Still Life With Muse and Sax

I think this one was published in Rose & Thorn many years ago. It was the first of two stories I wrote for a beautiful muse…with eyes so green you could forget winter in January. The woman on the sax and her partner are two of the most amazing women I’ve ever encountered.

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It was a quiet afternoon at Molly’s Cafe. We were sitting upstairs in the emptiness of the post-lunch crowd, breathing the frenzied chi of post-face-stuffing and post-coffee-swilling fury. Outside, gray rain sliced through the air like tiny hatchets. Behind us, a lone sax player ground out something bluesy with all the gravel and grit of a break-hardened heart. Across from me, Jo’s eyes, as usual, were green, a green that could feed forests. That green.

She was wearing a black turtleneck with matching black pantyhose divided by a red swatch of tartan skirt. She looked hot. I tried to keep my eyes on her eyes, but the green threatened to swallow my soul and toss me around in the tides of her green forever. Yeah, that green. I focused my eyes on a couple of dust motes arguing about semantics and existentialism somewhere in that distance between her green eyes and her long legs, those legs that flowed up into an unimaginable playground, into … I refocused my eyes on the dust motes. They were still arguing. They would always be arguing.

“Do you like my sweater?” she said.

“Huh?” I said.

“Do you like my sweater? You haven’t taken your eyes off it. Are you thinking dirty thoughts again, you pathetic literary pig?”

Damn dust motes, arguing right in front of her breasts.

“Oh, uh … yeah. Nice sweater.” The plan was to be cool, but blood boiled in my head with the force of hot toothpaste squeezing through a vice. “I’ve always liked large sweaters,” I said.

The plan wasn’t working.

The two dust motes were cooler than I was.

She smiled. “You’re blushing, pig.”

“Something caught in my eye.”

“And it’s cutting off your air supply, goat?”    “Yeah, that’s it,” I said. “Air supply.”

“How’s life …”

“ … boar?”

she said.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” I said. “I drink too much. I can’t write anything anymore. I dream about grabbing spoons and stabbing people. I have a spider somewhere in my bed and it feeds on me every night and leaves red bumps on my arms and legs. I found God rummaging through the bottles and boxes in my medicine cabinet. He looked hungry and confused. There’s a dead rat in my refrigerator. It sees everything. Its whiskers quiver. It asked me where I go. I don’t know where I go.” I slumped my head. “I don’t know where.” I looked up past Jo’s black sandals and black forever legs and dazzling tartan and past those damned pretentious motes and into the deep green seas of her eyes. “Other than that, I’m fine. And you?”

“I made love to John Lennon last night.”

I nodded. “Big night.”

The sax player winked at the empty tables around us and dove into a toe-snapping rendition of So What.

Jo put a cigar to her lips and lit it with a snap of her fingers. She puffed deeply and exhaled Hurricane Castro into my face. I breathed in the smoke and felt every hair on my body go bongo in the Congo. Her lips parted slowly under the slow noire wave of her hair, and she said: “Then we talked about the twenty-three things garbage collectors tell their children about their jobs. The first is … it pays the bills. The twenty-third is … you don’t have to attend meetings.”

“And the other twenty-one?”    “Variations on the first and last, all beginning with the letter ‘S’.”

“There’s a dead rat in my refrigerator.”

“Does my sweater display my breasts to advantage? I don’t want one looking more intelligent than the other.”

I curled around this thought. “I find them very similar.”

“You what, trite verbalist?”

“ …,” I said.

“Tongue-tied spelling bee reject,” she said.

I had a thought.

I expressed it: “John Lennon?”

“Yes. He stabbed me in the side of my dawn, comma lizard.”

“Did I mention … there’s a dead rat in my refrigerator?”

“I’m going to become a veterinarian and devote my life to things with four legs or more. Does your rat need help?”

“Yes, I think it does.”

“What exactly does it need?”

“A second chance.”

“Do you find my breasts fascinating?”

“Huh?”

“You’re staring at my breasts, shallow imagist.”

“What … what is the sound of wax melting?”

“How are the people in your life?”

Uh ha.

Trick question.

But I can handle it. “Alive,” I said.

“Alive?” she said.

“Except for the dead ones.”

“Dead?” She puffed on her cigar and blew half of Cuba into my lungs. Thank you.

“Not alive,” I said.

She thought about this.

I thought about this.

She nodded.

I nodded.

I tore the tablecloth off the table and ate it.

It tasted like …

… plastic.

Plastic.

I said: “The dead rat in my refrigerator asks questions I can’t answer.”

“We all have our dead rats,” she said.

“How’s work?” I said.

She puffed on her cigar and blew Jamaica and The Cayman Islands into my face. I surfed in green water. “Imagine a bored labia …” she said. “… waiting for a bus in the middle of a prairie. With no bar is sight.”

“So … things are getting better at work.”

“New management.”

“What are your dead rats?”

“Mundane symbolists,” she said. “Like you.”

“Do you keep them in your refrigerator?”

“Yoko was pissed at me,” she said.

“Yoko is pissed at everything,” I said. “In a sublime sort of way.”

“It doesn’t matter. I didn’t care.”

“Of course,” I said.

“Would you like me to take my sweater off, banal sentence arranger?”

I blinked.

She winked. “Perhaps I could take my sweater off and we could discuss my bra.”    I gulped. Was she serious? I said: “God looked so desperate in my medicine cabinet, as though he expected something that never happened. It made me sad, so I went to my refrigerator.”

“Big mistake,” she said.

“How’s that?”

“Never do anything right after seeing God,” she said. “Especially when he looks that bad.”

Outside, the rain spread acid waste over the cars and pigeons. I had tears in waiting for every piston and wing.

No.

Not really.

I have no tears.

Not even for myself.

She said: “Are you feeling sorry for yourself, maudlin moralist? Thinking about crying for the cars and the birds?”

Damn, she’s good.

“Is God in your medicine cabinet?” I said.

“No, he’s between my legs.”

“He looked like he had something to say,” I said. “But he was too busy rummaging … just rummaging around … to do anything other than look confused.”

“Do you want to know what God is doing between my legs?” she said.

“The rain is our only contact with the fate of our sky.”

“The rain is dead,” she said. “The sky is dead. The rain is our only contact with the death of air. Why are you staring at my toes, lecherous linguist? Do you want to suck them?”

“Huh?” I said.

“Suck my toes?” she said.

My face sloshed with blood.

She said: “Hah!”

She said: “Hah! Hah!”

She said: “Hah, frightened little adverbial toilet!”

I blushed.

She said: “Have you read any good books?”

I said: “There’s a good book?”

“It resides on a shelf …” she said “ … reserved for one good book. Do you think about me when you masturbate?”

I gulped. “And where is that shelf?”

“Wherever you keep it.”

“There’s a dead rat in my refrigerator.”

The sax player took off his shirt without missing a note and winked at a table full of nobody. He had talent.

She said: “Do you think the sax player has talent?”

I said: “He lacks audience.”

“This room lacks ambience,” she said.

I looked around. Empty tables. Afternoon light drifting through the skylight. Harsh light for a bluesy sax. Small stage. Just big enough for an audience-depraved sax. Depraved. Like in the song poem. The bongo song poem. The bongalongo songo poem. Dipdooling bonga …

“Grammar slut,” she said.

“I wrote a poem once,” I said. “It had words arranged boldly on white space, announcing their presence, if not their meaning.”

“Did it rhyme?”

“Nothing rhymes.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Nothing rhymes.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Nothing rhymes.”

“Fucking transformational syntactical bongalongo songo dipalongo boo bipi diddly bump ….

… bump.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Boppa loppa bang.” I said.

“Boppa loppa bang,” she said.

“Boo bop,” I said.

“Bop,” she said.

We were standing. Boppaloppa bop. Standing to the sax in the bongo congo boopa bongalonga bop … standing into the groove of the smooth green ever green of her eyes dancing in the space of the boppa boomalongo dancing on the rongabonga yeah rongabongo of the …

“There’s a fucking rat in my refrigerator. It’s dead.”

“Refrigerators are not good for rats,” she said.

We shimmied and shook as her green eyes swallowed me in the greenness of my own lies and blindness. My teeth vibrated. I ate the table.

“Hungry?” she said.

The sax player swallowed the air around him and sprayed broken hearts and bus stops into the blue void of empty tables while Jo and I danced everything green and good in a universe of bop dilop.

“Boop,” she said.

“Biddly boppa,” said I.

“Bop diddly boop diddly diddly boop,” said the sax.

“Boop boppa boop,” she said.

“Boop,” I said.

“Poppa poppa boop.” said the sax.

“There’s a dead rat in my refrigerator.”

Oh shambalingo ringo mingo … BINGO!

“thIs Is no game!” I InsIsted.

Jo sat down, legs and all. Tartan. Sat down and said: “My ears have teeth. I’ve trained them to kill your tongue.”

“Nothing rhymes,” I said.

“Lingo egoist. Feeling sorry for yourself?”

“Do you have a dream?” I said.

“I’m dreaming now,” she said.

“Do you have another dream?”    “Only when I’m awake,” she said.

“I have a dream,” I said.

“Forget it, verb dweeb, my playground is beyond your leer.”

“Any plans for the weekend?” I said.

“I’m going to read a story about a man whose life means absolutely nothing. Nothing ever happens to him. Nobody knows him. Even death forgets him.”

“Does he live forever?”

“No. He dies,” she said. “Life forgets him.”

“Shouldn’t he go somewhere in between?”

“Get your mind out of there, filthy word bucket.”

“I was thinking about buying a new suit of armor,” I said. “You know, something to keep out the cold shafts of my insecurities. They glare at me through the peep holes of curtains and the stale looks of passersby.”

“I think we’re getting somewhere, cliché clincher.”

“I think I’m the man in the story you’re going to read.”

She nodded. “No one can handle life,” she said. “It kills us all.”

“There’s a dead rat in my refrigerator.”

“Shall we sit?”

The sax player went silent. He waited.

Jo waited.

I thought.

I had an idea.

I said: “Yes. Let’s sit.”

We sat facing each other. The sax droned something slow and Blue in Green. The table was gone. It was in my stomach. Drums swished in the distance. Odd. Suddenly, the distance between us was less than a trillion miles. There was no border of table. There was no fence of table. There was no prison of table. We were free. Unrestrained. She said: “Before you can chew, you must bite.”

The dust motes stabbed each other with logical palette knives screaming ontological bullshit. They were killing each other with concrete abstractions. I had an idea.

“Premature focus kills art,” I said.

“Premature ejaculation kills a good time,” she said.

“There’s a …”

“Yes, I know,” she said. “In your refrigerator. A rat. Dead. What are the fifty-seven ways you would suck the index finger of my left hand?”

“I thought there were fifty-eight.”

“After one,” she said, “ … there’s no difference between fifty-seven and fifty-eight. They don’t exist.”

“I can’t write anything anymore.”

“You never could write.”

“But I used words.”

“No,” she said. “Words used you.”

The sax player shot three bars of Flamenco straight into the hearts of the dust motes. They died painfully. But they never stopped arguing. Their mote corpses still blocked the view. I cried.

“Stop your damned wailing, spineless symbol spinner … it’s only mote morte.”

I laughed.

She said: “Stop your damned hysterics, clause clown … they’re still arguing.”

I stood up and ate my chair.

“Now you have no excuse,” she said.

“Now I have no excuse,” I said.

I walked through the empty air of an eaten table and stood directly in front of her. I bent down on one knee, staring into the emeralds surrounding her irises. The sax player’s head blew off his shoulders and stuck to the ceiling. He winked as the room exploded with unresolved meaning. The sax didn’t miss a beat.

“You must bite …” she said.

I reached my hand toward Jo. Her eyes ate my soul. My fingers were inches from her knee. My brain spun inside my skull like a dryer full of starched dreams.

“Before you can chew,” she said.

I touched her knee and she disappeared.

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Caught The Blogger

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Certainly one of the more interesting people in Freddie Beach is Charles LeBlanc…The Blogger. I’ve seen him camped out in a tent on the grounds of the Legislature to protest the use of Ritalin in schools. He had it right on that one. I’ve seen him walking the streets of Freddie Beach looking for things to blog and taking pictures of anyone who interests him. He’s a sort of Faces of Freddie Beach kinda guy.

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I was talking with him today outside my writing studio, Read’s (unlike Studio4Ward, the rent’s the price of a coffee), when this beautiful woman came outside for a smoke. Charles immediately said, “My life will never be complete until I take her picture.” Or something like that. He made polite small talk for 2.00001 seconds and off he went.

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I immediately went into Read’s, got my Canon G12 and finally, after all these years, captured The Blogger capturing another Face of Freddie Beach.

And this is what it looked like in the other direction. Nice to see a table and chairs set up outside.

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The Clearing

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Thirty feet past the power company building the road stopped abruptly before a clearing in the woods, as though the road crew had suddenly run out of pavement and gone home. The clearing stretched about two hundred feet, bordered on either side by tall spruces and worm-tattered pines, and then veered off to the left.

It looked to Daniel like a little world, a grand naturescape in miniature, complete with rolling, snow-crested hillocks and white fields, and an ice-covered stream meandering through its center. The naturescape sloped gently towards the stream.

Daniel glanced at his watch and relaxed. It had been years since he’d walked by himself in the woods and he felt an urge to explore, to recapture the magical quality of solitude in a natural setting. The sky was thinly overcast with a cream-colored hint that the sun was melting its way through the other side of the clouds.

Daniel stepped forward and his boot sank a few inches into the snow with a muted pumf. He smiled and made his way into the clearing. Mounds of frozen brown- and white-capped soil jutted through the even white layer of snow. Snow surrounded everything. It stuck like frozen milk to dense boughs of evergreens, pulling the trees into a winter-huddled droop. On leafless trees, it piled like smooth putty filling. In the soft light, the snow appeared warm and comfortable, a glaze molded flake by flake and shifted by wind and the contours of the land into a snug white blanket.

Daniel breathed deeply, savoring the freshness of the winter air untainted by odor, though its absence was a fragrance itself composed inoffensively of the frozen landscape. Another deep breath and he shouted.

“Daniel!”

And the woods called back to him.

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His echoing name scattered his presence into the woods, bouncing off trees and careening into unseen snow banks, giving him a solid sense of affinity with everything that surrounded him. He shouted again.

“I love you!”

And the woods called back to him.

iloveyouiloveyouiloveyou

And he saw in his mind, the woods tucking his words into the beads of crystal water dripping from the trees.

“I am your voice!”

iamyourvoiceiamyourvoice

“I speak for you!”

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“We are one!”

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Filling his lungs deeply, he broke into a slow run through the snow and down the slope towards the stream. He laughed and shouted.

“I am free!”

And the woods acknowledged.

iamfreeiamfree

He stopped at the stream, amazed and breathless. The stream was no more than two feet at its widest point, but the shallow gully it twisted through suggested another six feet on either side during the spring runoff. Walking along the edge of the gully, Daniel followed the stream as it wound through the center of the clearing.

A sheet of wafer-thin ice covered the stream a few inches above the trickling water. There was a hint of ochre in the tiny glints of reflected cloud light that gave the ice a sense of warmth. In places it fluffed up, sagged further on, and then slanted from one side to the other like a long curving pane of glass.

Ahead, Daniel saw a section of tree trunk imbedded sideways beside the stream, and he felt this was the place to sit, that sitting on the trunk was a significant part of being in the woods by the stream and in the center of the rolling field of snow. It was what the trunk was for. He yelled: “I will sit here!”

iwillsithere

And he made his way clumsily to the trunk and sat down with his feet a few inches from the stream. A long crack split through the center of the ice and portions of the glistening sheet slumped into the water. Where the ice was perched just above the water, the edges melted from sun and wind into jagged fingers so thin that the slightest breeze might snap them. A few inches below them, crystalline water gurgled over pebbles and rocks and reflected light to the underside of the ice, creating smooth patches of iridescence shimmering with lambent life.

From where he sat, Daniel could see that the clearing continued for another fifty feet to the left and it occurred to him that he was at the center of the little world of the clearing. He imagined the stream was a vein coursing through the heart of the clearing, nourishing and sustaining it, and with the snow and ice melting, the stream was beginning to flow again and to pump life into the bushes and trees and the dormant seeds. Daniel opened himself to the lucidity of the moment, a comprehension of something vital, and he was in the center of it.

He pulled the glove off his right hand and scooped up a few grains of coarse snow from the top of the trunk. They sparkled in his palm like miniature diamonds. He reached his arm out and sprinkled them onto the fingers of ice. Their small weight broke a long knobby splinter off with a plick and it fell into the water and dissolved.

Daniel picked up more grains and let them fall onto the sheet of ice, where they bounced lightly and settled like transparent pimples. His hand reached mechanically for more snow, and he scattered the tiny beads until the fragile ice clicked and sagged with a small frozen sigh. Then, he picked up a larger piece of snow and poised it over the ice and let it drop. It punctured the ice, and the sheet trembled and collapsed into the water like a two-foot blade cutting into the stream.

Where it had been attached, there was now a long, straight edge that looked out of place to Daniel. He felt remotely guilty, as though he had done something ineffably wrong. His hand was cold and he put his glove back on. A shiver passed through his body and he zipped up the turtleneck on his parka.

He stood up and looked with dissatisfaction at the blade of ice breaking apart in the water, beyond his power to repair it. He looked at his watch and remembered the forecast for snow later in the day. The cream color was lost in the sky and the clouds were beginning to thicken as he scrambled up the gully and began to retrace his steps out of the clearing.

The darkening sky cast a gloom over the woods as another breeze rippled across the ground, and Daniel hunched his shoulders. His boots were wet and his toes were numb with cold. He began to jog awkwardly to keep himself warm, and his breath came in gasps. To his right he noticed a long discarded section of power line, snaking in and out of the snow, over and around the hillocks, twisting indiscriminately through the little world of the clearing.

Searching for Peace (Anywhere but in my living room carpeting)

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Snow.

I’m sick of snow. The snow here is forever. At first, it’s beautiful, the brilliant whiteness creating Rockwellian images of trees and buildings covered in vanilla icing. But the beauty begins to fade after the third or fourth snow storm, when the snow banks grow into hills and the streets shrink into one lane passages rutted with ice holes.

With each snowfall, a sense of defeat spreads through the vitamin 3-robbed population, depleting our energy and ruining our backs from having to lift our shovels higher and higher.

And there’s nothing to smell but the cold as the unrelenting snow suffocates the scent, color and texture of life, transforming the world into a sensual void, a…

“So, Biff,” said the fox, “getting tired of winter? I seem to recall you in an earlier blog saying …winter, I love you.”

“I want to wear t-shirts,” I said.

“That was your first trip out on your snow shoes, remember?” said the fox.

“I want to wear sandals and shorts,” I said.

“You took pictures of snow covered trees,” said the fox. “It was beautiful in the woods…with all that snow.”

“I want to walk barefoot along a beach…feel water lapping at my feet,” I said.

“You read a poem to the woods…to thank the snow covered woods for all the beauty,” said the fox.

“I want to lie in the grass and watch clouds drift into shapes in the sky,” I said.

“Winter! I love you! you said,” said the fox.

“That was a thousand years ago, fox,” I said.

“Sounds like as long as this search for peace of yours is going to last, Biff,” said the fox.

“Then maybe we should get back on it,” I said. “Shave a few hundred years off the search.”

“No more talk of winter blues, vitamin D deficiency, suffocation?” said the fox.

“I’ll be in Cuba in a couple of weeks,” I said. “I’ll just keep that happy thought in mind.”

“OK then, Biff,” said the fox. “Where should be look for peace today? Maybe somewhere exotic? Somewhere warm and sunny, with beaches and Pina Coladas?”

“Maybe somewhere that doesn’t let foxes in,” I said.

“Maybe some place where they show a little more respect for foxes,” said the fox.

Oh hell.

A friend recently shared a post on Facebook. It went like this: The most dangerous phrase in the language is we’ve always done it this way.

I agree. It gets back to that whole matter of change and how we fear it. We get into cultural ruts. Political stasis. Religious inflexibility. We want to know what we’ve always known…and nothing else. We want to keep doing the same thing day after day, for the rest of our lives. And we want everyone around us to do the same thing…our way. Without change. Without growth. Like putting adaptation and evolution on hold.

We’ve always done it this way.

How many species of animals have perished because they always did it this way? How many empires have crumbled because they always did it this way?

We live in a world of change populated by a dominant species that refuses to change. We create borders to define our sameness and propagate that sameness with advice like: this is the way my parents did it, and their parents and their parents’ parents. We splinter faiths to create intolerant cults that are more political than spiritual and bind the believers into dogmas that will always be done this way…deep into generation after generation.

We’ve always done it this way excludes a better way. We’ve always done it this way dries the well of self-expression. We’ve always done it this way ignores the simple truth that will be the only thing to save our collective ass: maybe we should try something else.

“Like what, Biff?” said the fox.

“I don’t know, fox,” I said. “Just about anything other than what we’re doing to ourselves now. Maybe…get out of bed on the other side. Brush our teeth with the other hand. Say yes instead of no. Smile at someone we’d rather frown at because we don’t approve of their lifestyle, religion, political leanings, sexual orientation, clothing, hair style…you name it.”

“Grin?” said the fox.

“Please don’t grin, fox,” I said.

“Hey, Biff,” said the fox. “Look at me and smile.”

“I know you’re grinning, fox,” I said. “I’m not looking.

“ C’mon, Biff, try something else,” said the fox.

“I’m not looking,” I said.

“Be the proof of your own convictions, Biff,” said the fox. “Walk the talk.”

Damn fox.

I looked at the fox. It was awful. All sharp teeth and twisted mouth. Foxes weren’t meant to smile.But I smiled anyway.

“Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it, Biff?” said the fox.

But it was. One of the hardest things I’d ever done. Trying something else is hard. It goes against our grain. Like ritual is hardwired into our genes.

“But some people do change, Biff,” said the fox. “And it isn’t hard for them.”

“Reading my thoughts again, fox,” I said.

“Hey, Biff…if you weren’t such an open book,” said the fox. “But think about it…some people do change…they never say we’ve always done it this way. The say how can we do this better?

“But their numbers are small, fox,” I said. “So small.”

“Hey, Biff,” said the fox. “How big is an acorn?”

“This some kind of game, fox?” I said.

“How big?” said the fox.

“Not big, fox” I said. “Not big at all.”

“And what does it turn into?” said the fox.

I thought about this for a moment, knowing that I should have gotten it right away, knowing it was something I’d heard so many times…knowing I’d forgotten this simple truth.

It made me smile at the grinning fox.

(To be continued. With acorns.)

“So, Biff,” said the fox. “Whatcha going to do in Cuba?”

“Sit on the beach with my daughter and drink pina coladas,” I said.

“Away from the snow?” said the fox.

“Away from the snow.”

(BTW…these snow dune pics were taken today, just outside Fredericton. For all of you poor souls without snow…feel free to come here and take away as much as you want.)

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The War Bug

(Excerpt from my third novel, The War Bug. You can buy it at Amazon. Just do a search for crazy stupid book. BTW, there’s no giant ant in the book. The War Bug is a computer virus that causes a war between online city states…but turns out to be kinda nice when it helps the lead character get his virtual family back. I wrote a short story in which the cover artist get his for putting an ant on the cover. The publisher who published the book with the ant on the cover also published the story in which the cover artist gets his. Go figure.)

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The Great Nano Canyon

“Cold murdering bitch. Damn, just one night with her, one hour!” muttered Jeemo, as he wiped drool from his chin and took off the white robe. The orange spikes on his head stood straight up like sharp erections.

Jeemo Roosenvelt would gladly have taken the sexclone’s place if he could have fallen to his death with his brain fresh full of sex with Bella and the smell of her cruelty seeping into his gray flesh.

He stared at his naked body in the wall length mirror. “Perfection!”

Vast folds of flesh rolled over thick layers of fat. Seven feet, seven hundred pounds. Jeemo loved the symmetry of the numbers. Somewhere under that mass his penis twitched crazily. He could feel it. “Yes. Throb my hidden toy, throb for the goddess Bella, psycho lust kitten of the emerald palace.”

He turned sideways, looking up and down the bulk of his body, at the gray face bulging out of his shoulders, and the fan of orange hair spikes forming a line from one ear to the other. His hands and feet were small and delicate; his movement as he turned before the mirror, fluid and graceful. He loved to watch himself move. He loved to watch himself standing still. He loved to watch himself eat, sit, lying down. Every wall of every room in his mansion, except one, was a mirror. Through the mirrors he could watch his enormous girth stretch into an infinity of reflected images.

A tuxedoed serverclone—one of the lower orders of clones, bred without legs, but equipped with anti-gravity boots so that their footsteps would not irritate their owners—floated to his side with a glass of red wine on a silver tray. It was reflected thousands of times over in the walls. “Dinner will be ready in ten minutes, Mr. Roosenvelt.”

Jeemo whisked the wine glass to his lips with a single motion and the serverclone floated away. Sipping wine, Jeemo bounced lightly, mounds of skin shaking like sickly jelly, to an arched window. The glass in the window could withstand the force of an F7 tornado—and it had.

Outside, the moon spilled over a Mid-west gutted like a war zone, spreading into the darkness, deep into the New Tornado Alley leading right up to the edge of the Great Nano Canyon. In the distance, strange light played in the air over sections of the canyon, dancing in bursts of blue and orange. This was normal.

The canyon wasn’t.

***

Less than a hundred years into the new millennium, the human race came close to becoming cheese soup. It started with the world’s smallest computer, a computer so small, it could only be seen with an electron microscope. It was the first assembler nanobot, a concoction of seven atoms that had been circuited, programmed and instructed to build—though what the nanobot was supposed to build was never known. In the process of building, it killed ten million people, including the people who had programmed it, and the last communication with them had been from the project’s lead Nano-applications Specialist, Milton Nadd.

His pallid face had filled the phone monitor as he whispered, “My god, it’s cheese soup…”

Then the screen had gone blank.

No one will ever know why it was cheese soup, but here’s how the nanobot was supposed to work: it was supposed to visit neighboring atoms and nudge them around until it had built another nanobot exactly like itself. Then the two nanobots were to visit neighboring atoms and nudge them around until they had built two more nanobots exactly like themselves. Then the four nanobots…

It was much like E-bola, only faster. In fact, it was so fast that, by the time Milton Nadd had said “cheese soup”, he was cheese soup. And his videophone was cheese soup. The other researchers and scientists and administrators and computer technicians in the room with Milton Nadd were all cheese soup. Desks, computers, chairs, paper clips, Far Side calendars, pencils and papers and books were all cheese soup. A million dollar electron microscope shook twice then collapsed into a splash of cheese soup that turned most of the floor into

cheese soup. The walls literally flowed into the floor and the ceiling fell and bubbled into the yellow-orange liquid. Within minutes, the entire underground high-security maximum-containment, fool-proof, fail-safe, absolutely accident free and “Senator-Jonz-you-won’t-ever-have-to-worry-about-anything-escaping-from-this-place-or-my-name-isn’t-Doctor-Milton-Nadd” facility was cheese soup, and it was working its way up through the ground, turning layers of red granite, quartz schist and an elevator containing junior research assistant, Jaqui Wright, who, strangely, had always wanted to be cheese soup, into cheese soup.

Now the assemblers were in gear, revved up and ready to rock, rarin’ to chew into the atoms of igneous and metamorphic rock, bite into the neutrons of trees and grass and asphalt and spit out cheese soup. Highways, lakes and towns, swimming pools and rivers, airports and trains, canoes full of frothy cold beer, and entire cities all churned into cheese soup. Hundreds of square miles of North Dakota were cheese soup by the time the news began to spread. Around the world, people panicked and rioted while others prepared quietly to become cheese soup. Jerry Springer was thawed from cryostasis and hosted a special on people who had sex in vats of cheese soup. Leaders of the Unified Global Village pondered and debated over international chat forums and concluded that it was time to try something new, and soup was always OK. Just when the world was ready to accept cheese soupness, the assemblers stopped.

Just stopped.

There was no apparent reason. They just stopped, after having created a mass of cheese soup that stretched from Winnipeg to Fargo and from Williston to Duluth. The whole planet held its breath in unison, as the ocean of cheese soup trembled like gunky jello without advancing a single atom in any direction. It stayed like that for three days. Then the giant mass of cheese soup went “ping”—not a loud ping, but a barely audible “ping”, like two expensive champagne glasses toasted by ladybugs. By the time the “ping” had “inged”, the cheese soup was gone. In its place was a perfectly round bowl in the earth, its walls polished and smooth. Millions of people who had flocked to the edges of the cheese soup

stared quietly, their faces a wall of open-eyed non-expression around the massive hole left by the cheese soup.

Nobody knew why it disappeared. Nobody knew why it stopped. Only the handful of Nanotechnologists Milton Nadd had called just before he became cheese soup knew why or how it had started, and they later restricted all nanoresearch to space stations far from the Earth’s orbit until the research was proved safe. Or at least somewhat reasonably safe.

Of course, there were those who thought a giant empty bowl was a big improvement over the former landscape.

***

For the briefest flicker of time, Jeemo’s mind drew him back to the failure of nano-treatments to change his body, rejecting him like a bad odor. Then the rejection by his parents, as though he were an insult to their DNA, and then his childhood spent with serverclones and software. Other than his parents, he’d never been in the same room as a real human, never touched real flesh other than his own. But that was all he’d needed, to feel himself real and nano-resistant, so perfect even the bots couldn’t improve him. He was the new standard of human perfection, and he loved every cubic inch of space he occupied.

But he’d gladly die for just a brush of Bella’s cold touch.

“Hot damn! That crazy woman’s going to fuck my brains out and flush me into the ocean.” The throbbing between his huge legs went into hyper drive at the thought of plunging into the ocean with Bella’s acid love fluids burning into his body. All he had to do was get the woman and the girl for her.

He sipped his wine as he stared into the sky over the Great Nano Canyon. The pink hole that was his mouth curved into something like a smile. And there’s the key to it all, he thought, why didn’t I think of that sooner? I’ll move it later. He’ll never find them now.

A sweet aroma curled into his nostrils. Mmm, honey glazed ham. There would be Poinsettia Eggs en Gelee. Potatoes Savonnette and watercress soup. And none of it would taste like chicken. Oh, it might hint of chicken on the aftertaste—chicken was inescapable these days—but the glazed ham would taste like glazed ham on the first few chews.

Downstream

Nashwaak

(This appeared in a small collection my stories published by Short Stuff Books about 15 years ago. It’s one of the stories I thought I’d lost in successive computer crashes, but found recently – along with a few other stories – in a folder hidden in layer after layer of folders.)

Hot sun and high water, perfect for a day trip down the Nashwaak.

The four of us had a serious itch to relax and commune with beaver and alders, eagles and backwaters, and whatever Indian gods still cast their spell on river-goers and danced naked with moose and field mice. Not that we were planning to take our clothes off. Hell no! More like hats off to crows cawing from the banks and rocks jutting up from the riverbed, trying to trip us.

I was in a plastic Coleman with my girlfriend, Debbie, later to be my wife, then ex-wife, and finally, good friend and mother of my children. Dylan and Maura were in a wooden Chestnut. Dylan was a friend of mine before I met Debbie. Maura was a friend of Debbie’s before she met me. Dylan and Maura weren’t aware of this connection until a full month after they started dating.

Small world.

A light but pushy breeze shoved aside waves of heat pouring down like crystal gravy from the electric blue sky. Sunlight etched silver castles on the pinnacles and precipices of cumulous mountains. They were the kind of castles that fill your imagination with jumping off misty towers into sticky white pools of marshmallow icing.

Back on earth, cool wavelets flirted brazenly with our gunwales and mingled with the splish of paddles dipping lazily into the water.

Half an hour downstream, we encountered a series of alder-ringed islands, spliced by three channels. Debbie and I took the channel to the right. Dylan and Maura took the channel to the left. The river laughed: “HA!” and went straight down the center.

***

There’s a kind of reality game I play when I’m in a canoe. I stare at the water and blank out the passage of trees, canyons and abandoned cars until time turns into molasses. Beer helps a lot with this illusion. I reached into the cooler and asked Debbie if she would like another.

“Um?” Her voice was slow and dreamy, faraway somewhere, no doubt, bobbing in the molasses of her own reality game. I used my paddle to pass her a can of beer. Tears of condensation trickled over its frosty label.

She snapped the cap on her can with a foamy crackle, a sound that was almost thirst-quenching itself. She asked: “How much longer to the end of this branch?”

“Oh, a ways,” I said.

Twenty minutes later, she introduced a new mood into the flow of river and beer. “Are you sure Dylan and Maura are okay? We haven’t seen them in ages.” This was a mood peopled with what I called the Worry Marchers–stark little men that appeared as columns of tiny dark shadows deep in Debbie’s eyes, where they marched and marched until the tromp of their little boots became louder and louder and channeled their sound through her brain and down to her mouth where it manifested itself as: “Carman?”

“They’re fine,” I said. “The river flows downstream. It’s the only place they can go. We’ll meet them at the end of the channel.”

Minutes passed.

“I’m getting worried.” Debbie brushed a bang of blond hair out of her eyes. The bang said: “No way.” and immediately fell back, almost covering her eyes. But for the few seconds that her eyes were completely uncovered, I caught a glimpse of Worry Marchers tromping and stomping in a panicky melee deep behind the irises. “Maybe we should go back to the branch they took and see if we can find them. They’ve never been on this river before.”

I looked back in the direction we’d just come and figured, oh, maybe three long bends in the channel, a couple of miles paddling against the current.

“No. They’re fine. We’ll meet them at the end of the channel.”

“But what if their branch goes into a dead end. What if–”

“They’re fine.”

***

More minutes passed with the lap-lap of water lap-lapping and the occasional ba-bump of the metal keel bumping against the plastic hull. Wind tickled the hairs on my forearms. I lifted a cold brew, wet-fresh from the ice, and soaked my throat with a rush of bubbles.

Debbie looked back quickly, the stomp of the Marchers cracking the corners of her eyes with lines and shadows. Tension swelled her shoulders, pushed her arms into the unnatural act of paddling forcefully in an already quick current. Waste of energy. Better to just drink some beer and use the paddles as rudders, to steer only.

“But this is only your second time on this river. Have you ever been down the branch they took?”

“No. But it can only flow one way.” So obvious, it seemed to me.

“Unless it comes to a dead end. What if it comes to a dead end? What if it flows away from the river and takes them–”

Why couldn’t she grasp a concept that was so much like life itself? “It all flows downstream. We’ll meet them at the end of the channel.”

***

Splash. The Worry Marchers had changed tactics, trading stomping and tromping for slow, perfectly synchronized jumps telegraphed through Debbie’s tensed shoulders, funneled through her arms and hands and into her paddle and–

splash.

Her head had become granite–

splash.

with opal eyes–

splash.

and pumice ears–

splash.

She opened her soapstone mouth: “I’m getting really worried, Carman. We should have seen them by now. Can you at least call out their names?”

“And scare the wildlife?”

“We haven’t seen any wildlife. We haven’t seen anything.”

“Hm, yeah, wonder where all the beavers are today.”

“Just call!”

“Okay.” I cupped my hands around my mouth. “HEY, ASSHOLE!”

“Carman!”

“Just joking. DYLAN! MAURA! You guys still alive?”

Alders and sky gobbled my voice. Not even an echo burped back, a blank response from river, land and sky, almost like Dylan and Maura had been absorbed into the tangle of roots, rock and water that was nature, dissolved into its ineffable void.

I was becoming a bit concerned. Like Debbie had said, it was only my second trip on this river, and the first one had been with a drunken armada of ten canoes full of beer and madmen. To tell the truth, I couldn’t even remember the river forking into three branches. I didn’t say this, but thinking it was enough, all that Debbie needed to pick up on it.

“DYLAN! MAURA!” she yelled.

Nothing.

***

Mother Nature, always empathetic to the moods of river-goers, nudged the biggest of the creamy white clouds right across the path of the sunlight. Shadows winked from under the crests of wavelets and smiled eerily from stands of evergreens. A cool breeze raised goose bumps on my forearms. And worst of all, my beer had gone flat.

I lengthened and quickened my paddle stroke, a useless exercise since almost no power is generated once the paddle is parallel to the body. I was working against the natural flow of the current, forcing my intent to be downstream before the river’s time.

“Dylan! Maura!” Debbie’s voice cracked the air with lesions of panic. “Carman! Where are they?”

“There’s only one place they can end up, Debbie.” I pointed ahead. “Downstream.” But my tottering certainty was no match for the genuineness of Debbie’s paranoia.

“Isn’t there anything we can do?”

“Just go forward, to where the channels merge back into the main body of the river.”

Debbie dug her paddle into the water.

***

Splash.

***

We raised a high white wake as we paddled vigorously, her muscles and my muscles throbbing blood to the same heavy rhythm. It seemed that we gulped the same deep breaths, filling our lungs with the same energized air, and then expelling it through our arms and into the paddles and into the water and into our intent to be downstream. And the rhythm droned with a

splash

Splash

Splash

until the inevitable call of the Great God of Paddling clamored in my throat.

“Time for a brew,” I said. Debbie, panting, agreed, and I passed her a beer on my river dripping paddle. We lay down our paddles and snapped open our beers. The smell of pine drifted into my nostrils as we rested and floated, sipped and thought.

“It’s beautiful out here,” said Debbie. The big cloud had passed and the sun was back, the shadows gone, and mercy be, a beaver slipped into the water to our right with a splash of its tail.

“Wildlife,” I said, pointing with my paddle.

“Was that a beaver?”

“Yeah. Big one.” We looked for a couple of minutes to see if we could spot it swimming, but it was long gone. Debbie looked back at me and smiled. “Is that why you come on these trips?” she asked.

“Part of it,” I said.

I was about to say more, but Debbie, satisfied with my answer, turned her eyes back to the shore, the blue spruce, the sun glistening on late afternoon wavelets, the melody of an endless procession of water molecules sliding over each other in a single direction beyond the march of any beat. The rest of it.

***

“Debbie!” A woman’s voice. It was Maura, waving madly from the river bend ahead of us, where the channels merged.

“Debbie! Carman! Where have you two been? We’ve been worried sick!”

We Need to Talk

flower

(Time for some humor…the thing that will consistently make us human. Nothing else will.)

“We need to talk.”

Sure, dead three years and now she wants to talk.

“I mean it, Charley. We need to talk. We have unsettled issues. We need to settle them.”

“I’m not having this conversation with you, Susan. You’re dead.”

“You’ll be dead someday too. You’ll be here, where I am, Charley, and you won’t be able to get away from it. We need to talk now. Get this over with.”

“Why now? Why not when I’m dead?”

This was so much like her―bringing shit up right out of the blue, always taking me by surprise. But God, she’s still so beautiful, even in death, floating a few inches above the living room floor, long white gown billowing from some unseen breeze, long ink-like streams of…

“I’m doing this for you, Charley.”

“Sure you are Susan. Gimme a break. You never did anything for me. You were always about you. I can’t believe you want to do rat shit for me now. Why would I?”

“Because I’m dead. It gives you a new perspective.”  She has that same old peeved look in her eyes, as though everything somehow pissed her off, as though the universe was constantly failing her. “Besides, that’s not entirely true. I did lots of things for you.”

“Name one.”

“I faked orgasms. A lot of them. Pretty much all of them. You’re not that great in the sack, Charley.”

“You can take off now, Susan. Go back to wherever and whoever you’re making miserable now. I’m over it. Over you.”

“No you’re not.”

“It’s been three years, Susan. I’m over you.”

“You’re still single. Haven’t dated in three years. You still love me. You always will.”

“You’ve been stalking me! You’re dead and you’re stalking me!”

“Charley, the dead don’t stalk. We haunt.”

I throw my arms into the air. “I’m not doing this, Susan. You’re dead. Gone. And I don’t still love you. I didn’t love you when you were alive and I sure as hell don’t love you when you’re dead. So stop haunting me.”

God, she has this…what? Sensual translucence in death. Or is this just the same lack of substance she…

“Go ahead, Charley, live the rest of your life in denial. But if you want me to stop haunting you, there’s a few things we have to work out.”

“When I’m dead. We’ll work them out when I’m dead.”

“Could you be more specific?

“What d’you mean…‘specific”?”

There she goes with the head-cocked-to-the-side-because-you’re-an-idiot look. “Dates, times?”

“You mean, when I’m going to die?”

“Duh.”

You’d think that three years of death would give a person some insights on the errors of their former lives, like the inherent evil of being a controlling, manipulative…

“Well?”

“I’m not going to answer that.”

Ignoring me, she looks around the room and her eyes stop on the couch I bought just hours ago. “Where’s the red couch?”

“I sold it.”

“I loved that couch.”

“I hated it.”

“You owe me an apology.”

“A what?”

“You forgot my birthday.”

“What the hell are you…”

“You forgot my twenty-second birthday, Charley. Didn’t even buy me a card. No gift.”

“Susan, that was ten years ago!”

“No cake.”

“I’d just gotten back from a business trip. I was exhaust…”

“No flowers.”

Again, right out of the blue. I can’t believe this. “You didn’t say anything at the time. Why now, ten years later?” I throw my arms up. “And why now, when you’re dead?”

“I was afraid I might mention…” She puts fingers to her lips. She always did that when she pretended she’d let something out accidentally, but all she really wanted to do was tell me something she knew was going to piss me off. And I always fell for it.

“Mention what?” Still falling for it.

“You’ll just get mad.”

“Mention what?” Hook, line and…

“It was your fault. If you’d just remembered.”

“What, Susan?”

She floats over to the new couch. A dark brown couch. Second hand. Comfortable. Exactly the couch she would have treated like a flea-bitten dog and never allowed past the door. She sits and crosses her long, long…

“You went straight to bed. I went out, met Jerry, went to his place…and had sex with him.”

“You…?”

“Charley, drop the wounded face. It was only the third time.”

“You had sex with other men three times?”

“No…sex with Charley three times. Don’t even get me going on the others.”

“You cheated on me!”

“You didn’t give me flowers on my birthday.” And now she leans forward, deliberately letting the top of her gown fall enough to show those beautiful breasts that I used to spend so much time… “Besides, it was only sex. You had my heart.”

“You never had a heart.”

“Look who’s talking, birthday-forgetter.”

“You cheated on me.”

“Charley, we just covered that. Get over it.”

She’s winding my head up again, screwing my brain with her twisted logic, just like she did when she was alive. But, oh, those legs, those…what the hell am I thinking? She’s dead. “You have to leave, Susan. Get back to being dead.”

“Not until we’re finished, Charley. And we’re not finished.”

“We were finished when you died.  When you…”

“You told me once that you would follow me anywhere. You swore you would, Charley. You said, no matter where, no matter what, you would follow me to the end of time. You broke your word, Charley.”

“Susan, you died.”

“So? Has time ended?”

Your time did.”

“You didn’t specify what time; you said ‘the end of time’. That’s all time, Charley, all time.”

“You expected me to die…just because you died? That’s crazy!”

“No, Charley. That’s love. That’s commitment. That’s keeping your promise. You didn’t follow me.”

“You were cheating on me.”

“You didn’t know that.”

“But…”

“I told you, Charley, we already covered that. Get over it. You always get stuck on all the wrong details. A hug would have been nice. Flowers would have been better.”

“If I buy you flowers, will you go away?”

“It’s too late for flowers. I’m dead. Now, I have to settle for tormenting you eternally.”

“You’re going to torment me eternally because I forgot your birthday…just once…ten years ago?”

“You only turn twenty-two once, Charley. Just once. You never get to turn twenty-two again. You missed something that was going to happen just once in my life and for all eternity, and now I get to torment you…forever.”

“That’s just plain vindictive, Susan.”

“You only get one shot at twenty-two, Charley.”

“And besides, all you said was that we need to take care of some unsettled issues. You said we were going to talk, get this all over with. And now you’re talking about eternal torment.”

She thinks about this a moment. “I changed my mind.”

“You…”

“The dead’s prerogative, Charley.” She stands up suddenly. I step back. “You’re not afraid of me are you?”

“No. You just took me by surprise.”

She puts her hands on her hips. “Look, Charley, things didn’t turn out the way I expected.”

“I know. You died young.”

She squints her eyes. “You didn’t have anything to do with that did you?”

“Giving you a stroke? I don’t think so.”

She nods agreement. “What I meant is that things didn’t turn out the way I expected here…in death.”

“How so?”

“I expected clouds, halos, harps…flowers. But it’s not like that.”

“And just how is it?”

“It’s work, Charley, work. We have to take care of things like balances in the universe, making sure that the properties of the universe are all in working order. I saw a place about a thousand light years from here where they let gravity slip for just a few minutes. For a while, we were almost the only intelligent life in the universe, but we fixed it. These things take a lot of math. You know how much I hate math.”

“That sounds really tough, Susan. But it sounds like you get to travel a lot. You used to love traveling.”

“Do you have any idea how cold space is, Charley?”

“But you’re dead.”

“The view between galaxies is cold. It’s dark. Empty. Cold.”  She runs her fingers from her cheek, down her neck to her chest as she says this with a faraway look. And suddenly snaps out of it. “But I’m doing something new now.” She looks relieved, almost happy. “They’re trying a new program, running a pilot project for now. And I’m in it.”

“Well that sounds good, Susan. I’m happy for you. What is this pilot project?”

“Well…you’re not going to believe this. I mean, when I heard, well, it just blew me away. The coincidence.”

“Coincidence?”

“Yes! Of all the people in the world, I got you.”

“Me?”

“You!”

“For what?”

“I get to be your guide when you die.”

“My guide?”

“That’s the pilot project! And I know, it’s an old idea, this whole thing about the long dead guiding the newly dead, but it’s never actually been done before.”

“And you’re going to be my guide?

“Isn’t that wild?

“But you just said that you’re going to torment me for eternity.”

She thinks for a moment. “I changed my mind. Now, we have to talk.”

“You can’t just keep changing your mind…”

“We already covered that, Charley. Get over it. Like it or not, I’m going to be your guide in the afterlife and before that happens, we have to settle a few things.”

“But there’s nothing more to…”

“Look, Charley, I didn’t ask for this. Luck of the draw. But it sure beats the math.”

I shrug my shoulders in frustration. “So what else?”

“Watch the tone, Charley. I’m going to be your guide.”

“OK. What…other things do we have to settle?”

“You didn’t tell me I was beautiful before we left the apartment for the one time you ever took me to a play.”

“But…”

“I bought a new evening gown just for that. I spent hours on makeup and had my hair done.”

“I never took you to a play, Susan. You’re getting me mixed up with someone else…someone you met before me.”

“Maybe I should just go back to eternal torment.”

“I said you were beautiful when you met me for lunch that time in the bookstore.”

She thinks for a moment. “Hmm. OK, I’ll let you off with the play incident. That might have been someone else.”

“Before or after we met?” I say this sarcastically. Susan frowns.

“I’m not sure, Charley. Do you really want to know?”

“Is there anything else we have to talk about?”

“Lots of things. And we have to settle them quickly. After I guide you…” She puts a finger to her lips and looks at me as though she’s just let something slip out. Once again I fall for it.

“Yes? After you guide me…?”

“Well, I suppose I can tell you since we already covered that…and you’ve gotten over it. After I guide you, I’m going to be guiding Jerry.”

“Jerry? You’re going to guide Jerry?”

“Charley, I only slept with him three times. Get over it.”

“But Jerry’s in the hospital with cancer. He only has a few days to live!”

“All the more reason to get things settled quickly, Charley.”

“Susan! If he only has a few days to live and he’s going to outlive me, then I only have a few days to live!”

“There you go again, Charley. Jumping to conclusions and focusing on all the wrong things. You always did that.”

For a moment, I think I see a bright spot. “So…you mean that Jerry’s going to live longer? The cancer’s going to go away? He’s going to live a long life?”

“Probably not. The cancer’s really advanced. I’d be surprised if he lasts more than a day or two. His own fault though. I told him to quit…”

“So when am I going to die?”    She looks thoughtful. “I don’t know. Soon, I suppose. I just know that I’m supposed to guide Jerry after I guide you. So, how do you feel? Any pains, dizziness, rumblings? Anything that might be fatal?”

“I was feeling fine until you showed up.”

“Headaches? Nausea? Bowels OK?”

“Susan!” She looks at me almost startled. Good. “When are you supposed to guide Jerry?”

“That’s confidential information. Besides, I just know that I’m supposed to guide him after I guide you. They didn’t give me any dates. Do you have any premonitions? Some people just know when it’s their time.”

“No! No premonitions. And I’m pretty damn sure it’s not my time.” A hopeful thought comes into my head. “How long does it take to guide me?” I’m thinking that, if it takes a long time, then Jerry’s on his way to…maybe some kind of miraculous recovery.

“Not long.”

Damn.

“Just a few basics: the math of maintaining creation, time management―eternity’s a long time, you know―some yoga. The basics.”

“So…exactly how long does it take. I mean, you’re the guide.”

“It’s hard to say, Charley. Time is different when you’re dead. You suddenly have lots of it. And there’s no real day or night, no seasons. Besides, Jerry’s a goner…soon. And you’re a goner before him. Live with it.”

“Susan, I’m not ready to die. I have things to do, places to go.”

“Like, what and where?”

“Well…you know…things…places. All that stuff you do before you die.”

“You’re never going to do any of it, Charley. You never do anything. You work, you watch TV, you sleep. If your life were a restaurant, the menu would fit on a thumb tack.”

“But I have…”

“I just remembered…there’s a flower shop right by where you work. You could have stopped in for a few minutes. You could have bought me flowers.”

“Susan! I’m going to die! Soon! And you’re still going on about the flowers?”

“Look at the bright side…you won’t be dying alone. I’ll be here with you. How about numbness? Blurred vision?”

“Come to think of it, my throat feels a bit tight.”

“Now we’re talking. Difficulty breathing?”

“No! My breathing’s fine. You almost sound like you want me to die.”

“Charley, I’d like to start my new job sometime this century. You can be really inconsiderate, you know. Feeling any hot flashes, or anything?”

“Sorry to disappoint you, Susan, but no…”

“What?”

“My chest.”

“Your chest?”

“It feels weird. Like it used to when I was a kid.”

“You mean when you used to get allergic reactions?”

“Yeah, but I haven’t had one of those in years.” I start coughing. My throat feels like a vice is clamping in on it.

“Charley, when did you buy the new couch?”

“Today. Why?”

“Charley, did you get a second hand couch.”

“What does that have to do with…”

“You bought a second hand couch.”

“I got a good deal.” I’m coughing non-stop now and wheezing.

“It’s probably full of fleas.”

“Fleas?”

“You told me you almost died as a kid from an allergic reaction to fleas.”

Suddenly, I can’t breathe. I start gagging. Susan claps her hands together and smiles.

“Susan, do something!”

“I am.”

“What?”

“Waiting to start my new job.”

Some more gagging, some reddening of the face, and it’s over. I look at Susan and she’s beaming. “Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

I look at my body lying on the floor, spittle dripping from my mouth. I look irritated. “That’s me.”

“That was you.” She extends her hand to me. “You said you had things to do, places to go. Well, you were right.”

“But I meant…”

She wraps her fingers around my hand and tugs lightly. “Time to go, Charley. But, before we begin the, let’s say…orientation…we need to talk.”