Odd ducks sometimes find safe waters when all the swans get their tails shot off. Francois landed in Information Technology just as it was becoming a demand, while manufacturing and labor opportunities were becoming scarce. With the extra money he had, even as a young man, he bought a nice house outside North Tonawanda, in quiet Pendleton, where he and Jenny started having babies, and he started a stamp collection. To Jenny he was adamant: he was not a stamp collector; he was a philatelist. He studied stamps as a hobby, over against collecting them for trade. She hitched the baby on her hip and rolled her eyes: he had a whole room in the house dedicated to stamps. He subscribed to two stamp magazines: Philatelism Today and Modern Stamper. Rare and valuable stamps were specially mounted and displayed. He bought special lights and specially-coated glass to preserve the stamps from harmful ultra-violet rays. Yes, he was an odd duck.
The odd duck became obsessed with his hobby, speaking endlessly of new finds and old curiosities. “Did you know the oldest stamp was first issued by Great Britain in 1840? It’s called the ‘penny black’ because it was black, and it only cost a penny. But it is not so valuable as the rare Swedish Three Skilling Banco, which sold for over $2 million. Did you know that?” Day in and day out, Francois obsessed, coming to dinner late, wolfing his food to rush back to his stamp room. Jenny didn’t think Francois was doing anything wrong, per se, but she was concerned about the obsession. She noticed that to have any conversation with Francois was to gaze into his blank stare while his mind rallied around something to do with stamps, stamp collecting, and the study of stamps. She sighed, hoping the obsession was a passing fancy.
There, in the lamplight of his narrow above-ground hole, air-conditioned cool, but still damp, like the earth itself, without any television or radio, he sipped at his vodka, reminiscing, watching a water bug and a silverfish route themselves amicably to a common goal found somewhere behind the wall. Once the vodka glass was empty, he rose from his seat, went to a closet near his bedroom, pulled out a lock box, unlocked it, and wrapped his hand around his .45. He gave its muzzle a kiss, loaded a magazine into its grip, then went outside and around to the back of his trailer, where he shot at some shredded targets, practicing his grouping.
“Guess I’ve got to call some time,” he said, after the magazine was empty.
He went back inside, and after returning his pistol to its safe, he sat back down and poured another double-shot. He stared into the dark TV screen, contemplating while he sipped on his vodka. About halfway into that glass, he picked up the phone and dialed the number. The line did not ring; it went straight to voice mail, which confused Ernest. When the beep came, he stammered, “Yeah, uh, listen, Terrell, this is your father; I know: long time, no see. Or hear. You know. Yeah, uh, listen, Terrell, your Grandma Maude is dead. You can call me back. If you want. Yeah. Okay, bye. Love you.” He searched for the button on the number pad which ended the call. “I wish you could just hang these things up.” Vodka had made him forget that he could simply fold the phone closed.
“Odd,” she said to herself aloud. “It’s February. Why is Willie outside riding his bicycle?” She looked out the window again. “Oh no,” she said. Her heart had corrected her mistake before her mind had allowed. “Oh dear God, no.” She dropped her potato into the sink and jerked her head toward the living room, where, above the mantlepiece hung her crucifix, given to her at her Confirmation when she was thirteen years old. Seven years later she had given birth to Willie, delivering him to a proud William who had only eleven months earlier promised before God and man to care for her, to give himself up for her, and provide everything she needed to make him a house and a home till death did them part, and she delivered. He sang a doxology while he cried, holding up the boy, even as Zechariah sang when his tongue was loosed at the birth of John. “Ah, praise God,” William sang. “He has remembered us, Maude. Even us, a poor farm family doing the best we can to tear something up out of Adam’s cursed earth, he has remembered.”
Maude fell happily asleep with her baby in arms. “William, Jr.” she whispered as she forgot the pain.
Dust was not rising, but snow. It was not Willie riding his bicycle on the road, but a United States Army sedan, riding through drifts of snow, which rose up into the wind, whence they were whipped along the surface of the plains until the wind grew tired and rose up to regather its strength, releasing its present quarry to form another drift somewhere else along the road. The sun, hanging low in the southern horizon, never blinked, guiding the sedan without remorse.
“Ernest!” she cried. “Ernest, come here!” William was in one of the out buildings tending the animals. She slumped to the floor beneath the mantlepiece, clutching the ottoman, and she remembered the day the draft notice arrived. She held it in her hand, shaking with rage. “Why not class II-C?” she demanded of her husband. “Why not class II-C?”
“Our farm isn’t big enough, I suppose,” said William. “I suppose. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“What is it, Mama?” Ernest said to his mother. “Why are you on the floor crying? What happened? Are you hurt?”
“Bless your heart, yes,” said Maude. “Run outside and fetch your father. It is terrible. Terrible!”
Ernest heard the wrath in her heart pouring into her voice, so he ran, pulling on his boots in mid-stride, and without pulling on an overcoat, to fetch his father. By the time William and Ernest returned, Maude had composed herself and was listening.
I waited for Lily’s father to return home. “Rescue must die soon,” I blurted out, “but I do not know how to put him to his end.”
“Mercy will dictate,” said Lily’s father. “Mercy always dictates. How do you know your dog is sick to death?”
“Your brother says so,” I accused.
Lily’s father went over to Rescue. Rescue was suspicious of Lily’s father, but was not afraid of him. He did not wag his tail, but he did allow him to pet him, lifting up his head to receive a fine scratch on the chin.
“Yes,” said Lily’s father. “It is so.”
Pain came into my body at his word. “Is it because we let him outside in the rain?” I asked.
“No. Probably not.”
“Then why?” I was fighting tears, but these tears were not for my damn dog; they were for a host of spirits and immaterial effects and clouds and fogs that floated in me according to an unseen will, a will that was intent on pressing against my will, with an ability to touch nerves deep in my insides so that my mouth opened with nonsense, nonsense that was perfectly sensible when my dog was now dying and would die for a long time. I wanted my dog to come with me, to chase after butterflies and squirrels, to alert me to comers and goers, to be beside me at night, and to be a general companion, even if Shur-qa-hil was the guide. The trip north was for me and my dog. Me and my dog! My dog and me, who had no home, together, homeless, free, and far away.
Who loved Shur-qa-hil? That horrible, fat, corrupt, know-it-all, pompous, hairy monster!
“Rescue has lived his life a happy dog,” said Lily’s father. “As we all live our lives happy dogs.”
“Happy dogs!” I shouted.
“Our Father in heaven teaches us mercy by giving us dogs to care for. Did you ever make a slave of your dog?” he asked, being patient with me.
“Did you let him do what dogs do?” he asked.
“Did you clean him, feed him, tend to his hurts, pet him, tell him he was good, and otherwise take care of him?” he asked.
“Yes. For the most part,” I said. “I liked to just let him run around.”
“What more are you hoping for your own life?” asked Arret. “Do you desire mercy when the end of your time comes?”
More pain came into my body. Couldn’t the end of my time come very soon? Lily came into the room. She had been napping. Her face was flush with the awakening of recent sleep. I did not answer.
“Show mercy to your dog,” said Lily’s father, “and your Father in heaven will show mercy to you.”
Alta Vista did not, as is commonly thought, simply fold or become absorbed into a larger tech company. It morphed, with offices in New York, into an independent research company, mostly for hire by firms looking for a competitive edge against a rival firm. Alta Vista became AltVista. First Vice-President for Account Analysis Robert Hughes turned the knob on his office door at 8:55 am, as he did every morning, whether the train was early or late, entering, throwing his laptop case on the couch, pressing the brew button on his Keurig machine, and staring out his window down into the city, where he could just see the corner of Madison Square Park until his cup of coffee was brewed.
“French Roast,” he said. “So this is what the pavement in France tastes like.”
He took the cup from the machine and sipped, lifting his eyes to gaze out the window, thinking how many people were scurrying to be at work on time, as if it mattered, but they should have made allowance for time, like he did, so that at least appearances were kept up. Look at them, he mused to himself. The wealth of the nations, scurrying to push history forward, one cog at a time, until the cog comes around again, and then…” He couldn’t bear to finish the thought. He began another thought. They’re only me, just five minutes behind. I’m only five minutes ahead, so I’ll see it close down upon me just before they see it close down upon them. He lifted his cup to take another sip. At least I have a nice house…
At that moment, whether by the stimulating power of coffee, or by a change in the light reflecting from inside the window, VP Hughes became aware of another person in his office, someone behind him, sitting on the couch. Startled, he spun. “Oh, hello!” he started, then, “Oh, good lord…” A robot was sitting on his couch. Continue reading “The Unwelcome Thrust of Progress (Part 1)”→
“Bertram?” the vicar peeked around the door, scanning each hospital bed for his quarry. “Bertram?” Three beds were empty; the fourth held a sleeping figure. Bertram was laid out on his back, angled by the cruelty of hospital beds, and propped into that unnatural sleep by a drip of some sort and hot pillows. A third time the vicar called, venturing nearer the bed, “Betram?”
Bertram’s eyes came open, looking upward into the white of the ceiling. He scanned. The vicar drew near to him and sat down. The rustle of the vicar’s jacket pulled Bertram’s eyes away from the ceiling and toward the vicar. “Vicar!” he tried to exclaim, but phlegm blocked the greeting so that the vicar was greeted by an exuberant, thick cough.
“Lois told me you broke your hip.”
“Darnedest thing, Vicar,” laughed Bertram. “I was walking to turn off the lamp—you know where the lamp is—we run the cord for the lamp under the carpet there. Well, I tripped over the cord, fell down, and I heard my hip go ‘snap.’”
The vicar nodded. The nurse came tumbling in, saying, “His hip broke, then he fell.” The vicar nodded again.
“I was more struck,” Lily’s uncle resumed, “that he calls them the Brother and the Sister.”
“Why does that strike you?” Lily’s father asked.
“Because it’s latterly nonsense,” Lily’s uncle said, “Foisted upon this population by insubstantiality which has marked the decline of this last generation.”
The names of the rivers was a recent indication that our civilization was doomed?
“These state religions,” cried out an exasperated Lily’s uncle, “one right after another! They receive assiduously, but they are idle in bequeathal. They redesignate so that one young man rises up with one set of surface beliefs, then the next young man rises up with an entirely different set of surface beliefs; they’re nothing but lily pads in a shallow pond, these beliefs.”
Then he returned from his raving to me, and he demanded, “Why do you call the rivers Brother and Sister?”
“Well,” I began, “not that I believe in myths, but I thought that it was a quaint way to add character to muddy water.”
“You don’t believe in myths?” asked Lily’s uncle.
“Not really. We’re just mud, anyway; what difference does it make?” I said, half-believing what was saying.
“How does the myth of Brother and Sister come to you?” he asked.
I said, “My father taught me that the son and daughter of the Almighty God provoked him to anger by not glorifying the lesser beings, that is, us men, so he cast them out of his palace onto the earth. They assumed the form of dragons of fire, intent on destroying the lesser beings, but their father trapped their heads, one of them with his right hand, and the other of them with his left foot. With his left hand, he tied together their tails, right here in the city, in fact. He raised up his hand to smite them, and they begged for mercy. He agreed not to kill them if they were to forever quench their fires.
“So here they are to this day, squirming in their beds until the end of the world, the Brother and the Sister.”
Lily’s uncle looked at me intently, asking, “Where do you think the palace of the Almighty God is?”
I thought for a moment, then said, “I suppose it must be somewhere that is not known as earth.”
“And you don’t think that this myth makes any difference?” he asked.
“Brother,” interrupted Lily’s father. “That is not a fair question. He did not say that the myth makes any difference; he said that believing in the myth does not make any difference.”
“I did say that,” I said, “but the myth doesn’t make any difference if believing in the myth does not make any difference.”
There was a stunned look on the face of Lily’s uncle.
Lily asked, “But does a myth not teach even if it is not true?”
“Many things teach,” I replied. “Where does teaching come from? Why would I believe that the palace of this myth teaches that there is a transcendental existence beyond what I can see and perceive if there really isn’t one?”
“In your mind,” asked Lily’s mother, “is there a palace?”
I looked at Occuri. I remarked to myself that this was the first time that she had spoken to me in a day or so; I couldn’t remember hearing her participate in any conversation that involved me. Then I thought to myself that this was the most extraordinary family, not for the questions, not necessarily, but for the earnestness of their relationships.
“There is a palace,” I said. “There must be.”
“Do you believe in a palace because of this myth?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“But you do not believe in the myth,” she propositioned for me.
“No,” I said. “The myth is utter nonsense.”
A smile crept across the face of Lily’s father. His eyebrows hung low over his eyes.