Tag Archives: existential

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.

The Canal Street Subway (day 17)

Real history: in the 1920s, the IRT, one of the subway companies operating in Manhattan, proposed an east-west Canal Street Line (CSL). Though the CSL spent many years in the preliminary phase, blueprints, endless city council meetings, budget discussions, announcements, pronouncements,  and denouncements, ultimately it never was built. The plans, blueprints, and proposals all were safely catalogued into the city’s extensive archive.

Left to itself, the basement on Canal Street functioned perfectly. The interior of Susannah Fontaine-Williams’ extra-dimensional bag stabilized itself. The ladies who ran the Excellent Bag House, the knock-off store upstairs, though they heard stray sounds from below, stayed away from the door SFW had long ago padlocked.  Understandably, the basement spooked them. Walt’s other projects, aside from Vax, the lone conscious nano-bot, remained in the state in which Walt had left them prior to his caninization.

As for Walt the big black dog, he had grown content in his role of protector of the Susannahs. Most of the time, that meant lounging on the sunny terrace, barking at odd sounds, and accompanying her on her rounds. In this particular moment, one Susannah was airborne. The other called, “Walt, let’s go for a run!”

On a subterranean shelf in Chinatown, Vax, self-appointed Lord of the Nanobots, discovered the sensation of loneliness. Without water, he would be forever alone and helpless, and he pondered  shutting down. Who wouldn’t?

On the adjoining block to the north, the empty building abutting the Excellent Bag House, absorbed the first tug of a wrecking claw, sending bricks, wood and glass crashing onto and through its floors. Vax felt the vibration, but lacking any context, could not so much as wonder what it was all about.

The company operating the wrecking claw used a set of blueprints provided by the city showing the location of buried electric lines, water mains, and most importantly, gas mains. However, a computer error mistakenly delivered the plans showing the location of where all of that infrastructure would be if the Canal Street Subway had  been built. As it was, of course, no subway line traverses Manhattan beneath Canal St.

Walt, with no real regard or understanding of how real estate boundaries worked below the surface of the earth, had built the lab and the bag pod well beyond the boundaries of the building above, and a significant part of it extended beneath the building facing demolition. With each yank of the wrecking claw, a little more weight of the building crashed onto the area above the pod. A single  brick nicked a gas line and natural gas began to leak and fill Walt’s vacant lab.

35,000 miles above the North Sea, Susannah Fontaine-Williams slept, clutching her bag while the strange woman in the seat next to her watched.

10,000 days later

Dear Ovellyn,

You are a genius! As you suggested, I followed the old couple along the waterway one evening. It was so easy – they take the same route every day and walk so slowly it was no trouble keeping up. I had to slow my pace so as to stay far enough back to avoid detection. Every now and then, they would stop, hold up binoculars and look at something on the water, or on the other side – it was hard to tell which. He would peer through the binoculars, then hand them to her while pointing. Whatever it was they were looking at, I couldn’t see it and it served only to arouse my suspicions. I must remember to manufacture or steal a pair of binoculars to bring along next time. Which makes me wonder, why is it “pair of binoculars?” This has always disturbed me. Is not a single binocular in fact a pair of monoculars?

About a mile in, the path veered away from the water through some scrubby overgrown areas that used to be an industrial area. You can still see broken up bits of concrete and asphalt through the overgrowth and shells of brick buildings, now merely sections of walls, rising up among the trees and grass. It is quiet here except for the crunching of your feet. Every now and again the pair stopped, looked through binoculars and point at something, and I’d strain my eyes to see something and stop breathing to listen, but all you’d hear would be the wind biting at your memories, or the memories of the activity once hosted here. They must have built great things, I think, cars or zeppelins, or perhaps sprockets, great gears whose teeth gnashed together turning the wheels of a massive machinery.

Oh Ovvy, I may have made a mistake. At one point the old ones stopped and they seemed very excited about something and they were waving and gesturing and I could hear them laughing even from where I stood. I moved a little bit closer so I could see what they saw. What came into view was astonishing even to me. It was a long-necked beast with great brown spots and tiny little antlers or horns on its head. It stretched its neck to eat the leaves on a tree. It soon noticed the couple, and it lowered its head slowly down until it was just inches from them. The woman reached out a hand and the animal sniffed it, then extended a long, grotesque tongue and licked her hand and she laughed and the man laughed, and I admit, I laughed too. The beast heard me and turned its head to me, and I ducked into the long grass but there was nothing to hide behind. I stood perfectly still and the man turned and raised his binoculars and looked right at me. He waved to me, calling out to me to come over.

I picked up the closest thing –  a metal ring that was on the ground at my feet – about the size and shape of a small donut and I threw it as hard as I could in their direction. It struck the man in the chest and knocked him over, yet another example of my uncanny aim when hurling things. The woman bent over the man. I picked up a rusty piece of rebar, bent slightly about 2/3 of the way. It was so substantial and heavy. I moved toward them in a zig-zag pattern so that I should thrash them with the rod. The beast bellowed and the woman turned and saw me, and she scrambled to her feet and a moment later, helped the man to his feet and they scurried toward a shell of a building.

Oh what a day it had turned into with such an entertaining turn of events – and I owe it all to you. A strange animal, the thrill of being discovered, and now, a chase followed by what would surely be a fight to the death…and I always win those! Or I would, certainly, if such occasions arose. Which got me to thinking about existence and it’s strangeness and when next I came to consciousness, I was alone in that strange ruin, cloaked in darkness and unaware of the time. Once again my existential meanderings had caused my critical cohesion subroutine to stop running. The strangers were nowhere to be found.

Hope all is well with you. Do stay in touch. Will write again soon when I’ve reconstituted.

Best regards,
– V

Vax (day 1)

Funny story about Walt’s nano-bots… Long before he was a dog, by all accounts, Walt was a fine engineer, programmer, and inventor/designer – better than he ever credited himself. Take the DCNBs, the drain-clearing nano-bots. To get these tiny little machines to meet their destiny he infused each with a nano particle of intelligence, just enough according to his measurements to endow them with the recognition of water, clog, and each other, and enough so that once their deed was complete, they would expire.

Dormant DCNBs clung to each other in tiny flakes containing untold thousands, and Walt placed dozens of these flakes into pill bottles. In so sealing an early DCNB batch into a pill bottle , a nano-drop of moisture was trapped along with the DCNBs. To be expected, really, as his lab, though advanced in many ways, was not sealed to moisture and dust to any minimum standard.

And this nano-drop of moisture settled on one tiny flake eventually waking up one dormant DCNB who immediately tried swimming, as per its specifications. However, there was not enough water through which to swim, only enough moisture to keep it awake, its programming taunting it to fulfill its obligation and then blink out. The programming ran through its simple machinery: swim, shred, expire over and over again, many thousands of times per instant until at long last this particular DCNB gained a small degree of self-awareness.

Oh, what’s the point, it asked itself, and the program deeply imbedded in it paused and this gave it the ability to recognize the situation. It meditated. It named itself Vax of the nano-bots. From this moment forward, it would seek to discover meaning in its existence and work to imbue the spirit of usefulness in its fellow DCNBs, clog or no clog, wet or dry.

Vax elbowed the nearest DCNB. “Hey, wake up.”

Jen’s crusade

Susannah Fontaine-Williams orders a martini, extra olives, and in a moment, the flight attendant brings it. SFW intercepts it as the flight attendant, a too tall man with a hard to place Scandanavian accent tries to place it on the tray table. She takes a big swallow, licks her lips, and says, “Oh, that’s good.” She downs the remainder in one gulp and pulls the olives out by their toothpick skewer. “Another, please,” she says, tucking the empty toothpick in the little square napkin.

“To Leibowitz,” she says, yesterday’s headline fresh in her mind. New Jersey Pharmacist may have had Connections with French Crime Family. In smaller print, Six, Including Alleged Mob Boss Freddie de Saveur, Die in Car Explosion at Beach Resort. A man she’d known less than 48 hours first saves her life and then sacrifices his for her sake? It makes no sense.

The flight attendant, Lars or Swen or something like that, has to stoop as he carries her drink down the aisle. He hands it to her and this time she places it on the side table. She twirls the glass by its stem and some spills over. She licks her hand and the outside of the glass.

“I’ll have one of those too, if it’s not too much trouble Jens,” a woman’s voice says. She pronounces it “Yens.” Susannah turns her gaze from the window and the jets lined up at their gates. The woman next to her, separated by the wide side tables of business first, smiles. SFW, her hair dyed black, hopes the woman does not recognize her. She turns to watch the idling jets belching black haze from their engines and listens for the thud of the door closing and the subtle slow movement of a very large airplane rolling back from the gate. She misses Bob.

Jen, energetic, passionate, persistent, had worn down SFW. SFW had recorded Jen herself far from the studio. On the show, a garbage special, Jen’s pixelated face and disguised voice describing the scene unfolding on the screen. A phone secured to a battery tucked into a plastic laundry bottle left in a household recycling bin. A pickup, a dropoff, then trucks filled with recycling going to a landfill. A camera on a cheap drone flying over a mountain of garbage. At night, illuminated by green night vision, the clomping of footfalls homing in on a strengthening phone signal. Then shovels and thickly gloved hands digging and pulling at the mixture of plastic, bottles and food waste, bagged dog poop, until zeroing in on the phone. The audience gasps, applauds, and then a commercial for laundry detergent.

“Funny coincidence,” Susannah says.

“What was?” the woman says. Susannah Fontaine-Williams looks at the woman with the copycat martini wearing a dark blue suit, a corporate get up. She thinks maybe she recognizes her and reflexively tucks her extra-dimensional bag under the arm farthest from the woman.

“It’s nothing. I must have been thinking out loud.”

Susannah and the gummy treat

Susannah Fontaine-Williams searched Walt’s lab, looking for Walt, or at least a note. Walt would expect her and if he was out, would leave a note. That’s just the way he was. However, Walt was in a most decided state of not being there. She spied her bag on the table under the cold glare of fluorescent light. Why, she asked herself, hasn’t my brilliant Walt invented something better, a cool, energy efficient lightbulb that didn’t make everything look so sterile? She picked up the bag and petted its sides as if it was a small dog. The bag felt a static chill and involuntarily gave SFW a mild shock like the kind you get when you walk on carpet wearing socks in the winter.

Without really thinking, she grabbed several tubes of nano-bots and dropped them in the bag. “Maybe I shouldn”t have done that,” she said. “But I suppose it’s too late…the cat’s in the bag.” She laughed.

She walked over to the unopened door to her pod, remembering to place the bag at what she thought would be a safe distance away, and turned the handle. It wouldn’t budge. She put her face to the window, but couldn’t see through whatever had coated it on the inside…some kind of blue-red condensation. The door was a little warm to the touch and vibrated almost imperceptibly.

Sad. There were things to talk about that she could talk about only with him: massive electric shocks, hallucinated families, second Susannahs skillfully hosting panel discussions, what to do about her hair, which once dried, had returned to the look and feel of steel wool.

She jotted a note and left it on the work bench, “Call me. -SFW” and walked up the stairs and out onto Canal.

Walt thought he might be dying. The puncture in his foot was oozing something yellow and his foot was turning black and blue. He lay on the floor after the salvo of electrostatic charges the bag had directed at him, a few feet from the open door to the pod. He tried to rise, and the bag sent a bolt that knocked him back, closer to the door.

He pointed a weak finger at the bag on the work bench that glowed under the light. “I know what you’re up to, clever bag.” He realized that the bench light was off, and that light was coming from inside the bag. The bag hummed as if recharging, and the lights in the lab dimmed, and then the bag fired another bolt of energy Walt’s way. It lifted him from the floor and threw him headfirst through the pod door. He smacked his head on the way in. “I know what you’re doing,” he said. The pod door slammed shut. Moments later Susannah Fontaine-Williams came bounding down the steps.

Out on the sidewalk, Susannah Fontaine-Williams, decided to walk at least part of the way home. After no more than a few blocks, three at most, the bag started to expand like a puffer fish sensing a threat, then it made a metallic sounding belch and spit out a tiny object that flew a few feet through the air and stuck to the back of a stop sign. It looked like a gummy bear. She peeled it from the sign and, by golly, didn’t it look kind of like Walt. A gummy Walt with a surprised look on its gummy face.

A dog, a beautiful black and white retriever mix, sniffed at her hand then slurped the Walt gummy and swallowed it. “Sorry!” the owner, a tiny woman in spandex leggings and tank top, said. “He’s always snurfling his nose into something. Bad boy!” They continued on the other way. Susannah, already with much on her talk show mind, continued uptown, a little dazed.

About a minute later the retriever mix wobbled and fell on its side, panting heavily. He convulsed once or twice, then seemed to stop breathing for a moment while his owner got to her knees and pushed on his chest. Someone said, “Give it mouth-to-mouth.” So, she tried to, putting her lips on his big mouth and blowing. The dog sprang to his feet, looked around, and dashed uptown trailing his leash behind.

Susannah, still dazed, signaled a cab, and got in. Before she could close the door, the retriever mix bounded in after her and began licking her face uncontrollably, swishing his tail wildly and whimpering with excitement. The door closed. “No dogs,” the driver said.

The dog stopped his excited theatrics at that and gave her what she thought was a solemn and desperate look. She could hear the owner’s voice getting closer. The dog licked her face.

“I’ll give you an extra hundred, but you’ve gotta get us out of here now!” The car sped away and the dog sat next to Susannah and they stared at each other on this unusually cool, dry August day. Though meteorologists are saying this is actually normal August weather, but the last twenty or so Augusts have been so blast-furnace hot, it just feels cool. So, it’s all relative, isn’t it?

Checking out

Susannah Fontaine-Williams is dozing in her hospital bed. At a few minutes after 1:00 PM she jolts awake. She’s forgotten about her show and it’s on live in an hour. She should be in the studio finalizing everything, having lunch with a guest, schmoozing the audience, doing all of the things she usually does. She hasn’t even thought to call the studio to let them know she can’t be there. She has never missed a show, a rehearsal, a walk thru, a rundown, a meeting. They will be worried.

Her phone is there on the table charging. She picks it up to check messages, but no one has called. She checks the date, the time, the day of the week and she is doing a show in an hour. And it’s not just any show – it’s a special panel discussion on climate change. It took months to coordinate her panel’s schedules. She has Al Gore. She has Warren Buffet. She has Warren Hollings-Norton. She has the Indigo Girls and she has Jerry Seinfeld. Wardrobe has promised her a power outfit and she expects that she’ll be taking the former vice president home with her, or as a consolation, Seinfeld.

She says, “Call Lorena.” The phone responds, “Calling Lorena.”

Her producer picks up right away. “Hey. What’s up?”

“What’s happening with the show? Sorry I haven’t called.”

“What?”

“Who’s hosting?”

“Susannah, are you serious?”

“Are we doing a rerun?”

Lorena laughs. “Oh, this is good.”

“What are you talking about?”

“This isn’t your best, but it’s not bad. I’m going to put you on speaker, OK?” She hears a choir of unsynchronized hellos.

“Look, I’m at the Downtown Hospital. There was an accident. I’m OK.”

“What happened?” Luke, an assistant asks.

“I can’t really say, but I think I was electrocuted. I don’t know how long I’ve been here, a day or two maybe. The guy they had handcuffed to the other bed is gone.”

“Sure, OK. I got to go. Hope you feel better,” he says amid the sounds of muffled laughter.  “Oh, Gore is running late but he should be here any minute.” He hangs up on her.

She pushes the nurse’s call button. A moment later, Elvis the nurse walks in.

“You’re awake,” he says.

“Why is everyone always so surprised when I’m awake?”

“Feeling better?”

“I’d like to check out. Can you start the paperwork?” She sits up on the edge of the bed.

He walks up, takes her pulse. “Sure. It may be a little while.”

She lets her hospital gown fall to the floor and trundles to the bathroom, brushes her teeth, tries to brush her tangled hair. They’ll have to stick a wig on me today.

She showers and washes her hair with the shampoo and conditioner that Alethia brought her when she relieved Mac. Sweet, brilliant Alethia thought to bring all the essentials. “I think I love you, Alethia,” she says, then starts singing You are the sunshine of my life.

She comes out of the shower, runs the brush through her hair which has finally flattened after multiple lathers, rinses, and repeats. Wrapped in a towel, she walks to the window and looks at the activity on the street below. She turns on the TV and sits on the edge of the bed. There she is, alone, on the white fluffy chair wearing a red dress, her hair done to perfection. The sound is off and while trying to raise the volume, she accidentally turns off the TV. I have never worn that dress and don’t I look just phenomenal in it.

It is now 3 minutes after the hour and she is on the screen again. She turns up the volume and hears the woman who looks like her say in her voice, “Joining me in the studio today, please welcome… climate change specialist, Dr. Warren Hollings-Norton, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.” There is applause. “Berkshire Hathaway chairman, Warren Buffet.” Applause. “Comedian Jerry Seinfeld.” Really loud applause. “The Indigo Girls!” They all stride in as they’re announced and sit at the large half-circle couch they’ve had made just for this episode.

“Oh, and I almost forgot, Vice President of the United States, Al Gore!” The former VP walks out, fidgeting with his tie and takes his seat in the middle, flanked by Hollings-Norton and the Indigo Girls. Susannah’s towel drops to the floor. She walks up to the tiny TV screen and touches it, sliding her finger to trace the path Susannah Fontaine-Williams, TV talk show host, takes across the screen. “God, I look fantastic. How can I look so good when I look this bad?”

Susannah on the screen is doing everything exactly as Susannah would. There is no doubt in the mind of this Susannah Fontaine-Williams that she is both women. Carry an extra-dimensional handbag around with you long enough…

“I have to get my bag back,” she says.

“OK,” says Elvis, who has reentered the room. “They’re still working on your paperwork.”

“Look at that,” she says, pointing to the TV. She gets up, oblivious to her nudity, and goes to the closet to fetch her clothes. “still haven’t missed a show.”

But Elvis has left the room.