they call them that, anyway? Paratroopers. Paramedics. No doctors dropped in from the sky on parachutes to stich up my brain. The aliens did this, I’m sure of it, right after they snatched me out of the hospital and my warm bed. It hits me that I should really shut my mouth and Dr. John nods after I don’t answer any more of his questions. After that everything starts to feel pretty normal, except for the nightmares. Every night. Day time I work. Night time I dream. Weeks go by. Months. I do everything I’m told to do. I don’t see Mr. Smiles for a while. He shows up once more a few weeks after the seizure and we talk for a few minutes. Then 75
I have another one and I ask him if it’s the aliens trying to keep us apart. He says, “In a manner of speaking.”
Not sure what that means.
More seizures come, every time I’m visited by Mr. Smiles. He tells me he has to find the right frequency to transmit. And this worries me, like maybe he really is an alien hologram, maybe they’re trying to fool me. The next time he comes I won’t talk to him. He appears to me in the cafeteria and I ignore him. Mr. Smiles says, “I know what you’re thinking. That ‘frequency’ talk got you paranoid, didn’t it? I don’t know what to tell you, Joe, except everything works on frequencies. Radios, televisions, radar – good guys and bad guys use this stuff, right? You have to decide which you think I am, but it’s up to you. I’m going now.” He disappears, but no seizure. Not this time. I start thinking about guys in movies hacking security systems and then I start thinking maybe that frequency talk is just like that. The aliens are trying to keep him away, but he’s getting in. Dr. John has me on some medicine for something called epilepsy. He says it’s what makes me have the seizures. He says this’ll make them stop, but I know the truth. I know it’s really the aliens punishing me for talking to Mr. Smiles. Next time he comes I’ll listen. Next time I’ll give him a chance.
Thought Chip Record: Agent Emmett Anders 09/#%/30 :: 0001221 AM
It’s some time later.
Hard to say how much.
I’m in my bunk. I think I was just at some kind of church meeting at the hospital. I try really hard when I’m there. I try to learn, try to listen. If I’m going to learn the power of dreams, if I’m going to learn how to listen to what Mr. Smiles is trying to tell me, I need to be what the preacher ladies call “in touch with the spirit.” So I try really hard. They tell me to read my Bible at least five minutes every day, to take “quiet time” to think and pray. So I do.
Mr. Smiles makes fun of me.
He says things like, “I don’t see how you can say you’re trying to be a skeptic one minute and then turn around and swallow that nonsense the next. Don’t you want to be a skeptic like I taught you? Don’t you want to be your own man?” I always say, “Just because I’m not doing it exactly like you say doesn’t mean I’m not my own man. I’m doing this for you, for us, so that I can learn to listen to what I’m hearing in my dreams. You understand, right? And besides, didn’t you say I should blend in? Didn’t you say I should do my best to behave so I can get out of here?”
The feed jumps forward again.
Things are better now. Mr. Smiles talks to me all the time. He tells me what’s going on in the world. He tells me to watch people, learn to listen and remember. Mr. Smiles says I’m smart, maybe even super smart, and I can remember if I try. He says, “Listen for the story behind the story.” Mr. Smiles tells me I should listen to what people talk about and I should listen for something he calls “signs of trouble.” What he means is the world is ending and I can see it if I look right. Mr. Smiles says everybody’s been watching out so hard for a big boom finish to the world and trying so hard to keep the big boom end from happening that they’re missing the little things. He says it’s the little things in life that mat77
ter, little things heap up and become big things.
That other voice in my head says, “I Ching.”
Mr. Smiles is there to help me understand my bad dreams, which is all the time. He tells me what they are, how they work. He says it’s like a TV in your brain, if you don’t like the show just change the channel. It helps, some, but it doesn’t stop me from dreaming weird dreams or seeing the aliens experimenting on me in that room or from having a hard time sleeping. Dr. John calls it “insomnia.” Mr. Smiles teaches me other things. He tells me to be a man of ability. Learn how to do things, how to make things. He says I have a lot of resources at the hospital if I just learn to use them. He taught me how to say “kill two birds with one stone,” but he said I shouldn’t be killing real birds. That’s mean. It’s just a metaphor. I learned that word too. It means when you say something to mean something else, but you’re not lying, you’re explaining. You’re explaining artfully, that’s what Mr. Smiles calls it. He teaches me a lot. It’s nice to have a friend again. I’m supposed to participate in activities. I paint during art time and draw every chance I get. I talk at the talk times and run when we run and I go to prayer group when the Christian mission ladies from the school come talk to us. I read books. I write in a daily journal to keep my head on straight. Mr. Smiles taught me that saying too, “Keep your head on straight.” He said it’s called an “old adage.”
It was funny.
I thought he said “addage,” like adding in math.
I see myself in the mirror every day and all the mirrors line up like a thousand mirrors and makes a movie. In the movie I keep getting bigger and bigger. Years go by, but I know I’m safe, I know I’m doing right because Mr. Smiles is here. He’s always here to help me, like he always has been. He teaches me about “civil unrest” and “conspiracy theories.” He tells me to be a skeptic, it means to be somebody that questions instead of agrees, like if an idea were sand and some people had buckets and other people had sieves – that’s like a strainer for spaghetti noodles except it strains out sand so you can find rocks. 78
Anyway, if somebody has a sieve and another guy has a bucket, the guy with the bucket is just taking all of the sand he finds, but the guy with the sieve is only taking the rocks. Mr. Smiles said I should be somebody that looks for the rocks in all of the sand. That’s a skeptic. He said a story like the sand and the bucket and the sieve is called an “analogy.” It’s kind of like a metaphor, I think, only it takes longer to say it. I work hard here. I do like I’m told, but I’m a skeptic too. I think a skeptic might be somebody that looks one way on the outside and another way on the inside. A skeptic might be someone that people on TV say is mysterious. I want to be mysterious. I might be because when I do what I’m told by Mr. Smiles or by the hospital people or the guards I’m not doing it because it’s a bucket of sand, I’m doing it because it’s a rock in my strainer. I have to move that rock until they let me go. It’s like that, I think. It is hard though, being here, I am kind of alone. I don’t get into fights as much anymore. I’ve learned to “walk away,” Mr. Smiles taught me that too. Still, sometimes Anthony gets a lot of guys and they jump on me when nobody can see. But they’ve stopped lately, I’m bigger now and Mr. Smiles has taught me some moves. I practice with him in the bathroom sometimes or by myself on the yard when we have breaks. The kids make fun of me, but it’s okay because I can beat up Anthony and his gang. Mr. Smiles has taught me so much in my time here. We have fun together, but we also work. I have learned about music and I even wrote some songs, but they aren’t very good. I read some poems and kind of understood them. He told me once that he thought I was almost ready for the truth. He told me to look out, all the time, because the world we all see and live in is a lie. I think he might have meant the aliens because he said we are all being watched and controlled. He said no one is really free, we’re just made to think we are so we’ll keep working. They need us for that, that’s what he said. He said “They,” They need us to buy things and work hard and pay taxes and be like serfs. I thought he said “surfs,” which seemed pretty cool, but he told me a serf is like a peasant, they work and serve the kingdom and make the masters rich while they stay poor. He teaches me about classes, how some people are low down and some people are high up. And how the highest up have almost all of the money. They’re the bosses. 79
It’s scary. I don’t know why he tells me these things. I don’t know why he’s a ghost hologram or why he appears or how he knows so much. I don’t know how Mr. Smiles is real. But I listen because – what does he say? “We’re getting results.” I listen because I like getting results. I feel strong and smart when we’re together. So I obey, but I obey with a strainer, not with a sand bucket. Sometimes Mr. Smiles disappears for days and days and it scares me. My mind wanders. I get lonely when he isn’t around. There are some nights, long blue windy ones where the moon winks out like a street lamp and everything is faded and dirty and hollow, and that’s when I think about Audrey. I wonder where she is, if she still lives in that house or if she’s gone away to some wonderful new town where people do things and make things happen like magic. In other places, places not like this one, an idea can come alive like Pinocchio and walk the floors and tap dance and be your son. I wonder if she’s somewhere like that. Other times I hope she’s still there, I hope I can find her when I get out. I hope she still has her daisy ring. I hope she remembers me, even though it was stupid to get married, silly kid stuff. I know that, but I still feel different when I think about it. I feel like I’m not like the other kids that say girls are gross or icky or cooties or any of that. The Other Voice says, “Great Expectations. Pip knew that feelings that were thought to be quite reasonable in a man were somehow quite humorous in a boy.” I know Audrey is a special thing, like the twilight howl of a free wolf on the hilltop or the falling star that makes fire in the sky like a bullet of paint. I know she is magic, like those places where anything can happen. Nights like that I take out the ring she gave me, hidden inside my shoe like you hear people doing in the old war POW camp stories. I put that ring on and pretend she’s my wife and we’re big, and she’s just not here right now because she had to go away to a magic town and make music or dance or show a painting or talk about a book or something like that. And I’m home with the dogs and watering the plants. Just waiting for her. On those really long blue nights when the hours are like the wild long of a river, that’s what I think about.
Then I fall asleep. 80
Thought Chip Record: Agent Emmett Anders 00/00/00 :: 00010324 AM
I’m in Dr. John’s office for talk time.
He says, “Joe, I’m proud of you. This past year you’ve really made a great turn around. I’m not just saying that. I really am impressed by the results you’ve gotten. I mean, you’re a leader in our little church group, you seem to be flourishing academically, and you have picked up a lot of new hobbies – guitar, painting, drums, sculpture, I even hear you’re dabbling in poetry and you’re keeping a journal. It’s just so great.”
We’re really getting results.
“Yessir,” I say, “I want to be a man of ability. I want to make the most of my time here, to see it as an opportunity rather than a hindrance.” “That’s another thing, you’re still so young and yet you’ve become an almost eloquent speaker. What is it, Joe? What happened to you?” “I don’t know, Dr. John, maybe it’s the church stuff. Ms. Baird says the reason the disciples of Christ could go from being basic fishermen to the sort of men that wrote gospels and led thousands is because believing in God is an education in itself.” That other voice in my head says, “Carl Jung said it was a catalyst for intellectual evolution because it forced us to think abstractly.” I try to ignore the Other Voice and add, “I really enjoy the way faith structures your mind, you know? You think through references, scriptures, there’s an answer to everything, you just have to learn it. I guess going to church has helped me find the spiritual side of things and that’s freed me up to relax and learn a few skills.” “That’s very interesting, Joe,” Dr. John says, “Like I said, I’m very proud of you.”
The feed jumps forward. 81
July 4th, 2022. Today is my eleventh birthday. I’ve been in the boy’s hospital more than two years, but it feels like longer. Today I saw Lee in the cafeteria. The nurses said he was showing signs of improvement. They thought bringing him out into the general population might do him some good. I ask to sit with him and they act weird at first, they still think I did this to him, but I tell them I won’t take long and I just want to say sorry. They say okay. I slide my tray across the table in front of him and sit down gently, quietly, hoping not to disturb or upset him. He doesn’t look up, but I know he knows I’m here. I say, “Hey, Lee.” He ignores me. The nurses stand close by, listening, but trying to act like they’re not. Lee isn’t touching his food, but it’s still a good sign that he’s sitting here and all. Last time I got to see him he was in a wheelchair and wouldn’t even move his head if it fell over like when you’re asleep and your neck relaxes and your head falls over on the guy next to you on a bus or whatever. He wouldn’t even fix it if that happened. I say, “So listen, I don’t know if you can hear me, but I just wanted to say that I don’t blame you. I hope you don’t blame me either, okay? It’s not your fault that I’m here and it’s not your fault that you’re here. It just happened the way bad things happen some times. People didn’t try hard to understand the story behind the story.” I think about Mr. Smiles. things.
I think about how he teaches me
“Lee, I’m sorry you got hurt and I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop them from hurting us and I’m sorry I let you do what you did. I was confused and scared and I feel like a horrible person, but I don’t blame you, there’s nothing to forgive, okay? Can you forgive me?” Out of the side of my eye I see Mr. Smiles, clear as day, standing there, smiling and nodding like he’s proud of me. I put my hand on Lee’s to encourage him and he looks up at me, just a little, but enough. He looks like he wants to say something and then it happens. I see Mr. Smiles start to shake out of focus, then he bends into horizontal static lines and there’s that electric drill in the brain, pressing out against the sides 82
of my head, against the backs of my eyeballs. My mouth tastes like batteries and rust, my teeth grind like chalk. Everything tenses, shivers so hard I feel ready to vibrate apart. Lee screams and puts his hands over his ears, rocking back and forth and then I start to shake, up and down, on the floor. We move together, hurting and screaming, the nurses run around like rabbits and everything starts to go black. I can feel my lips moving, muttering, but I’m not sure why, I’m like a broken record just saying, “He teaches me, he teaches me, he teaches me, he teaches me…” He teaches me. hind the story.
He teaches me how to listen to the story be-
One day I’m outside of the cafeteria and I hear a guy with a broom say, “If the third world is Africa and the first world is modern, western civilization then maybe we’re the second world. You know, we’re caught in between the two. Stuck between wealth and poverty, between technology and nature. We think we’re a free nation, but we ain’t. We’re dependents on the system, same as everybody, getting strung along with welfare and federal assistance. We’re slaves with delusions of sovereignty.” There’s another day where I’m in a toilet stall and I hear two guys talking about their kids going to school. He says he’s thinking about moving somewhere out east to get them a better education. The other guy says something I don’t understand, something about charter schools. Not sure what that means, but it sounds like corporations buying out a public school and then charging people to enroll. I listen in and the first guy says, “Well, Jesus, are they just trying to own everything? They already own college and university, now they want high schools too?” “Not just high schools,” the second guy says, “Elementary, everything. They’re buying up education top to bottom. Kind of makes you wonder, don’t it? Like, if they can own education then they can teach our kids whatever they want.”
The story behind the story.
Mr. Smiles says, “Joe, with the right kind of eyes you can see a hidden plot, a crafted plan to use struggles in the economy to turn people against each other, then buy up stock in ev83
erything while everyone is too scared to notice. If they can own education then they can own the minds of the next generation of thinkers. Write curriculum, lean on teachers to tell them what to say or teach.”
It’s “hearts and minds,” that’s what Mr. Smiles calls it.
It’s all around me. There’s talk about the government “bailing out” failing businesses, banks, car companies, whatever. Some people say it was those companies that started “the recession” so they should be the ones to suffer the consequences. Other people say it makes sense, the government is really run by these corporations anyway, so of course they’re going to use federal money to save these businesses. Mr. Smiles shows me where to look and to me it seems like two sides of the same coin. That’s another adage he taught me. It’s like if one McDonald’s used its money to keep another McDonald’s from going out of business. Same team. The car companies that got all that money, the banks that got all that money, the government that keeps borrowing more money, it’s all the same people, they’re the ones that make the money – they create “economy.” We just live in it. But they live above it enough to talk about how to change it, how to fix it, how to make it new all over again. That looks like the real power, the scary kind you’re supposed to fight if you’re Robin Hood or something. One day I’m standing outside of the med closet waiting to get my pills when some guys start talking around the corner by the bathrooms. One guy says, “It’s getting worse, the laws aren’t slowing them down. The more rules they make the more these hacker freaks find new ways to break those rules.” “The more they find ways of not getting caught,” says the guy with him, “They’re getting braver. It’s like they think stealing money from banks or stealing passwords from email accounts or whatever is some kind of crusade. How do you beat people like that? The harder the President works to stop them the more they feel like they’re being oppressed.” “Did you hear about the most recent batch of suspected hackers rounded up?” the other guy replies, “There were teachers, police officers, firemen, I even heard tell of a young kid studying to be a Buddhist monk.”
Mr. Smiles appears and says, “Makes you wonder, don’t it? 84
Like maybe they’re just grabbing up anyone they want out of the way. Anyone unpopular or threatening to their party line and they get called terrorists or hackers or enemies of the state.” He teaches me. The story behind the story. Skeptic means you see through the cover story, you find what’s hiding behind the veil. The church ladies that visit us talk about The Holy of Holies. It’s this place in the old tabernacle from the Bible where priest guys would go behind this veil to see God. Somehow God lived behind this little curtain and if you went in without deserving to you’d drop dead. But I think about that. I think about seeing behind the veil of things and finding God. Time passes slow. Days. Weeks. Years. It’s divided up between therapy with Dr. John, circle time where the kids all voice their issues, some creative time with music or art supplies or something like that, exercise in the yard, church, remedial level schoolwork, meals and sleep. If it weren’t for Mr. Smiles teaching me stuff I’d probably go crazy. Right now I’m sitting outside of Dr. John’s office waiting for our regular hour talk time. There’s an attendant in white that’s tall and strong looking standing next to a short, round one and they’re both drinking coffee in front of the coffee maker thing. You listen to people, that’s what Mr. Smiles says. Listen to what they’re thinking and not saying. Listen to what they’re afraid of, but are too afraid or too stupid to put together. The tall one says, “They’re taking it all away. We’re losing things one piece at a time. What we need is to start holding these giant corporations responsible for the billions of tax dollars they ain’t paying.” The short, fat guy says, “I agree, but how? They have all the power, all the money. Ain’t like we can fight back, in the old days the people could rise up with nothing but pitchforks and topple an empire, but now the government has an army with automatic weapons that are illegal for civilians to own, and if we managed to beat the soldiers they have helicopters, and if we managed to beat that then they have nuclear missiles. We’re stuck, man.” There’s talk of the government turning on civil servants. Mr. Smiles says, “This is important, Joe. Watch the people 85
stand up and protest. Watch them say no and then watch their leaders ignore them and do whatever they want. They say your vote counts, but it only counts if there’s an enforceable way to make the politicians listen to you.” There’s talk about stuff that was going on when I was still a baby and how it’s happening again. Teachers in Wisconsin were having something called “collective bargaining rights” taken away. It means unions. They can’t form into unions and demand respect or change. They’ve been divided.
That other voice in my head says, “Divide and Conquer.”
I know what that means. It means They want us on our own, there’s power in a group. It’s hard to fight “teachers,” it’s easy to fight Mrs. Frenkle or Mr. Hauser or Ms. Lee. A person can be shut up, ignored or paid off. Groups are dangerous. One thing that’s nice about getting older is you start to understand more words. You start to see what makes grown-ups the way they are, and you realize they aren’t smarter than you, they’re just bigger. I think about how this Wisconsin stuff relates to those guys talking about charter schools. Teachers are losing their jobs, their rights, even their respect. People are talking about them like they’re leaching off the system. In another argument there are corporate groups trying to buy schools and they’re acting like they’re coming to our rescue by doing it.
“On wings of angels,” says the Other Voice.
Mr. Smiles says, “It’s too similar to be a coincidence. The economy stuff is being used to control people’s minds, I see it, but no one puts it together. They just focus on money. Ask if the recession is really over, they look for the big doom, the period at the end of the American sentence. Everybody misses the point, things are going all wrong and we’re talking about saving the economy with terms like ‘austerity measures.’ We’re turning on teachers and public workers because the Money Well is running low when people really wish they could blame the ones that are sucking it dry in the first place. We’re trading in schools, pension funds for teachers, policemen and fire fighters? We’re trimming back basic necessities, rationing services from job and bank and country instead of targeting the one thing that makes sense – those responsible for this mess to begin with, the same people taking it all away, the same people get86
ting rich from our trouble.
The American Nobility.”
I’m twelve and even I get that.
The short, round one says, “They’re turning us into slaves and we’re letting them because we’re scared.” The door opens and there’s Dr. John, he acts nice and I act nice and I go inside with him and it’s all that really fake kind of nice like when you’re at church. Inside now and he points me to a chair like it’s my first time here, but I know the chair. Like Mr. Smiles says, “I know the drill.” So I sit and I wait for him to talk. He likes to talk first, I figured that much out.
“So, tell me about your week, Joseph.”
I tell him my week is fine. I figured out how to play “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on the guitar. I figured out “Lonesome Highway” by Hank Williams too. I tell him I’ve been writing in my journal and nobody’s tried to pound me lately. No seizures, the medicine seems to be working. I don’t tell him anything about my theories about aliens or bright lights I sometimes see out of my window. I’ve learned to keep that to myself. John says, “Some of my staff said they caught some boys smoking but they ran off. They said they thought you were one of them.” I say, “Yeah, they say there were two men dressed like cops on the grassy knoll too, but I only heard about one guy going to jail for popping Kennedy.” John tsks a couple of clicks and says, “Come now, Joe, that isn’t like you. You say you want to get back home but this isn’t the way. Don’t tell me you’re regressing.” “That was a joke, Doc. It’s something that happens when kids grow up and develop a brain. You’ve kept me here almost four years, but even in a vacuum I’ve managed to find a sense of humor.” “Joseph, I haven’t kept you here. The state of Montana has kept you here for care and rehabilitation due to your pyrotechnics and…other issues, or have you forgotten?” 87
How could I?
Half the kids here still call me
John makes a couple of notes and asks, “Is that another joke, Joseph? Is this a new habit we’re developing?”
“Let’s make sure we’re not sublimating frustrations with wit. I want you a well-adjusted, straight shooting young man when you check out of here. Got me? You do want to go home, don’t you?” “Two things immediately jump to mind,” I fire back, “One, whether I’m home or not you’re still going to be in my face, so what’s the difference? And two, what home? I just want to go free. That place is ridiculous – we live at the foot of a living museum, a pantomime circus paying tribute to everything our race has done to corrupt their world. We leave tragedy in our wake and then make the people we’ve impoverished come to us for aid, for money, for a scrap of the exact currency that motivated their destruction. And where are they left? Everyone in that reservation is left putting on their costumes for the tourists, making a living off of a rubbernecking public that only wants to see a colorful novelty doll with a pulse to make them feel less guilt for the robberies of their ancestors. And they go along with it. I don’t get the reservation. I don’t get the traditions and I don’t get how people can act one way in one place and another at home. It’s the same as church, isn’t it, Doc? We go to church and act friendly, loving, kind and righteous, but half of those people go home and drink, fight and screw. Tell me how that’s any different than a Blackfoot elder plugging in and watching the fight on his satellite television and then switching over to feathers and robes to dance for some retirees from Branson. And if they’re a circus what are we, Doc? The sideshow?” “What about your mother, Joseph?” Dr. John asks, “Do you feel the same about her?” “I don’t know, you tell me, John, you’re supposed to be my buddy, right? You’re the one looking out for me, keeping this little family together. Should I feel the same about her?”
“You’re oddly combative today, Joseph. 88
Let’s change the
Are you still having difficulty sleeping?”
“Every night, Doc, you know that. It’s dream after dream. Weird stuff. All mixed up. I feel like I never get all the way asleep, like I’m always on edge. Last night I saw a nuclear bomb falling on the Last Supper.”
“Where do you think they come from?” he asks.
“Sometimes I feel like something’s trying to talk to me, but it’s coming through all distorted like – what did you call it? Archetypes. The brain understands symbols. It’s like that, but I feel like there’s more to it, maybe they’re visions. Do you believe in that stuff, Doc? The power of dreams? You’re a Christian so you kind of have to, right?” He ignores the question and instead just says, “What of your medication? Does it help?”
“If anything it makes it worse.”
Dr. John just shrugs, “We’ll try a different dosage then. I would like to return to your increasing aptitude in what seems like an almost endless supply of hobbies. How is it that you seem to be so good at almost anything you do?” “This old yarn again?” I shrug, figuring he must just take me for an oddity, a one man sideshow, my own cheap trick circus, “I don’t know, sir. Just lucky, I guess. Good genes. Did I tell you, I picked up origami yesterday? It’s weird, the swan is the most famous origami animal, right? So you figure they’d be simplest, but they ain’t. There’s others that are way easier. It’s not like balloon twisting. The famous balloon dog is pretty dang easy to make.” John scribbles more notes and says, “So we can add origami, balloon twisting, papier mache, and African drum beats to your repertoire of hobbies for the week. Anything else you care to report?” I tell him about trivia. I say, “Yeah, it seems I also have an almost photographic memory for random trivia. For example, did you know that a group of three or more ferrets is called a business? Did you know that if you rearrange the letters in Clint Eastwood’s name you get ‘Old West Action?’ Or how about the fact that cat pee glows under a black light? I think it has 89
something to do with the concentration of ammonia in their urine – kind of makes you wonder if Windex would glow too, doesn’t it? I’ll have to test that theory later…”
“Fascinating, Joe, just fascinating.”
“It is. I don’t know why my mind feels so drawn to these things. Life seems best defined by the finite, not the huge. I feel like I can tell more about you by the way all of your pencils are overly sharpened to the point of being three inches shorter than your ballpoint pens. Or the fact that you always have a handful of stray hairs going cattywompous on the right side of your moustache, likely from twisting that side nervously when you’re thinking. However, your hair is always immaculate, not a strand out of place in the whole shellacked ponytail. I mean, what the hell do I know? I’m just a kid, but it seems like these things reveal your entire personality way more than the diploma on your wall or how you vote in an election year.” “Interesting theory, Joseph. You show clarity of thought far beyond your years. How did you come to this belief?” For a second I almost let it slip about my tutelage with Mr. Smiles and, with my mouth open, mid-sentence, it occurs to me that this is exactly what he’s been trying to steer me toward. He somehow has had his suspicions all along, I’ve always known that, but he’s getting better at steering me closer to revealing the truth.
Instead, I just say, “I read books and I guess I just remember.”
“I see,” he mutters, “You’ve also developed skills in several musical instruments – drums, guitar, piano… I’ve heard you playing the harmonica your mother sent you. We can overlook the prison clichés and your attempts at irony for another time. I must say I am very intrigued by your case, Joseph. I know you’ll leave us someday and I thank my stars that your mother and I are still together so that I can keep you and your development on my proverbial radar…”
There’s a cheery thought.
He says, “What I mean to say is, you’ve become a truly mystifying young adult.”
Yeah, I’ll bet you’d love the chance to publish a paper on 90
the Kid Jack of All Trades, get your name in some head shrinker magazine or something. “What else?” he asks, “You’ve mastered some rather impressive fighting maneuvers which have held the boyish posturing of some of our more spirited residents at bay. You’re showing ability as an actor, your roles in the past three Christmas pageants have been as galling as they were heart-warming… you have even made notable improvement in mathematics. I suppose coming to the hospital was the best thing for you after all, eh, son?”
If I knew a real father I’d be insulted by the comparison. Still, I consider jumping over the desk at him. I grind my fingernails into the inside of my palm and ignore the impulse. “Hey, Doc, did you member of the town was them out and burn down ‘You’re fired.’ Neat,
know that in old Viking villages when a no longer welcome the people would drive their home? It’s where we get the phrase huh?”
He mumbles something irrelevant and looks at the ceiling for a new question to ask me. I tell him how the longest one syllable word in English is “screeched,” and the longest word you can type with your left hand on a keyboard is “stewardesses.” I tell him that the Lewis and Clark expedition swung right through our neck of the woods, so close we could practically spit to where it all went down, and they met their first Blackfoot braves. The first and only fight of their journey broke out when some of the braves were caught stealing rifles and horses. Two of the Blackfoot men were killed and Meriwether Lewis, fearing the probable reaction, chose to flee. I tell him the Blackfoot are one of only a handful of tribes that got to keep their land, and you have to wonder if being the only people to come to blows with the first westward bound white men crossing the country had something to do with it. I tell him being in this place, with him, makes me realize that you’re never as free as you think you are. Nothing is really yours in this world. Dr. John seems interested in this turn in the conversation. Way more interested than when I tried to tell him that Mickey Mouse was predated by a rabbit or that his name started out as Mortimer. 91
He says, “Do you think someone is going to come and take everything away from you?” “Nope,” I say, “I think the idea that we have anything to begin with is a lie we tell ourselves every day until we believe it. I think the law is there to enforce fictions that would not exist otherwise. Certain laws prevent us from deviating from those fictions, and thrive as a framework for the lifestyle we are all required to live. I believe that the reason possession is nine-tenths of the law is that without those laws there wouldn’t be any possession at all. “You see my point? Nothing is ever clear. Nothing is truth. There’s no black and white. Only analogy, rumor, metaphor and random trivia. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. The Blackfoot are probably called that because of their dark colored moccasins. The real name for a spork is a runsable spoon. The real name of a number sign is an ‘octothorpe.’ You see? The human race has been on this earth for barely 100,000 years. When you say it all in a line like that, it’s suddenly all pointless trivia.” “You make me sad sometimes, Joe,” Dr. John says, stacking some note papers with a pomp of finality, “But for good or ill I see you growing into a remarkable man. You are already a fascinating young man to say the least.” This is his way of saying we’re done for today. I shrug and tell him bye, heading back out into the hallway. My mind plays pinball with ideas that have seemed to grow old with me. The little things in life are what matter. The end will come a little at a time, not in one death knell blow. Things start ending as soon as they begin. We’re all dying from the moment we cry our way into this world. Watch for the signs of the end. Watch for the story behind the story. All of these are things Mr. Smiles reminds me of like a mantra. He teaches me. I don’t see him, not today, but I hear him as if behind a curtain say, “Good job in there. You had him on the ropes.” It is October 22nd, 2024. I’m thirteen. The thousand mirrors fly by. Thousands of reflections, new faces, new hair dos, new days. I’ve learned so many things here. I listen to the attendants on their smoke breaks, talking about things happening in the news – talk of hacker gangs crashing systems, break92
ing into the IRS database and rearranging financial data, cracking bank software and stealing financial records from high-paid corporate types… so many, what do they call it? Security breaches. No one on the news will say it, but Mr. Smiles taught me well. It’s a new war. A new battlefront. Tech battles. Hacker War. They’ve declared war on the system in a way they might be able to win, but the news reports are only covering the minor inconveniences of system instability, temporary loss of online gaming or complaints of having to change login information. Mr. Smiles teaches me to watch out for the little things. Nobody sees the big picture, nobody but me. Watch the signs. Listen to the words behind the words. The untold story. The cry of the silent majority. Mr. Smiles taught me all of this, he told me to keep my eye on the little things, but he never taught me about today. He said the end comes a little at a time. He didn’t tell me about the big thing that can happen and how quickly things can go from being one way to being completely different. It happens suddenly, after you waste years looking at the little things and suddenly you look around, realize you’re thirteen and you’re still in the same damn place, it just explodes in your face. The Big Change I wasn’t looking for. It took less than a sixteenth of a second for Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet to kill Kennedy. Big Change. It took less than five minutes for Martin Luther King, Jr. to deliver the Dream Speech. Big Change. And it took Dr. John the space of forty-six seconds to deliver the news that changes everything. It starts when the phone in Dr. John’s office rings. I’m standing here, waiting for an attendant to walk me out to the yard, through the security doors and whatnot. Just standing here, waiting like I have a hundred times or more. There’s some mumbling and then the doctor’s door opens and he tells me to come back in. Big Change. While we were talking about anagrams and trivia and parables Lee Greene came out of his silent shell and wanted to speak to a lawyer. He didn’t call 93
his parents. That part seemed weird. And I see where this is headed.
He called a lawyer.
Dr. John says, “Joe, I don’t quite know what to say. I don’t know which is in order first, apologies or congratulations. But it seems your case is back under review. You may be out sooner than you think. Lee explained it all. He said it was all wrong. He’d been having a hard time at home and then what happened with Anthony finished him off. Yes, Anthony. That’s what he said. Something just clicked and he came out of it, perfectly articulate, perfectly clear-headed and cognizant. He said he wanted to speak to a lawyer about overturning the charges against you, expunging your record and bringing his parents, Anthony Whitetree, and one of our attendants up on charges.”
“One of the attendants?” I ask.
“It seems that he was sexually abused by a young female nurse while he was in his catatonic state, but he remembers everything. His father had been physically abusive, his mother neglectful in her inability to act, and Anthony Whitetree… well, what can I say? He stripped you two and locked you up in a square hole in the ground. I don’t know the name for that, but I know it’s illegal.”
“Does this mean I can go home now?”
“It might. We have to be realistic, son. We do still have law and order to these sorts of things and a boy that hasn’t spoken in almost four years who is also making allegations against a certified nurse isn’t exactly the most credible witness. But it’s become clear that I have been wrong about a lot of things and I will do my best to help you.” I mumble my best thank you, but it isn’t the poetry I would have hoped for, it’s basically a big dumb blob of sounds and a lot of nodding. I head back out into the hallway, my head buzzing like a cicada forest on a summer night. Sleep and the urge to run wash over me at the same time. I’m afraid it’s a seizure coming on, but then it 94
hits me. Lee, that crazy son of a bitch, he finally did it. He made it out of that hole, set the record straight, and just like that I’m off the butcher block. I’m a favored son, a victim, a prodigal on his way home. And They are all apologizing.
Forty-six seconds later and I’m going to be free.
to be continued in Dystopia Boy 0.6 >>
This issue contains the first installment of Rob Lee's memoir, "Collaborating with Angels," as well as our regular columns, the utopia-dysto...
Published on Jun 2, 2012
This issue contains the first installment of Rob Lee's memoir, "Collaborating with Angels," as well as our regular columns, the utopia-dysto...