Category Archives: The Best Results Blog

Is time travel a cop-out?

Today’s installment was written on this fully compatible English/Icelandic typewriter.

“What is this, a lock?” Guy, a throwaway character asked, picking it up off a shelf where it served as a dutiful bookend in the mystery section.

“Careful. Careful, it’s a time machine,” Susannah Fontaine-Williams said.

“No, really, what is this?” he demanded, picking it up. It looked like a square padlock without the latch on top. Just a dark, metal box with a numbered dial in the middle, It was simple and beautiful and he couldn’t take his eyes off it. He turned the dial one notch and it clicked.

“Did you not hear me?!?” she said. “Keep doing that and you’ll end up back in the bronze age or at an inquisition and you’re not ready. Just look at how you’re dressed.”

“Oh come on,” he said, testing the resistance of the dial. “There’s no such thing as a time machine.”

Susannah scoffed and shook her head.

“Just don’t touch that dial unless you’re sure you know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I mean, maybe some day you can use it. I have no plans to. Just…make sure you know what you’re doing first.”

“Susannah, where did you get this?”

She sat down on Big Orange, the bright orange sofa so large its pieces wouldn’t fit on the freight elevator, even with the ceiling removed. She had to enlist a small cadre of men with extreme musculature to carry it up the twelve flights of stairs. Even then, it wouldn’t fit through the doorway to the room, and it had to be widened. The doorway, I mean, not the room.

Susannah smoothed the front of her jeans. She wore her Lees high-waisted in a way that stopped being stylish long before she was born, her blouse tucked in, daring anyone to think she looked frumpy. She didn’t. She took a deep breath, then stood, and walked to the window, then back to the now wide enough doorway, then just back and forth.

“He said he was my son.” She looked to her guest for a reaction.

“As you know, I don’t have any children,” she continued. In her mind, an image of Bob and the triplets flashed, one of whom was a boy…or was it two, but then she never was certain that they were even real. She had seen the resemblance in his face – especially in the eyes and the way he’d dubiously raise an eyebrow – despite his ragged appearance. He had presented her with a photo of the two of them on the steps of the New York Public Library, Susannah an older woman than now, and he an un-weathered teen version of himself. The photo could have been doctored. It could have been real.

“Anyway, he had come back to this time to fix something,” she continued. She extended her hand palm up to him and glanced at the lock.” He handed it back to her and she returned it to the shelf, removing the book at the end of the row, Jasper Fforde’s “The Eyre Affair.”

“What did he come back to fix?” I said.

“Oh, that doesn’t matter. He told me about it, but it was just a bunch of nonsense.”

“Well, if he erased something from history, then you’d never know otherwise, would you? What did he tell you? Come on, tell me.”

She settled back onto Big Orange, running a thumb over the pages of the book. Thwip. Thwip.

A fire. An explosion. A plane crash that kills…”

Walt walked in, jumped on the couch, put his head on her lap and looked up at her.

“Yes, you’re right,” she said to Walt, her eyes on Guy. “Just a bunch of gibberish.”

Walt jumped down and wagging his tail, came over to Guy.

“Walt, good boy. Who’s a good boy?”

Susannah’s phone rang. “Yes?” she answered, walking out of the room.

Guy quickly went back over to the book shelf. He picked up the lock. “What do you think, Walt? Is this a time machine? Is your mom just yanking my chain?”

He turned the lock over and etched on the back in tiny print, was a list. Fortunately, there was an onyx-handled magnifying glass one shelf down. The first line read:

Til að hreinsa skífuna skaltu snúa til vinstri þriggja snúninga.

“It’s Icelandic,” Susannah said, leaning on the doorway. It says, “To clear the dial, spin it left three full revolutions.”

“Why?”

“I suppose because it was made in Iceland some time far into the future. Now, put it back, please.”

He did.

“Now, that was the studio calling. I have to run.” She hooked her arm in his and led him to the door. She leaned in and kissed him, ruffling his hair. “I’ll call you later?”

Guy gasped, “yes, please,” as she pushed him through the door. He took a step to the elevator, turned and said, “Wait. Kills who?” Guy said. “Was I killed?”

Susannah opened The Eyre Affair to where the photo bookmarked it. She and her son, on the library steps, sometime in the future. The other Susannah sat down next to her on Big Orange. “I love that photo,” she said. “Which one of us do you think it is?”

“Oh, it’s got to be you. You’re much more the marrying type.” They laughed, each thinking how much they liked having the other around.

Ed. note. Check in next time for the transcripts of a panel discussion by famous authors: Is using the crowd-pleasing device of time travel  to fix narrative a cop out or a best practice? 

Sprung upon

The day after the Shining Star closed

I went for breakfast one morning to find that the Shining Star, a greasy spoon on Amsterdam and 78th had closed. It was Saturday morning and the people I shared my life with were still in their pajamas. Signs taped in the window said goodbye and thanked everyone for being loyal customers and we’ll miss you. Businesses up and down the avenues were closing because of high rents. And on the cross streets, too. The empty restaurant stayed vacant a long time, until after we left New York I think, but I can’t be sure any more. Maybe a bank moved in, or a drug store.

Now it’s winter in a different city. It’s on days like today I want to get lost in the city, to get on the subway, transfer to a line I’ve hardly ever taken, get off at a strange stop, and then walk, camera in hand like a tourist. There aren’t subways in this town, though. I could Uber, I guess, but it’s harder to get somewhere by accident in a car.

What is a day like this? Cold, but not bitter, the sun sharp enough to make your eyes ache, but not bleed. A day with unallotted time, where you’re itchy and your legs twitch, eager to pound unfamiliar sidewalk where whole sections are swallowed up in the long shadows cast by the winter sun.

“It made me feel sprung upon,” is a sentence near the beginning of Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, a New York novel of the late 1930s, and it’s New York I wish was outside my window, like it was every day for the first fifteen years of this century. I’m re-reading Rules, comparing it structurally with a story I’ve been working on for nearly forever called the New Palace Hotel. Hotel is decent enough, but needs work under the hood. For stretches, it just rolls along the highway, like the old Toyota on the first page, purring as it disappears around a mountain bend. And then chokes and coughs out some white smoke. It’s needs work to turn into something reliable. Anyway, I really like that sentence, “It made me feel sprung upon.” If I could tap out a few sentences like that, well, that would set things right.

All Fives

A tale of customer service..

Unexplained archival image

The Morgan Fairchild, a Model Nine residential rocket, had just cleared the atmosphere and begun approaching a low earth orbit. Oates heard two quick pings, then what sounded like a can of soda opening. A gong sounded, then the voice, so calm, so matter-of-fact it could put you to sleep. “Hull breach, decks three and four. Hull breach, decks three and four.” It was ANDREA, the ship’s artificial intelligence.

“Uhhhh, check that,” Oates said.

“We have a hull breach on decks three and four. Would you like me to call support, Passenger Oates?”

“Can’t you just fix the hull breach?”

“I’m sorry, the base Model Nine can’t do that. Would you like to upgrade? I can contact customer support.”

“Yes, the upgrade sounds like a good idea,” Oates said.

“I’m sorry, Model Nines must be docked for upgrades. Would you like me to contact support, anyway?”

“Yeah, do that.”

The ship gonged again. Kath was in the basement – deck three. The Morgan Fairchild, as far as Oates knew, had only three decks. Main was deck two, the basement was three, and the attic was one. It was supposed to be a joke, naming the decks for the floors of a house, but it ended up just being confusing. 

“We’re third in the support queue,” ANDREA said.

“How long…”

“The wait is less than eight minutes.”

“What is the status of ship’s systems?” Oates said, thinking Kath would ask that if she weren’t downstairs somewhere.

“The ship is losing air. I recommend sealing the basement.”

“Kath’s down there.”

“Passenger Kath’s head has pierced through both decks three and four…,” said ANDREA.

“I didn’t know we had a deck four,” said Oates.

“Deck four is very narrow. It’s used to channel wires, tubes, and fuel, and it’s no longer pressurized.”

“I see,” said Oates.

“Passenger Kath in all probability is dead. Would you like me to seal the basement to prevent further loss of atmosphere? Air at 64%.”

“No, wait. I want to have a look,” Oates said, unstrapping himself. He slid down the rails to the basement. From her shoulders down, Kath’s body was sticking into the room through the wall, her legs and torso parallel to the floor. He pulled her legs, but the suction was too strong, and she didn’t budge. He didn’t know what a dead body felt like, but it must have been something like this. He could feel the air rushing toward the opening in which her head was lodged.

“Sir, support is picking up.” Oates liked that ANDREA called him, “sir.”

He returned to the main deck and strapped himself in.

“Good morning, passenger, how are you today?” the voice said. “My name is Amir. To whom am I speaking?”

“Yeah, this is Oates. ANDREA tells me there’s a hull breach.”

“For quality assurance purposes, this call may be recorded. After the call, would you mind staying on the line and answering a few survey questions so that we may serve you better?”

“Yeah. No. What? Look, the ship is leaking, and my girlfriend’s head is sticking out into space.” Protruding would have been a better word, he thought. Protruding into space.

“That’s unfortunate, sir. Let’s see if we can fix the problem together. Now, according to our records, you’re in a base Model Nine, the Morgan Fairchild?

“Yes.”

“Have you upgraded to the latest software?”

“I don’t know…I thought we signed up for automatic updates.”

“Let me check that for you. You’re running version 9.13. The current version is 9.22. Would you like to download that now?”

“Wait. I thought I had to be docked. What does that have to do with the leak?”

“Sir, I can’t do any remote analysis and repair unless you’re on the latest version of the software.”

“Air at 54%,” ANDREA chimed in.

“Oh, that’s not good,” Amir said. “I’ve gone ahead and started the update. You may notice a slight lag in performance during the download.”

The lights in the cabin dimmed while the screens displayed a progress bar.

“While the system updates, would you mind taking our online survey? Your opinion is important to us, and your ratings can influence other people’s purchasing decisions.”

Except for the screen, the ship went dark and silent and suddenly cold. Oates could see his breath, a puffy cloud, hovering. Then the lights flickered on and everything came to life.

“Air at 41%,” ANDREA said.

“Okay,” Amir said. “I see you have a hull breach on three and four.”

“I know.”

“And you’re quickly losing air. Why don’t we seal off deck three from the main cabin? That should kill the leak.”

“Wouldn’t that kill Kath, too.”

“It looks like Passenger Kath’s head is in the cold, dark void of space. I’m sure she’s dead.”

Oates rubbed his temples. This was supposed to be a ride into the rest of their lives, an escape from the ruined earth. Everyone who could was getting away from the once-green world that could now barely support cockroaches and moss.

People like Kath and Oates couldn’t afford a place on the massive satellites designed for the world’s richest, but they could buy a simple old Model Nine, and join it with other Nines. Plus, it was compatible with the new Model Tens and farming pods. They could start a life in space. They were already overdue to meet up with the Petrovskys on the Victoria Principal. Now Kath – the only one who knew how the ship worked – was dead. Who would fix things? Who would he cuddle with at night? Who would make everything better?

“Air at 34%,” ANDREA said.

“Sir, I’ve gone ahead and sealed off decks three and four while you think things over.”

“Atmosphere stable. Air at 37%.”

Amir continued, “Try to maneuver your ship into a stable orbit while you plan your next steps.”

Oates pressed the gas pedal, a silly option, but one Kath insisted upon. It reminded her of a vintage GTO, a muscle car she had inherited from her grandfather.

“Thrusters inoperable,” ANDREA said.

“Let me troubleshoot that for you,” Amir said.

“Thanks,” Oates said, bewildered and a little bit lightheaded.

“It looks like Passenger Kath’s head has severed the fuel line and fuel is leaking out into space,” Amir said, cheerfully.

“Can you fix that?” Oates said.

“Fuel at 14%,” ANDREA said.

“You’ll need to go down to deck three and manually repair the line.”

“I see,” Oates said.

“Put on your approved space suit.”

“My space suit…”

“Your space suit,” ANDREA said, “is in the basement.”

“What do you recommend?” Oates said.

“Eject?” Amir said, for the first time appearing as flummoxed as Oates.

“Eject?!? To what?”

“Orbit degrading,” ANDREA said, her voice calm and reassuring. “Hull failure is imminent.”

There was a knock on the basement door. Then a pounding.

“Oates, let me in. Open this door right now.”

“Kath? Is that you, Kath?”

“Of course, it’s me. Who else would it be?” Kath said.

“Opening the basement door will result in complete cabin depressurization,” ANDREA said.

“I thought it was you, but your voice is a little bit muffled. I’ve missed you so much. How are you alive?”

“I’m wearing a space suit. Like you’re supposed to.”

“Great. Yeah, I should have thought to do that. It’s great you’re not dead,” Oates said.

“Ask her to fix the leak in the fuel line,” Amir said.

“Kath, did you hear that??

“What? I have a splitting headache!”

“Can you fix the fuel line?” Oates said.

“Why can’t you do it?”

“I’m locked out of the basement. I can’t open the door until the pressure has equalized.”

“Do you think Kath can take a moment to fill out a survey?” Amir said. “Just a short one.”

“It’s really hot down here,” Kath said.

“That’s just the atmospheric friction,” Amir said. “If you’re skimming the atmosphere, that’s bad news. I’m sending you a survey.”

“Hull has been compromised,” ANDREA said. The vessel shook. There was an explosion.

“Kath?”

But Kath, now helmetless, drifted by the window toward the earth below, a look of surprise on her face. As she entered the atmosphere a moment later, her body glowed red, sprouted flames and disappeared in a flash.

“Your warranty covers catastrophic failure,” Amir said. “You’ll have the option of a pro-rated refund, or a credit toward a Model 10.”

“But Kath’s gone. What difference does it make?” Oates said, dizzy, angry, confused.

“Hull failure on decks one through four,” ANDREA said.

“Listen, you don’t have much time, I’m going to read out the questions and fill in the form for you.”

“Okay. What?”

“Question 1: On a scale of one through five, with five being the best…”

Petrovsky resurfaces

Petrovsky’s dog at a highway service stop. P had just gotten up to attend to an urgent matter and I was left for 17 uncomfortable minutes trying to find common ground with this  disinterested animal.

Note: for best results, listen to Elmer Bernstein’s The Great Escape while reading this document.

A letter from my old acquaintance Petrovsky arrived just the other day. Until two years ago, I hadn’t seen P since the old days and thought P had disappeared from the face of the earth. But recently P’d resurfaced and we’ve met periodically at highway service stops halfway between our towns for the last two years. We mostly talk about old times but I suspect he wants to enlist my help in solving Ptarmigan’s Riddle. When P’s letter arrived. I wanted to post the actual letter, handwritten in the old style, however, it disintegrated shortly after I read it. Luckily, I have a photographic memory…

My Dear DS,
With the holidays coming up, I wanted to let you know that traditionally, I don’t give presents, however I expect that you’ll want to give me something. Which is very thoughtful of you. Please do not spend more than $800 because that’s too much, unless you feel as if you must. Since you and I have never exchanged holiday gifts in the 40 years we’ve known each other, and assuming that starting from our time at The Delinquency School, you probably would have spent $10, and that over the course of four decades, that amount might have crept up to, say, $35 per annum, then $800 seems reasonable (which is crazy because no on in their right mind would spend $800), however, you’ve had that money available to earn interest, to invest, or to blow on Betamax tapes, so the $800 not spent over the years on a trinket for me would be worth many thousands by now. Knowing you and your market savvy, you bought Apple in 1976, and that’s worth a fortune, so why would you gripe about $800? I would not be at all hurt if you needed to save up and you put off your holiday present til next year, but it will likely run you closer to $835. It’s up to you. Again, I do not give presents. Everyone knows that, so please don’t expect anything in return.

By the way, I have big birthday coming up next year and you’re way behind on birthday presents, too. No need to sweat that now…we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I do give birthday presents – birthdays are important and meaningful – but I never remember birthdays, so you probably won’t get one from me.

-Your humble friend,
Petrovsky

Note to the piano movers

Thanks so much for coming ahead of the storm. It’s only a category three; I don’t know why they even bother to call it a hurricane.

When you first enter the house, be certain to ignore our darling dog, Schatzi, who has a multiple personality disorder. He’s suitably medicated, but, if disturbed will most certainly engage in antics that some find unsettling given his mammoth size.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Ignore the dog

As I told Big Al on the phone, the upright piano in the dining room needs to be moved into one of three upstairs rooms. I refer, of course, to the Steinway, not the Baldwin, which is an inferior instrument and scheduled for destruction early next week. The demolition team may have already rigged it with explosives, so please stay away from it.

The first and best option for the Steinway upright – please do not move the Steinway grand – is the bedroom in the southwest corner of the west wing of the second floor. You must take precise measurements of the hallway before you start. Of immediate concern is the sharp left zig-zag leading to the small second staircase. Remove the handrail but under no circumstances are you to destroy it – nothing should be destroyed unless you receive instructions from me to the contrary. Once you’ve navigated the piano through the west wing stairs, hallways, and turns, place it along the south wall. As always, before moving the piano, check inside for dead animals.

Should this location prove inaccessible, try the north tower. Again: measure, measure, measure. You may use my husband Derek’s surveying instruments so long as you wipe your fingerprints from them when you return them to cold storage. He doesn’t like it when people handle his tools, but what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

Some movers have had difficulties with the round stairway leading to the north tower – it was only recently that the Louis XIV Armoire was at long last extricated. It was so… cathartic splintering it with an axe. Of course, Derek wanted to blow it up, but for safety reasons, we ignite explosives only outdoors. However, I do have every confidence in your abilities.

If needed, you may construct and install a suitable winch which should be removed when you complete your task. Place the piano in the exact center of the tower facing west so that my daughter Ezmerine can play her mournful little concertos at sunset, her only real joy. If you see Ezmerine, please do not comment on or make notice of her nudity. Though she is a free spirit, she is very prickly on the subject.

Now that I think about it, the tower really is the first and best choice.

If you fail at options one or two, then, as a last resort, use the east by northeast drawing room. No explanation is needed here as I’m sure you will manage either of the first two options, especially the second, which is now to be considered first. However, if fail you do, at one or two, contact me on my fourth mobile phone. Big Al should have briefed you, but phone #1 is for my husband and family; #2 is for my agent, attorneys, and artisanal medication emergencies. #3 is for my current lover, Geoffrey, although Antoine and Gertie may still have that number. Just in case. It’s been so long since they’ve called. As you can imagine, I do so miss them. So, cell phone #4 only.

Anyway, it’s a small job and I expect you’ll finish in under an hour, well before the storm is at full force. The storm will almost certainly rouse Schatzi and you don’t want to be in the house when that happens. Help yourself to the special brownies as you leave. Should the access road to the house be under water due to the hurricane, Derek and I invite you to wait it out in your truck.

TTFN,

Violetta Cheesegrater-Fencepost

New York weekend

Posing at the Whitney

So we were back in hot, smelly, tasty New York over the weekend where it was too uncomfortable to stand outside and wait for a cab or an Uber. Forget the subway platform with its superheated unventilated barely breathable sludge that passes for air. Forget walking on the sunny side of the street. Always check the air conditioning of that restaurant before the menu.

And, oh yeah, apparently  cockroaches took flight.

I do love New York though, even when it’s like this. You can walk around with a camera and take pictures of people posing on one of the Whitney’s terraces, and see avant-garde Fringe Festival shows. Which is why we went – to see a friend’s poignant and hilarious production of Gorges Motel at Players Theatre, which made Huff Post’s curated Fringe Festival list. See it.

gorges

Anyway, pluses and minuses regarding New York City.

Minuses: It costs a lot of money to get there, stay there, eat there, drink there and entertain yourself there. There are unidentifiable odors mixed with some unfortunately recognizable ones. Tourist destinations waste your valuable time. The city is not what it once was.

Pluses: New York City is still more unlike anywhere else than anywhere else. It is strange, electrified, multicultural, demanding,  ecstatic, entertaining, stimulating, exhausting. No matter how great the thing is that you’re doing, you always have the feeling that there’s something else even better. You can order Indian food and  have it delivered just about any time of day or night.

The takedown

The morning of the takedown was the first time dad said to Mara and me, “Don’t waste food,” and it had real meaning. We might regret not having that food soon enough. She was little and had burned her bread and didn’t want to eat it. Dad said the time of excess was coming to an end and people had to compete with each other and with wildlife for the first time in anyone’s memory.

We walked to the big hill, my sister and I each gripping one of my father’s gnarled hands. The people circled the great White Oak that stood with giant sheltering arms spread over the hillside, stretching some 120 feet into the sky. Mrs. Heiser arrived and the circle parted and let her in. “Quercus alba,” she said, and, shading her eyes with a hand, looked up to its crown. “All things must pass,” she said to the crowd.

“All things must pass,” they replied.

She walked completely around the base of the tree, running a hand along the rough bark. After completing a circuit, she stopped and stood with a palm resting on the bark, eyes closed. The tree was sick, beginning to show the early signs of the blight. “We must take her now,” Mrs. Heiser said. “so that we can salvage her wood.”

 “What does she mean, dad,” Mara asked.
     “She means that the blight hasn’t gotten deep into the wood yet, but it will. If we don’t cut her down, she’ll fall soon enough and the wood will be useless, even for burning.”
     “All right,” Mrs. Heiser said. “We’ve all done this before. If you don’t know what to do, now’s the time to ask because once we start, it gets dangerous. This beautiful old white oak was here before your great grandparents and probably would have gone on living if times had stayed the way they were.”
     “But they didn’t,” a man called out.
     “They didn’t!” the people replied in one voice.
     “They didn’t, and we’re the reason,” Mrs. Heiser said.
     “We’re the reason!”
     “We honor this tree by cutting her down and using her branches and boards, for shelter, for heat, for whatever may come.”
     “For whatever may come!” the crowd called out.
She strapped crampons on her boots and wrapped a strap around the tree, sliding her hands through loops at each end. With a  flick of her wrists, the strap went up several feet and she scampered up so that she was now about four feet off the ground. She repeated the process so that in a burst she stood hugging the tree some 30 feet overhead to where the lowest branches split out. She rolled up the strap and hooked it to a clip on her belt and continued climbing by hand until she stood at the point where one of the highest branches split off at an angle. She quickly attached a rope and lowered it. Without a word, someone tied a basket on one end and someone else put in a gigantic pulley with a handle on it.
     “That’s a winch,” the father answered without being asked. “Watch.”
     In a few minutes a man strapped a harness on, it was Mr. Paulings, the tooth man. He waved an arm, and called out, “OK, pull me up” There were two sets of winches, one at the top that Mrs. Heiser turned and a large one at the bottom with a big steel wheel turned by two hulking men. Mr. Paulings was up in a matter of seconds. The two hitched themselves to the trunk and walked out on the branch, and about halfway out, began sawing.
     This would have been quick work with a chain saw, but the community voted to use hand tools to minimize noise and the chance of rovers detecting us.