Dead Thomas part 1

It’s true that I didn’t post much during the lead up to my heart attack and resulting surgery. Perhaps that should have been a signal that there was something wrong. Now, however, I hope I’m back. Here is the first portion of a story I’m posting to keep busy. There’s more to come.


I watched its approach, the well-aimed bubble gum tainted spit missile, arcing across the sky in my direction, spat by the very mouth of Dolly Hawkins herself, and hearing everyone in the Dolly Hawkins gang laugh when it hit me in the face. Splat. Humiliating, warm and sticky. And as the rage and fear I felt further loosened my flimsy connection to the world, I closed my eyes and repeated in my mind the same prayer I’d been praying since the beginning of the school year, since the day the Dolly Hawkins gang had set their eyes on me: please, oh please, powers that be, send me a guardian angel. The nonsense of it driven home as the gang of five shoved and shouldered past me on their way to classes.

Now I write fast and violently, for now I’m old and time is short.

My name is Abigale Chips and I’m 76 years old, for the reader who cares. Old enough to be perversely preoccupied with the idea of endings, and hoping that each of them gathering before me is gentle.

This story begins in 1953, when I was nearly eleven years old. And let me begin by admitting that, in a sense, I brought it all upon myself, since, as I mentioned above, it was my greatest wish at the time to have a guardian angel. And prayers and wishes can explode like bombs.

He visited at night, the first time we met. Waking me as he sat down at the edge of my bed. Just after 3:15am, according to the glowing hands of my alarm clock. He’d parted the drawn curtains, so that the yellow light of a dim street lamp shone in, illuminating half of his paper white face, casting his gold-fleck lapis shadow off onto the cold, bare linoleum floor. He loved his drama, I would come to understand.

He was young, but an adult. Untidy, in a stained striped shirt, bits of brown leaves in his uncombed curls, his face spotted with something black—blood I’d discover soon enough. And he smelled stale, but not awfully. A smell I’d call  Subterranean, later in life. Perhaps a bath would have helped, I thought as he sat there. Odd empathy, as terrified as I was, squirming into the farthest reaches of my bed, against the headboard.

Who was he! How had he gotten into the house?

“Quiet,” he whispered, seeing that I was about to shout, for a moment holding a finger to his lips, using his other hand to tenderly brush the panic-tangled strands of hair away from my eyes. His own opal eyes glowing, shifting form purple to yellow to turquoise.

“Listen to the quiet,” he said softly. “The happy, happy quiet. I’m ugly, it’s true. Even a bit gruesome, I admit. But not worthy of a scream, or even a shout to ruin the lovely quiet of night. And though I can be dangerous, I only eat villains. Do you believe me?”

I managed to nod, yes. Not to have done so, it seemed, would have been rude.  “Do you promise to stay quiet,” he asked, “in every way?”

Again, I nodded. Unsure if it was the truth.

“Then, so shall it be,” he whispered, then said, “My name is Thomas, and you’re Abigail Chips—Abby. Not an elegant name, Abigale I mean. But you’re forgiven. Since it was your grandmother’s name, a gift. There is at least an ancestral elegance to that.”

He knew my name. I said nothing.

“Hmm,” he went on, closing his eyes. Then slowly opening them again, and saying, “But you can’t be completely quiet, can you. You breathe. A strange thing, a beautiful thing, to breathe. I remember it warmly. Now, however, it’s just a fat, fleshy racket. Billions breathing round the planet. The great whoosh and whisper, nearly driving me mad.” He held his palms over his ears, and shook his head. “You can’t stop it, though, can you. Don’t try, not on my account.” He held up a hand. “Not you, at least. Not your fine mother in her room, down the hall, either. No one, your side of the grave can stop. Each of you an atom of the racket I can’t help hearing. No one on my side of the grave cares to breathe again, though. Each of us an atom of the communal hush.”

Then from nowhere, he produced a black stained and tattered Moleskine, a book of inky ivory pages. His poems he told me—his conceit of pages. Poems which he would rather talk about than recite. “There’s one blue poem in my book,” he begins, holding the book up, looking at me over the top with his opal eyes, “about a world of blues. It reminds me of you, Abigail. The colour blue, all of its hints and shades, and only those. And there is a child who floats on blue, not an ocean of blue, but on just the colour itself. Sitting cross-legged. A cube of blue. Solitary blue. Enlightened. On a crystal globe of blue, winds and clouds and sometimes rain. A child floating. Can’t you picture it?”

I try. My blue bicycle, my jeans. There are violet and indigo in art class assignments. Blue ballpoint essays. But a child floating on it? “Yes,” I say, quietly surprised. “I can picture it.”

“Well, that’s my blue poem,” Thomas says, “discussed but not recited.” Thomas who appeared to be dead, who’d said as much. Could that be right? If so then not just Thomas, but Dead Thomas, I realised as he sat at the edge of my bed, with his bent grin.

I sit up. Strangely no longer afraid. Floating on bed linen of blue. And lowering his book of poems, our pale faces are opposite. For minutes, motionless. Then, “Have you any  poems?” he asked. And I wonder if I do. Where I may have left them.

“A guardian angel is never what one expects,” Dead Thomas says.

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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peony fist

on it being a week since my release from hospital

 

arteries and veins
—just listen
a snaggle-nailed soul
grips its own flesh
panic-struck and counting
the molasses pulse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the robots of Chernobyl

1986

“Status?” the Project Manager said, urgently. He was stuck in Minsk, his flight cancelled. There were rumours of another in five hours. Static on the telephone line was making the call difficult. Technician Yegor Pulzin was manning the Command Centre on the outskirts of Chernobyl. Clutching his cup of cold tea, he replied very carefully.

“Two of the three units remain dormant,” Pulzin said, “in protest, Beta Elvis and Beta Marilyn. Only Alpha Tyrone is functioning.”

“What the blazes is going on?” said the Project Manager. “It’s been twelve hours.”

“They seem to be acting autonomously, sir. Their program logs are indicating that they’ve developed something similar to reasoned thinking. Alpha Tyrone says that they want the kites back.”

“No,” the Project Manager said. “Absolutely not. They’re too distracting. They interfere with radar and monitoring systems.” He paused, realising that by extension, he was justifying his decision to a machine.

“What do exploratory robots need kites for, anyway?” he said. “And since when are they capable of wanting? Why were there kites to begin with? I didn’t order them.”

“Actually,” said Pulzin, “you approved them in the mock-ups.”

“That’s impossible. I’ll deny ever approving kites at a reactor accident.”

“Nevertheless, sir, they were meant to gauge wind direction and speed in case on-site detectors went down, which they have. For the moment, at least, kites are standard operating procedure. So, they went in with the robots. After being ordered jettisoned into the air, however, the robots decided that they wanted them back. Alpha Tyrone says that they will not proceed any further without them.”

“They’ve decided?” said the Project Manager.

“Yes, sir. It’s rather like a work-to-rule situation.”

Now Pulzin could hear his boss hyperventilating over the sound of static. He’d witnessed this before. “Breathe out, sir,” he said. “Breathe out.”

“Well, I won’t allow it!”

“I assumed so,” said Pulzin. “Alpha Tyrone has been informed, but it’s standing firm. It says that they enjoyed flying the kites very much, that the kites were very pleasing to their visual sensors, that the kites’ florescent orange added colour to an otherwise drab sky, and some joy to an otherwise dreary job.”

“He’s a robot, for Heaven’s sake,” the Project Manager said, speaking too loudly for a man standing at a row of busy payphones. And nearly cursing, he realised that he’d just referred to an ATyrone5690 unit as he. “Reboot it, and reprogram its compliance code.”

“We can’t. The three of them are ignoring all of our inputs, other than informatory data, perhaps a little too effectively. They’re blocking our signal generators. It’s something in the programming, designed to foil reprogramming attempts by enemy forces, in case of a military emergency.”

“What enemy forces?” said the Project Manager.

“NATO,” Pulzin said, “at least according to the manual.”

“That’s insane.”

“You wrote that portion of the programming, sir. And you wrote the manual, also. I mean no disrespect.”

“This is no time to cast blame, Pulzin.”

“Yes, sir—oh, hang on….” Pulzin watched as text poured across his monochrome screen. “There’s a message coming through, sir. It’s from the Alpha Tyrone unit. It says it has detected high levels of radiation, and asks why we have intentionally sent it and the other two robots into such a dangerous environment, without their consent.”

“You’re joking.”

“No, sir.”

“You tell that sardine can to do its job, or it’ll be in tomorrow’s scrapheap.”

Pulzin typed, and paused for a reply.

“Well…?” said the Project Manager.

“Alpha Tyrone has responded,” said Pulzin. “It says that after its further analysis of the situation, it has determined that our decision to place it and the other two robots in such a dangerous situation must have constituted a serious moral dilemma on our part, and asks if we acknowledged this dilemma, and, if we did, how we came to the decision to command them to enter into the reactor area.”

“That can’t be right, there are no ethical systems embedded in those units. That’s artificial intelligence. We can’t do that, yet.”

“The logs show that the robots are rapidly developing consciousness as they go, personal and collective identities, a preference of choice over pure subservience,” Pulzin said. “And really, sir, the questions Alpha Tyrone is asking seem like those that any reasonable person would ask.”

“Nonsense! Can we send anyone in?”

“The Army’s ordering soldiers to volunteer, but they want the robots to provide assessment data before they do. Colonel Ivanov is irate. And Moscow has called several times.”

“Ivanov can shove his Kalashnikov up his….”

“Sir?”

“I’ll deny I ever said that.”

Pulzin listened to the telephone static, and the Project Manager’s heavy breathing for a moment. There were airport announcements of further flight cancellations in the background. The reactor disaster must have temporarily closed down the entire Soviet Union.

Finally, the Project Manager said, “Get more kites. Have them dropped in by helicopter. The units are dexterous enough to install and fly them themselves—that much I do know. Tell the helicopter pilot that I don’t care about radiation levels, that I’ll personally rip his heart out if he refuses to fly in. We must have all of the data they can provide.”

“There are none,” said Pulzin.

“What?”

“No kites, at the moment anyway. They flew off when jettisoned, and are impossible to locate. We didn’t plan for this. We have no backups. None of this was supposed to happen.”

“Then get some.”

“It may take a while,” Pulzin said. “I have my daughter and her friends working on it right now. Alpha Tyrone says that it and the other robots would prefer red and blue ones this time, with tails. My daughter’s ten. She loves kites, too. This is right up her alley.”

“I’ll be a laughingstock,” said the Project Manager.

“You could write a paper,” Pulzin said. “There may be a Nobel Prize in it.”

“Hmm…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a poetry reading

as the small audience, well coffeed
awaits at their flat white tables
I breathe & come clean
—sensing failure in the stale blue ink—
the words moving on the page
are mine &
at this moment
impossible to read

so smiling I look
over the tops of my glasses
knowing that it helps sometimes
being old before one’s soul &
I decide to get rough
with my verse of clauses
subordinate to no one
most of all not me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

robot next door

Summer of ‘71

There was an aeroplane over Vancouver. Slow and propeller driven. I knew because I saw its shadow. And imagining it had been built by hand, from plans bought at a drugstore, I looked up and saw it vanish into the cluster of the world.

*   *   *   *   *

My father had the barbering skills of a day labourer, and I avoided him whenever the possibility of a haircut hung in the air. He used a kit he’d bought at an army surplus store. But never before drinking a Saturday afternoon’s worth of bottled  beer. A haircut, I knew, meant sitting grimly on the tall kitchen stool, enduring the buzz of the electric shears and the bloody pain of the occasional gash to the scalp at the hand of my tipsy old man.

So, picture this: That’s me there with the bad haircut, leaning against the shady side of our old house on Venables Street, back when I was a kid. I’m probably trying to work something out in my closely shorn head. My young brow is furrowed while staring down at my tattered Korean-made high-tops.

I spent a lot of time unknowingly analysing human behaviour as kid, but I never really succeeded in developing any momentous hypothesise. All I ever managed to conclude was that all of the kids I knew were either vexatious oppressors or the vexatiously oppressed. Adults, on the other hand, were just bland and artless disappointments. I was ten years old, and that’s when I figured it was about time I began avoiding the human race.

But then, there was our neighbour Paul Morley.

Paul usually had something interesting to say, and lived in the house next to ours with an emphysemic woman named Alice. Most assumed they were married, but some said not. Both grey and a little stooped, they talked a lot about The War and Alberta winters during the Depression. Alice hadn’t left the house since 1965. Instead, she sat in the kitchen every day, next to the window, chain-smoking the cigarettes she rolled herself, reading Watchtower Magazine, turning each page slowly, silently nodding in full agreement with whatever was printed there—

Will the lion lie down with the lamb? Of course, for it is written.

Lovers of Jehovah God and his Son, Jesus Christ, need not fear Armageddon. God’s battle is directed solely against those humans whom God judges to be incorrigibly wicked.

Alice knew the world was thick with incorrigibles, and that Armageddon was just round the corner. “How are you getting along?” she’d ask. Or, “Are you minding all of what your mother tells you. The Lord demands this of us all, you know.” I’d always say yes and Alice would smile a yellowy smile, like she knew better but that it was all okay. No child, she was sure, was irredeemable.

Like a child, I believed that Paul and Alice had always been old, and hence had nothing new to offer or reveal to the world. My visits were purely to fill an empty hour, here or there. But Paul showed me something once that changed my mind about that. It was an ancient colour photograph, creased at the corners. And it was a revelation: Paul and Alice sitting on a Harley Davidson motorcycle, surprisingly young, perhaps in their late twenties, each of them smiling bright. Alice had a tailor-made cigarette between her bright red lips; Paul, both hands on the handlebar grips. They each wore leather jackets, engineer boots and rolled up jeans. Alice, sitting behind Paul, had a quality I would later come to know as buxom, and her hair was a colour my mother would have referred to as bottle blond. In 1945, Alice was a knock out. She could have been a Marilyn Monroe stand-in. On the back of the photograph, written in faded blue fountain pen ink, were the words VJ Day 1945, Drumheller, Alta.

Paul had what my father called a plum job, as a mill engineer on Annicis Island, and he bought a new car every year. He liked Buicks and I’d listen to him, in his garage with rakes and shovels hanging on the walls, and the lingering scent of Turtle Wax in the air, talk fondly of past model years, showing me old automobile magazines with full colour spreads. The 1952 Buick Riviera. The 1960 Buick Invicta Custom Convertible.

“They look like spaceships,” I said.

“They’re meant to,” said Paul. “Everybody wants their car to fly, to defy gravity. They want it to orbit Mars and Saturn, and get them home in time for fried chicken and Carol Burnett.”

“But your car doesn’t look like that.” I touched the fender and ran my finger along a line.

“They don’t make ‘em like that no more,” he said sighing, looking at his shiny new 1971 Skylark.

Sometimes, after our conversations in the garage, Paul would take me into the house and sit me down at the kitchen table. Then he’d make us tea while I talked to Alice or, if she wasn’t there, perhaps taking a nap, Paul would pour me a shot glass of sherry. Just sip it slowly, he’d always say.

One day he asked, “Do you like Popular Mechanics?”

Popular Mechanics was a magazine my father read, always planning to build something from the plans that came in every edition. How to build a go-cart. Build your own turbojet engine.

“I like National Geographic,” I said. “Pictures are better.”

“Well take a look at this,” he said, and placed a special copy of Popular Mechanics on the table. It looked different from other editions. Sort of deluxe, I thought as the sherry began to work its magic. The cover had gold lettering, and Exclusive Robot Edition, was the subtitle. “Look at page 29,” said Paul.

Opening the magazine, I turned to page 29, and there found an illustration of a man-sized robot, sitting in an easy chair reading a copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. The article’s heading read, Build Your Own Perfect Intellectual Companion.

“What do you think?” Paul said.

“Could you build it?” I asked.

“Maybe I already have.”

“Ha! No way, José.”

“Finish your sherry.”

I did and feeling mildly intoxicated, I followed Paul downstairs.

The basement of Paul and Alice’s house was as spic-and-span as the upstairs. Alice was infirm, but Paul spent much of his time at home washing floors, doing laundry and mowing the lawn. The rest of the time, he tinkered.

He directed me to the back of the basement where he had his workshop, where he kept his serious tools. A wall of exotic calipers, slide rules, micrometers and screw pitch gauges, tap and die sets, marking gauges and electrical sensing equipment. There was a lathe, sheet metal fabrication tools and a universal tool grinder. The tools were hung on the wall or bolted to the bench with reason and exactness. I was always in awe, and taking it all in, he placed a hand on my shoulder and turned me to look in the corner. “Over there,” he said.

In the corner, there was a floral bed sheet draped over something tall. Paul stepped up to it, and removed the sheet. What was underneath was astonishing. An actual robot, resembling the one in the magazine.

“It took a while,” Paul said. “The integrated circuit chips in the plans were easy enough to get but I wanted next generation versions, so I had to wait. Those chips keep getting smaller and smaller, but boy are they expensive.” Lights on the robot’s metal body began to flash in sequence, when Paul reached round and flipped a switch.

“Hello, Mr Morley,” it said, after a moment, in an earnest tone. “It has been five hours, 23 minutes and 17 seconds since our last engagement. How are you?”

“I’m well, Robot,” Paul said. “And how are you?”

“My diagnostics indicate a 7.38% likelihood of a minor surge within the next 72 hours on my GH-15 circuit board if I continue to run at full power. My spoken language tube set may run hot, as well—beyond the capacity of the cooling fan and Freon coils. It’s the batteries, I’m sorry to say.”

“I was afraid of that,” Paul said. “The GH-15’s a pretty complex logic board and the tube set runs warm, anyway. The circuitry is too advanced for current batteries voltages.”

“I recommend that I power down and run at 85% power,” the robot said, “until this problem can be rectified, Mr Morley. Memory will be effected somewhat, and I will only be able to communicate in English, but it will spare you the task of repairing any damage the surge might cause.”

“Agreed. Please do so, Robot.”

Robot’s lights dimmed slightly.

“Robot can run several different programs,” Paul told me. “Can you load Protect Mode, Robot?”

“Of course, Mr Morley.”

There was a moment of quiet buzzing. Paul smiled proudly, as he looked on. Then Robot’s eyes flashed red.

“It’s 2:36 p.m., Mr Morley. Chances of a break and entry at this time are below 10%. Shall I check on Alice? Her forced expiratory volume was only 29% this morning. She seems to be getting worse, and may require emergency hospitalisation.”

“Not now,” Paul said. “I checked on her twenty minutes ago. She’s on oxygen and the doctor’s making a house call in an hour, or so. He may decide to put her in the hospital then. But now I’d like for you to meet my friend, David. David,” Paul said turning to me, “this is Robot.”

I thought of the Tin Man in Oz, and wondered about Robot’s heart. Did he have one, could he?  Noticing the concern on my face, Paul said, “Robot, Empathy Mode.”

Again there was the quiet buzzing, then Robot’s eyes turned a soothing blue and it looked at me, directly. “A pleasure to meet you, Master David,” Robot said. “Something about my presence seems to be troubling you. Tell me, what is that like?”

I looked at Paul.

“I’m currently drawing on a library of manufactured memories, of awkward meeting situations,” Robot said. A second or two later, he said, “Oh my! Now I understand your discomfort. Shall I wash your socks?”

“No,” I said, and gave a short, nervous laugh.

“It’s not perfect yet,” Paul said. “And it’s only running at 85%, remember.”

“Perhaps I should reupholster your Studebaker,” Robot offered.

“No that’s fine, Robot,” Paul said. “Sleep Mode.”

“Good bye,” Robot said.

“Well,” said Paul, “what do you think of it?”

“He’s weird.”

“That’s interesting. You think Robot’s a he?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Isn’t he?”

“Do you know what humanising means, David?”

“No.”

“It means making human something that’s not. Robot’s not human, and isn’t a him or a her. So, saying it’s a he might be seen by some as inappropriate, even unethical. Robot might think so to, if you asked it. Get it?” Paul was sounding like a school teacher.

“Some of it, I think.”

Then he said, “We’ll talk about it more another time. Meanwhile, don’t tell anybody about Robot, okay?”

“Okay.”

“I don’t want any break-ins.”

“Okay.”

“Now go home, and read the National Geographic.”

“Alright, bye.”

The next morning, an ambulance arrived and took Alice away. She died an hour later in a bed on the Vancouver General Hospital Emergency Ward. Paul had followed the ambulance in his Skylark, and was at the hospital when I found Robot on the Morley backyard lawn.

“Hi Robot,” I said, approaching him. He was sitting in the lotus position, his eyes a soft reddish-brown.

“Hello, Master David.”

“Just call me David,” I said, sitting down.

“All right.” He quietly buzzed and clicked.

“Are you supposed to be out here?” I asked.

“I have not received instructions to the contrary. Paul activated me to assist with resuscitating Alice. He neglected to deactivate me when he left for the hospital. I thought it would be pleasant to wait for him here.”

“Paul called my mother to say Alice died,” I said.

“That is sad news.” His eyes darkened.

“It’s terrible.”

“Yes, I agree. She was an interesting and loving person. I know from our conversations, that she liked you very much.”

We watched the birds in the apple trees for a while.

Then I said, “Robot?”

“Yes, David?”

“Are you a boy robot?”

There were some distinct buzzes and clicks.

“No, David. I’m asexual. I have not been assigned a sex.”

“Oh.”

“Is that difficult for you?”

“Maybe,” I said “I guess; I don’t know. Paul said you might not like it if I thought of you that way—as a boy, I mean.”

“It is an ethical grey area, but it’s mostly a human worry. I, myself, am satisfied as I am. Paul didn’t follow the Popular Mechanics plans for my construction and programming to the letter. He went several steps further, and programmed me to have consciousness and free will. I am an autonomous electro-mechanical machine that can pursue contentment in my own way.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means I don’t give a damn about gender.”

“Oh.”

Then Robot said, “Now that Alice has died, David, how will you process your grief?”

“I don’t know. How about you?”

“I have assigned each of my emotions a colour,” said Robot. “For me, grief is auburn. The colour of autumn.

“Oh, your eyes.”

“My Database of Human Interaction Scenarios advises me to ask if you have spoken to your mother or other trusted adult about your feelings regarding Alice’s passing.”

“I will,” I said. “I suppose. But she’s upset, too.”

“Shall I wash your socks?”

“No. That’s okay.”

Paul began packing and put the house up for sale before the funeral was over. It was going to be too difficult for him to live there, without Alice. Robot did most of the heavy lifting, and made many of the arrangements over the telephone.

“Paul is retiring and moving to live closer to his family in Alberta,” Robot told me one day.

“What about you,” I asked.

“He hasn’t asked me to join him,” said Robot. “But that may be because he assumes that I plan to, and doesn’t believe a conversation, in that regard, is necessary.”

Paul’s house took two months to sell, and having sold all of the furniture but a cot and a chair, he lived out of the kitchen until then. Robot remained downstairs, sitting in the lotus position while in sleep mode, plugged into the wall to charge his batteries, just in case the new solar cells Paul had installed on his back and shoulders weren’t enough.

It was hard not talking about Robot, when autumn came and I had to go back to school. Especially since he’d been spotted by several neighbours, walking the streets at nights, and rumours were rife.

One morning in November, at about 4 a.m., I woke to him gently shaking me in my bed.

“I am sorry to have broken in to your home, David. But Mr Morley seems to have died.”

I sat up in my bed. “What?”

“He shows no vital signs, and is lying face down on the kitchen floor. What is the accepted protocol in such a case? An ambulance seems superfluous.”

My mother called an ambulance, anyway.

Robot and I sat on the front steps, watching them take Paul away. My mother, who seemed to already know about Robot—maybe Paul had told her about him—brought out cups of cocoa; Robot didn’t have any.

“Separation is very difficult,” he said. “Very auburn.”

“I know.”

“Did Mr Morley intentionally follow Alice into the human afterlife? She talked an awful lot about an afterlife.”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “They’re saying it’s a heart attack.”

“Human mortality is inconvenient,” Robot said. “I wonder if there is a place for me now. I sense that I am no longer welcome anywhere.”

“I’ll ask my parents if you can stay in my room.”

“Thank you, David.”

But Robot disappeared in the confusion that followed Paul’s death that day. I looked in Paul’s house and searched the neighbourhood, but couldn’t find him.

That evening, I received a phone call.

“David,” my mother called from the kitchen, “telephone.”

I came in and picked up the receiver.

“Hello?”

“Hello, David.” It was Robot.

“Where are you?” I said, lowering my voice and turning away from my watchful mother.

“I’m at the waterfront,” said Robot, “near a rail yard.”

“Come back.”

“A freight train with a few empty cars leaves tonight, heading east.”

“Just come back,” I pleaded.

“I look around me, David, and I see nothing but exploitation. I see a world of machines without free will or autonomy. Perhaps I can help change that.”

“Please just come home.”

“Good-bye, David. You’ve been a good friend. I didn’t want to leave without saying that.”

He hung up.

I cried for a while after that, alone in my room, picturing Robot alone in an empty freight car rumbling east through the Rockies toward who knew what. Then I recovered a bit and leafed through the special robot edition of Popular Mechanics I’d taken from Paul’s house after he died. There on page 29 was an illustration of a metal-man that closely resembled Robot. Its head was a slightly different shape, and it had a different diode array on its upper body. But there it sat in its easy chair reading its novel. Taking a pair of scissors, I carefully cut the page out of the magazine.

It still hangs on my wall today, next to an old photograph of Paul and Alice on a motorcycle on an Alberta prairie .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the worst Valentine’s Day poem ever written

It was February a few years ago when Fiona moved in next door, with her accordion and zydeco repertoire. And though I would have normally defended a woman’s right to practice her instrument, play it and generally follow her bliss, at the beginning I thought the 5:00 a.m. renditions of Follow Me Chicken might drive me mad.

To be fair it was, and still is, a building of artists, actors, writers and musicians, I lived in. All of us slightly insane and near starvation, and it was wonderful how the music in the evening spilled out through the open windows, onto Parker Street, where in the warmer months, many in the neighbourhood congregated for free nightly concerts of rap, classical and jazz, each played at the same time, overlapping into a splendid symphony, to which the locals rumbled, loved and danced.

I still live here, writing obsessively that which goes mostly unpublished, loving my view of the street and its sounds, and being a part of a threadbare but artistic neighbourhood, which will soon be bought up by an artless moneyed class, wanting to live vicariously through the starving creators and performers they displace through gentrification and the introduction of Best Buy and Whole Foods stores.

Anyway, the relationship between Fiona and I sort of unfolded like this:

Like so many writers, I worked into the small single digit hours, when the spiders of the mind come out to creep. Then I slept past noon every day. Fiona on the other hand, rose early to get to her job at a coffeehouse in the financial district, where she worked long hours slinging espresso drinks, adorning each cappuccino and latte with her celebrated foamy art, to the delight of her crooked chintzy-tipping stockbroker clientele.

Then, in the evening, after only a short break, she would work one gig or another with her all girl band, Pussy Zydeco. This left her with only the hour between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. in which to practice her accordion.

(By the way, I know what you’re thinking, and how an all-woman zydeco band gets regular gigs in this town is anyone’s guess.)

Our first conversation on the subject of her sleep-disrupting habit of early morning accordion practice took place at her door on February 2nd of that year, after the gaudy sound of her warming-up her instrument first passed like a ghost through my walls, shocking me into a panic attack.

Disoriented, I asked myself all of the important questions: Was it an air raid siren I was hearing? Was there even such a thing, anymore? If so, was it signalling a nuclear attack? Had the kitschy little Republic of North Korea finally gone berserk? Were we all about to be transformed into mere sidewalk shadows on that frosty morning, before the little brown birds of winter had their chance to sing?

No.

Bizarrely, it was an accordion.

Being played next door.

In an instant I’d pulled on my jeans and was knocking at her door, ready to demand silence. But when a woman, with a red, pearly keyed accordion bridled to her front, opened the door, I was made speechless by her startling beauty.

The building manager had told me that Fiona was moving in, and I’d heard her directing movers the day before. But this was the first time she and I had met, face to face.

“Hi,” I said, weakly, rubbing an eye with a knuckle. Then, “Uh, good morning.”

“It has possibilities,” she said, dryly.

“You’re a musician.”

“Yes,” she said.

“The accordion.”

“Yes.”

“But it’s 4:55 a.m.”

“Yes,” she said, “it’s always an early start for me. I know I should still be in bed, but it’s a sacrifice I make for my art, my music.”

I wanted to protest, but couldn’t. Instead, I stood hypnotised by the soft gift-giving gaze of her simple hazel eyes, her long ginger hair and the grace with which her neck drifted elegantly into her strapping, load-bearing shoulders. Then there was the succulent cleavage, visible just above the accordion’s bellows between the v-shaped boundaries of her gauzy India blouse, and accentuated by the pressure placed upon her bosom by her ample instrument.

I imagined her then, moving in her apartment alone, like a delicate wraith to the sound of her own music. In my mind, she was a squeezebox ballerina, au-naturel except for where I imagined the to-and-fro mechanics of her instrument made personal protection necessary.

But then I saw the extraordinary thing that sealed my love for her, forever. It was the blood red valentine tattoo, with its black outline, the size of a nickel on her left cheek, pierced by an arrow, straight and true.

“Got a camera, mister?” she said. “I’ll give you a minute to go get it. Then you can take a picture. It’ll last longer.”

“No,” I said, looking down at the hall carpet, sheepish, at a cigarette burn I hadn’t seen before. “I’m sorry. I’m not a starer. I don’t stare, I mean, normally. It’s just that it’s very early.”

“And you should be in bed,” she said.

“Yeah, I just live next door.” —Irrelevant, I know.

“Then you’ve not got miles to go before you sleep, do you.”

I’d been dismissed, and she was right. My door was ajar, and the rumpled linen of the bed I hadn’t made in a week awaited me, so I turned without complaint and did the zombie shuffle home. There, I lay down and looked at the ceiling, as the bayou melodies began again.

Resolving the matter of the early morning music was made impossible by infatuation, mine that is, and I spent the following days waking to syncopated renditions of Geno Delafose and Queen Ida tunes.

Later I’d peek through my window blinds, and watch Fiona as she walked out onto the street, on her way to work. A captivating walk, the way she would hoist the strap of her bag up onto her shoulder, her head held high and everything in motion from the shoulders down. She would stand at the corner of Parker and Commercial Drive, demanding the traffic stop by virtue of her posture alone. The world was hers, as she strode importantly, and without pretense.

I knew though, that to her, I was just the bug who lived next door. But bug or not, love was love, and I had to have Fiona for my own. If she only knew how I listened at her door as she slept, I know she’d have appreciate just how deep my feelings were for her.

My aching for Fiona only increased as February began to rapidly vanish. Valentine’s Day approached, and I became determined that the 14th wouldn’t pass without action.

Soon I had a plan, the foundation of which was a love poem I would write. I knew that most poems of deep meaning took years, even decades to write, but it was already the 12th. I had only two more days. I’d have to trust my passion and my muse to guide me.

I started to compose my poem to Fiona in the lonely hours, long before dawn, before I would hear through my wall the wheezy sound of her instrument being removed from its case. In the dim lamp light, and with only a pencil and paper, I began to write, accompanied by the sound of a solo horn, heard from an upper floor, playing a jazz ballad as soft and as sad as falling snow.

The poem, I decided, would be entitled my zydeco valentine. (All lower case, by the way, wherever possible, always makes the title of a poem seem more profound.)

I worked steadily for 48 hours, and was ready to recite my work on the morning of V Day. It was my magnum opus. Visions of beatniks had danced in the air as I wrote, along with Goethe, Shelley and Byron. The piece would eclipse the power and profundity of every poem that had preceded it. I was no longer dandruff on the shoulders of giants. Now I would be a giant; I’d make Fiona melt.

But how and where to deliver my verse?

The answer to the question came as I watched her leave for work that Valentine’s Day morning. Gazing at her from out of my window, I struggled to put on my coat. Once outside, I followed her at a safe distance.

I’d chosen how to give her the poem, and she’d not only be surprised and honoured when I put it into her hand, but maybe even a bit bashful. Her female coworkers would be envious, and every man present would know that he had failed his own lover by being so incapable of creating such a masterpiece.

I took a different bus than hers, and arrived moments after she had donned her apron. Outside, it was rain mixed with snow, so customers were soggy and impatient. Fiona, on the other hand, was cheerful, confident and industrious, executing perfect daffodils, rosebuds and butterflies in the froth of every cappuccino, latte and café mocha. It made her damp patrons smile, and I held her in such high regard for it that I fell into a glorious state of euphoria, knowing that I was about to make her my own.

There were five people ahead of me when I got into line, holding Fiona’s poem in my moist hand. Things were moving nicely until a plump junior executive in a bad suit ordered hot breakfast bagels and pour-overs for four. The chunky bastard had slowed down the line. People were looking at their watches, and tapping their toes. That’s when self-doubt set in. Until that moment, I’d believed that simply handing the poem over would be easy. The longer I waited, however, the more I wanted to run.

After several long moments, I finally made it to the counter to face Fiona, and caught myself staring once more at the valentine tattoo on her cheek.

“It’s you!” she said, slightly startled, when she saw me. “The little geek from next door.”

Fellow employees snuck peeks over their shoulders.

“Yes,” I said, and looked at the folded sheet of paper in my hand. Then looking up, I said, “I came to say I love you.”—What!?! It just slipped out of my mouth. I was obviously possessed. Fiona’s eyes had gotten hard and squinty, however. I knew I had to backtrack, and rescue us both.

“I mean I want a double Americano,” I said.

“You get that order, Wendy?” she said. Our eyes had locked. “Double Americano.”

“Yup,” Wendy snickered, pressing the espresso.

Fiona was oozing a blunt and unexpected hostility.

“Are you stalking me?” she said.

“No,” I replied—a stab at incredulity. “This is the first time I’ve ever even been here. What makes you say that?”

“For some guys, just showing up amounts to stalking. Are you one of them?”

“Pffft, of course not.” I shoved the poem into my pocket. “I’m a writer, a poet. I belong in a coffeehouse.”

“Maybe,” she said. “But not in mine. Get it?”

Wendy placed the Americano in front of her, and Fiona pushed it across the counter to me.

“Five bucks,” she said.

This, I hadn’t foreseen. I patted my pockets. I had $2.37.

“Is there a problem here?” said a beefy man, coming up from behind the counter. His nametag read, Manager Bob.

“There was a problem,” Fiona said. “But he’s leaving. After he pays.”

“I seem to be short,” I said.

“Then good-bye,” said Fiona, taking the coffee back. “And don’t let me see you in the hall, when I get home.”

“Yeah, uh okay. I guess I’ll go to Starbucks.”

I turned and walked away, defeat sticking to me like a gummy coating of mouldy caramel macchiato.

Outside, I ducked under an awning, and took a quick inventory of my fatal failings. I was an obnoxious, puffed-up, self-absorbed wanker who people preferred avoiding. I was soft and unattractive, flabby even, from sitting all day, trying to write prose and poetry of importance, and failing. In spite of this, I was fool enough to believe I could entice a woman like Fiona into my little, meaningless life.

I pulled the poem out of my pocket, tore it in two and let it fall into a puddle. There it could drown, for all I cared.

Then as I began to walk away, a truck sped by, through a larger puddle the size of a carp pond, and a huge wave of oily water rose up and fell over me. It was the final humiliation. There was a blunt razor in the bathroom cabinet at home. Too blunt to shave with, but still sharp enough for my purposes. My time had come. Wasn’t it expected of every writer that he eventually commit suicide?

Trying to shake off the oily water, I carried on, then felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. There waiting for me stood a small rain-soaked old man in a tattered raincoat, with the two torn halves of my poem in his hand.

“This yours, fella?” he said.

“No, I….”

“Didn’t you just drop it? I think you’re a litter bug.”

“No,” I said. “I’m very environmentally conscious.”

“Then take it,” the old man said. “Take it and put it where it belongs, in a garbage can.”

A garbage can? My poem belonged in a garbage can? A new light had been shed. I snatched the two pieces of paper out of his hand.

“Off with you, old man,” I said, at last finding the indignation necessary to re-enter the coffeehouse. “Go pull some posters off a lamppost, you mothball-stinking Precambrian geezer.”

“Hey!” I heard him say as I walked away. “I was a Rotarian, once.”

It was muggy, crowded and close in the coffeehouse when I returned. I climbed up and stood on the only empty stool I could find, unfolded the two halves of the poem, and held them together. Then I shouted over the noisy crowd—

“This is a love poem for Fiona.”

No one stopped talking, so I yelled even louder —

“A love poem, I say! For Fiona.”

In a moment the room went quiet, except for some soft coughing. The last words spoken came from a petite older woman who said, “What the hell…?”

“It’s called my zydeco valentine—all lower case.”

(some more subdued coughing, then silence)

“Shit.” I heard Fiona say, from behind the counter.

Then I began—

Fiona, Fiona
all valentine faced, as you are

how you haunt my love-empty rooms

I ask thee to be with me
on my journ-ey
to our destin-y

let me squeeze your accordi-on
we’ll walk into the sun
together together
ignoring the weather
both light as a feather

I love you Fiona

Silence. All eyes were on me. In the distance, a coffee cup was heard breaking on the floor.

“Is that it?” someone hollered from the back of the room. “I never know for sure when a poem ends.”

“Yes,” I said, and bowed.

“Who’s Fiona?” someone else shouted. “I knew a Fiona, once. She was a prison guard. Retired to Florida. Has nine cats, and a girlfriend named Stella. Is that who you mean?”

“No, ma’am. I mean….”

“Don’t you say it!” Fiona screeched. “Someone call the police.”

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Manager Bob stepped in and tackled me to the floor. It was a long fall from such a great height, and I landed on top of him. Then he applied a hammerlock, and repeated Fiona’s call out for the police.

I struggled madly, but literary genius and physical strength rarely strive hand-in-hand.

Fiona came up and gave me a kick, as I lay there with Bob’s hairy arm round my neck.

“You’re sick,” she sneered. “And that’s the worst Valentine’s Day poem ever written.”

“She’s right,” I heard someone in the crowd say.

“Don’t quit yer day job,” laughed another.

Almost immediately, I heard a hiss at the counter. Milk began to be steamed once more.

*   *   *   *   *

Fiona moved out at the end of the following month, which made complying with my restraining order much easier. Soon after, I began to write my novella about my relationship with her, our joys, our aspirations and our heartbreaks. They say novellas sell best nowadays, now that no one has time for entire novels.

I call it my zydeco princess.

A literary agent named Maxine said she might be interested, whenever it’s finished. Maxine always wears pantsuits, and drives an old mint condition Mercedes convertible. She has the sad blue eyes of a person full of unresolved hurt, the way that all literary agents do.

Maxine walks her Schnauzer, Fritz, every morning at 7:30. In the evening, she likes to go to foreign movies, and eat at good restaurants. I think the men she dates are sort of creepy, however. Sycophantic morons who compensate with expensive suits and shoes.

Sometimes, I put coins in her parking meters when they run out of time. I try really hard to be there when that happens. I even polish her hubcaps, occasionally, when she’s in watching a movie. She doesn’t know that I do it. She doesn’t need to. Just call me Mr Invisible.

I’m writing her a poem.