Friday, May 11, 2007

Praying to the Machine

Thomas had not slept in the same bed as his wife for over a year. It was all the machine’s fault, really. He still loved her, though obviously not quite as much as he loved life itself. He had cried for a long time when he first thought of it that way.

Everyone had thought the machine would be a revolutionary comfort. The exact place and manner of your death, though not the time, all available on a convenient printout sheet. They had tested it for years with the elderly and the mentally ill before they made their announcement. They had to be sure their science was more than a pileup of coincidences.

They tested it on two different groups. One group was told about the machine and its prediction for their deaths. The other group was observed in secret. They did not even know the machine existed. The preponderance of suicides in the first group, they adamantly maintained, was merely a product of statistical variance. There was no known case in which the machine had been wrong.

In many ways, the machine was a blessing. Men can be very courageous when they know they are going to survive. Numerous people celebrated what they called their newfound freedom or lease on life (only some of them sarcastically) by performing outlandish stunts. The phrase "death-defying" quickly became a joke for those who had submitted themselves to the machine’s test.

But not everyone wanted to know, of course. Some people actually wanted to be surprised by death. They thought that not knowing made life more exciting. They said it gave them freedom.

Before he underwent the machine’s test, Thomas had never understood what they meant. He had not believed that ignorance and freedom could be connected. But now that he knew he would die in his sleep, from a brain hemorrhage, with his wife lying beside him, wishing he did not know or that he could somehow forget was all he thought about. He would have prayed if he believed the machine could hear him.

He still spent time with his wife in their room, but whenever he yawned or felt himself getting tired, he took his leave of her and went to the guest room to sleep. They both cried every time he left. She wished he could stay with her to comfort her, to kiss her, to wrap his arms around her, but she could never ask him to stay. She loved him too much to ask him to give up his life for a night with her. She did not pray, either.

He held the beam in his hand and looked at himself in the mirror, wondering what he would look like once he was done. He had tried everything else. This was the only way he could see to be happy again; he needed to forget about the machine. All he really wanted was to lie next to her again, to feel her sleeping breaths on his face.

A red pain clouded his vision the first time he hit himself with the beam. He was bleeding from his ear already, but he had to do it again. He needed to be sure. He raised the beam again, in his stronger left hand this time, and brought it down with all the speed and violence he could summon.

Thomas stumbled out of the guest room, not remembering why he had been in there. All he knew now was that he should be sleeping with his wife. He loved her so much. All the blood was concerning him, too, but he thought she would be able to help him. He had to get to her.

He opened the door slowly and quietly, not because he did not want to wake her but because he simply did not have any more strength than that left. He could barely see her through the curtains of red and white that were flooding his eyes, but he knew she was beautiful. She was lying on her back, her hands resting on her stomach. They rose and fell with her deep, regular breathing. He wanted to call out to her but could not remember how to speak.

She awakened when he fell, the full force of his unconscious body almost throwing her off the bed. There was blood everywhere. It had trailed him to the bed and was now soaking through the sheets and dripping on the floor. The machine had not said anything about blood, or about love. It could not understand them. All it knew was death.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Dwight Manning (excerpt)

These are the first couple of scenes from a novel I hope to be writing over the next few months/year/however long it takes me. My inspiration, if you want to call it that, was something like "High Fidelity" (by Nick Hornby, also a John Cusack movie) set in a video store.

Dwight Manning’s date snorted into her drink. The resulting spray flew out of her glass and landed primarily on her face, though some of it reached the back of her chair. She looked at her napkin, then at Dwight, and then cleared her throat. After another moment of silence, she said, "My face is wet."
"I know it is, Gina," Dwight replied. "Why don’t you dry it off?" Normally, Dwight would not have suggested this course of action, reasoning that his date would feel her intelligence was being insulted by such an obvious solution, but he did not hesitate to suggest it to Gina.
She sighed loudly as she dabbed at her face, being careful not to smudge her makeup.
"What was that about?" Dwight asked.
"What was what about?"
"That sigh you just made. It sounded like you were disappointed or something."
Gina put down her napkin. "Well, I guess I am. Of course you know it’s your fault."
"Why? Did I do something to you?"
"No, Dwight, you didn’t do anything to me. That’s just the point. I’m sitting here, alcohol’s dripping off my face, and you’re not doing anything about it."
"I did tell you to dry your face. Were you looking for another alternative?"
"If I have to make it obvious to you, then yes, I was. I thought you would lick it off for me. It’s your fault it’s there in the first place, remember. You made me laugh when I was getting ready to take a drink."
"You thought I would lick your face?"
"Yes. Is that really so weird?"
"But why would you even want me to do that? It wouldn’t fix anything. Your face would still be wet."
"You just don’t get it, Dwight." Having apparently decided their conversation was over, Gina focused her attention on her salad. She was almost finished with it, while Dwight, who had ordered a steak, had only received his meal a moment ago. When it had arrived, he had said to her, "They must’ve had to kill the cow out back." This was the comment that had precipitated Gina’s snorting into her drink.
"I’m done eating," she said. "Can we go now?"
"But I just started eating."
"So if you’re eating, then what am I going to do?"
"You could order another drink, use the restroom, or even stare longingly at me as I eat my food. There’s really quite an extensive array of options open to you."
"Okay. I’ll go get another drink. I think I’ll get a tequila this time."
Dwight watched as his date got up and walked to the bar, leaving him alone with his steak. At least it was quiet for once, and his steak really was quite good, tender and juicy on the inside, charred slightly around the edges, and nowhere tough or dry. "I might have to come here again," he said. "They had this seafood basket thing that looked good too. I almost went with that tonight, but I’ve always been a steak man at heart."
During the pause in which, under better circumstances, his date would have responded to him and kept the conversation going, Dwight turned around to look for Gina. She was at the bar, standing behind a man whose face Dwight could not could see. Her elbow was resting on his shoulder and her other hand had just reached under the back of the man’s shirt. Dwight returned to his steak.
While Dwight was engrossed in contemplating the rationale that had led to the assortment of knickknacks and memorabilia being placed on the wall above their table, Gina returned and slapped him on the shoulder.
"Hey, I think I might’ve hit it off with this guy over at the bar. But I’m not sure if he’s gonna make a move yet, so could you stay around for a few minutes longer? I might still need a ride with you. You still have to pay and everything, right? I’ll just give you a sign if it’s okay for you to go."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"What do you mean? It wasn’t that hard to understand, was it?"
"You’re on a date with me, Gina. Not the guy you just met over at the bar."
"Well, I guess the way I’d look at it, I’d say I was on a date with you. And let’s face it, we both know we weren’t going anywhere. So I moved on. No hard feelings, right? Anyway, Buck–I think that’s his name–is looking kind of restless, so I think I’d better get back over to him."
"Wait a minute. Does he know I’m over here? Is he watching us right now?"
Gina turned around and waved at Buck. "Looks like he is. But don’t worry. I told him you’re my gay brother. He knows there’s nothing dangerous going on over here."
"You told him I’m gay? Why did you do that? And what’s wrong with you, really?"
"Relax. I told him you’re gay so he wouldn’t get any ideas about, you know, us. It’s nothing against you personally. I know you’re probably not really gay."
"But wouldn’t it have been enough to just tell him I’m your brother?"
"Now that you mention it, yeah, it probably would have. But I didn’t think of that when I was talking to him. If you have to know, I think I get kind of ditzy when I’m talking to a guy I like."
"That’s not the only time," Dwight replied. The date had progressed to the phase where he tried to wring out of it whatever semblance of pleasure he could find. That phase rarely lasted long, but Gina was proving to be an exceptional date.
"So you’ll wait for me, then?" she asked.
"I’m going to finish my steak, because I like steak and this one is tasty. If you’re still here when I’m done, we’ll see. But I’m not making any promises."
"I think that woman at the bar–the old one who’s kind of ugly, don’t you think she is? Anyway, I think she’s been eyeing Buck too, not that I blame her, of course. I mean, look at him, who could? I know I’m prettier than her, but she just unbuttoned another button on her blouse. I guess I’ll have to remind him I’m still here."
"Look, Gina, are you really sure you want a guy like that? I mean, one who’s distracted that easily might not–"
She had not heard any of his advice, he was certain. She was already back talking to Buck, one of her legs resting in his lap. She whispered something in his ear, which caused him to lean back and shake his head in disbelief. Gina took a step back and lifted up her shirt to show Buck the "crazy tattoo" she had on her stomach. She had been starting to tell Dwight about it when her salad had arrived.
Gina had not finished her bottle of beer. It was sitting across the table from Dwight, still half full. That he could recall, she had not snorted into or otherwise defiled it. The only physical evidence it had even belonged to her was the smudge of lipstick on the neck of the bottle, imprinted there when had proved to him that she could open a bottle using only her mouth. That had surprised him at the time. It was a good beer, too, imported from some place neither of them had been able to pronounce. He grabbed it and took a drink.
"I’m having sex with this man tonight!"
Unlike everyone else in the restaurant, Dwight did not look to see who had made her night’s plans a matter of public record. He finished the beer and got up, leaving his steak half eaten. He did not want to be there if Gina tried to give him another sign.

"Come on, it wasn’t the worst date you’ve ever had. You just need some time to cool off. In the morning it’ll all be funny."
"I haven’t told you everything," Dwight said. He waited to let the implications of this sink in before he continued. "Right after her second margarita, she went to the bathroom and threw up."
"Did you go in with her?" asked Roger, Dwight’s roommate.
"No. Of course not."
"Then how do you know she did?"
"Because she told me that was what she was going to do right before she got up. And when she came back, she proceeded to start telling me all about it. Fortunately a waiter walked by just then, and I bought her a beer just to shut her up."
"Okay, so it was bad. But it couldn’t be as bad as Kali."
"That wasn’t her real name. I told you that."
"And just how is that a good thing, Dwight? What’s creepier, a girl who gets stuck with a crazy name because of her parents, or one who just goes out and decides it would be cool to be named after the Hindu death goddess?"
"At least she said she liked me."
"Do I need to remind you about the park, Dwight? Remember that? You’re the one who ran all the way back here."
"I thought it was just a name. I didn’t think it was a serious thing for her. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, actually."
"Okay, maybe I’ll give you that. But still...has Taku heard this story yet? I think he needs to. Taku, could you come in here for a minute?"
An exchange student from Japan who had decided to stay on in the States for college, Taku had learned English by watching the movies he rented from Dwight and Roger’s video store. He spent so much time in the store, and he always gave spot-on suggestions to anyone who asked him, that they had eventually given him a job there. Part of his pay went toward the room he rented in their apartment; the rest they gave to him in cash.
"Have you heard about Dwight’s date with Kali?"
"No. Was that the one tonight?"
"No, Kali came a while back, but she’s a classic. You see, all night Kali kept saying how much she liked the park, but Dwight, being the gentleman that he is, kept telling her it was too cold and dark to go to the park, that they should just get a drink somewhere. Well, eventually Diwght gave in, and they went to the park. I think Dwight needs to tell you about the next part. Come on, Dwight, tell our business associate what happened next."
"I thought we were going to sit on a bench and talk or something, but she didn’t want to do that. Instead, she took me all the way to the back of the park, right up against the forest. I’d been hearing thunder coming for a few minutes, so I told her we should probably get back to my car before the rain started. But she said the rain was why they’d come out here, and that she’d caused it."
"This woman, she could make rain?" Taku asked.
"Really not an important detail, Taku," Roger answered. "Just keep listening. The best part’s coming up."
"Well, we just stood there waiting for the rain to start, and then after another five minutes it did. It was really a pretty strong storm, and when the rain started hitting us, she took off her clothes and started dancing in the rain."
"Like Ricky Martin’s song?" Taku asked.
"Yes, Taku. Exactly like the Ricky Martin song," Roger told him. "That’s definitely going in the next time I tell the story. So there’s Dwight watching this naked chick dancing around right in front of him. Now if you have been there, Taku, what would you have done?"
"Was she good looking chick?"
"Yes, Taku. She was beautiful."
"I would have danced with her."
"Exactly! That’s what any normal guy would have done. But not our Dwight. No, as soon as he sees that, he turns around and bolts straight for his car."
"The rain was cold," Dwight said in his own defense. "And it was those really big drops, the can that actually hurt when they hit you."
"What happened to her?" Taku asked.
"What do you mean?"
"This girl, the naked dancing one, what happened to her?"
"He doesn’t know, Taku. Dwight never saw her again. For all he knows, she caught pneumonia and died right in the park that night. Maybe a troll came and took her body away. We really don’t know."
"There aren’t any bridges in the park."
"What’s that, Dwight?"
"Trolls only live under bridges, and since there aren’t any bridges in the park, it’s just ludicrous to suggest that a troll could have been anywhere near the park that night. The closest bridge is twenty miles away."
"I am sorry, but one thing I do not understand," Taku said. "May I ask?"
"Of course, Taku. What is it?"
"My apologies, but earlier, before you called to me, I was overhearing you from my room. You said this woman was the worst date you have had. May I ask why this is?"
"Well, Dwight did spare you the details of the beginning of the date, and there’s some pretty good stuff in there, believe me, but I suppose that what really vaults it into worst date territory is how it ended. Would you like to tell him, or should I?"
"I am possibly confused, but is not naked dancing on a date a good thing?"
"Normally it is, Taku. It definitely is. But since Dwight doesn’t seem to eager to finish up the story, I’ll do it for him. When he was running away, Dwight ran right into this guy, I’m talking a Freaky Friday kind of thing–do you know the scene I’m talking about, Taku?"
"Yes, with the skinny singing girl and the woman from the Halloween. Correct?"
"That’s the one. Well, Dwight’s flat on his back, and the guy he ran into comes over and helps him up. They both ask if the other’s okay, they both say they are, and then Dwight goes to find his car. But when he gets there, he realizes he doesn’t have his keys. He knows he won’t be able to find them in the rain, so he reaches for his cell phone to call me, and guess what? That’s right, the cell phone’s gone too. So eventually he stumbles into this 24-hour gas station, borrows their phone and calls me. And that’s why it was Dwight’s worst date ever. So what if this Gina chick was rude, and snorted into her drink, and hooked up with a guy she met at the bar?"
"This woman, did you say she was a Thuggee?" Taku asked.
"No. Who are they?"
"This is quite fascinating. Last semester I studied the Thuggee. They worship Kali, the goddess. They are very rare in this country. Quite dangerous as thieves and assassins. They travel in groups, the Thuggee, and they rob people when they are not expecting. Very coordinated plans."
"Wait a minute," Roger said. "Are you saying that the whole performance in the park was a setup? That Kali’s associates, or whatever you want to call them, were waiting for him to run away so they could pick his pocket?"
"Possibly, yes. Although as you said earlier, the expected response upon seeing the dancing naked woman is to join with her. However, they likely would have alternative, maybe you would say contingency, plans. The man who ran into Dwight could have been one of those."
"Okay, Dwight. Not only did you go out with the crazy death goddess lady, but you were, the whole time, the target of an operation the complexity and timing of which makes The Sting II look like a botched job."
"Trust me, Kali looked a lot better naked than Jackie Gleason. Or even Paul Newman, for that matter."
"Not one but two mental images I never wanted to have. Thanks a lot for that, Dwight. If I can’t sleep tonight, neither will you."
"I am sorry, but in the first Sting, Paul Newman was not the patsy. That makes your comparison not entirely accurate, Dwight," Taku interjected.
"You’re missing the point, Taku. I was comparing Kali to Newman, not me to Paul. But I see how you could have been confused. I promise my allusions will be more precise in the future."
"It is not anything. I accept your apology."
"While we’re on the allusion accuracy kick, Taku, I think you meant to say, ‘It ain’t no thang.’ But don’t even bother trying to get that to sound good. Even I sound ridiculous when I try it. I think you have to be black for it to sound good."
"Jamal, who rents many horror movies from the store, he is black. Perhaps I will ask him when I see him in the store again. He would make it sound good, correct?"
"Maybe. But I don’t think it would be a great idea to try. You see, it’s one of those phrases that they’re kind of protective of. Jamal might get mad if he heard you trying to use it."
"Similar to, ‘You my nigger’?"
"Yes, Taku," Dwight answered. "Quite similar to that."