Share It

time

time
original artwork by victoria hardy

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Corner Dude


Corner Dude




“Watch him,” Justin said softly, nodding his head toward the corner.

I glanced over, and saw the older man standing on the curb with a small, yappy dog.  “I think he’s just lonely, he just stands out there, and I guess folks speak to him as they walk by.”

“Has he ever spoken to you?”  Justin asked, lifting his end of the couch onto the bed of his truck.

“No, I’ve waved at him a couple times, said hey once or twice, but he never responded, maybe he’s hard of hearing or something.”

“I’m sure that’s what he wants you to think.” Justin came to my end of the couch and helped me push it into the bed.  “But maybe what you think, and what is true, are two different things.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder to see corner dude take a drag off his cigarette and look down at his groomed dog. 

“I told you what I meant.  Watch him, watch out for him, I don’t trust him.”

I laughed.  “What’s not to trust?  He’s just an old guy with a dog.”

“Is that all?” Justin asked, shrugging, and lifting the tailgate.

“Yeah, for today, but I may have more once I figure out what I’m doing in there.”  I nodded at my house that I was attempting to redecorate. 

He slammed the tailgate.  “Let’s go in for a minute.”

“Okay,” I said, following him to the door.  I was trying to figure out why the energy had changed, and why he was suddenly so tense.  Justin was my handy man, my truck when I needed something carried away or brought home, and usually he was nothing but jokes and lightness, but suddenly he was tense and I felt it through my being.  I walked inside and he shut the door behind me, looking through the open blinds at the older man standing on the corner. 

“You know I live close to here, right?  And it’s a handy short cut?” he asked, pacing through the living room and peeking out through the blinds.

“Yeah,” I said, my forehead wrinkling as it did when I was trying to solve a puzzle. 

“He’s always on that corner, and he’s always looking at your house.”

I sighed.  “Do you want a beer?”  I moved toward the kitchen.

“Sure,” he said, following me, while checking each window as he passed. 

I opened the fridge and handed him a beer, popping the top of my own.  “I really appreciate the help.”

“No problem, my girl wanted a couch, so it’s very nice of you to just give it away.”

I smiled and leaned against the counter, taking a sip.  “Glad it’s going to a good home, I inherited that from my mom.”

“Rita will take care of it.”

I nodded and watched him peer out the window behind me, looking toward the corner where the old man let his dog free to do the things dogs do.

“He’s really not old,” he said.

“What are you saying, Justin?”

“Does he look old to you?” he asked, taking my arm and leading me back into the living room where I had the perfect view to observe the man across the street.

I shook off his hand, giving him the look that often stopped people in their tracks, and he laughed.  “Does he look old to you?  Look at him.  Guess his age.”

Previously, I believed the man to be in his late sixties or early seventies, but now looking at him, I no longer saw that.  I stared, fifties?  I shook my head.  “Fifty-something?”

“Not so old now, right?  Look, do you see a hearing aid?  Glasses?  And what’s with that hair?  Does he dye it?  Or has his hair not turned gray yet?”

I studied the man with the prissy dog, and saw that he had military grade boots.  “Wow,” I muttered.

“He doesn’t look like a retired, elderly man, does he?  What do you think he does for a living?  Because I’m pretty sure he makes his living watching you.”

“What?  That’s crazy, Justin,” I said, but couldn’t stop the shudder from working down my spine.

“Maybe, maybe not.  He’s always home, how often to do you see his car gone?  Never, or at least rarely, and he stands on the corner how many hours a day?”

“I don’t know.  I haven’t paid much attention.”

“Well, he sure pays attention to you.” 

“You’re freaking me out, Justin,” I said, staring out the window at the man standing on the corner. 

“Do you still have that web cam?” 

“Yeah, I never even used it, it’s still in the box.”

“Well, let’s set it up and we’ll watch him as he watches you.”

“This is crazy,” I said, stepping into a bedroom I used as a small office, and retrieving the box with the wireless webcam nestled inside.   

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m crazy.  I’m pretty tired of hearing that since the only difference between you and me is that I pay attention to things and ask questions.  Even Rita gave me a homemade tinfoil hat for my birthday, she thought it was funny, but it pissed me off.  It’s not my fault that everyone just accepts the surface of things and no one wants to look underneath.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything,” I said, handing him the box.

“I know, Dixie, I know,” he said, taking the box and sighing.  “Sorry for venting, but it does get frustrating.  Think about it, you’ve lived here for a few years and six months ago this guy just starts standing on the corner across the street and watching your house and you never even gave it a thought?”  He opened the box and shook his head.  “That’s why they win.”

“Who?  What?  Who is they?” 

“They are those who are not like us.  Everyone seems to think that we are all alike and if that’s the case, why is it a handful do terrible things?  Why do some murder and mutilate and most don’t?  Why do some corporations have no problem polluting rivers and poisoning us?  Most people would never even consider those things as an option, yet we know it happens.  Why do politicians lie?  Why do people conspire to hurt others?  We could say it’s all about money and power, but I know that there are two kinds of people on this earth, us and them.”  He opened the instruction manual and sat down in a chair with his beer. 

“Us and them?  Is that like the haves and the have nots, or are we talking about aliens or different species?” 

“You’ve got a lot of catching up to do, sunshine.  Give me a minute to get this thing running and we’ll talk more.”  He focused on the paperwork in his hands.

I paced, restlessly.  Justin’s energy and angst was palpable.  I met Justin at a flea market three years earlier when he had a woodworking booth, he made custom cabinets and basically anything one could want from wood.  I bought a table and we exchanged numbers.  He became a steady and trusted handyman, a drinking buddy on occasion, and a carpenter when I upgraded my kitchen and bathroom, but as I paced I understood I didn’t really know him.  Us and them, I scoffed silently in my head, and wondered if he was doing drugs. 

What do I know about him? I asked silently.  I knew he lived with Rita, a psychiatric nurse at the local hospital.  I knew he could fix most anything, even cars, which had come in handy a couple times.  I knew he liked dark European beer, and was a hunter and gardener.  I knew he was thirty-eight, had spent eight years in the military, and refused to have a bank account.  I knew he liked Monty Python, James Taylor, Charlton Heston, and Ronald Reagan.  I also knew he and Rita lived on the outskirts of town, on eight, completely fenced, acres, and had two dogs, four cats, and a couple dozen chickens. 

“Got it,” he called. 

I stepped into the living room and he handed me a slip of paper.  “Go call up this address.”

I walked into the office and booted up the computer.  I typed in the address he gave me and had a perfect view of the man on the corner smoking a cigarette with his recently brushed dog at his feet. 

“Is it working?” Justin asked, stepping into the room.  “Damn! Working great!  It’d take a ton of batteries leaving that cam on all day and night, but luckily there was a AC cord, so I plugged it in and put in batteries, so you may want to buy some more batteries.  But it’s working, this is freaking cool!” 

“What am I supposed to be seeing here, Justin, I just see an old dude, with a foo-foo dog, standing on the corner and smoking.” 

“Because that’s all you want to see, Dixie, that’s all you choose to see.  But ask yourself why he spends hours a day, thirty yards from your front door, chain-smoking with that stupid little dog.  I’ll tell you, okay?  To save us both time and energy.  You’re under surveillance.”

“Me?  Under surveillance?  Why would anyone want to watch me?”

“How do you make your living?”

“I work online, you know, I do a few things.”

“So you rarely leave the house, you certainly don’t go into an office everyday, don’t you know that in this climate that makes you suspect?  Plus, you’re friends with me, and they don’t like me very much.”  He laughed.

“Why don’t they like you, Justin?”  I asked, getting up from the desk, but watching the feed as a car slowed in front of the corner dude.

“Because I’m a freak, I see through them.  I know what’s going on in the world and when I try to tell people, the people who watch their TVs, and buy the products advertised, and rave about said products and shows,” he sighed.  “When I try to tell those people, they think I’m crazy.  See something, say something is the word of the day and you have to know I’m freaking people out by telling them other than what their television tells them.  Think of that word for a moment, television, tell a vision … I don’t watch the damn thing, and would rather use the boob tube in target practice than spend a moment listening to that drivel.”

I sighed and turned to see another car slow in front of corner dude.  Suddenly, for a moment, I didn’t think Justin was crazy.  “Why do those cars keep slowing down in front of him, there’s no stop sign there.”

He chuckled.  “Sunshine is waking up.  Nice to meet you.”  He held out his beer bottle in a toast.  

I wanted to say ‘screw off’, and didn’t, but I also didn’t toast him.  “So I’m being watched because you and I are friends?”

“No, sunshine, you’re being watched because they can see the future and they know that you will be a problem to their system one day, you and I meeting was just happenstance, an aberration they couldn’t control.  Now that you’ve seen what you are seeing…” he shrugged and pointed at the monitor as another car slowed. 

I studied the images performing on my PC.  The car, a late nineties Ford, slowed as it approached the man on the corner.  The man, with his foo-foo dog, dropped his smoke and held his hand up, two fingers down, and three up.  “What the hell,” I asked, stepping closer to the screen as the gray sedan pulled away.  “What did I just see?”

“The truth, sunshine.  My Dixie-girl, you just saw a bit of how they operate.”  Justin took a sip of beer, set it on the table he made, and that I had bought.  The table that was the reason we had met just three years prior.  “No more beer for me, I need to make it home, not that I’ve been drinking, but they have to have some semblance of a reason to mess with you.”  He walked into the bathroom and gargled with some cheap mouthwash that I kept on the counter, but rarely used. 

He stepped back in the room with a smile.  “Now you can watch those who are watching you.  Thanks for the couch, Rita’s gonna love it.  And Dixie-girl, be safe.” 

We gave our customary hug and he was gone.  And I never saw him again. 

I watched the damned webcam until the early hours of the morning, wondering how many cigarettes the corner dude could smoke.  I saw the cars slow where there was no stop sign and tried to figure out why.  Was there some magnetic spike that made their feet fall off the gas pedal?  Was there something in the road that made them slow, something threatening, yet something I couldn’t see?  I didn’t look out the window that night; I sat in my office, with work to be done, but studying the man on the corner. 

I fell into bed around three in the morning, and was just falling into sleep when the phone rang.  I must tell you that I don’t believe we are obligated to answer the phone when it rings, and we also don’t have to answer the door when someone knocks, and as I lay in bed, jolted from my sleep, I didn’t answer the phone.  I answered it when I heard Rita crying over the answering machine.

“What the hell, Rita?  What’s going on?” I asked, after stubbing my toe to reach the phone I kept in the living room. 

“He’s dead!”  She sobbed.

“Who’s dead?” I demanded.

“Justin!  Justin’s freaking dead!”

My mind scattered, and then stumbled.  “What?  No!”

“He’s dead, Dixie!  The ambulance just left,” she said with a catch in her voice, and blew her nose. 

“What the hell happened, Rita?” I yelled.

“I don’t know, Dixie.  I got home late, and we were cooking out on the grill.  We were having a great night.  I’d opened some wine and we were sitting beside the grill, not close to the fire or anything, and suddenly he said he was hot.  I made a joke of it…” she sobbed and sniffed, “asking if he was going through the change.  And then I saw this white band appear around his head.  You know how tanned he is, he’s always outdoors, but this strange white band appeared across his brow, he stood up, took a couple breaths and fell.  He was gone, no pulse, no heart, no breath, nothing, in just seconds.  I had my cell in my pocket so I called nine-one-one as I was doing CPR, but he was gone.  They say it was a heart-attack.”

“A heart attack?  He’s in great shape, he’s only thirty-eight!”  My mind flipped, and I fell to my knees.  “He can’t be dead,” I whispered

“He’s dead,” Rita cried over the line.  “He’s dead.” 

We made arrangements to meet in the morning, and I promised to help notify his family and schedule the funeral.  I hung up the phone, having to use the door jam to get to my feet, and heard noises outside as through in celebration.  I didn’t look out the window, but stumbled back to the office and disengaged the screen saver, looking out onto the street.

Corner dude was on the corner, and I glanced at the clock, it was four in the morning.  He stood there smoking, with the tiny, overly groomed dog, as a stream of older model sedans passed.  A few honked their horns, but most just put their arms out of the window with various fingers up or down. 

I watched for a couple hours, and as the sun began to rise above the horizon, I posted pictures of my house on various real estate sites and declared it was up for sale.  I hadn’t planned on moving or selling my home, but I also hadn’t planned on my friend, my drinking buddy, and my carpenter, dying.  I stood up slowly, and checked the doors, before climbing in the shower. 

I had to say goodbye to my carpenter. 


 






Saturday, April 27, 2013

Who's Watching The Watchers?


Who's Watching The Watchers? 



 “They’re always watching,” Uncle Russ said, pulling a beer from the cooler beside his feet.

“Who?” I asked, swaying in the tire swing.

“Them.”  He pointed at the gate.

I looked over and saw nothing but a whitewashed fence.  “I don’t see anyone.”

“Well, of course you can’t see them if you look straight on, they hide in the shadows and in the periphery.  Haven’t you ever thought you saw something out of the corner of your eye and you turn and then there’s nothing there?”

“Well, sure,” I said, digging the toes of worn Keds into the dirt.

“That’s them.” 

I pushed my hair behind my ears and focused on my feet, looking for movement from the corner of my eye.  “I don’t see anything,” I said after a few moments. 

“Of course you don’t, I just pointed them out.  They’re hiding.” 

“Why would they hide from me?  I’m just a kid.”

He chuckled under his breath.  “Kids certainly see them better than adults.” 

“Then how can you see them?”  I swatted a mosquito that landed on my thigh and studied the smear of blood. 

“I’m not right in the head, never have been,” Uncle Russ stated, draining the last of a beer before opening the next. 

I knew he was right; Uncle Russ was schizophrenic, at least according to my mother.  I often heard my mother complain to my father about Uncle Russ. 

“I know he’s a war hero, but can’t we keep him away from Cindy, I don’t like the stories he tells, I don’t like how close they are.”

“What am I supposed to do?” my father asked.  “He’s my brother, he lives here, and he has just as much right to this house as we do.”

“It’s summer, why don’t we enroll Cindy in a dance class or the Girl Scouts.”

My father laughed harshly.  “We are talking about our daughter, right?”

“You could make her.”

“Well, you could too.”

“You’re the man, you supposed to be the one that sets down the rules.  You could make her stop spending so much time with Russ, he’s crazy, he drinks too much, and won’t even take his medicine.”

“Am I crazy?”

“No, I …”

        “Well, I grew up with Russ, he has an active imagination and that’s not such a bad thing for a kid.  He’s never hurt anyone.”  He paused.  “Okay, he’s never hurt anyone outside of the war, but he was getting paid to do it then and sending money home to pay for my college.  Relax.”

“He’s filling her head with crazy ideas.”

“Kids are supposed to have crazy ideas, it’s our job to point them in the right direction.”

I spun the swing wondering if the motion would help me locate them.  “So do you see them?  I mean not just in the corner of your eye?”

“Yes, sometimes.  Mostly I see the movements on the outskirts of my vision, but sometimes I see them up close and personal.”

“What do they look like?”  I asked, stopping the tire by digging my feet deeper in the gutter underneath. 

“They look a lot like us.  Their eyes are bigger and their noses and mouths smaller, but pretty much like us.”

“You mean like the aliens from outer space?  I saw a show on TV that showed drawings of aliens and they were gray, had huge eyes, and not much of a nose or mouth.”

“No, I’ve seen those pictures too, but these don’t look that severe.  They have hair and they wear clothes, mostly suits, but they aren’t small and gray like the drawings.” 

I pushed off again, pondering his words, and letting the movement of the swing rush wind through my hair.  I wasn’t well adept at discerning the age of adults, but I knew Russ was older than my father.  I glanced over at him and felt overcome by the swelling of love in my heart.  Uncle Russ had been my favorite uncle for as long as I could remember, I had others on mother’s side of the family, but they never spoke to me as Russ did.  Uncle Russ spoke to me as though I was an adult, he didn’t ask about school, grades, or extracurricular activities, he was more interested in what I read and thought, than what others thought of me. “So why do they watch us?”

“It’s their job.  Sometimes they help us, they sure helped me in the war, and sometimes they lead us astray, but you can never, ever trust them.  Mainly they are here to observe and report, but sometimes they appear to assist you in doing something good or something very, very bad.  You do know we’re living in two worlds here?”

I nodded.  “You’ve told me, but I don’t always understand it.”

He leaned back in a ratty, water damaged, wooden chair and pulled off his cap, dropping it in the pile of empties beside his chair, and scratched his head.  “Okay, there is the world you know, the TV, the shopping, the schooling, the wars, but underneath all that is another world.  Underneath all you see and know is a world where everything is orchestrated.  Is your dad going to get a promotion?  Well, it runs through the channels in this world and a decision is made, but underneath, before the decision is made here, it runs through another world.  Is he a good employee, a good person, did he help the woman with the broken down car during the storm?  Things like that, and then, depending on what they decide underneath, your father gets a promotion or he doesn’t.”

“So they’re good?  I mean they must be good if they saw him helping that woman.”

“No, they’re not good, although sometimes they have a wicked sense of humor.” He laughed softly.  “They just are.  For your dad it might be did he do the right thing and should we reward him?  But for another it might be did he do a bad thing?  See, you can’t trust them, but you have to respect them because they have a lot of power here.” 

I dragged my feet through the dirt, stopping the swing.  “So why would they reward someone for doing a bad thing?”

“It’s hard to explain.” 

“Because I’m a kid?”

“Oh, no.  No, don’t think that, you’re far easier to talk to than adults who believe they have all the answers, they just think I’m crazy, at least you and I discuss things.”  He winked.  “I don’t know for sure, but I think it has something to do with the balance of the world.  You’ve heard of karma, correct?”

“Yes,” I said, turning the tire to face him.

“It’s a bit like that.  The world has to be balanced, there has to be bad to appreciate the good, and there has to be good to understand the bad.  Make sense?”

I nodded. 

“So these folks, these watchers, they keep their eyes on us.  Now in the war I did bad things that were called good, and the watchers were watching me, I saw them quite often, and they helped me to do bad things that were called good.  Understand?”

I nodded slowly, thinking, and slapped another mosquito.  “Killing people and stuff?”

“Yes.  You know we’re not supposed to kill?”

“Yes.”

“Or steal or maim?”

“Yes, sir.”

“In war it’s different, you’re supposed to do all those things and when you do them well they pin metals to your uniform and have ceremonies.  Doesn’t seem right, does it?”

“No, it doesn’t.  But I guess in war the rules are different.  In war you’re out there protecting me and Mommy and Daddy, you’re making sure we’re okay and that makes you a hero.”

He smiled at me and my heart swelled again.  “I’ll always take care of my Cindy-bug, you know that.  But if God said those are bad things, why are they good when we call it war?”

“I don’t know.  Because this is America and we have to protect our freedoms?”

“That schooling is teaching you all right.”  He rolled his eyes. 

“Well, Uncle Russ, you protected us,” I said confidently.

“No, Cindy-bug, you were never under a threat.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I don’t either, bug, but I know when I did my worst over there, the watchers were watching.  But do you know what I never saw?”

“What?” I asked, feeling a chill work through my body producing goose bumps, despite the heat of the day. 

“I never saw who was watching the watchers.  But one day I’ll see them, I’ve been looking.” 


***

Cindy put down the pen and shut the journal.  She didn’t know why she was suddenly so captivated by the last summer she spent with her schizophrenic uncle.  She had work to do, real work, not envisioning that she, herself, could be an author, but helping those who actually had the gift and the fortitude to complete a book.  Thus far all the handwritten meanderings had been focused on that last summer with her uncle.  Her crazy uncle who was found dead and bloated at the base of the bridge spanning Johnson Creek three days before she started sixth grade. 

She dropped the journal in a drawer and slapped it shut with too much force, the sound wave ricocheting off the wall and slamming back into her, making her jump.  She picked up the folder from her desk and opened it, pacing.  She couldn’t believe she had to have this meeting, she couldn’t believe they had approved the book. 

Cindy had scanned the first couple paragraphs when she found the manuscript on her desk and tossed it into the reject pile, but the next day the book was on her desk again.  She read two chapters and knocked on her boss’ door.  “You don’t really expect me to read this garbage, do you?” she asked, dropping the bound papers on the desk. 

“Yes, I expect you to read it and I expect you to get some editors, you’re going to need a few.  It’s a done deal.”

“Are you serious?”  Cindy asked, sinking into a chair.

“Yes, it’s going to be a best seller.”

Cindy stared at the gray haired woman across the cluttered desk.  “It’s trash, it’s poorly written torture porn.” 

“I know,” the older woman sighed and leaned back in her chair.  “But it’s going to be a best seller, so get to work.” 

Cindy glanced at the clock, looked over the changes she and the editors had agreed should be made, and felt her stomach tighten, knowing her day would be spent battling attorneys over every line.  She couldn’t understand how an unknown, first time novelist could get such leeway in a contract, but her job, along with a few editors and a couple attorneys, was to work it out. 

The phone on the desk buzzed and a voice spoke under crackling static.  “Your two o’clock is here, Ms. Olsen, and settled in the conference room.”

“Thanks.”  Cindy looked over the file again and dropped it on her desk with a thud.  She pulled a blazer off the back of the chair, slid into it, and then checked her hose for runs.  She buttoned the jacket roughly and took a deep breath.  “It’s just another day at the office,” she said softly, picking up the file and forcing a smile on her face. 

She settled on the publishing side of the table and looked at the media displayed by the author’s side.  The sharp publicity shot of the author showed a well-built man, with a fall of hair over one eye.  In the corner of the room was a six-foot cardboard cut out of the author looking muscular and toned in a tight black t-shirt, slim fitting jeans, and cowboy boots.  “He already has over two million fans on social media and the book hasn’t even been released yet,” a suit from across the table announced. 

Cindy poured a small glass of water, settling in for a long day, and saw movement out of the corner of her eye.  She turned and swatted at her hair expecting to find a fly, and finding no flying or buzzing insect, she shifted her attention back to the upcoming book-signing schedule of the author.  She gazed at the glossy advertising posters set to be displayed in bookstores and saw a shadow move across the wall.  She glanced over, saw nothing, and focused on the words of the opposing team.

Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a man move across the room until he was standing beside the life-sized version of the attractive, but untalented writer.  She jerked her head up and she looked at the cardboard figure.  There was no man and no one had entered the room or gotten up from the table.  I saw a man, she thought, trying to concentrate on the meeting.  From across the table another set of glossy papers were set down.  “And we’ve already scheduled television interviews.”

“First we need a readable product,” Cindy interrupted.  “That is why we called this meeting.  We’re all pleased to know that the publicity is underway, but we have to have something to give the public.” 

“The book is written,” an older gentleman, with white hair and an expensive suit, spoke from the opposite side of the table.

In her peripheral vision, Cindy saw a man moving again, this time he hugged the cardboard cut out and kissed its cheek, delicately lifting up a foot.  Cindy turned her head abruptly and saw no man standing on one foot kissing cardboard. 

“The book needs so much editing, it’s like it was written by an illiterate serial killer,” the editor next to her said, bringing her back to the matter at hand.

“In the first two chapters alone he uses the C-word twelve times,” she said, turning to the editor seated beside her.  “Twelve, am I correct?”

“Yes, Ms. Olsen, twelve.”

“We need a better way to express that idea, some softer words, especially if your target audience is women,” she said, barely restraining her disgust with the poorly written erotic/torture novel. 

“We hold creative control, it’s in the contract.”

Cindy sighed, sitting back in her chair, and suddenly seeing two men dance around the stiff photograph out of the corner of her eye.  One was shifting his hips left and right, and the other was using one hand to point at the glossy image, while the other was giving her the thumbs up sign.  She took a sip of water as one of the editors argued across the table. 

Uncle Russ, she thought and sighed, no wonder I’m thinking about you.  She stared at the schedules and photographs scattered on the table and saw a third man join the party beside the corrugated figurine, doing the bump with the finger pointer.  She laughed and all eyes around the table turned her direction.  She quickly covered the laugh with a cough, taking another sip of water, and apologized.  “I’m sorry, please continue,” she said. 

The argument across the table grew heated and the invisible men danced.  Cindy remembered slapping mosquitoes, blood smears, and Uncle Russ’ words, “I did bad things that were called good, and the watchers were watching me, I saw them quite often, and they helped me to do bad things that were called good.  Understand?”  She felt the gooseflesh erupt on her skin and turned her head, the watchers were fully visible, at least to her. 

She looked at the glossy papers on the table, glanced at the men and women arguing above the prints, and turned her gaze back to the men now holding hands and circling the cardboard image in a cartoonish dance.  She heard her uncle’s words in her mind … “but I know when I did my worst over there, the watchers were watching,”

She laughed hysterically, drawing all eyes from around the table, and gasping for breath.  She wiped away the tears flowing down her cheeks and stood up.  “Excuse me, I have to find out who’s watching the watchers,” she said, abandoning her files as she let herself out of the conference room.  She shut the door softly, despite the overwhelming need to run surging through her, and the watchers appeared, dancing around her crazily as she made her way to her office. 

They followed her, miming a Vaudeville routine, one poking the other in the eye, and she grabbed her bag off the floor, pulling her journal from the drawer.  “I see you and you know I see you,” she muttered, shoving the leather bound book into her oversized purse.  “And I’m going to find out who’s watching you.”  She slid the strap over her shoulder, looking around the office for anything else she may need, and knowing she’d never be back.

The trio stopped their antics and shook their heads in the negative. 

“I know you killed Uncle Russ,” she muttered, stepping out of her office and heading toward the exit.  They followed her, cavorting over one another as though a circus act.  “I’m going to find out who is watching you.”  She threw open the door to the street and they disappeared.  She stood on the sidewalk for a moment, releasing a long breath of air, and looked back through the glass door to see the watchers doing summersaults down the hall and sliding through the thick wooden door into the conference room. 









 










Monday, April 22, 2013

Suspended


Suspended



Sissy caught sight of a hawk landing firmly on one of the four-by-fours that secured the privacy fence around her property, narrowly missing the razor wire balled on the top, and her heart rushed with anxiety.  She wanted to protect the few squirrels, cats, and songbirds that spent time in her garden, but she knew the predator had to eat as well as they did.  She sat back in her chair and closed her eyes.

She stood slowly and shut the blinds.  She busied herself with the list, making sure to grab a hat and some gloves, and pouring half a cup in the animals’ water bowl.   She stepped outside and rolled down the sleeves of a thick linen shirt and pulled the gloves on to cover her hands.  She grabbed a bandana from her back pocket, decorated in bouncing cats and birds, and tied it behind her head, covering most of her face.  She walked across the sandy garage and lifted the hood of the ancient jeep, ensuring there was water and oil.  She slammed the hood and walked to the back of the vehicle, looking through the window to see three five-gallon jugs of water mixed in with some tools. 

“Okay,” she said, donning the hat and setting her sunglasses in place.  “To town.”  She climbed in the Jeep and reversed, backing down a long driveway and checking the status of her plants along the way.  She parked and jumped out of the car, pulling the hat down further, and walked to the gate.  She pushed open the thick wooden doors and was nearly blinded by the white light, she tilted her head, watching the toes of her boots, and pulled down the thick leather brim.  She climbed into the idling vehicle, backed out, and pulling up the brake, she ran back and shut the gate. 

The difference between her own yard, sheltered and green, and the outside world always took her breath and she paused, leaning on the warm metal of the hood for a moment.  She loosened the top button of her shirt and pulled another bandana free, wiping her forehead.  “To town,” she whispered and stood up, shoving the cloth into her back pocket.  She climbed onto the cracked leather, adjusting the visor to block the harsh light, and released the brake, putting the car in gear. 

The blacktop had disintegrated into tar rock, pebble, and drifting sand a few years ago and Sissy worked to hold onto the steering wheel as she bounced across the piles.  She looked at the barren land that used to hold a huge house, equipped with three working fireplaces, and sighed.  She remembered the Regopoulis family who had been her neighbors for as long as she could recall, four generations lived in the same house, but now there was no evidence that the house had ever existed at all.  It’s like it was never even there, she thought.  The last she heard from the Regopoulis kids she went to school with, Rosa and Jimmy, they were doing well in the city and each had a child.  

Sissy bumped down the broken road, finally reaching the corner, and turned toward town, grateful that the concrete held up better under the heat than the blacktop.  Her view seemed endless, so unlike what she remembered from childhood.  Sometimes on her drive to town she imagined that she was living on another planet as she gazed at the empty landscape.  The houses, stores, schools, trees and hills from her past had been erased as though they had never been, what had once been a productive town was now nothing more than a deserted, flat land, thick with blowing sand, a white hot sun, and not even a cactus to make up for the loss. 

Driving on the concrete was faster and easier than the broken blacktop, but she knew that it wouldn’t be long before the road would no longer be so easily traveled.  She gazed out the window, remembering the houses and storefronts, and looking at the ground.  “There has to be something left,” she said.  “Even though it looks flat, it doesn’t mean I won’t hit the foundation of a house or a chimney.”  She glanced through the pocked windshield, dodging a familiar pothole and noticing it had grown since the last time she passed.  She imagined the town as it once was, studying the terrain, and fixing in her mind the old paths and back roads that she may need to know to get to town in the future.   

The sun glared, bouncing off the dome of the city, and blinding her.  Despite the black market tint of the windows, the visor, glasses, and leather hat that she’d acquired by trading an illegal kitten, her eyes watered under the white-hot reflection.  Her foot fell off the accelerator and she paused on the side of the broken road.  She checked her back pocket for her permit and then double-checked the monetary card.  She pulled out the list, wagering in her mind the cost of the items she needed, the cost of parking, and then checked her balance again.

“I got it,” she smiled, and pulled the silk bag from under the seat, stowing her cards inside.  She threw her hat behind the seat, set her glasses in the glove box, and attempted to fight the glare to check out her appearance in the mirror.  She smoothed back a few hairs that had escaped the intricate braid and began unbuttoning her thick linen top.  She untied her boots, pulling them off her feet, and tossing them in the back.  She reached for the skirt, protected in plastic, as she shimmied out of hardy denim.  She managed to slide into the skirt without having to step out of the vehicle.  “Yay,” she muttered.  “Thank God for small favors,” she said, buttoning the cloth behind her back. 

The last time she was in town yellow and green were the proper colors, and she prayed that they hadn’t changed the color scheme in the three weeks since her last visit.  She liked yellow and green, but a couple months ago the colors were red and black, she wasn’t such a fan of those colors and wore them simply to be able to purchase the things she needed. 

She made sure that her clothes were adjusted properly and pulled forward slowly.  She entered the first checkpoint, the dome blocking the sun beaming in her windows and heating the Jeep, and showed her papers.  The young man, blue eyed and pink cheeked, waved her to the next station.  She showed her monetary card and a bit of cleavage at the next checkpoint.  The guard glanced at her card, and then stared at her chest for a moment before waving her through to the next level.  The next guard inspected her tag and allowed dogs to run around her vehicle.  “Have you arranged for a conveyance?” he asked, scanning her monetary card in a small device he carried on his belt.

“Yes,” she said, smiling her brightest smile. 

He handed back her cards, his eyes running over her in a way that made her feel dirty, and said, “Second level, slot forty-two.”

“Thank you,” she said and smiled.  The smile disappeared as she pulled into the towering, nearly empty, parking deck, but then she glanced at the cameras every thirty feet and smiled again.  She parked and stepped out of the vehicle, checking her appearance in the glass.  It must still be yellow and green or they wouldn’t have let me through, she thought, smoothing back a few more hairs and applying powder and lipstick.  She took a deep breath, turned to the exit, and aware of the cameras filming her, held the smile. 

Sissy placed the canvas bag and yellow silk bag over her shoulder, following the signs to the exit.  She stepped out of the tunnel, in a familiar place, and armed herself to take the next step.  She paused, glanced at the camera set in a tree above her, and stepped into the range of a streetlight that did dual duty.  The light pole illuminated the area, but it also had a message to relay.  You could only hear the message if you were in a twelve foot radius and there was only six feet open on the path that lead to the city.  She stepped into its reach, looking at the artificial sky above.  “Beginning four-twenty-seven the colors will be pink and silver.  Pink and silver on four-twenty-seven.”  Sissy stepped out of the mental intrusion and looked back to the sky. Outside of the dome, it was a wasteland; the sky was white, hot, and killing.  Inside the dome, the sky was usually blue and the rain came when scheduled, conveniently announced on TV, Internet, and radio, and there was an ever-present gentle breeze filling the air with the scent of honey suckle and jasmine.  There was no trash on the streets, no beggars or homeless asking for help or money, no stray animals, and the walks, yards, glass, doorknobs, and stairs all gleamed as though recently cut, raked, polished, and scrubbed. 

She turned to the right, passing a clothing store, and the mental beam erupted in her mind again,  “Monday, four-twenty-seven the colors are pink and silver.  Sale.  Sale.  S..”  She stepped out of the beam and sighed, smiling at the camera perched on a Magnolia branch.  She waited on the corner, hoping that Rusty hadn’t forgotten her, and watched the rickshaws and people pass, listening to snippets of conversation. 

“I love it when they change the colors,” a woman, carrying several shopping bags, explained to a friend.  “I get so bored with wearing the same colors for so long.”

“I know, I’ve seen enough yellow and green to last me a lifetime, now we just have to wait for four-twenty-seven to wear our new clothes.  That’s always the hardest part.”

“Well, it gives us something to look forward to, plus then we have a week of Color Balls, those are always so much fun.  The dancing, music, food, wine, and fashion, it’s so romantic!” 

“It is…”
The women drifted out of earshot and Sissy looked for Rusty’s rickshaw among those passing.  No cars were allowed in the dome and lone individuals were permitted to walk, although it was frowned upon, but she needed to pick up more items than she could carry.  All the passing rickshaws were yellow and green and would have to be painted to the new color scheme before their permits would be renewed.  Some rickshaw owners had several vehicles making it easier for them to get a jump on the new colors, but most would lose a couple days of work waiting for the paint to dry, luckily though, they had Color Balls to attend. 

She recognized Rusty’s out of control curls as she saw him headed in her direction; she stepped to the curb and waited.  “Sorry I’m late, Sissy.  The last customer…” he shook his head.  He helped her onto the wooden seat and put a yellow blanket over her lap.  “Got a long list today?”

“Not so long, but heavy, I’m stocking up.”

“What’s our first stop?”

“The yarn store, I’m still working on that baby blanket.”  She winked.  “How is Amanda feeling?”

He grinned and ran his hand through unruly hair.  “She’s amazing!  I can barely wrap my arms around her she’s so big!  It took us so long to get the permit, I can’t believe her pregnancy is almost done and the baby is almost here.”  He climbed on the bicycle part of the contraption and began peddling. 

Sissy sat back and observed her surroundings.  The sidewalks were a sea of yellow and green, blurring with the awnings hung over storefronts and street signs.  She sighed, knowing the next time she came to town the streets would be a wash of pink and silver.  There were few animals and no birds in the dome, except for the holographic ones and piped in bird song, and only a select group in the city could afford the permits for a dog or cat.  Luckily, she still had breeding cats on her property and a black market kitten went a long way to supplement her meager allotment. 

Carson Pharmaceuticals owned the entire domed city and those that chose to live in the city were regularly tested to ensure they had an adequate level of the drug in their system and when the colors changed, the required pill also changed.  The black and red period was a bad time in the city, the yellow and green period had gone better than expected, and Sissy could only wonder what the pink and silver time had in store for the residents of Carsonville. 

Rusty pulled to the curb and helped her out of the rickshaw.  “I’ll be quick,” she said.  “And then we need to go to the market.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  He smiled and leaned against the vehicle.

She made her selections quickly, picking out four balls of blue yarn, surprised she could find it in the barrels of yellow and green, just as pink and silver were being stocked, and used her monetary card to pay for her purchases.  She stepped out on the street, shoving her purchases in an approved canvas bag that bore the logo of Carson Pharmaceuticals.  “What about dogs?” Rusty asked, helping her into the seat.  “Do you see any more breeding dogs out there?”

“I haven’t seen a puppy in years,” she whispered.  Black market dogs could get you jail time.  “Last puppy I saw was Bella, and although she’s healthy and I have a couple males, she hasn’t gotten pregnant.”

“How do you live out there?”

“It’s not so bad, Rusty.  I have water, plants, and animals.  And I can wear any color I like and not take the required drugs.” 

“That red and black period, I lost three friends and me and Amanda almost broke up,” he said softly and shook his head, covering her lap with a blanket.  “I think our population went down by a good three hundred.  Think you can get us a kitten?”

“Probably, but are you sure you want to take such a risk?  Especially with a new baby?”

“I’d like my child to know about life before the change.”

“Think about it, okay?  Talk to Amanda, I would hate myself if your world was screwed up because of me.”

“You’re good folk, Sissy.  We’ll think about it.”  He climbed onto the seat and pulled away from the curb.  “Market next, right?”

“Yes.”  She watched the people moving on the street, most carrying shopping bags preparing for the new color change, and saw a couple storeowners pulling down their awnings, wondering how they could afford a new awning every time the decision was announced for the new requirements.  She searched the sidewalk for children and only saw two.  There were strict rules about having children and unexpected pregnancies were waylaid by sterilization at birth, or at acceptance of living in the city.  The process of being approved to have children and then the reversal of sterilization was long, most didn’t even try to apply, but those who did had a rough road before them.  It took Rusty and Amanda ten years, more paperwork than she could imagine, and many meetings with the board before they were accepted, and then the surgeries.  Rusty always asked her how she lived “out there” and she always restrained herself from asking how they lived in the dome. 

She had no man, no desire to procreate, she had enough work with the land, growing her own food, and keeping up with the animals.  She knew she was luckier than most as her property had a well with an aquifer underneath.  As the world outside of her gates grew hotter, dryer, and the sand storms blew down everything, somehow her property, the piece of land that had raised four generations, survived.  Her great grandparents had installed an irrigation system long before the world changed, and it had mostly been forgotten until she discovered the strange knobs, dials and levers in the back of the well house.  The water, the most valuable thing in the new world, came out of the pipes cold, refreshing, and clean, but she feared that Carsonville had discovered the deep aquifer and would soon drain it dry.  But she had enough to worry about, and had to trust that if that happened, or when it happened, she would be long dead and buried. 

Rusty stopped at the curb, beside the yellow and green tent tops.  “Do you need a hand?”

“Yes, I think I do,” she said, following required Carsonville convention and waiting for him to take her hand and help her down to the ground. 

“Okay, let me lock up.”  He stowed her bag of yarn under the bench seat, locking it, and then locked the wheels with a metal device. 

Sissy took a deep breath before stepping into the shade under the tents.  The market both illuminated and hid the poverty of Carsonville.  The sellers, dressed in the appropriate colors, were emaciated and barked out their goods as she passed.  It reminded her of the pictures her parents showed her of festivals, circuses, and fairs of a long ago era.  She walked past the tents selling material of pink and silver, bypassed the tables with small bowls of fish, the only pet deemed appropriate without a permit, and stopped at a table with bags of wheat, rice, and flax flour.  She bought a twenty-pound bag of mixed flour, noticing that the price had increased since the last time, and Rusty carried it as she sought out some sugar.  Cane sugar was rare, beet sugar was what most people consumed, and she talked to three merchants before she found an acceptable ten-pound bag.  She didn’t really use the sugar for herself, but somehow the humming birds still passed over the barren earth and she felt obligated to give them a treat. 

It was funny that she worried more about the animals than herself, but her family was mostly gone, she was the last, making a hopeless stand in the white washed desert and felt the call to help nature.  She shook her head, as though nature needed her help.  Okay, she admitted, moving to the next booth as Rusty carried her purchases; it was a selfish desire to see the earth as she once remembered it, to see it still producing, and to see the animals thriving.  On her land she had three goats, uncountable chickens, a dozen or so cats, four dogs, some elusive lizards, catfish and tadpoles in the pond, and a desert tortoise that she found attempting to push down her gate to gain admittance.  She also had a myriad of birds and squirrels that she couldn’t really feed, but kept the baths full for their enjoyment. 

“Thief! Thief!  Thief!”  A voice cried out and Rusty grabbed her, pushing her against one of the vendor tables, and covered her body with his own. 

A hopelessly thin man, wearing the appropriate colors tinged by filth, ran by with a small bag of beans in his hand.  The chant began slowly, and then grew to a crescendo. “Suspend him, suspend him, suspend him!”

The man was stopped before he made it to the exit by two police officers dressed in yellow and green, they grabbed him roughly, shaking the bit of food from his hand, and dragged him to the street. 

“I’m sorry, Sissy,” Rusty muttered, pulling away from her, but still shielding her body from the rushing crowds determined to see the suspension.  “I think we’re stuck for a bit.”

She nodded.  “It’s not your fault, Rusty.  I have a bit more shopping to do.”  She searched her mind for anything else she may need.  She wandered, being shadowed by the rickshaw driver, toward the back of the tent city, listening to the cheers from the street.  Chill bumps erupted on her skin, despite the climate controlled dome. 

“He shouldn’t have stolen, he has all he needs,” Rusty said. 

Sissy briefly shook her head and made no reply.  No one has all they need here, she thought, no one.  They had lots of rules, color changes, permission slips and permits, and drugs, but no one had all they needed in Carsonville.  She approached the last booth, purchasing a few buttons and seeds that were not guaranteed to grow, and waited until she saw the hoards of people moving back inside laughing and joking about the suspension. 

“It looks like it’s over, are you ready?”

She nodded and moved slowly toward the exit. 

They stepped out of the tent to see a body, dressed in dingy yellow and green, hanging from a street light right over Rusty’s rickshaw.  She tried not to look, but her eyes kept betraying her, and she observed the green cloth sandals on the feet hanging just a couple feet over her head.  Rusty helped her into the rickshaw, covering her lap with the blanket, and stowing her items on the floor. 

“Don’t forget the color change,” he said, unlocking the wheels.

She nodded, trying not to look at the emaciated body swinging above her in the gentle, artificial wind.

“Next stop?”

“Yeah, Carson clothes.” 

She tried to halt her eyes from straying, but they kept darting to the poor, dead man hanging above.  She couldn’t stop looking at the swinging feet in cheap green sandals, and even as Rusty pulled the rickshaw away, she eyes stayed on the dirty toes.  

“I don’t know why he was stealing, we have everything we need here,” Rusty said.

Sissy restrained herself from speaking.  Evidently, the dead man stealing a handful of food didn’t have everything he needed, she thought, but knew she couldn’t talk to Rusty, he was excited about the birth of his child.  He couldn’t see himself or his child or his wife hanging above the street with dirty feet and cheap shoes.   

Rusty stopped at the curb in front of Carson Clothes. “I’ll watch your things,” he said, helping her down.

“Thanks,” she said, standing on the sidewalk and looking at the deep blue sky above that no longer existed in nature.  “I’ll be quick.”

“Take your time, Sissy, you are my favorite customer.”  He winked.

She stepped into the store and picked a few items off the racks.  She chose a couple tanks, pink and silver, and then pulled down a couple skirts.  The only choices available were tanks, blouses, and skirts, women were forbidden to wear pants in Carsonville.  She looked at the display of hats, but they were cheap, thin cotton, and could never stand up to the world outside of the dome.  She walked over to the shoe display, filled with designs in the new color.  She shunned the outrageously high heels and settled on a couple pairs of flat sandals.  She took her purchases to the counter and paid, scraping by with just cents left in her allotment. 

She met Rusty at the curb.  “Okay, I’m done.” 

He settled her into the seat and headed off to the parking deck on the east end of town.  He parked, locking the conveyance, and threw the bags of flour and sugar over his shoulders, following her through the maze of mental messages to her Jeep.  “Three weeks, right?”

“I hope so, Rusty.  And if I don’t make it back, let Amanda know how much I love her and how excited I am for both of you.”

“You’re talking like I won’t see you again.”

She sighed, remembering the swaying body.  “You know, Rusty, one day we won’t see each other again.”  She lowered her voice, looking at the cameras overhead.  “But you know, you, Amanda, and the new one always have a place with me.”

“I’ve only been out of the dome once, Sissy, since it happened, I don’t like it out there.”

“I know,” she said, and lightly touched his arm.  “But you’re always welcome.”

He straightened, looking in the back of her car, and then at the white dust on the outside.  “I’ll see you in three weeks, regular time, same place.”

She nodded.  “Thanks, Rusty.”

“It’s the least I can do for my baby sister.  I love you.”

“Love you, too.”  She wanted to hug him, but the cameras hung above.

Sissy settled in the car, grateful when the engine sprung to life, and backed out of the slot. She made her way through the checkpoints, pulling her hat from the back and grabbing her sunglasses.  She pulled out of the dome, parking on the side of the broken road, the setting sun blocked by the unnatural eruption on the earth, and changed back into jeans, boots, long sleeves and gloves. 

Dressed for the unchanging weather, Sissy pulled into the wasteland happy and excited to be heading home.