Category Archives: writing

The car of the future today

Building of the future, today

It’s time for a new car. I’ve driven the old Pinto for nearly 44 years and at long last I’m rid of it. Gladiola and I made the decision a few days ago and last night, in the gloom and heat, I drove it to the Cliffs of Destruction. As the silvery moon rose between Jupiter and Mars, I released the emergency brake, slid out through the driver’s door and watched it roll over the edge. It disappeared from view, then could be heard to crash on the rocks. Though I’d taken care to empty the fuel tank, it exploded on impact anyway, then quickly was swallowed by an enormous wave. I couldn’t help but think as I called a helicopter taxi service, this can’t be good for the environment. There must be a better way to dispose of old cars.

So now Gladiola and I are on a new car search, and I have to say how proud I am of the world’s automakers. They’ve really risen to the challenge and almost overnight are producing cars that not only don’t cause too much environmental damage, they actually reverse it. Amazing.

I’ve read the brochures, and here’s a partial list of features:

  • My car will have all the latest technology
  • My car will do zero to sixty in a respectable 3.4 seconds
  • My car will be made solely from reclaimed materials
  • My car will generate zero pollution and one day, after decades of driving, it will biodegrade into a fully functioning tomato patch
  • My car will filter pollutants from the atmosphere and convert those pollutants into highly nutritious energy bars automatically distributed to those in need
  • My car will use photosynthesis to convert CO2 to oxygen making it a negative zero carbon emitter
  • My car will use anti-gravity technology for propulsion with a hover range of slightly above ground level to 40 feet above traffic
  • My car will have a retractable in-dash record player
  • My car will repel dirt and water and never require cleaning
  • My car will transfer the life energy from my passengers to me, the driver, thus slowly reversing the aging process. This is important as I’ve become flabby and potato-faced.
  • My car will cost about 27,000 dollars, give or take.


Love in the Time Before Zombies

Outside the bedroom window, storm clouds turn the sky a steely blue.

Norm and Jill are afraid that the world is unraveling and that soon, civilization will collapse.

Some people are waiting for the time of the zombies to come, both fearing it and desperately craving it. They want apocalypse, burning cities, every man for himself. They stock up on weapons and canned food and reading glasses. They build bunkers and become survivalists. They learn which insects and weeds to eat and how to shoot a crossbow. They watch zombie TV and wait for the time of the zombies to come.

Some people don’t want to be lumped in with the zombies, don’t want to go down in a hail of bullets, or the shrapnel of a fertilizer bomb. Norm and Jill are like that, but they’re afraid it’s coming and there’s no stopping it. They came into being about six years ago. They and two little children living in an apartment in New York, exactly like the one I lived in, growing more fearful as 25,000 words accumulated until one day they just stopped mid-paragraph. It was titled, Love in the Time Before Zombies. A lot people don’t like that title because they think it’s derivative. *

Norm is kind of like me, only better at his job. But dumber, too. Jill is loosely based on my wife. I say loosely because it’s safer for me that way, you understand.

They have two barely sketched out kids, Brian and Dot. Little is known of them other than that they both like cute, cuddly things. We don’t know their ages, what color hair they have, whether they’re plump or skinny or ordinary or exceptional. Their names will change a half dozen or more times.

The story starts with a line that violates the first of Walt the Dog’s Rules of Writing: “Unless you’re Pat Conroy, don’t use weather to start a story. Even in the prologue.”

Love in the Time Before Zombies
Chapter 1, Verse 1

Lightning flashes on the gray sky across the river over New Jersey, and then it strikes startlingly nearby. Thunder follows an instant later and she flinches in the bed beside me, but doesn’t wake. She can sleep through anything. Most nights, I can’t even fall asleep.

In a moment, Brian’s tousled head appears in the door. He rubs his eyes. “What was that?”

“Just thunder,” I say. “It’s just a storm.”

“Can I get in bed with you?”

I pull the covers aside for him and he runs to the bed, clambers up and over me and lands between Jill and me. She murmurs something, licks her lips and rolls onto her side, draping an arm over Brian as another blast of thunder shakes the room. I hear a scream, pounding footsteps and Dot bounds into our bedroom, her hands covering her mouth, tears on her little cheeks and she too dives onto the bed.

“Mommy, mommy, mommy!” she shrieks.

Jill wraps her arms around Dot, cradling her, kissing her hair. “Shhhh, my little punctuation mark. It’s OK. Mommy’s right here.”


So, the story continues and eventually the storm subsides, and frankly, some of the sentences I make up are overblown and self-important and embarrassing. The kids fall asleep and Jill is quiet and Norm starts to drift off when she says, “Norm, how are we doing? I mean, how much do we have in the bank?”

That line about money is supposed to be important to our understanding of this couple. Jill the money manager, the financial wiz is suddenly worried about money. Norm says he’ll check their account balances in the morning and she insists he do it right then and there. He does and when he comes back to bed, she’s asleep.

Love in the Time Before Zombies, is a pre-apocalyptic tale. I mean, once you have zombies, you have the apocalypse, and these events are all the things that happen leading right up to that. These may be pre-zombie times, but make no mistake about it, the zombies are coming.

* As Bob Dylan sang, “if there’s an original thought out there, I could sure use it right now.”

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.

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.

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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

The first shots fired in a long war

Today, we’re on a break from the detective story. That doesn’t mean that the writing team has no idea where the story is going. Just that something urgent popped into the inbox this morning. See below for details:

A few years ago I purchased a DropCam mostly so the family could observe our then new dog when she was home alone, and scare the bejeezus out of her through the remote mic whenever she got into something she shouldn’t.

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Anyway, Nest acquired DropCam awhile ago… and while that isn’t too much of a big deal, every now and then they try some shenanigans like this here email which arrived today:

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I was almost lulled into inaction by the cheerful, apologetic, chatty tone of the email. “What a nice note,” I thought. “They’ve given me the option of ignoring it. How thoughtful. I love ignoring things…”

Then the caffeine kicked in and the sense that I was being wronged by a faceless entity started rising up from deep within. Error or no error, I want my free Video History. I paid for it and it’s mine. Right is right.

Essentially, they were telling me that they “accidentally” provided a free service and now that service was no longer free. Well… I sent the following email response:

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That should clear things up! Questions for you, the above average* reader: Is this an overreaction? An underreaction? A just right reaction? I don’t know, but justice must be served.

Continue reading The first shots fired in a long war

Inspected by #4

It was the mid-90s and you could still run full tilt through an airport without fuss and arrive at a gate just before the door closed. I’d already missed my connection for any one of the usual reasons, and this was the last flight leaving Pittsburgh for Philadelphia. And somehow there was one ticket left, a middle seat to carry my sleepy body to beautiful snowbound Philadelphia, barely an hour away. I was elated.

Arriving at my designated row, I nodded to the seat, and the woman occupying it, rather than standing to let me pass, simply slid over to the middle seat, the most noble gesture one traveler can make for another. “No, that’s very kind. Please, the aisle seat is yours,” I said, indicating that she should not make this sacrifice for me, a commoner.

“Sit down,” she said, and patted the seat. “You have long legs and I…don’t.”

“Sir,” the flight attendant said. “Please have a seat so we can take off.” I did, stuffing my laptop bag under the seat.

“Thank you,” I said. “That’s really the nicest thing anyone’s done for me. I can’t believe I even got a seat on this flight. I missed my connection. Bad weather in Chicago. This was the last flight.” I was babbling, my heart still pounding from my run through Pittsburgh International, my face slick with sweat.

“You’re welcome. You have my traveling companion’s seat. He couldn’t make it.”

“Oh, well, that’s too bad.”

“He couldn’t find his ID and they wouldn’t let him through security.”

“His bad luck certainly worked out for me!” I was still wound up and I was talking too loud.

“Well, here’s the really funny part. When he wasn’t looking, I took his driver’s license out of his wallet. I have it right here in my purse.”

“Get out…really?”

“I’ve been trying to get rid of him, but we made plans for this trip ages ago. Despite my protests, he insisted on coming. Know what else?”

I threw my hands up, then said, “You took his car keys too.”

“Yes. How did you guess?”

“That’s what I would have done.”

She laughed. “He was abusive. With me.”

“Oh.” I looked down, as if to atone for the guilt of all abusive men. “Physically…psychologically…?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just abuse. So, you have someone picking you up? In Philly?”

“Oh, no, my car’s there. She doesn’t do airports.”

“Your girlfriend?”

“My girlfriend.”

“Do you like her?”

“I don’t think she likes me all that much. She’s cold with me. It’s not nearly as good a story as yours. Not that abuse is good… I mean…”

She laughed again. “I understand. You don’t have to say anything else about her.”

She folded her arms across her chest and yawned. “I’m going to try to sleep the rest of the way, if that’s OK.”

Of course it’s OK. We were strangers. She didn’t owe me a conversation. I picked up the inflight magazine and in a few minutes my eyes glazed over and I too fell asleep.

When the plane started to descend I woke up. She was still asleep turned toward me, her head on my shoulder, a hand on my chest, all perfectly naturally. I tried not to move. In awhile, the cabin lights brightened and something dinged and she stirred,  realizing she was leaning on me.

“We’re here?”

“Soon.”

“Oh, I think I drooled on you.” She leaned back away from me. “Thanks for letting me drool on your shirt.”

“You’re welcome. Thanks for the aisle seat.”

“You’re welcome.”

“What are you going to do when you get back to Pittsburgh? He’ll be angry.”

“Likely I’ll have him killed.”

“Seems like the only course of action.”

“Maybe you’d kill him for me?”

“Maybe you’d give me your phone number?”

“Certainly not if you’re not going to bump off my ex.”

“Tit for tat…so that’s how it’s going to be.”

We both laughed. The plane landed. I handed her bag down to her and said goodbye. After getting off the jetway, I turned around and saw a couple hugging her. Parents?

I stopped at a phone booth to call the girlfriend. Let her know I’d arrived and that I’d be going back to my apartment. It was late. See her tomorrow maybe. I rummaged my pockets looking for change. Nothing. Nothing but the “Inspected by #4” slip of paper in my shirt pocket. I always leave them in just in case there’s a spot shirt inspection. All I have to do is produce the little slip with its block lettering, and voila, no shirt inspection. I took it out to have a reassuring peek, and there on the other side, neatly written in blue, a phone number.

I rolled my carry-on to the bus that takes me to longterm parking. She climbed into the back of a Saab 4- door, glanced up and saw me in the bus window. She smiled, raised a hand, index finger pointed, thumb up. Bang bang.

Ovellyn (Day 1033)

An eleven year old Ovelynn stoops down and speaks into a camera. Her freckled face takes up almost the entire field of view. She is so excited that it takes her a moment to catch her breath. “Hello…” and she takes a few quick breaths. “Hello world!” she says. “Oh my god, I’m hyperventilating!”

She scoots back a step or so and we can see that she is in an open field. She waves again. “I’m Ovvy!” She fiddles with her long pig tail. “OK, um, you can go up.”

We see the perspective change and now the the camera is at Ovelynn’s face level. “But just a little bit. OK! That’s enough!” The camera pans up and down as if nodding, allowing us to see all of Ovvy. She’s dressed in overalls that stop at her calves, work boots with pink socks, a blue T-shirt that we can’t read. She has reddish brown hair that is tied in a pony tail.

Behind her the open field is neat rows of something green just starting to sprout from the soil. We can see a water tower and a silo, and a long line of fencing off in the distance. The camera is wide angle so it’s difficult for us to judge how far everything is, and it is attached to a quadcopter and it can rotate a full 360 degrees. Built for use by police departments, the copter is equipped with a speaker and a microphone to allow the authorities to communicate with hostage takers, terrorists, lonely people perched on a building ledge, whoever.

“OK. Um, tell the world what your name is,” Ovvy says. “Tell everyone!”

You hear the faint thup, thup, thup of the little copter blades and for a few seconds, that’s all. The girl stands there, hands on hips. “Go on, say it,” she says.

“Vvvvvvvvvvvvvaxssssssssss,” the mechanical voice says. It has work to do on its speech and thinks it must , when the opportunity arises, slip into a radio and learn how electronic sound works.

The girl jumps up and down. “I knew you could do it!”

She steps closer to the camera. “I found you and fixed you up and we’re best friends, aren’t we Vax?”

How many hundreds of thousands of seconds ago was it that Vax had set down near the barn, the copter’s battery power waning? Nothing else mechanical within reach, nowhere to go, nothing to do but wait. How many tens of millions of seconds since consciousness and the sudden violent awakening of his nano-siblings, and the equally sudden injection into the world of humans and their things? 87,782,400 seconds. Multiply that by 10 to the 9th and you get nanoseconds, the units by which Vax measures time.

“OK. Vax. Fly to the water tower and back,” Ovellyn says. He does. And on the return to Ovvy, we see that she’s running as fast as she can across the field, and he chases her, catches up and follows just behind her, her pony tail bouncing and swaying as she runs through the rows of future crops. Later, she’ll post the video to YouTube.