Dishonest Diplomacy: A Seizure in the Body Politic.

20150222-062507.jpg“We’re only trying to protect our mutual interests. Imagine how a major accident in one of those arteries would affect your economy?”

President Miriam Rena sat across from General Georg Reoviro, their reflections clearly visible, though grayed, in the smooth surface of the oak table whose surface was broken only by a small stack of papers and a single black telephone.

“I appreciate your concern, General, but we’re well equipped to deal with any of these contingencies ourselves. I know the men would be technicians, but the popular perception, both in Somata and internationally, would be that you were taking an aggressive stance. The parliament would be under immense pressure to at least build up troops in the area, as you can well understand, and I can’t guarantee what the outcome might be.”

General Reoviro nodded his head, his pursed lips and angled eyebrows professing that he truly commiserated with the president’s plight. Reoviro was a trim Prokaryote, a little past middle age, made all the more handsome by the tinge of silver now showing around his temples. His spiked hair, whose length stretched regulations just a bit, added to the youthful appearance of his face, giving the overall impression of an energetic young man playing the part of a middle aged general in a school play. He had been sent to represent the Union of Prokaryotic People’s States’ interests not because he was the senior member of the military–which in fact he was–nor because he was seen as the real power behind President Alexander Escherichia’s throne–which he was as well–nor because he was acquainted with the facts of the case–which he most certainly was not–but because he had a reputation among government circles as the most charming gentleman in the capitol. There were many rumors, none as yet substantiated, about amorous exploits that included, along with the many pretty young interns, several wives of the most important civil and military leaders.

Reoviro had risen from obscurity during the political upheavals following the abdication of President Viktor Kampulobacter. Young Prokaryotic Unitists had been demonstrating in favor of a new constitution granting full citizenship and equal rights to Archaea and establishing a parliamentary system with an equal number of seats for Bacteria and Archaea alike, and some even went so far as to include Eukaryotes in this scheme. Kampulobacter had been on the fence as to whether some level of appeasement might not silence the protestors, but he feared any sign of weakness might open up a crack that could topple the de facto dictatorship whose privileges he had enjoyed half his life. At last he decided to test the waters: he would allow the establishment of a parliamentary committee whose members would be chosen by him and whose role would be to gauge popular opinion in the provinces on various government policies and report that information to himself during the semiannual meeting of the provincial governors. The committee was not parliamentary in any sense, but the news of its establishment stirred up expectation of further freedoms and privileges among the educated public. When these failed to show themselves, many felt it was high time to take action and show the president that he was not the master and they were not his slaves. A massive protest was planned in the main square. Kampulobacter heard about the protest–there was little that slipped by his agents–and he called out the military to prevent what he saw clearly would spell the end of his regime. But the protest began before the military installments had time to fully block the roads leading to the square. And even after the roadblocks were in place, sympathizers had opened their front and back doors and lines of protesters filed through strangers’ living rooms and kitchens, passed through back gardens and patios until they arrived through the cramped shade of little alleys, open shops, and other houses into the empty space, gleaming cream brick and open sky of the plaza. In the center of the plaza, a colorful mass was growing. With every additional protester, its common voice grew louder until it seemed that every pent up frustration, every petty grievance, every feeling of dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of life in general were being released in a massive flood that would wash away Kampulobactor, the army, the government, the face of the earth!

Amid this roar of voices, a deeper grumble began to be heard. At the mouths of the six streets that opened onto the square could be seen the tan uniforms of the Special Forces, and behind them rolled six tanks. These troops had been given orders by General Raúl Escherichia: They would surround the outside of the square and speak to the protestors over loudspeakers, delivering an ultimatum: “go home or we will be forced to fire.” But when the protestors heard the ultimatum, they only shouted louder. A young Bacterian ran out toward the soldiers yelling “fire away if you have to, but we are home!” A second later, three cracks were heard, three puffs of smoke began to rise, and the young man sank to the ground, struck by three rubber bullets in quick succession. As he crawled back toward the protesters, a group of young men ran out and carried him back to where a makeshift tent had been set up with water and medical supplies. A few in the crowd around the young man began to chant “we are home, we are home!” A phrase that loses much of its melodic rhythm in translation, and soon the chant spread through the crowd until it echoed off the shop fronts and facades of public buildings, filling the square with a single phrase as though it were the cry of one massive throat.

“We are home! We are home!”

These words washed away bureaucratic delays, ethnic repression, petty vindictiveness, bribes, blackmail, nepotism, food shortages, supply shortages, energy shortages, inclement weather, hangovers, domestic disputes, romantic rejections, slights, betrayals, pet peeves, careless accidents, imprudent indiscretions, embarrassment, fatigue, boredom, all that should not have been.

“We are home! We are home!”

In each mind rose the brilliant sun of a new day. In each mind that day was his. In each mind that day was now.

“Fire!” General Escherichia could see clearly that his career held no place in this new day and was giving the order to silence those words before they could flow out of the plaza. But his soldiers stood still. They too could see the new day. No more disciplinary hearings. No more being overlooked for promotion. No more salary delays. Suddenly a young captain could be seen moving toward the general. He seized the megaphone and stepped resolutely onto the tracks of an idling tank.

“Yes! You are home! We are not your enemy! We are not here to attack you! We are here to protect you!”

By now the crowd began to grow silent, listening to the strong voice of this young soldier that rang out clearly, echoing above their heads as though it came from that new sun that had promised so much.

“Who is our enemy? Who should we fear? Who should we fight?”

“Kampulobactor!” Rang out from that massive throat.

“Kampulobactor, yes. But not the man. The idea! What does he stand for? Disunity! Repression! The past! No, it’s not Kampulobactor we need to fight, it is the one thing he refused to fight, the other! He spends his time bludgeoning Bacteria, arresting innocent Archaea, suppressing and persecuting Prokaryotes regardless of age or sex. And meanwhile, who reaps the benefits?”

Here and there a voice called out “That damned Kampulobactor!” or “Him and his filthy minions!”

“You may well say Kampulobactor, but I say no. He lives in fear! He knows we are strong! He knows he will fall sooner or later! No, it’s not Kampulobactor. Do you know who are the true beneficiaries of his petty scheme? The Eukaryotes!”

A great shout and applause broke into the young officer’s speech, drowning the words that followed. It was as if the young man had taken away a single, far off, abstract object of hatred and given each one his own personal object of hatred to do with as he pleased. The speech continued for almost an hour, touching on such topics as “strength in unity” and “the reawakening of Prokaryotic peoples everywhere,” but everything of consequence had been said. When the crowd finally dispersed, it broke into small bands and attacked first any shops along the plaza owned by Eukaryotes, then any houses and public buildings known to be owned or used by Eukaryotes, then any houses, shops or buildings so much as rumored to be somehow connected with Eukaryotes.

The event did succeed in taking the pressure off of Kampulobactor for several weeks, but as the violence continued, despite the death or flight of the last Eukaryote, the president tried to restore order by establishing martial law. This only provoked more ordinary citizens to join the cause for Prokaryotic unity, until finally Kampulobactor was forced to abdicate and leave power in the hands of the military. They attacked and annexed several small Eukaryotic states on their borders, assembled and dissolved several governments, and promoted and disgraced several generals, until they were left with an arrangement that closely resembled life under Kampulobactor, except that there were very few Eukaryotes left, Raùl Escherichia’s son Alexander was president, and the young officer who had made such a moving speech in the plaza was now a general. Now that general, older and less volatile, but with the same fire in his eyes was scouting out the possibility of further penetration into Eukaryotic territory.

“I fully understand your predicament, madam president. We too are bound by our parliament’s good pleasure, and I can assure you, it was no simple matter convincing my own people of the mutual benefits of this economic alliance.” General Reoviro emphasized the word “economic,” and his tone seemed to say “oh, don’t let this uniform fool you, I’m speaking as a civilian, as a personal friend.” Reoviro was in fact wearing one of his best dress uniforms, the one he usually reserved for official ceremonies, meetings with heads of state, and when he particularly wished to impress a lady. Since this occasion combined all of these, it seemed to him quite natural to be wearing his gold epaulettes and a bouquet of metals, despite the fact that his stated mission was to offer technical support to a small Eukaryotic state suffering some shipping delays lately. What he did not mention was that these delays had been caused by sympathetic prokaryotes living in the GI Region who had been hired to sabotage equipment in several nutrient absorption plants.

“Rest assured we’ll do everything within our power to prove our good intentions.”

“I’m sure, general, that you would do exactly that were I in a position to accept your generous offer. But it’s really not my decision.”

President Rena, despite the polite tone she was attempting to adopt, did not at all intend to accept that “generous offer” on any terms, with or without parliamentary approval. She did not trust the UPPS, and to tell the truth, she was suspicious of all Prokaryotes. But despite her convictions, she found it hard to ignore his arguments. And what was worse, she actually found herself gazing into Reoviro’s bright grey-green eyes and allowing her mind drift dangerously close to thoughts unbecoming to a lady of her family, whether or not she is president of a sovereign nation.
Rena had come into the meeting fully prepared to reject any proposal the general had to offer. Now she was beginning to lose her focus.

Miriam Rena was born into one of the oldest and most respected families in Kidney, and had lived a charmed life. She had never stepped foot outside her own province before her successful bid for presidency last year. She appeared on the national stage more by the incompetence of her rivals than by her own merit. Albert Core had been leading the conservative camp until the Labor Party found and released documents that opened an investigation into his financial dealings while president of Somata National Oil. Meanwhile, the Labor Party’s favorite son Gary Lymph had been caught visiting a particular hotel well known for the beauty of the young girls who could somehow afford to take permanent rooms there, indefinitely occupying whole suites.

When the election was actually held, a half-dozen candidates had made it to the debates, but Miriam Rena was the only one left who had actual experience in government and who could speak without accidentally insulting and marginalizing half of her voter base. She ran on an independent ticket, under the slightly awkward slogan of “Breaking down walls, building up the economy,” by which she had meant she would ignore the polarizing social issues and party affiliations, and focus on supporting industry, creating jobs and balancing the budget.

When she began her presidential run, Rena had never actually met a prokaryote other than the criminals processed at Kidney. Then in the final stage of campaigning she spent several weeks in the GI Region giving speeches at factories and city halls in little backwater towns where eukaryotes were only seen in movies and on TV. The GI Region had been founded by enterprising Eukaryotes in the last century, but had since been mainly operated by migrant Archaeans and a few Bacterian dissidents who settled in the region fleeing the repressive political climate up north. Perhaps because the only thing that these refugees had in common was their aversion to current trends in Prokaryotic politics, the three provinces that made up the region had always been politically volatile and were held to be the most important campaign stops.

Rena saw herself as above judging people by such superficial markers as domain, so she did her best to fit in. She even tried to adopt a “prokaryote accent” when speaking here, throwing in a few vulgarisms that were not quite swears. But she kept reflecting on how the coarse manners and even coarser language of these farmers, factory workers and local governors would be received in the elegant social circles of Kidney. Despite her professions of respect for all domains, and despite the fact that the GI Region was the backbone of the economy, producing three quarters of the gross national product, she still felt a personal aversion to all Prokaryotes, Archaean and Bacterian alike. In fact, although she had studied history in school and had taken several university courses on regional politics, she could never quite remember the difference between Bacteria and Archaea, and the obscure political and religious differences that had led to century-long wars in the past completely eluded her. She was fairly familiar with the basic facts of “military coupe” that had ousted the UPPS’s stable if a bit autocratic Kampulobactor regime, ushering in the recent political turmoil and nationalistic power posturing that now threatened to destabilize the whole region. Now some USSP general, some prokaryote was asking for a meeting when what she really needed to be doing was rerouting supplies and cutting into the reserves stored up in Liver and out in Os. But who was this well-dressed, handsome man waiting patiently in her office? She had been prepared for him to be rude. She had been prepared for him to be aggressive. She had been prepared for him to be vulgar in every sense of the word. What she was not prepared for was the half smile and arched eyebrows of a man who’s sure of his cause and even more sure of his own irresistible beauty.

“I’m sorry, general, even if I wanted to adopt your plan, I just don’t have the authority to approve entry visas for such a large number without asking parliament to establish a committee to investigate the matter and approve funds.”

“Ah yes, I am very familiar with parliamentary committees, meetings, financial statements… I completely understand why you would be reluctant to wade into that bog. But if you would allow me to present my full proposal to parliament, I have no doubt they would be ready to rewrite the constitution in order to accept.”

Rena gave him a stern look.

“Just a form of speech, you know. They would be ready to… walk on water.” Reoviro flourished his hand. “Does that suit you, Miriam? I may call you Miriam, mayn’t I?”

Rena noticed that at some point he had switched to using the familiar form of “you,” and wondered how long it had been. Why hadn’t she noticed? It was those eyes, those brilliant, luminous… She turned away suddenly, shaking her head, then looked at the general still more severely, then her face shifted into an icy formality.

“I’m sorry, general, I have a very important engagement I must attend to. I would be delighted to conclude this discussion at another time.”

“Perhaps this evening, over dinner?”

Each facet of the general’s face was deployed in a position of such strategic charm that Rena had to look away as she said with an involuntary sigh, “I’m afraid I will have to decline the general’s kind offer. Goodbye.”

When he had left, the president stood at the window, watching guards pace back and forth in front of the iron gates that separated the Presidential Palace from the bustle of shoppers and tourists wandering through Aortic Plaza. She caught the bright blue and gold of a dress uniform that disappeared into a diplomatic limousine flying red and green UPPS flags. She turned back to the conference table and glanced through a pile of maps and plans the general had left.

“Am I crazy? No! I shouldn’t even consider cooperation with the UPPS. And yet… If they were able to supply technicians and a few labor crews as quickly as the general promises, the Pedal supply chain could be up and running before the markets open on Monday. All it would take is a few dozen crews stationed in and around Duodenum… Yes, it would be best to confine them to the GI Region where Prokaryotes wouldn’t be likely to cause any public disturbance…”

Just then there was a knock on the door.

“Sorry to interrupt you, Madam President, but Mr. Amygdullah would like to speak with you. He says it’s urgent.”

It could be rightly said that the finance minister Abu Hussein Amygdullah only interrupted the president in cases he deemed urgent, but then, he tended to deem minor fluctuations in the market as urgent, so Rena had learned to take his daily financial crises with a grain of salt. But today his news was more serious. He burst into the office and immediately began pacing up and down, alternately wringing his hands and pressing them to his eyes.

“Have you seen the news? It’s a disaster! What are we going to do? What are we going to do!”

“Please sit, Abu. Tell me. What is it? I haven’t seen anything yet.”

Her voice was calm and it seemed to reassure Amygdullah. He sat for a moment trying to collect himself, still moving his body, still mentally pacing the room.

“It’s like the whole GI Region is going crazy. Workers at Central Enteric Nutrient Processing are on strike, and other factories are joining them.”

He stood up unconsciously and resumed his rapid pacing.

“They just walked off the job! Can you believe it? Left all that machinery running with no one watching it! They let a whole bolus through without processing or decontamination, and all this hazardous waste started spilling out into traffic along Superior Mesenteric Turnpike. The Enteric Police got their Clotting Agents out there right away to stop traffic, but now everything down there’s pretty much shut down. Do you realize what this is going to do to our supply chain? The economy? We’re sunk! You’ve gotta get down there. You’ve gotta talk to those workers.”

Rena sat back in her office chair, closing her eyes and silently flicking one corner of a stack of papers on her desk. Suddenly she sat up and picked up the phone.

“Don’t worry, Abu, I know how we can get through this in one piece.”

The general readily agreed to supply ten technicians and a crew of workmen to clean up and repair the damage caused by the labor disputes in the Enteric. The next morning, a long train of Prokaryotes marched through the border crossing at Esophagi, and Rena gave an impassioned speech before the assembled parliament, cabinets and members of the press, explaining the need for open cooperation that broke down not only petty internal differences, but international boundaries, all for the sake of greater economic stability both in Somata, and in the region as a whole. When she had finished, several older cabinet ministers sat on their hands, but the vast majority broke into a spontaneous ovation that lasted all of five minutes.

Many of the promised repairs were made. Most of the toxic waste was neutralized by Enteric Police or sent to Kidney for processing. But there was still unrest in the GI Region. The technicians and workmen stayed on and were soon joined by further technicians and workmen. Each surge was explained and justified first by Reoviro to Rena, then by Rena to the public. But then it started.

First a group of workers walked off the job at Sphincter Operations near Duodenum, then a group of technicians and workmen stormed the chemical production plants at Rugae, then armed mobs simultaneously stormed factories and processing plants throughout the GI Region.
When President Rena got the news, she was heartbroken, but not surprised. She had answered the call, listened, acknowledged the news, and thanked Amigdullah, all with the same calm. She sat for a moment, resting her head on her hand, stood and looked out at the gates, the crowd now rushing by, probably toward the bank, and then turned resolutely back to the telephone waiting on the oak table. She had allowed herself to trust a man against her better judgement. This would never happen again.

“Jack? Get me General Diaphragmtus… Hello, General? How soon can you deploy troops? Yes, tonight would be sufficient, but I would prefer this afternoon. Ideally, I’d prefer yesterday! Yes. I understand. I will speak to parliament. Yes, I’m sure we can get the vote before your men are in place, just get then moving. Thank you, General.”

The battle was rapid and decisive. Reoviro had not expected such an aggressive response and had armed his men only minimally. Although there were significant losses on both sides, particularly among the innocent Prokaryotes of the GI Region, General Diaphragmtus managed to capture, destroy or expel the hostile troops before they were able to gain any major strategic target. Within 24 hours, the last UPPS soldier had fled across the border at Esophagi.

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“It’s just a stud, you’d barely even notice it!” Steve Andrews had been begging his mother to lend him some money to get a nose ring. It was the kind of thing she would never have let her older kids do, but last semester she had agreed to let him get one if he could get all his grades up to at least a B-. It wasn’t that he was a particularly bad student or that he had bad influences. He was highly intelligent, had never done drugs, had only had alcohol that once when he snuck a beer from the fridge and drank it alone in his room. He drank half and poured the rest in the toilet. No, he was just not that interested in school. He just wanted to hang out. But the nose ring? That was worth trying for. He came through. All Bs, except for that A in woodworking, which was really a pass/fail grade. Now it was summer and he was going to hold his mother to her end of the deal.
“How much was it, again?”
“It’s only $65.”
“Only? Let me guess. You’re expecting me to pay for it.”
“Moooom! That was the deal! Remember?”
“I said you could get an earring, not me.”
“Nose ring.”
“That is NOT what you said!” In fact, it wasn’t what she had said. She had clearly promised she would buy him a nose ring if he could get his grades up. Only, at the time she didn’t think he could do it.
“Fine, but I’ll only pay for half. You’ve got to start taking more responsibility.”
“What am I supposed to do? I’ve only got, like, $10.”
“Ha! What are you supposed to do? Get a job! Start earning your keep! All you ever do is sit around playing video games with those loser friends of yours and eating anything good I have in the house.”
“Whatever.” Steve slunk up to his room and called his friend Adam. “Dude, you’re mom’s a B!”
“I know, right?”
“What’re you gonna do?”
“Get a job, I guess.”
“Hey, I know how you can make some money. Bottles.”
“Like, selling sodas?”
“No! There’s this bottle redemption center in Maine my dad sometimes goes to. They give you ten cents for every bottle and can. And I think it’s like 45 cents for liquor bottles. There’s one in Mass, but they give you, like five cents. Maine’s the way to go.”
“Awesome! Hey, I’m gonna text Ashley and see if she can get the empties from the diner.”

Steve was up until 11:30 making calls, texting and sending private messages on Social Media, and when he was done, he had 16 friends lined up to supply him with all the bottles they could get their hands on. Over the next week, he traveled back and forth between houses and restaurants, stopping to pick up any stray bottles or cans he saw by the road. At last he had 12 black plastic bags filled to capacity with soda cans, beer bottles, juice bottles and liquor bottles.

“Mom, I need the car, I’m going to drop off some stuff in Maine.”
His mother was sitting on the couch shifting between a sitcom and a reality TV show about cat breeders. She looked at Steve skeptically.
“What kind of stuff?”
“The bottles.”
“Oh, that stuff. Do you have enough for gas and tolls?”
Steve hadn’t mapped out his route, let alone calculated gas mileage, and he didn’t know there were any tolls, but he had roughly estimated how much you could get for a bag of cans and he figured he would definitely have enough once he got there.
“Yeah. I got plenty.”
“Fine. But I need the car later, I’ve gotta run errands.”

Steve crammed the last bag into the passenger seat. Every square inch of the car, aside from the driver’s seat, was crammed with bottles. He had had to split one of the bulky black bags into grocery bags so he could Tetris them in, and he still had to take a few out and wedge them individually into stray open patches in order to fit everything. Finally he was getting on the road. He found the address of the nearest redemption center in Maine, asked his phone to navigate, wedged it between the dashboard and a bag, and started the engine. He was going to be rich! If he’d calculated right, he had at least $100 worth of bottles, maybe more!

Steve pulled into the Mobil gas station at the edge of town. Which side was the gas tank on? Left I think. He popped the gas tank and got out. Yes!Today was his lucky day! As he filled the tank, he thought of all the things he would do with the rest of the money. There was the new Battle Wager coming out, but his dad would probably get it for him for his birthday. With that kind of money, he could order out every night and never have to come down for dinner! He could buy some skinny jeans like Adam’s. He looked at the gauge and saw it had hit $11.35. Panicking, he ripped the pump handle out of the car without waiting for the gas to stop flowing, drizzling a brown puddle that caught his white sneakers. Steve looked down at his feet. That’s ok, I’ll have enough to buy some All-Stars. He rooted under the car seats and found two quarters, three dimes, a nickel and several pennies. He looked at the gauge again. $11.87. He rummaged through his pockets and found another quarter and his lucky silver half-dollar, but hey, he wasn’t a kid anymore. He took out his $10 bill and added it all up. He was still three cents short. Thank God for the penny bin. Finally he was on the road, headed for the Maine border.

At the border he saw a sign reading “Toll road ahead. $2 per axel.” Oh man! He had totally forgotten about the tolls. Then he had an idea: he could just ask for a ticket and pay it on the way back when he had the money. “Uh, I don’t have $4. Can I, like, pay later?”
The man took out a brochure and circled a website on the back. “You have to log in here and give your info. There’s a $15 fee for missing a toll.”
Steve drove on. That’s ok, I’ll have enough after Maine. After taking a wrong exit, wandering around some run down mill town, finally finding the right exit, wandering around an even more run down mill town, he arrived at “Dupuis’ Convenient Store and Redemption Center.”
He unloaded the bags and began dragging them into what used to be a garage. Inside he saw an old man with a wrinkled red face and a flannel shirt, and a young man with a slightly less wrinkled red face and a stained t-shirt. The air was thick with a cloud composed of an assortment of evaporated beers, wines, liquors and sodas, and the dust of countless cellars and sheds mixed with particles of broken glass. The two men sat on stools behind a row of folding tables covered with banana crates. They didn’t say anything, but grabbed the bags out of Steve’s hands and began emptying the bags into the banana crates, then sorting them into large cardboard bins behind them. They seemed to go out of their way to break as many of the glass bottles as possible as they threw them into the bins behind them. They worked so quickly that Steve could barely bring the next bags in before the last had been sorted.
“These ‘uns ain’t no good.” Said the older man as Steve dragged in the last two bags. The man was holding up a couple of juice bottles.
“Gotta have labels.” He threw them back into one of the bags. They finished sorting the last two bags, and the younger man started punching numbers into an antique cash register. When he had finished, he handed Steve a receipt and a full bag of rejects. Steve stood there in the door looking at the incomprehensible slip of paper as the two men started sorting the bags brought in by a man in camouflage overalls whose clothes gave off the sweet smell of fresh manure. “Gotta go nex’ doah!” Called one of the men. Steve walked out of the open garage door and into the little convenience store that was connected to it. He got it line for the register. A man in front of him was buying a box of donuts and a six pack of beer. Steve, still holding the bag of rejects, handed his receipt to a large woman whose wrinkled red face told him she must be connected to the two in the garage. She looked at the slip of paper, pressed a button on the cash register, and handed him a wad of crumpled bills and a handful of coins. He practically ran back to the car where he sat counting the money two or three times. $189.55! He was rich! He got on the highway, barely noticing the clinking of the bag of rejects and the few stray bottles rolling around in the trunk. His mind was racing with all the things he was going to do with all that money. He was going to get a tongue ring and a nose ring. He was going to buy a whole new wardrobe. He was going to throw a party and feed all his friends. He would buy a set of scented candles for his mom. Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by a tinny rendition of his favorite song. It was his mom calling.
“Steve, where are you?”
“I went to Maine remember?”
“I need the car!”
“I’m on my way home.”
“Look, I’m going to be late for my thing now! You never think about other people! You’re nothing but a spoiled brat. I shouldn’t have let you borrow the car.”
“Mom! You said I could. You knew where I was going. If you needed the car, you could’ve said so. If you’re late, it’s your fault.”
“Shut up, Steve! If you don’t get back here in ten minutes, you’re grounded. And you are never using that car again, do you hear me?”
Steve was not so much annoyed by his mother’s unreasonable request as by the fact that she had ruined the moment for him. How could he enjoy his triumph with all that nagging cutting into his ear?
“Whatever!” Steve shut off his phone and stuffed it in his pocket. He took the next exit that looked like a real town, wandering up and down streets until finally he saw a storefront covered with neon signs that read “tattoos, piercings, body art, smoking supplies.” He parked the car and pushed open the door. A man with a massive beard and arms covered with his earlier artistic achievements looked up from the lower back of a large teenage girl where he was filling in the final details of a black rose framed by black wings.
“Be with you in a minute!”
Steve sat down in a chair and leafed through a magazine that seemed to be more about the girls than the actual motorcycles they sat on.
“What can I do for you kid!” The man shouted everything as if he were speaking over some loud noise.
“Do you do tongue rings?” Steve looked at the man’s brown hands and was suddenly hesitant about the idea of those fingers doing anything in his mouth.
“Yeah! Moon does ’em! She’s out back smokin’ a butt! I’ll go tell her you’re here!”
A thin blond woman of indeterminable age walked in through the back door and said in a gruff voice, “Hey kid, what’s up?”
“I’d like a tongue ring.” She moved a little closer and sniffed.
“You smell like a drunk mechanic. What’ve you been up to?” He gave her an abbreviated version of his trip to the redemption center and the gas spill.
“How old are you?”
“Your parents ok with this?”
“Yeah, my mom said I could.”
“Good enough for me.”
The procedure took about 45 minutes. It stung pretty bad even though she used an anesthetic, but that didn’t matter. He was finally getting his tongue ring!

“That’ll be $87.50!”
Steve looked at the man and was about to protest, when he remembered it was that place on Pearl St. that had been $65 and that he had never actually asked how much it would cost here. He pulled out a wad of crumpled bills and counted out $90.
“Thanks, kid! Good luck!”
“Shanksh…” The ring still stung a bit.

When Steve opened the door to leave, he was surprised to see how dark it was already. He told his phone to navigate home, climbed into the car and picked his way through streets that seemed more cramped in the twilight, till finally he saw the sign for the highway. When he was able to relax, his mind ran over the events of the day until they rested on the final phone call from his mother. Why did she always have to ruin everything? She was going to freak out when he got home! But why let her ruin his fun right now? He tried to push every thought out of his mind except the victory of just spending nearly $90 on a tongue ring and still having over $100 left. He turned on the radio and scanned until he found the university station. They were playing the kind of hip-hop the other stations weren’t allowed to play. Steve cranked up the volume until the speakers crackled and his eardrums buzzed. This was living! He sped down the highway as if he’d totally forgotten the dreaded confrontation that awaited his return.

Suddenly, the car was lit up with flickering blue lights. Steve was paralyzed with a fit of panic, and for a moment he contemplated making a break for it, but there was no way his mom’s little sedan could outrun a state trooper. He pulled over and waited, so flustered he forgot to turn off the radio. The state trooper tapped on Steve’s window. He rolled it down a crack. The trooper gestured to the radio. He turned it off.
“Do you know why I pulled you over, son?” His voice sounded far away after the blare of the radio.
“I guesh, I wazh…” Steve swallowed. The tongue ring was starting to ache pretty bad now and it was hard to control his tongue. “I gueff I wazh gohing pooty fasht?”
The police officer leaned a little closer and sniffed.
“How much’ve you had to drink this evening?”
“I havungt hadh anyfing!” Then he began the abbreviated stories of collecting bottles, driving to Maine to collect the refund, the spill at the gas station, the tongue ring… But his tongue got tired after a few sentences and he heard himself trailing off into nonsense before the trooper interrupted him.
“All right, kid, let me see your license and registration.”
Steve fumbled through the glove compartment, not really sure what he was looking for. He handed the trooper a pile of old insurance papers, inspection and oil change receipts, a flier for a summer camp his brother had attended, and the registration. He got out his wallet and handed the trooper the temporary operator’s permit that he would use until his 21st birthday. The officer handed back the extra papers and returned to his car.

Steve sat slouching behind the wheel watching the flashing blue lights reflected in the rear view mirror. Feelings of anger, embarrassment, fear and hatred flashed through his mind alternately directed toward himself, his mother, the state trooper and whatever higher power let all this happen. The trooper returned.
“All right, Stephen, step out of the vehicle and put your hands on the roof.” The police officer frisked him, finding a metal object in his pocket.
“What’s that?”
Steve pulled out a spoon he had absentmindedly slipped into his pocket that morning after eating a pudding cup in his room. The trooper gave him a look that said, “I really don’t want to know,” and asked him to walk the white line that lay between the two parked cars. Steve had never been clumsy, but on being asked to prove his coordination, he was struck with the dread that he would definitely trip. He focused on his movements, but the more he focused, the more awkward he felt. The edge of the road was strewn with gravel that had washed up in some rain storm, and each pebble looked like it was trying to trip him. A car passed, and for a second its headlights shone on the ground just in front of Steve’s foot. The pebble he was about to step on was revealed to be a small toad, which hopped out of the way. As Steve attempted to save the life of the poor toad, he stumbled and fell hard on his left hand, gashing his palm on the rough gravel.
“That’s ok, Stephen.” The trooper’s tons was now more gentle. “I’ve got a first-aid kit in the car. Why don’t you wait there while we see what to do next?”

The phone rang again. Steve’s mom had been in the shower and hadn’t heard the first call. She ran to the phone, still in a towel. An anonymous caller. Probably Steve on a pay phone. What’d he do now, run out of batteries?
“Hello, is this Marjorie Andrews?”
“This is officer Michaels of the Greece, Maine police department. We have your son Steve in custody for driving under the influence of alcohol. He was not administered a breathalyzer test, but based on his gross motor coordination, and given the fact that adolescents tend to show motor impairment only at higher levels of blood alcohol content, I would estimate that his BAC is at least three times the legal level for intoxication.”

She had to wait for her husband to get home from work. She took his truck and drove the 60 miles to Greece. His bail was set at $1000.

(Copyright Bill Herreid, 2015)

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Break Room

“It happened again!”
Someone opened the door.”
The half dozen ladies sat around a long folding table topped with a faded yellow plaid veneer. The fluorescent lights glared down on them, exaggerating the already unnatural hues of their hair that ranged from yellow to a bluish pink.
“They’re going to break that machine, just wait and see.”
“What’s this?” Mavis was new and hadn’t heard about the spare door.
“We’ll, you know how we never have enough room?”
“We’ll, we’ve never used the second door, and we needed somewhere for the new Xerox, so we had Dave put in in front of that door.”
“Yes, and that was perfect until people started trying to get into the office through that old door.”
“Couldn’t you put up a sign?”
The women’s voices joined in unison: “we did!
“But they didn’t read it!”
“Walked right past it!”
“Nobody reads anything nowadays. Everyone’s on their cell phones.”
“I saw that black guy who delivers copy paper just slam into it! He was pulling his dolly along and just smashed his back into that door. I was surprised the back wasn’t cracked!”
“Yeah, I’m surprised it hasn’t fallen over!”
“Could we lock the door?”
“We could, but according to fire code, all doors on the first floor need to be unlocked at least to get out…”
“So you can open it from the inside.”
“Exactly. And the machine’s on rollers, so we can easily move it if there’s a fire.”
“Well, the main thing is the doorknob. It’s a regular one. I asked Dave if they had any locking doorknobs and he said he’d put in a request. We just don’t have the budget.”
“We need to have security stand outside there.”
“I talked to Dave and he said he’d look into it, so… We’ll see.”
“Dave the janitor?”
“No, no, Dave Furrows up in security. The one with the glasses.”
“I’ve been standing out there myself whenever I have free time.”
“So haven’t I!”
“You know, we should put together a schedule and have people stand out there in shifts.”
“You ain’t gonna see me standin’ out theyah all day!”
“I’d just roll my chair out there.”

The man from Taylor Office Supplies pushed open the main entrance and approached the nurse’s station.
“We got…uh, 6 cases of copy paper. Where’d you like ’em?”
“You can leave them in the records room. It’s the second on the right. Thank you!”
The man approached a golden blond pine door covered with fliers and posters advertising home care services, new medical and assistive technology products, and giving the common signs of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and listing websites where you can find more. As he turned the aluminum handle and pushed the heavy door, he heard the cracking of brittle plastic and glass. Then the shaking ground, deep reverberation and tremendous crash brought three nurses running. They managed to force the door open enough to verify that none of the ladies was injured.
“It’s the attack of the office ladies again!”
“Someone left the records room unlocked again!”
“Oh man, that would be me… I just left to grab my other med clipboard, like, two minutes ago…”
The nurses looked at the baffled delivery man.
“Sorry about that, they’ve been locking themselves in the records room and barricading the door with the Xerox machine. You can just leave that stuff out here. We’ll take care of it later.”
“I think Gladys and Dorothy are the ringleaders. I guess they used to work at this big insurance company.”
“Hey, how did they manage to move that machine?”
“They’ve got Dave Furrows doing all their dirty work. Have you seen his muscles?”
“Yeah, he worked in the packing plant right up to when he started losing his memory.”
“Come on, Mavis, it’s time for your meds.”
“Ladies, you know where you’re supposed to be?”
As the ladies shuffled by, pushing walkers, they passed through the wreck that used to be a Xerox copier, now propping open the heavy blond wood door. In the middle of the posters was a hand written sign spelling out in barely legible block letters that resembled a Monet pond, “DO NOT ENTER! USE OTHER DOOR!”

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Ayn Rand: Everyone’s Favorite Egotistical Lady

20150210-113408.jpg“Ayn” is an adopted name from the Yiddish word for eyes. No one knows why she chose it.

I decided to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I’m just coming out of the last throws of that 1200 page illness. Rand is supremely proud of her unique achievement, the creation of a new form of book, the novel about ideas. No one had ever done this before. Everyone knows that. Plato faithfully recorded the words of Socrates. Hugo and Dickens give is fun and frivolous romps through 19th century Europe without trying to make a point. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy explore philosophical, psychological and political themes just for fun; if they had wanted to write about ideas outright, the czarist Russian autocracy would have been tickled pink and wouldn’t have even thought about sending them to Siberia for an instant. No, Rand is using a totally new literary form.

20150210-113408.jpgI can’t keep my eyes off of you, can’t keep my eyes off of you, can’t keep my eyes off of you, can’t keep my eyes…

[spoiler alert]

The basic plot follows the struggles of Dagny Taggert, the strong, cold, egoistic female operating manager of a railroad owned by her altruistic, charitable, and thus evil brother James. Dagny is annoyed by the repeated use of the nonsense phrase “who is John Galt?” meaning something like “that’s life, what can you do?” She works with the married metal magnate Hank Rearden to fight worker incompetence and the government’s bureaucratic blocking to build a stretch of rail and a bridge using a new alloy that is universally declared unsafe by the experts, the moochers from Washington. Everyone expects the bridge to collapse. Dagny and Hank ride in the engine of the first train to run the new line, which she decides to call the John Galt Line in defiance of convention. They spend an exhilarating day with each other, glorying in the work of their hands and stealing furtive glances at each other. As they finally pull safely into their destination, they fall into each other’s arms in what can only be described as mutual rape. But their accomplishments are undermined by new government regulations and the mysterious disappearance of every industrialist and worker who is actually reliable. And to make matters worse, vital copper supplies and resources are being disrupted by the wildly erratic business decisions of Dagny’s ex-lover, Francisco D’Anconio. Dagny is mystified by Francisco’s behavior because he is the smartest man she has ever known. He tells her that any time you are faced with an apparent contradiction, one of your premises must be wrong.

Dagny and Hank decide to take a road trip vacation, and run across an abandoned factory. While looking through the wreckage, they find the ruins of a new form of engine that runs entirely on the static electricity in the air. They immediately see the potential this engine has for revolutionizing industry and Dagny sets out on a wild goose chase to find the inventor. In the mean time, she asks an engineer to try to repair the mysterious engine. As all the great minds disappear from the earth, Dagny suddenly fears the engineer will disappear too before repairing the engine. She crosses the country to check on his progress, she is stranded on a deserted train and rents a private plane, flying it herself to the engineer’s lab, only to learn that he has border the plane of a mysterious man. She follows the mysterious plane until it disappears into what looks like the face of a mountain. She follows it and crash lands in a secret valley populated by all the great minds who have abandoned the world. She is rescued and cared for by a man who identifies himself as John Galt. She is surprised to learn that Francisco is also part of this group and that his playboy persona and destruction of his family fortune and business are part of a plan to ruin the economy. They try to convince her to join them, but she wants to continue fighting for her family’s railroad. But the economy only gets worse and worse. Finally, John Galt gives a speech on all radio frequencies telling the world in a 60 monologue that he was the one who caused the world’s motor to stop, the he and all the great thinkers, artists and industrialists are on strike, that selfishness is the only good and that charity is evil, and that they will only come back if all the moochers in Washington step aside and allow free trade. The Washington crowd find Galt through Dagny, who had begun a rather violent love affair with him, and they proceed to torture him until he’ll agree to run the economy as dictator. Their torturing is interrupted when the machinery breaks down and the technician only knows enough to operate the controls. Lying naked on the torture rack, Galt gathers enough strength to tell him how to fix it. The technician is so spooked and impressed, he runs out. The rest of the Washington men start to crack, and decide to take a break. While they’re out, the rest of the great men, led by Hank, Francisco and Dagny, rescue him and they fly off into the night as the rest of the world collapses.

20150210-113408.jpgWhen you can see your unborn children in her eyes, you know you really love a woman…

One thing does set the book apart from other literature that deals with ideas: the fact that it’s so heavy handed, like the heavy hands that now clasped her shoulders, naked beneath the thin film of the blue-green blouse that seemed to accentuate the form of her body rather than conceal it. His mouth closed firmly on hers as they saw in each other’s eyes the mocking conviction that this was no more than an exchange of the commodities they had rightly earned by their hours of… Whoa, what just happened? Um, wait… What was I talking about? Oh yes, the book is just so heavy handed. Her philosophy appears naked beneath the transparent veneer of a plot line that clings to its muscular shoulders, enhancing every sinew of… Ok, get ahold of yourself… Um, yeah. So, her sexual preferences are pretty heavy handed too. Anyway, the book is a thinly veiled allegory for the dangers of collectivism and the glories of individualism and free-market capitalism. Rand champions the ideals of selfishness and contempt for “the mob.” Her heroes are all misunderstood, despised geniuses, what she calls “prime movers,” surrounded by petty, bigoted people who claim to care for others, but really only use their charity as an excuse to avoid the fact that they have no principles.

Rand was born to a Jewish family in St. Petersburg in 1905, during the push for more political freedoms that would end in the establishment of the Duma only after the unnecessary massacre of a peaceful protest. At the age of 12, she witnessed the early events of 1917 with hope, as a new liberal government began to do away with the restrictions and control that characterized the czarist autocratic reign, only to have this hope dashed as the still weak newborn government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. She would remain in the Soviet Union, witnessing the collapse of the economy, the government’s concession to free trade in the form of the New Economic Policy, and the forcing of industrialists to share their expertise, until in 1926 she would get a visa to travel to America, giving the excuse that she would study film production and return to Russia to produce Soviet propaganda.

Rand’s depiction of the collapse of the economy and society in Atlas Shrugged seems to be based on her experiences in Russia during these early years of soviet rule. She vividly portrays the growing reliance on what she calls “pull”, what Sheila Fitzpatrick would call blat, the replacement of official channels by an informal network of personal connections, patronage and nepotism. As the economy collapses, goods can only be obtained through the black market or through barter. In order to curry favor with one patron or another, much needed freight trains are commandeered for such tasks as shipping an enormous stock of grapefruit. Meanwhile, essential services are stopped do to faulty equipment and lackluster employees who have no incentive to do their best. While Rand’s depiction of a collectivized economy is fictional, it is based on and mirrors the actual conditions she left behind in Russia. But, as is often the case when people reject one extreme, her rejection of soviet collectivism leads her to glorify another extreme without admitting any flaw.

20150210-113408.jpgevery move you make, I’ll be watching you…

She has a Nietzschean view of man. There are only two types of man: the superman and the mob. She sees the mob as unworthy of attention. This rejection of all lesser men can be seen in Hank Rearden’s refusal to give his brother a job because that would be charity, and, perhaps more ominously, the great men’s refusal to intervene as thousands die of starvation, violence and civil war. Any intervention into the freely chosen lives of others constitutes self-immolation. Charity it evil. Love of neighbor is evil. Anything done for another person is evil. The only good is selfishness. The only good is seeking pleasure. And the only love that is real is the mutual using of one another, mutual rape.

Children rarely appear in the book. They are practically nonexistent. Dagny has love affairs with three of the main characters, but at no point is the possibility of pregnancy even mentioned. Rand, herself, had an abortion, and remained childless throughout her life, activity supporting the legalization of abortion. The book does include one woman living in the secret valley who chooses to be a mother, but it is stressed, as if her choice needs justification, that she sees her children as an investment which she fully intends to cash in on. Rand rejected the idea of the natural family supporting each other as people need to choose who they will be attached to. She took on protégées, even referring to two of her closest followers as “the children,” but this was a freely chosen relationship.

The complex love-triangle–or rather quadrangle, as it involves three men, Hank, Francisco and John Galt, and Dagny–reflects Rand’s idea that sex is an ideal, rational recognition of the value of the other, and that any truly rational man would see another man’s desire for his wife as an affirmation of her value. One thing can be said for Rand when it comes to sex: she practiced what she preached. While writing the final section of Atlas Shrugged, she and her closest protégée, Nathaniel Brandon, met with their spouses to inform them that they would be beginning an affair. It seems they were met with some objection, but Rand laid out their reasons with impeccable logic, and in the end, their spouses agreed to let them meet twice a week. Like Dagny and Hank, whose only sin was not proudly acknowledging their affair until late in the novel, Rand was unashamed of the affair. Surprisingly, Rand condemned homosexual love. One might ask, “by what right?”

20150210-113408.jpg…you’ll be amazed what you’ll find if you look through my eyes…

Rand seems to enjoy with an almost sadomasochistic pleasure adopting terms and phrases usually used negatively. She is proud to be selfish. She openly declares that she cares only for material things. She sees love of money as her highest ideal. She sees family as an economic relationship. She believes in free love–freely taken, that is, as, like all commodities, love can never be given away freely. Her heroes take an oath never to live for the sake of an other or let anyone live for them.

Rand claims her philosophy is based on Aristotelian logic, beginning with the principle of non-contradiction, that A is A, that a thing cannot simultaneously have and not have a particular quality. But Aristotle used that logic to move beyond materialistic ends and to the metaphysical. He used it to find the first principles of things, the source and end of things, the ultimate reasons for things. Rand calls her heroes “prime movers.” But what is their basis? Where did they come from? What is their ultimate goal apart from amassing physical wealth? To repeat a line so often repeated by her characters, “by what right?” If the natural end of sex is offspring, by what right can she reduce sex to mutual pleasure seeking? If sex is just about pleasure, by what right can she reject homosexuality? Or even incest and bestiality for that matter? By what right does she condemn all forms of brotherly love and self-sacrifice? If she has really come to the world depicted in Atlas Shrugged by means of reason, as she claims, she needs to “check [her] premises!”

(My references to Rand’s personal life are derived from Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller.)

20150210-113408.jpg>I hear the secrets that you keep when you’re talking in your sleep

Ayn Rand

There was a young Russian Ayn Rand
Whose regard for herself was quite grand
If you use analytics
To defend paralytics,
Her response will be “talk to the hand!”

Atlas Shrugged

There once was a man named John Galt
Who had caused the world’s motor to halt.
He had walked off the job,
Left the world to a mob
Whose excuse was “it wasn’t my fault!

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Subjective Immortality: A scene from a cafe in Rome.

(Warning: lots of crude language ahead.)

“It’s called subjective immortality. It’s like, thousands or even millions of alternate yous die, but the you that’s really you, like, nothing can touch him”
“Wait a second, what was that dude’s name?”
“Oh yeah, it was Max Tegmark who coined the term, but the idea’s been around since, basically, you know, the whole field of quantum physics started.”
“This is SO interesting, please tell me MORE!”
“Yeah, I know, right? So the basic idea is you create this machine that takes advantage of quantum uncertainty, like, you know, whether an atom is spinning one way or another, and then you… You attach it to a gun, like a pistol, and you… No wait, that’s quantum suicide…”
“Oh yes, of course, that’s quantum suicide.”
“No, wait… Yeah, you rig this machine that just shoots or doesn’t based on… Yeah, I was right: based on the quantum state of an atom.”
“Just fascinating.”
“Yeah, so you just stick your head right in the line of fire…”
“What the hell?”
“Yeah, you just have to make sure your head is right in front so when you die you don’t feel anything.”
“And it’s really important to make sure you’re the only one there, or else it will close the quantum uncertainty…”
“Ok, now you’re totally losing me…”
“So, it’s like when you play Mario. When you die, you go back to the spot where you last saved and get another shot, no pun intended”
“None taken.”
“Hahaha, I know! So, yeah, you’ve just, like, killed a thousand Marios, but the guy who makes it to the end doesn’t know anything about them, from where he stands, he’s invincible.”
“Ok, or you’re lying in a pool of blood…”
“Wait a sec, babe, the waiter’s coming round… Can I get you anything?”
“No dipshit, can’t you see I’m drinking an espresso?”
“Haha! Yeah, I think you’d really like this place. The view is phenomenal! You can see the pantheon from where I’m sitting… Yeah, really! And everyone says they make the best coffee in the world… Ah, scusi, un altro café americano, per favore.”
“Oooh! Amerrricano, huh? Maybe you should order some forrrrmagio mote-sarrrella to go with that.”
“So, yeah, Quantum Suicide. You’d be alive in this dimension, or whichever dimension it would be in, and somewhere out there in thousands of other universes, you’d be dead.”
“What’s that shit supposed to mean? You know, I honestly–honestly!–have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about!”
“Well, it’s like, you’ve got this intermittent stream of bullets coming out of the gun, but every time you put your head in front of it, it stops shooting, but when you pull it back again, it immediately starts again.”
“Why would I… Why would anyone want to sit here listening to this shit! You know, I think you should actually try it. No seriously! I honestly don’t give a fuck if you’re alive in some alternate universe as long as the you in this universe gets his fucking brains blown out!”
“Yeah, right, so you’d, like, come into my lab and you’d see me lying there, but for me, I’m that final Mario, you know?”
“Yeah, except I don’t…”
“I’m out there, somewhere living forever. Yeah? I’d miss you too. I miss you now. Yeah, three months. Hey, how much do you have saved up? Maybe you could come out here and I could show you all around Roma. It’s supposed to be pretty romantic…”

As the waiter returned, the young man with a stylishly unshaven chin, wearing a well fitting leather jacket moved his chair back to let him through with his loaded tray. As he shifted his chair, his arm brushed against the dirty brown coat of the bearded man sitting behind him. Suddenly, he became aware that the man was alone, mumbling into a mug of espresso and he felt something was wrong.
“Listen, babe, I actually gotta go. Call me after your thing, alright? Yeah… Ok, I’ll make sure… Yeah, I love you too. Ciao.”
The man in the leather jacket stood up, leaving a full cup of cafe americano, and a man in a dirty brown coat, still mumbling into his espresso.
“I honestly don’t know what she sees in that dumb fuck. ‘Quantum suicide!’ ‘Alternate universe Mario!’ You know, I wish I did have a quantum gun…”
As the bearded man stood up to go, he pulled a few coins from his pocket and left them by his empty espresso cup. Later, the waiter would attest that he saw the glint of something metal in the pocket of the man’s dirty brown coat.

(Copyright 2015, Bill Herreid)

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The Fall: short story

Sorry for starting out with something this intense.

The Fall

Outside, the last of the leaves were barely holding out against the bitter cold that all their show of flame couldn’t warm. Below, their fallen brothers lay, slowly giving up their golds and reds, and accepting their dull russeted fate with equanimity. But their sleep was soon interrupted by the scrapes of rakes and shovels, and then the grinding and metallic explosion of an excavator breaking ground.

The workmen moved with almost frantic speed. The shovels tore into the ground as if they feared any delay would risk the revelation of some unmentionable secret. The foreman had promised the city council the crew could repair every water line in the Grout Hill area before winter, and they could have if the summer hadn’t been so perfect. Now the men were paying for those easy days. It was going to be hard, but they were going to meet that deadline.

Amy had been crying off and on since 4:30 that morning. Sarah had tried everything. She didn’t need a diaper, it was dry… or maybe she did. She hated to see that purple face and hear the frantic, accusing tone in the cries. She laid Amy down on the changing pad and quickly, expertly pulled off the Velcro straps, slid off the old diaper, barely damp, wiped the little bottom–which she couldn’t help cooing over even as Amy’s screams reached a new pitch–slipped on the new diaper and fastened the Velcro straps. The whole action took under a minute. As she snapped the 12 buttons that make up the lower-half of any baby outfit, she spoke softly. “Amy, baby, it’s ok. Ok, ok, you’re gonna be fine…” And Amy’s cries continued.

As Sarah lifted her little girl, outside the excavator began its attack. The ground shook as the hydraulic arm punched through the chilled topsoil across from Sarah’s house. A pot, hanging in its place by the stove, rattled in time with the excavator’s every move. The deep roar of the truck’s engine hit the eardrums like the exaggerated downbeat of a car stereo designed to impress rather than complement. And all the while, Amy’s cries grew more frantic.

Sarah paced the dining room and kitchen, bouncing Amy up and down, desperately trying to think of something that she could do for her little girl. Could she be gassy? Was she hungry? No she just had a bottle. But Amy’s arched back and frantic rooting seemed like they could only mean hunger. Holding her daughter in one arm, Sarah located a bottle and began to fill it from the tap. Outside the shocks and roar seemed to become more frantic. Sarah lifted the bottle to check the water level. She had poured exactly 8oz. After so many bottles, she was able to estimate this amount without thinking. But as the looked, she noticed the red tinge in the water. She held the bottle to the light and saw a cloud of red flakes slowly descending to form a dark patch at the bottom. Amy’s cries passed from full-throated anger to the shrieking of a trapped eaglet.

Still holding Amy, carefully guarding her head from hitting the doorframe, Sarah used her free arm to open the pantry and rummage for the jug of water she had stored for emergencies. There it was in the back, under the big pots she only used for Thanksgiving and Easter. It crossed her mind for a moment that the baby would be safe if she set her down for a moment while she extracted the bulky jug, but the thought of that pitiful baby lying writhing on the cold linoleum made her stick to her original plan. As Amy writhed and arched her back with renewed vigor, her mother writhed and twisted her back, reached, lost, located, grasped the handle and finally dragged the jug out into the kitchen where she could get a firm grip and lift the jug to the counter.

A new noise had begun outside. A saw was cutting through the water main, adding a piercing soprano to the bass of the now idling excavator.

Sarah pulled off the jug’s plastic safety, steadying the jug with her other hand as she held the struggling baby against her with her elbow and forearm. Amy’s screaming was now so sharp that it seemed to pass above the level of human hearing, passing by the ears and attacking the head itself. Somehow, Sarah managed to pop off the cap and was just lifting the jug when Amy arched her back with such force that her mother’s grip gave way. Sarah instinctively dropped the jug and grasped desperately at her falling daughter. She heard a dull, liquid crack, then the rush of liquid. Her heart beat a deep and growing roar that threatened to burst her ear drums. She felt the earth move beneath her and from her core came the scream of an eagle whose nest has been overturned.

But in her right hand, Sarah grasped her little daughter’s left ankle. She dangled, still screaming, awkward but safe. Sarah lowered her onto the linoleum, paying no attention to the growing pool of water. She let go of the control that had meticulously cared for her daughter despite their anger and mutual resentment. And mother and daughter lay side by side, their bodies heaving, as anger, resentment, fear, terror, control all flowed from their eyes in salted streams that joined the pure stream spreading from the broken jug. The cool water soaked up through their clothes, washing away all memory of the day. Exhaustion finally quieted them and they simply floated in that pure pool.

Outside, a pool tinged with red spread below the severed water main. Then the workmen, working at the same frantic pace that marked this stage of the project, were fitting the new segment, welding it into place, filling in the topsoil and packing it down. As the sun set, the last leaves came to rest on the freshly overturned earth.

Copyright 2015, Bill Herreid

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Apologia pro absentia sua


Sorry I’ve been absent. I’ve been out completing an internship, finishing my masters degree, getting certified and looking for jobs. But the process has made me a better man, a man who can confidently quote acronyms till he drops, a man who can sign his name with the addition of M.Ed, a man who can write cover letters like nobody’s business, in short, a man of letters.

I plan to write just a couple times a week while I get settled and look for a job. And, by the way, if you happen to know of one, I’d be happy to hear from you.

Coming up:

Several short stories, including one that uses a lot of naughty language.
A few thoughts about E. B. White.
Slightly fewer thoughts about Charles Dickens.
A very few thoughts (I’ll only waste the spare ones) about Ayn Rand.
And if I haven’t lost the touch, some memes and limericks.

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