The Fox

I watched as the finest kids from the suburbs filed in and sat in one row. Their hair had corners like one end of a box. How does anyone get their hair to look like that with a comb? Their clothes fit and were made of cotton. They filled out their pants like high school kids. Mrs. McCombs always called on them.

I tried to make the best halloween decoration. Mrs. McCombs had taught us to make things with paper mache and balloons. Blow up the balloon, layer newspaper strips on the balloon, let dry, then paint on a face. I got a big balloon, applied the paper mache, painted it green. I realized I could also mold and lump bits of paper onto it.

At the science museum there was an exhibit featuring African art. I loved it there because it had a peculiar scent that was intoxicating. I don’t know if it was the material, or the glue, or the paint, or what it was. In my mind, it was museum African art exhibit smell. There were masks with eyes that puckered out a little. So I molded some paper mache into little oval ridges for the eyes. It was also possible, it turns out, to mold paper mache into a long nose. I painted the whole thing green; filled the eye ridges with black paint; a fine Halloween witch… It frightened the other kids. They gasped and remarked. In my shyness, I looked at the ground basking in their attention. Mrs. McCombs took in the scene, looking at the witch and the kids. Approval? Disapproval? She had those big round glasses that reflected the light so I couldn’t see her eyes.

I tried to make her laugh. Sometimes the class played a game of hiding the eraser. We each took turns trying to find where in the class it had been placed. In the back of the room was a card board mock up of a fire place. I stood a few feet in front of it, eyeing it suspiciously. I knew the eraser wasn’t inside. In fact, I had already figured out where it was, but that didn’t matter. I bent over forward in a perfect 90 degree angle, then walked so that my head eventually entered the fire place, looked this way and that, walked back out remaining in a 90 degree angle, then stood upright. The class laughed uproariously. I let it wash over me. Mrs. McCombs’ owl glasses reflected the light. She called on Mitchell, a boy who loved baseball. He found the eraser.

There was a small room of three walls in the front left corner, like an additional space added on to the rectangular room. Small groups of us would have reading sessions in there behind a curtain (I don’t know why). My family were going to the library since before kindergarten. It was the one thing a family could do that could not afford an activity that was more expensive than “free”. So by first grade, reading was a normal thing for me.

When it was my turn to read, I would hold the book in front of my face, clear my throat and then suddenly read the passage at super fast speed, as though the entire paragraph was one long word. The other kids giggled. Mrs. McCombs did not seem to approve or disapprove. She had promised that who ever was the most enthusiastic to read aloud would get picked, so I used all the will power in my body, I held my hand up high, I made a spectacle of myself. Then I read the passage like a tape recorder playing at high speed. Some other kids giggled; but Mrs. McCombs finally had to admonish against it. She had to know, surely. She had to know that reading was nothing for me.

There was going to be a puppet show. The stage was set up in the missing 4th wall of that little adjacent room. The Ginger Bread Man. My puppet was going to be the Fox. I had to come up with some way of making it. Todd seemed to be getting a lot of help with his. His shirt was some kind of jersey with a 32 or some number like that on it, and his sleeves always had an ironed crease in them.

I hit upon the idea of using Elmer’s glue to give teeth to my fox. It seemed like an odd idea. I felt waves of anxiety and doubt as I dabbed white glue along the gum line, short ones for molars, longer ones for eye teeth. It dried. They were teeth, real teeth in my puppet. Improvising, using hair and paper mache and paint, did not make an exact fox… but maybe something better.

When the Fox jumped out, I growled and gnarled, I ate the Ginger Bread man. The kids gasped. They shrieked. They finally laughed as I “gulped” loudly. Michelle’s face beamed with surprise and delight. She was one of the girls I always watched sitting in the front row.

I always watched three girls who sat in front because, unlike myself, they did their school work with such studied diligence that I found it mesmerizing. I couldn’t’ take my eyes off them as they carefully wrote their letters, colored within the lines, did everything perfectly. I tried and tried and tried to figure out what motivated them. Michelle had raven black hair that I used to watch the back of. I didn’t exist in their world, but she loved my Fox. Mrs. McCombs may have liked the fox. I don’t remember.

 

 

 

 

A Good Day

The rumbling clouds rolled away. The air became quiet. Water dripped off the leaves. Cinchy the crow stepped outside. A long path stretched away down the hill through the forest and eventually back to where Cinchy lived.

“Today is a good day for a bike ride”, Cinchy declared. And then he thought to himself, “If only I owned a bicycle.”

The first bike store was too expensive. The second bike shop was too cheap. “You get what you pay for”, muttered Cinchy as he headed to a third bicycle store. The third store was priced just right, but all the bicycles were too big. Cinchy tried the last bike shop in town, but those bicycles were too small.

Cinchy was about to give up on his original plan when he saw a sign in Ringbottom the rabbit’s front yard, “Bike for sale”. The price was just right, and the bike was just the right size.

Unfortunately, Cinchy did not know how to ride a bike. He crashed into the shrubbery. He rode into Ringbottom’s garden and toppled into the giant leaves of Ringbottom’s rhubarb plant. Ringbottom watched through one eye as he watched Cinchy ride into a water fountain.

“Don’t you know, Cinchy” offered the rabbit, “that crows don’t ride bicycles? Crows can fly! Why, if I had wings, I would fly around all over the place!”

Cinchy drew in a deep breath. He surveyed the forest, the hills and the horizon beyond.

“Today is a good day for flying”, declared Cinchy.

 

Waddya Know, Joe

That crazy guy is making a u.f.o. in Miller’s field. He’s Joe Miller. He owns the lot. The kids have always played in it. He didn’t seem to mind. His house, adjacent to the field, is obscured by a lot of trees and shrubbery. No one ever saw him.

On Monday he started welding something in the middle of the field. He had to put up a make shift rope fence with a sign, “No more baseball, etc.”. Somebody said, “Waddya know, Joe?”

“Building the hull for my space ship” Joe replied flatly.

Not only did the kids have to go all the way down to the park to play ball, ride bikes or what ever, but there was a crazy guy in their neighborhood. To the few adults who had met him, Joe seemed nice. A recluse. Quiet. Kept his yard nice and his adjacent lot mowed and trimmed. We never saw him in church. Maybe getting out was hard for him. Was he doing something dangerous? Has he becoming senile? Do we call the cops?

The space ship grew larger; and rapidly. In a week it was almost half a house. It looked like pieces of metal scavenged from scrap yards. A car junked long ago had sat in a yard at the end of the street. Joe offered to take it off their hands. Some hated to see it go. Joe hauled it on a flat bed trailer, disappeared into his 2 car garage, and reappeared with a flattened car. How he did that was another question entertaining the neighborhood.

Old Joe had flipped. The kids knew it. They spread the news to each other. The nut who owned Miller’s field had gone crazy. No one ever saw him. Who was he? Some old retired guy sitting in his house. Now he was welding a flying saucer together in his field. Soon the paddy wagon would come and drag him away.

The sheriff cruisers parked on the street, looking very official and out of place. Mild mannered deputies were up on Joe Miller’s front porch, a small unremarkable block of concrete with a hint green algae growing on it. They chatted casually. Joe went into the house. The deputies waited. They were hard to read. Was there trouble? Or not? Or…? Joe reappeared. More chatting. They looked like extras in the background of a movie scene. The deputies returned to their cruisers and rolled away.

The next day Joe was out there adding a big chunk of metal to his space ship. The next anyone looked, a van from wsvt 36 sat at the edge of the field. Doors open. Equipment out. Antennae propped up and extended. Samantha Regan looked out of place in a form fitting business skirt next to Joe in his overalls. And they were doing an interview.

“No, I can’t stop work on it, it’s the hull for my space ship. Been working on the main drive for a while; now it’s ready.”

Samantha maintained a polite, jovial smile.

“Word around town is that it’s art, folks are calling it performance art… what would you say to them?”

“Nah, it’s a space ship,” replied Joe, looking distracted up at the top of it. Then he smiled at her, a smile that seemed to have a subliminal wink, which made Samantha feel more at ease. She’d interviewed crazy, before. You could tell when you were talking to it.

“A space ship”, said Samantha appreciatively. “Now, Joe, some people might call that crazy.”

Joe stopped. “Crazy”? He paused. “Compared to what?”

Samantha answered cheerfully, “The whole world?”

Joe laughed. Then said, “The wage slave state? You humans jail nonviolent perps and leave the violent ones in the street. You live as if you’re immortal, as if you’re going to be here forever. You send your kids away to be raised by the State and when they’re teens you say, why are my kids like strangers? You preach peace while worshiping violence like it’s the one true God. You have enough technology to never have to work, again, but you put yourselves in debt so your debtors can keep you working to an early grave. You tell stories about heroism and forgiveness and dying and none of you know what a hero is, or care to forgive, or know how to die.”

It came out at a fast clip, like a weather report at 11 o’clock at night. Whipped out, report made, done.

“Yeah” he said, slowing down. “I’m nuts.”

Back at the station, anchorman Dave Schrock wrapped up. “Alright. Well, the sheriff says tomorrow is the deadline to have the structure removed. Looks like an all day job at this point.”

Night fell. Kitchen lights glowed. Folks settled in. Tv stations signed off. Lights went off. Crickets chirped.

The morning routine. Raise window blinds. Open curtains. Start the bacon and eggs and pancakes etc.

The kids titter excitedly about something. Miller’s field is empty. The story is a straight forward one. It was all so he could give us a piece of his mind on tv. Some weird, elaborate performance art right here in the mid west. The kids would tell the story while playing in the field for the next 2 generations, at which point the life will have drained from the neighborhood, and a land developer will install the biggest, chunkiest, ugliest and above all, most efficiently constructed model home available squarely on Miller’s field.

While throwing a ball around, the kids would talk about how Joe Miller had also disappeared. The sheriff walked through an unlocked front door to do a well-being check. Clothes were neatly arranged in drawers. Dishes were washed and neatly put away in cupboards. Everything was neatly in place. The home owner was nowhere to be found and stayed that way forever. If you don’t believe it, call up the news. Call Samantha Regan. She still lives in town and did the follow up story. No one ever saw Joe, again.

 

 

 

 

The Nightmare

They found the house in twilight. It was always twilight. They peered through the little basement window. Row after row, stack after stack of nothing but jars of pickles barely visible in the dim turquoise tinged light. The house was inexplicably reinforced. Ordinary looking, yet the windows were unbreakable, the doors were especially fortified. No one was around, but someone had turned a mid sized home into a safe for pickles. Jagar looked around. His crew were hungry. If they saw a trap, they didn’t much care.

Someone found a long 2 by 4. Leverage to get the oddly fortified front door open. Lobbing bricks and rocks at the windows and watching them bounce should have scared them off. You couldn’t see the fortifications. It was as if a secure fortress had been disguised as a pleasant little house in an idyllic, economically mixed neighborhood. Jagar let them ram the lever into the door jam, but he stood back, watching.

There was a crack. The door was breached at the hinges. 7 men leaning on a lever did the job.

“Quietly” hissed Jagar. The men, some covered in not much more than sack cloth, others in stolen military garb, and a few obviously scarred and mutated from the chemicals that had been spilled into the clouds, all pulled the door away and entered the house, activating small flash lights, careful to keep them aimed at the floor.

“There’s the kitchen. Where did you see the pickles?”

“In the basement. Stacks of them. Just pickles. Weird”, said Jagar.

“Probably all kinds of stored stuff somewhere if you look”, offered Marnak.

The stairs to the basement creaked. Stacks of pickle jars covered nearly the entire floor. On the walls, however, were cans. Some of the men had can openers. Their mouths were already watering. Why would someone have so many pickles? Who cares?

“Watch our backs” Jagar motioned to Birk. Birk dutifully bounded up the stairs and into the house.

They began to work at the pickle jars, trying to open them. Suddenly the basement door slammed shut.

“Birk”, Jagar hissed.

“Jagar”, a voice hissed back. “The door won’t budge.”

The next morning the sky was clear of clouds. The sun rose and shed bright light even through the small windows of the basement. Birk found the door suddenly open as easily as any ordinary door.

No one was in the basement.

Birk peered around. Beams of sunlight illuminated dust in the air, making them bright like filaments. They were gone. No trace; nothing. But something was different. A space near the wall where there had been room to walk. There was a stack of pickle jars, slightly newer looking than the rest. It hadn’t been there, before. Birk was sure of it. It had been the only space left in the entire room. 11 pickle jars. 11 missing crew members. Birk tried to puzzle it out.

Movement in one of the corners. It was one of them. No one had seen them since… it was assumed they’d left. Birk’s blood turned to ice. It jutted out an arm, if it could be called an arm. A quick, sharp buzzing noise was the last thing Birk heard.

A 12th pickle jar glittered in the morning sunlight.

 

Ben Loves Liana

Ben Wolanski and Dave Bundy are the only ones allowed in this room. They talk to a computer that talks back. Everyone in the world talks to this computer, since copies of it are placed on every thumb chip. No one is alone. Everyone has a friend.

The office phone rings. In the year 2045, offices still have phones. Dusty old phones. They always will.

“Unless it’s my mother, it’s not for me”, joked Ben. Dave’s wife usually called just before quitting time. Dave was good for dispensing advice.

“If you want to meet a girl, go to church”, he said breezily while changing into a tight fitting shirt before heading to the gym. He may or may not have been serious. Ben did not read faces. They’d had this conversation, before. Ben was an atheist. Sure, but a lot of guys aren’t all that into it. Social cohesion. Finding a mate. Stability. Etc. It had fallen out of fashion for a while, and then returned.

Ben went for walks in the evening and always went past the same church, barely noticing it; at least not consciously. It was one of those with an electric sign, which Ben never liked. And the sign was half obscured by a dead old tree. Church of the something something something.

And so he just walked in. Awkward small talk. Learning how to belong. Getting involved. Helping out. Meeting Liana. Liana Grissom. A nice ney surname.

Ben lived this encounter with a feeling of disconnection. It was like being in a simulation where someone gullible gets everything they want, a dream girl, a little place in the country, but it’s not real and the people running the simulation are just having a laugh.

He felt a little guilty. It was like a con. Go to church. Pass yourself off as a stable, unimaginative, reliable, and moreover, financially well off church man, get the girl. In the world, she’d call the police if you drove by her house. Hey, just curious to know where you live. Maybe something will happen. But, no. Your friendly office mates let you know not to do that as she’s mentioned going to H.R…. (she hasn’t, but they’re sure she might).

Nothing is forever.

Ben turned up at Dave’s house late in the afternoon in the pouring rain without a raincoat or umbrella. They stood in the porch.

“We’re the only two people in the world who know how to get Chip to reveal itself.”

Dave nodded. “I’m not even going to say it, here. We say it in The Room (where they programmed Chip)”.

“I had that exchange with Liana.” Ben said dully. “She gave every reply, perfectly.”

Thunder rolled around in the distance.

“Then I brought her to the basement. You know, that’s where I keep the scanner”, said Ben. He looked Dave in the face. “She’s a robot.”

Ben wanted Dave to say, “Ok, you found out. We’ve been working on this… we used you as our first test subject…”.

“What the hell are you talking about”, asked Dave, genuinely confused.

Ben brought Dave home to meet Liana. They had the conversation, the exchange that causes Chip, their AI, the “person” everyone has in their thumb chip, to reveal that he’s merely a machine. The definition of artificial intelligence is, if you talk to it and you can’t tell if it’s human or not, then it’s intelligent. You don’t want it phoning people up and posing as human, so Ben built in a conversation, a particular conversation, that causes this AI to reveal itself.

He showed Dave the church. When you pull away the branches, the sign out front reads, “Church Of The Machine God”