It’s in the Process of Naming

 “I have never been the most mechanically inclined of men. / Wrenches, screwdrivers, or shovels / have never made nice with me.” – David Tomas Martinez, “The Mechanics of Men”

It started with my father.  He got into the business of naming the things after the war.  It was his father’s way to build things, constructing them out of whatever spare parts he could find.  During the war there were all sorts of cast-off cyber parts then, the demand for cyberforming troops being what it was.  Parts were cheap. He built things from scratch, some you wouldn’t want to see at night in a dark alley – or by day, either.  He built and sold them and then my father started naming them.

It was naming them gave my father the power.  Like Adam in the Bible, my father named them all.  There was the Alpha series, the Vulcan series, the Desireé series.  Some seemed built for pleasant tasks, some not so pleasant.

That was a time when your so-called traditional robots hadn’t been popular for a long time.  It was when the cyberforming technology – making men, and women, into super-men and -women from the meld of human and machine had far surpassed robot technology for anything but vacuuming and lawn mowing, so nobody cared any more about robots who looked like humans.  People were afraid of them.  But that didn’t stop my father.  When he named the things he became the ruler of his own kingdom.

My father’s father built them but my father named them.  They were already out in the field, bought and paid for by the few who wanted them – mercenaries, crime bands, even a few foreign governments.

That’s when the trouble started.

The scientists came to me, my father’s daughter, for help.  Like Eve, I had to unname those terrible things my father had named, those things his father had created, those things the mechanics of men had formed.

About this post:  Thank you to Ursula Le Guin, for “She Unnames Them” (Jan. 21, 1985).

It Started with a Letter

Foreign Language Bookshop neon sign by Alpha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Creative Commons License
Foreign Language Bookshop neon sign by Alpha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

“I pray to its shadow, / that gray place / where it lies on your letter … deep, deep.” – Anne Sexton, “With Mercy for the Greedy”

It started with a letter.  Brent had received an old-fashioned air mail letter, on thin blue paper in a thin blue envelope.  He didn’t think they made such a thing any more, but it was in his mailbox, so he decided it was real.  When he opened it, though, slitting it carefully across the top with a letter-opener and sliding out the crisp folded pages inside, he discovered it was written in a foreign language.

What language?  He couldn’t tell.  It certainly wasn’t any of the usual suspects, French or Spanish or Italian.  He couldn’t even recognize the letter shapes.  He thought, perhaps Arabic or even Hebrew, but a Google search indicated him that the writing in the letter definitely did not look like either of those languages.  It wasn’t Korean, either, and it didn’t look anything like Chinese/Japanese characters.

He texted his friend Maya a snapshot of the letter. She had just graduated with a degree in near-East languages, and he thought, maybe it was one of those “stan” languages –  Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, one of those – but she told him it wasn’t anything she’d ever seen.

A lot of help Maya was.

That’s how Brent found himself going down the stairs to the Foreign Language Bookshop near his Metro stop in Washington, D.C.  Surely they would know.

He wasn’t prepared for the reception he got.  There was an old man behind the counter, with a long white-gray mustache and thick glasses.  He’d looked bored when Brent came in, but when he showed the man the letter, everything changed.  Quick as a fox, the old man pulled down the shades and locked the front door.

“Wha-?” Brent said,

The old man shook the letter in his face.  “Why’d you bring me this?  I was doing fine, I was all right, and then you come into my store and show me this!  Are you trying to get me into trouble?”

“N-no,” stammered Brent.  “I just wanted to find out what the letter said.”

“Shh!  Keep your voice down,” the old man said, still holding the letter.  “It was better for you before you saw this.  Now, now it’s too late.”

“Too late?  I don’t understand – I just got the letter yesterday!”

“Precisely,” said the old man. The old man took out a magnifying glass and inspected the paper.  “Just as I thought.  This letter is from the future.”

Brent’s brain whirled, trying to make sense of it all.  A letter from the future?  On old-fashioned air mail paper?  And what was all this talk about it being too late?

“I’ll just take my letter back, thanks,” he said, and he started to reach for the blue paper.  But the old man snatched it away.

“Hey!” Brent said.

Suddenly, everything became blurry, a swirl of changing colors around him.  It was like being on one of those centrifuge-like rides at a carnival, where you’re spinning around in a circular cage, body pressed tightly against the wall.  Brent’s stomach started to lurch.

That was the last thing that happened before Brent found himself in the future.  One hundred years in the future, to be exact.  Where he landed, there was no sign of his letter.  Or of the old man.

This was one crazy hallucination.

Eventually, Brent returned from the future to his apartment in the Capitol.  But by then he had become a master of the language in which the letter was written, he had found the woman who wrote the letter, and he had married her and lived a long and productive life.  When he arrived back in D. C., he was an old man.

Curious, he went back to the little underground bookstore, the Foreign Language Bookstore, where he’d first gone into with the letter.  The owner had vanished.

The letter was tucked into a slot between the ancient cash register and the counter.

Brent stepped behind the counter and opened the letter. With that, he started the cycle all over again.

About this post:  Foreign languages are foreign worlds.

What We Did Last Night – flash fiction

We went to the Takeaway dive.  You know the one.  It’s out by the airport on Highway 80, just past the Teaneck Massage Parlor and the Golden Crab Casino.  Mara wanted to stop and play some on-line poker, but we know she’s still paying off her last loss and we said no.

Merlin’s band played at the Takeaway last Fall, but when he lost his bass player they cancelled the gig.  Still, he remembered how they had a fierce set of craft beers on tap at the Takeaway, and so he convinced us to go out there.

Well, what we didn’t know was Merlin was meeting his girlfriend.  She was someone he met when he was playing the gig at the Takeaway last Fall; she was the piano player on the band’s off days.  How he met her when they never overlapped, was a mystery.  I guess he must have hung around in between his gig days, you never know.

She was striking, in a hipster-cum-boho way.  She had the fringe vest and the bell-bottom jeans, and her hair was white-blue, in one of those asymmetrical bob cuts.  She had black eyeliner eyes and ochre lipstick.  I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

She played a set and then came over to sit with us at our horseshoe booth by the bar.  “Hey, Cates,” Merlin said to her.  “This is my crowd.”  And then he introduced us.

“What’cha-all drinking?” she said.  We went around, each with a different craft brew, said the names, and she nodded at each one.  “Cool,” she said.

We all just sat there then.  Merlin said, “We’ll be right back.”

By the time they got back, we were ready to go.  She said, “Well, see ya,” and went back to her piano.

Merlin looked a flushed, like he’d been working out.  We figured.

On the way out, Mara stopped at the Instant-Win Lottery machine by the washrooms and bought a ticket.  It was the week of the mega Powerball lottery, so we let her.

In the car, I asked Merlin, “So what’s up with Cates?”

“I’m teaching her to play the bass,” he said.  He grinned.  “The band needs a new bass player.”

About this post:  It’s hard to resist a takeaway.

Wishes Like Birds

a pile of wishes by Michael Davis-Burchat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Creative Commons License
a pile of wishes by Michael Davis-Burchat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

“In winter / all the singing is in / the tops of the trees” – Mary Oliver, “White-Eyes”

I won the pile of wishes in a game of cards.  I wish I could say it was poker, and then I’d sound really buff and cool and savvy.  But the game was cribbage, plain old-fashioned cribbage, the kind where you score pegs on a board and look for combinations of fifteen points to score.

My granny had had that pile of wishes in her back cupboard for as long as I could remember.  She always told me she’d play me for them when I got old enough, but I didn’t believe her.  Who would give away a pile of wishes?

But she did.  The summer I turned thirteen, she suddenly said, “Now’s the time.  I’ll play you a card game for that pile of wishes.”  By that time, I’d forgotten about the pile of wishes, and besides, I was old enough not to believe in wishes any longer.  I mean, when you’re in middle school you learn pretty fast that there’s no such thing as magical wishes, heck, even before getting out of grade school you figure that out.  There’s no such thing as magical wishes.

But, my granny is one of my three favorite people in the world, and even though I was thirteen and real street-wise – I thought – I decided not to argue.  “Sure, Granny,” I said.  “Let’s play for your pile of wishes.”

She must have heard the unbelieving tone in my voice, since she gave me a look.  Then she told me to go get the cards and the cribbage board.

I knew where they were – I’d been playing cribbage with my granny since I was real young.  She was sharp, though, and that game takes some luck, not all skill, to win.  So we sat down over the little table in her parlor, I set the pegs at the start of the cribbage board, and she shuffled and dealt the cards.

Something was different this time.  I started out not caring if I won the hand or not, and then I won the first three hands in a row. In cribbage, technically you don’t win a hand, you each score your points and peg them on the board.  Whoever gets to the end of the board first wins the game.  And even though Granny had the crib – extra cards – to score with her hand, somehow they didn’t help her like usual.

On the third hand, and still ahead, I looked at Granny.  Was she letting me win?  But the look on her face told me she was playing square-up.  We were playing for the pile of wishes, after all.

And so it went.  My pegs wound around the red serpentine path on Granny’s cribbage board, always a little ahead of hers.  There was something about it that made me want to win, really want to win this time.

Finally, it was over.  Granny looked at me and said, “It was just the same with my gran when I was thirteen.  She played me a game of cribbage for that pile of wishes.”  She slid the cards back into the decorated box they came in, and I started to put away the pegs in the little storage slot on the underside of the board.  But Granny stopped me.

“Leave the pegs in the board and go get the pile of wishes.  They’re yours now.  Then you can put away the pegs.”

I did like she said, and sure enough, when I got the pile of wishes out of the cupboard, they seemed to sing to me.  Bright red tiles, each with its own woven cord, stacked together every which way, singing.  Like birds in the tops of trees in winter.

My first wish was for my granny.  It was only right, after all.

About this post:  It’s the grannies that are magical.

Light Is a Dancer

“Light is a dancer here and cannot rest.” – John Frederick Nimo, “Christmas Tree”

Light is a dancer.

She spills over cracked sidewalks and graffiti-scarred dumpsters, over abandoned buildings with cracked windows and abandoned houses with crackling paint.

She cries in the oily rivers. She weeps on the polluted grounds of old gas plants and factories and tank farms.

She gulps downs sunlight drawn from nuclear sunstorms, and she pours the liquid sun across the places that need to heal.  But healing is long in coming.  Concrete and steel take a light years’ time to decay, and in the meantime the greenery shrinks, the deserts advance, and her beasts disappear.

About this post:  The image says it all

It’s All in a Name

Lee finally got a paying gig for the band.  It was only at the Marriott out by the airport, but it was something.  It paid.  And it would lead to something more, he knew it.  Something more.

“Playing tonight:  Stroke of Midnight” is what the signboard said outside the bar at the Marriott on that first night.  “Stroke of Midnight” was the name of the band, or at least it was this week’s name of the band.  It was a lucky name, Lee told the others, though they didn’t ask him.  He was proud of that name.  He had seen it on a Facebook post from his cousin on New Year’s Eve, out on a bar prowl.  Something about “at the stroke of midnight we all drank Boilermakers – whiskey with a beer chaser – it was epic, man!”

Well, that name stuck in his brain, and here they were, at the Marriott bar, about to go on as “Stroke of Midnight.”  The three of them, Lee on guitar, Jeremy bass, and Keith on drums.  They did a lot of covers, but Lee was hoping to get in a couple of their own tunes too . . . maybe after the audience was a bit gone.  Yeah, a bit gone.

Well, the set went along okay, they were really humming.  Everything was working.  They were, well, if not on fire, at least all synced and in the same groove.  The audience was with them, Lee could tell.  And that was big.  Maybe they’d get an extension on the gig, not just for this weekend, but maybe four, five weekends in a row.  Cool.

And then it happened.

They’d packed their stuff up into Keith’s van – drum set, amplifiers, spare mics, and so on – and they were heading out of the big Marriott parking lot toward the Interstate.  It was late.

Suddenly everything went white.  Keith was driving, and he stopped dead.  “Can’t see, man,” he muttered.

“What the hell?” Jeremy put in.

Lee looked out the front windshield, squinting against the light.  What was it?  He couldn’t see a thing.  He was blinded.

Gradually – it must have been only a couple of minutes, but it felt like an hour – the whiteness subsided.  There was this big object, smooth and round and alien-looking, in front of them.  In front of the van.  Glowing.  Hovering.  With blinking lights.

It looked like a true flying saucer.  It looked like something out of the movies.

That was the start of their time on the road.  Not the road like touring around the U.S., or even Europe.

It was like touring around the galaxy.

“Caught your act,” the space travelers told his band, “at the Marriott.  Stroke of Midnight.  We like it.  How do you feel about interstellar travel?”

“Loved the movie,” Keith said.

“Always wanted to leave town.”  This from Jeremy.

So Lee made the deal.

Yes, they were little green men.  Yes, they had antennae and tentacles.  Just like in the movies.

But they loved good music.  Lee’s band toured for a year, bumping from star to star, planet system to planet system.  Whether it was a light year, or a Earth year, it was the break they needed.

Never underestimate the value of a break.

About this post:  Sometimes you’ve got to go to the audience.  Wherever they are.

The Comeback Kid

It was a Wednesday.  The robot stood on an ordinary street outside the downtown center of a small midwestern city.

It was having a midlife crisis.

Robots were not supposed to have midlife crises; they were supposed to save the world – or bring destruction to the world – whichever their A.I. was programmed for.

But this robot, named F3780 by its designer, was having a full-on, textbook-case midlife crisis.

What was its life all about?  Why had it wasted all those years?  How could it recapture its youth?

The joints, once pristinely well-oiled, were becoming creaky and out of alignment.  The eyes, once acutely attuned to detect the smallest movement at a distance of a hundred miles – from the air – had lost their precision.  Microsonic signals that dictated lightning-fast reflexes, enabling near-unconscious battle moves, were being drowned out by spurious signals from nearby cell phone towers.

Perhaps it was in need of an update.  But F3780 only knew that its function was no longer felt by the pseudo-brain A.I. that its designer had installed.

It had had its glory moments, that was true.  The age of Transformers.  The age of X-Men.  The age of the Avengers.

An age of robots glorified in breathtaking action movies.

When had it all passed him by?  When had he lost the ferocity and the ambition to save or to destroy the manifestations of human society’s civilizations?

Perhaps he needed rehab.  Perhaps he needed a comeback.

Celebrities did it.  He would do it as well.

Robot F3780 hitchhiked a ride on a semi-truck carrying a load of soybeans to the West Coast.  San Francisco was his aim.  He’d heard of Silicon Valley, the capital of high-tech enterprises.  Surely they would have a need for a vintage A.I. like his.  As he sat atop the cab of the semi, the rushing wind abrading his outer shell-armor, he dreamed of the space-age lab in which his robot life would be reborn.  Surely there was such a place.

About this post:  Aging can be difficult even for the most accomplished of all of us.