Archive for ‘fiction’

November 26th, 2012

Shall be Delivered

*Edit 12/16/12: Competition may not have been steep, but nevertheless, the story won one of three 5 BTC prizes. Ladeeda.

Following is an entry for Trilema’s short-story contest concerning the future of society given the adoption of GPG contracts. A useful primer on the subject can be found here.

Maureen Plank filled her tumbler with ice and sent it down the automated bar’s treadmill, loathing and relishing in equal parts the necessary reading and grading of sophomore papers that’d take up the evening. She watched the drink change color with each precisely calculated addition of rum, pineapple juice, and distilled tamarind. She remembered, briefly, the early days of her teaching career, when the mixture of her emotions had seen far more generous amounts of anticipation and genuine belief in the power of the public education system. Back in those days, she had graded papers with a glass of water –or sometimes without anything at all, just a woman and her red pencil stenciling finely-trained minds for tomorrow’s inevitably improved world. That was all before it had become fashionable to renege.

She still didn’t really understand it, she reflected as she took her first sweet and biting sips of the cocktail, this trend towards dishonor and dishonesty. Maureen supposed that it was, in a way, only natural that people unable or unwilling to accept authority and incapable of challenging it successfully should protest by adopting what they thought were the opposites of that authority’s values. But to hand one’s word over carelessly, to eschew the very systems that allowed the modern world to carry on with dignity and to get things done –was there anything more distasteful, more detestably unbearable? Maureen took another sip. No, it was really the worst.

The divide had become noticeable to Maureen a handful of years ago, when children young enough to have been raised without any exposure to the so-called Platinum Age of Maureen’s youth began to enter the higher grades and find means to express themselves beyond tending to algae pets and making minor explosions within the safe, goggled confines of their personal virtual chemistry labs. In fact, she thought bitterly, those gleeful and instructive pillars of her childhood were probably forgotten now; today’s children were more likely spending their time using templates for shoe-tying and practicing EID trigger digit gymnastics as preparation for school.

Shortly before they were born, the first demonstration against the ruling Integrity Party had shocked the nation and much of the world, and while many refused to believe that people would ever abandon the contract systems that had elevated society from the plagues of centuries past, nevertheless a slowly multiplying contingent ceased to uphold its word. Would agree to nearly anything at whim, would make impossible promises without the slightest consideration of how they’d be fulfilled. They didn’t even seem to care when the time to deliver arrived and they were recognized as the unconscionable liars they truly were. And now, Maureen thought, her tumbler clear and colorless again in her hand, now the children of those original dissenters were coming of age. And they didn’t know the value of integrity at all. What was she supposed to say about their papers, which so clearly misunderstood the basic principles of responsibility, papers which revealed children more concerned with their meaningless appearance than their functional self-representation? If only they’d just stop coming to class, just stay away from what good kids were left…but she couldn’t kick them out. It’d break her heart….

The automatic bar whirred sympathetically as it prepared another stormy auburn glass.

* * *

“You can’t just stand around like a limp pickle and expect us to entertain you,” said Sandy Barncroft, wrinkling her freckled –or maybe just slightly dirty– nose at Tilde. “We let you come ’cause we thought you’d be cool.”

“But I could get in a lot of trouble with my parents if they found out I was here and played truth or dare.” Tilde Plank knew they’d peg it as a lame excuse, just as she knew she really would be grounded and lectured and maybe even starved of her favorite lavender pudding if the family knew she was doing this. Actually, she realized, all that would happen if they even found out she wasn’t at this moment in her room doing the week’s dissections. She shuddered, picturing the array of invertebrates scheduled for her scalpel. She was already here, she reasoned. And she couldn’t go home with Darren and his friends writing her off as a mousy Integrity girl. “Okay,” she relented, “but just a couple of rounds.”

Darren McAlister smiled an almost painfully dimpled smile at her. When he looked at her the world at large somehow ceased to exist except in a blur of irrelevance.

“It’s about fucking time,” someone murmured. Sandy announced she was going first, since she was thirteen and the oldest by two months. No one argued. Tilde willed her to pick Darren and dare him to kiss her. She could feel it coming. This was the moment. Her palms began to clam up as she tried to watch him from the corner of her eye.

“Tilde,” Sandy said triumphantly. Shit. “Truth. Do your parents make you recite the Articles of Integrity before they tuck you in?”

“They don’t tuck me in!” Tilde blurted, a little too fast, she thought. Her palms were getting worse, her thumbs fidgeting wildly at the seams of her pockets. The giggles erupted from the circle like popping corn. “Well?” Sandy insisted. “We only say them sometimes before dinner. And at brokenball games.” More laughter. “Yeah right. Well go on, it’s your turn now.”

Tilde was mortified. Among her family and her friends that family had approved, the Articles were treated as perfectly benign, a kind of blessing that was pulled out now and then, and she knew it was important to remember the three warriors who had died shortly after writing them on the eve of Integrity’s victory all those years ago. But to these kids, it was a mark of snobbery. Maybe even to Darren…but no, she wouldn’t believe that. She was certain he’d understand if he only knew her a little better, if she could bring him home. After all, he said he’d bring her here tonight, and he had.

“Okay, um. I pick, um.” Her palms were manufacturing some kind of paste. “I pick. Larinda.” The girl across the circle emitted a little grunt. “Um. Truth.” Tilde’s thoughts raced. What was she supposed to ask? She didn’t want to embarrass her, even if it was apparently the point. Tilde eyed the girl’s flashy pink herringbone coat. “Where did you get your coat?” The popcorn laughter returned. “That’s a stupid question,” Larinda said. “Enough of this bullshit, I’m getting the party started. Tilde. Dare. Take out your postpad and write down your precious private key.”

“What?!” Tilde exclaimed, no longer aware of her sodden palms in the full-bodied flood of panic washing over her. “I can’t do that.” “You have to, she dared you,” came the replies, more or less echoed around the circle. She looked at Darren, searching for reprieve. “If you’re gonna play the game, you’ve got to play it, right? You said you would and all, doesn’t that mean you have to?” He grinned at her again. How could she get out of this? She’d been told over and over again she could never tell anyone her key. Her dad had told her he didn’t even want to think about it when she had asked him what would happen if she lost it. She had spent months memorizing it, reciting it in her head, preparing it, as her parents said, for the time when she’d be a woman and she’d need to use it out in the world. But if she left and Darren thought she was a snob….

“What’s the big deal, mine’s fa269p411tee,” said Sandy. That’s it, Tilde thought. She’d just write down the wrong key. She took the postpad out of her pocket, tore off a sheet, and clicked the ballpoint end installed in her index finger. Twelve characters later, it was done. Darren took the sheet from her hand and passed it around the circle. Tilde watched Larinda slip the paper into the pocket of her coat of still unknown origins. It worked. But she still felt a little sick, somewhere in her gut. If her parents knew!

“Pick someone already,” Sandy commanded. “God, we have to tell you to do everything.” “Oh! Right, okay. Um, Darren. Truth?” he arched his brow at her, still grinning. “Have you…have you ever kissed a girl?” The popcorn resumed.

* * *

It had been a rough workday, Ronald Plank reflected as he locked up the Reptiles Wing of the Lesser Los Angeles Natural History Museum. Which wasn’t to say, of course, that he disliked his job or that he was ready for retirement. Not at all. It was rewarding work, supervising the staff’s taxidermy and curating the visiting collections of extinct creatures. The Mojave Gila Monster, the Slippery-Toed Terrapin. It was rewarding, and perfectly honorable, even if these days he seemed to be cleaning the graffiti off of exhibit glass more often than supervising or curating. People always got a little crazy around election time, went a little out of their way to try and get their confused ideas across, even if it was entirely illogical to smear the good names of candidates and proclaim their love of various bodily fluids on expensive educational materials at the Museum. Why someone would ever imagine that defiling his exhibits was going to have any impact whatsoever on the public vote or on anything other than his time, Ronald really had no idea. Why wouldn’t the administration simply reinstate the security protocols for keeping these people out? Surely they didn’t stand much of a chance of actually learning anything.

Really though, he thought, really it was rewarding work, and certainly there were many years of distinguished curation ahead. He walked down the checkerboard linoleum of the hall. Nodded to the blonde receptonist projection –who seemed to have been upgraded with an especially tight sweater wardrobe, he couldn’t help but notice. He wondered if the administration wouldn’t have better spent its funds upgrading her personality so she’d say something other than “Thank you for visiting. Good-bye,” to him every day as he left the building.

Ronald walked the six blocks home without looking at much else besides the tops of his shoes as they padded over grass, asphalt, and the glistening black surface of the occasional step energy generator. What was going to happen if Integrity lost this time around? No, no, they couldn’t lose, it wasn’t even worth thinking about. Like retirement. Ronald immediately formulated a plan to revise the taxidermy approval schedule and recite the Articles in the study after dinner.

* * *

Dinner that night consisted of half a roast pheasant on protein pancakes with currant jam. Tilde picked at a wing, occasionally finding bits of currant, which she ate. Maureen explained that she was on a diet again, prescribed by the family image technician earlier that day. She had arranged a glass each of vodka and tomato juice, and took small sips of either punctuated with languid bites from a celery stick. Ronald, for his part, ate voraciously, his mouthfuls contributing most of the content of his recounting of the day’s scientifically important events to his wife and daughter. Unable to silently sit through more than ten minutes of this, and nearly faint with hunger after being unable to eat more than the currants for those past few days that had followed the game out of worry and guilt, Tilde dropped her fork and looked up at her parents. “I–” she interrupted her father, “I think I did something bad.”

As Tilde began to unravel the story, Maureen and Ronald Plank stopped their drinking and eating, stood up, sat back down, got up again, paced around the room, leaned over their daughter, went to the window, and finally found themselves back at their seats. “…But I changed it,” Tilde said, “so they can’t do anything with it, right?” Maureen began to sob. Ronald looked into the wide eyes of his daughter, walked to her chair, and picked her up. Wordlessly, he carried her to her bedroom. Wordlessly, he closed the door and its outside latch. He walked out of the house and moved to the room’s window, intending to lock it as well, but found it open, and Tilde gone, by the time he arrived.

* * *

He’d never reacted to anything like that before, Tilde thought, racing along the streets towards a destination unknown. This must be really bad. Worse than she had thought. What relief she had felt in confessing was obliterated by the panic that had taken over. No words! Her dad always had at least a few handfuls of them, even when he was eating. He talked in his sleep! Breaking through her mental flurry, Tilde recognized the familiar lights and signs of El Cajon Boulevard, the bright blue holograms that danced in front of the convenience store where she bought, among other things, her supplies of postpads and carbonated milk. That’d settle her stomach, she thought, a nice milk fizz and then she’d sit somewhere and think.

The man bumped into her violently, sending her backwards onto the pavement, where her ass landed hard against a step energy generator. It gave off its usual faint pulse of light on contact. Turning her head, she spotted Alton James, a man she’d seen a couple of times with her grandfather, when the old man had been alive. More recently, his face had graced Integrity campaign posters. He was chasing another figure, apparently unaware or unconcerned that she had fallen. As Tilde moved to get up, she saw an older woman in front of her on the asphalt, the skirt of her sequined dress flayed in strips like a dazzling octopus skin. People began to crowd around her, obstructing Tilde’s vision. The regenerative promises of milk fizz seemed stronger than ever. She slinked into the convenience store, limping slightly.

After three bottles of the bubbly white stuff and several streets put between her and the by now ambulance- and cruiser-strewn boulevard, Tilde was no closer to having thought her way through her predicament. Part of her desperately wished to run away, to never have to face that unbearable eerie silence from her father again, or her mother’s awful sobs. But she didn’t know where to go. And she had spent most of her money on the milk. Knowing for the last hour of her walk that she’d end up there, she finally arrived back home. Tilde found her father standing in the kitchen, arguing loudly with someone on his headset. Her mother was nowhere to be seen.

* * *

Ronald rested his balding head against the thick oak of the study desk, his hands laced over his nape. “I told you already, it was only a few kids she was with. Yeah. No. Not from our neighborhood. I don’t know. Probably. Yeah.” Thin and tinny emissions of sound escaped Ronald’s earpiece. They continued for some time. “I know it’s not permissible!” he said once the sounds had stopped. “Believe me, her entire education will be retrofitted, she’s not even leaving the house again until I’m sure. There has to be something you can–” the sounds resumed. “Well it’s because you knew him that I’m asking you to do it! Can you just look into it? Please.” Ronald’s fingers squeezed tighter against the back of his neck. “Please.”

Tilde overheard many such one-sided conversations from her room over the next few days, simultaneously worrying about what they might mean and feeling comforted by the sound of someone talking. The periods of silence were the worst. Her father had taken her holotube and radiocaster, all three of her special edition headsets, even her antique piccolo. He’d also taken her data processing console along with its interchangeable reader. There wasn’t much left in her room at all, aside from her dissection tool set, her bed, a single lamp, and her box of jewelry and index pen attachments. She sat in a corner and hugged her knees to her chest, clicking her ballpoint end out and in. In and out. Why wasn’t her mother coming in to check on her every few hours like Father was? Maybe she was out somewhere, helping. They were going to fix it. She’d never see Darren and never be bad again.

* * *

On the sixth day of Tilde’s room arrest, Ronald burst in seized with rage –a state that was incredibly rare for him, and one which Tilde had never seen. “So not only are you incorrigibly stupid, you’re also a liar! Who taught you that lying is any sort of valid recourse when you’ve done something wrong? You will go through what happened again, item by item!” Tilde stared at him blankly, shocked at hearing the word liar directed at her, and from her own family. It was a word reserved for the very worst of society, a word no one had ever used to describe her. There was nothing lower. She knew she had screwed up, but she wasn’t a liar, she thought. What was he talking about?

“NOW!” The command shook her out of her injured reverie.
“I– I went to the Empire Marina, there were some kids from–”
“That is NOT how you state points of fact. Date!”
“16 Helidor. Empire Marina. I was with–”
“TIME!”
Tilde was beginning to shake. “I don’t know what you mean,” she began.
“16 Helidor, TIME!” Nothing. “At what time did this take place?” Ronald roared.
“I don’t know, I can’t think with you yelling at me!” And indeed Tilde couldn’t. Or rather, she couldn’t figure out how to stop herself from shaking, or her mind from screaming, in order to make room for the simple task of retrieving and reporting a banal memory.

“Let me make this very clear to you,” said Ronald, his voice still hard but quieter and lower than it had been. “You have been identified as a key witness for the People’s Party in the trial of Alton James. They have your signature on a contract stating you’ll testify. The entire country will be watching next week on the news as the statement that you saw Alton James murder a woman on the street and walk away is read. Now, either you’ve somehow witnessed a murder and signed that contract while being supposedly confined to this room, or else you gave away your secret key without altering anything. As if what you already told us wasn’t bad enough!”

“I saw Mister James a week ago, he was running after a man with something shiny in his hand. There was a woman too, on the sidewalk…I don’t think he hurt anybody. I didn’t tell anyone though!” she added.
“Then?”
“I was sure I changed the last character,” Tilde replied, earnestly perplexed.

“One, you changed ONE?” Ronald was stunned. Until this point he hadn’t imagined he could have possibly been any more stunned than he was, after his daughter’s confession last week and today’s news from his father’s old Integrity friend. He’d taught the girl to read, to appreciate reptiles, to use market arithmetic, to play the piccolo…she was his own, his very own, and she was apparently so hopelessly incompetent he could’ve mistaken her for a child reared by mindless adhesivists on the streets. So now, in addition to begging the Integrity official for a new key for his daughter and protection against the original ever coming back to her in the unlikely event it was deciphered from the one she’d said she augmented, now he was going to have to beg for…for what? What could they do now? Her name, her face, her very genetic material would be linked with the damned public key that was tied to the code she’d flitted away, linked with this scandal, with this family disgrace. Ronald laced his fingers behind his neck again, his head resting on his daughter’s knee. What could they do?

* * *

David Fine looked at his watch. Three past. He’d give the man one more minute, then he’d leave. He couldn’t stand the notion of other people forcing their approximations of time on him, with their slightly fast and slightly slow devices, all ticking away according to whatever idiosyncratic settings they’d been given, getting every second slightly wrong. And even if they kept their timepieces synched, you could expect that “five” meant “any time between four forty and five nineteen.” No one ever seemed to notice that Fine was always on time, to everything, precisely.

He heard the footsteps draw nearer and began to walk slowly along the tree-lined corridor of the park. It being dawn, the area was blessedly empty save for the odd morning jogger –and they were almost always tuned in to a ‘cast.

“When I was a boy,” Fine started, “my mother took me to a park not unlike this one. There was a large pond, with a grand pump-powered fountain at the center. I was watching a family of ducks, a mother and several ducklings, swimming in a line. The mother moved towards the fountain, and one of the ducklings broke the line and went straight towards it. By the time the mother noticed the duckling had gotten too close, and was taken under. She panicked. She swam the fountain’s circumference, and all the other ducklings followed. Eventually she dove. She didn’t come back up. Neither did the rest of them.”

“I never imagined that this would happen,” Ronald said, coming astride, “I wanted to prepare her, I thought she understood–”
“You thought she’d understand concepts she wasn’t ready for, and more dangerously, that she’d obey.”
“She’s never been any trouble before. Look, I know it’s bad.”
“Do you? Do you know that your father, before he died, believed that James was the right person to lead Integrity into the new decade? So did a lot of people. So did I. Your duckling has effectively ensured that will never happen.”
“So punish me. Put me in prison, send me to the Detroit Wastes, anything. But help me get her a new start. I’ve been thinking, if we could stage her death–”
“And what happens when her DNA is identified?”
“Yes but there are ways we can prevent that from happening, forged samples, something.”
Fine stopped. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Even if it could be managed –and I’m not suggesting that it reasonably could be–, there’s the question of whether something like this can actually be forgiven.”
“It was a mistake,” Ronald insisted, “she’s a child. Even adults make mistakes.”
“That it was a mistake is not the issue. That her word was abused, and with documentation on record, no less, and further that it was used for the purpose of burying our star candidate, is. We don’t pardon the millions of people who’ve used signed contracts unethically. They’re ruined. The difference is we’re not particularly concerned with them, because they haven’t managed to cause any meaningful damage. The People’s Party has been inching towards a takeover for years, they’re now on the very cusp of overturning everything Integrity has stood for. ” He paused, looking Ronald firmly in the eye.
“I suggest you make it easy for your family.”
“I can’t….” Ronald breathed more than spoke his reply.
“You will. The girl cannot be saved. I suppose we’ve been too unguarded, leaving key generation to the discretion of parents. If we come out of this election alive, you have my word we’ll look at this…problem, of youth.”
If Ronald heard the man it didn’t register.
“I’m sorry. Your father was a great man. I would have liked to help his kin.”
Fine continued walking along the corridor, alone.

* * *

Maureen wondered how her husband could bear to leave the house and come into contact with the world outside while their family was heaving with the weight of shame. She was a teacher, Maureen thought to herself, why didn’t she see that Tilde hadn’t been ready? Even if Ronald got this to go away, like he promised her he would before leaving the house early that morning, even then she’d still know that she had failed at being a good mother. Every day at work she felt scorn for the children of the People, wondering how they could be so reckless and uncautious with their word. But maybe it was the parents’ fault. The parents, and the teachers, who made children recite the Articles and learn the history, and the ones who taught that recitations and histories weren’t important. Maybe they were equally guilty, so long as they failed to pass down the understanding and maturity that a society held together by honor required.

She heard the front door open and shut. Heard a faint rustling as outer layers of clothes were removed and laid aside. Muted footsteps. A lengthy creak from an ill-oiled hinge being moved. Two faint series of clicks. More footsteps. She heard her husband open their daughter’s bedroom door.

Her husband’s voice.
“…It is through free will that I enter a contract, and through the same free will that I make good upon it. My word is my shepherd as it is my sheep, it shall guide me to greatness fed upon the nourishment of my reverence and respect. With my key my word shall be delivered…”

She heard the first shot. Maureen Plank dove out of bed and nearly threw herself down the stairs, racing towards Tilde’s room, her fingernails carving thin lines in the wood of the railing all the way down. She reached the landing. And heard the second.

January 31st, 2012

Batoane de Carne

Jurnal Capitanului, 30 Aprilie 2020, 6 zile in afara de Planet #$*!

Toata echipa doarme. In 6 zile, vor ajunge la #$*! cu incarcatura, care este cel mai mare sarcina trimit pana acum. Am in 5,000 barili aproximativ 750,000 litri de petrol. Nu-mi place sa zbor cu acest mult de greutate, dar extraterestrile au zis ca revendicarea a crescut nebuna in ultimul an. Amintesc cum, cand contact a fost facut cu ei, nimeni pot credeau ca primul lucru ei vreau era petrol. “Orice lucru vrei, poti ai,” ziceau lideri noi, “dar petrolul –am o nevoie prea mare, si este foarte, dar foarte limitat ca o resursa.”

“Faci lucruri prosti cu acest substanta.” Spuneau extraterestrile. “Materiale plastice sunt urate, si au un gust rau. Si pentru combustibile, n-ai nevoie de petrol. Poti faci fapturi noi mici.”

Fapturi erau…ciudati la inceput, a spune cel mai putin. Ca niste cincile, moi si cu ochi mari. Acum ei fac toti masini sa muncesc, si am primit douasprezece perechi de reproducere pe an, care-i mai mult decat suficient pentru toata lumea. Nava cosmica a mea zboara prin cerii din cauza o echipa de sase fapturi puternice. Din cand in cand, fac griji despre intrebari de durere. Ma intreb daca fapturi simt durere, in timp energiei ei este sugit pentru comoditate al oameni. Posibil e mai bine sa nu baga in seama….

Batoane de carne, suntem chemat. Extrateristrile au in loc de piele ceva metal de nu stiu ce compositie, in loc de sange, un fel de noroi negru, care curge ca melasa. Ei radeau cu bucuriei a unor bebelusi cand descopereau muschii si maruntaie nostri. Dar nimic e haios in ochi ei in comparatie cu politicieni. Nu conteaza care partid sau filozofie au oameni noi de stat. Daca politicieni se imbraca-n costumuri si fac argumente, tot e bine cu ei.

De fapt, in afara de petrolul, chestia de cea mai mult branza la Planet #$*! e politicieni la kilogram. In acest moment, cinci persoane –din Japonia, Franta, Guatemala, si doua din Sudan– sunt in nava impreuna cu barili. Probabil, vor aparea pe programe de comedie la video dupa debarcam. Am auzit ca-i o viata usoara pentru ei, chiar daca este un pic umilitoara.

Deci, noi primim o solutie din blana pentru energie, si fiinte din #$*! primesc tirani, mincinosi, si manuitori nostri pentru divertisment. Bineinteles, votam pentru cine vor fi primit la lumea noua-n cosmosul. In general primim cel mai rau indivizi putem, si ei sunt mai mult productivi ca asa, ca obiecte de umor. Gaseam cateva ani in urma ca petrolul e folosit si intr-un mod subit: este o baza pentru parfum. Inca nu stiu cum merge sex intre fiintele, dar aparent mirosul de petrol ajuta. Aici am aproape un milion de litri de afrodisiac.

Cred ca-i o relatie buna in sfirsitul, adica-i eficient pentru toti. Vai, dar drumul la #$*! este lung si obositor, fara multe obiective turistice, si nu pot dorm in nava. Doar sase zile….

***
Pentr-un concurs de fictiune.

May 26th, 2011

Charity

Back behind the cupboards were the cobwebs and the sediments that straddled fluid and gritty matter, where things untouched and left to the whim of the darkness accumulated, grew, stretched out in miniature tides over the powerless surfaces, spilling only the slightest hints of horror into the realm of the visible.

Jackie felt the expansion of these tiny networks of disgust reach into her, penetrating three dollars’ worth of chocolate and neroli body balm, seeping through a spray-on tan now two days past its promised lifespan, beyond the pampered strata of her skin, making a beeline towards her throat, where it installed silent mantras of self-doubt and guilt. A factory at the base of her throat fleshed out as she sat crouching on the cold kitchen tiles, the exhaust of sudden feelings fumbling forward from her mouth in patternless and quaking intervals.

Luxury’s clinging veils, stacked and undulating, beat against her in a thousand butterfly kisses, carrying a world of cares away on fleets of tiny gilded wings. But some things, being empty, could not be carried away. Holes hid deep inside her chest, unfilled by champagne or wit, cradling unknown ecstasies, the unsettling nothingness calling out to people and to places Jackie didn’t understand.

She hadn’t understood the man who walked the town’s main square day in, day out, with bare but trimmed and oft-washed feet, his hands clasped like old friends behind his back. The man’s basal and distant stare, the work of thoughts that lay beyond the confines of the square and its well-populated host, was punctuated with sporadic scenes of acute awareness in which the man’s face seemed to saturate with color and excitement, his eyes imbued with dew and light to linger on a flower or the uneven footsteps of a child chasing after overfed and lazily dispersing pigeons.

He didn’t seem so much like one of the poor, but more like a town monument, to Jackie, who watched him from the safety of sidewalk cafes, strolling past the foreground of crustless watercress sandwiches and fork-speared spirals of shrimp.

She’d never seen anybody talk to the man, or share anything more than a point or a laugh. A perambulatory statue giving substance to the square he walked, wildly streaked hair gathered in an obedient braid that swished like a horse’s tail behind his head.

Jackie wanted to give the man some thing, some token of nourishment, an artifact of the life she wrapped around the holes inside her chest like a silk pashmina. To see his eyes light up, the breath of recognition clarify the air, the smile of genuine appreciation, warm, infectious, cloying, eternal.

She had arranged three shrimp on a napkin, overlaid with one long strand of chive, the presentation so precise and rich in counterpoint it might have been a perfect logo, if logos were made of seafood or could be rolled up in napkins and generously donated to eccentric men of unspecified psychoses. This thought nervously skittered its way around a particular emptiness somewhere in Jackie’s viscera as she left the shaded cafe terrace and walked towards the north end of the square.

Her fingers tapped out minute tremors against the air and the prized morsels in her hand loosened in their wrapping, the parcel losing sudden weight as one shrimp fell out. Jackie turned, a reflex pouring fast into her joints to retrieve the shrimp, but she recoiled when a pigeon’s head flashed forth and darted at the pink and orange flesh, the pointed beak tossing the shrimp obscenely into the air and attracting the attention of every other pigeon in the square.

A young boy’s steady stream of bubbling laughter rushed over the crowding pigeons like a sudden waterfall and turned, as if by some invisible and joyous inertia, the head of the walking man. He didn’t look at Jackie. Coming closer to take in the free-for-all, the man moved slowly past Jackie and her barely-outstretched hand as she fruitlessly fought to find a phrase of offering that wouldn’t be offensive, that wouldn’t be too personal, that would somehow convey her longing to stop up the vacancies inside her with the kind of calmness, the unfettered, naked movement he so obviously possessed.

A fat, uneven-feathered pigeon late to the buffet walked drunkenly past Jackie’s feet and shat unceremoniously on her beloved taupe suede pumps, the wetness trickling down between her exposed toes.

“Oh, fuck, shit!” the words poured out of her in sympathetic excrement. The man turned and looked at Jackie, his face devoid of the amber glow of new discovery, devoid of the serene lines of total acceptance.

His face, ugly for the first time, frowned at Jackie and her helpless isolation from a moment shared between a real person and the real world. And so she left the square, two shrimp still in hand, and sank inside the leather silence of a taxi, taken home to tuck the holes to bed on the superficial face of cleanliness and sanity on the kitchen floor.