“Happy birthday, Gretta,” said Dr. Aperta. “I suppose everyone else will have forgotten.”
She smiled at Gretta Lau, who had been concentrating not on herself, but on a development.
“Your thirtieth, I believe,” continued Dr. Aperta, her smile bringing the creases around her eyes into relief. A little envy mixed in with the good wishes, possibly, despite the warm feeling Gretta knew her old mentor bore for her.
“I’d have forgotten it too, if you hadn’t said anything,” Gretta replied. Why wouldn’t she? What did a birthday matter at a moment like this—during some of the most significant events in human history?
Dr. Aperta looked at the image on the secure laptop that so enthralled Gretta. So enthralled—and terrified—every human being who had been cleared to see it: The extraterrestrial vessel now orbiting the Earth.
“They’re saying to refer to it as Rose Petal now,” said Gretta. She had got that from the latest diplomatic cable.
“What? They changed it from object Summer Storm?” asked Dr. Aperta.
“No, apparently it’s really called Rose Petal—or the equivalent.”
“Remarkable,” said Dr. Aperta. “The design of the hull suggests a gathering of flower petals—if one stretches one’s definition sufficiently. Assuming that information’s accurate, then the invader’s language has nouns and modifiers. With each little speck of new information we learn so much—because we begin with so little knowledge. Curiouser and curiouser.”
Gretta stared out the lab window into the blue Mediterranean night. “The cable was from State. They want the weapon employed,” she said.
Dr. Aperta said nothing for a moment. She put her hands behind her back and clasped them together. Her Parkinson’s tremors became more pronounced during stress.
“Do they?” Dr. Aperta said finally. She proceeded thinking it through, absorbing it, in her way. Gretta was unsure anymore whether the increasingly long pauses in Dr. Aperta’s speech were due to deterioration or a kind of twilight contemplation. “I suppose they do.”
Gretta turned back to the secure laptop.
“What do you think, Gretta?”
“It’s not up to me.”
“It shouldn’t be anyone,” said Dr. Aperta. “Only it is. Do you understand?”
“Then will you kindly give me your opinion?”
“My opinion is that I am glad it is not my decision, ma’am.”
“A luxury of youth,” said Dr. Aperta bemused. “Very well, I’ll not press you. Perhaps it is only an old scientist’s cowardice that makes me seek your opinion out.”
“You are not a coward,” said Gretta.
“That’s nice of you to say. Send the cable. You know what to say.”
Gretta did so.
Within a day, the sky was clear.
Arrival of the Pine Cone
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” gushed Andre Horstfelt. “Have you, Doctor?”
Doctor Gretta Lau had. Thirty years ago. “Have they given it a designation yet?” she asked.
The graduate student looked over the info that had just flowed to the secure device. “Says here—Pine Cone. I guess I can see that. It certainly is a foreboding looking structure. It’s the size, approximately, of four Manhattans islands.
Talking of islands, Gretta stepped out of the lab, into the hills of the one they were on, and gazed across the bay to Oakland.
Andre joined her after a moment. Bringing her—unbidden—her wool sweater. She resented the gesture despite its benevolent motivation. When had she turned from young idol-smasher to brittle ancient?
Swallowing her resentment she took the sweater. She smiled, hoping the smile would register kindness. “How old are you, Andre?”
“Me, ma’am? I’m twenty-four.”
“Just twenty-four.” She’d genuinely forgotten that. A quiet, hardworking, and motivated boy. “I was thirty before I had come anywhere near as far as you have already in your career, Andre.”
“But look how far you’ve come since then!”
“You must learn to accept a compliment without giving one back, Andre. Swallow your modesty and take what you’ve got coming will you?”
He smiled with deprecation. “I’ve been very lucky,” he said.
She supposed it was time to move off the subject. “What else?” she asked.
Andre’s clever face turned pious. “They want the weapon employed.”
“Yes,” she said, and then echoed words she had never forgotten, “I suppose they do.”
“I can put everything in motion. Just need your say so, Doctor.”
“What would you do in my place?”
Andre looked like he didn’t quite understand the relevance of the question.
“I’m just curious, Andre. Tell me what you think?”
“Ma’am. I suppose I can only answer that with a question of my own. What did we build the weapon for?”
“Hm. To deal with hypotheticals. And because we could. One could also ask, what did the invader build Rose Petal for?”
Andre consulted his device. “Rose Petal, ma’am?”
She caught her mistake and waved her hand. “An old assignment. Rose Petal, Pine Cone, whichever. What do they build theirs for?”
Andre seemed to consider his response. “I suppose,” he said finally, glancing to the clouded heavens, “that if we have completed our tasks well, and if we now do our duty, we will never know the answer to that question.”
“Never is a long time, son.” said Gretta.
Arrival of the Stinger
“Do they want the weapon employed?” Gretta Lau asked. She shifted in her chair, which her chair mistook for a command to move around to the left side of the desk. Her chair was more alive than she was.
Esmeralda Quinto looked at the dispatch again. “I don’t see them requesting that. But how could they, ma’am? The invader is months away still, at least.”
Years was more like it.
“No, of course,” said Gretta. “But when you’ve worked on these kind of contracts as long as I have, you learn to expect they’ll demand the impossible.”
Esmeralda smiled. “No one has lasted in the field as long as you have. No one ever will, I suspect.”
“I suppose that’s true,” said Gretta. “What did you say they are calling it?”
Esmeralda checked the info again. “Stinger. Undetectable to the eye, but its density gives it away.”
Yes, it would.
“Even without the message it sent,” said Esmeralda.
“The message? What message?”
“From Stinger. Fifteen minutes ago, I told you that the mass sent a mes—” She stopped, too late to pull her words back and embarrassed for her mentor, no doubt.
“I’m sure you did,” said Gretta kindly. “My brain, despite all the miracles of our age, still runs up against some biological limits.”
“I don’t know any other hundred-thirty-year-olds sharp as you.”
“You don’t know many hundred-thirty-year-olds at all, I should hope. At your age you should go out dancing. Or something. Have some fun.”
“Not a lot of nightclubs in Antarctica.”
“There must be one.” Gretta pressed. “We’re speaking of an entire continent.”
“Maybe one or two nightclubs.”
“You should go. Consider it an order, if you must, to have fun.”
The young woman smiled the indulgent smile youth gives to age when it intends—like every creature—to do as it pleases, regardless.
“I hope you go out,” said Gretta vacantly. Vacantly and proud that she could still discern and uses subtleties like politeness. “Now, read me the message from Stinger.”
“There are several versions, this is the English one: ‘We’ve enjoyed getting to know you over the years and have found you a worthy opponent. However, with great respect, we now end our relationship. We feel we have grasped the essence of your culture. Your participation is no longer warranted.’ It’s a bit odd, isn’t it? The last line’s cryptic, but certainly abrasive. What is Stinger, ma’am? Are you allowed to say?”
“What would your guess be?”
“A weapon,” said Esmeralda, solemnly and with the confidence of youth. She thought she was going to live forever, no doubt. After a moment she asked, “Who’s weapon is it?”
The man in the gorilla suit never misses Fridays. At least we believe it’s a man, and we think it’s a suit. He sometimes comes other days of the week too, though never Mondays.
The man in the gorilla suit never comes Mondays.
Kevon, the packing lead, finds the man in the gorilla suit annoying. Kevon says the man, or at least the suit, stinks. I say we all get a little ripe by shift’s end. I do admit to having taken Migs, as we call the man in the gorilla suit, aside and spraying him with Dove Body Mist once or twice, but Kevon shouldn’t complain; Migs packs a lot of orders for him.
Migs doesn’t spend as much time in my area. Squeezing through merchandise stacks to pick orders is a cumbersome task for a man in a gorilla suit. My pickers like Migs, but he slows us down when we’re trying to get batches of last-minute orders filled, which always seems the case Friday night. Migs still helps my line though, tidying up and what-not, when he can.
I’m the picking lead. My name is Loretta. I’m standing at the head of my lines, ripping orders, shoving totes down steel rollers. The rollers ring, echoing through canyons of racks.
From this spot I have a clear view to Kevon’s area. Industrial bags bloated with Styrofoam peanuts float above his packing stations. Packers load boxes with merchandise and fill them out with the peanuts. Then they tape the boxes and attach packing slips. Migs is doing that now, and he’s a sight. Packing peanuts are stuck all over his fur. Kevon has plenty of packers tonight: two per station. Kevon glides around his area now, checking that his people have boxes, tape, whatever they need. His arms and legs, as always, are constant motion. No matter what he does, he always reminds me of a outfielder racing to get under a fly ball and pull it back from the fence.
I pick up my walkie-talkie. Kevon’s not far away, but the rollers, and the plastic totes crashing into each other, are too loud to shout above.
“¿Qué quieres?” answers Kevon. Many packers come from Latin America; Kevon has picked up Spanish, which we aren’t supposed use, per company policy, but he doesn’t care. He just wants orders out the door, and sometimes he forgets who he’s talking to. I do understand some Spanish phrases. My maiden name was Rincón, after all, though I never went back to my maiden name.
I envy Kevon’s bilingualism, though it would make no difference in my job. Order pickers, immigrant or native-born, all speak English. Here, on second shift, many are community-college kids, in class by day and studying who-knows-when. New temps are assigned to pick or pack based on a reading test. It doesn’t matter how well or poorly a potential temp reads in general, just how well he or she tests compared to others applying the same day. If we need four new pickers and five new packers, then the top four scorers become pickers.
“Give me somebody,” I radio to Kevon.
“Can’t spare anyone.”
“You have Migs. We’re backed up. Give me Dante. Or Noi.”
“No way. You can take Albert if you want.”
Albert was seventy. My pickers would trample poor Albert.
“Carol then,” I say, hoping to split the difference. Carol is neither fast nor slow.
“Done. Never radio me again.” Kevon breaks off and disappears behind some stacks. He radios back a moment later. “Lorrrretta?”
“You still love me, right?”
I roll my eyes. “Yes, of course, Kevon.”
“Dante’s coming over.”
That’s Kevon: first he says he won’t help you, can’t help you, and then he helps you.
Kevon had been a community-college kid once. He had started for me as a picker … six years ago? He was twenty-three then. I know because he’s thirty years younger than me (my birthday’s coming up Monday) and we celebrated Kevon’s twenty-ninth with cake last Friday. Migs broke everyone up by getting frosting mooshed all over his snout. Kevon had almost smiled.
Once he got the lead job, Kevon quit college. He started six-sigma certification here, which would have gotten him into management, but the classes bored him. He would rather fret, strutting up and down the lines night after night. Didn’t he want more? Didn’t he fear getting trapped?
Dante comes over. “Did you see Migsy?” he asks, grabbing some order sheets. “Got peanut all over him!”
I smile. It is funny, but nevertheless I have an urge to go pick Styrofoam bits off the man in the gorilla suit.
Over the next hour, we catch up. I shut down one line so half my crew can go to lunch. It’s dinner time, but they call it lunch here, no matter the shift.
The packers near Migs are also scheduled for first lunch. Kevon goes too. One of us stays on the floor at all times, so he and I switch off. After the packers leave, Migs looks up, right, then left, to discover he’s alone. His great shoulders sag.
Noticing me, he jumps, then lopes over. Finding a broom he circles me, sweeping the concrete. “Thank you, Migs,” I say, “but there’s nothing to sweep.” He looks at the clean floor and scratches his head. “Rrruh!” he grunts, then puts the broom away. He looks at a stack of empty totes, then places his hands on it. “Rruh?”
The stacks are getting low. “Yes,” I say. “You may go collect the empties from the other side.”
He scampers away. He comes back twenty-five minutes later, as the first group returns from lunch. He’s pushing a dozen tote stacks before him, each stack six-feet high.
“Migs, we’ll never use that many!”
He shrugs and goes back to packing.
At the same moment, Kevon comes toward me for the hand-off. He passes Migs, giving him a dirty look. Migs shields his head with one arm, then scurries away in a pretense of fear.
“Why, Kevon?” I ask.
“I don’t care for visual humor.”
“What’s the harm?”
“Have a good lunch,” says Kevon. “There’s cupcakes.”
I go into the break room and stand in line to microwave my stuffed peppers. I used to make my own, but it’s too much trouble for one, so I bring Stouffer’s now. They taste fine.
What’s left of the cupcakes Kevin mentioned lie in long caterer’s boxes. The cupcakes have orange, yellow, or lime-colored smiley-faces on them. I ask the crew if it’s someone’s birthday or anniversary, but no one seems to know where the cupcakes came from. They look good but I don’t take one. I want to make sure everyone gets a chance. After microwaving my lunch I go into the offices. Kevon and I are allowed to eat in the managers’ offices, empty at this hour, so we can read our email. I mostly get newsletters and departmental cc’s, but I have to check in case there’s something important. They sometimes forget us.
I scroll through my inbox as I eat. There’s one announcing inventory control classes on site, free, beginning next month. Though Kevon is already cc’d, I forward it to him. Maybe if I pester him enough he will take advantage. Twenty-nine seems young, but it isn’t.
I delete until white appears at the bottom of the window. The last email surprises me:
From: Peg Strange, Human Resources
To: Department Heads, Managers, Supervisors
Subject: Animal-costumed individual on shop floor.
Due to insurance concerns, OSHA regulations, union contract negotiations, Department of Homeland Security -issued guidelines, and in compliance with company policy, the individual wearing an animal (gorilla) costume is not allowed on the order fulfillment floor during regular business hours (or after business hours) or elsewhere on the premises during or after business hours. This includes the parking lot.
This is not new policy, but clarifies existing policy.
The individual is not an employee or sub-contractor. The individual does not have I.D. and has never been explicitly granted access to our staff and premises. No one remembers how or when this individual first appeared. We do not know who this individual is, where this individual comes from, nor where this individual vanishes, like a specter, into the night.
We realize this individual has become a beloved figure in our workplace; therefore this clarification will not take effect until second shift ends tonight. Please take a moment to stop by and wish the individual in the animal costume well. There will be cupcakes in the break room :)
Peg Strange, Vice President, Human Resources.
I print the email, take the page from the tray, and fold it over. Then I leave the office, and call Kevon on the walkie-talkie.
“Meet me in the front,” I say.
Kevon must have caught something in my voice, because he trots toward me, brow tight. “What?” he asks.
I shove the email, planting it in the center of his chest.
He looks at me, stunned. He unfolds it and reads. Without blinking he says, “Loretta, I didn’t do this.”
“Migs annoys you. You always say so.”
“Everybody annoys me, but I wouldn’t complain to …” Looking again at the email, he laughs. “… Peg Strange in Human Resources. I don’t even know people upstairs.”
I snatch the paper. “You should know people upstairs! Do you want to be on the floor all your life? You should have reported Migs. He’s against policy. You might as well have got something for it. You’re acting stupid! Stupid!”
“Hey, hey!” says Kevon. “That’s enough!”
I realize I’m hitting him on the arm with the email.
Then we’re both stunned; we hear a deep harsh, “RRRuh!”
Migs is standing close. All work on the floor has stopped. The crew is staring, open-mouthed, as we fight.
Migs waddles closer.
When he reaches us, he takes my hand and Kevon’s, clasping them together between his paws. He shakes them once, twice. Then he twists his head left and right. He looks at me. “Rruh!”
“All right.” I say. “We won’t fight.”
He turns to Kevon. “Rrruh!”
Satisfied, the man in the gorilla suit exhales. He turns to the shop floor, regards the people, the lines, the stacks of totes. Then he turns to me, looks at the paper still in my hand, and shrugs.
“You already know?” I ask.
I straighten myself.
The man in the gorilla suit sets his arms akimbo and looks at his feet. He scratches his head. He nods again, this time to himself. “Rrruh,” he says, and turns toward the nearest door. I want to grab him, pull him back, we have hours before the shift ends, but he moves away from me with such noble resolve that I stop myself. He deserves dignity in his departure.
He reaches the door and opens it. It should be armed, but the alarm doesn’t go off. Someone must have forgotten.
He steps outside, the door falls shut, and he is gone.
The pickers and packers whisper amongst themselves. They don’t realize what has happened yet. Kevon claps once, sharply. Not smiling, he yells. “Get the lines moving!”
Orders have backed up. We have fallen behind, but work resumes, and soon the ringing of steel rollers crushes the silence. I put the email away.
Before returning to my place I go to the exit to set the alarm. I peek out into the parking lot. It’s dark. Migs is nowhere, though, reasonably, he couldn’t have gotten far.
Alarm set, I return to the line. My pickers send questioning gazes. After we catch up I’ll explain. I’ll try to do a better job than the email did. We have other things we can look forward to. The weekend’s coming. Then on Monday there will be birthday cake.
The man in the gorilla suit never came Mondays anyway.
Matt never paid attention to other people on the bus. Anyone normal rarely did, and certainly not at this time of the commute. Not at 7:20 PM. At this time of the commute, some seats remained open. But not so many that weirdos had the opportunity to interfere with tired commuters or single one out. Sometimes Matt worked as late as ten, and then it became him and the weirdos on the bus. But now the bus held a happy medium: not too crowded, and not empty enough to cause anyone to pay him too much attention. Matt was a weirdo magnet.
If he happened, some summer evening, to be sitting in a group of four or six in an outside café, every wandering street schizophrenic would zero in on him. He always got the seat on the plane next to the man so uncomfortable in his own skin that not only did he want to chat non-stop, he needed to chat non-stop. The saloon crank with the solutions to everything wrong with this country always took the stool next to Matt’s. Every woman he dated turned out jealous and crazy, so his relationships proved short and distant—though not especially painful.
Healthy people, sane people, ordinary people stayed away from Matt. He just didn’t know why. And this night, this particular 7:20 PM commute, it happened again. He could not hide.
Matt chose a seat near the front and opened the ereader app on his phone. However, he had made a mistake. He’d taken a seat reserved for wheelchair access, so, at the very next stop, he had to rise and make way for a passenger who needed it.
Somehow the bus had filled up more than he’d thought it had, leaving him with two choices. Stand in the relatively spacious area by the rear-door exit, or take a seat in the back row. The back row had room for four to sit across, but only one person sat there now: a woman with a weathered face and matted hair, wearing what looked like an entire set of drapes (perhaps bluish or purple, they were too filthy to tell) wrapped around herself. She occupied the middle of the long seat row, staring straight ahead.
Matt elected to stand by the rear-door exit. It did no good. The robed woman turned her head slightly. Once she noticed Matt she continued to look at him. It had happened again.
He, at first, ignored her, swiping quickly through the pages of the novel he was reading but without retaining any of the words.
The bus hit the expressway and immediately slowed to a crawl. Traffic still hadn’t cleared, even at this relatively late hour. That meant the commute—which, in the mornings, took about half an hour from the moment he left home around six, might well stretch to at least three times that long. The woman appeared ready to stare at him the whole way.
Matt scrolled back about ten percent of the way in his novel. It was volume seven of the series, and it didn’t hold his interest like the others—especially now with the disturbing gaze of the weirdo upon him.
The first couple volumes had been great, and he’d heard that the series picked up life again around book ten, which was written from notes left after Donald Barger, author of this planned twelve-volume epic, The Autumn Land, had died. The first volume, Rogue’s Glory had been good enough, but the second, Lady, Crown, and Godspawns was spectacular.
None of the subsequent volumes had lived up to its promise though, and reading volume seven, Storm’s Sorcery, felt like as much of a job as his job, actually. Lady, Crown, and Godspawns had introduced a subplot (lasting several hundred pages) concerning two characters, Indigo Knight and The Common Knight, a matched pair that had warred in different guises for millennia. Indigo Knight—ruler of a country of shape-shifters—had killed The Common Knight many times. The Common Knight was an everyman, Lowborn, but rising to some illusory degree of prominence in each new incarnation. No matter how many times The Common Knight died, he rose again. To die again.
Every time The Common Knight rose, Indigo Knight sent shape-shifters and spies to seek him out—in the taverns, in the streets, on the highways—to tempt him into some cause, some service. The Common Knight always demurred. And, at the hand of Indigo Knight, died again. Though Indigo Knight never relented, both characters had been all but dropped in the later volumes.
When he learned that a new writer was taking over the series, Matt posted his wish on several Autumn Land forums that The Common Knight and Indigo Knight story arc be revisited. Rarely did anyone chime in to take up his cause. (Fake fans found The Common Knight arrogant and egotistical—and, at the same time, passive and ineffectual. The conventional wisdom maintained that his creation was a horrible misstep, a horrible failure at manufacturing a sympathetic character—but they were wrong; the Common Knight merely knew his own intrinsic worth and, as for being passive—there was simply nothing of significance given to him to do.)
But anyway, most readers were more interested in War of the Eleven Elven Princelings against the Dwarves of Forest Unfathomed. Or the promised Return of the Empress of the Solstice. All that would happen, of course, no matter who took up the series. The balance of harmony would be restored in the end and the wicked undone. That expectation was sure to be fulfilled. The extant ten volumes were fecund with dropped subplots and dead ends. It infuriated Matt, as it did many fans. If only he could have a conclusion to Common and Indigo however, Matt, at least, would forgive all the rest.
He realized he’d been tapping through pages again mindlessly. He moved the scroll bar on the app back the same ten percent with a sigh. He needed a new series.
Ebooks were a godsend to him. He could indulge his guilty pleasure. None of his work friends or other ordinary associates had any idea how many fantasy and science fiction novels he devoured. For all anyone knew he was texting or facebooking right now, like everyone else.
Since ebooks, no more shocked looks on those mornings when, after bringing a girl home from a bar, the girl—who had come home with Matt, the smooth, successful, young executive with the important-sounding title, Investor Brand Director, at Flippo.com—awoke to find herself in a bedroom imprisoned by walls stacked high with paperbacks, each one the thickness of a Scrabble dictionary—so thick many sported full portraits of characters or scenes from the novels, not only on the front and back covers, but on their spines.
That would be the girl’s first clue. She would then investigate deeper. The Atari classic console in the corner. The Ikea desk with a two-monitor setup and double-rowed surge protector which rested, not on the floor, but on the desktop, sprouting cables like Medusa’s head sprouted vipers.
There would be no need for her to look further. She was done, and she would escape quickly. She would never even find out that, at Flippo.com, Investor Brand Directors pulled down less than forty-six grand a year. But it all started with the disturbing number of paperbacks. So the phone app had helped with that. He’d put his dead-tree books in storage.
Matt exited Storm’s Sorcery and browsed through the title list in the app for something else. He had books on there he’d forgotten that he owned, let alone hadn’t read, but he wanted something new anyway.
Somewhere, somewhere, in all creation, something new had to exist.
Before he could shop for it, for some alternative, the crazy lady in the back of the bus stood up. She clanked. She threw back her folds of drapery. The drapery was not common purple, of course. Indigo. Beneath it, hence the clanking, she wore a suit of armor. It shined. She drew her broadsword. Passengers dived for the floor. Many screamed. She held the sword in both hands and rushed him.
The weathered face, the matted hair. She hadn’t bathed, certainly in days, and possibly in weeks. Indigo Knight was relentless and focused, after all. She never rested in her travels from realm to realm until she sighted The Common Knight again.
The Common Knight could run and run, but he could never escape Indigo in her many guises. Indigo sent out spies and minions to draw him in: the wandering panhandler, the chatty seatmate on a plane, the bar crank. But the spies, the minions, always failed. The Common Knight avoided, demurred, forced Indigo Knight again and again, in world after world, to appear in the flesh.
She swung her broadsword now. Tomorrow, Matt imagined, there would be a huge headline on local news sites: Sword Killer!Nightmare Commute! Something. But, of course, he could not say for sure, and he wouldn’t be around to find out. Not this time. Maybe someday. Maybe someday the story would come to an actual end. If someone invented a way to write it. Indigo Knight’s blade swept the air. Matt did not resist.
1b. My bench is London. Hyde Park. Hyde Park is also the setting of something else, some other piece, called “Running London,” which I will write later. Or not. Most things are unwritten, how could it not be so? For every final something, there exist many unwritten drafts in the nothing.
2. My 2 characters soon to arrive on my park bench in my imagination’s London, are the “Borges” of this story’s title and the persona “Marshall Mathers”—which is a persona created by another persona “Eminem.” Both were created by the real Mr. Mathers. But the real Mathers no more appears in this story than does the real Jorge Luis Borges. To steal 2 fictional constructs from their authors and sit them side by side has got to be—at least—considered a cheap trick, a meaningless stunt, or some third pejorative thing. It isn’t. It’s a reasonable method to examine the parallel conceits of two very different artists—who could not be more different at a glance—who certainly never heard of each other, and could scarcely be less interested in this exercise, each other, or yo, even if they had done.
3. That bit about “Running London” above? A lie. The other story I intend to write will be called “Under London” and my disguising the title somewhat was an attempt to hold something back, to preserve some creative magma for a later attempt at something. Never do this, never hold anything back, not if you’re me anyway, and haven’t got much to work with right now, let alone in a neutrino-splitting cat-duplicating theoretical future. But where was I?
2. (cont.) In fact the conceit of putting these two brilliantly wrought personas of their respective creators together on a park bench ala Borges’ own emblematic work “Borges y Yo” is so apt, I’m sure someone has thought of it before. If anyone has acted on this thought, I and my enterprise here are fucked.
6a. A few other odds and ends. MS Word is making my life hell as it tries to help—deciding where my indents will be, thinking I am writing an outline because of the numbered paragraphs. I’m taking the numbered paragraph style from Delany, Samuel R. because I like it, it seems the right method to order these points I must make in order to communicate to the reader this episode to the best of my ability. It is, like any matter of style, a guess. When you encounter something funky in a story, you’ve got choices, one choice is to go with it—this is true of the writer as well as the reader.
6b. It is autumn, both in the world and in the false world of this episode I relate. The leaves in Hyde Park have turned, but not fallen. The sky is colorless. Borges in this story is old. Marshall Mathers in this story is young. Though the real Mathers is older now, I cannot imagine Eminem old, and though the world knows the young Borges, it’s the elderly, famoso figure I first met and hold forever in my mind; the man surprised to be famous: a poet, a former librarian, who in his sixties returns to the short story after decades of absence. He returns stronger, braver. Gone are the affectations of style, the showy absurdities in plot and theme. He simply tells it now: an old man named Borges sits on a park bench and, through the course of a conversation, discovers the young man sitting next to him is himself, many years earlier. Or perhaps he is the young Borges sitting next to an older self. He does not know which of him writes this tale and he tells us this, and then he is done.
7a. Today however, this autumn day, Borges is not in one of his stories, so he does not meet himself. Today he meets “Marshall Mathers”, who is not in Detroit, as he and his creator Marshall-who-is-also-Eminem would have expected. Eminem might be found in London, indeed any city in the world; he is famous everywhere, and rap is loved everywhere. Well, you might not find Eminem in Tehran. But you could certainly overhear his music anywhere—even Tehran—and no one should seriously doubt it.
7b. Eminem would be stunned to see “Marshall” outside Detroit, outside the clubs, the ugly streets, the shitty trailer parks of his childhood. He created “Marshall” to live in those core memories. Eminem takes on the world—the temptations and ridicule necessary to navigate the past—if one is to thrive in, not be crushed by, it. The world is an arena, the pop world, the world of fame—any world is an arena. An arena is where contests are held, and there is always one more contest. No matter how many you can win, there will always be one more, and nobody lasts forever. Eminem wants to keep “Marshall” safe from all that. “Marshall” is his innocence, and as long as he has “Marshall” he can’t completely lose his self.
8. Borges would like those concepts, and his ears would particularly prick up at the idea of the world as an arena. Or the world as any one thing, or anything as something else. A labyrinth, a rose, a tome in old Norse, they are each the world. The world itself is only that idea that is at once too great and to simple to hold in the mind by any method but metaphor. In one thing, everything. In everything, one thing.
9. “Borges” sits down at one end of the bench, and draws his wool lapels close. He wears a fine topcoat. The wool is Argentinean, but the workmanship is European; they do not exist without each other, and “Borges” contemplates that as a metaphor for his own career. He may use the thought sometime. Probably not, because there are better ones to devise.
10. “Marshall” sits down at the other end of the bench. He re-zips his coat to the top, folds his arms and pleasantly squeezes some of the air out of the puffy down. To Borges, Marshall —with his northern skin, his head of bleached hair poking forth from a white snowball of a coat—looks like an apparition, a phantasm of Wells perhaps, and as agreeably absurd. No. The ghost beside him evokes a mirth not often found in the works of those romanticists such as Wells or Verne whose chief literary passion lies in imagineering the future.
11. To Marshall, Borges looks like something out of another kind of fiction, an old movie on TNT maybe,—a guy like the guys who bankrolled Eddie Murphy in Trading Places. He wonders if the guy is rich. He has a cane. Rich people in movies carry canes. Then again, he is old. Maybe he needs the cane to walk. A cane is better than a walker. You see those old ladies, with their aluminum walkers, bus change clinking back and forth in the tray, and the walker’s legs taped up where the rubber footpads have cracked. Where’s the dignity in that? The old guy has dignity. How will I walk when I’m that age? Will I even get to that age? Will some kid see me and will I look like something in an old movie to him? That’s what I’ll be someday, an old man from an old movie—and that’s only if I’m lucky. Which I don’t expect to be. Marshall looks at Borges long and hard while he thinks this.
12. Borges looks back at Marshall, into the ice blue eyes,* surely the eyes of a poet of the Eddas would have been this blue, this clear. To be young again. But was I ever? What if I were this young man’s age today, would I find myself costumed as he is? If my world were not one of books, not one of my grandfather’s—the great general’s—history and legend. Not one of dusty southern twilights and Viennese snowfalls infinitely intermingling in memory. What if I were sneakers and televisions; internets and absent fathers? Would I then be Borges still? Would I then be me? Or is Borges something else? Something other than his memory. I have never believed that, yet I have always been a believer in the imagination, though a poor practitioner. If I, buy some alchemy – found myself compelled to trade places with this young man for one instant—would I, for that instant, retain semblance of myself? If I looked out at Borges from Nordic eyes, who would I see? A fellow—kinsman of sort—or a creature so alien as to defy comprehension?
13. And Marshall breaks the gaze in an instant, because he knows he and the old man are holding it a little. He knows in a flash they are thinking the same thought: who the fuck are you supposed to be anyway?
14. And they laugh. At first they laugh because of the awkwardness of the moment, and then they laugh at themselves for laughing and being embarrassed over nothing. And then they laugh because the other is laughing, and they laugh because it is truly singular to know two are thinking the same thought at the same time, and they look back at their own selves from the alien’s perspective.
15. As if in a mirror, they stop laughing and gulp and looking into the middle distance, still believing they are thinking the same thing, but how can either man know?
16. A few leaves fall as they sit there, contemplating that understanding—always stunning, no matter how often it is fleetingly grasped—that other people exist, independent of one’s self, going on and on, their own memories like fingers reaching out to their own pasts, their own dreams like fingers pulling their own futures near, all independent in one way, yet still capable of intersecting, winding around, turning, changing each other, like some (why not say it again, it is too late to make a pretense of originality now) like some labyrinth—but a living one; a labyrinth that builds itself.
17. “I should get back,” says Marshall, the first words spoken between the two men in an exchange, that after all, only lasted a moment, an exchange that, even as incidental encounters go, could fairly be argued never to have happened at all. Especially since neither man will permit himself to discuss it. Each man values his world of thoughts so highly that neither presumes to invade the world of the other. Instead, Marshall will want to find a place and a pen to write lyrics. Borges will want to find a place and a pen to write his own lines.
18. “I must go, as well.” says Borges.
19. The young man extends his hand and they shake, though the grip is different, a manner of handshake unknown to Borges, not at all difficult to learn, and much less formal somehow. “Good luck,” says Borges turned toward the fork in the path. And Marshall takes the other way, but not before saying, “Stay real.”
20. Borges contemplates the encounter, and every encounter he has had, and will have, living over and over again in the lines of his poems, the leaves of his books, the memories of a few friends, and (dare an old poet hope?) a few too-kind admirers.
21. Stay real. Interesting advice, he thinks with a smile.
22. I wonder … is it achievable?
24. Hyde Park begins to dissolve behind our characters retreating backs. The men do not turn, or pause to notice this. Nothing is lost. Nothing that happened cannot be recreated at will. As a matter of fact, each time it is remembered it can be improved upon. The images crystallize, the epiphanies become more pronounced, and deeper. Neither man is finished living it, or will finish living it as long as the great world—call it rose, book, labyrinth, or any name you choose— keeps turning.
*It may be that Marshall has brown eyes and wears blue contact lenses at times.
(This story originally appeared in 419 Memoirs & Other Strange Stories (2011) by Michael Canfield, available in ebook form at the usual places.)
Clay and Molly Wexler, lately of Dallas, were driving through the desert in early September, many miles yet to Albuquerque and the bend the road would take there toward a newer new start in Santa Fe. The marriage had taken a bend of it’s own — “a turn for the suck,” in Molly’s vernacular — after Clay’s transfer from the San Francisco office. A wretched summer of heat, church picnics, Fourth of July picnics, Labor Day picnics and miscellaneous other redneck adventures had boiled up into a choice between upend their lives by leaving Dallas, or divorce. Clay and Molly opted to try the upending option first. Molly’s parents weren’t divorced and Molly didn’t want to be divorced. So now, as Clay had remarked in a snide moment of weakness, neither of them had jobs, but at least they were not divorced.
Molly said Santa Fe, for the arts community, and Clay said yes because at that particular moment in the decision-making process she had the moral high ground. Arts community maybe, but precious little call for a structural engineer like himself, certainly. Nevertheless he would bide his time. She would get bored, and if she didn’t get bored something else would happen. The air in Santa Fe was thin. Of course she didn’t believe that coming from him, but she’d experience it for herself soon enough. They would be back in the Bay Area within months, and Clay was certain he would be able to get back on with the firm as a consultant — at more than twice the pay no doubt.
Molly was at the wheel now, but she kept looking over at Clay rather than watching the road consistently as he would have preferred she do. But how she could see the road with her bangs practically combed down right over her eyes he didn’t know.
“What are you thinking?” she asked she finally asked him.
And here we go, thought Clay.
Nothing, was what he was thinking most of the morning. Nothing. Really. Just now he had set himself the task of thinking hard about beauty, beauty of the majesty of painted deserts variety. That lead him quickly to thinking about planets. Many — if not most — planets have no plate tectonics but our planet does have them. A handful of plates, buckling against each other, comprised the world’s crust. The sheer cliffs of the painted desert are striped with the ages of the earth. And all that shit.
Thinking of matters cosmic was Max’s little way of trying hard not to think of something else, something much more immediate. He was failing at that.
“Well?” said Molly. “What are you thinking?”
He vamped. “I’m thinking about the hierarchy of needs. How does it go? Body first. Air, then water, then food. Clothing, shelter. Then the needs of the mind. Self-esteem, sense of purpose. Do I have it right? Gets vague quickly after that. Our unnamable needs.”
“Where’s that Evian bottle?” she asked.
“Oh fuck, Clay. We should have stopped.”
Yeah well, but we didn’t, what did she expect him to do about it now? “Are you thirsty?”
“Never mind.” She paused. “And the spirit. Don’t forget the needs of the spirit.”
“How could I? Can’t forget the spirit.”
“Oh, but before spirit you need financial security in there somewhere. Without money you slip right back to base needs again. You have to pay for everything.”
“Yup,” he said.
“No free lunch,” she said.
“I’m telling you.”
“So maybe money is the like, basic basic need, at least in this world,” Molly murmured.
“I think I have to take a shit,” he told her.
“Had to for an hour.”
“Why didn’t you say anything? I wanted to stop back at that town and buy water anyway. You wouldn’t let me.”
“Need me to say it? You were right, okay!”
“I’m pulling over,” she said.
“You wouldn’t mind? Out on the side of the road?”
“Jesus, I’d rather you did it than talked about it.”
“All right, all right. we should switch anyway, you’ve been driving most of the morning.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “It isn’t a question of right.”
He refused to take the bait. She pulled off the highway.
Clay hopped from the Cherokee.
Molly leaned over, rolled down the window. “Clay? You really have to go, right? You’re not playing a joke?”
“A joke? A joke like what?”
She shook her head.
“I’ll be right back.” Everything had to mean something else. There always had to be a catch.
He hobbled into the hinterland, butt cheeks clenched. Didn’t think about toilet paper or a toilet-paper substitute until he’d gone too far to turn back.
Clay stood ankle-deep in brush. He looked for a spot. What kind of spot? Level, he guessed. Did it make a difference. Cat and dogs (he thought) sniffed around and circled a spot before committing to it. He looked at the ground. A brown jackrabbit darted right past his feet. He watched it go. It was cool, but so much smaller than he would have expected a rabbit to be.
Okay then. He looked at the ground, which was still there. He unbuttoned his jeans and pushed them and his underwear down just a little ways. He bent, twisted. Tried a couple different positions guessing at what the right angle should be. How the fuck do you do this without taking your pants all the way off?
He figured a way, squatting, reaching between his legs to pull the back of his waistband clear of all likely trajectories, hoped for the best, and then thought about rattlesnakes. Don’t think about rattlesnakes! Yeah right, and don’t think about a pink elephant while you’re at it.
The air was still. He’d hear a rattler if there was one. After all — they rattled.
Now he couldn’t go.
Don’t think of rattlesnakes, think about elephants, think about jack rabbits. Shit, don’t think. Don’t think! Shit!
A blue shadow moved over him, blocking out the sun. Something descended from the sky. He forgot rattlesnakes, bounding brown jackrabbits and all. His bowels released.
An extraordinary blue. A cosmic blue. How could something that big and blue and solid appear in the sky without noise — from nowhere?
It wasn’t saucer-shaped — more diamond-shaped really — yet a Dallas city block in length. It set down on one narrow point of itself without sound, without disturbing the dust or the brush.
He yanked up his jeans and ran in the direction of the highway, the Cherokee and Molly.
Molly was running toward him, shouting his name. She saw it too, so he wasn’t crazy.
He hugged her, took her hand, continued to run with her back to the Cherokee.
He opened the passenger-side door. “It won’t start!” shouted Molly.
“Won’t start?” Yeah, you read about that. UFO’s fucked with your car’s electrical system. Happened all the time.
But she had tried to start the car? “Were you just going to drive off and leave me here?”
“I was going to drive out and get you! How could you think …? It is a four-wheel drive you know.”
“No, no. Right.”
He crawled in. Turned the key. Didn’t start.
“I told you! Why don’t you listen to me?”
“I’m just trying it.” He ground the ignition again. Silence. Even the indicator lights stayed dim, like the jeep was a relic, a hump of static metal.
Molly said, “Oh fuck this whole trip, you and your ideas.”
“Later, Jesus, Molly. This is a situation.” He found the cell phone, where it had been dropped by Molly on the passenger’s seat. No signal.
“I tried that too,” she said.
“You certainly had a lot of time on your hands.” That’s my wife, he thought.
“I tried to start the car to drive out and get you, I tried the cell to call help for you, I ran out to find you. Why are you picking on me!”
“All right.” He took a breath. “Thank you.”
“Fuckwad. Are you okay?” she strained against tears.
“I’m okay. It didn’t do anything to me. It’s sitting there … quiet.”
“It’s so blue,” said Molly.
“That’s what I was thinking. Have you ever seen quite that color before?”
She shook her head.
The blue ship did something.
Though its surface was seamless, it split now, surrendering itself open into two half-diamond shaped concaves, which settled down next to each other on the basin of the desert.
Clay and Molly waited, watched. Five minutes.
“What’s inside?” asked Molly. “Can you see?”
“Not from here.” Pause. “Someone will come along.”
“Don’t even think about. Someone will come along.”
“Maybe. This is supposedly a busy highway and no one’s passed in all this time. Maybe no cars are running.”
“Don’t say that.”
Molly leaned into the Cherokee, reached under the seat, and brought up the Evian bottle.
“It told you that was empty,” said Clay.
“I’m just checking it. You checked the car, you checked the phone. Now I’m checking the water bottle.”
“I don’t want to bicker,” he told her.
“See, we agree.” The tension broke.
“On everything. That’s why I can tell my parents we never fight,” Molly said.
Clay rolled his eyes. “Your parents.”
“No. Your parents.”
Molly’s smile faded. There was more activity with the blue thing. The open concaves of the diamond ship started to fill, then to overflow. Icy blue liquid cascaded down the outside walls. It reminded Clay of Lake Tahoe for seem reason: cool and clean. Damn it was hot in New Mexico in September! Tahoe next year for sure.
He found himself leaving the Cherokee and walking toward the shimmering pools; Molly too. They reached the ship. The water did not spill onto the desert floor, rather it flowed in deeps streams down the walls, then turning, it streamed back up again.
A hint of spray dampened the air. Clay and Molly held fingers under the stream. So cool.
Molly cupped her hands. She brought the water to her face. She splashed herself, swallowed. She cupped her hands for more. “This is like the best water ever … “
He did as she had. The water touched his skin, mixed with the stinging salty sweat above his lip, and cleansed the sour away. “I didn’t know how thirsty I was,” Clay said.
Molly undid some buttons, stepped into the falling water, letting it stream down her neck and front. “What a great gift,” she said.
Clay took his shirt off, pressed against the side of the ship. The water flow over his back, cooling his flushed skin. “Water,” he said. “Alien water.”
They undressed, they bathed and they held their clothes out to be cleansed: their shoes, belts, car keys, wallet, everything.
The waters ebbed. They stood naked. The sun was at zenith, but Clay stayed cool, even after the air dried him.
Clay thought about it. “That was probably a bad idea.”
“What happened?” asked Molly.
“Are you okay? I think I’m okay.”
“I think I’m okay. What?”
He realized he was looking at her. Shook his head. “You’re better than okay.”
She crossed her arms over herself. “Shut up. I wasn’t prepared for this you know.”
“You are really really beautiful.”
She picked up her clothes, but they weren’t even close to dry. “Damn,” she said.
“What are you worried about? You look fine.”
“Fine? A second ago it was beautiful. Now I’m fine.” She put the back of her hand under her jaw, the way she did when she felt self-conscious about the slight hint of a second chin.
Don’t say anything, he warned himself. But he tried to fix it, it was like a sick compulsion and he couldn’t stop himself. “Neither us is getting any younger.”
Molly shot him her red glare. Then she tried to pull on her heavy wet jeans. Oh, shit, he thought, will I never learn to quit when I’m behind? “Molly.”
She forced her arms into twisted, soaked sleeves. Picked up her sandals. “I’m going back to the road.” she said.
The blue ship slowly closed itself up. Then it rose from the ground without causing a ripple in the air. To see something so huge move so gracefully: Clay had nothing to compare it to. “I can’t even wrap my mind around it,” he muttered.
The ship hovered a hundred feet off the ground, then zipped west.
“Well that’s that,” said Clay.
“It’s going the same direction we were.” said Molly.
“If the aliens wanted directions to Albuquerque, they only had to ask,” said Clay.
“Let’s not tell anyone about this.”
“No way. I don’t want to be interviewed on some Discovery Channel freak-fest. No thank you.”
“Aren’t you going to put your clothes on?”
They felt a little dryer now. “Nah.” He placed his arms akimbo. “Think I’ll stay like this.”
“Shut up,” she said.
He shifted his feet and was stabbed by a pointy pebble. Then again, maybe just put on the shoes.
Two silver ships descended from the sky.
Smaller than the blue ship had been — automobile-sized, in fact — the silver ships landed side by side.
Like the blue ship, the silver ships were completely smooth and seamless. Clay hesitated.
“Let’s leave,” said Molly.
“I wonder if they are going to open.”
“No. I want to go.”
The ships opened. From each a silver orb ascended, like two human-sized wobbly balls of quicksilver.
The wobbly balls started floating toward Molly and Clay.
“Run!” Molly shouted too late.
A quicksilver ball hit her and splattered. The other hit Clay like hot Jell-O and nearly knocked him flat. Silver goop covered his eyes. He wiped them quickly, trying to see what had happened to Molly. The goop slipped over his skin, climbed up his urethra and every other opening, filled every wrinkle and crevice, enveloped each muscle in his body. Once it touched all of him it began to bead out his pores. The beads gathered into globules sliding down his length, dropping at his feet. They vanished into dry ground.
The silver ships closed, floated up, and scooted away.
Stunned, when at last able to move again and see — he saw the same thing had happened to Molly. He clothes lay in tatters around her, as if her silver glob had shredded them to get to her skin. She was shorter. No. He was standing higher all of the sudden. No. He was taller. His muscles rippled, filled with coursing blood.
“Oh man. Look at my … “
She was looking.
“I’m huge,” he said. He wrapped his hand around it. It was beautiful, the most magnificent phallus imaginable. “I can’t believe it,” he said.
“And look at me,” Molly said. “My ass. My legs.” She ran her hands over her breasts. She touched her new long neck. “Oh fuck,” she whispered, and broke into a run.
He tore after her, leaving his clothes.
She reached the Cherokee, yanked open the nearer door and bent over the side-view mirror. Clay reached her and stopped. Stretching, and turning, trying to see as much of herself as possible in the tiny reflection, she examined her lean chin, her narrow shoulders.
She turned to him at last, with satisfaction. “Oh you lucky boy,” she said. “Look at your gorgeous wife.”
He caressed his shaft. Still hard. “And you lucky girl. Look at this incredible cock.”
She smiled. “I’m completely swollen too.” It was true, her nipples were like raspberries. “Look at my clit. I think if I touched it, I’d … “
He touched it, she exploded.
He watched her for minutes, standing there, half supported by his giant hand around her slim biceps, as she came in waves. With every wave she changed: little things, just enough, hair color from rust to golden to jet. Her skin from brown to ivory and pink. The angle of her breasts, the cut of her shoulders, everything flowed, moved, like a hundred or a thousand different women. My god, this could go on forever. Her eyes fluttered (blue, green, and brown) and one of the thousand women coming under his hand whispered, “You’re here. For me. Here for me now.”
At last she settled. “Molly,” he said. “Do you know that I’m in love with you, that I’m attracted to you? Do you know?”
“Yes, honey. I know it, I know how you really feel, and I know you really meant it before when you said I’m beautiful. Even before we changed.”
In her, he saw every woman he could ever imagine, every desire, endless variety. In him, she saw trustworthiness, security, a man who desired her without end. I love the silver ships! he thought.
He held her, looked for a smooth area on the rough desert floor to lay her down. He was not in a hurry, not desperate — his huge cock was going to be full and ready forever — but he was anxious to please her with it. She looked around, seemed to read his thoughts. “There’s no good place,” she said.
“I’ll try the engine again. We’ll find a hotel.”
“No. I want to fuck outdoors,” she said.
He nodded. “So do I.”
A dozen green ships descended from the sky, landing silently on either side of the highway, then opening unassumingly. Plumes, powdery emerald dust, billowed from their hollows and covered the desert like green snow.
From the settled powder, a new landscape arose: beds of downy moss upon the ground. Nimble shade trees stretched toward the sky. Ponds of blue water pooled. Furred creatures grew out of the tree limbs and scampered back and forth, chattering pleasantly. Rainbow fish jumped in a babbling stream. Once or twice, what looked like miniature unicorns carrying big lollipops in their mouths darted through the forest. When all this was made, the green ships closed, floated above the trees, and moved west.
Clay carried Molly down and made love to her.
The afternoon rolled by. Molly got up after awhile and slipped into the nearest pond. It was one of the hot ones, with steam rising off. After a time, she moved to a cooler one, and floated on a lily pad. She called Clay to join her.
“In a bit,” he said. For now he lay content on his back, listening to the new forest, dancing fingers over his stomach, his pubes, enjoying the stickiness, in no hurry to wash off.
He must have napped awhile, because the next thing he sensed was Molly’s cool skin and hair against his chest as she slipped next to him.
She lay her hand across his scrotum.
“I’m glad you’re my man,” she said.
“Let’s never fight.” she said.
“We made up.”
“So, no divorce.”
“Mmm.” He drifted.
“The ships didn’t go back the way they came, did you notice? Not into the sky. They like followed the highway, west.”
“Yeah,” he said. Did they have to talk right now?
“Maybe this is happening everywhere. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“Splendiferous,” he muttered.
She was silent, but for a moment only.
“Who are they? What do they want?” she asked. He didn’t answer. “Clay? Did you hear me? Who do you think they are, what do you think they want?”
Imponderables. Always with the questions, this one.
“To spread joy and peace and hot sex through the galaxy,” he said. “Let’s talk later.” Right now, he floated in an endorphin sea which occupied him plenty, thank you.
“Maybe if I’d found a job I liked,” she said.
“In Dallas, I mean.”
Forget all that now, thought Clay. Who cared?
She spoke again. “In Dallas, you know? Or maybe if we’d never gone at all. I could have gotten into one of those church groups. Would you have gone to something like that? Or maybe if …”
If what? “Don’t start that, Molly.”
“Still, all those brown lawns, all those malls. All those glass buildings blinding you when you drive past on the freeway. And those Texas flags flying everywhere. Flags big enough to cover a football field. And all those football fields!”
“Okay, okay,” murmured Clay. “Anyway it’s over.”
She sighed comfortably. “That’s right. Dallas is over,” she said. And then she said it again. “Dallas is over.” He felt her settle comfortably closer to him, but only for a moment.
“Why would they do all of this for us? These ships?”
He pretended to sleep, not that that trick had ever worked on her before.
“Do you think there are other kinds of ships?”
He shifted his weight, tried to get comfortable again without actually turning completely away from her. “Oh, Molls,” he said. “If they want to do for us, let them.”
He rubbed his eyes. They’d been thirsty, and the ships brought water. They had a stupid fight about body image and the ships fixed their bodies. The ships made the desert a paradise for lovers, because — well because they were lovers. What else could she want? My needs are met.
His stomach knotted. “That’s it!” said Clay. “I get it! The ships read our thoughts, fulfilled them.”
“My god, you’re right. I wanted this body. I wanted it for myself. Unconsciously, but it happened.”
“Well great. Then you should be happy. Have a nap with me, Molly.”
“Can it guess what we’re secretly wanting, way down inside? What will the next ships will bring?”
Next ships? “No no. We’re fine, right now.” He wanted nothing more. Don’t think about it.
“What if someone had desires they weren’t proud of? Or shouldn’t have. There could be black ships, there could be red ships. Bad ships. People have all sorts of thoughts.”
“I don’t want to talk about this,” he said. Black ships filled with plague, white ships filled with fire. No. No there couldn’t. Don’t think that. Don’t think anything. Red ship, black ship, white ship, bad ship.
“But we don’t know Clay. We don’t know what we really, really want. It changes. They could be pretty pink ships, but inside, deep down, for all we know — Ouch!”
He had grabbed her biceps harder than he meant to. “Leave me alone! No! Sorry!” he shouted, sounding shrill. “You’re going on and on! Happy happy ships, full of sunshine and goodness and everything right, I tell you!”
She wrenched her arm free. “Don’t talk to me like that!” She looked at her arm and it was bruised purple. She bruised easily. “You said never again!” Molly said. Reproach — her fucking long suit.
“That was an accident, obviously!” he said. And he’d never touched her, never touch her, never done more than put his own fist through the wall, or shake her hard to get her attention, so who was the real victim here anyway?
Never mind. Too late anyway. Too late now for apologies or excuses, or reasons. Try reasoning with her, can’t be done. Try not to think of a pink elephant. Can’t be done.
Above the new tree line — by the hundreds, by the thousands they showed: blotting the sky, housing shadowed desires in their pretty, shining holds and descending. He’d know something
in a minute, maybe. Or she would. Or nothing. Or not. Molly raised one arm to the level of her face in involuntary — surely futile — defensive action. Clay, in his nakedness, shuddered. Pink ships. Pink ships.
Sophie. The script called her Sophie; and Sam the optimist, Sam traveler-without-cares, loved her since creation. Azure-eyed Sophie, orphaned country maid, as new in Vienna as the century was young; Sophie in chiffon frock of cobalt blue; her brown hair unadorned with silk ribbon, tied in plain linen.
Tonight, upon hearing him speak say, Pardon me, Fraulein, do you believe in fate? brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie would surely fall into his arms, her cheek upon his breast. His body, breath, and kisses would let her know that fears could no longer trouble love. For this alone had he been written: to rescue Sophie from Maximilian, and sweep her away forever. The invisible hand had scripted it and tonight he’d win her, though she did not even know his name.
The script actually named Sam “Handsome Stranger with Newspaper at Next Table.” Sam didn’t know, nor think it important, if anyone found him handsome. Still, he needed to call himself something, so he called himself Sam. Plain old Sam, and decided he ought to be from somewhere doing something so he became a Chicagoan wandering the capitols of Europe. He chose the name and place before the first evening, while tumbling in dreams of fabric and light: white and gold, cobalt blue, and azure.
The velvet curtain rose; applause broke the fourth wall and the mist, from the audience in the house invisible. Sam pushed a hand though his thick forelock, then brushed his worn but serviceable suit jacket. He drank cool air from a empty eggshell cup, then replaced it on its mark. He drummed fingers on yesterday’s Herald Tribune, then brought its double-fold to the iron table’s rim. He scuffled the sole of one loafer quietly over the warped boards. Footlights and spots imbued the darkness with midday sunbeam. He crossed his legs, refolded the newspaper, as again life began, the stage set for Vienna.
A happy half-dozen Viennese filled the outdoor cafe, sipping from eggshell cups, moving their lips, living the background of a June morning in 1901, in the city on the Danube.
A mustachioed waiter stood immobile. The moustache looked a real soup-strainer, and the waiter wore it with marked pride.
On cue, the waiter marched, making circles around the tables and serving. With an arm raised to balance a silver tray of cups and saucers, his red vest strained against gold buttons and barely contained his girth, exposing the white shirt underneath.
The waiter approached Sam’s table. “Peas and carrots?” he asked, and twirled the end of his moustache.
“Peas and carrots,” replied Sam. The scene required him, as the well as the waiter and the various Viennese, to move their lips, simulating small talk. Peas and carrots were lip-moving words, mouthed to be unheard in the house invisible. The waiter took Sam’s cup, lifting it to the tray with flourish, then spun away to serve another.
Upstage, a girl engaged a court of three devoted boys crowding one tiny table. The girl giggled through a story and the smitten boys clung to every syllable. “Peas and carrots. Peas and carrots!” she said. In another corner, a small old couple looked into each other’s eyes as if for the first time, aquiline noses almost touching, whispering soft peas and carrots to one another.
Sam turned over the newspaper, then folded it another way. He scanned the columns of solid black bars, thinking of his big moment. He’d speak to Sophie at the right time; not only with voice, but with eyes, and his blood’s longing.
Near Sam, a spot opened, bathing the unoccupied table center-stage in light. Brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie entered left and crossed right. She gripped a small cloth handbag in white-knuckled hands. Eyes darting, she stepped further left, then right, searching the imaginary street.
Sophie rested on a chair’s edge at the table under the spot. She held the handbag in her lap, and kept looking each way, over one shoulder, then the other.
Sam turned the newspaper again, playing his part. He would have something to say soon. Beloved Sophie.
Maximilian entered, wearing white spats on shoes polished to a dazzle. He wore a felt hat cocked over his ear; and rested one hand in a coat pocket. His black eyes found Sophie while her search led her to look the other way. He reslanted his hat, dusted his lapels, then took a seat at the table.
Sophie turned. Seeing her lover and benefactor Maximilian suddenly there, she jumped, gripping the handbag tighter.
“Am I behind my time, button?” said Maximilian with a lopsided smile. “What’s time to us, anyhow? We’re free and in love, and in Vienna.”
She shook her head. “You gave me a start, is all.”
“Such a start that you cannot give me a kiss?”
“Nonsense,” she said.
He leaned, presenting a cheek, which she pecked.
“I would not have kept you waiting; I had to set a fellow straight in the street!” Maximilian’s head rocked with a liar’s fidget, even as he boomed words with a coward’s bravado.
“I think I shall leave you,” she said suddenly, trembling.
Maximilian made a frown, eyes still smiling. “You still haven’t forgiven me then, button. You will never leave me. We’re bound together. It’s destiny. Don’t fight it.” “You’ve hurt me.”
“Without intent. I am only a man. Have you the book?”
Sophie hesitate before unsnapping the handbag. She finally reached in, removing a small notebook, bound in moleskin. “These are the words of my heart,” she told him. “I’ve shown them to no one, ever. I once believed I could show them to some man. A true and faithful man.”
Maximilian extended a hand, palm upturned. “Let’s see.”
“Are you a faithful man?”
The waiter spun to their table. Maximilian dismissed him, swiping air with a hand. Maximilian leaned toward Sophie.
“I have not been perfect. I have not claimed to be anything but flesh and blood. May not a man of mere flesh and blood see your untouched book?”
He reached and Sophie pulled the notebook to her bosom.
Sam, at his table, listening, clutched his newspaper tighter. Not yet he told himself. Be patient, be magnificent, bold, and prevail.
Maximilian slumped back, as if punched. “I see, then. You don’t love me. I expected as much.”
“Must you be cruel?” begged Sophie.
“I? You are the cruel one. My affection means so little to you, you will not even show me your occasional scribblings. Put the thing away, then.” He snapped his fingers to summon the waiter. He took a few coins and tossed them on the table. “I leave you to your romantic fantasies. And your chastity.” He stood, turned heel, then stormed away.
Sophie leaped up, called after him, drawing the attention of other tables.
“Peasandcarrots,” murmured the girl and three boys. “Peasandcarrots,” whispered the small, old couple to each other.
Sophie dropped the book, which slipped under Sam’s chair, and she spilled the handbag. She knelt to retrieve her things, crying, “Wait Maximilian! Forgive me!” Now, thought Sam, discarding the newspaper. He fell to one knee, retrieving the treasured notebook.
Sophie reached in the same beat, so that they touched it together. He met her dewed eyes, as he had met them many times in the dream-mist between existences.
“Pardon me, Fraulein. Do you believe in fate?” He caught her with words and eyes; Sophie his alone for one moment.
Maximilian, who had not left, but waited expectantly for Sophie to come running after him, now spoke to her from near stage left. “Come now, button,” and he held his arm out, crooked.
Sam and Sophie still gripped the notebook between them. Sam pleaded with his eyes — don’t go! Come away with me.
She pulled to notebook from him. “Thank you, Mein Herr.”
The blood rushed from his face in shame at the cloying, cliched inflection he’d given the line.
She crossed to Maximilian, taking his arm with hesitation. She always crossed to Maximilian, no matter what.
“There, button,” said Maximilian. “Am I so frightening?”
Light diffused in Sam’s tears. Sophie, head bowed, allowed Maximilian to lead her off right. The unhappy half-dozen Viennese left their background tables to their own exits. Sam again took his seat. He refolded the newspaper and scanned the black print bars. Taking the beat, he looked toward Sophie’s exit, then to a vacant chair, then back again. The waiter passed through the empty cafe, silver tray pinned under an arm.
Darkness enveloped the stage, and the waiter stopped on his final mark to stand immobile. In the mist beyond the fourth wall, in the house invisible, applause smattered thinly.
Silence followed; the velvet curtain descended. Time ceased and Sam slept again, dreaming fabric and light: gold and white, vermilion, and azure.
Sam awoke, feeling an invisible hand close his throat, an invisible foot press his chest. In the absences between performances, while he dreamed of Sophie, a change had come. The script rewrote, or unwrote, at will, with no concern for characters. Now the script had cut his line. No matter. He would speak to Sophie with eyes and body, he still had those. He didn’t need words.
The velvet curtain rose; through the mist, from the house invisible, applause broke the fourth wall.
Sam pushed a hand through his thick forelock. He sipped air and dust, then replaced the coffee cup on its mark. He drummed fingers over the newspaper, then brought it to table’s edge. Viennese filled the cafe. The mustachioed waiter spun through the tables.
“Peas and carrots,” said he when coming to Sam’s table.
“Peas and carrots,” Sam stammered, thinking, I must be ready, my eyes will speak for me now. I don’t need lines.
The waiter took the cup.Brown-haired, azure eyed Sophie entered, looked furtively around, sat on a chair’s edge. Soon, Maximilian sauntered in.
“Am I behind my time, button?”
In time she produced the moleskin notebook, saying, “These are the words of my heart.” They argued over it, Sophie begged Maximilian not to be cruel. Maximilian snapped for the waiter, threw a few coins on the table, stormed off.
Sophie leaped up, called him, drawing attention.
“Peasandcarrots,” murmured the girl and three boys. “Peasandcarrots,” whispered the small, old couple to each other.
Sophie dropped the notebook, which slipped under Sam’s chair, and she spilled the handbag. She knelt to retrieve her things, crying, “Wait Maximilian! Forgive me!”
Sam tossed away the newspaper and fell to one knee, retrieving the treasured notebook.
Sophie found it in the same beat. Sam met her dewed eyes. He took a breath where he would have once had words to speak: Pardon me, Fraulein. Do you believe in fate?
They held the notebook between them. He pleaded with his eyes. Don’t go. Come with me. My eyes tell you I’m true.
She took the notebook back. “Thank you, Mein Herr.”
Again. The blood rushed from his face. He understood: it isn’t the line; it’s me. I’m meant to fail.
The lights diffused. Sophie, head bowed, let Maximilian lead her off to her end. The unhappy half-dozen Viennese found their separate exits. Sam took his seat. He ignored the newspaper, and forgot, until too late, to follow Sophie’s exit, then look to a vacant chair. The waiter passed through the empty cafe to his mark, tray pinned under an arm.
Darkness took the stage, and the waiter stood immobile. From the invisible, applause trickled through the fourth wall.
The velvet curtain descended. Time ceased and Sam slept, dreaming rope and cloth and heat: gold and white, vermilion, azure, and the indifference of the script.
The velvet curtain rose in silence before the mist-shrouded house invisible. Sam pushed a hand through his thick forelock. He lifted the coffee cup and replaced it on its mark, then fingered the newspaper. Viennese filled the tables and the mustachioed waiter spun through the cafe, coming to Sam.
“Peas and carrots?” He waited for Sam’s reply.
Sam held his tongue.
Perturbed, yet undaunted, the waiter reached for the cup.
A delicate nudge with the newspaper, and Sam moved the cup off its mark. The waiter’s hand grasped at empty air in the place the cup should have been. His jaw hardened.
You can’t see, can you, poor fool? We don’t matter, Sam tried to say. The words came out: “Peas and carrots.”
The waiter glared cross-eyed, turning purple. “Peas!” he hissed. He made a second pass, and Sam pushed the cup farther.
The waiter stamped a foot. Sam poked his tongue at the man, and winked.
The waiter circled to the other side of the table. At his third try for the cup, Sam seized it, dropping it into the newspaper, which he promptly rolled up. Then he clamped the newspaper to his chest, folding his arms across it.
“Peas! And! Carrots!” said the waiter in disgust. He stiffened. Marching back around, he bent formally, then pantomimed lifting a cup. He lowered the nonexistent cup to the tray with special flourish.
Gratified, he twisted a moustache corner. “Peas and carrots!” Tray aloft, he twirled away. Brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie entered, furtive, sat at a chair’s edge. Maximilian sauntered in.
“Am I behind my time, button?”
They spoke their lines. She showed the moleskin notebook. “These are the words of my heart.”
He demanded it, she demurred to his disdain; she begged him not to be cruel. Maximilian snapped for the waiter, threw a few coins on the table, stormed off.
Sophie jumped up. “Wait Maximilian! Forgive me!” “Peasandcarrots,” murmured the people in the background. Sophie dropped the book and the handbag, spilling the latter’s contents. She knelt to retrieve them.
Sam let fall the rolled newspaper. The hidden cup shattered. He dropped to a knee, retrieving her notebook.
Sophie reached out in the same beat and together they touched it. He met her dewed eyes.
Maximilian called and she thanked Sam, intending he release the notebook as usual.
He didn’t release it. He held it fast. Sophie gave a start. She tugged at the book, panic in her eyes.
“Peas and carrots,” he said. Don’t go. Sophie wrenched and twisted the notebook. He let go.
She stumbled, but rose on cue. Inching away, hand to mouth, stunned, she didn’t notice she’d crossed to Maximilian until she trod his spats.
“There, button.” said Maximilian, “Am I so frightening?”
She took his arm, as always; he lead her away.
Sam sank into the chair. The paper had unrolled between his feet; the cup had broken in shards.
The waiter took a final turn through the cafe, stopping at Sam’s table. With extravagant movement, he bent down, gathering the cup shards onto the silver tray. When he had them all, he righted himself, becoming immobile on his mark when darkness took the stage and the curtain fell. Sam lay his head in weary arms.
Fabric and light, gold and white. Azure.
The velvet curtain rose; a few sprinkled coughs and then silence followed from the mist. Sam pushed a hand through his thick forelock for the last time. For during the hours between existences a decision had come, greater than the script. Beyond tonight, no more performances.
Sam slumped in his chair, everything lost at last. His hand weighed upon the newspaper. The lights rose.
The waiter made turns between the tables, twirling the end of his moustache.
“Peas and carrots,” he said to Sam in a tone warning there’d be no nonsense with displaced coffee cups this night! He did not wait for Sam to mumble his final peas and carrots, but seized the replacement cup, clanking it smartly down on the tray. He twirled off. Sam grimaced to himself, thinking he might even miss the fellow.
The others, at the other tables, in the background, murmured. “Peas and carrots.”
Brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie entered in her frock, searched furtively, finally sat, handbag in both hands. No matter how faint, until tonight, he had still had hope.
No longer, Sam thought. Never again, to see her face, to hear her voice, to breath the same air as she.
Maximilian entered.”Am I behind my time, button?”
One always thinks there’ll be time enough.
“I think I shall leave you,” Sophie said in her turn.
“You never will,” Maximilian said rightly.
Maximilian demanded the moleskin notebook. Sophie refused. He threw a few coins on the table and stood. “I leave you to your romantic fantasies. And your chastity.” He turned heel. Don’t follow, Sam pleaded, twisting the newspaper. Don’t.
Sophie jumped up, spilling the handbag’s contents. The moleskin notebook fell to the boards. She kneeled to gather her things. Sam dropped to a knee.
Sophie reached out in the same beat and together they touched the notebook. She avoided his eyes. His heart pounded. His heart. He tore the notebook from her hands.
Sophie fell back, dumbfounded. She reached for it, and he shoved it under his jacket. “Mein Herr, I beg you … “
He shook his head rapidly, and flushed. Viennese stirred from their background tables, whispering, “Peasandcarrots?”
Sam fumbled and bit his lip, tasting copper. “S … Sophie …” he said.
Sophie’s eyes grew large as a trapped doe’s.
The Viennese gawked and gasped. Maximilian waited for Sophie to take his arm, blinking in confusion. The waiter rushed in, tray tucked under an arm, and stood center stage, glowering. “I must speak,” said Sam, expecting to be crushed. Expecting … not knowing what to expect. No hand gripped his throat. The lights didn’t fail, and the curtain didn’t fall.
Sophie waited. “Then speak.”
He scarcely knew how to start, and feared he might revert to stammering out peas and carrots. He tried to swallow, dry throat cracking. “Fraulein, I’m a small character, you’ve no reason to listen to me, but I’ve watched you night after night. Don’t go away with him, into misery, because the script says. He won’t make you happy.”
She smiled slightly. “Am I meant to be happy, then?”
“Yes!” He took the moleskin notebook from his coat, holding it forth. “You have this! This is your happiness! Keep it, don’t give it to him, or to anyone. Keep it. That’s all I want to tell you; and that I love you. You should be free.”
She held out a hand. “You have my property, Mein Herr.”
He hesitated. Maybe she’d take it, and run to Maximilian, keeping as best she could to the mangled plot. The notebook did belong to her, to do with as she wanted. “Reconsider,” he asked; but she said nothing, and so he gave it back.
Sophie opened it to the middle, then turned it around for Sam to see.
She turned a leaf. Blank. Another, also blank. She turned leaf after leaf for him. All blank. “See, Mein Herr? There’s nothing here. Only here … ” She gestured about the stage. “I have only my lines to mouth, my marks to hit. It’s a surface with nothing beneath. I must go with Maximilian. I will go with Maximilian. It’s in the script.”
She closed the book.
Sam lowered his head. She held a hand against his cheek, cool, against his overheated skin. “Don’t think you’ve failed. You played a small part in a silly melodrama well, Handsome Stranger with Newspaper at Next Table. I’m written to see you once, wonder what might have been, and never forget you.”
Maximilian stood frozen, black eyes small and fixed. His chin trembled. He couldn’t move, he didn’t know how to behave without the script. None of them did.
“I’m going with him now, Handsome Stranger. As scripted.”
“Sam,” he whispered. “My name is Sam.”
“No, Mein Herr. You’re mistaken.”
“Call me Sam.”
“I cannot. You haven’t a name.”
“Indulge me; what harm will it do?”
“No harm. No good either. The play is over.”
“Call me Sam.”
She laughed at him, but kindly.
“You know you don’t have to follow the script, but it scares you.” said Sam. ” I want to tell you that’s all right.”
The smiled faded. “Without the script … What’ll happen?”
“Something will happen. Something unimagined.”
She looked at the notebook. “Something unwritten.” “To fill your notebook with. Listen! We’re speaking our own words; not lines in a script. I’m not supposed to have a name; but I do. I’m Sam. I come from Chicago. I’m — “
“Sam,” she said. “From Chicago.”
“Peasandcarrots!” shouted the waiter.
The Viennese erupted. “Peasandcarrots! peasandcarrots!” they cried, flinging their hands in the air. Nothing could save the scene now. Chairs were knocked over, tables upturned. The waiter rushed about gathering cup shards, righting upended tables to no avail.
Maximilian projected, desperately trying to be heard over the din. “There, button. Am I so frightening?” Arm still extended, he cocked his head toward an imaginary, invisible Sophie of his own illusion, and exited.
The terrified peasandcarrots-ing Viennese ran off disappearing into the wings before anything could be done. The waiter, face purple, kept spinning through the wreckage. He glared at Sam as he turned.
“Have something to say to me?” said Sam.
“Peas and carrots!” shouted the waiter, and kept spinning.
Sophie and Sam let him go on, and stood toe to toe together. They clasp hands over the moleskin notebook, and looked into each other’s eyes.
“What next?” she asked.
“I kiss you, I think.”
He embraced her and they did kiss, pressing their whole lengths together. From the mist, in the house invisible, beyond the fourth wall, came some applause. Not much; very little in fact, but what of it? They were no longer a play. Only two people.
“Aren’t you frightened?”
“Terrified,” said Sam. “Come on.”
He led her to the the proscenium, to the precipice of the house invisible and the now silent mist.
“We can’t go there!”
“Who says we can’t? Him?” Sam pointed to the spinning waiter. “And we can’t stay here.” He took a breath. “Ready?”
“No!” she laughed. “Heavens no! Who are we anyway? Did a handsome man and a country maid ever do such things?”
“That’s not who we are. We’re Sophie and Sam. We’re … Hell, who knows!”
Still hand in hand, they took a long stride over the footlights, toward the house invisible. Sam steeled himself to jump. Just before his feet left the boards, he thought he might turn chicken and jump back for the safe stage; but Sophie didn’t, so he didn’t. He’d gotten her into this, he had to be at least as brave as she.
As one, Sophie and Sam leaped into the mist.
The waiter kept spinning. He spun alone on the stage through upended tables that no longer evoked a particular spring day in the city on the Danube in 1901, but that were just a rough pile of gypsum wood props again.
When he could spin no longer, he fell exhausted to one knee, holding his tray perpendicular to the floor, as a crutch. He stayed immobile, panting, watching the infinite, the mist-shrouded house invisible, where the errant pair had run to. When he regained his wind, he climbed to his feet, straightened his jacket, and crept near the proscenium.
He peered over, but saw little to interest him — though he thought he imagined children playing somewhere. It might have been that, but it might just as well have been rats scurrying in the aisles, or wind knocking around in the flyspaces. He looked left and right, then held the tin silver-plated tray out over the edge. Nothing happened to it, so twisting his torso, he flung the prop toward the invisible with all his might.
The tray, spinning like a new planet around its own center, disappeared in the enveloping mist. The waiter cupped an ear, expecting to discover a doomed clang as the tray succumbed to gravity. He waited a long time but heard nothing, nothing at all.
(Originally published in Realms of Fantasy, Feb 2005. Copyright Michael Canfield 2004.
I had only sat down to a delicately replicated repast of kippers, tomatoes, and a splash of the brown-and-bracing when the door whistled. ‘Come — and all that,’ I said, a trifle annoyed. It’s not at all often that a chap gets a quiet breakfast when he’s captain of something, but we starfleeting lads never shirk when it comes to going boldly where no m. has gone b.
’Excuse the intrusion, Captain,’ said my man Spock — intruding excuse-lessly it seemed to me — ‘A most urgent matter requires your attention on the bridge.’ I sighed. ‘You have a go at the thing, whatever it is, won’t you Spock?’ We both knew Spock was the brains of the enterprise. ‘I’d hardly be more use than a — .’ Words failed me as they often do — especially after a night of Aldeberian Brandy and trimming the foliage off green dancing girls.
’I sympathise sir, but I must call your attention to the fact that you are senior officer of this vessel.’
’O, right you are Spock.’ I dropped my napkin upon the late lamented breakfast. Still, I thought as I rose, rather rum of old Spock to throw a man’s rank in his glass — and before noon.
’I say Spock, where the devil is my green wrap-around tunic?’
’I took the liberty of having it recycled into the warp core,’ said the fellow, while laying out one of those drab old blond-coloured pullovers Starfleet expects a cove to gad about in.
’No! Really you didn’t, Spock! You know that was my favourite!’
’I do beg your pardon sir if I was mistaken, but I believe you had expressed a desire that all trash be removed from quarters on a periodic schedule.’
’Spock! Not my green wrap-around!’ Some fellows have no sense of style.
’I regret the incident, sir — but I must insist we press on to the bridge.’
I dragged on the wretched blond rag and together we forged into another day’s exploration of the quadrant.
On the bridge the chaps were in an awful state. Spock had spent the turbo-lift ride filling me in on some devilish business. Seems the Romulans had dipped a toe in that great pond we call the Neutral Zone. ‘Really Spock,’ I moaned, ‘Again? I’ve a mind just to cede them the bally thing and be done with it.’
’No doubt a decisive course of action, sir — but one fears incuring the displeasure of Starfeet.’
’Displeasure? Whatever for?’
’I should not be surprised if Starfleet looked upon such an abdication of naval fortitude in neutral space as an act of cowardice — even treason — on your part.’
’Well they’re always displeased about something, the old sausages.’
’There is much in what you say, sir.’
Well never let it be said that we Kirks blanch when it comes to buckling the swash — especially when the old back’s up against the w.
I greeted the lads on the bridge with a stiff upper and set about the job. ‘Uhuru, old egg,’ said I, ‘be a sport and open up a channel to these marauding alien fellows.’ On screen I could see Spock had left out a detail he would no doubt, if pressed, attempt to brush off as only a quibble. We Enterprise beans were not facing just one bucket of the big-foreheaded and nasty — but three of the battle-cruisers.
Why is it that we Feddies get about it as solitary as sea tortoises, while these evil space-empire fellows gallivant in packs like wildebeest?
Uhuru hailed the captain of the phalanx, who then came on screen and appeared to be a woman. A woman and a Klingon to boot (these Romulan chaps were rum sorts, but let it never be said they are not modern).
I boomed out my name and rank, throwing in the initial of my middle moniker as well — makes a fellow seem o so serious in a situation, you see.
She introduced herself. ‘I am Captain Targ of the House Garg, Commander of the Fifth Wing; space is littered with the wreckage of my conquests, and the children of a hundred worlds shiver in their beds at the sound of my name!’
’Cheers,’ said I, now that introductions were finished. ‘Listen old sock, what say we all pack off the Neutral Z and I’ll give you a nice lunch on Rigel, what?’
’No talk!’ roared the old hen, adding a sweep of the alien arm for effect.
Just then the deck teetered about like a tottering tea service, booms and bangs exploding without end. Mind you, I’ve never understood why our instrument boards shoot flames straight up in one’s face when we take a bit of phase-u-ma-callit to the hull, but there’s Starfleet for you.
Before a fellow could react, Montgomery ‘Scottie’ Scott and Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy were shouting out damage and casualty reports, and stumbling around like sauced rugby players. Pavel ‘Bowl-head’ Chekov said something about the shields down to some miniscule percentile.
Really it’s a bit much having one’s old Academy chums fly to pieces in front of Spock. I mean, hadn’t we been in scrapes? With Spock’s help we’d always come through ‘til now.
When Sulu tried to move the tank of newts he insists on keeping under the helm to safer ground, and succeeded only in tripping and upending the watery newt-domicile, I found myself up to the short boots in newt-soup. I confess to a moment’s faltering myself.
’I say Spock, can you brain us through this muddle?’
’What do you mean sir?’
’Can you butter up this toast?’ I had never known Spock to be obtuse. ‘Not your fault, of course, but we’re in spot. Going down in flames and all that.’
’So it would seem, sir.’
’I mean to say Spock — good fellow — shouldn’t we formulate a plan?’
’On the contrary sir, all is going strictly as planned.’
To that point in our history I had never found occasion to doubt Spock’s brain.
However, as life-support failed and I felt the old noggin start to swell as the loss of cabin pressure brought forth the vacuum of space and the great void yawned before me like the jaws of an aunt, I could not help but feel that a plan which included having one’s ship blasted to bits and seeing (with that instrument Spock would call one’s ‘mind’s-eye’) the spectre of The Eternal Footman hold one’s pals’ coats and snicker … well, such a plan contained elements which could stand improvement is my only point.
’Sir?’ said Spock.
In my anger, it was all I could do to remain civil. ‘What now Spock?’
’As we have only moments of life support remaining, I believe this would be an appropriate time to signal Captain Targ our surrender.’
’Surrender!’ I said indignantly. We Kirks never surrender, save to a glass of Altarian gin or a second strip of bacon in the morning.
O dash it, I thought, we Kirks surrender all the time, to all sorts of things. Why destroy a tradition?
’Very well, Spock — Uhuru old chum, signal our surrender.’
The surrendering job went decently and in no time Spock and I were shown to a gaol-cell in Targ’s ship. I suppose the lower-ranking lads were packed into steerage somewhere.
When we were finally alone I confronted Spock.
’I say old fellow, what’s all this everything-according-to-plan-and-then-surrendering business? Your not pal-ing up with these Romulan and Klingon coves are you? You know “Bones” would say — ‘
’I’m sure Dr McCoy would say a great many things, all of which would be entirely irrelevant to our present circumstances. I pursued — as shall be presently revealed– the only prudent course. Enterprise was outgunned, sir. I thought it not unreasonable in that close circumstance to save her crew.’
’Save us for what, Spock? A life of slavery on a prison planet? Sustaining ourselves on cloudy broths and cold porridge; toiling away with pick-axes like plow horses?’
’I do not believe that plow horses possess the capability to wield pick-axes, sir, even on Klingon.”
’I dare say they might do, and I’d rather not find out.’
’Indeed, sir. That is why I shall need your unique capabilities to affect our escape.’
’My ..?’ I could not say what unique capabilities I possessed that could be of use in a situation, but I was flattered nonetheless.
’Yes sir. Is it not safe to say that you are a gentleman of some reputation with the fair sex?’
I smile sheepishly. I do believe I blushed. ‘I don’t know who would say a thing like that, Spock. I am as confirmed a bachelor as yourself!’
’Most assuredly, sir. Nevertheless, I submit that our present circumstance require a certain deviation from our usual philosophy.’
’O rather. I do suppose it’s no secret that we Kirks have a bit of tomcat in our veins.’
’Very good, sir. We shall depend on your prowess in the realm of Eros to save the crew. You must woo the lady Captain Targ and marry her.’
The wooing of a Klingon skirt requires more energy than a fellow might justly be expected to exert were it not on behalf of one’s dearest old chums. Still, I must say to my credit, that I applied myself admirably to the job. After two or three written missives of the ‘two-hearts-that-beat-as-one’ genre passed into the hands of our guards, I soon found myself rewarded with an evening audience before the enamourised alieness.
Being a prisoner, I could offer nothing in the way of posies or bonbons, but had to sally to my prospect armed only with the inimitable Kirk charm.
The fair Targ’s boudoir was plush and littered with reptile pelts. Targ herself was draped in lounge-ware cut of several pelts more — naked beneath them, as she eargerly but unnecessarily hastened to show me, before going on to explain that these were the remnants of Cardassians she had skinned personally.
’I can still hear their screams, their life’s blood oozing from their bodies as I sliced away their skin to cover mine.’ Taurgie rasped eloquently.
’Ah,’ said I, ‘comfy are they?’
’Sit down,’ she said. She proceeded to pour a dram of what turned out to be the finest green cough syrup I have ever tasted from square glass. ‘Now, tell me what you are thinking, Captain James Tiberius Kirk.’
’Thinking?’ I stumbled. ‘O nothing at all.’ Leave it to a woman to pick a chap’s weak spot. Fact is, I knew it was up to me to rescue the crew and save the Federation and all that, but it hardly seemed worth it right then, racked right up the thing. ‘Look here old bean,’ said I. ‘There comes a time in every starship captain’s life when he– ‘
’Or she,’ bursts in Targ.
’O. Quite right, all the same now aren’t we? High time, too.’ I pressed onward. ‘A time when he or she takes a mind to settle down, know what I mean?
’What do you mean, Kirky?’ she said. I thought the ‘Kirky’ a bit flirty on her part but there you are: Klingons.
’Well, when the siren song of the unexplored galaxy wanes, one begins to pine for a hearth and the wail of the odd-dozen half-breed nippers to bear one’s moniker, if you take my meaning.’
Dash these universal translators. ‘What I mean to say is, I think that you and I — we — ought to get together and — how does one put it? — cement the knot and bind the ties. Matrimonially I mean.’
’This would please you?’
’I think it would be the bees knees. Absolutely terrific.”
She spoke not a word.
After some silent moments in which I felt my brain nearly leak out my ears, I spoke up again. ‘Great. Good. Excellent, really! Well that’s settled.’
Now we Kirks are not ones to grumble or pick nits, but I admit I had expected the captain to fling arms ‘round me, to be covered in moist-and-messies, or to perhaps witness my lady clutch a scaly hankie and wipe away an earnest Klingon tear — but she offering none of it. Actually, what she did was pat me on the head, and motion to the gaolers. As they re-shackled me for transport back to my cell, she winked and told me she would think about it.
’A most valiant attempt,’ Spock said with encouragement, though I knew I’d botched it.
’What now?’ said I, already mentally consigned to a life in galactic servitude. ’Do not despair sir,’ said the indomitable Mr. Spock, ‘I have prepared for this contingency. What is needed now is for some eloquent gallant to intercede on your behalf. Someone to extol your charms and attest to your worthiness as a suitor. I am such a one.’
’Spock! Do you truly see me that way?’
’In hopes of revising our impending fate, I am prepared to be somewhat freer with the truth than is my habit.’
With that, Spock summoned the gaoler and, after some cajoling, was taken off for an audience of his own with Captain Targ.
I became alarmed when Spock did not return that night, nor the next. I heard nothing of the man again for several star-date decimal points, not until my gaolers — to my great astonishment — informed me that pleasant circumstances had affected my release. I, along with my former band of de-shipped castaways, were led aboard a scow habitually employed in the transfer of sewage and given a push-off across the neutral zone. We would be many months returning home and, as the Romulans and Klingons were disinterested in our dietary requirements, had to make do with boiling and consuming the post-digestive products around us. The best of it was vaguely reminiscent of Roquefort (the cheese, not the filthy French hamlet) and chicken soup, and after some weeks ceased to be quite so nauseating.
Upon that hardy reunion upon the garbage scow however, I soon sadly noted, that our reunited compliment did not include Spock. I immediately inquired after the well-being of my loyal first officer.’
’Spock!’ cried ‘Bones’. Old ‘Bones’ was one of the few beans around that never took a shine to my pointy-eared pal. ‘Haven’t you heard, man! Your Spock has married the Klingon captain!’
So that was it! I dare say it brought a mist to the old e’s. Spock had interceded for me too well — and got himself draughted into the husband trade in my stead. I doffed the imaginary helm of the brotherhood of bachelors and clasped it figuratively to the old ticker in deference to my fallen comrade. Spock had packed it in and saved us all. I was sure now I would never see the fellow again. I sighed and then picking up the carcass of some dried up old rodent and, spreading it with cheese-like offal, sat down for a thoughtful, melancholy cold dinner.
Imagine my surprise when six months later we floated into Starbase only to be greeted by that singular Vulcan in the flesh!
’Spock!’ cried I, ‘How the devil did you ever manage your escape?’
’Unfortunately for the Klingon Captain, I had neglected to inform her that the mating cycle of the Vulcan affords relations but once every seven years. As her own needs are, shall we say, rather more enthusiastic in nature (being on the order of several enthusiastic needs daily) this, in her view, constituted an ill-match. Upon consideration, the lady asked my consent to a bill of divorcement. I readily complied.’
’Good show, Spock! You’ve do us a turn — me especially.’ said I. ‘But how is it you were able to get the old-sort to go for you and spare me in the first place?’
’That was simply arranged, sir. I know from my studies of all species that women are quite a bit more like men than they are unlike us. I mean that, in romance, a woman is as likely to be put off by fawning insincerity and obvious manipulation as a man would. What a woman is likely to find attractive in a potential mate is intelligence, poise, and — most-especially — confidence and self-reliance. It was always essential to my plan that you play the former type of suitor while I, the latter: Captain Targ was never to be taken in with cheap matinee-idol antics.’
Some of that was a bit beyond the pale I thought, and quite probably insulting to me in one way or another, but mostly Spock’s recounting of motivations skimmed clean over my skull: a phenomenon for which — so he has assured me — I am to be extremely gratified.
’Still,’ said I, gamely, ‘lucky you got off with a divorce, eh what? Packed you off on some sewage-tanker as well did she?’
’O no, sir,’ said Spock. ‘Klingon alimony is quite generous. I was given a pleasure barge outfitted with all the delights of imperial decadence: including an excellent replicator programmed with every dish in the quadrant, from tritonian salmon in riskilian butter to vulcan veal chops in rigelian lemon sauce. There was one difficulty I could not escape however.’
’What was that, Spock?’ I asked, only half-listening while dreaming of vulcan veal in rigelian lemon sauce.
’My seven-year cycle, sir. It happened to coincide with one of the nights of our brief marriage.’
I shuddered. ‘Dear fellow! You must have had to …!’
I do believe the excellent fellow almost sighed. ‘Inevitably sir,’ said he.
[I don’t remember when I wrote this. Many years ago. On a typewriter. I later posted it to a Wodehouse newsgroup when I first signed up for the internet, probably with AOL. I love Wodehouse, and his style is infectious. You will be pleased to know that since this travesty I have been able to resist imitating the master completely.]