A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 5

Aubrey floated in a nether world of amorphous shapes, dark and light; her skin was chilled when a shadow passed over her body, and was warmed by sudden flares of light emanating from a nameless source that refused to come into focus. She heard a deep, groaning sound, the lament of continental plates as they ground against each other, the complaint of glaciers as they calved icebergs.

She phased in and out of consciousness—or was it in and out of existence? An overwhelming blackness engulfed her, annihilated her. Then her mind dimly perceived its own presence again and she became aware that she had form. The cycle of being and nonbeing repeated for what seemed an eternity until it finally ground to a halt. She felt her body resting on a cushioned surface of some sort, and saw the rectangular shapes of walls and ceiling around her. She thought: “I am in a room. It is painted white. I feel cold.” She closed her eyes and rested. When she opened them again she could hear the hum of electronic equipment behind her head. Her nose was struck by a pungent odor, and she recognized the smell of her sweat. It smelled like fear, and she wanted to wash the stink away. The skin on her arms and legs felt grimy and dirty. She heard a man’s voice muttering on her right. It sounded like he said, “I read neural activity. Her body has gelled.” Aubrey closed her eyes again. The voice came back and said more clearly, “She’s in nonfluctuating state beta and is rapidly approaching alpha. She’s back.” A woman’s voice said, “But I’m still reading some asynchrony. She’s still off by .037 nanotemps.” The man answered: “That’s in the normal range.” “Normal for what?” the woman responded. The tension in their voices disturbed her. The man said, “She’s listening!” Aubrey heard a click: silence except for the electronic hum. Then she heard a hiss and felt a puff of air on her cheek. Darkness swept over her again.

When she awoke she wore a rough gown that rasped against her skin when she moved the least little bit, and the weight of a heavy blanket pressed down on her chest like an Acme anvil crushing a coyote. The small room was dimly lit by tiny lights embedded in the ceiling in spiral formation directly above her. She heard a beeping sound and found that she could turn her head and see a hospital monitor to the right. Black filament wires made a delicate connection between a cuff on her arm and the machine. She no longer smelled bad and felt as clean as if she had just come out of a shower. She felt comfortable except for an urgent need to empty her bladder.

Aubrey tried to sit up. A strap across her ribs just under her breasts held her down fast. When she tried to loosen its grip an alarm sounded from a small, square, red box on the wall to her left. When she turned her head toward the sound she saw a dark window to the right and above the alarm; dim, yellow clad figures moved behind the surface of the semi-opaque glass. Moments later a door opened in front of her and a man wearing a yellow uniform came in carrying a tray with medical instruments on it. The lights in the ceiling flared brighter after he passed his free hand over a gray panel in the wall near the door. He came over to her with a fixed smile on his face, leaned over her and checked the strap. Then he turned his attention to the arm cuff and the filament wires.

“I’ve really got to pee, Mister,” Aubrey said plaintively.

The man kept fiddling with wires and a set of buttons that studded the side of the cuff.

“Hey,” Audrey gasped. “Where’s the bathroom? I’ve got to pee. Hey!”

The man ignored her. He focused his attention on three readout panels on the monitor and their responses to the buttons he pushed in rapid sequences on the cuff. The fixed smile never left his face.

Aubrey made a fist with her uncuffed hand and knocked the tray out of the attendant’s grip with a vicious upper cut that clipped the side of his ear on the follow through. Instruments flew everywhere and landed on the floor about the bed. Another uniformed man in yellow rushed into the room, roughly grabbed Aubrey’s wrists and pinned her arms to the bed on either side of her head. The pressure was painful, and she feared that her arms might be pulled out of their sockets. Aubrey thrashed and kicked with her legs, and managed to make contact with the first attendant’s crotch. He fell with a moan on top of her and used his weight to pin the length of her body to the bed. Aubrey could barely breathe, but felt a moment of satisfaction when she saw that he was no longer smiling. A third attendant ran in with a needle in hand. As he injected it into her thigh she felt her bladder give way. A warm flood gushed between her legs just before a rapidly expanding spot of darkness swept her into oblivion.

When she came to once again she was strapped into a partially reclined, padded, leather chair that brought to mind unpleasant visits to her dentist. The fuggy atmosphere of the room told her that it was a small space. She could not see into the shadows beyond a circle of light shining down on her from above. She was momentarily blinded by a spotlight in the ceiling when she managed to tilt her head back. A chin strap made any movement of her head difficult. When the spots in her eyes faded she could see that her wrists and ankles were held fast by what appeared to be lengths of thin, rubber hose. She could smell sweat and urine, and the lower part of her hospital gown clung damply to her belly, butt and thighs. Her shoulders and wrists ached, and her thigh throbbed where she had been injected. She felt like hell.

She saw something stir in the shadows to her left, and an orange robed figure emerged into the cone of light that surrounded her. The monk intently read from the clipboard he carried in front of him, and while he ignored her he did not wear a fixed smile. He finally turned toward her and gave her an uncomfortable look, a grimace, to let her know that he was ready to acknowledge her existence.

“Good evening, Mrs. Danvers,” he said. “My name is Reynolds.”

“My name is Aubrey Piazza. There must be some mistake. Why are you holding me here against my will?” she said.

“Ah, Ms. Piazza. My mistake. I hope that you’ll forgive me. We are holding you for observation. It’s a standard procedure when a client’s reentry has suffered complications,” the monk said.

“What complications?” she asked.

“We had trouble resynchronizing your PVS to this plane of existence. Something has changed in your timeline that put you a bit out of focus with this narrow slice of time. That is why we had to put you on hold, so to speak, in Magdeburg until we sorted the problem out as well as we could with the limited information we collected from your microchip. It gave us a distress signal during our first attempt to retrieve you, and lucky for you, Magdeburg was free at the time. You gave one of General Tilly’s men quite a start. He could not decide if you were the Virgin Mary or a witch when you suddenly appeared outside the cathedral,” he said.

“I don’t remember that. Magdeburg? I wasn’t in Magdeburg,” she insisted.

“I assure you, madam, you were. You’ll remember it in time, and when you do you’ll receive a complimentary fruit basket and a bottle of brandy. Do you like brandy, Mrs. Danvers?”

“I like wine coolers. Why do you keep calling me that? My name is Piazza and I wasn’t in Magdeburg. I was in…Where was I?” she asked.

“My apologies, Ms. Piazza. I am a forgetful old man, prone to making mistakes. For now we’ll say that you were not in Magdeburg. You were in Dayton, Ohio in the year 2015. You were sent to buy a vanilla iced cupcake with pink sprinkles, and your private mission was to tell your future ex-husband your exact opinion of him. Do you remember that part, Ms. Piazza?” he asked patiently.

“That sounds familiar,” she responded tentatively.

“Good. Now we’re getting somewhere,” he said with a cold smile. The grin froze into a fixed position on his face.

“Why am I in restraints? Let me out of this chair immediately! I want to clean up and get out of here right now!” she shouted.

“Now, now, Mrs…uh, Ms. Aubrey. You will be released very soon. We put the restraints on you because you have a tendency to attack our attendants. While we sympathize with your need to express your natural state of anxiety after enduring such a difficult journey, we do need to protect our people. We will let you go just as soon as we get some answers to a few questions that concern us,” he said gently.

“Go fuck yourself,” she answered him sullenly.

“An unlikely proposition, Ms. Piazza,” he said evenly.

“Then go fuck those three yellow bastards who attacked me!”

“Oh dear. I did hope that you would be more cooperative. I don’t want to drug you once again, madam, as it may cause serious side effects as your mind struggles to come to terms with our current state of reality. Don’t force me put you in danger, Ms. Piazza,” he said.

She looked down at her toes and did not respond. A tear trickled down one cheek. She muttered, “Magdeburg,” and lapsed back into silence.

“There, there Mrs. Danv—Ms. Piazza. You’ll feel better in next to no time. Is Magdeburg coming back to you?” he asked in a solicitous tone of voice.

“Magdeburg,” she whispered. “Make it stop,” she pleaded softly.

“Just tell me two things, Aubrey, and then you’ll get a nice, mild sedative,” he said.

“What do you want with me? Don’t touch me!” she shouted.

“Two questions, madam. The answers are all I want from you. Will you answer my questions?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said very quietly.

“Good, good. The first question is this: did you attack your ex-husband? Our readout from that portion of your mission tape is a bit garbled.”

“I don’t know…I…”

“Come, Ms. Piazza. Answer the question. What did you do to your future ex-husband?” the monk pressed.

“I, I killed him, I took a brick and smashed it against his head,” she said, not quite believing what she said.

“That’s what we thought. Are you very sure that you killed him?” he asked.

“I must have,” she said. “He didn’t get back up, his head was bleeding and he couldn’t breathe. He looked so surprised as he fell to the ground. I almost felt sorry for him.”

“Did you say anything before you struck him? Anything at all?” he asked.

“I…I…told him that he was a lousy son of a bitch and that he had no respect for women. I think that I told him…that he sucked the life out of anything that was good and wholesome…I told him that he didn’t deserve to be alive,” she said.

“Fine, fine. Good answer—that explains why the equations just refuse to balance and why your reentry was so difficult. Lying to us about your personal mission has brought you nothing but pain, Ms. Piazza. I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” he said.

“He had it coming,” she muttered under her breath.

“We won’t quibble over such matters. Now I need to know one more thing: did you buy the vanilla iced cupcake with pink sprinkles at the bakery? Think Ms. Piazza. Did you get the last one in the display case?” he asked urgently.

“I bought a cupcake, but it wasn’t the last one. There were two in the case. You told me to buy one, and I did,” she said defensively.

“Are you very sure about that, Aubrey? Very sure?” he asked.

“Of course I’m sure. There were two of them. One had pink sprinkles, and the other had chocolate icing,” she said. “I bought the pink one.”

“I see,” said the monk. “Thank you for this information. You may go as soon as you’ve been checked out by our medical crew. They’re very gentle. Please refrain from kicking, punching, biting or swearing at them. They’re here to help you.”

“I’ll do anything to get out of here,” she whispered.

“FYI, Ms. Piazza: you were in Magdeburg for five and a half hours, and we’ve held you in recovery for six days.”

“What? Why did you keep me here so long?”

The monk did not answer her, but merely raised an arm over his head and held up two fingers. A buzzer went off and two burly monks entered the room. They undid the straps that held Aubrey to the chair and helped her step down to the floor. She nearly fell. Her legs were uncommonly weak, and she had to lean against the smaller of the two as they led her out of the room.

“Good day, Mrs. Danvers. Thank you for choosing GURUTECH. You are a valued customer and we hope that when you speak to your friends about your experiences you will recommend our services to them,” Reynolds said. The monk merely smiled when he heard her reply: “Go fuck yourself, and then go fuck your grandma!” The smile wavered when she added: “Up her hairy asshole!”

Reynolds had been taught to expect and accept negative behavior from clients enduring difficult reentries. He had developed a mindset of detached sympathy for them over the years, and an understanding that their fear and discomfort caused them to lash out. There were a few clients, however, that managed to get under his skin, and he secretly wished them a lifetime spent in subtle asynchrony, an uncomfortable plane of existence that was attached tangentially to this world and time, but which was never fully in mesh with the here and now. Sufferers in this purgatory state were plagued by a disharmony of thought and feeling and action: an itching sensation in their nerves told them that their skin did not quite match their bones; their brains never produced a coherent thought that was not immediately challenged by an angry contradiction; and they misjudged distances—tripping on steps was a common accident—and often felt as if their reactions came a half second too late. The monk often wondered how many traffic fatalities could be blamed on asynchronous drivers and pedestrians.

He did not wish this upon Mrs. Danvers/ Ms. Piazza, whoever she was, but he came close. Instead he summoned a memory of his grandmother pouring him a cup of honey sweetened milk. She offered him a cookie and they played cards: old maid and hearts. He was five. His grandmother was a kindly, patient woman who loved him with all her heart. It was a good memory and he smiled once again as he cleaned off the soiled chair with a disinfectant. By the end of the day he just might be able to wish Aubrey well.

 

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A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 4

2036 (New Standard Timeline: Post Aubrey Piazza Mission)
Donald Rutherford signaled the waiter and asked for the check. His dinner with Brooke had not gone well. She had worn a low cut blouse, a push up bra, and a short, tight skirt that hugged her thighs. Her hair curled just over her ears, framed her high cheek bones and gave her the look of a silent movie star from the 1920s. A hint of pink blush enhanced the intensity of her green eyes. But while he had been intoxicated by her assets and attractions when they first met outside her apartment, he had been unable to fully appreciate her company as they sat at their table, picked at their entrees and attempted a conversation. His thoughts kept drifting back to the tongue lashing he had received that afternoon from a man named Robert Angstrom, the history department’s liaison to the powerful Subguru Singh.

Angstrom was an officious toady and had a long history of criticizing the methodology and results of Donald’s research. Angstrom had studied under Dr. Harold Plogman at NYU, and Plogman had engaged in a relentless academic feud with Dr. Sheldon Silverstein, Donald’s PH.D. advisor. The feud had led to several refusals when Donald sent articles out to scholarly journals. The anonymous peer reviewers who rejected his papers never commented on the results, but attacked the rationale of the research instead.

Silverstein used his connections to land Rutherford a job at GURUTECH when it looked like Donald’s academic career would be stonewalled by Plogman and his brethren. Rutherford soon discovered that Plogman had placed some of his own men in the time travel organization as well, and Donald’s survival strategy gradually became one of hard work, careful preparation and cautious avoidance of conflict. He had a few allies who valued his work for its consistent quality, but he was outnumbered by historians and liaisons who owed allegiance and favors to Plogman.

Donald could not tell if Angstrom persecuted him because they belonged to opposing camps, or because the two of them simply rubbed each other the wrong way. It was probably both. Whatever the case, the blame for the failure of today’s mission was unfairly being laid in his lap once again. He did not believe that he was in danger of being dismissed, however. Donald knew that there had been doubts among the transportation techs and historians about the traveler’s ability to perform her mission. Aubrey Piazza had been tagged as a high risk traveler because of her personal history and emotional volatility: verbal abuse as a child by her drunkard father compounded by physical abuse by her ex-husband had led her to suffer as an adult from abrupt mood swings and hypersensitivity to physical stimulation and social contact. She had fallen into the defensive habit of making aggressive attempts to domineer the people around her, and often displayed a violent temper when thwarted in her attempts to control her environment. Donald had ensured that the trip facilitation techs had taken extra precautions in evaluating and training her, and in sending her off. And he knew that his work in measuring the branching ramifications of the mission had been meticulous, painstaking. Whatever had caused the time line to remain nearly identical to the latest standard course had to be the fault of the traveler or the influence of some unknown factor. Five failed missions in a row (only two of them planned by him) meant something unaccountable must be going on, something that did not to show up on probability charts and time fluctuation tables.

Altering the progression of time had always been a tricky, delicate business, and a certain rate of failure was to be expected. There was not any way for them to anticipate and adjust to all the factors influencing the outcome of a particular moment, just as it was devilishly difficult to chart all the consequences that branched outward from a single action. The goal was to subtly influence a stem event, to intervene at a key moment so that a welcome change in the time line would take hold. The greatest danger was in going too far. Waves of unforeseen consequences could significantly damage the stability and integrity of the present. The historians referred to this as the Goldilocks Challenge, and most turned gray before their time worrying about whether their calculations had been just right.

Donald had heard rumors of sabotage and that there might be an Existentialist mole in the ranks of the subgurus. The historians who had worked on recent failed missions were whispering about one or two targets for their suspicions. Donald did not know if any of it was true, or whether his colleagues were looking to shift blame away from themselves. Perhaps tomorrow morning’s processing session would give them useful information, but the traveler who had returned today looked dangerously out of synch and had to be heavily sedated. Donald hoped that she would soon be able to recount what had happened back in 2015, but knew that he might have to wait a week for her to recover before she was debriefed.

Rutherford jumped when Brooke touched his hand. He had nearly forgotten that she was across the table from him. Her smile looked uncertain but friendly, and he knew that he still had a slim chance of turning the evening around. He tried to smile back at her.

“So you say there’s a bookstore right around the corner?” he asked.

“Yes, we can walk there,” she said.

Rutherford paid the bill and they stepped outside into the steam bath heat of a summer’s evening in central Florida. A light breeze from the south stirred the air and whispered a promise that a thunderstorm was on its way. The bookstore was in a row of shops off the main drag and down a brick paved alley way. The sign above the door read, “The Olde Bookery”, and the warm colors and mellow light of the interior welcomed them to enter. They ordered espressos at a counter near the front. Brooke led him back to some shelves near the rear of the store and showed him books about Mongolian conquests and the movement of plague throughout medieval Europe. It was obvious that she knew her way around this section, and Donald was surprised that she took an interest in their work during off hours.

They drifted from the history section into an area dedicated to poetry. Donald plucked a volume of Roethke off a shelf, quickly paged through the book as if already familiar with it, and surprised her by reading a love poem out loud. The poem spoke about a woman whose bones were beautiful, of the beating of the poet’s heart in time with the sway of his lover’s hips. Donald looked up from the book and saw Brooke studying him in a thoughtful way. She looked amused as he blushed, closed the book and returned it to its place.

It started to rain just as they left the shop, and they had to run for his car. They were soaked by the time Donald had fumbled for his keys and opened the doors. He expected her to be annoyed by his clumsiness, but she laughed. As he started the motor she ran her fingers through the wet tangles of her hair and said, “I must look like a drowned rat!”

She invited him back to her place in a Delaney Park neighborhood near down town. It was a small apartment in a converted garage that stood behind a Victorian, wood frame house. She sat him down in her kitchen, tossed him a dish towel from a drawer under the sink, and excused herself so that she could change. He rubbed his head and the back of his neck with the towel, and nervously combed his hair with his fingers. The shiny, metal toaster on a counter by the stove served as his mirror. When she came back she wore pink bunny slippers and a loose cotton shift printed with a floral design, and had a towel wrapped around her head. She made them mugs of milky, black tea and laid a plate full of homemade, chocolate chip cookies before him. She sat down across from him, slumped back in her chair, let out a long, comfortable sigh and closed her eyes. “It feels good to be home,” she said.

Brooke eventually sat up and took a sip from her mug. She watched him over the top of her tea while he chewed on a cookie. He began to feel self-conscious, but she smiled at him and patted his hand.

“Relax, Donald,” she said. “Robert Angstrom can’t find you here.”

“What?”

“The word on the street is that Angstrom has been gunning for you, that he’s blaming you for today’s mission. That’s what you’ve been brooding about all night, isn’t it?”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Jenna in Static Records told me. She passed by your office this afternoon.”

“Does she make it a habit to listen in at closed doors?”

“She didn’t have to. She was heading for the elevators after her shift was over, and she heard him yelling at you.”

“Great.”

“I was kidding about ‘the word on the street’. She didn’t tell anyone but me.”

“Oh.”

“Of course, I told everyone in transportation about it.”

“You did what?”

“Just kidding, Donald, just kidding. You’ve got to learn to lighten up every once in a while.”

“That’s easy for you—.”

“Shut up and drink your tea. Here, have another cookie.”

“But I—. “

“Relax, Donald. Relax,” she commanded. So he did.

They went out again the next night, saw a movie in Winter Park, and took a stroll in Baldwin Park. They kissed for the first time beneath a live oak with long twisting branches. It was a hesitant, unexpected kiss, and they separated quickly as if both were afraid of where it might lead. At that particular moment it led to a banal, awkward recitation about the park’s past as a naval training base. Donald rattled on about the Blue Jacket, a large model of a destroyer that used to sit in a field of grass not far from where the Winter Park Middle School now stood. It had been used for boot camp drills. It was made of concrete. It was the only training vessel in U.S. naval history that never could, ever would float. Brooke mercifully ended the monologue by putting a finger to Donald’s lips. She drew in close. Their second kiss was less timid. After the third they no longer cared about what the upcoming fourth and fifth meant.

They were both too busy to see each other until Sunday, but made hurried plans as they stood together on Thursday afternoon in the crowded hallway outside of Transportation Suite Ganesh. She would make a meal, and he would bring dessert. Donald felt a heightened sense of anticipation, a current of energy that flowed between them, and he wanted to take her into a deserted room and strip off her clothes. She leaned in close to him, both hands on his chest, kissed him on the cheek and whispered “See you when I see you.” As she walked away he admired the sway of her hips and the pert motion of her buttocks, and felt the soul warming satisfaction of a man who had just received an unmistakable invitation.

After they had eaten her spaghetti dinner and his cheese cake dessert, they shared a snifter of brandy as they lounged together on her sofa. There was never anything good on television on Sunday nights, so they passed the time kissing and gradually getting acquainted with the shape and feel of each other’s body. Brooke suddenly pushed him away and stood up. She stared down at him with an odd, unreadable expression, and Donald feared that he had gone too far too fast. His hands had been busy exploring the topography of her body, sliding over raised contours and down into declivities. Brooke’s face softened, finally, into a wistful smile and she took his hands and pulled him off the sofa. She led him down a hallway past the bathroom to a closed door at the end. She kissed him as she opened it.

Her bedroom was simply decorated: no throw pillows with frilly edging; no stuffed animals and dolls left over from girlhood; no cheesy, sentimental posters. She had a double bed covered with a simple quilt. A photograph of her father and mother was hung near the closet, and a large oil landscape of an unromantic stretch of swampy wilderness dominated the wall above her dresser. A vase of flowers and a scented candle gave the room a moderate touch of femininity.

They sat down on the edge of the bed and began to kiss once more. Donald ran his fingers up the back of her neck and massaged the scalp at the base of her head. She broke off the kiss when she tilted her head back and sighed. He kissed her throat and worked his way up to her ear. Her hands fumbled with his shirt as he nibbled on the lobe, and she pulled the cloth out of his pants with a firm tug. She undid his belt buckle and opened button and zipper. He felt her hands circle around his hips to his lower back. She kneaded the muscles with slow, circular movements of her fingers. The tension of the past few days at work drained away under her ministrations, and when they kissed again he began to feel pleasantly drunk, not from the brandy but from the pressure of her soft lips on his, the jasmine scent of her hair, the sheltering warmth radiating from her body.

One passionate entanglement led to another and to another. Exhaustion followed their last coupling; a sweet fatigue washed through him. Donald felt no pangs of regret or uneasiness when she cuddled up against him under the sheets. The pressure of her arm on his chest and her breast against his side reassured him, and he had the odd sensation that he had finally come home. She smiled and murmured to him as she fell asleep. He brushed a strand of hair away from her eyes and studied the slopes and planes of her face. He wondered, as his eyelids drooped, why that particular configuration of hair, flesh and bone had suddenly become so precious to him.

A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 2

 

Control Tech Brooke Marlow sat in a booth in Transportation Suite Rama and studied the layout of the next scheduled trip. Her supervisor had warned her that the mission was of vital importance and that she should triple check the time/destination coordinates against the setting of the vibration chamber. Any misalignments during the transport could mar the insertion of the traveler into the correct slice of time. Brooke sipped a cup of jasmine tea and hummed to herself as she inspected the readouts on the panel in front of her. When the charts and graphs satisfied her, she got up with her cup, grabbed a clipboard and wandered over to the silver metal chamber in the center of the room. It was fifteen feet long and resembled a sperm whale minus the fins: the end with the readout screen was broad and bulky; the body of the chamber tapered to a flattened, rectangular box at the other end. A horizontal, oval hatch in the center of the “whale’s” side opened up on a narrow chamber big enough for one person to lie in. A hard pad served as a cushion for a reclining body, and arm, ankle and head straps were attached to the white walls of the interior. The walls were made of a flexible, plastic material that softly gave way when pressed, and quickly regained its original form when the pressure was released. Brooke compared the numbers on her clipboard to the numbers on the readout screen. All was in order, as usual.

There was nothing more to do until the sedated traveler was delivered into the suite, so Brooke took her place back in the booth and pulled out her copy of the Bhagavad Gita. She was not an avid reader of scripture, however. She had hollowed out the center of the book and taped a paperback romance novel inside.

At breakfast Brooke had reached the part of the story where Dixie, the beautiful and mysterious heroine, had just met Buford, a handsome Confederate general. Brooke found the passage where she had left off, checked the departure time once more on her control board, and began to read intently.

Brooke suspected that Dixie would soon find herself locked in the embrace of Buford’s scarred but manly arms. As she read Brooke discovered that the young belle was really a northern spy sent to seduce General Buford. Dixie was directed by her superiors to spurn her suitor’s advances while further enticing him. Whenever he drew near she opened her shawl to reveal the fleshy curves of an ample bosom prominently displayed by her low cut gowns. Her mission was to befuddle and emasculate her victim before he commanded his troops against a new Union offensive in northern Virginia. Unfortunately for the spy the general’s tragic mien (he had lost a lot of men in battle) and bewilderment (her behavior had been most contrary) had softened her heart, and Dixie found herself longing to respond to his advances, to embrace him and kiss his lips.

Dixie met Buford one moonless, but starry night on a bench in a formal garden behind the governor’s mansion, and gradually gave way to her rising passion. Buford, a true Southern gentleman, took three pages to get her clothes off. The author followed with a detailed account of their consummation of a love so noble, so pure, and so sexually aroused that war and suffering could not dim its brilliant intensity. As the entangled, preternaturally limber couple attempted a maneuver that defied gravity and violated basic rules of hygiene, Brooke gripped the book tightly with sweaty hands.

Brooke heard the shoosh of the automatic door opening behind her, snapped the book shut and slipped it back into her Gita. She spun around in her chair and saw Donald Rutherford standing in the doorway. He was dressed in his official historian’s uniform of black and gray. Tall and gaunt, solemn and slow moving, Donald was not the type of man that Brooke found attractive. The transportation techs referred to the history officers collectively as “the undertakers”, and Donald’s expression this morning was suitably grim.

“Mr. Rutherford! You startled me!”

“Sorry to interrupt your spiritual meditations, Brooke. I’ve been sent down review the trip with you,” he said.

Brooke blushed and pushed the book of scripture from her lap into an open uniform bag that lay on the floor at her feet. The Gita fell open upon landing and the cover of the romance novel was revealed. A lurid illustration of a Confederate officer holding a scantily clad woman presented itself. The burning plantation in the background mirrored the fiery passion shared by the foreground couple. Donald swooped down and plucked the book out of the bag.

“Hmmm. I don’t recall this illustration. Is that Arjuna dressed in drag? Isn’t Krishna holding him a little too tightly? I bet this is a new translation. It’s got a much different…atmosphere…than my copy at home. Can I borrow this? I’ll get it back to you. I just want to compare this text with the one in mine,” he said.

“No, sir. And please keep your hands off my personal belongings,” said Brooke.

Donald tossed the book into the bag, and Brooke angrily zipped it shut. She looked up and saw a patronizing smile directed at her. He apparently found her amusing.

“Please wipe that smirk off your face, Mr. Rutherford. You may spend all of your spare time with your nose in a history book, but don’t act like you have the right to judge other people who do not share your taste in reading material.”

“Do you think that it’s a good idea to talk to me in that manner?”

“Yes, sir, I do. Mr. Downing is my superior, not you.”

“Well, I apologize if I seemed to be judging you. I just was surprised to see you reading something like that. I thought that you were the sort who read serious novels and poetry.”

“I do, but sometimes I like something a little more…simple and direct…”

“I see. Try a western next time,” said Donald. His smirk returned.

“I’m curious about this next mission. Could you tell me why everyone is so worried? What’s the big deal? And what’s with the cupcake? That’s a pretty odd mission objective,” said Brooke.

“You know all of that is classified. I can’t tell you anything beyond what’s laid out in front of you right now,” he said.

“But you know something. I’ve seen little groups of historians whispering together in the hallways. You all seem nervous about this one. I’ve heard rumors that there’s a spy in the central ashram, and that some of our recent missions have been sabotaged.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Jenna down in Static Records says that the time line has been fluctuating along multiple paths during recent trips, and that it hasn’t all been the fault of our travelers. She said that the new time line keeps snapping back to fit the static line, and that we’ve wasted four trips in a row.”

“I think that you and your friend should stick to your jobs and not worry about things outside your areas of expertise.”

“Jenna thinks that Existentialists have a new model of the Tabula Rasa in production, and that they’re blocking our attempts to disrupt its development. Is it true that the Existentialists want to wipe human history clean? Or do they just want to erase all the religions?” Brooke asked.

“You need to learn to keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears focused on the job at hand. It’s not your business to know anything more, so take my advice and stay out of matters that do not concern you,” he said sternly.

“Oh come on, Donald. All this concerns me. All this concerns you,” she said with a slight purr in her voice.

Brooke stood up and approached Donald slowly. Her curiosity had been piqued and she was determined to find out what he knew. If the Existentialists had come up with a new and potent means of disrupting GURUTECH missions she might soon be out of a job. She had heard, oddly enough, that the dry historian thought himself a lady’s man, and that he fancied brunettes with short hair, long legs and intelligent minds. Brooke knew that she fit that description and wondered if her glasses enhanced her powers of attraction. It might be fun to pump him for information while setting him up for a fall. She never wanted to see him smirk at her again.

Brooke smiled at Donald, gave her hair a little toss and edged nearer to him. She hoped that she was being the right sort of obvious; men could be impenetrably thick when it came to reading her signals. The look on his face was hard to decipher, but his lips twitched involuntarily. She gazed at him steadily. She knew from experience that she could will the weak ones into a temporary state of submission.

“Donald, would you be interested in getting something to eat after work tonight? I know a place near the Olde Bookery on Colonial. We could browse a bit after dinner and get an espresso…what do you say?”

“Uh…”

“My apartment is right around the corner from there. I’ve got an antique copy of The Stranger that I’d like you to see. Do you read French?”

“Uh…”

“And a book of old daguerreotypes from the nineteenth century. You’d be surprised by the subjects they photographed back then.”

“Uh…”

“Uh yes, or uh no?”

Donald stammered and looked very uncomfortable. Brooke was almost touched by his befuddlement. His black eyes had a certain softness in them that she had never noticed before, and she began to find the line of his jaw attractive. But before Donald could give her an answer, the door to the Transportation Suite swung open and two monks guided a stretcher into the room. A middle-aged woman with auburn hair was strapped down to the gurney. Her eyes were fixed in a glassy stare.

“I’ve got to look at your diagrams. Now!” said Donald.

“Keep your shirt on, Mr. Rutherford. They’re right here. You’ve still got at least ten minutes to look them over. They’re bringing in the chorus for this one, and that’ll take them time to get everything in place,” Brooke said.

Donald stepped around Brooke and began to pore over the diagrams on the console. He could feel the heat of her body as she leaned in beside him to watch the charts and graphs march across the display; she answered his occasional questions about unusual spikes and accents in the temporal flow chart. Her soft, low voice both soothed and distracted him. The smell of her perfume was lilac. They lightly knocked heads when he straightened up, and he fumbled his way around her after bumping against her hip. He tripped on her bag and nearly fell. He straightened up and paused in the doorway of the control booth, tugged at the lapels of his jacket and adjusted his tie. He had reestablished his sense of personal dignity, but found that he could not look Brooke in the eye. Donald focused on her pink, glossed lips instead. They slanted upward on each side of her mouth in shiny, mocking curves.

“The mission charts, the graphs…it’s good…uh, it all looks fine, Brooke.”

“I’m sure it does, Donald. Pick me up at seven.”

A Narrow Slice Of Time: Chapter 1

Judy and I are working on our third novel in our sci-fi time traveler series.  I’m going to post one chapter a week from the first book, “A Narrow Slice of Time”, until we finish “Stitches Nine”.

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Grasping at Time is a fool’s errand. The faster it slips by the quicker our release from misery and regret. And only a Fool wishes to go back and relive his life, to undo mistakes made, to savor in full the precious moments he once neglected to treasure. If he could return and make his corrections, then another line of errors would spring forth; if he cherished an instant he had previously ignored, then he would forsake another sweet demand upon his attention. Tis better to live in the middle of each minute and advance as Providence allows, looking neither forward nor back. Do not concern yourself with the Speed and Course of your Days, but swim in time’s stream from Birth to Death like a fish gliding through tranquil waters.
R.L. Mundicutt, 1832, Cottage Whyteford, Sussex.

Chapter 1

2036 (Standard Timeline)
Bill Plum and Aubrey Piazza climbed the steps to a gleaming, white building that resembled a knock-off copy of the Taj Mahal. The cylindrical towers on either side of the faux mausoleum were made from a material that looked like marble when viewed from a considerable distance. A sign carved in bas relief above the central, arched doorway was inscribed with the corporate logo: GURUTECH. The letters had the lilt and tilt of Sanskrit.
Aubrey was a hard faced, large boned, somewhat muscular woman of forty. Her auburn hair had a few streaks of grey near the temples. She wore tan slacks, a black silk blouse with a plunging neckline, and leather sandals. Her sunglasses were very dark, and her eyes were concealed by the reflections on the surface of the lenses. She had deep grooves on either side of her down turned mouth, and when she paused as she spoke she sometimes twisted her lips and grimaced as if she were sucking on something distasteful.
Bill was a nondescript rabbit of a man. His doughy face was dominated by a large, barrel shaped nose that skewed slightly to the left. His midsection sagged over his belt and his shoulders rounded forward. His suit was gray and rumpled, his hair mouse brown, and his black shoes scuffed. He had the neglected appearance of an aging bachelor, a threadbare man who had exhausted his meager promise long ago. Bill pulled Aubrey aside before they reach the entrance.
“Did you study the packet, Aubrey?” he said.
“Yes, of course I did,” she answered.
“I know that you don’t believe in their mumbo-jumbo, but they won’t let you take your trip until you satisfy them.”
“Why do you keep after me about that? I studied. I’m not stupid.”
“Tell it to me again. I helped you pay their fee and negotiate your errand. I don’t want to waste my time and money.”
“It’s always about that, isn’t it? It’s all about the cash.”
“Yes, dear, it is. Recite.”
“Jesus, what a pain…GURUTECH was founded in 2028 by a bunch of swamis from Kerala who enlisted the aid of a theoretical physicist from Stanford University named Fleming Anderson. Together they discovered that all moments in time exist simultaneously; they’re stacked like slices of bread. Every narrow slice of time has its own vibration signature and, and…and then they go on about string theory, Heisenberg, fluid time and gravity constants, mumbo jumbo Einstein, blah, blah, unified field, blah.”
“Correct so far. They won’t expect you to totally understand the physics, but I would leave out the blah, blah, blahs if I were you. Go on.”
“Right. If a person can attune their own personal vibration signature to the signature of a particular time period, they are instantly transported to that moment. Then there’s something about a law of affinity and spontaneous attraction. That part always sounds like a pick up line to me.”
“Aubrey.”
“Bill. Stop fussing. I’m not going to say that to the techs when I walk through that door.”
“Continue.”
“Most people cannot attune their personal vibration signal, or PVS, or maintain it long enough for the transportation to occur. GURUTECH’s engineers developed a wave mirror chamber that echoes and enhances the chance vibrations that are synchronous with a distinct time period. The person gradually comes more and more into alignment with their target destination, and within an hour they find themselves in Ancient Rome or 20th century Europe. They are allowed limited engagement with the events of the target time period, and must return within seven minutes. A chip embedded in the base of their skull acts as a portable enhancer and causes the traveler to fall into a trance at the end of seven minutes. A warning buzz in the ear alerts the traveler to their imminent departure. Traveling back to one’s own time is easier because the traveler is naturally in synchrony with their own period. The transportation goes much more easily, however, if the traveler assumes the correct mental posture just before the portable enhancer goes off.”
“And you’ve been practicing that, I hope?”
“Yesss—you’re such a worry wart. Yes, I’ve been practicing. You close your eyes, center them on the magic spot in the middle of your forehead—“
“Stop calling it that! Third eye. Be sure to call it the third eye!”
“Yeah, yeah. Then I watch my breaths. I say Om when I inhale and moo when I exhale.”
“Stop being such an ass. Om and aum. Om and aum.”

“Don’t call me an ass. Can’t you recognize when I’m telling a joke by now?”
“This is serious, Aubrey, very serious.”
“Yeah, yeah…Are you sure that it was okay to tell them about what I plan to do?”
“Yes. Telling your ex-husband what a jerk he is, or was, or will be will not significantly alter the present. The man had literally no impact on anyone but you. But remember to carry out your assignment too. You have to buy the last vanilla iced cupcake from that shop near your old apartment. That’s vital. And it’s part of the price of your ticket.”
“Messing with Jeff’s head is okay, but it’s vital that I buy a cupcake. That’s weird.”
“Vanilla iced cupcake with pink sprinkles. The gurus know what they’re doing. Carry out the deal as stated in the contract or they might send you to medieval Germany at some random moment. They don’t like it if you fail to carry out your part of the bargain.”
“Are we done now?”
“Yes, dear. You know it’s not just about the money. I care about you and I’m worried that something bad might happen. Promise me that you’ll be careful and do as you’re told. Please don’t lose your temper and do something rash.”
“Stop talking and let me get on with this.”
“It won’t really help, you know. The satisfaction will be momentary, and it won’t improve things in this time.”
“Bill, at my age I’ve learned that all satisfactions are momentary. You and I have proved that over and over. Last night was another example.”
Bill sighed and let go of her arm. They climbed the last few steps and entered a doorway to the right. A sign above their heads told them that they were entering the Hall of Time. The smell of sandalwood incense overwhelmed them as they passed inside. Orange robed monks and nuns walked about with quick, light steps, entering and exiting through arched doorways on either side of the hall. The men had shaved heads, and the women wore light scarves that covered their hair. Bill and Aubrey walked down the long, marble-floored hallway until they reached a reception desk. A few armchairs upholstered with a shiny, orange material were placed in a semicircle off to the left. When she studied the chairs closely Aubrey saw that the cloth was stitched with magenta threads that formed pulsating, interlocking patterns. The receptionist wore a fixed smile on her face. Her lips curled serenely, but the slight clench of her jaw gave her an air of willful determination.
“Namaste. Good morning. Welcome to the GURUTECH Hall of Time. What is the nature of your business?”
“My name is Aubrey Piazza. I’m scheduled to make a journey today.”
“Ah, yes. I have you down on my roster. Forgive me for not recalling your name. We have had many travelers the last few days.”
“Don’t worry about it. What’s next?”
“You will have to fill out some paper work: some forms giving us final clearance, a legal statement freeing GURUTECH from liability in all instances save technical failure, and a form declaring that your present physical and mental state is sound.”
“I thought that I already signed off on that.”
“Oh, no. Many of our clients make that assumption when they begin training. Those forms just cleared you for the training program. These forms are for the actual trip. And after you’ve finished with these there’s a short test that tells us whether you have studied the process and are aware of the parameters of your mission. Please take a seat over there and use the touch screen attached to the arm. This should only take about twenty minutes.”
“Seems like a lot of paper work for a seven minute trip.”
“You may back out of our arrangement if you wish, Miss Piazza.”
“I’ve come this far. I might as well go through with it.”
“We would be most pleased if you did, Miss Aubrey, as our technicians have devoted a great deal of time and effort in making your dual mission safe, comfortable and full of purpose.”
Aubrey took a seat in the nearest armchair, swung a padded arm over her lap and booted the touch screen embedded in the arm. Bill watched her type in her answers until he heard the receptionist cough politely.
“Sir, will you be traveling today also?”
“No, I just wanted to make sure that Aubrey, Miss Piazza, was taken care of.”
“She will be fine, sir. Her trip has been planned meticulously, and our technicians will watch over her with great care.”
“Yes. I remember you telling me that when I went on my mission. That didn’t go as planned. Did your technicians watch over me?”
“It’s Mr. Plum, is it not? I believe that I have seen your face before on memos received from our legal department. Your complaints about your experience have been taken into consideration, and your journey is now used as a case study when we train new technicians. We are pleased that you made it back to our time and that the errors that you introduced into your time line were insignificant and easily erased. I trust that your trip to Magdeburg was not too unsettling.”
“Magdeburg! Do you know what that was like?”
“Yes, Mr. Plum. All employees of GURUTECH are given a simulated experience of our default destination. There were many choices that we considered during the Thirty Years War in Germany. The 17th century in Europe was rife with wholesale slaughter, religious persecution, famine, pestilence and aimless destruction. We narrowed our selection down to the Fall of Magdeburg as it was an event so utterly chaotic and disastrous that no amount of interference by our travelers could significantly change the flow of time. Such moments in time are rare, Mr. Plum. We regret any discomfort that you experienced there, and hope that the basket of fruit and bottle of brandy we gave you on your return relieved your anxiety in some small way.”
“I spent four weeks in a psych unit having the emotional scars erased. I still can’t go to a barbecue. My memories of that place are nearly gone, but I know that it was total hell.”
“Yes, sir. Many of our default travelers describe Magdeburg with those very words. If you wish to file another formal complaint about your experience, I can ring this buzzer and two of our most considerate monks will escort you to our public relations office.”
The receptionist pointed to a buzzer on her desk with her index finger, and looked over her shoulder in the direction of two burly men in an office behind her. Bill raised his hands in supplication and took a step back from the desk.

“No, no. I don’t want to make a complaint. I just want to make sure that Aubrey—Miss Piazza is taken good care of.”
“Your concerns will be noted in our log. Perhaps it is time for you to wish Miss Piazza a successful journey, sir. Will you be here tomorrow in case Miss Piazza needs assistance following her return and processing?”
“Yes. Do you still have my number on file?”
“Yes, sir. We know all about you.”
The receptionist smiled as she said these last words, but there was no warmth in her expression. Bill took another step back and turned in Aubrey’s direction. She waved the back of her hand at him to dismiss him, and Bill stammered out a weak, “Good luck,” before hustling away.
“I’m ready,” Aubrey said to the receptionist as she finished her last entry. The receptionist transferred Aubrey’s forms and the completed test to a screen on the reception desk; she maintained her fixed smile for the most part, but frowned occasionally as she clicked buttons on the keyboard and touched icons on the screen. At one point, as the receptionist carefully studied a form, she reached for a phone, but hesitated and withdrew her hand. She glanced up at Aubrey with doubt in her eyes as she reread a passage several times, and then scrolled through all of the documents one more time.
“Why yes, Miss Piazza. You are ready,” she finally replied. She gave Aubrey her cold smile and waved to the burly monks in the office behind her. They stepped forward and Aubrey was surprised to see that they wore pistols in the orange sashes around their waists.
“What’s with the hardware?” she asked the receptionist.
“Bon voyage, Miss Piazza,” said the receptionist.
The two men rapidly came up to Aubrey and stood on either side of her. The one on the right took a gentle hold on her elbow and began to lead her toward the office. When she jerked her arm out of his grasp and tried to pull away from them, they simply picked her up by the shoulders and feet and carried her end to end as if she were a rolled up carpet.
“Bill!” she screamed once before disappearing behind the doors of the office.

Invasion of the Canines

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My bed, early morning:  sleeping with the enemy.

It began slowly, so slowly that we remained unaware for several days that they had already established a beach head. They pretended to be adorable creatures, uncomplicated beings who lived for simple pleasures.  They fooled us with their cuteness, their large eyes that drew us in and made us want to pet them, feed them, take them for walks.

2 out of 5 dog nests:  colonization has begun.

Before we knew it, our house was cluttered with their food and water bowls, their leashes, harnesses, medicine.  Pillows and sheets lay strewn on the floor in cool spots where they could lounge.  Our house began to seem more like their house as they competed with us for seats on the sofas, as they attempted to control entry and exit by barking at anyone approaching the door.

Our daily schedule shifted until we adopted their Circadian cycles.  I found myself taking them for walks at eleven o’clock at night, the time of day when I normally flip between reruns and the local news while dozing in my recliner.  I learned to look over my shoulder and step carefully while cooking, as the canines tended to hover near my feet waiting for morsels to drop.  Without quite knowing why, I began to give them slivers of cheese as they gazed hypnotically up from the kitchen tiles.  I felt pleasure as I watched them gobble up my offerings…I admit that my will is mostly compromised.

My wife is so far gone that she smiles when they attempt to muscle her out of her spot on the sofa.  One climbs in her lap, stands on its hind legs on her thighs, places its forepaws on her chest, and stares into her eyes.  Judy responds to his aggressive, I-won’t-take-no-for-an-answer approach by hugging  and petting him.

DSC_0355 (2) With Judy under their control, they turn their attention to me.

It will all be over in about a week.  The canines have arranged for our daughter to take them back to Miami, their base of operations.  But will their influence leave with them?  Late evening walks are cool and peaceful in our neighborhood.  I may continue them.  Sharing food, attention and living space with “innocent” creatures has begun to seem normal.  Dogs in my bed, burrowing under my blankets give me a sense of security as I fall asleep.

Where will it end?  Will I start to haunt pet stores and shelters?  Will I stare with envy as dogs parade their owners up and down my street?  Will I even feel a bit of affection for the pit bulls next door who look at me as if I’m a large slab of meat?

I’m like Donald Sutherland in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers:  another species is trying to take over my life.

 

 

Regrets and Regressions (Time Traveler Series, Vol. II)

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Falling Through Time (oil on board, 8×6″), cover image for “Regrets and Regressions”.

Judy and I have been working on a sequel to “A Narrow Slice of Time” over the past year.  This new novel is another time travel adventure, but has a modern noir atmosphere.  It features characters from the first book, mainly employees of GURUTECH.

GURUTECH is a time travel company founded by physicists and monks from Kerala, India.  It’s stated mission is:  “Changing the past to make a better future.”

One of the protagonists, a dive bar singer, takes a trip to a moment in his past to make one small change.  Vincent Garber succeeds in radically altering the course of his personal history, but his new life brings him confusion and even greater difficulties.  His troubles spread to GURUTECH, and it becomes apparent to everyone involved that the survival of the company rests on answering one question:  what kind of man is Vincent  Garber?

I’ve just completed the third round of edits and rewrites and am ready to upload it, per Judy’s final approval, to Amazon.  We’ll get a dummy book printed for one final editing run, and then we’ll put it up for sale.

Now that’s it’s nearly finished, I get an odd feeling akin to the emotion of sending a child off to college.  Freedom looms, but I’m not quite sure what to do with myself now that this responsibility is over.

The tentative title is, “Regrets and Regressions”.  Below is a sample from the third chapter.

Then there was blackness. A sliver of light appeared in the far distance and he began to rush toward it. The sliver grew larger and brighter as he approached. He shot through its center and began to spiral down to a green and blue planet, to America, to Pennsylvania, and his feet touched the earth in a small wood. He could see the back of Granny Florence’s house in a clearing directly ahead of him.

He skirted her yard and trotted to the country road that ran in front of her house. There was a filling station with a phone booth on the opposite side. He crossed over and pulled the doors shut on the booth, fished a quarter out of his pocket and called the fire department in Reading.

“Yeah, I saw a leak in a pipe coming out of a storage tank at the BrassTech foundry, the one south of town along the Schuylkill River. Yeah. I called them, but they told me to mind my own business. There’s a pool forming—it’s yellowish orange—Yeah. It’s gonna run down into the Schuylkill if the leak isn’t plugged. My name? Hey, I’m an employee there. I need the job. Yeah, well, if you need a name for your form, call me Chuck Bupkis. That’s right. Don’t get mad at me. Do something about that spill before it’s too late. Gotta go. It’s been swell.”

Vincent hung up and stood by the road. The house looked deserted, but he knew his granny was inside. He crossed back over, but no one answered when he lightly rapped on the aluminum frame of the screen door. He heard snoring inside.

Granny lay on a couch in the back parlor, a scarf wrapped around her silver hair. She wore a summer shift printed with yellow daisies, saddle shoes and white socks. A rivulet of drool eased from the corner of her mouth, and Vincent was shocked by the plainness of her face, the lumpiness of her body, the fragility of her bony arms and birdy legs. And he realized that his sweet memories of her were based on her warm smile and the tenderness of her hugs.

He had told the monks that he was going back to warn her that her young grandson would grow up to become a brat, a little punk who needed careful supervision. Vincent would quote Bible passages and pretend to be a preacher who had the gift of spiritual insight. He would prove his abilities by predicting that she would break her ankle going down the icy front steps of her porch the coming February, and that young Lester would stop stuttering once he entered the third grade. When those events transpired she would believe his prophecies and take care to keep her charge close at hand when he turned fourteen.
But he had no intention of doing that. He wasn’t sure if that would work, or if the old woman would be capable of remaining vigilant long enough to prevent him from running off to Philly. No, he’d have to go to the source.

He found seven year old Lester Fenstermacher playing in a creek near the hen house. The chickens clucked as Vincent passed by, and the scrawny little boy turned to look at him. He had a frog in one hand and a stick in the other, and his calves and feet were smeared with mud. He looked like a hick.

“Whatcha doin’ there, young fella?” Vincent asked the boy.

“G-got me a frog. I’m g-gonna roast it on this stick and eat f-frog legs.”

“D’ya think that Mr. Frog is gonna like that?”

“Tough luck for h-him, good luck for m-me. Who are you? Are you a stra-stra-stranger? I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”

“I’m a ghost. I used to be your Great Uncle Jimmy.”

“You are not. You’re not a ghost. You’re s-solid as a rock.”

“We’ll see about that…I got something important to tell you.”

“What?”

“You gotta stay in school, grow up smart and work hard, and you must never, ever run away from home—especially from your Granny.”

“W-why would I do that? I like Granny.”

“When you turn fourteen you’re gonna be a little fool. Watch yourself. Don’t run away.”

“You’re crazy, mister, and I don’t think that you’re a g-ghost, and you’re not my Great Uncle Jimmy.”

“I look just like Jimmy. Look me up in the family album. You’ll see.”

“No, I won’t!”

A warning buzzer went off at the base of his skull, and Vincent knew he had just a few seconds left. He took a step toward Lester, and Lester backed away. The little boy was getting frightened.

Vincent said, “I’m going to go soon, but there’s one more thing I’m gonna tell you.”

“What?”

“Being a singer sucks.”

“W-what?”

“Show biz is no kind of life,” Vincent said.

“But Granny says she likes my singing. I’m good at it-tit.”

Vincent knelt so that his eyes were level with Lester’s. He said, “Being good at something doesn’t always make you happy. And if you do become a singer, I’m gonna come back and haunt you. You won’t like that.”

Little Lester opened his mouth to argue, but his words caught at the back of his throat. The strange man who claimed to be his dead Uncle Jimmy vanished, but not all at once. At first he shimmered: his skin, hair and clothes became shiny and flexible like clear plastic wrap. Then he became a spectral image that slowly faded in the bright sunlight.

Lester stared at the spot where the ghost had just knelt before him. He was rigid with fright. He dropped frog and stick and walked slowly forward in a daze. He placed his foot inside the shoe print that dead Uncle Jimmy had made in the mud bank, and he began to cry. The frog hopped away.

His Granny Florence called from the house: “Lester? Lester! Where are you boy? It’s time you came in and had your bath. Lester!”

Lester wiped his nose on his sleeve and ran to her.

R-nnn-Argh

DSC_0184 (2)R-nnnn-Argh, oil/canvas,  30×40″

I completed this painting last week after putting in some intensive work this summer.  I completed the first stage in 2012 (monochrome underpainting), but had no time or will to consistently work on it the last four years.

I used a fairly painstaking method in the second and third stages:   glazing and scumbling colors over the monochrome underpainting (like tinting a black and white photo).  At times I put off painting because it seemed too daunting to finish, and I regretted trying something new (an old master technique applied to photo-collage subject matter) on such a large scale.  I realize a few years back that it would have been a lot smarter for me to do this as portrait on a smaller canvas in partial homage to Jim Nutt’s latest series.

I abandoned R-nnnn-Argh for a year after finishing the background figures and landscapes.  I felt exhausted just looking at it.  The central man’s face seemed like an endless terrain when I first began to work on it, and I remember the tedium of painting waves and the folds in the fisherman’s shirt.

I recently began to work on it again, and to actually enjoy the process.  The only thing that slowed down the final stages was the heat in my studio.  In the summer, my air conditioner fails to keep the temperature under ninety degrees after 1 p.m., and I have to quit when I start to feel the symptoms of heat exhaustion.

If you’re trying to decipher the imagery, try reading Edgar Allen Poe’s, “The Man Who Was Used Up”.

Last night I pulled out another long term project:  “Higgins Didn’t Make It”, a faux science fiction painting.  I hope it won’t take me as long to finish this one, but I believe that I started it in 2013.  Time to get it done.

Higgins Didn't Make ItHiggins Didn’t Make It