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Zombie children

Squirrel life is not without risk…

Chapter 2.2

My phone vibrates in my jacket pocket. It’s a familiar number but I don’t remember whose it is. I don’t answer calls unless I’m certain about them and I hold the phone through three vibrations before answering. “This is Norm.”

“Hey, it’s me,” Golding says as if I’ve been eagerly awaiting his call, as if we drink beer and play poker and take vacations with our families together.

“Listen, Golding, they’re closing the doors on the plane.”

“I’ll leave voicemail…”

“You do that,” and I hang up.

New character: Golding. To be honest, I don’t know why I brought this guy in, and the part that follows, well, it may just be the first thread that once pulled, unravels everything. It begins with a flashback:

I’m ten, with my buddies Ira and Robbie. We’re in the woods behind our development, a damp place with steep paths and hidden hazards like poison ivy and hornet nests in rotting logs. We wander around and shoot at things with cap pistols and slingshots we make from fallen branches and old cut-up bicycle tire tubes. We hunt for arrowheads and hunks of quartz rock.

Darby Creek snakes through the woods and leads to an old quarry where we will soon crawl through a chain link fence to swim. It’s a shallow rocky creek that runs fast after a good day of rain. We pull crayfish from it until the day old washing machines and tires and shopping carts stick up out of the muck. We become scavengers and one day the story goes that a boy from our school gets himself trapped in a rusting old refrigerator and suffocates.

Ira says, “Normalizer, see that squirrel?” on a branch far away. It’s sitting there licking its little hands and grooming its head. “Think I can hit it?”

“No way,” Robbie says.

“Bet you a dollar I can.”

Robbie and I reach into our respective pockets right away and pull out change and count it. “I got it,” Robbie says. “You’re on.”

“I only have sixty-three cents.”

Ira licks a finger and holds it up in the air. “You have to adjust for the wind.”

He lines it up, carefully adjusting his back hand, the one holding the rock in the tire tube band. We’re standing behind him and he’s taking forever to get his aim. Finally, he turns his head back to us, his slingshot aimed toward the squirrel. “Watch this,” and he releases his shot still looking back at us and away from the target.

The rock whooshes out of his slingshot and smacks squarely into the squirrel, knocking it out of its perch. It lands with a rustle in the leaves below. We three stand with our mouths open. “Holy crap,” Robbie says.

We race to the spot where the squirrel landed. “Poke him,” Robbie orders. “See if he’s dead.”

I pick up a stick and poke it lightly. It doesn’t move. There’s a smudge of blood on its head. “I think it’s dead,” I say.

“Check again,” Ira says, his voice a shaky whisper.

I poke it again, a little bit harder, and when I do, Robbie bumps me and the stick plunges into the squirrel’s belly. “Look what you did Norm. You killed him.”

“Didn’t. It was already dead.”

Robbie punches me in the arm and says, “You killed him. You have to bury him.”

“Ow. All right.”

I kick with my sneaker heel at the soft muddy ground and soon have a large enough indent for the body. Using the leaves as a scoop, I push it into the hole and kick some mud and leaves over it.

“There,” I say. “Can we go swimming already?”

“You’re going swimming? You going to the quarry? I’m coming,” says Golding, appearing from behind a tree. His nasally voice, perpetually on the verge of a sneeze,

We trudge to the site of the old quarry, my friends and I and Golding. It is one of those hot, humid days that nowadays stretch into October. Golding is new and I don’t like him.

“What happened to that squirrel? Did you kill that squirrel?” he says.

“We found him,” Robbie says.

“How come you made Norman bury him? Why would you do that?”

Robbie shakes his head at him. “We felt like it. Shut up.”

We get to the edge of the quarry and Robbie peels off his t-shirt and All-Stars and jumps into the water. He disappears taking a trail of bubbles with him and emerges, whooping, “Come on in. The water’s great!”

Ira follows and then it is just me and Golding, standing there, looking down at my two friends splashing in the water, their voices echoing off the quarry’s gray-black walls. “C’mon Normie, jump in.”

“You afraid?” Golding says in my ear. “Afraid of the water?”

“I’m not scared,” I shout.

“No one said you were scared,” Ira says.

“Golding did.”

“He doesn’t count.” See, nobody liked Golding.

I’m not afraid of the water even though it’s cold and will shock the breath out of me. I can swim and I’ve swum here before. It’s the time and distance between launching and landing where it feels like I’m caught on an invisible hook struggling to climb my way down out of the air, a moment that passes like an hour.

“Just close your eyes and lean forward. The water’s great!”

I can’t do it. I find a zig-zag path on the rocky wall down to the surface, dip my toe and slide in. It’s freezing cold and when I come up I gasp. “Water’s great!”

Golding takes off his stupid alligator shirt and slips backward, hitting his head on rock and falls straight down into the water. Robbie and Ira swim to him while I tread water and think, let’s just tell everyone we found his body floating here.

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? 

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

Playing ping pong with Steve Jobs

It was definitely Steve Jobs. Sure, Steve Jobs has been dead for years, but the person in the body was Jobs. Lean build with casual clothes loosely hanging on him. He sounded like that actor, not Peter Coyote, the other guy, who was in that movie with Russell Crowe and Guy…what’s his name. Pierce Patchett was the character. It will come to me.

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Prototype iPaddle

Jobs had twin boys with the exact same face, the face of this guy pretending not pretending to be Jobs. Round, flat, moon faces, tanned, with prominent noses. Faces of character that looked older than they were, and except for the boy bodies and boyish exuberance, you’d think they were adults.

They were playing ping pong on a long table, 2/3 the width of a regulation table with rounded ends. The net in the middle rose and fell, sometimes regularly, other times staying in place. The whole setup was on a turntable that slowly rotated, occasionally stopping and reversing.

My wife knew I’d want to play, and Jobs took note. “When the boys are finished, well have a go,” he said. “Do you play well? Are you good?” I play hard bat, an old school form of spongeless ping pong, from ping pong’s golden age. Before I could answer, another set of twins, these older, and less Jobs-like, came into the room carrying a telephoto lens about 8 feet in length and gave it to a woman, a doctor. I said something about the enormity of the lens and she said, “why shouldn’t I, it’s my vacation.”

While the boys played ping pong, Jobs showed us around. “What brings you to Atlanta,” he asked. Then, “Wait, don’t tell me, you’re here to bicycle the rivers. Of course you are.” Which was how we arrived here. His sprawling house complex crossed the river and the bike paths on either side went straight through the house. We were just pedaling past, admiring the furniture when he waved us over. “Have lunch with me,” he said. “We’re having grilled asparagus and some other things. Chips, maybe.”

Periodically, things, the furniture, tall, deep shelf drawers would automatically open, and Jobs would react, either removing an item, or putting something away. “If I miss it, I have to wait another day for an opening. Crazy system works,” he said. David Strathairn, that’s the voice Steve Jobs used. Really good choice.

A Jobs nephew, climbed on to his rotating bed as shelves were opening and removed some clothes, tossing off and throwing the old ones in a just opened chute. The doctor with the camera watched. “Why shouldn’t I watch? I like to see naked people especially when they look good. It’s my vacation.”

The boys came running up, each holding a ping pong paddle. “We’re finished,” they said. “You can play now.” Jobs looked exasperated. “No, no, NO,” he said. “It’s not the right time.” He patted his chest. “What do you think of this body? It works, but the design isn’t as user friendly as it should be. Look at these hands. Let’s play ping pong.”

We went to the table and slid it out, away from a couch. “Which side do you want?” he said, taking the side he wanted. “Grab yourself an iPaddle. They’re all the same.”

I picked up a paddle. Wood handle, rounded striking surface made from maybe cork. Slightly tacky. No rubber. Jobs hit me a ball and I returned it. The tack on the surface allowed me to get a little topspin and the ball dove nicely for me. My first shot landed deep, and high-bounced Jobs. He said,”whoa!”

He hit short balls, hard ones, angled ones and I returned them, each time eliciting a loud exclamation of praise from Jobs. A crowd gathered and I hit the ball back and forth with Steve Jobs, occasionally slamming one just to let him know I could do whatever I wanted, that I was in complete control.

Fear of falling

In 1987, the world’s human population reached 5 billion and the last of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō (Moho braccatus) died. According to the bird’s Wikipedia entry, “The last Kauaʻi ʻōʻō was male, and his song was recorded for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The male was recorded singing a mating call, to a female that would never come. He died in 1987.”

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Non-extinct birds in Washington Square, NYC

Back in those days when there was still wan hope for the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, I took a creative writing class for what I hoped would be an easy few credits on the road to a long-delayed undergraduate degree. A guy wrote a short story called “Fear of Falling,” about a man who managed to fall into holes in the ground. I don’t remember much about the story, but the writer impressed me. He was lean, wore John Lennon glasses, and always had a scarf on and some kind of tweedy long coat. He looked like I imagined someone starting out as a writer did, and he used his adjectives to great advantage.

The story receded from memory until recently and has resurfaced as a brand new fear. In these days, there are lots of things to fear, but, a month into the news blackout, I’m left to my imagination, a place darker than the combined output of all media, fake and real.

This is the dog’s fault. Several times a day, the dog must be released into the back yard so that she might pee, poop, sniff and chase things. I stand watch, plastic bag in hand. Recently, on a windy day, a branch fell from the old sugar maple, landing a few feet from me, but ever since, I’m convinced that this will happen:

On a brutally cold day, a branch falls, striking me and knocking me out. As my blood leaks out, I slowly freeze to death. The dog, heroic and well-meaning, but barely 40 pounds, tries to drag my dying body to the door and to get the attention of my family. Alas, she is too small and my body is discovered hours later, only moments after dying.

Now, whenever I leave the house, I scan the trees, looking for telltale signs of imminent branch failure, ever vigilant, ever fearful that something will fall on me. I also check for a Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, ’cause even though this isn’t Hawaii, you never know. You just don’t.

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The murderous sugar maple

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

Carried off by the swift waters

“All right,” I said. “Tell me all about it.” Like I said, I had time and more than anything, I like a good story.

Alder Fanspree got up from the bench and turned to face me and his wife.

“I had just dug into breakfast, egg and cheese on a toasted roll, when a man sat down to share the table. This was outside. This happened often and I didn’t bother to look up. ‘Does the name Shnabullious Traffletum mean anything to you,’ he said.

“I looked at him over the top of the Post. He sported an outlandish  thick moustache, curled at the ends, and his cheeks were ruddied as if by a raw winter wind.

“‘Of course it wouldn’t,’ he continued. ‘You’re just an average man caught up in a mundane life. You’re married. You have two children. The girl, the older one you have named Willow, is an athlete, a decent student who will no doubt get into a state school one day. Although, she dreams of an Ivy, it’s beyond her and she knows it. The other struggles. Maybe he’s on the spectrum. Maybe he isn’t.  You think he may have difficulties in social situations that will make it harder for him as he grows up.’

“This man’s information was only partly right. I am nothing if not average. You’ve met my wife, but, we’re childless. I told him, ’You have me mistaken for someone else.’

“’So, that’s how you’re going to play it,’ he said. And he smiled and twirled the end of his moustache.

“‘Look,’ I pressed on. ‘You have confused me with someone who looks a lot like me. I get it – I have one of those faces. But I don’t have children. You’re after another man. Not me.’

“He slid a 9 & 12 envelope across the table to me. ‘Open it,’ he said.

“There was a photo of a man jogging in the early morning along the river. It was an excellent capture of a tall, strikingly handsome man in the midst of an easy run. In the background, another runner out of focus, followed.

“‘That is Shnabullious Traffletum.’”

“I flipped the photo over and in the next image Mr. Traffletum was out of focus and the trailing runner was in sharp focus. That runner looked a lot like me, but it wasn’t me. For one thing, he wore a knee brace. I didn’t know who he was, but he must live nearby. We’d seen him around. I could see how we’d get mixed up. I often run past the same place.

“This man had information about a guy who looked like me, his children, and maybe every salient detail about his life. Stuff he could use to leverage the guy.

“‘Look at him,’ I said. ‘He’s wearing a knee brace. I don’t have one. My knee’s fine. And I don’t run that early. It’s not me.’

“‘That was Saturday,’ the stranger said.

“The next image showed Mr. Traffletum again, this time from the side passing a gate that separated the running path from the river.

“‘The gate is not latched,’ he said. ‘What I’d like you to do, Mr. Grass, is nudge Mr. Traffletum as he passes the gate tomorrow morning on your run. The gate is not latched – it’s there for kayakers and they never lock it. It will be low tide and the rocks at river’s edge will be exposed and Mr. Traffletum will trip as he falls through the gate and if god is with us, he will strike his head on the rocks below, hopefully doing permanent damage. Or, render him unconscious so he can drown. If he remains conscious, he will get carried off by the swift waters, and as he cannot swim, he will likely drown anyway. Eat your sandwich before it gets cold.’

“I noticed the egg and cheese perched in my hand next to my head and took a bite. It was still warm and the cheese was gooey.
‘What do you say? Can we count on you? Do this for us, and our relationship ends and Willow grows up and, who knows, maybe Princeton takes her. Maybe Clem – is that short for Clematis? – gets a little specialized attention to help him over this rough patch he’s going through. Maybe your beautiful wife doesn’t get snatched and held and…’ He paused and fiddled with his moustache again. ’She’ll live. We’re not animals. But would she ever be the same?’”

Laurel had stood up some time ago and she was pacing back and forth.