Category Archives: Stories

Excerpt from The McAdooiad: The Vale of Pundits

(In my epic-in-progress poem The McAdooiad, a political consultant leads an expedition to Hades to conduct a focus group there. While there, they are given a tour by the shade of someone who might be Mark Twain, or maybe Kurt Vonnegut, or possibly both. They travel to the section of Hell called the Vale of Pundits.)

“Hell has expanded since Dante’s day,” the guide explained.
“More than just nine rings – indeed, nine times nine sets of rings,
A great anti-amusement complex, a vast park of punishments,
Mall upon mall of maulings, subdivisions of sufferings,
For those who could not, would not, dared not repent.

“Construction continues, new Hells are designed, approved, erected,
But it cannot keep up with the influx of souls – hence your delays upon entry.
Still for all the mass production, for all the identical highrising rows,
Yet there are some who have rated their very own personal dooms,
who have crafted their eternal homes, which even now await their architects.

“Ah, we have arrived. Come, gentlemen, behold the Vale of Pundits.”
The huge conveyance rattled to a stop, its doors sighed open
And roughly spewed them onto a lofty platform.
Before them swam a frothy miasma of shifting positions,
A sight that made them dizzy and disoriented.

Like the froth of bathtub suds, when a young child empties
The whole container of Mr. Bubble beneath the faucet’s roar;
But also like a pit of lava, bubbling, erupting, red-hot heaving –
So did this jumble of enclosures appear
To the travelers’ bewildered eyes.

“Each of these spheres,” explained their white-haired escort,
“That you see before you, stands ready for its guest.
These are for those who sold their gifts to the highest bidders,
Who betrayed both their craft and their fellow beings
To deceive and divide, to satisfy the needs of the powerful.”

“Somewhere in this Hell … here, this one: see this vast, empty plain?
In its midst  there lies a table; behind, a comfortable leather chair.
On the table sits a great golden microphone, and an ashtray with a cigar.
There is a man who has condemned himself to sit behind that microphone
Forever, and smoke that cigar, and talk and talk and talk and talk….

“Trying to convince someone, anyone, that he does not belong there.
The microphone, however, will not be connected to anything.
Only he will hear himself, and he will hear only himself
But he will not even be able to convince himself.
Because no one could ever make him change his mind.”

“And here! Oh, look, you spinners of words:
For here is something you may perhaps find instructional.
Behold this scene, see these halls of mirrors?
Here shall languish a man, who mastered the art of litany;
The lie, repeated enough times, he made to seem truth.

“So every word here uttered, each sound made, shall rebound
Unendingly, to the eternal torment of those poor Irish ears.
But this is the bed which he himself has made.
Here, I can demonstrate…” and leaning close, the guide
Whispered one small word: “Benghazi”

Like the clanging of bells in a clocktower, as evening’s sun
Disappears behind the tenements, or the sounding of klaxons
That warned of impending bombers, the word
Fed back upon itself, building force without remorse or mercy,
Until the travelers thought their heads should indeed explode.

It lasted but a second, this great cacaphony, this
Tsunami of dreck, but it left them all grey faced and ashen.
“Tell me, Guide,” said Barychnikov, his beard trembling,
“I recognize these men of whom you speak. What of
That woman, tall and gaunt, who so delights in outrage…”

“Say no more,” the guide replied. “She of whom you speak
Has such great pain created, such revulsion caused,
With such carelessness and cruelty, with such deliberate malice,
That were I to show you the fate that she has created here
Your minds would go mad, and your hearts shatter.”

“One last ere we move on…” He turned with bushy eyebrows
Towards the churning mass, and one sphere moved to the front.
They saw a great rotisserie, a turning spit, above red-hot coals.
The spit was empty, but standing all around were monstrous,
Hungry, clutching hands eagerly straining towards the fire.

“Here shall soon reside a man, once powerful, a leader of the pack,
Who built an empire from falsehood and fright. Of great bulk
And greater ego, he forced himself upon the women in his employ,
Enslaving them to his appetites. So here he shall spin, if you will,
While he is groped, prodded, molested, and worse.”

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The Leader Awakens (a story)

So yeah, that was me.

Before the junta took over, while things were still in flux, yes, I wrote a few essays, a couple of poems… I was just trying to describe what I saw, and where I thought things were going.

Then I had the brain aneurysm. I went into a coma. For some reason, they chose to keep me alive, even though I was pretty much in a vegetative state. Maybe that was why.

(It was wonderful, by the way. I can’t tell you.)

But then somehow, for some reason, I started to recover. I regained full consciousness about a week ago.

I have been brought up to speed. Somehow, someone built on my meager writings, and managed to use them to construct a wide-ranging social movement.

They have overthrown the junta. They have established a People’s Republic. They have exiled – or executed – almost all of their opposition, all the men who represented the old order.

They also, somehow, managed to misconstrue or misinterpret nearly everything I had said, everything that I do in fact believe.

And now they have no idea what to do next.

Now I hear them, chanting, outside my hospital window.

They expect me to lead them into their bright new future.

They do not yet know that I have nothing to say.

What shall I tell them? How shall I tell them?

Humane (a story)

“Hey, Rocco, your lawyer’s here…”
“Rocco! Great news, my man – no chair for you! The judge just laid it down!”
“Really? That’s awesome, man!”
“Yeah! This is your last day in this joint! We’re gonna get you out of here – but first…”
“What – how’d you get those beers in here?”
“Hey, this is your day, man! I know people, I got permission…”
“Alright, man! Best lawyer ever! Cheers!”
“Yeh, you bet! And hey, I managed to call a couple of your friends… Come on in, guys!”
“Hey, Chico! O’Reilly! Great to see you!”
“Yeah, man, we had to come… psst, here, I brought ya a couple of tabs… it’s good stuff, it’s legit, we got ya a prescription and everything…”
“Oh wow, guys, thanks….”
“Yeah, right, enjoy that….”

They talked about the good times. They talked about future plans, the possibilities of a new life ahead. The TV started playing Rocco’s favorite tunes. Some ladies came in. There was dancing, and more beers. The lighting somehow became festive, colors flashing off the grey cell walls. Rocco lost track of the drinks – he was so elated, so relieved. O’Reilly passed him some other pills. The party went on for about an hour… then Rocco, feeling a little light-headed, sat down on his bunk.

And fell over.

The prison doctor was the next guest, followed by the coroner. The death was officially ruled a suicide by overdose.

Children of Privilege (2012)

It had been a routine Tuesday so far. I filed my reports for the morning, set the phone to forwarding, and headed down to lunch.  I was reading the international news in the Times – the paper version; old habits die hard, you know – when McGinnity joined me at the table.  We shared a few moments of standard pleasantries, and then a pause while he contemplated the beef Stroganoff on his plate.  “There might be a new threat out there, y’know,” said McGinnity.  A bit too casually.

I looked up from my coffee cup.  “Oh yeah?”  I couldn’t help but notice that McGinnity looked unusually distracted – his brow was deeply furrowed, all the way to the thin wisps of hair on his high forehead.  He wasn’t easily rattled; I’d known him for years, and seen him face down dangerous criminals, raving lunatics, even Congressional staffers – he was usually unflappable.  But I could tell that something about what he wanted to tell me disturbed him a great deal.  “So, what’s their beef, Ted? Middle East? Climate change?” I kept my voice sounding light and unconcerned.

McGinnity looked around a little bit, and hunched a little closer to the table as though he was wary of being overheard.  The background noise in the Agency commissary made that unlikely, but McGinnity always checked out all the angles.  That was one of the things that made him good at what he did.  One of the reasons I respected him.

“Their beef?  Vegetarianism,” he chuckled.  It was an old joke – but McGinnity wasn’t prone to cracking jokes unless something was making him uneasy.

“Actually, I shouldn’t say ‘new threat,’ like it’s some new cell of Wahhabists or something.  No, this seems to be a different kind of threat, Jim, we haven’t seen this before.   And it’s not one thing, not one issue, that’s driving it.  It’s – well, it’s the whole thing.”

He saw my puzzled frown.  “Just started getting aware of the full scope of this – been trying to find how widespread it might be before raising any alarms, wouldn’t want to raise a fuss over something insignificant, you know -”

“So what do you have so far?”

“Bunch of rich kids.  Well, rich families, I mean.  Upper class, upper middle, managerial, executive… American mostly, some European, some South Asians.  These kids – well, not kids anymore I guess, they’re in their thirties now, most of them…”

“Rich kids?  What, they read some Marx in college, they dropped out, grew their hair, all power to the proletariat, trying to shock the ‘rents?”

“No, no, that’s just it, they’re not just rebels.  In fact, they’re not ‘rebelling’ at all.  They’re being smart about it.”

He had my attention.  “Whaddya mean?”

“They’re working, mostly in their family businesses…”

“Family businesses?”

“Yeah.  Top-level corporations, private capital firms, law firms.  Pharma, finance, military contractors, IT.  These kids -” he shook his head, with a wry chuckle.  “I have to stop doing that.  These are not kids. Not at all.”  He shifted again, sat up straighter, looked at me with a strange intensity.  “These – people, they’ve looked around and decided they don’t really like what their fathers and mothers have accomplished.  This whole system we’ve built – they see exploitation, the systemic inequity, the abuse of workers, the environment, poverty… and they just refuse to accept those things as inevitable.  They’ve made up their minds, independently it seems, to take it apart.”

“The whole system? How?”

McGinnity hunched a little closer, and his voice took on a new note of urgency.  “From the inside, of course.  The way that only they can do it.  They’re leveraging the access they’ve been given, taking advantage of their stations in life.  They’re working their asses off, for now – doing exactly what they’re supposed to, following the rules, getting as close to the centers of power as they can… And then, at some point – they say they’ll know when the moment is right – they’re going to take down as much of the System as they happen to be able to lay their hands on at the moment.”

“Could they really do significant damage?”

McGinnity smiled, smiled as though it hurt to smile.  “Need I remind you, Jim, that it only took one young, unsupervised currency trader to almost take out the entire economy of France?”

He had a point there. “And do we know who they are?”

“No.  There’s no clue.  There’s no organization – there are documents circulating that lay out their program and describe their modus operandi, make suggestions, and that’s about it.  And even those documents have multiple variations – the instructions on distributing the information suggest that each person should make their own version, or multiple versions, to confuse anyone who might be watching.”

“Like us.”

“Yeah. Emails, letters, blog posts, comments on news stories, even poems, songs – they’re using a lot of different forms. Now of course just the fact that someone gets one of these emails or whatever, that doesn’t mean that they’ve bought in – and there’s usually no way to tell who’s passed on the information, or if they pass it on out of solidarity, amusement, or outrage.  There’s no way to distinguish them from their peers – not without doing some ugly kind of purge of the whole ruling class.”

“Well, we can make some guesses, can’t we?”

“Yeah, sure.  Like for instance – I’d bet that we’re probably not looking at people with families of their own.  You’re single, childless, you’re less worried about taking care of others — ”

This was the part of the process I liked.  “And if you’re attached to property, lifestyle, responsibilities, you’re less likely to rock the boat.”

“Right. But at the same time, you’re looking at people with access to extra resources.  They could make arrangements to get their own out of the way before any really serious disruptions happen.”

“Ah – what about lifestyles?  Do they eat organic, drive hybrids, give to charities, that kind of thing?”

“Hmmm.  They could.  But they have to fit in, being too different might not help their career goals.  And there are plenty of people who make those kinds of behavioral changes who aren’t interested in bringing about a fundamental and wide-ranging restructuring of society itself.”

I let out a long breath.  “Sounds dangerous. They have access to information, they know which switches to throw, they know where the bodies are buried — ”

“It gets worse.  Part of the program is that as they rise through the ranks, they’re keeping track – they identify the people in the System who, you know, who they think are the most rapacious, the greediest, the most aggressive — the people that to them embody the worst qualities of the System.”

“You mean the ones who are the real go-getters? The alpha males, the queen bees?”

McGinnity looked at me for a long moment.  “You could say that, I guess.”

“Keep track?  What for?”

“To ‘neutralize’ them.  Whatever that means.  It might mean just to keep those people away from power, divert them into harmlessness…”

“Or worse?”

“I don’t think they’re plotting assassinations, no.  They seem to think they can do this nonviolently… but you know how that goes, there’ll be a fringe, some will go outside the guidelines — I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw some kidnappings, disappearances, manufactured scandals…”

“But they’re responsible, too, aren’t they?  They’ve benefited themselves, right?”

“Yeah, sure – they claim they’re expiating some of their guilt.”

“By taking the System down? They have some replacement ideas in the pipeline?”

“Nope – they say that’s someone else’s job, they can’t see alternative futures from where they sit, all they can see is that the present doesn’t work and isn’t likely to get better.”

“But there are -”

“Oh, sure, there are lots of people out there thinking about new kinds of systems, Jim, absolutely, but most of them are outside the structures we’re talking about.  I’m talking about people within deeply entrenched centers of power, the ones that you would think would have a lot to lose from any kind of meaningful social redesign.”

I started putting things together.  “So we have some informal leaderless network of self-radicalized upper-class workers, maybe threats to – what, infrastructure, distribution systems, maybe individual lives if things get desperate…? But we can’t infiltrate them, we can’t surveil them ’cause we don’t know for sure who they are and they’re operating in exempt circles anyway… can’t disrupt them without economic risks…”

“Right. The rest of the class would never stand for anything that might actually be effective.”

“Like… our bosses, for instance…?”

“Nah, more like their bosses.”

I sat back in my chair.  The implications…. yeah, they were disturbing. I could see why McGinnity would be loath to escalate the issue until he was more certain about it.

“Well, the thing would be to keep them from picking a moment, then?” I said.

“I guess that’s all we can do.  Building in more redundancies wouldn’t be a bad idea – but you know how the money feels about that, anything affecting commerce – ”

“That – but if the word got out about them, you think some of their potential targets might behave better?”

He smiled that pained smile again.  “Well, there might be a silver lining there,” he admitted. “Fear of God and all that.”

“This group have a name?”

“Some of the emails are signed, or addressed to, ‘the Children of Privilege,'” said McGinnity.  “They also have another name for themselves.”

“What’s that?”

“‘The Sins of the Fathers,'” he said.  “You done?  Let’s get back upstairs.”

“Good idea,” I said.  I started to reach for my tray, and stopped.  “Tell me one thing, though -”

“Yeah?”

“What is it, Ted – I can tell, we’ve worked together for a while, and I can tell this is bugging you, more than usual – ”

“Yeah,” he said, with a sigh.  “Yeah, you’re right.”

“So?”

“I was thinking about Brent -”

“Your son? He’s not involved, is he?”

“Oh, no, not at all, so far as I know – but remember when he did that Peace Corps stint?”

“Yeah, you said he really liked Togo -”

“Oh, he did, best experience of his life, he says – so he went into International Relations in college, you know, minored in Finance, interned with the World Bank, he’s still in Brussels on that consulting gig now… And we talk, you know, he kinda knows what I do, he’s alright with that, but we do have some discussions sometimes, we disagree on a few things, but he’s no radical. But I keep thinking about the things he told me, the things that he’s seen –

“And you know what? Just between you, me, and the microphone in the salt shaker… part of me says they might have a point.”

We stood, picking up our trays. Gotta clean up your own mess, after all, that’s what they always taught us.

“Thanks for the heads-up, Ted – and, uh, if you want, forward me what you’ve got, OK?”

“Yeah, you bet,” said McGinnity.  “I’ve got a lot of emails to send out.”

To Die For (a story)

Sam and Lila had had a fairly good run, all things considered, and they were nearing retirement age. It hadn’t been easy – they had both worked hard in challenging careers, and their relationship had been strained at times, but here they were, still together despite the economic and emotional scrapes. Their two children were launched and on their own, and for Sam and Lila life was comfortable, if not exactly luxurious.

They were both healthy, for the most part, but Sam had grown more sedate with the years, and knew he wasn’t as much fun as he’d been when they were younger. He also sensed that Lila wanted something more out of life. So he was somewhat relieved when she started developing some hobbies of her own, becoming more of “her own woman,” as she liked to say.

She’d developed a strong interest in gardening, for example, especially herbs. She had met an older woman who lived down their street, a widow named Elaine who knew quite a bit about herbology, and they spent many pleasant afternoons together drinking herbal teas, talking about plants and plant lore, and comparing gardening notes. Her work with herbs spread into the kitchen, and greatly enriched her culinary skills. For this Sam was quite grateful – not just for the wonderful meals she cooked, but for the obvious satisfaction that Lila was deriving from the activity.

Sam wasn’t into gardening very much himself, though when asked he was happy to help with some of the manual labor involved. His was the life of the mind, of books and music, art and philosophy. They used to have frequent political discussions when they were younger, but now Lila had grown disillusioned with politics, and lost practically all interest in current events. Sam’s earnest pronouncements on the state of the world and the things that ought to be done would now garner little more than an exasperated sigh. But they did occasionally spend quiet time reading on rainy weekends, and Sam cherished sharing those moments with his wife.

Sometimes he’d steal a glance of her over the top of his magazine – she’d be curled up on the sofa, their cat on her lap and a cup of tea on the table, deeply involved in one from the stack of mystery novels that she checked out from the nearby library. The library’s mystery book club was another pleasure to which Elaine had introduced her. Lila even kept a notepad nearby while reading, jotting down plot elements and clues as she tried to outguess the book’s protagonists. Sometimes he’d hear her mutter approvingly, “Well, now, that was clever, wasn’t it?” when she stumbled on a new insight or interesting plot twist.

One summer, Lila told Sam that Elaine was going to spend a couple of weeks out West visiting family, and had invited Lila to accompany her. Sam approved wholeheartedly, although he told her how much he’d miss her cooking. “Oh, don’t worry, sweetheart,” she said, “I’ll leave you a few things to tide you over.”

So now here’s Sam, a week after her departure, pulling a Pyrex dish full of her amazingly delicious wild mushroom strudel, one of his favorites, piping hot from the microwave. And here he is, in the quiet dining room, having an irresistible second helping and one more glass of wine. And here he is, going to bed, looking forward to his wife’s return in a few days.

And finally, here he is, sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night, sweating profusely, feeling the neurotoxin’s icy fingers wrapping around his heart, and suddenly understanding everything.

The Editing Angel

When I met the Editing Angel, I was riding my bicycle along a neighborhood street. The morning air was fresh, the sky was clear, and I felt happy.

“The morning air is fresh, the sky is clear, and he is happy…” I heard the little voice – it was in my head, but it was not in my head. I felt something, a presence, somewhere above and just behind my left shoulder. Somehow, I knew I didn’t have to speak out loud, just think.

“Hello? What – are you?”

“Oh, yes, hello. Don’t be scared.”

“I’m – not,” I thought, somewhat surprised at the fact that I wasn’t. “Who…”

“I’m an Editing Angel.”

He sensed my puzzlement. “The Author – the Creator, you know – He’s always revising His Work. Little changes here, big changes there. We help.

“All the possibilities, all the possible threads of Time, all the versions of the Story, exist in His Mind – and it amuses Him, intrigues Him, to see what happens as He edits. A little change at one moment in the Story, of course, or I should say in one of the versions, creates a ripple effect of changes all up and down each connected thread of Time. Sometimes it’s just a matter of nudging atoms, sometimes galaxies explode. He’s working on all the scales at once.”

“Why doesn’t He just make some final choices, and leave things one way or another? Create the definitive version?”

“Oh, He’s never satisfied. He’s Perfect – so of course he wants the Perfect Story. That can never happen, so He keeps revising… After all, He doesn’t have a deadline.”

Good point. “So why are you telling me this?”

“Well, you’re a writer yourself, so I thought you’d find it interesting. Also, we’re about to make a big edit, one that affects you, and I wanted you to understand what was happening, and why. By the way – watch out for that rock.”

I looked down at the road, and swerved. I missed the rock, but then I overcompensated and my wheel caught the edge of a pothole. The bike pitched forward, and I executed a lovely 540-degree somersault before landing on my back in the middle of the intersection just as the garbage truck barreled through.

 

It was just like in the cartoons. Darkness. Exploding stars.

 

He took me under his wing, so to speak, and now I am an Editing Angel myself. Reality is infinitely malleable, but there are rules of causation that have to be followed. It really is fascinating to watch. Poke something here, things happen over there, which makes something else occur on down the line. My death, for example – I’ve seen some threads where my great-niece, inspired by my fate, becomes a subquark physicist and cracks the anti-gravity problem. The garbage truck driver, though, is so traumatized by the accident that he becomes an alcoholic – but don’t worry, he usually becomes a leading substance-abuse counselor and helps hundreds of people. He only becomes a serial killer in a much smaller number of threads.

Hard Day at the Office (a story)

For some reason, I was unusually tired when I came out of Work today.

My gauges indicate that I had been at Work for the usual nine-hour stint, and I took all my usual breaks, but still, somehow, when I was released and came back to myself at 1800 or so my physical body felt especially exhausted. I don’t remember many details of the day’s work, of course, no one ever does, but I didn’t recall anything standing out or being particularly different. I had slept well the night before, had my customary breakfast, tended to my various biological needs with no notable difficulties or discrepancies, and settled into Work as scheduled around 0845.

Going into Work state these days is somewhat like dreaming – you’re just there, thinking about things, and next thing you know, you’re somewhere else, maybe someone else, and you’re dealing with various situations, and things happen, and you deal with them, and then you’re awake again and you’re not quite sure what just happened or to whom but you’re back to where you were, and you are who you are, and you’re safe in your own little home space, and you know you don’t have to think about those things anymore because they weren’t exactly real.

Even if sometimes disturbing traces remain in your mind. They fade soon enough.

I read somewhere that Work state is related to what used to be called “flow” – back in the day, that was the term used for a rare frame of mind where one activity simply seemed to flow effortlessly into another, and tasks would get done, insights gained, goals met in an organic and naturally occurring way.

Back in the day you had to work pretty hard to get into that state, apparently. You had to be an athlete, or a dedicated artist, or some kind of academic. But then they figured out a few things about neurochemistry, and a few things about interfaces, and they made it easier and easier to attain. Now the technology barely requires conscious input on the part of a worker like myself. Sometimes decisions still have to be made based on subjective factors, I suppose, and the hardware and the software aren’t quite to that point yet. I guess when they do get there we won’t be needed at all, but I am not objecting.

Hey, it pays the bills.

From what I can recall, my job involves processing requests for goods, confirming deliveries, and following up on any delivery problems. I produce reports, I compile statistics, I look for trends. I say “I” but I should probably say “we,” since there are plenty of subroutines and applications and databases and programs that I can call upon, as well as actual human co-workers. I am part of a good team – we work together almost seamlessly, although we are physically quite distant from one another.

But today I am so tired. Emotionally and physically drained, and I don’t really know why. I just don’t remember. The reports show that today’s volume was a bit higher than average, but I seem to have managed the larger workload without any dent in my performance ratios – in fact, I see a commendation on my record from my supervisor, not a big deal, just a kind of “Attaboy, way to go!” encouragement, no raise or promotion or anything, mind you, but it is the kind of thing that will look good on my next performance review. Well, that all just means that I will sleep soundly again tonight.

I just wonder what “Hazardous Duty” means.