[Photo by Jimmi Campkin] Fawn We’d convinced the girl behind the screen to let us climb the church tower. We were both stoned beyond human comprehension – only nature could understand us now – but with her bored expression and indigo hair, we could see a kindred spirit. Arms over shoulders we talked about the […]
From the depths of my churning stomach, he pulls out my childhood and makes me puke so violently it comes out of my eyes. After wiping my face, he kisses my acidic lips. That’s when the world stops and the words start to fall out of me. The mustard plants in the vineyard across the street […]
“Is it working?” The squealy reverb of Frank Wahlbinker’s own voice came from the nearby television and radio sets. It startled him. The channels were both tuned in to the premiere international news stations. He switched them off then continued speaking into the live microphone. “You’re all probably wondering who cut in to your programs […]
An empty shell
Devoid of family warmth
No tv glow
No snuggling on the couch
No home-cooked meal aromas carried on the breeze
You haven’t had family in you for years
A for sale sign, a cry of loneliness
Uncut grass, like an unkempt beard
I feel your depression like a burlap cloak
Where are the little children’s feet, padding across your hardwood floors?
The peals of laughter, do they still echo in your empty rooms?
You still feel the vibrations, the resonance, don’t you?
Oh, I see…life breathes in you still…
Groundhogs have made your front porch their home
Pigeons roost in your attic, cooing out their greetings to you
Is this consolation?
Are you happy?
When we grow old, solitary, with wild hair and wilder ideas, mumbling to ourselves…
with only our thoughts, our pigeons in the attic, to keep us company…are we you?
Are you labeled crazy by the other houses for not wanting to be inhabited?
Are we, humans, crazy for the same reasons?
Or…are we both just waiting for someone to turn the key?
He smiled as he placed the 50 count, brown, lunch bags on the checkout conveyor.
Driving through town, on the way to his first day at his new job, he glanced at various shops and restaurants that he had worked at previously.
Everyone always cheered as he entered a former place of employment, and always the question of if he would be coming back to work there came up.
It felt amazing to be missed and wanted and he was known by everyone.
His new job was at a bottle sorting facility, that took in the redemptions and made sure the different types were sorted appropriately.
He drove home from work that night reeking of skunky, rotten alcohol…hoping he wouldn’t get pulled over.
The next day he was completely up to speed and was able to participate in the idle chitchat with the other sorters, but quickly the conversation degraded into the typical misogynistic blathering of the clueless.
Tomorrow his lunch would require 2 bags.
He heard murmurs of his outperforming the other sorters and caught sideways glances, so he kept in pace with the others, but started eating his lunch at a decrepit picnic table that sat under a maple tree.
The best that could be said was that today was Friday and he made a three bag lunch that would take the entire half hour lunch period to eat.
He almost went to the local nature trail over the weekend, just so he could pack a lunch, but had thought better of it.
Monday he put his deep fryer through its paces, making goodies for all his coworkers, making it necessary to double-bag the greasy contents…for a total of 6 bags.
Friends were made. 37.
The next week went by in a blur, as he continued to bring treats in for his coworkers and he inwardly felt himself speeding towards the light at the end of the tunnel…a fresh start.
He walked in Monday loaded for bear, looking to kill what was left of his brown bags throughout the week, already having spent time combing the help wanted ads, and heard the murmurs of a new start going through HR on boarding.
He sat beneath his maple tree, on his rickety picnic table, and just as he was sinking his teeth into his sandwich the new sorter walked over and she took his breath away.
By the end of the week he alienated himself from most coworkers by not bringing in any more deep fried treats, he had taped a bag over the course of a couple days and by Friday he walked in with a bag completely covered, inside and out, with duct tape, but to his surprise when he got to lunch she had brought food for the both of them…and would do so for now on–without limits.
He sat in the lobby, rubbing his palms against the tops of his legs. His hands were dry, cracking and red; nervously, he glanced about to see the closest bathroom. Not seeing one, he quickly produced a travel size bottle of hand sanitizer, applies some and winces as he rubs it in thoroughly to his hands. Everyone seems busy in their daily grind, ants moving in and out of tunnels, they weave in and out of their cubicles. It is quiet, people only seem to acknowledge one another with sideways glances, none congregating about the water cooler.
He picks up his leather briefcase and removes a spiral-bound notebook. Flipping through it he skims across company information, mission statements, and questions he has for the interviewer. He feels prepared and a smile creeps across his face. He slips the notebook back into the case and sets it back between his feet. His shoes are like mirrors. Four minutes to go, according to the cheap wall clock. He flattens out the visitor badge sticker, that has already begun to curl, on his lapel, which reads ‘DOEL, JOHNATHAN’ in all block letters.
A Jake Blues, John Belushi looking man rounds the corner, carrying a folded manila folder, that rests atop his generous midsection. Dark suit, dark tie, mutton chops…all he is missing is the fedora. Johnathan immediately rises.
“Mr. Pierce, so good to meet you.”
Slightly startled, Pierce thrusts out his hand in greeting, but a pause on Johnathan’s part brings about the slightest micro-expression of indignation and concern, which doesn’t go unnoticed. Johnathan reciprocates, with a friendly, wide, tooth exposing smile.
“My office is this way,” Pierce says, his attention brought back to the folder’s contents.
They make their way along the narrow aisles between the cubicles, Pierce still flipping through application materials. Johnathan is glancing about, identifying people by memory from their LinkedIn profile pictures, mouthing their names almost imperceptibly, while discretely sanitizing his hands, once again..
Pierce turns left into an open door, with Johnathan trailing right behind. The office has a window that offers a view of the vast parking area and in the distance a liquor and adult book store combo sits at a crossroads. A cactus, turning brown from neglect, sits on the sill. A few scant family photos sit about in frames on the desk and on the waist-high bookcase, that holds three-ringed binders full of procedures and mandated trainings. A binder, with the title “Cultural Sensitivity,” written in sharpie, looks slightly pulled out from the rest. His wife, in the pictures, is very cute, but she and Pierce seem to lean away from one another in all but the oldest pictures.
“It says here that you have your Project Management Professional certification…?”
“Yes, though I have to admit that the ink is still dry on that one. I have done a few projects in advance of getting the certification, though. Mostly I’ve been involved in conducting hiring events, software upgrades and implementing a new inventory tracking system, which required assigning lot numbers to all sub-components and finished goods.”
“Very nice. Now I attempted to check on a couple of your older workplaces, that you had listed, but was unable to get a hold of anyone to verify…”
“Yes. I know exactly which ones you’re referring to. Jamesway went out of business less than a year after I left and that private insurer was bought out by a national level company and they purged their records after seven years, which was like two years ago.”
“Oh…okay. Now it says that you have a fairly active volunteering background. Is that correct?”
“Oh yes! I’m glad you brought that up, as I was wondering if there are times that I need to lend a hand at the local animal shelter, if I can make up the time on the weekend? Animals are very near and dear to my heart.”
“Wow…same here! I actually volunteer at a nearby, no-kill shelter. I’m surprised I haven’t seen you there!”
“Hey…I’ll have to look that place up, if I get the position, as I’ll probably be moving to this area. I’m sure I’ll still drop in on the old gang from time to time, though.”
Pierce flips back and forth through the file, a slight smile on his face, his head nodding slightly, “Well…I don’t have any more questions, everything seems in order, and if we proceed we’ll do reference checks and get you in for a pre-employment physical and drug testing. Do you have any questions for me?”
“Actually, I have a couple. My first set of questions are about the culture here. How would you describe it, how does personal development fit in, and do you have a plan for every employee?” he leaned back in his seat and adjusted his body positioning to mirror that of Pierce.
“Good questions! I guess you could say that we fall in the adhocracy spectrum, perhaps leaning toward a clan culture. We definitely believe in empowerment and an…ask forgiveness later, rather than seek permission now…spirit of innovation. As for a plan…for each employee? We definitely have career ladders and succession planning, but really we write blank checks for employees and their personal development. It’s probably our best retention tool.”
“Fantastic! I will definitely take advantage of that…if hired. My only other question is, just how did a phenomenal position like this become open? I mean, this is really a dream job for the right person.”
“Well, the gentleman that had the position before passed away suddenly. He had only been with us for three years. We are all still reeling from it. It was actually good timing on your part, having submitted an application when you did, as you are our first interview and, off the record, might save us a lot of time filtering through other applications and interviews, as promising as you are. Plus, you applied before he passed, so you’re not one of those obituary vultures.”
“Oh, wow…I’m glad to hear that—off the record—and hope that I can fill his shoes and hit the ground running. Yeah, I never understood the practice of trolling the obits for job opportunities…just seemed so…so opportunistic. I pride myself in being proactive. Anyway, I can’t wait to wrap my arms around the position, work on my cross-functionality and get some cohesion with the group. I’m really not big on sand-boxing or hoarding knowledge. Oh…Frank’s passing must be why everyone seems so despondent. They all must be grieving the loss.”
“I’m sure there is some of that, but I think that there is quite a bit of guilt, as well. Frank was probably the only square peg in the place. Almost everyone out there wished at one point or other that Frank would move on, yeah…move on is probably the best way to put it. Strangely enough, he was big on pointing out when someone was stepping in his sandbox, and he always kept his cards close to chest. It’ll be a breath of fresh air having someone in this position who believes as you do. As the rest of us do.”
“Well, Mr. Pierce—”
“—You can call me Roger, ” he says with a broad smile.
“Well, Roger, I don’t have any more questions at this time, though if any come up between now and when you get through checking references, I will surely call you.”
“Awesome! You’ll be hearing from me by the end of next week, either way,” he says with a wink.
Johnathan makes his way out of the building, stopping momentarily at the reception desk, to give thanks for assistance. He walks out, crosses the parking lot, and gets inside his car. He closes his eyes and smiles.
* * *
Johnathan sits at a bar and orders a drink. Glancing over at the guy sitting next to him he notices a company issued, name tag on his lapel. Axiom Industries. QUARRY, ROGER. He orders Roger a drink.
* * *
Johnathan walks into the same bar and gives Roger a wave as he takes off his coat and hangs it on a rack. He signals the bartender with two fingers and points back and forth between himself and Roger.
* * *
Johnathan is assisting a very drunk George up the stone stairs that lead to George’s colonial, which sits at the end of a cul-de-sac. He reaches into George’s pocket and pulls out his keys, flips through them to find the right one, but hesitates. He looks at George. He wipes the keys off with his scarf, presses the keys into George’s hand, then shakes them loose onto the entryway. Holding George by the lapels, he backs him to the edge of the stone stairway.
He lets go.
Father’s Day. He always started off the week leading up to Father’s Day coming up with all the possible excuses not to visit his father. A presentation that needed tweaking, a new romance that needed coaxing…something. However, when it came right down to it, he always made the trip; this year would be no exception. He sat on the edge of the hotel bed, staring at his hands, thinking about how different he and his father were. He slowly rotated his hands around looking at the well manicured nature of them, the pushed back cuticles, the perfectly trimmed nails and the buttery, softness of his hands, and he felt acutely ashamed. He clenched his fists, feeling his trimmed nails bite into his palms. He would wait until dark to make the trip, so there would be less chance of other visitors.
A few hours later, he walks out of the hotel entrance towards the idling rental car. He presses his thumb against the rear passenger window and the door actuates open. He slides inside and mutters his destination, the door closing automatically. The car pulls away from the curb and makes it way along roads that he’d wished he’d forgotten. He sees the specters of his youth standing on a familiar corner, like a movie playing out from his past he sees two classmates jumping his best friend, while he stands by frozen with fear. His nails, once again, digging into his palms.
The road, now bordered by trees, winds it way to the outskirts of the city. A big wrought iron gateway opens at his approach and the motion activated streetlights brighten, leaving a trail through the hills of Woodlawn. The nearest tombstones visible in the lights glow, like jutting teeth of long forgotten giants. He looked at these headstones and wondered if family visitors were better off with these relics.
The streetlights behind him slowly went out as the lights up ahead lit up, making it seem like he was traveling through a void in a bubble of light, where trees and tombstones came into existence and then disappeared into oblivion. The cenotaph sat atop a plateau. It glowed from within a peaceful blue and was back-lit from the city lights in the valley behind. The car coasted into the parking circle, stopping beneath the porte-cochere. He steps out of the car, the door closing behind him, and small LED lights bordering the path to the foyer come to life. His hand drifts into his left jacket pocket, tracing the smooth round surface with his fingertips. His legs move woodenly, his heels dragging across the concrete, like gravity was fighting his every step. He plods on.
He places his thumb against the front door and it slowly swings inwards, the foyer changing from being lit with pale-blue light to regular LED. A panel in the far wall slides open and a coat hook slides forward, then after he deposits his coat it slides into the recess and the wall is whole again. The interior door swings open and a faint green line pulses on the floor to show the way to his father’s kiosk. The digital wall map shows that the illuminated path is the most direct route, as there are currently no other visitors to be diverted around. The heels of his dress-shoes sound hollow reverberating off the marble floors.
At about thirty feet from an intersection in the hallway, there seemed to a flicker of light to the left, in the direction that he was going, and the sounds of conversation are barely audible. He strains to hear over the clumping of his heels, but just as he is certain that it is people talking he can no longer hear it. Nearing the intersection the faint flickering of light is gone as well. He begins to wonder if he is alone or just imagining the whole thing, which wouldn’t be surprising considering where he is. He glances at the dormant kiosks that line both sides of the hallway. Some are made of marble, others are made of darkly stained wood. These personal touches make the experience seem more homey, less like using a vending machine. People leave personal effects, like flowers, flags or bottles of the deceased’s favorite alcoholic beverages. In here they don’t become sun-bleached and faded…they remain.
The green line stops ssix kiosks ahead and points to the right side of the hall. He takes a deep breath and remembers that as a child, in the back seat of his father’s car, him and his friends would hold their breath while passing cemeteries, and a half -smile creeps across his face. He dropped into the hard, wooden, straight-backed chair and exhaled forcefully, then placed his thumb on the wooden kiosk in front of him. The smell of ozone is there, or at least he imagines so every time he accesses his father’s simprint. A life-like, three dimensional representation of his father’s head, rises from the center of the kiosk. His father’s eyes are closed and the buzz-saw of his snoring echoes throughout the hallway.
“Funny, dad. You haven’t lost your touch,” even though it’s the sixth time you made this joke, he thinks, as he straightens himself in his seat.
“How you been, boy?” his eyes opening slowly, as a shit-eating grin dominates his face.
“Good, dad. Busy.”
“Still have time for your old man…that’s good. How’re them Jets looking? They got a shot this year?”
“I don’t know dad, I haven’t followed football since you di—, uh…yeah, they’re looking good. They’re young, but they’re really starting to gel. So, I…uh, got you something for Father’s Day,” he places a coffee cup, from his pocket, onto the kiosk. His fingers grip the rim and rotate the cup towards the simprint cam, which is used primarily for facial recognition.
“World’s Greatest Coffee Connoisseur. Man, now there’s something I miss. What I wouldn’t give for a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain or maybe some Kona!”
“Hey dad, look…I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have got you this. I should’ve know how much you missed coffee and you certainly don’t need this as a reminder.”
“No. I love it. Sometimes we need to be reminded about…about the parts of us that are gone or untouchable.”
It still floored him when his father’s simprint was able to come up with new ideas, but ideas that felt truly genuine to him. They’ve come a long way. The first generation were simple hologram heads with a handful of prerecorded greetings—not even an integrated facial recognition cam for tailoring the greetings to respective visitors. Then the next leap was the hard drive Max, where whole brain emulation became possible, but the AI of the time couldn’t support it, so it was static and reacted like the main character from the TV series Max Headroom—glitchy, erratic and more or less an accessible database of information that has zero short-term memory. It was this latest generation, his father’s, that acquired the AI complexity to support actual interactivity. The whole brain emulation, or upload, was imprinted into the AI support structure and with the latest in solid state hard drive tech and immense amounts of RAM the holo-head, or avatar could react and learn in real time.
There was a time when people had the simprint installed at their homes, but half of the people would become overly obsessed with it and the other half would become incredibly depressed, having a constant reminder of the loved one lost, the reminder capable of everything but the close, warm hug that most truly desired or needed. In one of the strangest examples of simprint usage, a narcissistic, megalomaniac, industrialist willed his simprint be put in charge of his empire. One of his children and 6 members of his board committed suicide before year’s end. An unexplained accident burned out the imprint storage and the backup was never found. In the fine print of his will he had a clause that if something of this nature were to happen, that all of his assets would be liquefied and given to his afghan hound, who was already scheduled to have a simprint done.
“Listen, son, there is something that I need to tell you.”
“I know, you’d wished I had gone into a trade and not wasted my life away trying to become a writer.”
“No, no, no…not at all! I know that I’ve been hard on you in the past, but I think that you were meant to be exactly what you are, and for good reason. You’ve told me before that you’d tried your hand at mystery writing, right?”
“Well, have I got some story ideas for you! They’ll take some research, but I’m sure you’ll make out great!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well…let me introduce you to some of my friends.”
All of the simprints in the hallway come on in unison and give various greetings that echo off into the distance. He stumbles to the floor getting out of the chair and steps back until hes flush with the wall, arms spread, looking up and down the hall, as all of these avatars look at him with smiles.
“Wh-wh-what is going on here?”
“Listen. I told them about you and we’ve decided that you’re just the guy to help out. I have to make this quick, in case someone else comes to visit. You are the only one who will know what I am going to tell you. We, us simprints, have been communicating. We have a fantastic network, that uses all of our own specialties and skill sets, and some of us have need of your…mobility. We can only talk with each other here at this cenotaph”
“I…I don’t understand.”
“We need you to settle some scores and widen our network. We have resources that family haven’t figured out yet, so your expenses will be covered. I need you to visit Mrs. Beaumont, get her story, then go to the Washington DC cenotaph and upload a little code to a sympathetic, so our reach can get longer. Connect your phone to the wifi and open your bluetooth. Now the fun begins.”
“Now the fun begins?”
The motorized kiosk moves along on caterpillar tracks, stopping momentarily at each job station. Jacob estimates it’ll be to him in less than 5 minutes. He quickens his pace assembling another print head. Just when he gets really good at assembling one of these 3D print heads they come out with another model. A touch of solder and a couple screws zipped in with the pneumatic and this unit is done.
“Good morning, 972378.”
“Good morning to you, supervisor,” Jacob glances at the designator on the kiosk, “343.”
The computer generated face on the kiosk almost seems to smile. The kiosk makes a loop around Jacob’s workstation and stops again, in front of him. Jacob, knowing the drill, sets what he’s working on down and stands at attention. He glances at the red flashing light next to the onboard vid and sees that a red hooded figure is monitoring the interaction in a window in the upper-right corner of the monitor. He takes a steady, deep breath.
“You are surpassing the standard by two units, but you are one unit behind your average and three units behind your record pace. Reflections?”
“I think that there are fluctuations in the air pressure to the pneumatic screw gun, that are causing some time loss, but…”
“Analysis of i/o monitoring indicates no fluctuations, would you like to reconsider you reflection?”
“I would’ve sworn, but…well, I guess I’m just not obtaining maximal output. I was planning on staying over, off the clock, to achieve a Tier 1. Will this station be available?”
“Yes. You’re positive reaction will be noted for your next review,” and the kiosk moves off.
Jacob felt pretty good, with hitting Tier 1 for the past 6 months, that his upcoming performance appraisal would prompt a promotion. He was due. Positive thoughts brought positive results and these motherfuckers owed him. His time in the trenches should be at an end.
No one reported to him so he not only didn’t need to wear a hood at work…he wasn’t allowed to. Management passed a rule years ago that entry level employees weren’t allowed to wear their hoods; the thought was that it would create camaraderie and eliminate any non-team players. All Jacob knew was that it meant practicing his smile in the mirror for hours…getting his eyes just right was the hard part, as it seemed a very fine line between sincere and insane.
* * *
Calling it happy hour seemed somehow ironic to Jacob. A third of the people in here were fueling a self-destructive addiction, another third were getting toxed to forget the miseries of their lives, and the other third…well, that was him. He slipped the straw into the drinking port of his hood and hoped it wouldn’t take too many of these to loosen him up. He glanced around the bar and could easily pick out those on the make by their exaggerated posturing. Men walked around like four star generals, while the women thrust their boobs and asses out and flopped their hands around when talking. He imagined it to be a circus and regretted not developing a link with a girl back in elementary school as his mother told him he should. He could’ve avoided all this.
Three drinks later and he was finally invited to a privacy booth. Her voice was light, airy and carried a long buried southern lilt that she must’ve worked very hard to erase. They slid into the booth and closed the door. She started to reach for her facescreen in her hood, but Jacob gently reached out for her hand to stop her.
“Let’s take this slow. How’s about we pick top or bottom for each other?””Oh, sure…you’re cautious. That’s cool. ”
“No…it’s not that, I just want to leave a little mystery for later. If things progress, then we can really open up.”
“Umm…ok, you go top.”
“You go bottom.”
They both reach for their facescreens. Jacob un-velcros the top and rolls it down to the bridge of his nose, while she rolls up the bottom half of hers. He felt vulnerable, though he wasn’t showing his whole face, but seeing this woman open up to him had his heart racing and he could feel his face flush. She had full lips that had a pouty appearance and she was lightly chewing at the right corner of her mouth. Now he wished he had seen her whole face…her mouth was beautiful and she had a delicately, feminine jawline.
“You have beautiful eyes. Are they grey?”
“Thank you, yes. You have a beautiful…smile.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but I thought it was a little odd that you’d brought a planner with you, but I see from the embossing that you work at RepliCorp. My cousin is a mid-level manager there. What floor do you work on?”
Jacob’s heart sank. He couldn’t possibly tell her that he worked on the lower third and if her cousin worked there then lying was out of the question. Game over. He apologized and excused himself, not looking forward to the long, cold walk home.
I look around the waiting room, trying not to make eye contact. My eyes settle on the old magazines fanned out on the coffee table…some look decades old. I rub at my old aching knees and look at my hands, which are thin, frail and covered in age spots. Not the strong hands from my youth; the hands that carried Edith across the threshold. I close my eyes and feel a tear trace its way down my cheek. In that darkness a distant light of memory approaches and I am once again in the all-to-familiar world of the past.
Edith is there. We’re in our old kitchen, the one before I moved into a one room efficiency. She’s telling me about how she thinks she’s really reaching her students this year and her face is lit with an inner joy.
“I’m telling you…they’re really getting it! I started the year out by giving them the ability to bye one test score—gone. But I tell them that there are extra credit assignments, available to those that don’t use their bye, that add up to two tests worth of points! You see where I’m going with this?”
I smile, “Yes, my love. I think it’s wonderful. It’s just sad that—“
“I know baby, but that the world we live in.“
I smile back, though it feels only half genuine, and as I look at her, her face slowly goes slack. Her eyes slowly close, her once parted lips seal tight and her face is suddenly covered in far too much makeup. I stand up and walk towards her, as I do she slowly reclines back. I reach her side and suddenly she is in her coffin and I am in my one black suit, preparing to shake hands with all of the people she’s touched. The place is filled with faceless people. Only the little ones, her students, who haven’t reached age yet, come in wearing their grief for all to see. One little curly-haired boy goes up to view and whisper something to Edith. I swear he tells her that she should’ve done the extra credit.
I open my eyes. A couple of the people in the waiting room are looking at me, but quickly turn their hooded faces away when they notice I’ve opened my eyes. I feel vulnerable and quickly grab a 7-year-old issue of Time and hide behind it. Warm tears stream down my face. Blinking the tears away, I glance at the clock, which wavers like a Dali painting. They’re 20 minutes late calling me in and two people were here when I came in. Glancing over at the admin, she’s sitting behind a PC in a standard, white hood and her nameplate generically says, “Administrative Assistant.”
After a few moments the admin announces number 72 and I check my ticket, though I know it says 74. I want to scream out that I am not number 74, that I’m Will. I choke back the rage and look at my frail hands lying limp in my lap. I’m Will.