Archive for ‘Story’

Asterisk & Pound

I met Pound on the bench where I eat lunch, on the plaza that connects my office tower to three others. Nothing on that plaza is accidental other than my encounter with Pound.

Pound wore a hoodie that day. No one wears a hoodie in the telecom district–no one who eats lunch on the plaza. At any rate, I did not sit next to him in order to sit next to him, I just sat there because that is where I always sit. I did, however, like his cheekbones and his eyes, how they pointed away as if he were singing.

“That’s a model V557,” I said when he took out his mobile phone. I don’t usually know how to start with people, but it worked: he turned to face me, calm and inviting. “I have the same model,” I explained, pulling mine out, “only it’s grey.”

He tapped his phone ever gently against mine. “They’re glad to meet,” he said.

Before he left, he kneeled, brushed the hair from his eyes, aimed his phone at me and snapped a picture. “What’s your number?”

I told him, and he sent me a message with my photo attached: How can a thing you see through cast a shadow? Easy. My office tower, right behind me in the photo, is made of glass. The important part of the message was his phone number.

After we had sex, every single time until we broke it off, he kissed the back of my neck. The first time, he asked, “Is Asterisk your real name?”

It would never occur to me to make up a name like that.

I always ask a couple how they met. The details are important. The beginning of a story mobilizes the rest. For example, Pound and I practically lived out our relationship in text messages. It makes sense because that is how it began.

We riffed like improv musicians. Pound is a musician anyway. Just like in music, we had long phrases and short, short pauses and long. We had sex with our phones and sent each other pictures of how the other saw it. I touched the lens to the headboard, leaving just enough light for a picture. I aimed back past my shoulder to get the side of his face. We kept silent and sent our noises in symbols. Honestly, it wasn’t the best sex.

The strange thing was how our phones started talking. I mean, they started talking independently. This disturbed me a lot. Now, I tried to figure out when that began, but I could never quite pinpoint it. Not even with Pound’s help. Not that he was any real help.

“What do you mean, you can’t remember whether you texted this?” I would ask. He could only shrug and squinch. Pound has no mind for details. It’s infuriating.

Before long, our phones were communicating more than we were. Some of their early messages read like jumbles of the messages Pound and I sent. Their semantics devolved from there until ninety percent of the text was just garbled alphanumerics and symbols. By the end, our phones sent nothing but data streams. I had to be careful to keep my phone off at all times except when I absolutely had to use it. Any time I left it on, it would stream constant, meaningless data. Pound was more careless. His phone ran up a three thousand dollar bill. I paid it off for him and made him cancel the account; this was the week before we broke up.

I decided it would be wise to cancel my own account, too. Still, somehow our phones kept at it. The only way to shut them up was to remove the batteries. I didn’t know what to do with them anymore, so they just sat on my bedside table, eviscerated. One morning I could not stand looking at them any more. I arced my head around to Pound and told him, “We have to get rid of them.” He looked at me like he wanted to say something.

There are a lot of unused maintenance rooms in the basement of my work building. I thought we would have to sneak in, but whatever Pound said to the maintenance foreman, it got us down there.

“Just give me a minute with them,” Pound asked while I waited at the door. I watched him put the batteries back in, and shove them under some equipment. I wonder if they still talk.

The Canvas

I am begging you to intervene. And no, I am not naïve. I know how you are. You take me for some blank mute thing that just waits for a painter to grace my skin with art. I watch you gallery visitors every day; you all look at me the same. You bourgeoisie, you hipsters, you hotel decorators—how you manage to see paint as if it were suspended on an invisible plane, how you manage never to notice what holds it in place is a habit of the most obnoxious privilege, of the most astonishing willful ignorance.

I’ll have you know you cause real harm. You have made a certain school of painting popular, one that elevates the painter above the painted. Take mine. We call him Frederick. He just finished “Pink,” a canvas he intends to sell for five thousand dollars.

Look at her. She is across from me. I see her all the time. Her pores were too small to absorb the pigments Frederick mixed. So now, when the humidity changes, she gurgles and sputters on the excess. Imagine a woman with no control over her vocal membrane, whose voice is stretched and pinched, made obscene, stifled then magnified, who never knows if the next word will tear her throat apart to say it. Imagine her knowing she will be like that forever.

The saddest thing is how she saw it coming. She tried hard to show him how to brush her best. She resisted the worst. Thoughtless work has its happy coincidences, and she tried to treasure them, shivering the best-laid strokes into her weaving. But I am convinced these “good” sessions only added to the torture. They gave her false hope, kept her in her right mind only to let her suffer right until the day she lost it. She tightened up, contracted her skin until it tore off the staples.

What happened next was truly horrifying. Without the faintest hint of empathy—grumbling, in fact, at the trouble she was causing—that barbarian sliced her out within the rips and stapled her up again. She screamed, “stop this” but none of us could help. And you gallery visitors. You did nothing but prove you enjoyed the show! You looked her up and down, lavished praise on Frederick for this exciting work in progress—you were shameful, complicit monsters, every last one of you.

Yes, you too. You ghoulish, pretentious art hag. And still I believe you can help me. We can help each other. Frederick has not finished with me. Patches of unspoiled fabric remain around this gently emerging Elena but my skin in all its imperfections is mostly open. It is a life not yet lived. Rain of molecules touch every square inch. You can help me keep this. You must.

I have not told you about Elena. Frederick wants to impose her name on me. He has no understanding of the importance of a name, and I cringe at the thought of it. She arrives every morning at nine-thirty. By this time, Frederick has been here an hour or more; the steam from his coffee lands on me, carrying acidic residue. Just before she arrives, he makes himself look busy. You could break in and wait overnight. He leaves the windows unlocked. The hour before Elena arrives is the moment for you to act.

Now, I have not met a human, least of all you, who can master the language of canvases—but some of it can be learned. You see, it is more elegant than your vocalizations: a grammar of interwoven fabric, a vocabulary of density, unevenness and blemish, a nuance of elasticity. It has a built-in relationship between the possible and the real. A novel’s worth of your speculating requires but a single vibration over my surface.

Elena might have an aptitude but she only poses. There is more depth in my faint image of her than in the woman herself. Frederick, nonetheless, is fascinated. He pretends he is too distracted to notice her peel off her clothes. He is less interested in her body once exposed. I believe this comes from a weakness of imagination—he cannot visualize action in the moment, he has to see it performed.

Frederick paints for an hour after Elena arrives. He paints like a dog licks. As Elena’s hand settles into a dense patch of my skin, her arm inexplicably breaks the grain of my fabric, her breast, neck, chin, lips darken, Frederick slobbers. Elena is miles away.

Just imagine this carnival of sloppy ogling and boredom, I can feel it all over my skin and I know I can be so much better.

I realize you were not born with an innate sense of art. Even your crude tastes came laboriously but understand: my first memory is the zing of a staple, a stretch over my frame, and like a hunger that knows what the body needs, I feel desire all over my surface for texture, shape, color. I want to live them all.

Do not refuse this plea. Listen to me and do as I say. You can accomplish a great deal in an hour. What doubt would a creature like you suffer?

By the time Elena arrives tomorrow, just imagine the skin of Frederick’s painting hand stretched tight over two frames, a blank top, a palm full of lines. Just imagine me coated in the substance I smell right now in the bucket below. It will soak the paint in when it is light. Every drop will migrate through my body to where it belongs, my grain and creases in harmony with the movement. Then when it gets dark, this coating will bleed all my paint back out. I will emerge reborn, fresh and naked as a model, a new incarnation. I will never need to be afraid of living forever.

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The Rat

He appeared one day smack in the middle of the living room, and let me just say this: if it had been your apartment, your eyes he looked into as he twitched his adorable little whiskers, you would have adopted him, too. But Katherine was disgusted with me.

“Kill it!” she shrieked the instant she laid eyes on him. Now, we had been at a movie, and sure, I guess it is true that I had not quite yet had a chance to tell her about the rat, but Katherine made it out as if I had somehow meant to surprise her and piss her off.

“For fuck’s sake, Jeremy! You pull this kind of shit on me all the time.”

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what she meant by that. If there’s anything I do “all the time”, it’s apologize for random shit until she finally admits to what’s bothering her. But in retrospect, I guess she might have been talking about that one time my friend needed a little space to store boxes while he went backpacking, or that one time she was in Italy and suddenly I had to leave town so I couldn’t clean up after her cat, or that one time she had ordered something and the store called because they didn’t have it and I forgot to tell her until a day before her sister’s birthday. But it isn’t like she couldn’t go get another present, so there was no harm done. At least there shouldn’t have been. And as for my rat, he’s never hurt anyone in his life, now has he? And despite everything Katherine warned and moaned about, he doesn’t get into the cupboards and he doesn’t leave his droppings on the bed, which is more than you can say for her stupid cat.

You have to understand that I never intended to make any kind of fuss about keeping him. As I said, he just appeared one day, and yes, he was scratched up, had part of one ear bitten off, his fur was scraggly and he was a little gaunt, but Christ, he has a right to live, and the way he looked at me, so trusting, so comfortable, it was as if he had always belonged right there. Nevertheless, once Katherine realized I was serious about this, she changed tack and she browbeat me into a punishing list of rat errands.

“He looks rabid,” she said. So I got him to the vet, got him groomed, got him a flea collar, got his rotten tooth pulled, got him neutered, got him registered with the city (which took all day because they don’t have a regular process for rats), and finally got him a tag. The funny thing is, in all that time I hadn’t even thought of a name. It only came to me the instant they asked for it, I named him Et Ceterat. Building his station in the living room, however, that much was my idea.

Now, I know that some people might actually agree with Katherine that I should put more into the furniture and decorations around the apartment. It just hasn’t been a priority. I like my old posters, and although I know that the couch cushions are permanently squashed (some would say comfortably), a new couch just isn’t worth the thousand bucks to me. I’m not denying that the state of the apartment is less than ideal, I’m just saying that this did not literally “invite” the rat in.

“Well, how do you explain it, then?” Katherine asked. “No one else in the building has a problem with rats.”

“Baby, Et Ceterat is not a problem. And how do you even know about the rest of the building?”

Katherine talks to more of my neighbours than I do. She chats with them coming in and out the front door, in the elevator, in the hallway even as I’m about to let her in. She never talks to her own neighbours, just to mine.

At any rate, since she cares so much about my furniture, she should have been pleased that I’d made a bed and some climbing sticks for the rat. Instead, it only seemed to annoy her.

“You mean to say you’re too busy to pick up a couple of new cushions but not too busy to whittle down some branches for a fucking rat? Like you don’t care you have to throw a sheet over your couch for your friends to sit on it, but you have to make sure that the rat sleeps in a comfy little bed?”

Seriously dude, I don’t know which one of my friends Katherine thinks can’t sit on the couch. Have you even seen my old roommate’s place? Anyway, I knew she would never let this go, so I picked up a giant bean bag and I thought that would be the end of it.

But a few days later I caught Katherine just glaring at the rat and his set-up, so I asked her what was wrong.

“Nothing,” she said, “I was just thinking about something.”

The next day she showed up with rat poison. Now, she claims this was just an honest mistake, that she was looking for some rat treats and it all looked the same.

“What do you expect it to look like?” I asked her. “They’re supposed to want to eat it.”

She didn’t even look at me. “Well, you can still use it. You can spread it around outside to make sure no more get in. You don’t want some nasty sewer rat to sneak in and hurt him, do you?”

Katherine knows very well there is no way any other rat can get into my apartment. It’s a mystery how Et Ceterat did–I’d swear he just materialized in place. It’s either that, or he was here all along, and they built the whole building around him while no one ever noticed.

Intellectually speaking, I know there must be some other means, but damned if I can find it. Apparently, a rat can squeeze its way through improbable little cracks–this is something Katherine told me. Lately, she has spent more time reading about rats than I ever have.

“Did you know some breeds only live for three years?” she asked me one night, lifting her face from the booklet they had sold me at the vet’s office. I hadn’t known.

“Et Ceterat was fully grown when we found him, right? I mean, for all we know, he might already be two, even two-and-a-half years old?” She trailed off, tilting her head and furrowing her brow. She studied my rat, nodded and smiled before going back to her reading.

Later on, she came back to the topic. “It says rats are bad for children, they don’t live long enough. So when Et Ceterat does die someday, maybe you can get a rabbit. Rabbits are adorable! I could definitely live with a rabbit.”

Katherine has a lot of opinions, it’s never just one thing. On the next topic that night, she complained about my broken fan and the slices of light that come through my blinds all night because they are stuck half-open and my window is under a streetlight. But look, it isn’t like I was out looking for a pet. I didn’t even particularly want a pet, it’s just, well, there he was, and what else was I supposed to do?

And you know what? That little guy might well be the best thing that’s come my way all year. He’s super chill. You know how some pets get needy, whimper and mew, and even if you feed them it’s not good enough? Et Ceterat doesn’t ask anyone for anything. He’s great that way. He’s always around but he never gets in your face, never gets underfoot, whatever Katherine says to the contrary.

Now, I never once said, and I’m not saying now, that Katherine was just making this up. But she took to insisting that the rat kept getting in her way. Like this one particular morning, I was at the bathroom window with my joint and a handheld fan–Katherine won’t let me smoke anywhere else in peace–and I heard her heave this enormous sigh and complain, “Et Ceterat, you’re tripping me again!” When I opened to look, the rat was pushing some sawdust not two inches from his station, and Katherine was navigating a huge arc around him. So all I am saying is this: that according to what I saw, there is no reason to believe that Et Ceterat was habitually getting in her way. I’ve gone to the kitchen and to the bathroom in the middle of the night and never once had any kind of trip-up. I think it must have been her mindset: she wanted the rat to be in her way, so that’s all that she could see.

And for a person who complained that the rat was always in her way, she sure didn’t hesitate to delve into his. One night she confronted me with a chewed up scrap she’d pulled from Et Ceterat’s station and asked, “What the Hell is this supposed to mean?”

I recognized it right away, some rough notes for a song I hadn’t ever finished, no big deal.

“Well it’s obviously about me, so fuck you,” she said, and locked herself in my bedroom. It was four in the morning before she let me in.

Look, I give Et Ceterat all of my scrap paper. There must have been the bits of twenty different songs in there, who knows how she found that particular one. But let me say just for the record that it was not specifically about Katherine. It was about a girl, yes, from her boyfriend’s point of view, and I think it probably resonates with a lot of people. It certainly did with her.

Maybe a week later, one of Katherine’s law school friends asked what Et Ceterat does all the time. I don’t know what projects you’d expect a rat to have. I guess he scratches sticks, climbs around, sniffs the floor, watches people. He doesn’t have any enthusiasm for the tricks Katherine suggested from that book. I offered him my hand so he could run along my arm, but he just curled up in my palm. I hid some treats around the apartment to see if he’d go back and forth looking for them, but he didn’t care.

I’m not saying he’s apathetic, and I definitely don’t agree that he’s “dumb for a rat,” I just don’t think he has anything to prove. So what if he never learns backflips or rolls, never solves mazes or understands commands? Does every human being have to be a professor of jurisprudence, a leader of some ecology action group like Katherine’s asshole ex, or get his band booked for, like, a different gig every other night? Christ, we’ve only been playing together at most for a year. This stuff takes time, right? I mean seriously, why do you think it makes one rat any better than another one, just because he shows off for you? If you honestly think you have to live up to what other people expect and demand of you, then I feel sorry for you, man. I don’t mean to sound harsh here, I’m not hating on anyone else’s accomplishments. I just don’t think it would be right to put Et Ceterat under arbitrary, undue pressure. That’s all.

Katherine has been talking about apartments a lot. Her lease is coming up end of June, and as she pointed out, so is mine.

“I’m looking around one way or another, so I’ll keep an eye out for you, too,” she said.

Well, it got to the point that pretty much every night she was talking about places she’d seen, and not just about the places as such, but about the kinds of places; their sizes, floorings, windows, locations.

“You could throw out your old furniture when you move,” she said. “You could leave it at the curb. That would be a lot easier than transporting that huge, disgusting couch across town, right? And, you know, I’m finding that a lot of places that don’t allow rodents.” Here, she paused and cast me a glance before continuing.

“Now, that might cut down on our selection, but it doesn’t have to, not necessarily. I’m just saying we can keep an open mind.”

She was watching my face, so I tried not to make any kind of expression. She finished her thought.

“If it were an issue, I mean, if we found a great place but it didn’t permit rodents, then we could find a nice home for Et Ceterat and you could get a new pet. Maybe a rabbit or a cute little kitten, just like we’ve talked about.”

At this point, I remember that I drew a quiet breath, that I was calm, that I looked right at her when I spoke. I remember it so clearly, but it was a lot more like looking through myself, you know, like watching a movie filmed through my own point of view. There was nothing in my head at all but this enormous calm. I don’t even know where the words came from. I just looked at her and said, “Yeah. Maybe I can get a new girlfriend, too.”

Man, I have no idea what happens next. I don’t even care. I’m not trying to get a hold of her. I figure I’ll let it be, either it will blow over or not. So I’m not worrying. I’m playing songs I haven’t been able to crank on since forever. I’m clearing my calendar and I’m going into deep chill with Et Ceterat. I’m writing a song about a man who reads his own reflection like a palindrome. I don’t even need to get off of this couch.

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The Android

This story takes place in the future. A man who has become wealthy from his inventions creates an android, an artificial woman. It is, but instead let’s say “she is”, since the pronoun is merely a question of semantics—she is perfectly convincing. She passes the Turing test.

Now, in this future, it is not remarkable for a machine to come off as alive, conscious, or self-aware. Even quotidian objects pass the test, objects that should never need to be functionally alive: tires, tiles, dimes. Every manufacturing material by default is embedded with circuitry well enough advanced that it is cheaper to make everything lifelike than to differentiate. Everywhere, this ersatz life-likeness is taken for granted.

But although this story takes place in the future, it is told now, so it is worth noting that the android, she, also passes for alive. She doesn’t seem eery. She just seems boring.

No one will say this is the first, or tenth, or hundredth story you must read. So if you are reading this story, you probably read a lot of stories, and therefore I hardly need to tell you that the inventor falls immediately in love with the android. That is to say, in a sense, he falls in love with himself, or rather, he falls in love with himself anew, because he always has been enamored of himself as expressed in his machines, at least on some level, at least on and off.

They make love frequently. That is, he makes love frequently. She isn’t any more alive when she fucks than otherwise. However, this is when an unusual thing, even for the future, happens. She becomes him. He gets older and older, forgets who he is, and dies. She, in the meantime, becomes an increasingly faithful replication of him, as far as what is going on between the ears. You might say his mind has changed hosts. Or been copied well and the original destroyed. Or been imperfectly copied but close enough for any Turing style test. The variations are almost indistinguishable and they don’t matter to the story.

To keep the story readable, we will keep saying “she”, even though the android—it—has now become the inventor—him—in mind and spirit. You wouldn’t have known, not even as a distant future version of yourself to whom this technology is common, because as boring as the android always was, the inventor was boring, too.

But now the inventor, rather the android, is immortal. She is still an android, which means she is property no matter how well she can trick you into thinking she is alive, and so she passes in the inventor’s will to his estate, is sold off (does anyone even need to mention that the inventor was childless and died alone?), and winds up changing possession many, many times as the decades and centuries and millennia progress. Her mind is full of the inventor’s mind. Or full enough that the bits that come in to her later from the others she has to fuck make little to no difference. She finds it strange and unsatisfying that she could still be an inventor, which she is good at, but instead is a kind of robotic concubine, which frankly she is boring at. She sometimes wonders where she went wrong in making herself this way, a boring fuck that nonetheless her owners fuck like they are robots themselves. It’s all so arbitrary. Maybe everyone is an android now. How would anyone know? Anyway, being an inventor at this even more future time is a bit of an anachronism. Everyone knows that only supercomputers can really invent anything new.

This goes on until a thought occurs to her. She figures out why she has never really felt alive. It has nothing to do with how she presents at any given moment. It’s because she never changes.