Time Enough At First

It was only s’posed to be a quick trip.

Just in and out and back home for more of the Twilight Zone marathon.

But I’d finally had enough-a the signal cutting out and it was time to get a new connector cable that didn’t black out the image every 15 seconds. I swear it was like I was tryin’ to watch a crisp beautiful painting on a flip-book.

So I figure enough is enough and I’ve got a job with a little expendable income for some of the small pleasures. After the old man figures out he’s got all the time in the world for his books, I throw on some slacks and a blue work polo (it’s the only shirt not stained with pizza sauce or nacho cheese within reach) an’ head out to the nearest neighborhood electronics store.

Walkin’ into the place, I was greeted with that smell o’ new plastic and shipping boxes. The noise from those stereos, TVs, and computers created a kinda hum that makes you feel like a baby again. I bee-lined it to the audio-video section, hopin’ I could get back home before those pig-faced doctors tell the hot broad that she looks like she was beaten with an ugly stick.

I found the cables and started comparing ‘em. The three foot long one was all I needed, but the 20 foot one was only five bucks more. Way longer than I’d need, but what if I wanted to mount the big screen up high on the wall? Or over the bed on the ceilin’? I’d never get up for a weekend again. Nah, I tell myself. I’ll make do with the three footer.

 

I turned to head back to the cashier when, I swear, the prettiest girl I’d ever seen turns the corner and meets eyes with me. I’m telling ya, she smiled so big like the Fourth of July at the sight o’ me.

“Well, hello there,” I say.

“You!” she says. “Oh I’m so glad I ran into you!”

Now I’m rackin’ my brain tryin’ to figure if I know this girl. Nothing’s coming to mind.

“Yeah,” I say. “Me too.”

She giggles and it’s like little angels singin’. I’m smitten but I’m trying hard to play it cool.

“What’s uh… what’s going on?” I say, trying not to let on that I can’t place her.

“I uh, I wanted to ask you something,” she says.

“Shoot. I’m all ears,” I say. I leaned up against the rack and knock a couple o’ USB cables off their hooks. I caught a couple, but three more clattered to the floor. But I ain’t even bothered because there’s that little laugh of hers again.

“Well, if you’re not too busy, maybe you can uh, follow me?” she says.

Now I’m dyin’ to see where this goes so I drop the cables in my hand and indicate for her to lead the way.

She starts heading toward the door and, I swear, I’m thinking this might be one of them hidden camera shows. There’s no way a girl this cute would just lead me away. I’m not even thinking of the Twilight Zone at all at this point.

 

Right before we reach the doors, she pulls a sharp left, heading down the computer printer aisle. She stops immediately in front of a huge display of ink.

“Okay,” she says. “I’ve been looking all over town for ink and my printer is model EX-3615. But anywhere I go, there’s only EX-3610 or EX-3620. Never anything in-between. Should I just buy one of them and hope that it fits in my printer? Or should I buy both? Is there a return policy if it does’t fit in the printer? Does the warrant void if the box is open? And if so, is there a discount buy-back program with the store?”

I stood there with my mouth open. What do I know about printers? Well a little I guess. I use one from time to time at the shop, but the accountants handle the ink.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t think I can help you there.”

Her little smile faded away and my heart sank.

“Well, could you help me find another one of your associates? Or your manager?” she asked.

“Manager? Look, I dunno what you think but…” I trailed off, looking down at myself.

The blue work shirt. I look around us and I see it for the first time. The employees walkin’ the customers around, wearin’ their blue polo shirts, tryin’ to sell them on the bigger flat screens, the louder stereos, the computers with more memory and speed.

“What was that?” she asked.

I looked back at her.

“Sorry,” I say. “These printers, they always get me a little riled up. So confusin’. Let me take a look… Ah, there, you see there on the back of the 3610? In the fine print it says its certified to work on all models rangin’ from 3610 to 3619. So that includes your 3615.”

She looked at the box and that smile of hers returned.

“Oh, thank you. Thank you so much! That explains a lot.”

“It’s my pleasure,” I say.

She turned to walk to the checkout and I started fantasizin’ ‘bout seen’ her again. Maybe I could make this a weekly thing, I think. Show up here an’ start helping’ a few folks on my time off. You know, get to know my fellow man without a paycheck. Outta the goodness of my heart. This could be a new chapter for me.

 

“Excuse me,” I hear behind me. Someone was tappin’ my shoulder.

I turn to look and I’m face-to-face with a pimply, teenage kid.

“Yeah?” I say.

“What’s the difference between an ink jet and laser jet and which would be better for printing concert flyers?” he asks.

“How the heck should I know? I don’t work here,” I say, “Beat it, kid!”

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Futility of All Ambition

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Time traveler.

What sort of images does that elicit for you?

Men and women of science, throwing caution to the wind, bravely subjecting themselves to dangerous forces, emerging from a colorful vortex into a world of gleaming technology. Or perhaps in the other direction, finding themselves among the uncultured and undeveloped of an era gone bye. Stepping from their vessel and hailed as some prophet or God to bestow knowledge untapped upon the masses. Perhaps as an inquisitive explorer or a stoic messenger of dire caution.

Science fiction has glorified this image time and time again, but in reality, we believe it an impossibility. “If there have been or ever will be time travelers, we would know already, right? Because someone would have surely meandered into our own timeline in all of documented history and told us so!” This is what logic dictates.

Well… we have. Tried to tell you, that is.

But when we travelers open our mouths to speak, you of your present turn away, disgusted. Revolted. For we do not share either the shiny jumpsuits or the Victorian coat tails that your science fiction dictates. We emerge from the wormholes in rags, our bodies worn down to dried husks from the journey. Health deteriorated. Unfit for society. Mentally unstable.

On the contrary, our minds are very much alive and we yearn to share with you the secrets of our travels. We wish nothing more but to share in conference and learn from your culture as you learn from ours. We wish to tell you about the fate of this world. How so much that you hold dear will be washed away into oblivion while other things that you take for granted will be implanted forever in humankind. All the same we crave to share in your age, a world that we have only ever imagined in folklore and stories told told to us as children.

Yet, something in the jump separates the cerebral process from the animal instinct of base survival. While we should be sharing notes on society and technology, we are left trapped in a diminishing body that wanders the streets, scrounging what it can for its next source of immediate sustenance.

The stories we had heard about your time often included cautionary imagery of street vagabonds. Homeless beggars soliciting for loose change and sleeping on sidewalks. But like some cruel cosmic joke, we who have conquered science and braved the temporal jump have ourselves become those very wanders. Unable to warn history that our miserable existence had been the ultimate price for cheating time.

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My Dog Ate It

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That poor dog. That poor, poor dog.

That’s all I could think while my brain wrapped around the incident occurring early one autumn morning, watching as my sister Bernadette held a blue shoelace in the air, tilted her head back like a baby bird, and slurped the shoelace down her throat like a piece of limp spaghetti.
Let me start over.
We used to have a dog. Rocky, a young boxer that we had rescued from a shelter. He was a rowdy little scrapper, always bursting with energy. At the mere sight of a leash, he would run laps around the dining room table, much to the anxiety of Mom and her prized antique China cabinet.
They had warned us that he may be problematic, having come from such a troubled household. Nothing dangerous, just temperamental if left alone too long. Bernadette and I promised to take care of his training and let him know his boundaries. I’m proud to say that he was far less trouble than we had been warned.
One morning, I sprang awake to a shrill scream, followed quickly by loud and angry growled cursing. I followed the noise to my parent’s room where Rocky sat huddled by the bed, taking a furious berating from Mom. All about the floor were remnants of her favorite pair of slippers. As Bernadette entered the room, drowsy, Mom redirected her lecture from the dog to us. At that moment, she instituted a 3-strike rule: if Rocky had acted out like this again, and again, we would have to give him away to another family.
Rocky did not leave our sight for the next week. Bernadette and I watched him, hawklike, taking shifts throughout the day, waiting to discourage him from chewing up any other valuables. To avoid incident at night, we put his bed  in Bernadette’s room and made sure to shut the door.
Despite our precautions, we awoke to Strike 2 after only 10 days. This time the victim had been Dad’s leather work shoes. The leather had been picked clean off them like a chicken carcass, leaving the tough rubbery sole. This time, Rocky was huddled in his bed in Bernadette’s room while he received his tongue-lashing from both Mom and Dad. Bernadette and I had sworn we closed him in the night before and pleaded his case further citing the fact that neither of us had ever seen him act in such a way during our airtight surveillance. Or ever for that matter. Nonetheless, Rocky was on his last leg and his chances of staying in our family were looking bleak. I made myself his personal bodyguard, watching him every waking moment and double-checking the latch on Bernadette’s door each night.
I awoke one morning to find that my running shoes had been torn apart, cotton and bits of rubber everywhere. It was as if a grenade had gone off in my closet. As I scrambled to pick up the pieces, Mom knocked on the door and invited herself in. I must have been quite a sight, half asleep and juggling armfuls of shoe material. Her face steeled and she turned to march down the hall to Bernadette’s room. She flung open the door to find Rocky curled up with Bernadette, both of them sound asleep and covered in tufts of cotton like a fresh layer of snow.
What followed was a heated conversation about responsibility and promises, shouted between Mom’s lectures and Bernadette’s sobs. I interjected to point out the odd fact that both our bedroom doors had been discovered closed and Rocky’s obvious inability to open doors and close them behind him. Mom just chalked it up to our attempt to cover up for his mistakes, a theory more or less justified by my mad scramble to rid my room of evidence. Bernadette and I were fighting a losing battle and we just had to give up.
We found a nice home for Rocky: a young pair of married fitness trainers. They were sure to give him plenty of opportunity to run about and exhaust himself.
—–
As the seasons changed and school began, we didn’t talk about Rocky around our parents. It had been just as hard to say goodbye as it had been for Bernadette and me. She and I were also still reeling over the fact that we hadn’t done anything wrong. We were certain that Rocky was somehow not responsible for the messes, a suspicion confirmed mere days later, when Bernadette woke to find that her boots had been mangled to pieces.
Mom and Dad tried to justify this, saying that they were probably chewed up from when Rocky was staying in her room, and she had only now just noticed. Nonetheless, they checked all the doors and windows for possible entry and exit points for a wild animal.
Which brings us up to date. We had installed a new security system just yesterday that would beep loudly should any door or window be opened, an alarm sounding if one of us fails to enter the keycode after 30 seconds.
I woke up at 3 AM to the sound of ripping seams and muffled movement coming from my closet. I froze and drew my covers up, lying completely still and pretending to be a pile of pillows under my blankets. I listened intently and the sounds continued, once in a while accentuated by the smacking of some animal’s mouth. Whatever beast had framed Rocky was there now, feasting on my tennis shoes.
Cautiously, I moved my covers and slowly stepped out of bed. I moved in slow motion, hoping not to disturb the squeaky springs in my mattress. As I inched closer to the closet, my heart was beating in my throat. WHat if this animal attacked me? What if it was rabid? I glanced out the corner of my eye at the bedroom door, ready to bolt at the slightest sign of mortal danger. For a second, I paused and considered getting proper backup. But would the unknown creature still be there when I returned? It was now or never and I had to continue forward.
I wrapped my fingers around the handle to the door and took a deep, silent breath. Inaudibly, I counted under my breath:
“One…two… … three!”
I flung the door opened wide and there, crouched down over the remnants of my Converse, was Bernadette, sitting cross-legged and blithely tearing at the fabric with her teeth. She didn’t seem to stir at all by my intrusion, but merely chewed for a few seconds and swallowed with a difficult gulp.
“Bernadette… why…?”
Still, she remained oblivious, looking peaceful in serving some bizarre inner purpose to eat as much of my shoe as she could. She picked a metal rivet out of her teeth and flung it away. She was about to get up when she noticed the uneaten shoelace by her knee, and resolved to fix that arrangement.
I suppose things are going to be different from here on out. Until she sees an expert on sleepwalking, we’ll just have to do our best to keep her safely in her bed, and to keep our shoes up out of reach in the closet.

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Sugar Mountain

Brian opened his eyes, jolting himself awake, out of the horrid dream he’d been having. He’d dreamt that he was at the office, filing insurance claims like normal, but a set of file cabinets had suddenly become sentient and inched their way toward him. He ran and hid in a janitorial closet, but he could hear them walking by the door, each step a scrape against the floor. The scraping grew and grew, Brian had only imagined the unstoppable paperwork army they had amassed, when he was finally able to free himself from sleep.

As he woke, he still heard the scraping, but it wasn’t as grating. The unbearable scratching had ebbed down to a pleasant sweep. He glanced out the window to see Dave below, pushing a heap of overnight leaves and dust with a giant push broom.

“Morning Dave,” said Brian.

“Morning, Brian! Say I didn’t wake you up with my sweeping, did I?”

“Don’t worry,” said Brian,”I needed help waking up anyway.”

“Sorry,” said Dave. “I’m just not used to working around any residents. We used to have a family of cats down by the Future-cade, but they’ve since migrated off the grounds.”

“Like I said, it’s no problem at all. I knew what I signed up for.”

“Guess so,” said Dave. “Well I gotta finish up with Grimmworld before opening so I’ll be seeing you later.”

“Sure, sure,” said Brian. “Don’t let me keep you. See you around.”

Brian closed the double windows to his two-story cottage and went about his morning routine. He pulled water from the well in the backyard and set it over the fireplace. He reached in to pull a couple pennies out of the bucket and tossed them in a mason jar on the mantle.

He unlocked his dry goods cabinet and pulled out a canister of oatmeal, setting it on the table.

When the water was hot enough, he disrobed and sat in a wash basin. He alternated between rubbing soap on his skin and ladling the warm water over himself.

He walked to the front door in his robe to empty the basin. As he poured the contents down a storm drain, an official passed by leading a group of four tour-guide trainees. She waved at Brian and Brian returned a wave, sheepishly. It made his skin crawl to imagine the explanation of his presence to the new employees. Brian headed back indoors and finished getting ready. He pressed his suit using the antique stovetop iron and buffed his shoes. After he had gathered his briefcase, he did his final check on the state of the cottage: all personal belongings were locked away in the cabinets, the stove was snuffed out and cooled, all surfaces were wiped down and immaculate. Daily he would eliminate all evidence that a person was living in that space.

He stepped out the door, made sure that it was unlocked and propped open for visitors. He grabbed his briefcase and headed down the cobblestone path.

Around the corner, a troupe of dancers and singers were stretching and running vocal exercises for the welcome parade. He passed by the boarded walls of Dino-world, plastered with handbills announcing the area’s imminent renovation. As he walked along, he heard the whirring of test cars completing safety runs along the coaster tracks overhead. He walked along the Forest Fairy trail and listened to the cheery music piping through the holes of the artificial rocks. As he turned one last corner, he was on Old Town Road. On both sides of the wide road, the store displays were being dressed and primed for the coming influx of customers and souvenir shoppers. Vents along the boulevard pumped out sweet smells to entice the customers into the bakeries for sweet treats. Brian still fell victim to the aroma, even though he knew full well that it was completely artificial.

As Brian approached the front gate, he was met with the usual sea of faces, bodies pushed up against the turnstyles, eager for entry. For many of them, this experience was a dream come true, a well-earned vacation to complete escapism. They fidgeted with anticipation.

Brian could feel their eyes on him as he headed to the exit gate on the far right.

“Off to work?” asked Tony the security guard.

“Yup. Back to the grind,” said Brian.

“You know,” said Tony,” You can probably get an on-site job in Administration or something. It’ll sure cut down on the commute.”

“Nah,” said Brian. “Wouldn’t want to live where I work. And vise versa.”

“Fair enough” said Tony. He looked up and noticed that a couple of guests that may have caught wind of their conversation. “Well, Sir… I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit to Sugar Mountain. Please come back soon!”

“Oh, don’t you worry,” Brian chuckled. “I’ll definitely be back. Maybe tonight.”Image

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Hair Of The Horse

“Una quesadilla con carne asada, mi hermano. ¡Con todo! Pero no… no… quiero caballo.”

The vendor smiled politely, amused at the swaying mass of inebriated college student on the other side of the counter who just told him he “didn’t want horse.”

“¿No quieres… cebolla?”

“Sí. Sí, amigo. No cebolla. Lo siento para la…” I waved my hands in the air searching for words. “La… confusion.”

He nodded and set to work on crafting one of his famous $2 quesadillas, one which could easily sell for upwards of $7 or $8 on the American side of the border. But he seemed utterly satisfied to get by on the wide-eyed drunk young adults that stumbled by his stall during Spring Break.

I turned to Reid who was also in the process of ordering a quesadilla.

“I told him I didn’t want a horse.”

Reid laughed and placed his order. He ordered in English. Of course he did. The vendor knew English perfectly. He had to know it in order to make money off the American tourists. Had I been sober, I would have also ordered in English. I wouldn’t have wanted to accidentally insult the man and sully decades of beautiful culture by showing off my proficiency as dictated by my limited exposure to the language through Spanish 130.

But sober decisions like discretion had disappeared hours before with dinner margaritas, shots at the hotel, and open bar at Señor Frog’s. All bets were off and I was slurring Spanish while attempting to wax poetic about my frustrations with my love life.

“…pero no quire dormir con ella. Solo quiero tener su mano en mio, y a veces besarla.” I had said as we had reached the hotel room with our savory bounty.

“I’ve gotta be honest with you, Joey. I have no idea what you’ve been saying for the past 10 minutes. All I hear is ‘taquito taquito, extra ranchero salsa.'”

I stared at him in disbelief.

“Have I been speaking Spanish this entire time?”

“Yeah, pretty much the entire time after we got our food.”

“Shit, man. I’m sorry.”

Reid laughed. “Don’t worry about it, man. This has all been really funny. Here, eat something.”

I didn’t remember eating my food, but I damn well remember it spewing out of my stomach amid a bittersweet swill of alcohol and bile. After an indeterminate period of kneeling over and spitting into the toilet, I vaguely remember three blurry shapes lifting me up to carry me into the next room.

***

I woke the next morning with a horrible cramp in my neck. The culprit responsible was the bag of cottonballs that dared to identify itself as a pillow, and a military-style cot stretched so tight it could have doubled as a cutting board. I glanced around at the dark room to see all six of my friends cuddled up cozily on two queen-sized beds.

Under the influence of the previous night’s debauchery and the solid block of muscle and nerves at the base of my skull, I reacted to my exclusion from their hospitable sleeping conditions sourly.

“You guys are assholes” I said under my breath. Or at least I meant to say it. What came out of my mouth was a gargle of equal parts gutteral pop and acidic croak.

A moment later, I was out walking the streets and alleys of Rosarito, Mexico. I hadn’t bothered to let anyone know I had gone. I was mad. I was also not of sound mind, honestly. I had some cash in my pocket from the night before so I figured I would find a place to get breakfast.

I turned a blind corner and looked down the alley to find the ocean staring back at me. I dropped the idea of breakfast and wandered across the sand. Unlike the California beaches I had known my whole life, the slope of the sand was minuscule, virtually nonexistent. You could wander 50 feet from the edge of dry land and only stand in inches of water.

I walked along the water, hypnotized by its ebb and flow. I had been walking a few minutes when the whine of some animal made me jump. I stood still, listening, hoping to find a directional clue to the sound’s origin. When no sound came, I shrugged off the occurrence as a figment of wishful thinking and started walking back to the hotel.

As I headed down a random alleyway, I heard the whinny again. It was right in front of me.

***

Deep in a nook between two night clubs was a corral of horses. There had to have been about 24 of them, all hitched to wooden posts. I approached one cautiously, unable to tell if they were tame or in some process of being broken in. The horse had a beautiful blond mane and remained completely still as I reached out to touch its face. I sensed no hostility from him and so moved in closer to continue petting him.

“Good boy, good boy,” I said, gently.

At that moment, a local man came running up the beach. Worried that I may be perceived as a thief, I stepped away, though as he neared, I saw that he was smiling.

“Quieres caballo?” he asked.

Holy crap, I thought. He wants to sell me a horse.

I had a choice to make. I could have told the man that I was only admiring the beast before walking away awkwardly. Or I could engage with this man and humor him into thinking that I was willing and able to buy a horse, despite the fact that I had neither the facility or means of keeping it.

You can bet I chose the latter.

“Quanto cuesta?” I asked, putting on the airs of a Western entrepreneur. My masquerade had apparently failed on opening my mouth. Gone was the silver-tongued bilingual I was hours before in my drunken stupor. He could tell I was just a gringo tourist.

“Seven dollars. Half hour,” he said. Rental hadn’t even crossed my mind until that point.

I must have been smiling like a damn fool while I fished into my pockets for the cash. He took my money and pointed to all the horses in a sweeping gesture, non-verbally handing me carte blanche to chose my worthy mount.

At that point I had already established a connection to my blond companion. Heck, he was the inciting means by which I came privy to such a deal. I placed my hand on his back to indicate my selection and the caballero placed a footstool at my feet.

“You ride before?” he asked.

“Yeah, a little. Un poco. Anos pasado.”

He pushed me up on the horse and handed me two lengths of leather rope. He indicated the rope that led to the horse’s mouthpiece.

“This… steer” he demonstrated. He held up the other piece. “This…” he mimed striking the horse’s backside, “faster.”

***

As the sun crested the town and began to warm the crisp morning air, I rode along, drinking in every detail.

“What the hell is going on?” I chuckled to myself. I was in Mexico, beating a hangover by way of riding a horse, barebacked, down the beach at sunrise. What the hell, indeed. “I’ve got to remember this one.”

Though everything was so clear and alive in that moment, I must have shorted out all of my senses, for words alone can no longer suffice to describe the feelings I was experiencing.

I’ve told the story many times: to my panicked travel companions back at the hotel; to the friends back in my suburban home town; to my family, always enthusiastic to hear about my latest adventure. But each time I tell the story, I always stop at this point and feel a twinge of pity that my audience can hardly feel the mixture of completeness, utter joy, and panic at that this wonderful elation had a time limit.

It was, in a tremendously poor excuse for words, the reason for living.

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Techno-Sourcing

“Come in.”

I walked through the door to find a clean-cut man, chipper and plastic, seated behind the desk.

“I’m… uh. I’m here for the interview,” I said, not sure if I was in the correct place. “This is Greentree Publishing Firm, right?”

“Of course it is!” said the chipper man. “And I’m Dennis Stephenson of HR… well, R, I suppose.” There was something offsetting about the way he stared through me, glassy-eyed. His mouth had barely moved from its cheery grin as he spoke. He seemed to speak through his mouth rather than from it. “Nevermind the formalities. Call me Denny.”

I crossed the room with my hand outstretched.
“Hi Denny, I’m Max Bayer. I’m interviewing for the Office Assistant position.” As I reached his desk he glanced at my hand and stared for a bit. He glanced back up at my face and extended his own hand, though not quite receiving mine. His smile never faded.
“Well,” he said, “please have a seat and we can continue when you feel comfortable.”
I retracted my attempt at a handshake and clumsily transitioned the gesture into a thumbs-up. I sat down and placed my messenger bag at my side.

“Max Bayer,” he said with a sudden bravado, as if he was discovering the words for the first time. His burst of energy startled me.
“Yes?” I replied.
“He stared back at me, as wooden as ever.
“Max Bayer,” he said again with precise tone and inflection as before. “Applying for… office manager… at… Greentree Publishing Firm.” His pauses made the statement sound like the dullest Mad Lib I’d ever heard.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said. “I brought my resume.”
“May I see your… resume?” he asked, outstretching his hand. I dug into my bag and produced my portfolio. As I thumbed through, I happened to glance up at Dennis. He hadn’t moved an iota. Having finally found my resume, I placed it in his hand. His fingers closed over it in perfect succession and he pulled it in. His motions were so calculated and mechanical that I could swear tiny gears and pulleys were driving his motions.

I figured he would take a minute or two to recline back in his chair and mull over my qualifications. Not so. Instead, he swiped the paper before his eyes as quickly as if he had been wiping his forehead with a napkin and immediately placed the paper on his desk, folding his hands over it.

“I see you have plenty of management experience. Also you speak French and Italian. Also you’ve worked at our sister firm in Boise. And you’ve graduated from UC Irvine with an English Literature major. Minor in film studies, “ he rattled off in machine gun succession.

“Is there… anything else that needs elaboration?” I asked. “I have references here as well.”
“No,” he replied. “It’s rather clear and we have every intention of hiring you here and now. But now it all depends on you.”

“How so?” I asked.

Just then, the door opened. A young man in a collared shirt and tie stepped awkwardly into the room.
“Zhooh-ksh, zhooh-ksh,” he said with each rise and fall of his footsteps. After a few cycles, I realized what he was doing. Though it made little sense why, he was doing exactly what I had done ages before discovering books and girls. He was pretending to be a robot.

He continued his mechanical walk, emulating the whizzing of electronic servos with his mouth at every twitch of his muscles and turn of his head. In his arms, he held a stack of manila folders, which he placed on Dennis’ desk while mimicking the sound of steam releasing from a piston. I had to force myself to imagine a sack of puppies being drowned to stifle an eruptive guffaw.

“Your files, sir,” he said in a monotonous drone, the worst impression of a 50’s B-movie robot I’ve ever heard. Denny hadn’t given any indication to have noticed our robo-guest until this moment. He swiveled his attention toward the young man.

“Thank you… Marcus. You may return to your quadrant.”
“Voooooooo,” said Marcus as he turned about. He froze with the click of his tongue and resumed his “zhooh-ksh” walk out the door, somewhat struggling to synchronize his footsteps with the calculated swing of his arms. Once he had gone, I turned back to Denny, whose eyes were now focused intently on me.

“I’m sorry, can you repeat your question?” he asked.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“That was not your question,” he replied.
“Never mind that. What just happened?” I asked, pointing toward the door.
“That was Marcus. He just started here.” His wide grin never faded.
“But he was acting like… like…” I struggled to find a word that didn’t sound like it came from a comic book or pulp novel.
“Like an automaton?” Denny asked.
I couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me, but I called his bluff anyway.
“Yes,” I said. “Like a robot.”

Without changing expression, Denny got up and went to the door. He locked it, chained it, bolted it, double bolted it. He strode across the room and shut the window. He locked the latch and drew the shades. Finally, he unplugged the phone and the network cable from the panel on the wall.

As he returned to his desk, something about the look of him seemed to have changed. His shoulders had relaxed from a rigid line to an organic curve. His smile melted down to a neutral pose and he chewed at the air to work the strain out of his cheek muscles. His eyes batted violently, moistening his arid eyes. Denny’s whole physicality had changed entirely with a few tiny adjustments. He twisted his neck to the relieving cracks of air popping from between his top-most vertebrae and he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his desk.

“Okay,” he said, his voice dropping half an octave. “I’ll tell you straight.” He gave his neck one more stretch in the other direction for a satisfying pop and continued.
“A few years ago, we went through some pretty heavy budget cuts. The people up at corporate were about to axe a whole mess of us. They figured personnel was their most expendable cost in this era of growing technology. Machines and automation were the new vision of the future.”

He pulled a decanter from under his desk and poured himself a full glass of water. He put the glass to his lips and downed its contents voraciously. By his reaction, it looked like the most refreshing swig I had ever seen someone take. He cleared his throat and continued.

“Anyway, Bill in IT had a brilliant idea that sounded, well, idiotic at the time. Ended up saving all of us. He wrote up some techno-babble report on the recent advances in android technology. Dropped it on the CEO’s desk while performing maintenance on his laptop. Next day, the whole company gets a memo about how we can all keep our jobs if we start getting biotech implants. The memo listed installation clinics from Bill’s report, but they just turned out to be healthcare professionals; the bastard not only made it so we could keep our jobs, but got us healthcare coverage too.”

Dennis reclined back in his chair and kicked his feet up onto the desk.
“Only catch is, we gotta keep up the charade that most of funding is going to technology upgrades instead of personnel. The more robotic we act, the more the people upstairs think we contribute toward the overall goal of 90% automation.”
“So how do you get around lunch and bathroom breaks?” I asked.
“Easy,” Dennis said. “Bill covered that too. We just call it refueling and cooling periods. Even machines need breaks to keep from overheating.”
“Guess so,” I said. “Makes sense.” For the first time since entering the building, I finally felt at ease. More than that. The idea of working among these people-droids sounded downright entertaining.

“So, whaddya say? Nice cushy salary for a nine-to-five improvisational exercise in tomfoolery?” he asked.

“Vmmm-chk-vmmmm,” I hummed as I stood from my chair, extending my hand. “Execute… hire sequence.”

Denny’s face went plastic-pleasant again as he smiled and stood up like an oversized Ken doll. He put his bladed hand against mine.

“Permission granted… verifying… tck-tck… Welcome!”

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The Bud Vertex

 

Jenkins walked into the break room for his usual 10:30 pick-me-up when he saw Thornhill staring intently out the floor-to-ceiling window, mug in hand.

“Thornhill, how goes it?” asked Jenkins as he poured a dollop of half-and-half into his coffee. Thornhill didn’t respond, but calmly sipped his tea.

“Thornhill?” asked Jenkins. “Everything okay?”

“Come here. Watch this.” said Thornhill.

 

Jenkins approached the window to get a good look at Thornhill’s view. Two stories down, he saw the same old grass field separating the aeronautics lab from the freeway. Apart from Bud on his tractor mower, the field was empty. They’d often spent their breaks commenting on the slovenly-tended lawn, a mishmash of uneven lines and patches. Some areas had been ground down to the soil and some hadn’t touched the blade of Bud’s mower in months. Apparently, someone upstairs had had enough of Bud’s slipshod landscaping; the word around the office was that it was Bud’s last day.

“Getting one last look at our friend during his final tending?” asked Jenkins.

“It’s all starting to make sense now,” said Thornhill.

“Well of course it makes sense,” scoffed Jenkins. “You can’t expect to do half of a job day-in and day-out and get paid in full for it. We were kind enough to keep him on staff this long, but if he can’t do a job as simple as riding across the lawn in long even strides, well, he’s lost my sympathy.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” replied Thornhill. “His mowing. There’s a pattern to it and it’s starting to make sense. I think I’ve got it now.” Thornhill reached into his back pocket, produced his notepad, and started to scribble furiously. Intermittently, he would glance back up at the window and then return to his jottings. Finally, he pushed the pad up against the glass to observe Bud while checking his numbers. As his eyes darted back and forth, his mouth curled up in a smile until he let out a loud, raucous laugh.

“That’s it!” Thornhill cried. “Holy cow! Right there, all along!”

“What is?” asked Jenkins. “What is it? What are those numbers?”

 

Thornhill slapped Jenkins on the back and brought him closer. “Look here,” he exclaimed, pointing to his notes. “…5-8-2-0-9-7-4-9… Now watch how many times he bobs his head before turning the mower.”

Bud bobbed his head in five evenly timed beats and swiftly turned the tractor to the right. He rode ahead and nodded eight more times before turning left. Like clockwork, he went two beats, turned, turned again, and rode along for nine more head bobs. Much to Jenkin’s disbelief and Thornhill’s enthusiasm, this continued for a few minutes before either of them turned from the window.

 

“How did… how did you know what he’d do?” asked Jenkins.

“Pi!” exclaimed Thornhill. “He’s mapping out his stride length by digits of pi. I had my suspicions that he had some numerical pattern. At first I thought it was non sequential primes or significant dates in binary. I just didn’t suspect it to be irrational.”

“You mean it’s been this same pattern everyday?” asked Jenkins.

“I’m rather sure. It’s just…” Thornhill trailed off.

“It’s just what?” asked Jenkins.

“Well, if it was the same sequence each day then the path would be predetermined. Unless… unless he’s randomizing his vectors at each turn. Choosing left or right would introduce a coin-flip 1:1 differential factor. I bet… I bet he’s turned the task into a complex chaos game.”

 

Jenkins laughed. “Okay, sure. So maybe he’s a math nerd like you. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s horrible at gardening, the job we’ve hired him to do.”

Thornhill turned to him, suddenly emboldened by an internal revelation.

“This… this is so much bigger than lawn care,” Thornihill said. “Look at that field. Like, really look at it.”

 

Jenkins peered down at Bud as he rode along, blithely nodding to himself and cutting sharp turns. In his wake, he left an unsightly mess of landscaping. The yard was all uneven squares and rectangles, wildly overgrown tufts bordering on freshly sheared greenery. Jenkins was half-tempted to run down there and level the whole field himself.

“Well?” asked Thornhill.

Jenkins only responded with a tight-lipped scowl, accentuated with a heavy brow.

“Okay, okay. I’ll tell you,” said Thornhill. “It may take a bit of imagination, but I’m seeing the very definitive formation of fractals. Chaos games tend to take around 30,000 turns until you can fully verify the type being created. He may have a Sierpinski Hexagon or Koch Snowflake when all is said and done. Based on the utilization of pi digits, I’d go so far as to predict a Cassini Oval, though the softer areas near the parking lots and sprinklers would suggest Elephant and Seahorse Valleys present in a Mandelbrot Set. Maybe both, I don’t know. If we let this play out we could be talking the formation of a new…” Thornhill trailed off once again.

 

“What? A new what?” asked Jenkins, who at this point was just waiting for a punchline.

“The grass,” said Thornhill. “It grows and is cut. And then grows again. It introduces varied z-depth to the game. We’re not only dealing with a chaotic fractal on a two-dimensional plane, but a cross-section of the lawn itself would present shifting fractals. That man down there is a genius!”

Thornhill dropped his mug and ran to the nearby phone.

“Hello, Trevor? Get Meyer over to the break room now!”

 

 

Ten minutes before noon, Bud’s watch beeped. He switched off his mower, slid off the side, and twisted to stretch his back. Glancing up to a third floor window, he saw a compendium of the scientists he worked for scrambling around the small break room. Some were writing jargon and symbols on the window with grease pencil while others were unrolling large computer printouts to splay against the glass.

He put out his cigarette in the grass and removed his earbuds, temporarily putting his custom mix “JuggaloMassacre” on pause, before heading off to lunch.

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