Archive for February, 2017

February 26th, 2017

Yankee Doodle Henry, Part IV

The camp workers were primarily children. Males who seemed old enough to have something else to remember made up maybe ten percent of the whole, Henry figured, leaving about a quarter for grown women. Henry was solidly a minority, which had shocked him on the first day of grueling work but had eventually seemed sensible when Henry considered how often the men complained in comparison to their smaller and supposedly weaker cohorts. One man, not too long a resident by the looks of him, had feigned an injury a couple of weeks into Henry’s tenure. Somewhere in a mess of crumbling rocks he’d yelled out, fallen to the ground, and frantically grasped his leg, the tears and snot turning his fellows’ work to mud beneath him. Several of the children had crowded around him, curious; but their gentle probing, a hundred tiny fingers floating over the dry skin of his ankle, gave him a sounder tickling than he could withstand, and by the time a force rep got to him he was a writhing fetus of laughter, swatting the little mitts away.

Parts of the man were used in the construction of the next day’s wall building segment.

The children laughed. He was a funny man.

Henry slept just a few hours at night, and a few hours again in the afternoons. Just like everyone else. The women said the sleeping schedule had been devised for the sake of the children, who “needed naps”. The men said it kept everyone on their feet but always in a kind of sleepy stupor, less willing or able to make a break for it. Henry didn’t know who was right, but he didn’t think it mattered much. In fact, he liked the schedule; neither nocturnal nor diurnal, a snooze always on the horizon. He didn’t dream, and he never woke up worried that his waking would obligate him; a slave of the present, threats against his future made no purchase. The work lulled him into truer rest than he had ever really known.

But then, the work did other things, too. His posture, before a thing he never paid attention to, was slumped, and his hair was falling out in patches. He had lost a lot of weight –how much, he wasn’t sure, but his knees were definitely knobbier. Sometimes before naps he brushed his hand over his stomach, feeling the bones of his ribs and hips. He thought about Ralph, then, whose sentence had been so much lighter. His belly, paunchier. He wondered where the schmuck was now, gabbing up innocent bystanders no doubt, terrorizing the youth with irresponsible palettes.

One of the favorite topics for complaint around the camp, especially among the children, was the food. It wasn’t so much that it was terrible, but rather, that it was so terribly uninteresting. No matter the day, no matter the meal, food was extruded protein cake in a thin batter, fried. The canteen had the indecency to propose that sometimes they were serving chicken, or veal. Even the children knew better. The stench of the frying oil pervaded everything, became a part of every worker there. It was the first thing Henry smelled upon waking, or upon entering any enclosed space where there were other campers. “You get used to it” was the motto among the adults, repeated too often to be true. Other than sex, peaches and spinach had become Henry’s principal fantasies, tucked into the space between sleeping and wakefulness.

By the start of his third month at the labor camp, Henry no longer felt bad about his predicament. He didn’t feel bad about having been recruited, or about the labor itself. He didn’t feel bad about Wainwright de-wrinkler, or Ralph in his colorblock shirt. Henry didn’t feel much of anything at all, by the start of that third month. His muscles ached with a constancy that made only the very worst spasms register; his hands, cracked and rougher than he’d ever known hands could be, mustered far more eager appreciation for their nightly allowance of moisturizing cream than resentment for their plight. There was a vague sense of loss at any given time, but as he’d gotten used to the experience of it more and more each day, he’d realized it wasn’t really any different than the loss he’d always felt anyhow. If anything, he thought, this sense of loss was better, because understanding it seemed within reach. Closer, with every rock broken and each new brick laid.

Or maybe I’m just losing my mind, he thought.

Henry didn’t feel particularly bad about that, either.

February 23rd, 2017

Yankee Doodle Henry, Part III

The official file on Henry Teasdale listed him as a bilateral post-angular conflict dispersement expert. It noted that his mother Rose had attempted to visit Mexico approximately one month before Henry was born, but had been detained at the gap and administered level four psychiatric repatriation. It listed Henry’s preferred food (potato salad with beets and mackerel), his most frequently used coital position and location (spooning from behind on the lower third of his bed, nineteen out of a total fifty one events), and his lifetime mean morning alarm (07:42). It also specified that following his release from the hospital in which he was born and passed his natal exams, he had no medical record whatsoever.

And it was this particularly rare attribute, hardly noticed by Henry himself, which singled him out for an especially unpleasant fate.

***

“Imagine a new world,” Henry wrote, “a world of tranquility and diversion, where family is all and your family has everything.” Henry grimmaced at the line, but just as he was about to delete it and start over yet again, an inter-office memo from Marion reminded him in flashing pink and green in the corner of his screen that the water park package copy was due before lunch. As the memo also reminded all of Henry’s co-workers, he shortly received several new memos reassuring him that they knew he could do it and warning him not to let the morning doldrums compromise the team. The more he tried to concentrate on his work, the more memos flashed into view, and they grew ever more frantic the longer Henry put off acknowledging them. Henry closed his eyes, exhaled a solid ten seconds, and quickly spewed out the remaining copy in a manic flow he was sure would be nonsense. As he read it minutes later, he was pleased to find it was exactly the sort of nonsense that was expected of him. Errorless, thickly perfumed, and terrible.

“I’m done!” he bellowed from his cubicle as another flurry of memos imposed themselves on his screen. The flashing stopped. It was time for lunch.

Henry went to get his lunch, as he did most days, at the food pits. Broad plexiglass circles level with the pavement were clustered at the nexus of several minimalls near Henry’s, each attended by a thin tube which transported order slips and money down to the staff. They could be seen milling about their business, assembling sandwiches, scraping grills, filling out customer consumption history forms, then shooting the order back up through the tube. Henry preferred burritos; while he’d tried other, less tube-like orders in the past for the sake of variety, he’d found that anything substantially diverging from a cylindrical shape suffered in transit.

He was halfway through the tortilla and extruded cheese when he heard a faint alarm that seemed to grow exponentially louder, buzzing by his head as though issued by a bee. He had the sudden sensation that he was peeing uncontrollably, rapidly followed by no sensation at all. Then the sun went out.

When Henry came to he found himself in an office, a much nicer office than his own. He was seated in a fairly comfortable high-backed chair, and the subtle scent of the orchids on the basic desk in front of him was delightful. Also on the desk were several folios, a pen, a stylish lamp, and the remains of Henry’s burrito, carefully re-wrapped. There were no windows, there were no desk drawers or other pieces of furniture, and, with a sudden start of panic that reached deep into Henry’s bowels, he noticed that there was no handle, apparently, on the only door.

Henry thumbed the papers on the desk into a messy pile and began reading. Several pages consisted of his official file. Though taken separately the pieces of information would’ve seemed innocuous, given over with ease for the asking, together they were a writhing horror. The precision of facts, the utter completeness; himself, in more detail and with an honesty he likely couldn’t muster even without an audience, compiled and available. Henry started folding the pages of his official file one by one and slid them into the pockets of his khaki pants. After seven sheets the file mercifully stopped, leaving only one: it was titled Acknowledgement, and listed Henry’s name and ID number. There was nothing else but a blank line.

Henry looked at the blank line nervously. He eyed his leftover burrito, then the door. He turned in the chair, not sure what he was looking for, finally resting on the blank line again. He had wanted to see what time it was, he realized. He turned in the chair again, finding no clocks of any kind. He contemplated taking the pages of his official file back out of his pocket and reading them over a second time. Instead, he unwrapped and ate what was left of the burrito. He wondered what would happen if he ate the sheet reading Acknowledgement, too.

It seemed to Henry that several hours had passed since he’d awoken, but so far he hadn’t devised any way to be able to tell. His ever-deepening sense of dread kept him well distracted from any practical matters, which is also why Henry ended up peeing on the carpet in the corner furthest from the door. He spent a while yelling, most of which consisted of demands to be let out and queries as to where he was and why. Just as he was starting to seriously talk himself into sleeping a while, there was indistinct noise on the other side of the door, and a man who looked a lot like Henry himself entered.

“Hello Henry,” he said, extending his hand. Henry shook it, cursing himself the moment he heard the door click shut. I should’ve made a run for it. “We’ve been experiencing some abnormally sized waiting times tonight. I’ve been asked to recognize your patience.” And what would you have done once you’d gotten out of the door, then? You know damn well you’d've just stood there or done something stupid. Henry didn’t listen to the man and didn’t notice he wasn’t listening, either.

“I have a lot of new recruits to brief here, so let’s get to it, hmm? Now uh, pursuant to your choice, made of your own free will, to read and consider an advertisement for slack de-wrinkler this day, Wednesday November the sixteenth at approximately oh-eight hundred hours, you are hereby recruited into the defense forces’ reduced leisure program for infrastructure.”

Henry’s eyes widened into tea saucers. He was listening now.

“Given your prior consent to said recruitment by SADFAG performance, you have been assigned a start date of–”

The man frowned and pulled a small notepad from his shirt pocket, flipping through the pages until he’d nearly reached the end.

“Uh, let’s see here. Henry Teasdale, ah. Tonight.”

“I didn’t know what I was doing! It was only for a couple of seconds!” Henry’s flood of panic threatened to rise over his nose and mouth as he sputtered and yelled, choking on his own spit.

“Yes, yes. You did the SADFAG, you’ve been assigned. Don’t make a fuss, now.”

“It was all because of that idiot! Did you record that idiot in the colors who tried to talk to me?! I was good, I didn’t say a word!”

“Mr. Teasdale, the forces are not concerned with the petty details of your private relationships and daily goings-on. You have been selected by way of your SADFAG performance, produced and carried out of your own free will. As I was saying, you will start tonight. You may, at your option, sign the acknowledgement form that was presented to you upon your admittance to this facility.”

The man surveyed the desk, frowning.

“I am sure you were given an acknowledgement form and a copy of your official file. Did you do something with these papers?”

Henry took the folded sheets of his official file out of his pocket and handed them over to the man.

“I’m not seeing the acknowledgement form here, Mr. Teasdale. I highly suggest that you sign and release this form to me as a gesture of goodwill. Long-term studies show that recruits who acknowledge have significantly better results than those who refuse.”

“I ate it,” Henry whispered.

“What’s that?”

“I ate the form.”

“Duly noted.” There was no trace of surprise in the man’s voice. “Your briefing is complete. Someone will be along shortly to accompany you to your barracks.” As the man turned to the opening door to leave, Henry took a daring step towards him, and another two back when the man shot him an icy stare.

“Could you– if you could give me another form I’d sign it. I’d sign it right now!”

The man was silent.

“Can you at least tell me how long my sentence is?” He sounded tiny, made of nothing.

“Mr. Teasdale, you have not been sentenced. Your recruitment, as is standard, has no specific end date.”

The door clicked shut. Henry sank to the floor, his eyes clenched shut.

***

February 22nd, 2017

Yankee Doodle Henry, Part II

Henry’s office was called The Fun Box. Not often by Henry himself, but that was the name scrawled across the front awning in big, awkward letters, and it’s what Henry’s boss Marion referred to it as without fail. When people asked Henry what he did for a living he first weighed the likelihood of their ever actually finding out, such as by patronizing The Fun Box or starting a coincidental relationship with Marion or the other people who worked with him. As long as he deemed it safe, Henry said he was an environmental research journalist. If anyone asked where they might find his writing he clarified that his work was predominantly used by “international governments” and necessarily, therefore, covert. The line had once gotten him laid, but the thought of getting obligated to the forces and exposed to the woman at the same time should lying about one’s profession be declared that day’s SADFAG had utterly robbed him of the possibility of climax.

Unsafe enquirers got something like the truth: Henry wrote attraction pamphlets for a travel agency. When someone paid The Fun Box to arrange a vacation, they were bombarded with, among other unquantifiable flotsam, multiple tri-folds in which Henry attempted to make the highest-paying corporate clients look the most worthy of vacationers’ cash. He found it stultifying, which was a beigeish shade of good.

At the sight of Marion’s maroon minivan parked in front of the office entrance, Henry immediately affected a look of wide-eyed enthusiasm. The expression made his face a little sore and his stomach a little weak, at first, but in the three years since Marion’s Training Summit for Employee Attitude, the affectation and its side effects had gotten easier to bear. They were, at any rate, a lot easier to bear than Marion’s ten-hour morale seminars, ceaseless parades of slideshow psychobabble, stale bagels, and the unfettered jiggling of Marion’s ample wattle as she clucked on about travel being half hope. She never said what the other half was supposed to be.

“There’s a happy face!” She sing-songed at him as she passed by his desk moments into his arrival routine. Marion looked at him, eyebrows raised, her right hand holding a small paper cup of chickory brew somewhat aloft, her left digging into some fold or other of her hip. For a moment Henry felt an intense desire to see her perform I’m a Little Teapot, but it made his smile curl too true, which turned Marion suddenly self-conscious. “Well, back to work, then.” She shuffled off, throwing a confused frown over her shoulder at him as she went.

Henry had graduated from the California University of Pennsylvania. He hated telling people that, and occasionally had even left his diploma off of his job resume in dreadful anticipation of having to go through the entire routine with a human resources rep. The experience as a whole, in fact, from the moment he applied (under the watchful eye of his grandfather, another alumnus) to, well…Henry supposed it never really ended. He’d forever be branded with the stupidity not only of the name, but of the place, and of all the people that expected something other than stupidity from it.

He had majored in Peace Studies, which Henry still reckoned he had little idea of, especially in terms of how it could possibly constitute a major field of scholarship. That was what they had called it, “scholarship”, he’d seen the word more times than he could count. They’d praised him for it, even, his scholarship in the field of peace studies. In the end Henry left the California University of Pennsylvania with a vague sense of it being of paramount importance to be nice to people (which people? That wasn’t a question he ever asked or was asked) if you yourself wished to avoid discomfort, and several hundred thousand dollars of debt. Debt that was supposed to be ground away into dust over time as he inevitably reaped the rewards of his fine penchant for scholarship, but which in fact had increased many times over since Henry discovered that he had no idea what to do with himself and applied for the travel agency job out of desperation while walking through the town’s minimalls in search of discounted sandwiches.

It had taken Henry a lot of time and effort to convince his parents and education counselor to let him attend the California University of Pennsylvania in the first place. Most students chose to go to whatever degree-granting institution was closest to their home city; they tended also to choose to work there after graduating. Too much movement between cities, it was judged, was bad for morale, and encouraged undesirable traits, especially amongst vulnerable youths. But Pennsylvania’s distinction as the third most violent state in the union, certainly far more violent than Henry’s native Nebraska, made it a logical place to study peace, he’d argued. Given that quotas in the state were difficult to fill then for the selfsame reason, a special dispensation had been made to permit Henry limited rights of temporary relocation. By the time he had finished his basic degree nine years later, the paperwork linking him to Nebraska was far outweighed by those mentioning his residence in Pennsylvania, and returning home had become increasingly difficult. Eventually, Henry simply stopped trying to go back.

***

February 21st, 2017

Yankee Doodle Henry, Part I

Inspired by real logvents.

Henry woke up and instantly worried that waking up would be the day’s signification of agreement to the defense forces’ arbitrary goal. The SADFAG. That was one of the classics, Henry knew, and he discussed it often with a smattering of oddballs at his office. To enlist yourself through the act of waking up –it seemed inevitable, for its universality and its inducement of dread alike.

The forces had once or twice hinted at the unlikelihood of such a signification indicator, but they hadn’t come and outright stated that it’d never happen. Henry knew the day would be a bad one if he woke up with this particular conundrum chiefly in his mind, and the more the nightly news showed reels of mysterious out-of-staters riding around on tanks and smiling as they wielded enormous guns instead of the usual eleven o’ clock cat bloopers, the more Henry woke up worried.

“Nothing you can do about it,” he muttered to himself, thrusting his feet into his slippers which left faint impressions of those selfsame words in the cheap carpet as he walked.

Henry tried to keep his worry at bay as best he could as he went on with his morning routine. Maybe it’ll be toothbrushing –or maybe if I look at myself in the mirror just so –shit! Gotta stop actually doing it. He made a few ritual alterations to each task, hoping they’d be modified enough to not qualify for any obvious categories, and pressed on. By the time he was out the door he’d almost forgotten to be concerned. Henry walked briskly in the overcast weather to the bus stop and took his place in the line. He knew most of the other people there, inasmuch as having seen them day in and day out for years without a word ever passing between them counted as knowing. He preferred the ones he knew, because they didn’t bother making eye contact with him. People he hadn’t seen as many times always seemed to be seeking out a reciprocal gaze, which Henry resented intensely. He didn’t want to have to look at anyone. Maybe that’d be the worst official duty, he thought. Having to spend some great period of time looking at people. And then being graded on it.

Henry’s palms grew sweaty in the pockets of his khaki pants. He stared pointedly at his shoes until he heard the bus approaching.

As was the case on the sidewalk and pretty much everywhere else by now, people on the bus took pains to abstain from activities. The occasional nutcase, Henry noted, could be found engaging in outrageous behaviors from working crossword puzzles to humming a tune, both of which had previously been indicated as SADFAGs. There was no stipulation that once indicated, a given activity could no longer be used, and in Henry’s mind, this made anything already on the list especially suspect.

Like wearing certain colors. Henry recoiled inwardly at the thought. That was a common one, even –three times in the past year they’d gotten “recruits” on the basis of green, blue, or red clothes worn that day. He stole a glance around the bus, a sea of khakis and beiges, just like his. Hard to pin down, relief seemingly innate in the notion of a difference between eggshell and ecru. A squat man with a funny look on his face at the back of the bus was wearing a colorblock long-sleeve t-shirt. Green, blue, and red were all present, as was yellow –the audacity! The man suddenly returned Henry’s stare, which made the latter suddenly very interested in his shoelaces. And then he sensed it. The man was coming over to talk to him. Despite the considerable hazard it would conceivably present Henry longed desperately for a newspaper, a set of headphones, anything to put between himself and the rapidly approaching colorblocks.

“Hi, I’m Ralph.”

Henry pretended not to hear him, and stared at the advertisement for slack de-wrinkler on the wall opposite.

“I just started takin’ the bus today, you know, last week I volunteered my car for official use, apparently. Ha!”

“PICK UP THE SLACK — with TIME-SAVING DEWRINKLER from WAINWRIGHT”

“I’d never even been on one of these before, wouldja believe it?”

Henry re-read the slogan and counted the double-us.

“I tell ya, I’m a little worried about the atmosphere in here. I’ve never seen so many quiet, orderly folks before in one place. And the beige! I must stand out like a sore thumb.”

What an interesting play on words, Henry forced himself to think over his silent panic, they say pick up the slack, but it’s also about an advertisement for–

“Hey, I don’t mean to bother you or nothin’. I just thought…well, honestly, no-one else has even thrown a glance my way since I got on this thing, but I guess….”

Henry watched the man’s cheery expression drain from his face from the corner of his eye.

“Well I’ll leave you alone then, pal.”

Henry relished the sudden freedom of looking wherever he wanted once Ralph was safely back in his seat. He drank in the passing trees outside, dallied over the varyingly tight curls that made up the unruly coiffure of the aged woman a few seats down, even gazed shamelessly at his own fingernails, studying the jagged tips bitten into a thin chaotic border.

This is where I end, he thought.

He could feel Ralph staring at him as he got off the bus with a few others. At the last moment he whipped around and looked inside, immediately locking eyes with the man, who smiled warmly.

What a jerk.

***