Sunday, January 30, 2005
In the late afternoon, after getting off from work Ian would stop off at the land fill located close to his home; it gave him a chance to unwind. Most people would think of going to a bar or turning on the television after a long day. Ian liked to walk through the piles of tossed out rubble while he looked at discarded computer pieces for a computer he was building. He could tear out a mother board or anything else as long as it fit into his back pack. The owner of the land fill didn't mind his wanderings and the little that he removed made no difference in the overall scheme of things. He paid a token admission fee of one dollar and had to sign a “waiver of claims” form in the event he was injured while on the property. Ian parked his truck to the side and well off the main entrance so it would be out of the way where he put on a pair of heavy weight overalls on top of his blue jeans. He sat on the truck’s tailgate and changed out of his tennis shoes and into a pair of beat up steel toed work boots. Ian put on his back pack and walked up to the office. The young woman who sat behind the window recognized him and smiled casually. It occurred to him that he must look like some kind of bum, complete with five o'clock shadow.
“ ‘Evenin’ Ma’am.”, his East Texas accent was not too thick, having been raised in the New York until he was twelve before his family moved to Houston. It was a pleasant and respectful tone that hinted ever so slightly of his being taken with her. “Here ya’ go.”, handing her a dollar bill. He folded his wallet, sliding it in to the front pocket of his jeans through the snapped opening of the overalls. He stood holding the bill until she took it. The exchange was brief and yet longer than when he paid for his soda at the local Stop and Go. He knew that he shouldn’t stand around gaulking at her and all the same he had a need to explain.
“Here’s your receipt.” She reached to hand him the small piece of paper, while putting the dollar bill and the carbon copy in the cash drawer. It only took half a second more for her to look up at him.
“You know, all this time I’ve been coming here and I never thought to introduce myself. Ian, Ian Rogers.” He smiled and continued with the formality. “I apologize for having forgotten my manners.” Ian didn’t mention that his wife had passed away or that he’d been living alone for going on six years. It had been some kind of cancer, the kind that couldn’t be treated, pancreatic cancer had taken away the love of his life.
“I’m Valerie.”, not sure how to reply. It was a rare day when anyone said a word to her other than to grumble for her to open the gate or some other such necessity. Those who came to the land fill were not looking for social contact; it was more like flushing a toilet or something as they dumped truck load after truck load of no longer wanted junk. People came with their trucks laden full of trash, things they couldn’t get rid of in a garage sale. They normally didn’t even notice that she was there, other than to pay to use the dump. She looked him over, this time with a shift in perception. He wasn’t particularly tall, just under six foot with an average build. She couldn’t help but notice that his eyes were fixed upon hers. “How old, mid fifties. That sprinkle of gray in his beard and the deep lines in his face…”, she thought to herself.
“Pardon me if this sounds a little strange.”, trying to figure out how to arrange his words so that he wouldn’t come off like a total idiot. “Are you that beautiful or did you cast a spell on me?” Ian smiled a boyish grin in her direction and stepped half a step backwards so that she wouldn’t feel like he was encroaching on her space. He didn’t know why he had said it. He was a natural flirt when it came to saying something to a pretty woman. He would wink at the young woman at the gas station where he stopped in regularly. The girl who worked at the Stop and Go store always smiled back when he rambled on about how she looked like his youngest daughter. There was something about her, an indescribable characteristic that had found a spot deep within. Because he had felt awkward when he was around women and considered himself out of step when it came to expressing compliments, he often quipped a short joke up just to have something to say.
“It must be the spell.” Valerie laughed out; not figuring that he could be serious about her being beautiful. She wore her company blue shirt that was too large for her with tan slacks; not exactly cover girl wardrobe material. She had on a modest amount of make up and her hair, thick and full bodied, was pulled back to keep it out of the way while she worked. On top of all that she wore a black long sleeve sweater because the air conditioning duct in the office was directly over where she worked.
“That must be it then.” Ian smiled again as he tucked the receipt into his pocket and walked toward the large open pit. A dump truck that was leaving slowed as it approached the gate; a billowing of dust from under its wheels filled the air. Ian ducked and shut his eyes until the cloud past and he could breathe. He wasn’t sure if it had been the dust or his petrifaction which had caused his lungs to contract at that particular moment. He looked over his shoulder; she was still there, looking at him. He stumbled and nearly fell down the embankment as his knees scrambled to find sure ground. He thought to himself how odd it was that he would have such feelings.
He walked along the crest of one pile of junk and followed it around to a point where he could no longer see the office. Once away from her presence he concluded that his mind might return to a more stable attitude and he could get on with the business of finding what he was looking for. His boots lifted and moved various objects to expose the next layer of junk. He had become quite adept at zeroing in on electronic trash and was able to recognize the sound of certain plastics and thereby speed up the process.
He found what seemed to be a discarded “two eighty-six” that appeared to be intact. Taking his back pack off and opening a small tool pouch, he quickly cracked open the oyster and removed its pearl. The case was of no use to him; Ian was after the green wafer boards. He could always find a use for the memory chips and cables. He was surprised to find that there was some kind of specialty board. It looked much like a Sound Blaster board; but different than any that he had run across. Ian took his screw driver and removed the pair of screws which held the board in place. He held it up close to his face and looked it over once it was free, “Sure is a strange looking hollow tube. What’s it do?”, he thought to himself. He then stowed it carefully in his pack.
He sat for a while on the stack of trash with the sun at his back, glad that Central Day Light Savings Time was once again on his side. It gave him an extra hour to play after work. Ian looked around the land fill as another treasure hunter was pulling on something that was in the pile of trash a little ways off; wondering what specific items where on his “treasure list”. Ian had found his prize relatively early as he sat on top of large empty plastic five gallon bucket at the top of a long ridge of junk. He took his pack off and handled each piece of treasure. He was particularly interested in the strange looking board. He wanted to take it to work and show it to a friend of his who knew more; maybe it was a fancy board for 3-D games or some such thing. Ian’s finger tip lightly rode down the length of a cylindrical item that was attached to the printed circuitry, not quite touching as he knew better than to get body oils and acids on it. “What the heck is that for?” , he asked himself out loud. Even more curious was that it seemed to be warm, as if it had been used recently and still cooling down. It made no sense. “How can it be warmer than. . .”
The fellow that he’d been watching had been tugging away on a length of cabled wire that was stubbornly resisting all efforts to extract it from the pile. It would be a nice gesture to help him out as he got to his feet and worked his way down the incline of broken water heaters and rusting air conditioners. It would not be prudent to jaunt his way down, even with the heavy material of his overalls the sharp metal could easily tear into him. He placed each step carefully and made it to the base of the pile; looking for the other surface miner.
It was much the same as when he had been hiking in the Big Bend National Park with his daughter. She had been only a small child then, maybe six or seven years old. They had taken one day away from the rest of the family to build on their relationship. As they walked along the rocks and cactus plants she would observe things on the ground that caught her attention.
“What’s that stuff?”, pointing to a small dark patch of something organic that was splattered across a flat piece of rock. She got down into a low squat and poked at it with her walking stick. Ian enjoyed watching her expressions as everything was a new experience.
“Buzzard puke.” It was a simple answer and yet it had pricked her imagination. It was the kind of statement that would come in handy later when she wanted to irritate her mother. The rest of the day they spent pointing out more buzzard puke and laughing each time the words came out. “Buzzard puke!” They made it to the top of a small grouping of rocks where they could see the entire Chisos Basin. It had been a successful trek; even difficult, making sure that each step landed on a solid piece of earth. On the way down they had some added adventure. The steep angle of the loose rocks that had built up on the sides of the small mountain begged for them to practice sliding ; like surfing only a little more hazardous. He held her close as they careened down the slope of rocks at break neck speed. By the time they got to the bottom Ian had lost the camera. All that was left was the cheap piece of shoelace material that it had been attached to, hanging from in his back pocket. It was not a really expensive camera, all the same he would have liked to have the pictures it contained. These memories surfaced as he worked his way around the piles of trash.
“That’s strange…”, thinking out loud to himself. “… I coulda’ sworn he was right over there a minute ago.” Ian climbed over a mountain of matted roofing shingles, making sure to avoid the nails. “Oh well, I guess he was able to get it on his own.” He looked around again wondering where the stranger might have gone; after all it was not a very large place. Ian dismissed the thought and decided it was time to head home. He made his way over to the dirt road that ran down the middle of the fill. It would be easier to walk on the hard pack surface of the road rather than plotting his every step through junk heaps. Half way to the gate he turned to check once more, still wondering how he could have missed meeting the fellow, the one who had been pulling on the cable. There; in the same spot as he had been before, was the same man tugging on the end of the stubborn cable. Ian stopped in his tracks and could not figure out what had happened. It was not possible that he could have missed him and yet, there he was.
“ ‘ You need some help over there?” He let the question drift out in the direction of the tug of war; wanting to go help while at the same time not wanting to intrude. No answer came and Ian finished the walk back to the gate. He showed the pack to Valerie, giving her a cursory glance at best. “ Nice haul, huh ?” It was more of a statement than it was a question requiring an answer.
“If you say so.”, came her reply. She had no idea what he had shown her as he continued on towards his truck unbuttoning his overalls. “Ian, will I see you again tomorrow?”, she threw in while he was still within ear shot. The sound of her voice teased the hair inside the channels of his ear; not sure if she was saying goodnight or hurry back.
“I come here often. I suppose so.” Ian was afraid to look back. The sound of her voice reached inside to a place where he was reminded of his inability to deal with such feelings. He placed the boots behind the front seat onto a layer of plastic that protected the small bench seat from dirt and moisture He waved in the general direction of the office without looking as his truck headed out of the land fill parking area. While he waited for the light to change, his mind was flooded with glimpses of Valerie’s face. The images were incomplete at best, portions of a smile, a crease that accentuated the line of her cheek, the shade of her skin blended with the shadows cast by her hair; drawing his thoughts and his fears out so that they lay adrift and scattered. A dump truck behind him gave a blast of its horn, one of those earth bending air horns like fire trucks use to clear out lanes of cars on their way to a disaster. Ian bolted forward, acknowledging the green light, the one that had been that way for more than a few seconds. It was not at all like him to day dream at a traffic light.
Ian made his way through the winding streets of the subdivision and home. He could hardly wait to get inside as he parked in the driveway. Dan Dunlavy, his neighbor from next door, was parking his car on the curb next to Ian’s driveway. Dan was a retired computer geek and he was just now getting in from the local community college where he taught a course on computer basics three days a week.
“Get anything good?”, Dan asked, knowing of Ian’s late afternoon forays into the junk yard. He waved while getting out on the passenger side since the driver’s side door no longer worked properly. With a little effort Dan could pull the door panel, re-attach the linkage rod to the door handle and have it the way it should be. He closed the door, making sure not to lock it, the passenger side lock linkage was also messed up.
“Yea, come take a look.” Ian found it difficult to contain his enthusiasm as he grabbed his backpack from behind the seat. Dan held his hand up to signal “time out” as he glanced inside the mail box and then, after determining that there was nothing there, cut across the yard toward Ian’s house. Dan always kept his lawn mowed so short that it never prospered under the hot Texas sun. The soil was hard packed, more like concrete than dirt, making it even more improbable that the St. Augustine turf would ever flourish. There was a noticeable difference as he got to the property line. Ian’s grass was lush and full, having been maintained and fertilized regularly. His lawn mower had been set to allow for maximum growth. Dan hesitated for a moment as he noticed the difference; lost his momentum and then blinked before the distraction wore off.
Ian was opening the top of his backpack and had already reached in for the most curious looking board; the one with the strange looking tube and coil of wire. “I found this one a while ago, got the rest of it in here too.” He was sure it had to be something worth sharing as he held it out for Dan.
“So, when did you start breaking into research labs?” Dan chided him as he gave it a quick once over, not having a clue as to the boards purpose. “What kind of interface is that?”, pointing to the harness that did not appear to be compatible with anything, IBM or Apple.
“I was hoping you could tell me.” Ian smiled as he handed it to Dan. “Notice anything unusual?”
“Hold on a sec’; let me have a look see.” Dan worked it over with a journeyman’s eye; following the printed lines of silver, the curious coil, the coil that was radiating heat that could be felt from several inches away. Dan held the card so that his fingers were suspended above the coil without saying another word, at least nothing that was intelligible. His eyebrows lifted and fell enough to express his bewilderment.
“Neat huh?” Ian was about to show Dan the rest of the computer boards when he was distracted. Across the street he thought he saw the form of a woman floating in mid air. It was the same as when he had left the junk yard to look back at Valerie.
“What is it? Did you see something?”
“Tell me you don’t see that?”, pointing to the image, the same image he’d seen earlier at the dump.
“I see that John has pulled into his driveway and that his garage door opener is working, that he is pulling into his garage.” Changing from talking with Ian, “Evenin’ John.” Dan waved at John in return as the garage door closed and he disappeared from view.
“Then you didn’t see a a woman dressed in blue floating in mid air in front of John’s garage?” Ian’s hand was outstretched but beginning to drop a little as his mind worked to put the puzzle pieces together.
“I thought you Mormon’s weren’t supposed to drink hard liquor.”. Dan was a card carrying Catholic and they had discussed their individual faiths over the several years that they had been neighbors; carefully avoiding any spirit of contention.
As quickly as the vision had appeared to Ian, it just as quickly vanished. “I tell you that I saw something strange; no, really.”
“Damn!” Dan cried out, moving his fingers from where they had floated just above the strange coil that was now glowing red hot. “Sorry”, waving his fingers about in the air to cool them, “didn’t mean to swear”, placing his fingers to his tongue and then blowing on them. The coil cooled on its own and returned to its original color.
“What do you suppose it is?” Ian held the board up, turned it over and then back again.
“You got me on that one.” Dan looked down at his finger tips once more. “What was it you saw, a ghost or something?”
“Who knows, maybe it was just my imagination playing tricks on me.” Ian closed his eyes for a moment and tried to picture in his mind what he thought he had seen. He was looking across the street at John’s driveway, then there was something that looked like a piece of transparent blue and yellow material; some kind of floral design. It looked like it was a woman’s dress, or at least that’s what his mind saw, only there was no woman in the dress, just the form of one. It took only a moment to conjure the image, all the while his eyelids along with the rest of his facial muscles tightened up. Ian opened his eyes and took a breath of air to clear his thoughts.
“I have some papers to grade. Let me know if you figure that thing out.” Dan walked back across the yard, his one elbow bent to keep his fingers up. Dan looked across the street and then back to Ian. A light hearted smile crept upon Dan’s face as he pretended to take a sip from an imaginary bottle while his arm was crooked; shaking his head for effect.
“G’wan!” Ian whisked his hands toward Dan in sweeping fashion. In the back of his mind he recalled the musical, My Fair Lady. “I ask you sir, what sort of word is that?” His daughter would never have let him get away with such a word. She had watched the show on DVD so many times or had listened to it on CD enough that she knew each line, each nuance well enough to have fun with it. It was a source of merriment for them to jerk a line from the shows they were familiar with during their everyday conversation and insert it; knowing that the other would pick up on it and they would both laugh. What would his daughter think about a floating dress in the middle of John’s driveway? “G’wan!” Ian walked to the back door and let himself in, all the while letting Professor Higgins chastise him for having ostracized the language. “This is what the British population, calls an elementary education…” The door closed behind him as he was lost in thought still holding the curious green board.
Ian placed his knapsack on the table in the nook on top of a stack of unopened letters before tossing a couple of chicken pot pies in the oven. He would have something resembling a meal in thirty minutes. He read his email, mostly spam, and then read the news on CNN and Fox. He was going through the motions of being home. The house was not much of a home with all the kids grown and off on their own. He turned on the local “oldies” station to have some noise. He took the morning paper, the one that he’d placed inside the front door when he left for work, and read over the front page. There was nothing new, only things that he already was aware of. He went back to the kitchen nook and sat down to take a good look at his newly found treasure.
“Okay, so tell me what you are and how you work.” Talking to the inanimate object was supposed to be a sign of some kind of old people’s irrationality; if so, then he’d been suffering from it since he was a child. In his youth he had taken apart a radio to see how it worked. It had worked fine up until he took it apart. The more Ian studied the strange looking coil the less he understood its purpose. He had a set of magnifying lenses that he could wear that would let him bump the power as much as eight times. There was adequate light from the overhead chandelier as he traced the micro circuits the went out in all directions. To the best of his reasoning; the coil was not served in any way because all of the leads were dead ends. It derived nothing from being placed on the board; nothing, and yet it worked. “What the heck.”, he bit down on his lip and clipped the coil from off the board completely.
“Ian, will I see you again tomorrow?” The words filled his mind as if he had on a good pair of audio headphones. The sparkling lights emanating from the crystal baubles of the chandelier danced their rainbow patterns on the wall. He was reminded of the floating vision from earlier as the prisms dispatched the refracted light. As Ian enjoyed the effect he noticed that one by one the dots of light were all blue and yellow.
“That’s impossible!” Ian stood up and looked around to see how such a trick was being played on him. “Light can’t do that!” The coil on the table began to glow; except now it was glowing shades of blue and yellow. He placed his hand above it; the air was chilled several degrees. Ian sat down as he picked up the coil.
“Ian. . .”, he could hear his name being called ever so softly, “. . .now, isn’t that better?” He hadn’t noticed it but the radio station was playing, “The Magical Mystery Tour”, the first cut on the album of the same name.
The following day was not as busy as Ian would have liked. He had too much free time and his mind was pulling up fragments of thoughts. “Ian, will I see you again tomorrow?”, the words kept repeating. He found himself trying to remember how she sounded, how she looked. It was unsettling as he found himself being desirous of her company. His truck turned down the dirt road and he was at the land fill. He sat there for a few minutes as if he had been awakened from a dream; no, it was real. He got into his jump suit and walked to the office, half way hoping that the other woman would be there.
“That will be one dollar.” Ian was relieved to hear a stranger’s voice as he forked over the entrance fee and breathed out some of his stress. He looked down the road the led to the center of the land fill. Walking with a brisk pace and kicking up dust with each step he went directly to the place where he had last seen the guy tugging on the stubborn cable. When he got there he studied the spot and could find no hint that anything had been agitated. Rusted steel shelving units from a small strip center that had been demolished lay as they had for several months. Pine pollen coated everything with a bright layer of yellow dust. Only places which had been disturbed recently lacked the powder. Ian shook his head as he recollected the previous evening; quite sure that he had not hallucinated it. He then began walking toward the area where he thought he would be more likely to find the kinds of treasure that had printed circuit boards.
The climb made his legs work and kept him agile. It was like being a kid all over, playing in somebody else’s back yard. He would reach down and pick up something once in a while, study it for a moment or two and toss it like a rock skipping across a pond to the other junk pile. Old lug nuts were a favorite as they bounced and ricocheted off other junk making a huge racket. He found a box of paper clips that had rusted together and a box of ball point pens. What he would do with a whole box of red pens he had no idea; but they were the only thing of value that he could find so far. The pens all worked as he tried them on a piece of scratch paper so he placed them in the back pack. He had been walking around for the better part of an hour when he heard his name.
"Ian, is that you ? " Valerie called out, standing at the door that led into the office at the top of the road. It were as if she had known him for a very long time, next door neighbors or something. He lifted his arm to wave and then walked to where she stood. He didn’t like to shout back at people, that is unless he was in his truck. When he was disturbed with the way somebody drove down the street Ian could be rather hostile in nature; unkind words flowed like poetry from his lips. His wife used to accuse him of being a Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde when he got behind the wheel. This was different; he hadn’t a clue as to what to say.
“Hello, Valerie.” Ian was slow to meet her eyes with his own. She was just as attractive as she had been the day before, maybe ever more so now that she had called his name out first. He was reminded of how he felt when he was a boy in school. His teacher, Mrs. Eggplant, had called his name and smiled at him. It wasn’t like he could put his finger on. When she spoke his name it touched his soul as surely as a surgeon opens a patient’s chest and massages his heart.. She had a soft spoken way with all the children. She would sit in the middle of them all to read a story or teach them a lesson, never raising her voice. Instead, she would sit quietly until they were all ready to turn themselves over to her entirely and then she would continue. Ian had always had a crush on Mrs. Eggplant even though he had never been a good student, he had never forgotten how he felt when she greeted him. When Mrs. Eggplant would play the piano during singing time Ian could see only her face. Her features made him think that she looked like one of the angels on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
He remembered misbehaving at times just so that she would come over to him and quietly remind him, “Ian?”, placing her hand gently on his, “Ian, that’s much better.” While the rest of the class sang he would get lost studying her face. Ian thought about it and then realized that her name wasn’t Eggplant at all, never had been. That was how he heard her name as a child; it was some Scandinavian name that only sounded like Eggplant.
“Did you find anything good today Ian?” There was a flirtation of sounds; or at least that is what he had imagined. He looked back into the land fill area, mostly to keep from looking at her.. There on the side of the junk heap was a man tugging on a piece of cable as if it were a projected image on a screen. The angle was such that it could not be coming from anywhere but from within the land fill. He had already been down and investigated for himself; there were no mirrors or flat surfaces that could be used for such a cinematographic effect. His distraction was long enough for Valerie to notice.
“I'm sorry.”, pointing in to the general location of what he now perceived to be some sort of holographic apparition, “Do you see that man down there pulling on a piece of cable?”
“I hardly ever notice what goes on down there.” Valerie's answer was simple enough and yet it didn’t answer his question. Ian looked at her and forgot what he was thinking about. Her blue eyes were there in front of him, almost as if they were commanding him to forget about the rest of the world and be there with her only.
“I was joking about it yesterday; but I think you really did put a spell on me.” Ian tried to look away only to find him self wanting for her to reach around him, to hold on to him with her arms and never let him go.
“What's the matter Ian? Do I have that much power over you?” Valerie's voice was different now, much more direct as she toyed with his mind. What the hell was going on? Ian felt the pit of his stomach twisting in confusion as reality and the unknown met head on.
“Are you, real?” The words came out of Ian's mouth. His thoughts became muddled and confused.
“Real? Ian, have you been reading too much Sci-Fi in your spare time?” Valerie's breath was warm on his ear as she whispered so gently that he had to close his eyes to hear.
“I suppose you’re right on that point. I grew up on Heinlein and Bradbury; always looking for the fantastic among the mundane.” Ian smiled as he thought about the many characters from the books he’d read. The lines on his face seemed to soften as he slipped into his past, momentarily enjoying the carefree years of his youth.
“Who’s Heinlein?” She asked, having no apparent idea who the author was. It really wasn’t so unusual for a non sci-fi reader not to know who Robert Heinlein was. Ian had placed Heinlein’s work above all others. It may have been because one of the first sci-fi books that had been truly fun to read had been, The Past Through Tomorrow – Future History Stories. Ian had read the book so many times that he had to go buy another when the pages started to fall from the binding.
“Robert Heinlein, one of the best when it comes to sci-fi. You must not have read much sci-fi at all have you?” Ian regained his composure as the conversation moved into an area where he had more than a casual knowledge. There was a certain flexibility afforded by sci-fi that permitted modest leaps of faith when it came to environment or technological prowess. On the other hand, good sci-fi relied on the human spirit, the developed traits to identify each and every character so that they became as real as your next door neighbor. It was no different than the old western movies that had delighted him on Saturday afternoons at the local movie house. The hero riding into town on a horse could as easily been arriving in a space ship.
“I never was a real fan of sci-fi. I thought of it much like I do comic books, if you know what I mean?” Ian found himself in a defensive mode. He could not imagine how he could explain the appreciation he felt for some of the comic strip art that he enjoyed. Ian had a copy of The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta standing next to Michealangelo and Degas on the book shelf. He considered them as equals in their own right. Ian shook his head and started to walk away. “Well, I can see that your limited exposure to the arts needs to be rounded out. Would you let me take you to dinner some time; let me introduce you to some other forms that you might enjoy?” Ian winked at her as he said it and finished it off with a smile so that it wouldn’t sound as if he was snubbing her.
“I’ll have to think on that; but thanks for asking.” Valerie placed her upper lip over her tongue, which then covered her lower lip in such a way as to leave off the rest of the thought. Ian wanted to know more about her, mostly he was trying to figure out why she was so appealing to him. There was something about her, something he was having trouble understanding. It was almost as if she was a composite of all the attractive women that he had known. He had seen a comical movie, Condorman, about a cartoonist who had drawn the woman of his dreams into his work. In the movie the woman’s likeness was, in actuality a spy and so when they met the story line allowed for the cartoonist to become a master spy; eventually winning the heart and the woman of his dreams.
“I better be going now.” Ian forced his eyes closed so that he could turn away and get to his truck. His pulse was rapid as he worked to control his breathing. He put the key in the door lock and got in without changing his clothes. As soon as the engine was running he put it in gear. When he looked in his mirror he could only catch a fragment of blue material, floating in the air, a human form; but without anything solid to hold the shape. The tires left a cloud of dust as they spun, finally catching hold of solid ground. Ian turned his head to look back, not trusting the mirror’s image. The office was empty now, nothing.
Ian pulled off the road after having driven only a couple of miles. His thoughts were going off much like a string of firecrackers; a flash here and there mixed with lots of noise without much meaning. He turned the motor off and sat while gathering all of the events together. He retraced his going into the junk yard the day before, finding the odd computer board, his acknowledged infatuation with, with what? Ian wasn’t even sure that Valerie was real or some kind of holographic image. If she wasn’t real then what was she? He turned the motor back on and decided to investigate a little more.
The traffic was heavy with so many people headed home after work that it took a while to find a spot in which to cross over. Steubner-Airline had once been a farm road that led into the boonies. Now, with suburbia stretching its tentacles farther out, it was a main artery. The feeder road that led back into the dump ran along side of a driving range that had a beer shack that also served burgers. Ian pulled into the oyster shell parking lot and locked the truck. After getting a large Dr. Pepper and an order of fries he then began to walk down the dirt road. The darkening sky was closer to night than evening as the huge driving range lights illuminated the contrasting lush green grass that was now off to his left. There was a mesh wire draped along the side to prevent stray golf balls from leaving the range that also prevented people from accidentally wandering into the path of one. Ian strolled casually along the middle of the road enjoying the over salted fries that were now beginning to cool from the chill in the evening air.
“Ian, have you been reading too much sci-fi?” Valerie had asked earlier. Ian let the thought run free as he could see the gated entrance to the dump. During the day he never paid much attention to how they would secure the area at night. It was much like the way he had seen used car lots lock their units up at night. They had used a large pipe, three or four inches in diameter that was on a pivot that could be swung across and then padlocked to a fixed post on the other side. It wasn’t meant to keep people out, at least not entirely, mostly to prevent the passage of vehicles either in or out. Ian looked about and could see no signs of anything going on. The moon was nearly full as it hung there against a gun metal blue sky; larger in appearance because of its position low on the horizon and, with a piece of the Texas Piney Woods as a backdrop, it looked like it was sitting on a pedestal carved out for just such a purpose. Ian was never one to let the beauty of the moment escape without acknowledging the Creator’s hand in the mix.
“Thank you Sir; You’ve outdone yourself.”, speaking while nodding his head. Ian wondered to himself how many of those hurrying on their way home had missed the masterpiece because they were too busy watching the tail lights ahead of them. Ian got to within about fifty yards of the entrance. The same type of pipe used to block off the road had been used along both sides of the road; also to prevent vehicles from simply going around the gate by jumping the shallow drainage ditches that ran along side the dirt road. They were solid and suspended about a foot and a half off the ground; perfect for sitting on while he finished off the French fries. When he was done he folded the cardboard container and slipped it into the back pocket of his blue jeans. Just because this place was a dump didn’t mean that he should toss a piece of garbage on the side. He could place it in a trash barrel later on after he had enjoyed his Dr. Pepper.
Ian listened and watched, turning his head slightly after a few moments for a different angle. Except for the sound of a light breeze passing through the tops of the pine trees, a most calming sound if any there was, Ian could hear nothing to indicate the presence of anyone. He looked down at his hands that now appeared ghostlike as the moon’s light peaked through a passing cloud, not entirely covering the bright orb, only limiting its intensity.
Ian wasn’t particularly afraid of the setting. He had grown up only a block from an old Revolutionary War cemetery on a scary sounding street, “Seaman’s Neck Road”. Some of the stones had been knocked down by vandals or broken when a tree limb had fallen. The boys had taken the time to read the dates and inscriptions out of respect for those buried; that and a strange feeling, a need to be attached, in some odd way, to the history which had woven itself into the plots of dirt. Behind the cemetery was a thicket where they had hacked out paths and even built a tree house. They felt at ease spending hours late into the night in that tree house; the hallowed ground spread out under them with the assortment of grave markers quietly reminding them of freedom’s price. Not surprisingly, Ian did much better than most of his peers in Early American History. He could remember his mother emphasizing, “Where you walk to school today, Indian children used to play.”, as poetry from her lips reinforced bits and pieces of Long Island’s part in the struggle for independence.
The night air began to catch up with his lack of planning. Normally Ian would have had sense enough to wear a light jacket this early on in Spring. He felt a shiver run the length of his back and down again. His shoulders shook off the feeling and he drained the last few drops of his soda. Ian walked the short distance to the gate where he carefully surveyed the area in front of him. He looked into the booth, the booth where he paid his fee, the booth where he glimpsed something unexplainable in his rear view mirror. His hand reached into blue jean’s pocket. Ian had brought along the coil from the computer board, not understanding why; only following through with the hunch that it held answers to some of his questions. The booth was empty with only shadows from the trees against the naked walls. Ian eased himself over the gate, carefully avoiding contact with the rusting pipe. The coil temperature spiked causing his hand to release it to the ground. Ian reached to pick it up; but, was distracted as he heard his name being called out softly.
“Ian, you’ve come back?” A quiet voice arrested Ian’s forward movement, freezing his footsteps so that his bent leg was caught in mid stride. It hadn’t been said in a manner meant to be alarming; if anything it was sensually beckoning him. Ian looked, his neck turned in such a way that his view was obscured by his own shoulder. Valerie was standing a few feet from the booth, closer to the road that led down into the junk yard. Ian could not understand how he could have missed seeing her as he had taken time to look the area over prior to hopping over the gate. “Ian, its all right that you came back, its all right.”
Ian’s mind was drowning in familiar sounds that didn’t fit. “Its all right, its all right”, was what his wife would whisper into his ear when he would wake from having a terrible dream in the middle of the night. It wasn’t as if it sounded the same, it was exactly the same. “How can this be, that voice, I know that voice from so long ago.”
“Ian, I can explain all of this.” Valerie walked to within arm’s reach of Ian. “Come, sit over here. This must be quite overwhelming for you.”
“Who are you?” Ian straightened up, squared himself with respect to her apparent position, for he wasn’t even sure that she existed, at least not in any reality that he could understand. “What are you?”
“Ian, do you remember the first time we met?” Her voice was soft and relaxing.
“I suppose you mean the other day when I came in and paid my dollar to walk the yard?” Ian swallowed as he thought how incredible an impact she had on him that day.
“No, think back.” Valerie’s smile matched her eyes as they surrounded Ian. “Can you remember?”
“Remember, remember what?” Ian began to feel a bit uneasy with the open ended question. Had he met Valerie in high school, college or during the course of some everyday event? All the same, it made sense; there was something so intimate that made him feel at ease, as if she were a familiar spirit.
“I have known you forever. Do you understand, forever?” Her eyes met his, looking deep inside his soul.
“You, uh,” Ian was staggered at the suggested thought.
“That’s right Ian, you recognize the truth even if it doesn’t all fit” Valerie’s voice smoothed the deep wrinkled lines on Ian’s forehead as she spoke. “We have always been together. Remember looking into the mirrors at the temple and how it looked as each image reached out, one upon the other until the images disappeared into eternity?”
“But that was…” Ian felt tears welling up in the corners of his eyes as he thought about his wife. They had been married thirty two years until she was taken from him by the cancer.
“This is how I looked before I came down the first time, try to remember.” Valerie turned around slowly as the black sweater, the blue work shirt, the tan trousers blended to become a shimmering light blue and yellow floral print dress. “Each time you had a pleasant thought a part of me came back, to guide you back to me. I am all of those thoughts and more for you now.”
“But how is this possible. Did I die and not know?”
“Not exactly. This was one of those “Twinkling of and eye” kind of changes. A few moments ago you were there, now you are here.” Ian looked down to find that he was no longer wearing his work clothes. Instead he had on a sleek fitting tuxedo. It was much the same as the one he’d worn to his daughter’s wedding.
“What do we do next?”, Ian’s voice trembled as he became aware of the import of the situation.
“We go home, together.” Valerie lifted her arm for him to take, as if at a grand ballroom waiting to be led to the dance floor. The two of them rose, their spirits giving off beams of light into the night sky as they were sealed up into the heavens.
Looking into his office, the only lighting supplied by a small swing lamp next to the computer monitor, Henry wondered if his idea would work. He held a manila folder, clutched under the stump of his left arm, while pressing down on the stainless steel lever of the door knob with his right hand. In his younger days he would enjoy speeding down the highway in his red '67 GTO, windows down not caring what the posted limits were. A tire had blown out, the car went into a drainage ditch and rolled over several times prior to coming to rest in a shallow pool of muddy water. Most of his left arm was crushed and the doctors could only clear away the fragmented bone and muscle. His wife had never been comfortable in his " muscle car " or the way he would literally fly down the road while he was showing off. The officers who investigated the scene never found his hand. The wedding ring would have little meaning to him now that she was dead. She had been knocked unconscious and drowned that day in the ditch.
" I must try it before anyone else gets here this morning. ", quietly talking to himself as the rows of overhead fluorescent lights sequentially marched over him. He had never liked the pale white cast, favoring instead the incandescent lamp which supplied a warmer more natural illumination. He entered his password to gain access to the main computer. Upon opening the folder that he carried, his eyes showed a glimmer of his hope. It was more than hope, closer to verification of a foregone answer as he entered the data through the agile fingers of his right hand. He only had a couple of hours before his fellow workers would arrive. He could not sleep and so it made no difference where he spent his time, at home or at his work station. He leafed though the pages one after another as the data fields were completed.
" That should be enough for a small test. " Henry sat back for a few moments as he pondered what he was about to accomplish. His pinkie finger slid over and punched the Enter Key. Henry had wanted to try his idea out on a simple project to make sure that it would work. He had always wanted to catch a foul ball at a major league baseball game. It had never happened. The past few days he had gone over the specifications of a major league baseball; its every detail down to the kind of thread used to stitch the seams. If he could replicate a baseball by entering the details of each individual component so that they could be assembled then there would be no limit to the items that could be reproduced. He watched as the monitor's images momentarily flashed and then disappeared. It was searching the related fields and compiling the data files that Henry had entered. He could hardly contain his excitement as he briskly walked to the far end of the office and entered the assembly area.
The electronic key was scanned and he waited for the double wide doors to let him pass. The assembly area was not much different than a large hanger such as one would find at any airport. There were large conveyor belts that reached from the center of the room out in all directions. In this way the raw materials which might be needed for any given task could be accessed with relative ease. Henry walked up a small flight
of stairs and onto a suspended platform. He was not surprised to see a baseball in the middle; ecstatic would better describe his feelings as he reached down and picked it up.
" Henry, is that a baseball you have? ", he heard a familiar voice call to him from out of the shadows. It was Josette from systems analysis. Her primary job was to make sure that each mechanical operation was properly documented. Many of the small jobs would never show up on the cost sheets and over a period of time there would be an accumulation of unexplained losses. Josette's ability to stay on top of these minor expenditures did not set well with most of the other employees. Henry was different; having sort of a boyish crush on her.
" Yes, ahh, its a baseball. ", holding it up into the air as he turned toward the direction from which her voice had come from. Henry enjoyed looking at her face; soft skin with creased dimples on either side of her warm smile. She was not in a position of meeting the public and often wore loose fitting jogging suits that were attractive and yet never revealed anything other than that she enjoyed soft fleecy type clothing. Henry often wondered if the skin underneath would be as soft . . .
" I didn't know that the company was into making baseballs, Henry. " Her voice was playful and she was aware that he had a crush on her. She knew that he was too much of an introvert to ever mention it; just the way he acted when he was around her.
" Oh, no, uhmmm. Its just something I was working on my own; looking at his wristwatch as if to demonstrate that it wasn't even six o'clock in the morning yet. He made a few awkward steps toward the stairs as he put the baseball to his side.
" Did you list the materials on your job sheet? You did fill out a job sheet?" Josette took over as she met him at the bottom of the stairs. She was wearing a deep crimson sweatshirt with white sweatpants that looked like they had just come out of the dryer along with some fancy cross training sneakers. With her hair up in a large pony tail, Josette looked too good to be real as Henry attempted to get a better view.
" No, I mean, not yet. " He knew that she would have him fill out the form prior to leaving as he put the ball down on a table and started the process of listing each item on the standard form. Josette stood next to him, teasing him even more as the scent of her perfume took away even more of his ability to concentrate.
" Is that really Mickey Mantle's autograph? ", holding the ball to the light. The leather appeared to be aged and the stitching frayed in places.
" Yes and no. I mean, the ball was created by the " machine " and it would be as authentic as any made during that time period. Henry was not sure how to explain what he had done. " I had the computer analyze and then create this baseball from data that I entered this morning."
" Then the company isn't going to start marketing baseballs? Why would the company authorize a job like this? " She pretty well knew the answer; but, enjoyed the predicament Henry was in.
" Well, they haven't authorized it. If it will make things right, take the cost of materials out of my payroll check." Henry felt slightly annoyed at the idea of having to explain away less than a dollars worth of materials. It never occurred to him that he was using a machine that cost millions of dollars for his personal use.
" Don't worry about it. I was just curious, that's all. ", handing him the ball and tearing up the form that he had just finished. " You don't do baseball cards too, I hope?" The corners of her mouth smiled back at him as the dimples in her cheeks became even deeper. She'd put some kind of blush on her cheeks that made them stand out. Henry noticed the angular arrangement of her face, her full lips that seemed to pout and smile all at the same time as he swallowed to clear his throat.
" Its something else that I'm working on. This was just a test of my program to see if it would work. I promise that when I'm ready for something bigger that I'll make sure to fill out the proper material request form."
" Hey, its okay. I was just seeing who was in here so early and anyway. . .", stepping back half a step so that Henry could breathe again. " I was out all night with my boy friend. He drives a repo wrecker and we had fun chasing down some leads. " Her facial animation displayed a higher level of excitement as imaginary lightning flashed from her eyes. Henry had a hard time wondering what kind of fun might be derived from the possibility of getting shot at while hooking onto someone's car in the middle of the night. It was almost time for the shift to begin. Henry knew he was supposed to be at his work station, trying not to let her see that he was blushing.
" I hadn't planned on having to explain this to anyone. I'm sorry if I sounded . . ."
" Like I said; its okay. Now, if you want to run a program that makes diamond jewelry . . .? " She let him move away with his prize in hand. It was fun to have power over someone as she considered his rather unpretentious nature. She was more bold and enjoyed a little more excitement than Henry was capable of entertaining. It was still fun
to tease him along just a bit; lighting a cigarette, the trail of smoke left in the air as if from a gun that had just been used.
" I have to go clock in now. ", walking backwards as he extricated himself from her proximity. She continued to smile in his direction until he bumped into the door. He clumsily gathered himself around the door and into a less threatening reality. As soon as the door swung closed he began to examine the baseball; forgetting about how awkward he had felt only a few moments ago. It were as if the ball had been transported through a time portal rather than being concocted by the data in his computer. He placed it on his desk and thought about the next stage of his project.
" Hey Henry, morning." George Frumley who had the work station next to his greeted him. " Nice ball you have there. Did you buy that from the Home Shopping Channel. I saw those last week; they wanted one seventy five for an autographed Pete Rose. I'll bet they have a room full of old ladies who sign those things." George would never have bought one anyway, wondering out loud if Henry was that dumb.
" No, George, I didn't buy it from the Shopping Channel." He was about to explain how he came to be in possession of the ball when he was interrupted.
" So that's a real one then? ", picking up the ball and asking if it was okay to do so all at the same time. " Okay? " Henry nodded as if it would have made any difference.
" The ones on T. V. looked too new. They must think we're all a bunch of saps. Look at the way real leather gets yellow like on this ball. " George went on and on while Henry listened to the verification process. " That's a real Keeper you have there Henry. How much did it set you back?" George kept on talking without ever waiting for an answer. " Hey, that's none of my business. Sorry I asked. ", putting the ball back on Henry's desk. " Thanks for letting me hold it. "
" Anytime George, really, anytime." George disappeared behind the partition with a wave of his hand leaving Henry quietly amused. He opened his brief case and withdrew yet another manila folder. On the top edge of the label, " GTO " had been written over some white out. He turned on the flatbed scanner and waited for a few moments while it went through it warm up. Henry was talking to himself as he placed the first of many data sheets onto the glass window of the scanner. " Here goes nothing ". The pages being scanned were saved into a directory that he had set up, " GTO ", like it would take a rocket scientist to figure that out. He had taken every specification sheet that had ever been printed about the car, the shop manual, pictures of the interior, the original paint numbers, Thrush pipes, Hurst shifter, and down to the last piece of chrome so that the computer would be able to assemble or reconstruct one of his dreams. One of the last items of information that would be scanned was a copy of the accident report which had the vehicle identification number and the registration tag number that was on the car when he owned it. Those numbers would identify a specific make and model to include the size of the engine, and transmission so that it would be exactly like the original.
" 1967 Pontiac GTO serial number 242677P230814. " Henry figured that by doing it that way he would be sure that he got his own vehicle back on the outside chance that there was another GTO that had been restored. He didn't want to get into any trouble with the authorities. He knew that his GTO had been destroyed and turned into salvage. He still had the original owner's manual and bill of sale. He had purchased it used from Pye's Auto Sales over on the Eastex Freeway. The envelope still had the stock tag with the little throw away key ring so that in the event he had lost his keys; replacement keys could be made from the numbers stamped on the knock outs. Henry clutched the small pieces of metal in his hand as he silently wondered whether or not such a grand thing could be done.
On the way home that evening Henry stopped off at the locksmith shop and had them make a set of keys for him. He knew the owner of the shop and explained that he wanted to have original key blanks, not that it would matter, for sentimental reasons.
" I thought you said that the car was totaled out years ago? Why would you need keys for it now? " It was a logical question.
" I don't know, call it silly if you want. Can you do it? " Henry handed him the small pieces of metal with the imprinted key codes.
" It's a waste of money; but, its your money.", smiling as he looked the information up in his code book. It only took a few minutes and the job was done.
" That's it? ", looking at the two keys all shiny and new.
" If you like I can make it look harder; yes, that's all there is to it. I have a special today on keys that fit cars that no longer exist. Two Bucks and we're even." There was a light hearted laugh in his sarcasm.
" Here you are and I'll be back if they don't work as nice as the originals did." , grinning back with a boyish smile. Henry put the keys in his pocket; the locksmith laughed and shook his head, placing the two dollars in the register.
" Josette, here's a list of materials that are to be billed out of my next month's pay check. Its already been authorized by accounting. You can check if you like." Henry left the statement hanging in the air as he handed the form to her.
" It looks okay to me. Why would I need to check on it? You've never given me a reason to doubt? Have you checked to make sure that all this is available? " She went down the list with her finger, not looking at any item in particular; but rather the lengthy catalogue that he had itemized.
" I checked this morning and the raw materials are already in the staging area and ready to be loaded onto the conveyor tracks.", pausing only to take in a full breath and look at the inside of his eye lids, " I want this job to go off without a glitch."
" Then its all yours. ", placing the job sheet in a stack with others that had been done that day. " I've never seen you so on edge, except maybe that day with the baseball. You're up to something; aren't you? " She flashed a wicked smile as if by doing so she would become a part of whatever plot he had cooked up.
" Can you keep a secret? " Henry was not the kind to go around blabbing his stuff around.
" Its not anything illegal is it? ", half hoping that it might be.
" No, I told the Machine to rebuild my old '67 GTO. " Henry whispered even though they were alone in the fabrication room.
" I never would have pegged you for a muscle car type; no offense." Josette added as she tilted her head five degrees to look at him from a different angle.
" I may be getting older; but I still have a few years left. " Henry was old enough to be her father. " I wasn't always fifty three. "
" So what's taking so long? You activated the job order, didn't you? "
" Yea, it shouldn't take that long. " Henry walked to the computer terminal and asked for a progress report. It showed that the work was in progress and that some items had not been logged onto the request form; but that the delay would not be long. He could not think of what had been left off; scratching the back of his neck, a puzzled look momentarily coming from his normally sure demeanor.
" What did the computer say? " Josette wanted to see the finished project.
" It will be done soon, its going over the original data sheets to make sure all the raw material is being assembled as per spec's."
" How much longer? Did it say? " Henry punched in a few commands and found that the data from the police department's traffic accident report was the focal point of the computer's processor.
" Its going over the details of the vehicle identification now; should be anytime now. I guess its making the license plates. ", Henry threw in as he shrugged his shoulders. The conveyor belt jerked into motion; alerting them that the product was completed and would come from the heart of the Machine as soon as it cleared the protective nets. Henry leaned forward as if by doing so he would see it sooner. He reached into his pocket and felt for the set of keys as the heavy flaps of plastic began to submit to the large object coming down the large conveyor belt.
" Oh my God! " Josette put her hands up to her mouth as she gasped.
" Nooooooooooooo!! It can't be " Henry sank to the floor; unable to support himself in an upright position. The finished order arrived at the end of the conveyor belt and stopped. The Machine had assembled Henry's 1967 Pontiac GTO exactly as it looked on the day of his tragic accident. It was mangled almost beyond recognition. The digital photographs that the computer had accessed from the police departments files were very detailed. There were pieces of bent metal which once had been fenders, jagged shards of glass from the windows, and even large splatters of blood on the upholstery. The Machine had gone through every single detail of the accident report and then arranged the information so as to come up with a perfect reproduction. Henry held onto the railing as he gathered the strength to stand. Off to the side of the heap of twisted metal; and several feet up the conveyor belt were some more pieces of broken glass and a glob of limp flesh. It had generated Henry's left hand, complete with wedding ring.
( The vehicle Identification Number in this fictional story belongs to a well taken care of GTO that belongs to Pye's Auto Sales in the Houston area. The "tease" photo was obtained from the internet and is actually a 1965 GTO )
I thought it had only been a bad dream as the pounding in my head and that incessant ringing in my ears continued. I sat on the curbstone looking carefully into the fog listening for anything that might be threatening, anything at all. The early morning air hung low with its mist and made the edges of each building blend with the shadows until it was impossible to distinguish one from another. I felt the back of my neck, a frantic gesture as my finger tips searched for any sign that I might have been punctured or pricked. My eyes strained within their sockets as if they could assist my finger’s painstakingly slow progress. I could not remember, had that small blemish at the hairline been there or was it new. Terror took over until I realized that Charlie at the barbershop had nicked me with his straight razor last Saturday. Zelda, my regular barber, had taken the day off and I needed a haircut; enough to gamble my chances that Charlie wouldn’t slice my ear off. I needed time to collect myself, time to figure out; but there was no time as I heard footsteps coming down the sidewalk. I was fortunate in that there was a spillway into the sewer below my feet that allowed me to slither, as it were, out of sight until the danger had passed.
The runoff water from the curb made a steady and measurable plunking into a pool of standing water at my feet. The porous material of my cross trainer shoes was singularly inadequate, having been designed for light jogging, not for trudging through swamps.. That noise in my head, that infernal roaring, like the sound one hears when flying in a commercial airliner at cruising altitude, was deafening.
Until three days ago my life had been normal to the point of boredom. I could not have imagined that I would be hiding in a storm sewer at four in the morning, hiding from the “harvesters”. I had not heard of the harvesters, at least nothing that a rational hard working everyday person would put stock in. After all, I had a good job and was diligent to a fault in paying my bills. It never occurred to me that one day I would . . ; but I am getting ahead of myself, I should digress.
My name is Patrick Nelson. I am , by trade, a writer. No, I’m not a novelist, not even a journalist. I write product brochures for The Harvest, a major pharmaceuticals company, at least I did until this past Friday. You might wonder, “Product brochure; what kind of job is that?” My job was to make a short statement about each item in the company inventory, not so much a sales pitch; more like a synopsis of what it was intended to do or how it might perform. I wrote the instructions for each product; instructions that would be simple enough to be followed by the most ignorant moron to keep the company free from litigation. I was really quite good at my job and had no thought that I might one day write myself out of employment. You could say that I had lulled myself into that elusive feeling of job security.
Last Friday afternoon my boss, Franklin Little, rang my station and asked me to come up to his office. It was almost five and time to wrap things up anyway as I placed the drafts, those product brochures that I had completed along with those that were nearly completed, into my briefcase. I don’t suppose its matters much, not now; but I always had the feeling that Franklin Little never took the time to know me. My work reviews might as well have been Xeroxed from year to year as they never varied. I was, at least on paper, “a consistently productive employee who requires little if any supervision”. That line appeared on my review sheet without any change, verbatim, for the past nineteen years. Upon entering his office I noticed the standard review form on the desk. He would be required to explain the company policy and we would both sign the form.
“Patrick, have a chair.” Franklin pushed his own away from the desk and got up, his back to me as he looked out the large windows that formed his private cubicle.
“Thank you Sir; have I done something wrong?” There was an avoidance in his looking out the window.
“How long have you been with the company Patrick?” Franklin cleared his throat and pretended to look for something in his suit pocket. His fingers fumbled around as he glimpsed into the dark confines of fabric.
“It will be twenty years come September.”, the question made no sense. The form had a place clearly marked with each employee’s tenure.
“I’m not sure how to break this to you, no good way to say it so I’ll just come out with it. The company is downsizing and your services are no longer needed as of today. There will be a two week period for you to challenge this decision; mind you it won’t do any good; but that’s the rule and you have the right.” The sounds boomeranged around the room; having missed any semblance of reason.
“Did I do something wrong or is this just a numbers game?” I bent my neck so that I could get a better angle to read the review form.
“We were instructed to trim those who had the most seniority, those who would become eligible for any retirement packages in the next two years. The stockholders want more profits and the board looks at retirement funding as non-productive expenses.”
“So that’s it, here’s your hat and there’s the door?”
“If it means anything to you, your yearly review sheet shows you to be . . .”
“I know, ‘a consistently productive employee who requires little if any supervision’, thanks for reminding me.” Franklin pushed the form to the edge of the desk and handed me a ball point pen to sign.
“You will, of course, be able to use this company as a positive referral when handing out your resume.” Franklin opened the drawer of his desk and pulled out a large manila envelope with my name on the pre-printed stick on label. “This contains your final paycheck along with an accounting of any accumulated vacation pay, sick days or other entitlements that the company considers equitable. You will notice that it includes two extra weeks of pay to cover your transitional period while finding suitable employment.” The words came out of Franklin’s mouth in a monotone regurgitation; nothing that would console or comfort a fellow human being. I glanced over the list:
Level 6 Base Pay (14 Days) $ 2,128.92
Level 6 Incentive Pay (14 Days) ( BA- English University of Arizona) $ 71.03
Accumulated Vacation Time - (14 Days) $ 2,128.92
Accumulated Sick Days - (15 Days) $ 2,280.99
Bonus Wellness Days (5 Days based on 5 years perfect attendance) - $ 760.35
Two Week Transitional Salary - $ 2,128.92
Total Amount before taxes/deductions $ 9,499.13
Federal Withholding Tax ( Single Deduction ) <$ 2,279.79>
FICA <$ 1,139.90>
Harvest Gold Health Insurance (Bimonthly premium) <$ 569.95>
Total Net Pay ……… $ 5,509.49
I did a quick calculation in my head; basically it was a little over one months pay. The bonus pay for being healthy glared at me as I thought about the company policy restricting any roll over of accumulated sick time from year to year. I hadn’t been sick, saving the company 45 days, that’s 45 days at scale plus incentive level bonus pay. They had the nerve to grant me 5 days back at base pay; how generous could they be. I had never made a claim against the health insurance either; wasted, totally wasted money.
“Your signature is required. . . ”, pointing to the lines that had been highlighted with a fluorescent yellow marker, “ . . .here, here and. . .”turning the pages, “. . .and here.”
I hesitated for a moment, not wishing to sign anything without first having read it. The review sheet was standard as was the signature line on the pay voucher form; however, the last page had a small paragraph that I had not seen before.
“This report is submitted for the general information of the shareholders of Harvest/Harvest Gold Fund. It is not authorized for distribution to prospective investors unless it has been preceded or is accompanied by an effective prospectus of Harvest/Harvest Gold Fund which contains additional information on how to purchase shares, the sales charges, and other pertinent data. Standardized total return assumes reinvestment of all distributions for the period and includes payment of the maximum sales charge or contingent deferred sales charges for early withdrawal. See the Prior Performance section of the current prospectus. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Investment return and net asset value will fluctuate with market conditions. Harvest/Harvest Gold shares, when redeemed, may be worth more or less than their original cost.”
“What the heck is that?”, pointing to the small print.
“That’s a release form authorizing the use of pertinent data to the insurance company so that we can pay you that Wellness Bonus.” Franklin pointed to the pay voucher. “That $760.35 comes from the Harvest Gold Fund. We have to justify the expenditure by providing them with your Wellness folder proving that you have not been sick as stipulated.” It seemed to fit with everything else, the company was paying me the bonus with someone else’s money. I signed the forms and was about to leave when Franklin reminded me to leave the files that were in my briefcase. I had planned to work on them over the weekend; tweak here and there until each product brochure was as close to perfection and up to my own standard. They had no value to me other than pride as I handed them over. I took my copy of the severance package forms and tossed them haphazardly into the now empty briefcase. I could think of nothing to say to Franklin. I was in a state of bewilderment; and yes, I was a little hostile as I slammed the door. The main floor, its rat’s maze of cubicles, was nearly empty now; Friday and five o’clock made for quick exits.
I made my way onto the street, only four blocks from Minute Maid Park. I wished there had been a ball game scheduled; I would have distracted myself with a couple of hot dogs while sitting in the cheap seats. There was a sports bar close by where I had gone with a few buddies from work, not that I was planning on getting drunk, just that I might be able to unwind in a noise filled bar more easily than riding home in rush hour traffic. The pavement was torn up, like it had been for the past several years, putting in new underground sewer lines this time. What a waste of money; you’d think that just once that the traffic planners could get together with City Engineering Department or with Metro and the utilities so that they would tear up the street one time and be done with it. Last year they had torn it up to replace this, next year it would be that or whatever. Three lanes of traffic were bottlenecked into one as they all pressed for a chance to get out of downtown.
I timed my mad dash across the street where the sidewalk had been removed; leaped over a chunk of broken concrete and avoided an issue of muddy water that ran into the storm drain. I looked down the street, a feeble attempt at what might someday become a street. They had planted four oak trees on each side with a fancy bricked prominence marked with steel grates to cover the root systems at the base. I tried to imagine the beautiful shade that would one day be provided pedestrians as they strolled, in the event the sidewalks were ever replaced. The roof of the stadium had been left open and the green seats in the upper deck behind home plate were reminding me that tomorrow would be a better day; not to let today’s loss get me down. The rows of seats, at this distance looked like a living organism; some kind of fancy seashell that had been arranged to let the light dance across its spines to create a splendid panorama. I took a breath, let it out and then went inside the bar.
The Foul Pole, as the name implied, was a sports bar with a baseball theme. Upon entering the front door I enjoyed how the owner had provided a sign, much as you would find at the ball park, indicating that isles 127 – 137 were to the right while isles 125 – 101 were to the left. The banisters on either side were made from inch and a half pipe painted dark green, coated with several layers and chipped in places to make it appear weathered. The floors were hard oak slats, sanded and left without varnish so that light and noise was absorbed rather than reflected. Along the walls were pictures of old time baseball players, some signed and framed along with faded pennants from an era long since vanished. It was like stepping into a time machine that was preset forty years or so back. With a little imagination one might expect Dizzy Dean, Mickey Mantle or even the great Marv Throneberry to be seated at one of the small tables. My dad used to rib me that he had talked with Marv, “just the other day”, when I would call to talk baseball. There was a pleasant amount of free rumbling noise, not that there is a meter that measures the difference between a full fledged riot and gone fishing. I recognized a few patrons sitting at the bar as Harvest employees and decided to wander in their general direction, hoping that they might invite me into a conversation.
I took a seat at the bar, about mid way so that I would be noticed if anyone wanted to extend themselves, and asked the bartender for a Dr. Pepper. It cost the same for a fountain drink as it did for one with whiskey or rum; all the same I just wanted a Dr. Pepper to sip on to appear sociable. I overheard one fellow as he finished a joke that involved a farmer’s daughter, not one that could be repeated in Sunday School; but it drew a laugh from everyone, including me, as its base level of amusement was irrepressible.
“Hey, Patrick.”, I heard a familiar voice from a table behind me. When I first had made my way up to the bar I had not paid much attention to the tables in the middle of the place. I turned and acknowledged by tilting my head Japanese style. It was an acquaintance from legal services support, Bill Needles. Bill and I often would have “meet and shares”, especially on consumer product lines. I liked him because we shared many small twists; for instance, we both grew up in the Greater New York City area and thought that the Yankees of the 50’s and 60’s were close to gods. When I had told him of my being at Yankee Stadium the day the Mantle hit his 53rd homer, the same year that Maris went on to hit 61, it was like we had grown up on the same street or something. He had a good head for protecting the company and so we often conferred to make sure that product information was litigation proof.
“Bill, you old son of a gun; how’s the world treating you?” Less than half an hour ago I had lost my job, a job that had supported me for nearly twenty years, a job which allowed me to be creative and use my talents as a writer and here I was smiling and carrying on as if nothing had happened. I reached out to receive his extended hand and grasped it firmly while wondering who it was that he was sitting with. I didn’t want to unload anything negative, self pity or anger with a total stranger present; after all, I might be looking for work with one of Bill’s network. The fellow began to get up from his chair, and kept getting up. My guess would be six three, six four and built like a linebacker. I instantly thought of the actor, the one who played with Mel Gibson in all those cop shows, big black actor, Danny Glover. This guy had that same huge grin as he stretched forth his arm toward me to greet and shake.
“Patrick I’d like you to meet Ron McClain. Ron, this is Patrick, Patrick Nelson.” We all sat down and touched glasses as if we had been longtime friends, not that it mattered. The muscles along my back began to relax as some of the day’s tension escaped into the smoke filled room.
“Patrick. . .”, his mind searched for a familiarity and returned, “. . .seems like I have heard your name come up. For the life of me it eludes me at the moment. Nice to meet you.”
“Ron works in Gold, something so hush-hush that I couldn’t begin to tell you what he does.” Bill laughed and I noticed that his brows rose up and fell to express his lack of knowledge regarding someone with whom he felt comfortable around. It was as if he had said, “What the hell, have another drink.”
“Its not like that at all. Just call me Bond, James Bond.” Ron laughed a deep belly laugh as he made light of the fact that one of his close friends had no clue as to how he made a living. “I work in an area of the industry that is so competitive that people would slit throats to know how it’s done.”
“Sounds interesting, got any openings for a good write up guy with nineteen years experience?” I had not intended to drop a line like that so quickly; but I was now a player in the open market looking for a job.
“No way!” Bill’s outburst was almost as good as when I first found that I would no longer be an employee of The Harvest. “When did all this happen?” It must have occurred to him that if it happened to me it could just as easily have been him. He reflexively ran his fingers through his hair, typical male pattern receding hairline for a man in his early fifties. He had what I would call, the Billy Crystal hairdo; sort of a white man’s Afro. It had been deep brown at one time, yielding to middle aged salt and pepper. That and his having been brought up in New York made for such thoughts, his Yankee accent never left. Even when he said, “Y’all” it came out Yankee, like he was going to say, “You’s guy’s” and at the last moment changed it to “Y’all”.
“True, no kidding. I only found out a little while ago myself.” I wanted to come off as brave and not sound like a victim of the corporate massacre. “Oh well, I was looking for a job when I found this one; isn’t that the old saying?” For a brief but discernable moment I could see a light bulb going off in Ron McClain’s head. It was the kind of look that indicated that he‘d known about my being released before I had.
“You have anything lined up, I mean, hell, you know what I mean.” Bill took a sip from his glass and looked away.
“Not yet. I was hoping to take a couple of days off to assess my situation and go on from there.” I had no idea what I’d said and only hoped that it sounded intelligent.
“Well don’t wait too long. You know what happens to the unemployed around here; they become organ donors.” Bill thought it was funny as he joked about the fact that Houston no longer had a problem with the homeless and that over the past couple of years it was impossible to even spot a wino begging for quarters during rush hour. A local news station investigative reporter had done some work on the possibility that the police department was hauling these undesirables off and dumping them in Louisiana. Nothing had ever come from the story and it was put on the back burner the closer it came to Super Bowl bidding. The propaganda machine was in full swing, light rail from downtown to Reliant Center was being installed and the streets were to be free from dirt and clutter. It wouldn’t do to start a smear campaign about how the City of Houston might be cleaning up the streets just to impress the out of towners by violating some wino’s rights.
“He has a point there. I heard about a guy, used to be a repo-man, claims that some hospital pays him to find “live” organ donors.” Ron’s eyes reflected the light coming in from off the street like “steelies” in a marble sack. “Watch out for the repo-man.”, a low laugh followed with a big grin that exposed a perfect set of teeth.
“I heard that all the homeless people who used to live around here all work at Minute Maid Park as vendors and such.” Bill didn’t like the way the conversation was going. “’Stros will be back in for a home stand with the Cubs next week. Either of you want to help me use the company seats up in the club level?” The Harvest had box seats in the club for entertaining prospective customers or for rewarding top employees. Patrick had been given four tickets to a game the year before when the Milwaukee Brewers had come to town. It had been the kind of game to talk about for years after catching a foul ball and getting to show it off at work the next day.
“Not this time Bill, thanks all the same.” It would have been nice to take in a game at the company’s expense; but that would be taking a cheap shot. “Hey, I better be headed home; look at the time.”
“Nice to meet you, see you again sometime.” Ron got half way up from his chair and motioned with his glass.
“Keep me posted and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” Bill shook hands and reluctantly let go. It was like watching a friend getting on the Titanic the way Bill looked at him.
“Hey, what’s with the doom and gloom look? I’m still worth something out there in the market.” While heading for the door Ron took a mini day planner from his coat pocket and flipped it open, nodding his head while putting his finger on the page. He looked at me and smiled.
I looked down at my watch only to realize that I had missed the last rush hour bus to the North Park and Ride lot and that I would now have to remain an hour for the late schedule run to take me up that way. I waited at the bus stop near the court house annex where the lighting was pretty good. There was a trash bin loaded to overflowing next to where I stood with a recently discarded copy of the Chronicle, folded neatly and laying on top where it hadn’t had a chance to have anything spilled on it. I picked it up and covered the headline stories quickly. There wasn’t much there that I hadn’t gotten off the internet earlier in the morning. I went to the local section, stories about who’d gotten shot, where the latest freeway construction was planned for the next day, the obituary section where I would occasionally find one of my old school buddies pictures, and then onto the editorials.
I was about to toss the paper back into the trash bin when I caught a glimpse of something in a photograph. It was an article about some fellow who had survived a heart transplant. There was a large picture of him as he tossed his old heart, the damaged one that had been removed, into the air like it was a football. In the background, behind the fellow was the doctor who had performed the surgery shaking hands with none other than Ron McClain; the same Ron McClain from a while ago at the Foul Pole. The article was very complimentary about Harvest Gold and how instrumental Ron was in setting up and coordinating a regional system that matched organ donors with those in need.
The bus arrived about the same time as I was finishing the article. I decided that I wanted to enlighten myself about the Harvest Gold organ donor program and, rather than get on the bus, it was only a couple of blocks back to the Harvest Building. It would be no problem getting back in since I still had my company identification card. The night security guard would only ask to see it, not make a thorough investigation of it. Once inside I could log into the system and pull out quite a bit of data without having to use any of the secure stations.
The security guard was sitting behind the front desk reading the latest Harry Potter book when I walked up and flashed my card. The book held his interest and he only nodded as I went to the elevators. It would be best to use the computers that were always left running in the employees lounge area. Those had cable access to the internet and were always online along with being tied into the main data center. An employee could compare Harvest products with anything on the market with only a few keystrokes and be productive while enjoying a bowl of soup or eating a sandwich.
There was only one other in the employee lounge when I placed my briefcase down next to one of the computer monitors. I walked over to the vending machine wall where I dropped a couple of quarters into the slot and reached down for my can of Dr. Pepper. While walking back to the computer I lifted the cold soda up and nodded without comment in her direction; a non-threatening way of dividing social spaces. She looked up only long enough to calculate that I was not moving in her direction and went back to whatever it was she had in front of her. Since the computers were always “on” there was no need to log on, something that would protect me as long as I didn’t attempt to pry too much. I went to the Harvest Gold homepage and glanced at the options before selecting “Services”. The page was very colorful with pictures of Harvest brand drugs in familiar translucent brown plastic pill bottles, smiling doctors wearing lab coats holding patient’s hands wore Harvest hospital gowns. There even was a self repeating video of an air ambulance flying over the Houston skyline and landing at the hospital. There was a close up when the helicopter landed, a technician in his lab coat with the Harvest company logo over the left pocket delivered a small cooler clearly stenciled with the words, “Human Heart”, then placed it on a waiting stretcher. The short video would not have bothered me, at least not before that wise crack from Bill Needles down at the bar. What was it he’d joked about, “Well don’t wait too long. You know what happens to the unemployed around here; they become organ donors.” There was a link to some press releases; none of which mentioned anything about the organ donor program. There was one link that looked promising; a video library of short clips that could be downloaded that showed enough so that the average patient might have a better understanding of what was involved. There were a couple of clips that referenced transplants; liver, eye, and heart.
I clicked on the “Eye” video and there was a short film showing how various parts of the eye could be repaired with corneal transplants. At the end of the clip there was a line that made me feel a bit queasy, “There is no longer a waiting list for this item”. I then clicked on “Heart” and found the same, “There is no longer a waiting list for this item”, as if they kept them next to the Blue Bell Ice Cream in some walk in freezer. I read some more, “Have your doctor call our Organ Hot Line : 1-800-HARVEST”. For years I had heard about the long waiting list for heart transplant hopefuls and here, on the internet page for Harvest Gold was a phone number and the line “No Waiting List”. I tried clicking on the link and an error page came up that stated the page was not available without permission.
“Aren’t you Patrick Nelson from product development?” I looked up as I heard my name called out. The young woman across the room asked again, “It is Patrick, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. You seem to have me at a disadvantage. Do I know you?” I had only given her a cursory look when I had entered the lounge, not wishing to draw any attention to myself. I now looked at her face and for the life of me, couldn’t remember having seen her. She was kind of average looking, not beautiful, not ugly, plain to the point of blending in. I suppose that she might be somebody’s sister, wife, next door neighbor or along those lines. Maybe she looked that way on purpose to prevent the opposite sex from acting improperly in the work place.
“Virgie Sampson, I work in personnel. I saw your folder this morning. There was a picture of you accepting some kind of award at one of the company dinners in it; that’s how I recognized you. Sorry to hear about your being laid off.”
“Me too.” I smiled wryly and even laughed, thinking to myself, “What, did they pass around my folder at lunch? Got a job opening, level 6 product writer; anyone interested?”
“Well, don’t you worry. I heard someone, I forget who at the moment, any way they said they had something already planned for you so I guess you won’t have to bother with standing in any unemployment lines.” She gathered up her paperwork as she got out of her chair. Out of conditioning I stood up, my mother would have been proud that all that training hadn’t been squandered while holding doors open for little old ladies. “I have to be getting on home now.” I thought it odd that she was wearing gloves, those white dress up kind that you see women wear to church as she reached and shook my hand.
“Goodnight Ms’ Sampson, maybe we’ll meet under happier circumstances down the road.” When I let go of her hand I noticed there was something sticky, like when you pick up a small child just after he’s had ice cream.
“I’m sorry, really, I must have leaned on something that was on the table.” She looked at her gloved hand and there was some kind of gooey substance, maybe some jelly from a sandwich, smeared down the center of her palm. She immediately took her gloves off and tossed them in her purse. “You’d better wash that off or you’ll get it on your suit.”
“I think you’re right.” There was a sink and some paper towels in the lounge. “Don’t worry about it, wasn’t you’re fault. Some fool didn’t clean up after himself.” I walked over and turned on the faucet to let some water wash it off. “See, nothing to it.”
I waved politely and it was done. She stepped out the door and that was that.
Only a few minutes passed from the time that we shook hands when my heart started to pound. The room began spinning and my legs went limp. I thought I was having a heart attack and loosened my tie. It was a good thing that I was next to a chair or I would have crashed to the floor, instead I was able to slow my fall into the chair by holding onto the table. It was then that I noticed a terrible ringing in my ears, so intense that I wanted to cry out in pain. I closed my eyes and let the room spin around me.
“Patrick, can you hear me in there?”, a voice broke through the interminable roaring that my ears had tried to block out. I had hoped that by hiding in the storm sewer I’d avoided being seen.
“Who’s there?”, I called out from the darkness.
“Ron McClain, does that surprise you?”
“Get away from me, I have a gun!” I didn’t; but there was no way he could know for sure with me hidden in the shadows.
“No you don’t. You’re not even where you think you are.” I could hear a muffled laugh. “Try to open your eyes Patrick, if you think you can.” It was so dark as I crouched in the sewer that no light made its way down; besides, it was still to early and the sun wouldn’t be up for an hour or so.
“I mean it, get away or I’ll shoot.”
“We took your eyes yesterday, Patrick. Some kid involved in a terrible auto accident sends his thanks for your making it possible for him to see his young bride. He has a four point average at UT and has been accepted into their law school; makes you feel proud to be a part of it, doesn’t it Patrick? Still don’t believe me; all you have to do is open your eyes.” I could hear him laughing close to my ear, too close for him to be at street level and me safely in this storm sewer. I tried to reach out with my hand to feel where he might be.
“You still don’t get it, do you Patrick. You don’t even exist, at least not the way you think you do. We have you on life support for a while longer. My guess is the drugs keeping you alive are making the tiny veins in your head swell. That’s what they all complain about so we, or should I say, Harvest Gold is working to improve that problem. Someday future organ donors, like yourself, won’t have splitting headaches or the ringing in your ears. The liver that the doctor is harvesting, even as we speak, will allow a very gifted airline pilot to continue serving in his capacity for several more years.” The words had a chilling effect as they began to ring true. “Just so you know; we had planned to use your friend Bill’s liver but it turned out that he drank too much to be considered. Bill was getting a bad case of guilt complexes and anxieties that made it impossible for him to continue. About the only thing Bill was able to donate was his heart; you know what they say about lawyers, “the hearts the least used organ in their body”. I guess it must be true, his was finally put to good use for a mother of three who had been suffering since birth with leaky heart valves”.
“This can’t be true. I’m still hiding in this storm sewer.” There was a sinking feeling in the pit of my gut that lent itself to the possibility that what I was hearing was true.
“You never left the Harvest Building last Friday. When you went back and started looking things up on the computer; remember, in the employee lounge? You were on our surveillance camera the whole time. We had you under observation the from the minute you left Franklin’s office until the time you went back after drinking two Dr. Peppers and even while you read the paper at the bus stop. That jelly you had to wash off your hands is some pretty fancy stuff; doesn’t activate until it comes in contact with water and it works within seconds. The best part is that we have a very effective antidote so that you never died from that heart attack; being taken directly to our lab here in lower level three; I know, there is no lower level three. We have our secrets.”
“You’ll never get away with this. People just don’t disappear on the way home from work.”
“We alerted the Coast Guard about you and Bill having been missing. The two of you went fishing on his boat way out in the Gulf without checking the progress of that tropical storm. I suppose there will be some kind of memorial service after a week or so.
“So how long can you keep me here?”
“That’s a very astute question, Patrick. After all, it costs us a great deal to suspend the natural decaying process. We can stave it off for a while by keeping you buried in a bed of crushed ice. We found that trick in National Geographic of all places; doctors in Russia have been icing down patients for years.”
“Yea, I read about that too.” Still trying to open my eyes. My hands were limp at my side and refused to work either.
“Wednesday we have you scheduled to donate your kidneys, your lungs and yes; I’m sorry to say, your heart. Several people have been waiting for you to donate these precious organs so they can go on being productive citizens. I have to be getting along now Patrick. You know. . .”, there was a decided pause as Ron formed his next thought, “You were right when you said that you were still valuable. We will clear somewhere in the neighborhood of four hundred thousand dollars just on your organ donations alone.”
As a standard disclaimer: Any and all persons and events in this story are purely fictional. Any similarity with persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Any similarity with reality is purely coincidental. The use of the phone number: 1-800-HARVEST was created for the sole purpose of this fictional story and is not intended to match with any actual telephone number that may happen to match with a telephone number that is already in use. No humans were harmed or injured in any way to make this fictional story, other than the readers of this presentation.