Archive for June, 2013

Waste Management

Posted: June 10, 2013 in Fiction, Short Stories

Waste Management by Chad M. Hemmert

I have to get off this rock. One way or another, I’m leavin’ tonight. Where am I gonna go? Sometimes I can see it out of the skylights at night, when the clouds break. No, I guess they’re not clouds; not really. Clouds are something made by nature. These are ugly, shit brown dust storms, human-made by-products of our own festering exhaust. They clog the air filters, leaving a layer of muck on the skylights. And then some bastard—like me, has to go topside and clear it off.

I have seen clouds before—real clouds. I’ve seen them up there, at that place I’m heading to. They look like something out of a dream; fluffy and white, swirling around deep blue of what can only be oceans. And on the borders of the water are strange, unexplored lands. There is a blue planet up there, and this is where I’m gonna go.

I haven’t been topside—yet; my name didn’t get called until recently. I guess I should be happy that there have been plenty of others to go ahead of me. But that’s part of the problem; there’s just too many of us! There’s always a generous lot for the government to draw from. It’s called, “civic tax.” This is what the government charges each of its citizens for the so-called privilege to live in the Underground.

There isn’t much to this life. Every taxpayer gets their own pod at least—which is nothing more than a compartment for sleeping—and with it, a privacy door allowing for the ability to barricade yourself from the rest of the hive, even if it’s just behind a thin piece of plastic. Without these individual pods, I’m certain we would all kill each other. At least the government had the foresight to enact this small measure of privacy. It’s crowded, beat-down, and smelly from all of the garbage built up, but it’s all we’ve ever known.

Everyone’s taxed on their air, food rations, recycled water. We all pitch in, working on the farms, cleaning the sewers, collecting trash, or worse; topside duty. If you don’t suffocate from the mucky air, or get a chemical burn from the acid rain, you’re bound to get snatched up by one of the Dactyls, which are little more than flying wrangles of leather and teeth. The Dactyls are practically the only living things able to survive the harsh surface environment. Every other living thing’s been harvested, mined, or destroyed.

The Dactyls like to hunt the taxpayers sent to clear the skylights of muck. They first stalk them, then snatch them up, one-by-one. The upshot, I suppose, is that the Dactyls are so fast you probably don’t feel it when it finally happens. It’s practically a statistic that once you go topside, you won’t come back. The government knows this, and I’m sure that this is part of their population control. This is why I have to leave tonight, and I have a plan.

***

It all started about a week ago when my number was pulled for topside tax. So far, I had been lucky enough to get assigned to “waste management,” which is a fancy way of saying that I was a trash collector. I know, I know—roosting in other people’s putrefied food, crumpled cartons, and bloody tampons doesn’t sound very fortunate, but trust me; it’s one of the better taxes to pay. It’s easy enough work. You just go around your assigned area and collect the trash in large bins and bring it to the compactors. The nastiest part is the sorting. Paper goes with paper, metal with metal, plastic with plastic, each sent to their various processing centers to be recycled. All food and human waste gets bundled and shipped back to the farms to be used as fertilizer. Still, with all of these systems in place, a lot of trash gets thrown in the main compactor to be sent away.

I was in the middle of a relatively good dream of swimming in a particularly bountiful ocean of plastic cups, used toilet paper, and unspeakable organic waste. I was making my laps and rounds, paddling my arms and legs to stay buoyant above the surface of trash. My somewhat surreal dream turned into a nightmare, as my lucid ears heard the ominous sound of paper being slid under the door of my pod. My eyelids split open, unable to close, or return me to the protective world of dreaming.

I rolled over and looked across the pod—a distance no greater than the length of my cot—to see what had been pushed under my door. It was an envelope, made from the same recycled pulp that all of the paper products in the Underground are made of. I could tell that it was official government mail; most likely a new tax assignment. I felt the same lurch in my stomach that I had every time I got one of these new envelopes, dreading the inevitable moment when my number would be called. So far, I’ve dodged the bullet, but down here in the Underground, everyone’s luck eventually runs out.

I shuffled over to the door and snatched up the envelope. It was plain except for my name, typed in bold letters. Yep, definitely “official government correspondence.” I loathed opening it, not just because I would have to leave my current cushy tax assignment, but because somehow, I knew. Even before I slid my finger beneath the sealed flap, inheriting a rough paper cut; before I opened the single tri-fold page inside; before I read the words typed on the page, something which felt like a death warrant; I knew that my time had come.

The letter wasn’t eloquent or wordy, but was composed of the bland rhetoric that government documents are composed of:

 

GIBSON, S. TAX ID# 44728-17

SECTOR 88, NEIGHBORHOOD 57, POD D7

 

MR. GIBSON: YOUR CURRENT CIVIC WORK ASSIGNMENT OF:

*WASTE MANAGEMENT* IS ABOUT TO EXPIRE.

YOU ARE HEREBY REASSIGNED TO CIVIL TAX CODE #567:

*EXTERIOR SKYLIGHT CLEANING*

YOUR NEW ASSIGNMENT WILL BEGIN IN 3 DAYS. YOU ARE TO REPORT TO HATCH TERMINAL #90, NO LATER THAN 0500. UNIFORM AND PROTECTIVE GEAR WILL BE PROVIDED.

 

And that was it. No sincerity. No words of “Thank you Mr. Gibson for becoming the latest Dactyl-fodder, and—YES! We’re glad you’re going away; we could always use the space down here.” Hell, the government didn’t even have the decency of telling me to my face that they had just condemned me to death. Only an impersonal note slipped under my door. No, nothing even resembling the slightest inkling of human compassion—just do your civic duty, pay your taxes, and get on with dying. In a society that has found a way to cram all of humanity below ground into these hives, what did I expect?

Reading the words had been somewhat anticlimactic. I knew that my number would eventually come up. And hadn’t I secretly celebrated each time that someone else’s number had been pulled? How long did I really think my streak would last? And why did I think that my life, my dreams, or my imagination were worth salvaging above someone else’s? I’m sure that everybody feels this way about themselves at some point; that their life holds the utmost value, and should be preserved by society. But here in the Underground, self-preservation has become nearly extinct, in place of serving the needs of society-at-large. Yes, I will do my duty, even in death. I will serve greater humanity by making space for another hungry mouth; another tired soul.

***

I went to go visit Smitty almost as soon as I found out I’d be going topside. He’s been the closest thing I’ve had to a friend. We worked together in Waste Management, although his tax assignment was permanent. Getting a permanent tax position was almost unheard of. I guess the government felt sorry for him because he was so old. How old was he? It’s hard to tell. Life in the Underground takes its toll on you; makes you age faster. In fact, no one’s been able to tell me just how long we’ve all been canned up down here like so much ration meat. People either don’t know or don’t care anymore. All I know is that I was born here, but I don’t plan on dying here.

I would visit Smitty every so often for a good laugh. The old crackerbarrel was always full of stories; some so fantastical that they must be bullshit. A lot of his stories come from when he was a kid. He told me stories of what life used to be like before humans went underground. He claimed that the surface wasn’t always the poisonous dustbowl that it is now. He talked about green places and things growing out of the ground without machines or artificial light. I never believed him, but would always listen anyway. Now I was visiting for a more somber reason; and I had nobody else to talk to about going topside.

I tapped on his pod door, not sure if he was out collecting trash, but I was relieved to hear his raspy, weathered voice spurt his usual greeting of, “Whaddya want?!”

“It’s Shane—I’m comin’ in, o.k?”

“Oh, all right,” he growled. He always acted put off by my visits, but deep down, I thought it was just an act.

I opened the door to find him sitting back in his cot, aiming a taut, homemade slingshot right at my head. Smitty had many such devices; it was one of the perks of working in Waste Management. His ability to craft useable inventions out of other people’s trash is what had drawn me to him. That, and of course, his crazy stories.

He was deceptively frail; his years of hauling trash had kept him strong, but watching his arms quiver, made me think that he wouldn’t be able to stay the slingshot for long.

“Hey, why don’t you put that thing down? It’s only me—you know, Shane.”

“I know who y’are,” he replied, continuing to draw back on the elastic cord of his weapon, giving no sign of recognition.

“What did you make that from? An old innertube?”

“Fanbelt,” he grunted, not able to hide his inventor’s pride. He grinned, revealing his old man’s maw. Three or four visible teeth poked out from his gumline. As old as Smitty was, it was a wonder that he had any remaining teeth to chew with. Down here, even for us younger guys, the teeth are one of the first things to go. Then it’s the eyes, then skin ailments, which all lead to a drawn out, degrading death. The government says that it’s from all of the topside toxins seeping through the ventilation system. It seems that the government, in all of its protective consolidation of humanity below ground, wasn’t able to dig deep enough. Even if dangerous tax assignments didn’t kill you, life in the Underground eventually would.

Smitty finally lowered the slingshot and said, “Well? You gonna come in or just stand there like an idiot?”

“Sorry,” I mumbled, actually feeling like an idiot.

“And shut the door behind you!” I did what he said, nearly tripping over one of his pieces of scrap. “D’you know what that is?” I looked down at the object I had almost tripped over. It was a long, shiny piece of metal that looked like it came from some machine or another, but I couldn’t place where I had seen it before. “G’head, pick it up.”

I bent over and lifted it off of the ground. It was heavier than I thought it would be. It was almost as long as Smitty’s cot, slightly curved and polished to a near mirror shine.

“What is this thing Smitty?”

“Ha! You young punks think you know it all. Well Smitty says: feast your eyes on a true marvel! What you are holdin’ is a genuine bumper.”

“Wait, what—? A bumper?” I couldn’t hide my disappointment. “Looks pretty worthless to me, except that you’re holding out on the government. A piece of scrap metal like that has got to be worth a whole lot to them. You could get into a lot of trouble for not recycling it.”

Smitty waved a dismissive hand in my direction. “The government doesn’t pay much mind to ol’ Smitty anymore. And besides, this bumper is worth more to me as it is; whole and intact.”

“This—bumper? Where did it come from?”

“Smitty laughs his hardy, gruff laughter. “Where indeed? Now, put that down! Come over here.”

As usual, I did as I was instructed. Smitty’s living space was unlike any other pod I had encountered. Sure, it was the same size as the others in the hive—everyone gets the same thing—but he transformed his pod into a type of living workshop.

The walls, floor, and even ceiling were completely occupied with his contraptions. Walking into Smitty’s place was like entering a mechanical jungle. There was no telling what new and interesting inventions I would encounter. There wasn’t a spare place to sit, save a small corner of his government issued cot. I took my seat next to him, and he pulled out a roughly-bound assortment of pages and notes he had salvaged from the garbage.

“Look here,” he pointed his permanently muck-stained finger at a picture on one of the pages.

“Yeah, I know. You told me about these before.” I was getting bored fast. “This is a car, right?”

“Well, what d’you think was attached to the ass end of a car?”

“What—this bumper thing?” I looked more closely at the picture, which was nothing more than a scrap of magazine paper that Smitty had found during one of his trash runs. He had told me stories of the old times, before humans went underground. One of his more ludicrous stories spoke of vast webworks of roadways and turnpikes that covered the land. He talked about how humans used to roam freely on these hard-paved streets in their personal vehicles, which they called cars. I didn’t believe him of course. It was too absurd to think that there could be such extravagant space available for people to travel.

Smitty’s stories were always like that, painting an impossible picture of decadent surface life. But standing there in his pod, having felt the actual weight; the substance of this relic, I couldn’t help but wonder if his tall tales had some truth to them.

“What function did these bumpers serve?”

Smitty looked thoughtful, then replied, “Well, most of the time, people put stickers on ‘em.”

“So they were used for decoration? I don’t see any stickers on this bumper—“

“No, no, you dolt,” he cut me off with his usual impatience. “They weren’t supposed to be for decoration; people just slapped the stickers on ‘em for—well, for entertainment, I suppose. Somethin’ to look at while drivin.’”

I frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“No, I suppose it wouldn’t; not to you. But then again, most of what people did before they were driven underground never made much sense to me either. I guess if they had been sensible, none of us would be in the mess we’re in.”

“I don’t know…” I was reluctant to contradict the oldtimer, but spoke up just the same. “At least we’re alive, aren’t we? That’s got to count for something, right?”

Smitty waves his hand again. “Nah. Alive doesn’t mean your livin.’ I wish you could’ve seen how things used to be—before we went underground.” Instead of his typical cantankerous expression, his eyes became misty. “We weren’t all packed in like a bunch of animals, that’s for sure. There wasn’t much space, but there was a hell of a lot more than there is in these hives; at least enough to stretch your bones out.” He swept his arms wide to illustrate his point.

I shook my head slowly. “I just can’t imagine that. I mean—you’ve told me before about how great surface life used to be, but what you’re talkin’ about sounds like some kind of fantasy land.”

“Well boy, Smitty was there. And even though things weren’t perfect—far from it, in fact—life back then had this beat by a longshot.”

“What happened? How did we end up like this anyway—underground, I mean?”

Smitty worked his way to his feet, moving on the ramshackle hinges that served as his joints. They were so old, I could almost hear them creaking as he stepped over to one of his gadgets. This one was mounted to the wall above his sink, and it was fashioned from a series of pipes, valves, and levers. He turned a number of these in precise succession, then wheeled a large crank round and round again. The machine began chugging to life. Steam shot out from different places where the pipe connections weren’t so tight, and Smitty kept tinkering with his contraption, hand tightening pipe fixtures, working to close the gap in the seams.

Eventually he produced a rusty tin cup, to which he held beneath a makeshift spigot. Thick brown fluid—just enough to fill his cup halfway—emptied from his machine and into the cup. When Smitty had milked all he could for the moment, he turned to face me again, wearing his mostly toothless grin.

“What is that? Machine oil?”

“Nawp. Swill. Smitty’s own house blend. D’you want some?”

“No thanks.” I tried to hide my disgust, not wanting to know what the “swill” had been rendered from. Don’t get me wrong—I like alcohol as much as anyone else, but something about Smitty’s homebrew unsettled my stomach.

“Suit yourself,” he said, looking a bit offended. He took a swig of the beverage, nearly gagging. “That’ll clean out the pipes for sure! Whew!” He mopped his brow with a greasy handkerchief.

“So come on! Tell me already!” I prompted him, wanting any excuse to delay relaying the troublesome information I had come to bring him about my tax change.

He looked dead serious for an instant, sizing me up. “If you really wanna know, Smitty’ll tell ya. But I’m only gonna tell the story once, so you better not interrupt me.” He took another healthy swig from his cup, making his cheeks flush.

“Whatever you say, Smitty.”

“All right. It all started with the trash, believe it or not. For instance, do you know where the trash goes once we’re done with it?”

***

“The world was bigger back then; noisier, busier, and if you can believe it; dirtier. Even with all that land and open air topside, we humans were running out of room. Smitty was only a kid back in those days, but he remembers topside life like it was yesterday.”

“We all lived in gigantic cities, which were nothing more than buildings stacked up on more buildings. And the people were packed in, kinda how we are now. Nothin’ but people; swarms of ‘em, all goin’ about their business, wantin’ to always do the same thing at the same time. Kinda like a herd of animals.” Smitty paused for a moment, and took another swig. “The cities were run by big businesses. They controlled everything. If they could get the herd to buy their usually useless crap, drink their sodas, wear their shoes…well, then these businesses would get rich. And the herd kept buyin’ and consumin’ and wastin; feedin’ the bastards at the top. But one thing that no one thought of, was all the garbage that was created as a result of the herd’s appetite. And boy, was that appetite big!

One thing that sticks out to me from my memories of being a boy, is just how much it stank. There was trash everywhere; inside the cities, outside the cities, great mountains of it, rising almost as high as the buildings themselves. They used to bury it underground; Landfills they called ‘em. Ha! Now look what’s fillin’ up the underground; us! By that time, there was nothin’ natural left on the planet. All of the ore was mined from the rocks; all of the trees scrapped and used for lumber; which led to the damned muck in the air. There wasn’t even any fresh water left; it was all bottled up, recycled, and sold by the businesses. Can you imagine that? Something the planet used to make plenty of for free; eventually, all of it was owned and sold by companies.

Well, these businesses were left with one hell of a garbage problem. So what do ya think they did? They shipped it off world, of course! There were great rocket ships the size of skyscrapers, all filled to the brim with the smelly, stinky, rotten heaps of trash that had built up over hundreds of years.

They sent these contraptions out into space, where they crash landed on what the big businesses considered prime real estate.

No one, not even the scientists, thought much of the rock that orbits our planet. It had no life, no water, no useable minerals; only craters and dust. So they decided to move the pollution from one planet to the next.

Things topside did get better for a while – at least the trash was disappearing- but they weren’t prepared for what happened next.

That small moon above; Pa used to tell Smitty that it would glow pale yellow, kinda like that government cheese we get in our rations. He said that when he was a boy, he could see a face in it, made from the scratches and craters. He would tell me that it was God lookin’ down at us all. But ever since we started sendin’ our trash up there, the face changed; even disappeared.

On nights when the muck cleared a little, you could stand outside and watch it change. I know it sounds crazy, but when Smitty was a boy, he could see things happenin’ up there. You see, Smitty’s Pa had a piece of glass called a telescope. See the place we were sending our trash. It wasn’t a sterile and empty rock anymore; it was covered in clouds; real clouds. Smitty never got to see what was under those clouds, but whatever it was, Smitty was sure it had to be alive. People said that all of the trash we were sendin’ up there made things grow; and that new lifeforms were livin’ there. I never did believe ‘em though.

Meanwhile, things back here were getting’ worse. The muck got thicker, makin’ it nearly impossible to live up top. Like Smitty said, the big businesses pillaged anything worth anything from the planet. This only left us with the recycles, which, as you know, don’t last long. The businesses were losin’ profits, so they came up with a way to keep things goin.’ They dug us deep into this underground and built these hives, hopin’ that one day we’d all be able to get back to the surface. But the only thing that’s able to live topside are those damned Dactyls.”

“Yeah Smitty, that’s actually why I came to visit.” I spoke up, the reason why I came to Smitty’s pod finally reaching my lips.

“Your number got pulled then.” It wasn’t a question. Smitty’s face became serious and a little sentimental. He walked over to his homemade swill machine, and cranked it up again, refilling his mug. “Here, drink this.”

This time I didn’t refuse.

***

I left Smitty’s pod feeling somehow worse that when I had arrived. I don’t know what I had expected; sympathy; empathy; grandfatherly advice? The following days flew by in a blur of sleep-deprived panic, each bringing me closer to my inevitable moment of truth. The only relief came from emptying the garbage, where at least half of my mind could focus on something besides what it would feel like to have my flesh torn apart by a Dactyl. The other half of my mind formulated desperate, ill-conceived plans to try and escape. But I knew that the penalty for tax evasion was death. And my feeble, half-baked notions of escaping were my way of dealing with the end; whether it came by beast or bullet.

I was like that up until the last day. I thought I would’ve been the most scared then, but instead I felt numb. I went through the motions of washing my face and combing my hair as if I were going to any other tax assignment…one that I would surely live through. This attitude was not due to optimism or any renewed vigor on my part, but the sheer routine of preparing for another day; it was the only thing that made me feel human.

I decided to leave at 0400, so I could swing by Smitty’s for one last chat before I was thrown to the Dactyls. When I knocked, I was surprised to encounter a stranger, groggy-eyed, and very pissed off to be disturbed so early in the morning.

“Whatdya want?!”

“I-I was looking for Smitty.”

“Look like you got the wrong pod.”

My eyes darted to the number plate on the door. Yep, it was pod C-5, the same one I had visited just days ago.

“He was here.”

”I moved in yesterday.”

My heart sank. “Smitty. What happened—?“

“How the hell should I know? Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got some sleep I need to get back to.” He slammed the plastic door in my face. Smitty was old, but the far more likely explanation was that he had run into gov’t trouble. Poor Smitty. Just thinking of the old timer, one remnant of a time when we lived on the surface as we were meant to, nearly brought a tear to my eye. I thought of how he had taken other people’s trash and made something out if it. Part of that surface, like that other time, had seeped into everything Smitty put his hands to, allowing him to build, create, and hope. There was something about his life that was dedicated to more than just mere survival; that he wouldn’t have been satisfied simply existing. Smitty was one in a million. Now that he was gone, I felt more alone and confused that I ever had before.

I turned away from Smitty’s pod, resolved to make my long walk to what would most likely be a horrific and painful death. But as I took my first few steps, I heard Smitty’s pod door open again.

“Hey!” The new tenant of pod C-5 called after me. He was holding Smitty’s make shift scrapbook- the one with the picture of a car in it- out to me.

“Wha-?”

“I found this under the cot. It must’ve belonged to this ‘Smithy’ of yours. I don’t know…”

“Smitty. His name was Smitty.”

“Whatever. Do you want it or not? [I don’t know why he had it. It’s just a bunch of old pictures. Kinda smells like garbage.”

“Yeah, yeah I’ll take it.” Although I didn’t have much use for the book where I was going, I still liked having this memento of the old timer. I grabbed it before the grouchy tenant could slam the door shut on my hand.

I stood in the corridor, taking what might have been my only chance to look through Smitty’s collected scraps of evidence. That we had once lived on the surface. I opened to a picture of a giant tree. I had never seen so much green before. The color seemed to jump out at me from every picture with trees and plants. I had only seen the stunted specimens that the gov’t raised for food or oxygen. The flora in these pictures called to my imagination. I wanted to feel the rough bark, smell the sap, and get lost in its branches and leaves, so vivid, so alive.

As I turned to the next page, a peculiar piece of paper, folded neatly into fourths fell to the floor. I picked it up, and unfolded it. The note was written in Smitty’s scratchy, wayward writing, some of the words misspelled:

Remember that bumper I showd you? Well, there’s more where that came from. Go find the rest of it. It’ll be wurth yer wile! It’s at the shop.

P.S. Don’t say I never gave ya nothin’!

I wondered what the hell this meant. Obviously the note had been intended for me, unless Smitty was in the habit of showing off his contraband to other interested parties. What did he have up his sleeve?

I pulled up my sleeve to look at my gov’t issued watch. 04:30. If I timed it right, I could drop by the garbage shop where Smitty worked, to see what he was talking about, if anything. Then I should have just enough time to report to my next tax assignment. And if I was a couple of minutes late, what were they gonna do, kill me? I laughed to myself as I set out for the garbage dump.

When I arrived, the place was deserted. The morning shift was already out on their rounds, collecting the population’s collected waste.

I easily found Smitty’s old workstation. The gov’t hadn’t bothered to clear it out yet. It was filled with more of the wonderous contraptions he had made from piecing together his various findings in the trash.

It was sad to look over the remains of a dead man; what had amounted to his life’s work. All of the toil; the spark of creativity; the magic that had arisen from Smitty’s unique vision of a world lost; it was all here, forgotten and misunderstood.

I opened the drawers to his tool box caressing the implements Smitty had used to build his defiant monuments. Just by feeling them, I could tell they were well loved and worn. How many things had he built with these tools? How many half-formed thoughts had made their way into this world, intruding into their purposeless and segmented lives? And who else but Smitty could’ve joined hands, tools, and mind together with such clarity? The more I snooped around Smitty’s old stomping ground, the more I realized just how little I knew about him. Even in death, the old cracker barrel was able to surprise me.

Just when I was about to leave, I noticed something extra peculiar about Smitty’s workspace.

Tucked away in a far off cubby hole was that bumper-thing that Smitty had been so excited about. I barely noticed it among the other scrapes of a junk pilled in his area. I ran my hand along its cold, smooth surface; feeling a little nostalgic over Smitty and his fondness for these strange artifacts. I traced the bumper to the place where it was apparently bolted to a larger object; round and also metallic.

I stood up, stepping back to take a better look. If I trained my eyes right, I could almost make out the shape of this larger object.

“Smitty, you old bastard! How did you-?”

I couldn’t trust my disbelieving eyes; I had to feel this for myself. To the bottom right of the bumper was a small opening, a vent sized crawlspace that would give me access to the object. I got down on my hands and knees and squeezed my way through the crawl space to emerge into a secret room. Actually, it was more like a make shift garage assembled from Smitty’s garbage findings. At the center of this shed-sized room was exactly the object I thought I had seen, attached to the bumper, staring at me in plain sight from its hiding spot. This was one of Smitty’s cars he had fawned over so lovingly. I had only seen them in his picture book, but I was sure that this was it; the real thing.

There wasn’t much room to move around in the small hidden space that Smitty had created for his car. I looked over the vehicle as much as I could, admiring something that had been created in a more luxurious time; something not borne strictly out of necessity. It really was like a work of art, and I could tell that this car had been Smitty’s pride and joy. How he had kept it a secret for so long is a mystery that brought a smile to my face.

I opened the door and sat in the seat. It wasn’t very comfortable. I couldn’t imagine people traveling over great distances in such a cramped vehicle, but there was something compelling about it just the same. It was the idea of roaming, exploring; even if every square inch of surface land had already been navigated by others, there was still the exciting prospect of seeing these places for yourself, walking the land, or in this case, driving.

There was a small mirror hanging from the ceiling. I supposed that this was a way to see what was going on behind you as you were driving. It was really quite ingenious. A pair of red fuzzy dice was tethered to the mirror, adding a playful edge to the car.

I put my hands on the wheel in front of me. It looked similar to what you’d find on one of the hatch doors that separated us from topside. At the center of the wheel was a strange symbol containing a jagged series of lines that almost looked like letters:

vw

VW? I turned the wheel to the left, thinking that it would keep turning, unscrewing like the round handles of the hatch doors, but it only turned so far before catching on something. I turned the wheel back to the right and the same thing happened. There were so many knobs and levers, I wasn’t sure of which devices did what, but after some experimenting, I was able to start the engine. It sounded old and grumpy—kind of like Smitty—but it kept running.

I could smell smoke filling the room—well, it wasn’t entirely like smoke, and it wasn’t entirely unpleasant; it was apparently some sort of invisible by-product made by the car; a type of exhaust. There was something about the smell of it that transported me to the time when people drove these cars on open, sprawling roads. I could feel the pull of those roads, zooming the car in the open air. I could feel—

The dim, secret alcove of Smitty’s workstation suddenly flared in bright lights and caterwauling sirens. A voice boomed from every loudspeaker in the Underground and all of its hives.

“TAX I.D. 44728-17! GIBSON, SHANE! YOU ARE IN VIOLATION OF TAX CONDUCT CODE 14-D, MANDATORY COMPLIANCE! YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES TO REPORT TO YOUR ASSIGNED AREA OR FACE TAX PENALTY!”

I was late for my tax assignment. The thought of facing Dactyls and armed tax police seemed more unappealing than ever. If I was to die, perhaps I could go out with style. Maybe it was the car—this crazy time machine from a different era—enticing me with its smells and road mysteries. Maybe it was the fact that I was more than five minutes out from Hatch Terminal 90, the place where I was supposed to be. Whatever the case, all I could think to do was get the car movin.’

I tried more levers and switches until the car lurched forward, bursting through the wall of junk where it had been sequestered.

“So that’s what a bumper is for!” I shouted, feeling the excitement of driving for the first time. My feet found a couple of pedals near the floor, and I was happy to discover that one of them was the throttle.

As I stepped on the pedal, I was shoved back in my seat by the sudden forward force. I was heading straight for a wall. I didn’t realize how powerful and fast a car could be. I grabbed onto the “VW” wheel, which was the only thing I could grab onto, and braced myself to crash. By some miracle however, I turned the wheel at the right time, making a hard right. So this wheel was meant to help the vehicle maneuver. The rubber wheels screeched in protest as I swerved, clipping the side mirror.

“Yee haw, Smitty!” I whooped. But my celebration was short-lived. The sharp turn had saved me from crashing into the wall, but ended up steering me dead on towards the trash compactor. “Oh shit!” My foot was still on the throttle, and I drove straight off of the metal cliff-edge and into the compactor.

The car plopped to a rest, halfway buried in a mound of garbage. As soon as I landed, the automatic sensor detected what it thought was another load of trash, triggering the massive compactor walls to compress in on me. I tried to open the car doors, but the vehicle was stuck too deep in the trash, trapping me inside.

I watched in horror as the walls pressed closer, threatening to mash me in with the garbage. At that moment, the thought of being eaten alive by a Dactyl seemed rather pleasant compared to this gruesome end.

Just as the car became completely engulfed by the refuse of the masses, the compactor’s hefty machinery stopped. I couldn’t see anything out of the windows; the compressed garbage blocked out all light. I could only hear and feel the mound of garbage, now neatly cubed, being carried down a conveyor belt.

***

I’ve been like this for what I can only assume have been days now, trapped in the dark, with nothing to breathe except rancid air. I say that I’ve been like this for days, but I really have no sense of time. I’ve had to rely on my other senses to figure out what I think is happening.

After the conveyor belt, there was no sound or motion; only creepy, smelly darkness. I fell asleep on-and-off, wondering how long it would take for me to die here, alone in this steel and glass coffin.

During one of my naps, I was jarred awake by a deep rumbling that was so loud I thought it would make me deaf. Then, without warning, I was squashed back into my seat. This force was much more powerful than the force I had experienced when I stepped on the car’s throttle. But I was in motion.

The rumbling seemed to go on forever; I never thought the shaking would end, but it eventually did. And when it did, I felt the most peculiar of sensations. All was quiet, and I was no longer pressed into my seat, but floating inside the cabin of the car. I had heard about rocket travel, and the bizarre effects of leaving the planet’s gravity. Was I really in outer space?

The abrupt change in gravitation was too much for me and I felt like throwing up. There was a thick, buckled strap below be on the seat. I pulled myself down and strapped in, clicking the buckle in place. I closed my eyes, gripping the turning wheel tight.

When my nausea went away, I opened my eyes. The pair of red fuzzy dice were floating in front of me, bouncing from ceiling to window in lazy traces. Something about their nonchalant gliding made me smile in spite of my predicament.

What if Smitty had been right? What if I’m on a one way trip to that other place; the one I could see every so often from the skylights? What is waiting for me there?

I reach around to the left seat cushion, finding another lever. I pull it and my seat tilts back. I put my hands behind my head, stretching out a little, imagining what lies ahead. When I close my eyes, I see myself racing along open stretches of alien road, flying through the landscape in my very own car.

 

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I wrote this short story back in 2007. I can see some of my early flirtations with gypsy characters. This was fun to find buried in the archives!

On the Trail of the Scarlet Gypsy

by Chad M. Hemmert

 Some lessons come easy in life, others are learned in the blunt, reluctant fashion that only come with hard-headed stubbornness.  Most of my life, I have learned this second way, but I have learned, and I carry the weight of my experiences along with me, heavy like the guns I wear at my sides.

            The name’s Rainier, and I am what some would call a hired gun, others might call an assassin.  Either way, I am on neither side of the law, and have made my own rules since I was on my own as a young lad.  I have had to learn the way of the gun as a way of survival in these dark and troubled times, and my score of kills stretches out like an endless river of blood.  I travel from town to town, where the work carries me, and there’s always work.  People hire me to do the deeds that are tough, but necessary.  I don’t ask questions, and I don’t do children.  I give the little ones a chance to grow into the monsters that they will eventually become, rather than adding their names to my long list of casualties to atone for.  Some would call me a monster, but there is always a place in this world for men like me, hardened, impartial, and skilled in dealing death. 

             I have been tracking her for weeks now, the one they call the Scarlet Gypsy.  I know of her name only by the calling card she leaves behind, the blood-stained tarot card of the Red Queen, and the ‘Gypsy’s trademark way of leaving a trail of destruction and ruined lives wherever she goes. 

            One of these such ruined lives came in the form of a rancher named Diego.  Apparently the Scarlet Gypsy liked to play games, usually elaborate cons,  but some games can turn deadly, and the stakes of this game were high indeed. 

            “Make sure she feels it,” Diego had told me with bloodlust in his eyes, pronouncing  the word “feels” like “filth,” in his heavy accent.  When the ‘Gypsy had rolled him, she had left town with most of his fortune and most of his dignity as well.

            The Scarlet Gypsy has been harder than most to track down, seeming to be more legend than real.  She was said to be possessed of great cunning and beauty, ruthlessly exploiting many unwary victims either for gain or sport, or maybe both.  I wondered if some other hard caliber might have gotten to her first, hired by some poor soul whom she had left penniless and broken, but eventually I find someone that has heard of her whereabouts and I move on.   

             I have tracked the ‘Gypsy to this small, dusty mining town set up in the mountains that overlook the Verde Valley.  I have disguised myself as a businessman looking to invest in some of the mining shareholds this town has to offer.  Discretion is one of my specialties, and I have found that money can buy you much anonymity, even in these small towns where gossip seems to spread like kindling to a fire.

            I have staked out my quarry to the Spirit Room, a rambunctious little honky tonk set in the middle of this growing mining town, and apparently the center of the nightlife here.  Loud music, strong ale, and lively long-legged burlesque dancers are the nightly offerings of the Spirit Room.  Housed upstairs is the Hotel Connor, a decent place to crash and burn after getting liquored up and a lady to accompany you.

            Tonight I am sitting at a table playing a rather civilized but lopsided game of poker with a group of local gentlemen.  I have killed enough of their kind in my line of business to fall into the typical snobbish banter easily, and I play my part well, almost as well as I play cards.  I have to look like I’ve got money if I’m going to have a chance at luring in the Scarlet Gypsy.  Rich men stand out to her like drops of water in the desert.

            The music stops and the barkeep nimbly hops on top of the bar, raising his arms for quiet. 

            “All right you bunch of drunken stumblebums!” he proclaims jovially, his parted mustache twitching.  “Hush now!  We’re about ready for the evening’s real entertainment!”  He winks down knowingly at the large crowd of miners and patrons gathered in the Spirit Room.  There comes a few catcalls and wolf whistles from others.  “And for God’s sake, drink some more, you miserable bastards!”  A few raise their schooners of beer in salute and laugh.  The barkeep hops down just as nimbly as he hopped up, and no sooner does he clear the bar, than a half-a-dozen brazenly dressed women burst from the back room.  The volume of the crowd seems to rise to a deafening level as the music fires up and the ladies take their place on the bar, dancing and swinging their legs high in choreographed syncopation to the music.

            Out of the six, one particular dancer stands out to me.  She is tall, with rich, curly auburn hair.  Although her face is smiling like the other dancers, her dark eyes scan over the crowd, coolly assessing the situation.  She is clearly the best dancer of them all, easily accomplishing the high kicks and jaunty steps of the burlesque dance.

            I catch her eye, and for one icy moment I realize that this is the woman I have been pursuing across the expanse of towns and countryside, this is the Scarlet Gypsy.

            The music speeds up and the throng of people answer by clapping along to the beat, the dancers kicking their heels higher and higher.  The barman approaches my table carrying a foaming mug of beer.  He leans in and I can barely hear him over the noise of the crowd.

             “From the lady,” he says jerking his head in the direction of the saucy dancer and walks away.  I peer down into the glass and see an object that looks like a key sitting in the bottom.  I casually drink the beer thinking about how easily she played into my hands, and soon the burlesque dancers file out of the room for a break.  I notice that the ’Gypsy slips away from the other dancers, up the stairs to the rooms above.  

            Swallowing my last drop of beer, I rake in my earnings from the card game, and part ways with the gentlemen.

            I follow the lady’s path up the stairs.  The key is in my hand, still damp from the beer it was swimming in.  Room 207, is the number stamped on the key, and I take a pause before inserting it into the door.  I smile at the thought that she had danced her last dance down there.

            “I was hoping you received my message,” comes a voice from the darkened room after I shut the door behind me.

            “You have a way with words.  Good Even’ Lady,” I reply, scanning the room for her location.  The room is rather large, and the only light is a faint blue glow coming through the windows, not quite illuminating, but filling the room like a mist.

            I take a step forward and abruptly hear a muffled growl. 

            “You must be careful, Mr. Rainier.  My dog is part wolf, and he is fiercely loyal to my command.”

            “Do you always travel with such company?”

            “He is my protector, and he can always sense a threatening presence.”

            Her accent is slight but discernible.  She is European, possibly Mediterranean.

            “If you know my name, I guess you know why I’m here.”

            “I have heard of your reputation, yes.”  Her tone is easygoing and slightly flirtatious. 

            “Aren’t you afraid?”

            The Scarlet Gypsy laughs, sending chills through my body.  She emerges from the shadows holding onto a leash.

            “Do you know that this Hotel is haunted?  The whole town is said to be haunted.”  She walks over to one of the windows, bathed in the strange blue light, looking like a specter.

            “This whole world is haunted,” I reply, my eyes following her leash to a pair of glowing yellow eyes.

            The room has a dreamy, surreal feel, and I sway slightly, as if drunk.

            “Do you find it easy being a killer, Mr. Rainier?”

            “I–,” now I’m feeling light-headed

            “You see, I’ve been studying you for quite some time.  You think you are so strong and skilled, but no one hunts me!” 

            The cold realization hits me before I have time to react.  I feel a sharp pain in my stomach.  My arms become stiff and unresponsive.  Dammit!  The beer!  I shouldn’t have drank the beer! 

            The music starts up from below and I can hear the crowd firing up again.  The loud noise vibrates through the wooden floor. 

            The Scarlet Gypsy begins to walk slowly towards me, her gaze playful and dispassionate, similar to a cat toying with its prey.  Shocked, I try to reach for my gun with my left hand, concentrating hard.  It is like moving through thick water, my usually quick reflexes reduced to slow motion from the poison working its way through my body. 

            I manage to grab the gun and level it at her, but before I can shoot, more sharp pain, this time in my right shoulder.  The dog, her protector, has throttled me against the wall, chewing on my shoulder.  The gun fires, missing the ’Gypsy by several feet.  I know that the noise from the bar below is loud enough to drown out the roaring report of the gun and the snarling beast on top of me. 

            She calls off the dog with a single command, and he obeys instantly.  I can no longer raise the heavy weapon with the grinding pain in my shoulder, and it drops to the floor with an ominous thud. 

            She is coming closer still, a knife in her hand, the blade gleaming in the dim blue ghost light.  I continue to struggle against the paralyzing effects of the poison with no luck. 

            She reaches out with her knife, directing it towards my crotch, and I close my eyes tightly, expecting more pain, but she simply cuts my gunbelt from my waist, jerks it free of my jeans and tosses it aside as if it were something revolting.  The dog growls at it.

            She bends down and picks up my fallen gun, bringing it to my chest. 

            I vaguely wonder how the tables turned so rapidly, how the hunter became the hunted, how she got the jump on me.

            She presses the barrel of the gun firmly to my chest, directly above the heart.  I can still feel the heat from my misfire, jabbing me like a hot poker.  She leans in close, standing on her toes, bringing her mouth enticingly close to my ear. 

            “Gotcha again…” she breathes in a husky whisper.  I don’t understand what she means by this mysterious message.  Before I can ask her, she kisses me on the lips.  It is like getting a kiss from an angel, or an angel of death.  Then a final pain as my chest explodes with the power of my own gun.  I slowly slide down the wall, trailing blood behind me.

            I sit slumped over, the darkened room growing darker.  I am dimly aware of the ‘Gypsy placing something in my lap where I can see it, something light and papery, then she leaves me alone.  Alone with only the sounds of the crowd in the bar below, and the ghostly blue light coming through the windows.          

            The last thing I see before I die, is the tarot card of the Red Queen, now becoming stained with my own blood, her eyes eerily similar to the eyes of the Scarlet Gypsy, playful, cold, and deadly.

***

            With a scream, I wrench the helmet from my head, covered in sweat, shaking.  It always takes me several minutes to get my bearings after a session.  The sensation of dying never fails to unnerve me, no matter how many times I’ve experienced it.  It is like dreaming you have died and then waking up to realize that it was just a dream.  Just a dream, but more real than a dream somehow.

            As I begin to calm down, I look at the helmet with its black visor and long cable stretching all the way to my computer.  I purchased the unit as a way to safely experience my darker side, my shadow-self, not unlike a video game.  The company promised to simulate fully realistic fantasies, and they certainly have delivered, but the shock of coming out of it, of dying can be a bit overwhelming.  I wonder if the other users experience the same sort of virtual reality withdrawal.  God, I’ve got to unplug for a while.

            I shakily get to my feet, put the helmet down next to my computer screen, and notice that I have an e-mail waiting for me.  Curious, I click open the message which reads:

 

 

<GOTCHA AGAIN>

 

 

lips

           

            I look to see who the message is from, and I am not surprised to see that it is USERWolfGyrl11. 

            She has been dogging me ever since I joined the VR club, always seeming to be three steps ahead of me, always able to swindle me in the virtual world.  She appeared in my Space Wars gaming session as a peg-armed space pirate, and in my Medieval Quest as a ruthless aristocratic spy.  This time it is the Old West, as the ever-elusive Scarlet Gypsy.  A slight grin forms on my lips and I shake my head.  She’s good.

            As I walk from the room, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror, and for just a moment I can see the grizzly, hardened countenance of Rainier, guns hung low on my hips, wide brimmed cowboy hat, and those eyes; the deadened eyes of a killer…

How_to_Predict_the_Future_answer_5_xlarge
THE PAST LIFE EXPERIMENT

There are times when I look at my life and wonder, “How did I arrive at this point?” I look at my art, music, and writing as being like the remains of some lost civilization, and I am the archaeologist unearthing them. What inspired me to create these things? What motivated me? What is the relevance of my work? Where is it going? What is it all leading to?

These are some of the questions I hope to answer in The Past Life Experiment. During the course of this project, I will revisit my past and explore my motivations along the path that brought me here.

This soul-searching extends beyond the scope of my various crafts and lies at the heart of what my identity has come to mean to me. This experiment is my attempt to join memory with forward motion. This is my attempt to remember before I forget…

¤

I have seen the future.  It comes to me in my dreams.  Here, I can view my life being played out like a movie.  A surprisingly short movie.  I come here to re-live moments of the past, re-acquaint myself with forgotten memories, and to study the course of my life.  From this vantage point, I can see the whole of my life, all of the great moments and acquisition of knowledge and experience, all of the crests and troughs, the moments of tragedy.  In this place, I can see the interconnectivity of how my path is woven together with others.  The winding channels of lifelines intersecting at pivotal and significant moments.  I can chart the course of how a simple seed of thought is planted, and how it sprouts and blossoms to give birth to other thoughts which determine directions and outcomes later on.  How people can exchange ideas and affect the consciousness of large groups of people.  I can see my role clearly and how it meshes with the greater scheme of existence.  How we are all one.  This is a timeless place, and I feel very safe here.  It is as if I have all of the answers to my questions or, rather, that there are no more questions. 

            I decide to engage myself in the game again.  It’s just too intriguing to not participate.  I know what the consequences will be for playing again, but that’s part of the thrill of the experience.  Like a treasure hunt, you never know what gems you’ll end up uncovering.  But it’s all about the journey.  Of course I understand this concept here and now.  It’s a whole different story when I’m actually immersed in the game. 

            I go through the traumatic process of being birthed by the parents of my choosing.  I remember most of this while in the womb, but being born into the world is so hyperstimulating that I quickly forget my origins and become engrossed in all of the worldly distractions.

            Now I am a child wandering through a marshy field of tall grass.  I am alone, and don’t have many friends.  I’ve always been kind of a loner.  I walk through this field wondering how long it will be before we have to move again. I’m not sure about my life or the future.  It seems like I’m always fearful of something, but not being outside.  I like being out here, exploring.  I don’t care if other people had been here; I wanted to see things for myself, walking the lands.

            Now I am a little older, on stage at a high school band performance.  I finally feel confident enough about playing music that I don’t feel like an imposter anymore.  I command the instrument I’m playing with all the knowledge and sensitivity of my training.  I feel the emotional rise as I contribute my part to a greater piece of music.  I can hear the interconnectivity of the performers all adding their voices to the symphony, their instruments perfect extensions of their souls.

            I travel to my first kiss, and the thrill of being liked by someone.  I can feel the interconnectivity between us as we kiss and explore each other.  I think, this is pretty great…this life seems worth it

            Now I’m in another relationship and we’re fighting.  I have seen parts of her that I don’t like, and even worse, she’s seen some of my ugliness.  I know that things won’t ever be the same between us and I can’t seem to see past a post-breakup life with her.  I ask myself, is this what life is all about?  A series of risks and longshots where nobody really knows the outcomes, or don’t put their energy into the outcomes they want?

            I’m at graduation and it’s like I’m standing on the sidelines watching the whole event take place in fast forward.  I never honestly ever thought of graduating from high school as a reality.  It always teetered on the edge of conceptual thought for me, but here I am.  I guess it was worth it.

            Now I am at a jobsite trying to learn how to strip and wax floors.  I am frustrated and scared that I will be fired for not knowing how to do the job.  It seems that everything that I touch falls apart.  I’m pretty insecure about joining the workforce, but my parents are kicking me out so I have to do something for money.  I wonder, not for the first time, why I have the parents I have.  They’re not very supportive, and it doesn’t seem like they understand me.

            Now I’m in my first apartment.  I’ve just paid my bills and went grocery shopping.  My belly is full and I drift off to sleep easily knowing that I’m taken care of.  My parents were hard on me, but now I’m on my own and I like it.  If life only gets this bad, then I can probably survive like this.

            After a series of job changes and relationships, I finally end up living and working in the city.  My body is noticeably ageing.  Even though I knew this was coming, I always looked at getting older like my graduation day; more of a concept.  I see the people that I used to think were old and wonder about their youth and the trials that brought them along their paths.  I am humbled by the experience of getting older.  The days and months fly by with uncanny speed.

Future

            I am at my niece’s graduation, and all kinds of memories flood back and I realize that I am envious of her youth, just as my elders were envious of my youth in my day.  But now this is her day.  There are so many things that I want to tell her to encourage her, but I know she’ll probably forget it all in the whirlwind of ceremonies and parties.  I realize that one of my biggest fears is losing all of my essence to death.  All of the gathered knowledge and cultivated personality that makes up the character of me.  It terrifies me to think of having to go through it all again.

            I realize that the older I get and the more knowledge I acquire, there is yet other information that quietly slips away.  There are some cherished memories, long-lost loves, forgotten friends that fall by the wayside.  I, not for the first time, regret some of the ways that I hurt others in the past, or wasn’t there, or wished I would’ve done things differently.  Life is to me like a bittersweet lover, both intoxicating and ruinous, teasing me along this path until I die.

            Throughout my life I accomplish many things, there are plenty of obstacles, loves, losses, many revelations, forgotten brilliance, and a good amount of intrigue for good or ill.

            In my final moment of death, I remember that I was the one who elected to play this game, and I remember why I keep coming back to it.  Everything was so rich in value, the good and bad.  To have the ability to sense so much, to feel so many emotions, it was so engulfing that I forgot that I was playing a game.  I slip into death much as I came into the world, and I pass back into the obscurity of the cosmic consciousness, able to rest once again.

 

           tunnel1

One of my favorite shows to watch is Lost.  My relationship with the show has become disenchanted somewhat (perhaps to the point of a loveless marriage), but the first season really spoke to me.  One aspect that I really like about the show, is how these survivors of a plane crash all had their lives previous to the crash, but once they are trapped on this island with each other, they can choose to lead any kind of life they want.  Characters are challenged to overcome the ghosts from their prior lives and often transcend their fears and weaknesses. 

            Aside from the theme of redemption, I think it is exceptional that the show illustrates the potential for a broad range of human behavior. Through all of the situations these survivors are put into, heroes become villains, villains become heroes, and so forth.  The audience gets a glimpse into the sorted affairs of these characters’ past lives and gets to see exactly where they’ve come from and how much the plane crash has changed them for better or worse.

            The older I get and the more of life that I experience, I realize that I too am capable of behaviors that I might deem unsavory even by the standards of my own moral compass.  Unscrupulous deeds that I would normally denounce, I am finding that I have the tendencies for, or at least find myself on the threshold of choices that test my ethics to the very core.   

Are the values that I have integrated into my life constantly up for revision, or is life such a complex dance that I must engage in the dance to discern what I believe in?

            If Lost has illustrated anything to me, it has shown me that anyone is capable of pretty much anything given the right circumstances, and this includes me.  No matter how noble I would like to think of myself, no matter how self-righteous I may believe I am, I must admit to myself that I too am capable of much destruction if the right (or wrong) circumstances are present.  I would like to say that I am above such temptation, but if I am really honest with myself, I find that there is more grey in the world than black or white.

            Fortunately, I am not a victim to indiscretion; there is always a choice.  Even in the throes of deepest iniquity, I must decide whether I will give in to my lower impulses, or remain an agent of that which is virtuous and sanguine.  The crazy thing is that the temptation never really goes away, nor does the testing of one‘s beliefs.  By the simple act of existence, a belief system must be tested in the arena of life to validate it.

            The question is: Will I have the capacity to transform my failures into successes?

crossroads

 

“We’ll go wherever—you just pick the spot.”

It was Kaiser on the phone, trying to solidify plans for the double-date he’d been trying to set up for weeks. I hated being put in this position; made to decide how we were to entertain ourselves for the evening. This was not because I was at a loss for interesting things to do. I’d been living on Capitol Hill long enough to feed my need for new and exciting experiences and I wanted my expertise to show for tonight’s date. Hell—my apartment was downtown, smack in the center of Denver nightlife. My real reason for not wanting to be the decider of what-to-do was more out of a growing difference of interests between the Kaiser and I.

Over the years, I was learning that my suggestions, hip as they might’ve been, had become less-than-appealing to him. His idea of a good time usually involved standing around yuppie LoDo bars, trying to pick-up seemingly unattainable young vixens by what he called “staring into their souls.” This favorite pastime of his was nothing more than a cheap parlor trick, a way to fuel his ego. I had seen this technique work for him on more than one occasion and had been wowed by his bravado. But, the veil of Kaiser’s mystique, the more I had gotten to know him, was gradually being lifted to reveal a superficiality I had mistaken for depth. And if I left the monumental decision of planning the night’s events up to him, I would likely spend the evening immersed in regretful yawns. No, I didn’t like being the appointed party responsible for the success of us all having fun, nor did I trust Kaiser’s judgment, especially when it came to having a genuine good time.    

“How ‘bout we go for some karaoke–like we used to?” I suggested. “I know this great little dive downtown.” This was a neutral suggestion; my way of trying to bridge the divide that had been growing between us. Instead of focusing on the ways we were different, this was—at least by my reckoning—a simple solution that would put us on common ground.

“I don’t know, man. Karaoke—really?”

“Yeah, why not? We used to sing it all the time. I figured this could be a good date.”

“Alright…” His response was that petulant standard that I had gotten used to, his version of a compromise. “We can at least start there and see how it goes.”

“Yeah, ok,” I agreed.

“I guess that’ll work. Start there and then go to the Rolling Rock Brewery or something. I know there’ll be some hot chicks there.”

These sort of remarks were typical of Kaiser. His own long-time girlfriend, Sheri, was a real knockout; smart, refined, and loyal as hell to Kaiser. But he was the type of guy who always had his sights set on the horizon, a near-mythic creature who was part poet, part devil, part grinning peacock. For him, a simple life would never do. And that meant being on the perilous knife’s edge of temptation, always pushing boundaries and often exceeding them. This was apparent in his fashion choices—he wore expensive leather pants, displayed an array of facial jewelry—a different nose-ring for each day of the month. And his women—well, they were as varied as his hairstyles. Yes, Kaiser was living the good life, but in his opinion, the good life could always be made better by tossing in a bit of sweet complication.

“This girl I’m supposed to meet—the one you’re setting me up with. What’s her name again?”

“Kelli. She works with Sheri at the veterinary office, remember?”

“What time do you want to meet up?”

“Let’s say about—don’t wanna show up too early—seven or eight.”

“Make it seven so we can get on the karaoke list. The line fills up fast.”

“Sure, we’ll try. Oh—and we’re gonna meet at your place.”

“Not the bar?”

“It’ll be easier. Plus I want Kelli to see your place.”

“Oh, great.” This wasn’t the way I normally operated, especially upon meeting a girl for the first time. But, I supposed that my apartment was an ideal launching pad for the evening. “At least we can get a few drinks in before we leave.”

“Exactly. Are you excited?” This was something I had wondered myself. With all of the strange events that 2008 had brought so far, I was eager to move on from the scum and residue that was clinging onto me. As painful as it was, Angela Schroeder was still the standard by which I evaluated every new potential love interest. But I had already committed to the long, hard work of erasing her imprint on me, and a new girl might just be the right catalyst for change. Plus Kaiser’s hasty matchmaking attempts had left me little room to ponder these things enough to back out now.

“I can tell you’re excited,” was the answer I gave, trying not to sound ungrateful. What if, for once, Kaiser’s radar was dead on this time? After all, he was one of my oldest friends. Maybe he knew something I didn’t. Maybe this new girl, Kelli, would rise above all of my cynical expectations and turn out to be this amazing woman; someone so great, I couldn’t have imagined her myself. I thought I should at least give her and this double date a fair chance, if only as a show of waning loyalty to Kaiser.

¤

Knock! Knock! Knock!

I had decided to start my own pre-drinking earlier in the afternoon and was glad for it. It helped pass the time during my hasty attempts at apartment cleaning. It also effectively took off most of my nervous edge while waiting for my visitors. My head was in that ideal zone, somewhere between cool reserve and swimmy geniality. I bit my lip and answered the door.

“Hey guys! Welcome to my humble commode.” I held the door wide-open as the threesome shuffled in. Kaiser was in the lead, dressed in his finest 80’s rocker leather pants, followed by the two ladies who were immersed in bubbly conversation. I closed the door behind them, trying to eye-up my dedicated match for the evening.

“You must be Kelli,” I said, introducing myself. She was short, brunette, and attractive in a cutesy sort of way. My first impression in a word: young. Since my dating years had begun, I had somehow managed to attract girls who were younger than me. Most guys I knew were thrilled and flattered if they could land a younger girl. But my experiences had proved to me that age differences only highlighted the inevitable acts of immaturity that the younger girls often displayed.

“Hi.” Her voice was soft, but carried a sultry edge that indicated we might be off to a good start.

Kaiser was beaming. His silver nose-ring twinkled in the candlelit living room of my apartment. No one was saying anything, which made this unusual encounter even more awkward. I decided to break the ice.

“Come on in. I’ve got some beers if you guys want to drink before we head out.”

“We brought something better,” Sheri said slyly.

Kelli reached into her purse and, like a rabbit being pulled from a magician’s hat, out came a big bottle of top-shelf tequila.

“All right then,” I said, grinning at the prospect of what this night may portend.

After we took our shots, we called a cab and left my apartment. As we made our way to the taxi, the ladies resumed their girl-talk, and I used the opportunity to mumble a question to Kaiser.

“How old is Kelli?”

His grin faltered a bit. “Well—she is young.”

“How young?”

“I’m not sure. Old enough to drink is old enough, right?” Now he turned solemn. “But I’ve learned not to judge a person by their age. I look at a person’s soul and Kelli’s an old soul. Plus Sheri says that Kelli’s pretty mature for her age.” Kaiser’s shit-eating grin returned. “I can tell she likes you.” He gave me a fleeting wink as we climbed into the cab.

¤

“—you from, originally?”

WHAT?”

I SAID—WHERE ARE YOU FROM ORIGINALLY?”

Kelli murmured something that sounded like, “Seattle.”

Oh, OK,” I returned, still not quite sure what she had said. Most of our conversation had gone on like this once we arrived at the karaoke joint. The deafening music had ensured that very little useful information would be exchanged between us, so I decided to be agreeable by default. After barely getting one song in, we migrated to a slightly swankier nightclub in LoDo, where the assault on my eardrums continued.

The change in locales didn’t do much to improve on the conversation; neither did the assembly line of strong drinks. The fact is, I didn’t know much more about Kelli than when she first showed up at my apartment. I knew she was young. I knew she was cute. It was enough to have an enjoyable evening for the time being, but I couldn’t ignore the persistent signs of inconsistency that came through: Awkward body language, strange cultural references that illustrated the generational gap between us, shifty encouragements, both of us wanting—­­but not quite reaching a true connection.

I tried to get to know her a little better. What was the latest book she had read? What? She didn’t read for enjoyment? Music? She named bands I had never heard of. When I mentioned my favorite bands, judging by the glazed-over look on her face, Kelli didn’t know of them or wasn’t listening. She probably couldn’t hear me over the ear-bleeding club music. It seemed that there was an over-arching disparity—or lack of interest—towards the finer points of compatibility. These discouraging tidbits however, weren’t enough to crush my beer-fueled optimism. Soon, I found myself kissing her and the rest of the night was awash with loud music, dancing, and alcohol.

¤

I woke up the next morning, hung over, Kelli under the covers with me. My first horrified thought was: Did we have sex last night? I wracked my brain for memories of the night, but the harder I tried to remember, the more my head hurt. I couldn’t remember getting home. Obviously something had to have happened—the way we were cozied up under the covers. But waking up to a strange woman in my place after just meeting her—wasn’t my style. Maybe I should pretend to go back to sleep.

“Morning,” she said stirring.

“Uh—morning.”

“What time is it?”

I got up to look at the clock in my kitchenette, taking the opportunity to snag my pants back on.

“It’s afternoon,” I said, hoping that I didn’t sound as disappointed as I felt. “Do you want some water?”

“Thanks,” she said after taking a drink. She held the covers above her bare breasts with her other arm.

“Did we—?” I began awkwardly.

“What, have sex?” She smiled, lips shiny with water. “I don’t think so. We came close, but you were too drunk, I think.”

“Oh.” I felt relieved for some reason. In the warm afternoon light she looked even younger than before. “Sorry.”

“Where’s your bathroom?”

I pointed in the direction of my studio. She left the bed, finding her bra on the way to the bathroom. I hated these uncomfortable morning-after sessions. I found it nearly impossible to muster the requisite charm needed to get rid of the person gracefully. There was usually some small-talk over breakfast—or better yet—a hasty, wordless departure because of prior obligations. I found it difficult to outright kick a girl out of my place; I was too much of a gentleman for that. But sometimes the morning-after could linger on ad nauseam. This is why one-night stands didn’t suit me. They usually amounted to two strangers sharing the most intimate of acts, only to realize that they didn’t like each other that much, or didn’t have the glue needed to hold something more substantial together.

The toilet flushed. I was grateful for the extra time to compose myself. Kelli emerged from my studio, fully dressed, which was a good sign towards making a departure.

“So—did you drive here?” I asked, trying to sound more conversational than urgent. Driving logistics made the morning after situations even more complicated because I didn’t have a car and therefore couldn’t neatly part ways by dropping the girl off somewhere. Kelli gave me a puzzled look, still smiling. She sat down on the couch next to me.

“No. Kaiser drove us down here last night.”

“Oh. So how—?”

“Kaiser said you’d help me call a cab in the morning. I can take it back to my work where I’m parked. You really don’t remember any of this, do you? What we talked about last night?” I blurted a single, humorless laugh while rubbing my head.

“I remember some things, but—wow! I don’t remember coming back here.”

“Kaiser and Sheri took off. He assured me I’d be in good hands, and…” She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “He was right.”

Oh boy, I thought, mentally sighing. This was just like Kaiser to dump a strange girl in my lap and leave me to handle her the morning after. I’m guessing that I probably hadn’t protested too much the night before in my drunken state; my place did pose as a somewhat ideal crash pad for the woefully inebriated. But Kaiser had a habit of leaving me in these precarious situations.

Mercifully, Kelli conducted this morning-after interlude with maturity. I felt a little silly and self-conscious about the whole thing, chalking it up to being caught off-guard. I drank way-too-much, and the missing time gaps had been a result. I resolved to lay off of the sauce for a while, so I could at least remember having forgettable sex with a stranger.

We made plans to go on another date—sometime. I could tell that she was more eager than I was. Before she climbed into the cab, we hugged and my body felt stand-offish, my laughter sounded a bit too haughty. I watched her go, glad to be alone again.

I was definitely at a point in my life where I was looking for someone more substantial than a strange bedfellow. It wasn’t fair to Kelli to presume that she wasn’t worthy of my time or attention. This first encounter with her showed me that there was an attraction, but was there more to this girl than met the eye?

I was at the Crossroads, standing before the entrance of this uncertain path. Should I start down this winding road, or remain in the center of potentiality? Was this girl it, or were there greater, yet unknown experiences to be had? So much of this initial encounter with Kelli felt like familiar ground, so much felt like I knew how it would end, and it would probably end badly. Was this premonition a reminder of how history tended to repeat itself? Was it wishful thinking? Or did the crossroads have more in store for me than I could have ever imagined?

End of p.2

To be continued…

CRYSTALLIZED EGOS

Posted: June 10, 2013 in Philosophy

            CrystalsThe quest for identity, I believe, is one of the most fundamental concerns of a human life.  I think that most people want to get their minds wrapped around who they are.  Everybody wants to belong to something in some way or form.  People tend to identify with myths that speak to them and iconography that inspires them.  We then incorporate these ideas into our own lives, grafting them into our own personalities, spawning new visions of reality in an ever-evolving multiplicity of beliefs.

            Why ever meet anyone new?  Why challenge ourselves with the beliefs and complexities of another person?  Why not just surround ourselves with a plethora of cherished followers who always agree with our point of view?

            We are so quick to decide just exactly who we are, our likes and dislikes, passions and prejudices, often basing these ideas from pre-established myths.  By rushing to define ourselves, we cease truly being open-minded and become rigid in our personalities.  It is this hardening of our identities that I like to call the ‘crystallized ego.‘  Much in the same way that crystals form from a liquid substance or the way that stalactites and icicles are formed, our substance becomes something adamantine.  We move from being open to receive and experience new horizons to essentially sheltering ourselves from that which we fear or don’t understand. 

            Is there a way to accept others’ beliefs without threatening the integrity of our own beliefs?  In the grandeur of this cosmic game we’re playing with ourselves, we forget that we are all one.  It is through others that we are able to see ourselves more clearly.  It is good to challenge our belief systems continuously to validate them and see their dynamics working in our lives.  Why not show self-security through tolerance and acceptance?  After all…there is a place in this Universe for everybody.