Back Issue Archive
The Open Window
The man stands in the middle of a black-and-white street.
He has been buffeted and chased by powerful winds that are taking the town apart around him. Cars overturned, buildings destroyed, massive paddle-boats torn from their moorings, frightened people tumbling into shelters.
The man was asleep in a hospital bed when the building around him ascended into the heavens. Then his bed was pushed through the streets of the town, wind and debris silently shrieking all around him.
The bed comes to a stop in front of a house. He hides under the bed, and then the bed is yanked away by the wind.
The man stands in the middle of the street, alone, unprotected, rubbing his neck while the shadows change on the front of the house behind him. The sun isn’t moving, the house is; leaning forward. It is a heartbeat away from falling on the man and crushing him. He does not know what is happening behind him. He will be killed and he will not know how or why. He is standing where he is standing and that’s all the reason nature requires.
The front of the house falls forward, surrounding the man for an instant. Then the wood and beams and plaster are everywhere. But the man is alive and unharmed. He stands in what was a second story window left open. The house fell around him. Miraculously. He looks at the crushed house at his feet in what was an instant ago an empty street.
He realizes what’s happened, what almost happened, and runs away. He runs from the storm that still pursues him, still capable of killing him in numerous ways. He is buffeted by the storm, by rain and wind and boxes and lamp-posts and trees and mud and chickens. He is able to continue this desperate hunt for survival because he was standing at the exact right spot at the exact right moment to spare him from being squashed. He did not chose the place to stand. He did not calculate the odds. He was just there, and the house missed him. That's all the reason fate requires.
The storm gives him no time to contemplate his escape. He does not have time to be thankful. He does not have time for gratitude. He still has to deal with the storm. And he is able to deal with the storm…and save the girl and save his father and save the father of the girl…because he was standing where he was standing. That's how things work.
Gratitude comes later. Much later. After the storm.
Joe Gillis is a writer living in California.
Reflections from the Bathtub
Tomorrow would be Jason Akins eighth week in the cancer group. He hated it, refusing to speak, even when Dr Taylor, a cancer survivor of some ten plus years, tried to push him to say something about how he felt about the seemingly death sentence he received.
It was two weeks before Thanksgiving and Dr Taylor announced that the next week’s topic for the group would be, “What are you thankful for?” and everyone, and Dr Taylor meant that EVERYONE! would speak, including him.
Laying in the bathtub, the water so hot it killed thousands of sperm just by sitting in the water, listening to Jerry Jeff Walker sing “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” a song when he heard it reminded of the times he spent with his grandfather and how he missed them so. Jason reflected on what that question really asked. “What am I grateful for?” repeating those words over and over until he acknowledged for the first time he just didn’t know how to answer such a complicated question.
The group cancer sessions were held in an atrium of University Hospital. It was cheerful, beautiful, a place of reflection. The group’s session was always the same, the inclusive six members - now down to five since Ozzie Woodruff got himself killed at an anti-Trump rally when he drove his pickup through the crowd hoping to take few of them with him before pulling an empty gun on the cops who tried to arrest him - lead by Dr Taylor, would sit in a circle and muse about how they were dealing with their cancer diagnosis.
The group was an interesting mix. Toby Sinclare was the youngest of the group at just sixteen, she was headed for a pro tennis career after being an alternate on the US Olympic team. When she spoke, it was with an optimistic spirit of youth who hadn’t yet met the harshness of reality. Mike Powell sat to her left and he almost always dragged the group toward a political conversation before Dr Taylor reined him back in. Next in the circle was the perpetually pessimistic Deacon Johnson who could find the dark cloud hidden in a rainbow. Then there was Olive Wilkens who was, kindly putting it, a force of nature. She liked to dominate the group’s conversations, peppering everything she said with, “When I ...” Not so sadly,her future would be short. She wouldn’t see Thanksgiving Day because she stepped into oncoming traffic while listening to NPR on her phone and would get hit by a dump truck as she was running late to meet her best friend Natalie for dim sum at their favorite place, Cookie’s Cookery and Dim Sum Emporium. The group’s leader was Dr Taylor, a slim man with a runner’s body and a voice as smooth as Irish butter, looked much younger than his seventy-nine years. He would sit next to Olive, often placing his hands on her arm whenever she went too far in her dominance of the group, reminding and encouraging her to let others speak.
Finally, there was Jason himself. He would sit on a wood folding chair, not in the circle but not out of it either, resting his arms on the back of the chair, head on his arms, baseball cap pulled down low, and as he rolled his eyes at Olive he would mutter softly the only words he would ever say at the group meetings, “Here we freaking go.” when Olive spoke in her shrill voice.
In the bathtub Jason started to think about his life. He never intended to be anything of substance and without much work achieved that goal with ease. He’d been a soldier in a shooting war, narrowing escaping death unlike the man standing next to him when the enemy began firing at them. He survived a roll-over when he stupidly pushed his car beyond its limits while at speeds of over 150mph. He survived a helicopter crash, a crash which killed the pilot and which left Jason paralized from the waist down and had to learn to walk again. He was certainly grateful for the people who adopted him and gave him a family. When they were murdered he became bitter and closed off to the world and disappeared to Latin America to figure out his life…
He thought about his grandfather, their days listening to baseball on the radio and the memory of that time made him smile. He thought about his grandmother who died from cancer like he shortly would and who taught him that each day of life was a precious gift not to be ignored or wasted. Jason was grateful for the time they had as he wiped a tear from his eye.
He thought about his meager career in Hollywood, the friends he’d made, the people he’d help gain success while he himself floundered for lack of ambition. But even at that he was thankful for the opportunities he was given.
Adding more hot water to the bath, Jason thought about the dogs he had in his life and the joy they brought him, the cold days on the beach, walking with his dog and not a single person within eyesight or the hot mornings in the hills above his Studio City home and walking alongside the rich and famous as they shared the experience of being in nature.
Jason and his wife left California to pursue other opportunities for work and to secure a more affordable lifestyle for their eventual future retirement, they found a pleasant little home not far from the state capital of their new state. They spent time with their new dog and made a few friends before the pandemic hit.
Jason closed his eyes as he soaked and thought about how he and his wife met and it made him smile. She had taken a great risk when she fell in love with him, barely knowing him and his questionable past. But love him she did and he was grateful for that love, it was the one thing he would treasure most in the short time he had left.
The cancer had spread from his manhood into his lymph nodes and through his body. It also was in his kidneys and terminal. He would be dead in a matter of months and while not concerned with the eventuality of dying he did worry deeply about what would happen in the aftermath of his death. What would his wife do? Would she be happy again?
Jason drained some water from the tub and again added more hot water. He looked at the medicines given to him intended to mitigate the pain living in his body. It would be an easy thing to overdose on the pills, fall into a deep pleasurable quasi-sleep and slip under the water to drown. He reached for the pills, examining each container, setting them back down and picking them up with each new thought about what would come next in his slide into death.
He thought hard. It would be the easy way out, why drag things on? Why let his wife suffer as he deteriorated into a frightful shell of skin and bones with each passing day. There was nothing to be gained by waiting for the undertaker.
The neighbors didn’t know about Jason’s plan and would’ve been annoyed had they known the police and ambulance would arrive shortly after his wife would find his body, in a vain attempt to save Jason from himself.
He grabbed the bottles and opened each one.
At group again Dr Taylor spoke in a quiet voice. He faced the circle and said he had an announcement.
“I received a phone call last night,” he said. “I’m not sure how to say this--”
“Where’s Jason?” Olive interrupted. “He’s late. I’m sick of that guy, he’s such a downer. I want to get started.”
The door to the atrium opened with a bang.
“Shut up, Olive.” Jason says, his words louder with each step as he walks across the floor to his place in the group. “It’s my turn to speak, I’m going first. I’ve got a lot to say thanks for and you’re going to listen for a change.”
Jake was a writer living in California. He doesn’t live there anymore.
Your Daily Bread
I certainly was not expecting to find the son of God working at a diner off the Dallas North Tollway.
Jesus was a terrible waiter. I ordered water, but he kept bringing me wine. I did not complain. Times must be tough if he needed this side hustle.
I found watching him drop off breakfast specials and condiments to impatient travelers oddly hypnotic. Would Judas be the bus boy?
I polished off my cheese fries and dabbed at the grease that dripped down my knit jersey with my napkin.
Jesus dropped off my check. I tipped extra and hit the road.
Eve Allen is a writer living in Texas.
THE WORLD UNDER REVIEW
The thunder sounds ominous tonight.
The aggressiveness of posters on other sites
Pound the boards and scorch the screen
With red-hots pixels that burn my eyes.
Death, lies, and trying times
Leave me picking the lint from between the keys
And I'm not sure which is more important
Or if there's a chance in hell for any redemption.
I'm accused of having an opinion or two,
So I consider just keeping them as thoughts.
But I can't help but wonder which of them
Will vex my mind, all through the night.
Open a page, scroll down the screen
See what jumps out and grabs me
And see what really merits scrutiny.
Or is it all just an illusion of words?
In the end, nothing's adding up.
Chaos eludes order's restrictions
And order denies chaos' delight.
Yet both abhor a vacuum's plight.
The world under review coughs up no clues
As to what's going to happen next
And the aggressive thunder pounds my eyes
With death, and lies, to a mind that's vexed.
Brian Lux is a writer living in California.
John W. Smithwick
Ten years ago I was standing at my kitchen sink. It was a Sunday morning and I had just swallowed a teeny, tiny pill for my blood pressure. It felt like the pill got stuck in my throat and I began to feel light headed. This wasn’t the first time and I thought, like all the other times, this feeling would go away. But it didn’t. I remember thinking this was the worse ever. I closed my eyes and when I opened them again, I was laying on the kitchen floor.
At that time, I had never heard of the Vagus nerve. But I became very familiar with it over the next few days. Simply, it controls a lot of functions in your body including your heart rate. With me, it affected the muscles in my neck and the flow of blood to my brain and I blacked out.
The next day, Monday, I had an EKG. I had a longer EKG on Tuesday. On Thursday I had a pacemaker implanted. The following Thursday I drove 150 miles to have Thanksgiving with my sister and her family.
I had plenty to be thankful for that Thanksgiving. My heart doctor told me I was fortunate to have been standing when I fainted. Lying prone on the floor allowed my heart to start beating again. If I had been sitting in a chair, I may not have been so fortunate.
Having a pacemaker also made me realize that for years, I have not been a fat, out of shape pudge who got winded climbing stairs or doing yard work. It was an irregular heart beat not allowing my blood and its oxygen to circulate as it should. The difference of having a pacemaker can’t be overstated. I can now climb stairs without using a hand rail. I still don’t do yard work but now it’s because I don’t want to and not because I can’t.
I had been losing weight prior to all this, so that Thanksgiving I had my niece take several photos of me that I posted on a Baby Boomer dating site. I met my future wife two months later.
That was ten years ago and another Thanksgiving is approaching. On the thankful side, every one from ten years ago are still with us and all are doing well. But unlike Thanksgivings past, there will be no family gathering because of Covid-19. It’s 2020’s version of Damocles sword.
Everyone in my family is reacting to this virus in their own way. Some only go out to buy food. Others haven’t stopped going out but always wear a mask, even in the car. Some haven’t been to their office in months and are now comfortably working from home. For me, Facebook is getting a workout and the playground near where I live is still locked. While I’m a bit too big for the swings and slide, it was always nice to sit under a tree and take in the fresh air. Air that now, if you believe what you hear and read, is infested with tiny viruses waiting to make a home in my lungs.
I’m thankful that the restaurants are starting to reopen. My wife and I went to a Japanese restaurant a couple days ago for dinner. Masks were required but you didn’t have to wear them to eat. Disney is also slowly opening. Disney is just down the road from us and we would often go for a change of pace, to walk and look, to eat ice cream and enjoy the free shows. We haven’t been there in months and I look forward to our next visit. I’m not a fan of Mickey but I liked saying hello to Snow White. I’m curious to see what she looks like in a mask.
People talk about the new normal. It’s a nice catch phrase that I believe is starting to have more truth to it than I though this past spring. I’m thankful I’m able to roll with this “normal.” The sky isn’t falling and there aren’t any bodies in the street. I don’t think there will be a zombie apocalypse and I can still buy toilet paper. I’m thankful I’ve kept my head while others have lost theirs.
But I temper my thankfulness when I see how easy it is for people to fall in line, to allow themselves to be ordered about. I think about the tough, free living Americans that created this country. The people we read about in history books like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. These are the kind of people we think of when we hear “Remember the Alamo” and “Millions for Defense But Not One Cent for Tribute.” While it is all right to see Clayton Moore wearing a mask, it’s not all right for Davy Crockett. Nor me.
Will this new normal mean the end, or at lest accelerated demise, of the American spirit? Will we become a nation of followers, a tough bull but easily controlled by the media created ring in our nose? That, I can’t be thankful for. That is what I wonder about when I lean on the locked gate to the playground and when I see small children wearing masks. Like elephants in a row, grabbing the tail of the elephant in front of it, looking neither right nor left but content to walk in tireless circles, following some media savy ring master wielding a whistle and whip. Are we now glimpsing our future?
John W. Smithwick is a writer living in Florida.
And The Good News? Ann Lewis Hamilton
Let’s see. I’m grateful for… wait a minute, it’ll come to me.
We’re living in the middle of a pandemic. We can’t go to church or celebrate Thanksgiving with our family. We can’t go to plays or concerts. Businesses have closed, children aren’t in school.
The election is a shitshow. What has happened to our great democracy?
Today I was taking a break from writing and sitting outside reading a book about film composer Max Steiner. Our dog Winston kept dropping a tennis ball in my lap for me to throw. At one point, I looked over and he’d discovered a bee. Naturally he decided to chase it. And naturally, there was absolutely no way he could catch it. But he didn’t give up. He ran after that bee, doing his crazy dog dance. Leaping in the air, a blur of black fur. I could hear his jaws snapping shut – crack – missing the bee every time.
I’d swear the bee was taunting him. Eventually Winston gave up, grabbed a tennis ball and delivered it to my lap, ready to resume the game.
I’m grateful for a back yard to sit in and a good book to read, lovely Southern California weather. And a crazy black dog who just might catch that bee one day.
Ann Lewis Hamilton is a writer living in California.
Shine down on me
With every thought we share we touch the silence within our hearts
Every morning tells the story of the nights we’ve left behind
And she runs into the sunshine of each new day
I want to watch her as she shines, let it shine down on me.
Let it shine, let it shine down on me
I want to feel the sunshine of her love shine down on me.
Now, as her world swiftly turns I reach inside her dreams
Holding on to just one moment she becomes a fantasy for me
Her thoughts and mine are running wild
Holding hands as we run into the sun and share the silence in our hearts.
For every word we share a thousand thoughts come alive inside these dreams
And every morning I awake knowing that the sun is shining down on me
Let it shine, let it shine down on me.
A fantasy to look inside and live within these dreams
Watching as the sun shines down as she reaches out to me
sharing a thousand thoughts she comes alive with just one word
touching the silence within my heart she shares her dreams with me.
And I watch it shine, shine down on me.
I don't mind
When I look up in to the sun everything around me blends into one
All that I see and all that I feel become free and my thoughts start to run
Faster and faster as words fly by it’s hard to see the stars in the sky
Eventually all will come to rest as time passes by and I don’t mind.
The world is all that it is and it spins around me like a laser in the mid-night
So here I stand with the stars in my hands and a girl like you laughing to the world's delight
Can you see inside of all that she hides, pieces of me like a laser in the mid-night
A shooting star across my mind burning its image in space and time, and I don’t mind.
She cries alive into the light spinning all around her and I don’t mind, she’s alright to me
If you want to look inside just close your eyes and listen to her laughter passing by, you won’t mind
She sounds like the ocean of space and time crashing through dreams into the mid-night, alive she cries
So if you want to see the stars then close your eyes and look inside, she’s passing by laughing at the mid-night.
Listen to the sounds of crashing tides, foot prints passing in the sands of space and time leaving dreams in my mind
Now the world can see her talking to the storm and laughing at the mid-night and we don’t mind
She moves around like the stars in the sky and I can see her as she passes by
Now I’m laughing at the mid-night and I don’t mind.
Jeff Nesvig is a writer living in Florida.
Shakespeare has said, “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Today’s world is so much more evidentiary focused – and by that, I mean what you see, the events you experience – those tangible mortal material things you can point to and say, “Yeah? Look at this? How are you going to spin this into gratitude? How do you rethink COVID into good? Shakespeare never met a Hitler!”
We’ve lost our way in today’s extreme society – everything is viewed from the cold hard science of empirical evidence – you don’t think there were plagues and bad nasty people in Shakespeare’s day?
If someone has grace and gratitude today, they are seen either as a clueless but kind individual – or simply clueless.
How do we maintain a grateful mindset in a world that focuses and promotes negative drama?
The first step is to see that our minds are prone to disaster-focus. We have airlines that fly thousands of flights a day – but we focus on the one crash in a year. We have a world where billions of things go right – but we overwhelmingly report the wrong.
Sure, it’s important to fix the wrong – but it is important to accept and acknowledge and be grateful for the right!
Have you ever looked at our freeway system, for example, and thought, “Wow – the planning and work and the upkeep to keep this system together is insane! People have created smooth roads for us to travel anywhere on the entire continent. What a convenience!”
Usually we only notice when something goes wrong, “Damn road work – I’m going to be late!”
Grocery stores! What a miracle! Food is brought to us – we have multiple choices! The work that goes into the growing and harvesting, trucking, placing on shelves and making available to us is immense!
Usually we only mention the grocery store in terms of “They were out of the bread I wanted, so I had to buy this.”
One of the things we need to do is to train ourselves away from the negative. The old saying goes you believe what you see and see what you believe. If you believe in good things – you are considered foolish or too soft. For years when I was writing professionally the knock on me was that I was too optimistic, too positive, and therefore too soft of a writer.
What does that say about Hollywood and what they believe about us? They are profit based and they think that unless you are writing a kids show for Disney – you have to be cynical and dark – and the age they target for optimism and hope keeps lowering. Kids movies of today have a good dose of cynical sarcasm in order for them to be four quadrant movies (movies which will appeal to all demographics).
Gratitude for our country has really been hit – somehow the United States is seen as a place that owes everybody everything, is deeply flawed, has victimized everyone and no one wants to say a pledge, sing a national anthem while standing, or have a sense of pride and gratitude.
Our country is an idea – it’s a great idea – the people who have carried out this idea are human and flawed. Many here have done great jobs and have tried to push the country to higher manifestations of its potential. But standing for the national anthem is a moment where we can come together in unified gratitude for the promise of the country – for the promise of humanity – if you stand and love your country it is not saying “Everything is OK.” It is saying even though there are areas where we need to improve, how great it is that we live in a country where I can express my feelings, I can help it get better, I can be grateful for the country and still make it better.
And guess what – more change will come faster with gratitude than complaint.
Have you ever bought a car and suddenly, from the moment you bought that car you start to see your make and model everywhere?
You have become conscious of that make and model, so you recognize it everywhere. I remember when my wife got pregnant with our first child, I could not believe how many pregnant women I suddenly saw. It wasn’t luck or happenstance – it was the fact I was conscious of it – those women would have been there anyway, but I was seeing them now.
The same holds true with gratitude – if you live in a grateful and graceful consciousness – you will see reasons to be grateful everywhere – its axiomatic. It takes a bit of discipline and you may have to fight off demons for a while, but it is true – “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Peter Crabbe is a writer living in California.
Come See About Thanks
Ok. I need to be productive. I need to get outside of my mind and outside of this world. I will write. What are Ann and Joe up to this month with Hot Valley Writers? I will just open my email. Hmmm, they say, “But because 2020 has clearly been the best year ever (is there such thing as an irony font?), we thought we'd go for thankful.”
Thankful? Be thankful. Yes. YES. YES!!! I can do this.
I think they wanted more. Who am I thankful for? Or what am I thankful for?
Well: Thanks for protecting and serving. Thanks for wearing the mask over part of your face. Thanks for worrying about closing the borders, but letting a shipful of infected into the country. Oh yeah, thanks for that dumb ass wall that could have paid for masks for every citizen. Thanks for allowing Amazon to become a monopoly and having all the small businesses close. And thanks for $600 extra dollars for like 2 weeks. What a difference that made. I mean thank you for that. Thanks for teaching the world that cheating is the best way to win. Thanks for actually stacking the court and then saying we should worry that the other side might stack the court. Thanks for making us all sick and then taking away health care. Thanks for turning the older TV generation into mindless zombies. Thanks. I mean just so much to thank you for.
This isn’t what they said to do. Hold on, why is my phone buzzing?
Oh shit. THANKS FOR THIS BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Shocking? No. But thanks.
[Scott’s wife comes into the room with a cup of hot tea and a fresh baked cookie and sets it down by the computer, iPad, and phone.]
Scott Ryan is a writer living in Ohio.
Melrose Hack: Tales of Frustration
Once upon a time in a land not so far away is a store that I call Melrose Hack or The Hack for short. Not sure why, as The Hack is located on the esplanades of Olive Boulevard in beautiful downtown Burbank. It is a store filled with heroes and villains. Shadows and substance are indiscernible, and logic vanishes like the wind.
Our story is not a bedtime story, but it could be a nightmare for those who cross the threshold between light and darkness. There are good guys and bad guys and the evil villain, Justin “The Terrible,” stalks the terra with vacuity. This is my story, my descent into the bucket of hell, it is a place called Melrose Hack.
Our society today requires us to be tethered to technology to communicate and function. Industry and culture have created a world where we need to be “plugged in.” So, this is the case, we require our phones and computers in order to be relevant. The alternative is a cabin in the woods, and at this point, that doesn’t sound so bad.
About a month ago, I turned on my MacBook and powered up. As one of my wife’s cooking shows blared in the background, I realized it was taking more time to turn on than being on hold with Spectrum. This barely used laptop, as Lili Von Shtupp said in Blazing Saddles, had gone “kaput!”
Donning my KN95 mask, or at least that’s what it claims to be, I headed over to a local computer store that I call The Hack, to see what was wrong with my MacBook.
I checked the computer in, waited a few days, and was informed it was a logic board failure. That means it’s like Frankenstein’s brain before they plug in the power. It’s going to cost $800, a cheery woman tells me on the phone. Don’t you love it when cheery people give you bad news?
It reminded me of the day a young kid arrived at my house. With a big smile, he held a box out to me and said, “Here’s your mom.” And so it goes.
Back at the Hack I asked the service guy behind the counter, “I suppose it’s out of warranty.”
He smiled at me. “Yeah,” he said, “it went out in January of this year.”
“Are you friggin’ kidding me?” I asked.
He smiled again. “I do not kid.”
Logic board or no logic board, it sure didn’t take any logic to know that this was the end of the line. No use having it fixed when I could get a new computer for a couple of C-notes more. I waited for my computer to be returned.
You know when you watch something develop and know it probably isn’t going to end well? This is the start of a trainwreck.
The cheery woman looked for my broken computer in a line of cabinets behind her. Peering in one cabinet after another, she repeated this five times. She was on her knees and seemed to bow at each cabinet (perhaps a prayer of uncertainty?).
Exasperated, she exited through a side door to the back, came out a few minutes later and continued to look in the cabinets again. It was quite remarkable.
We were fifteen minutes into the Easter egg hunt, and so far, no egg. I thought Godot would appear before my computer would, so I decided to wait outside.
A few minutes later, she emerged, smiling. “Here you go.” The computer sure was beautiful… but so’s Marilyn Monroe, and she’s dead too.
I decided to call Apple and see if they would take my MacBook a for a trade-in and maybe knock a hundred or so off a new computer. Steve Apple is a good guy, said our president, so maybe they would cut me a break.
When the Apple guy came on the line, he said there was nothing they could do with any type of trade-in, then suggested I try eBay. Just as I was about to hang up, he said, “I suppose you didn’t know you have AppleCare Plus, or you wouldn’t have called me? It runs through next year.”
My mouth dropped.
“Yeah,” he said. “Just send it in and we will fix it for no charge.”
“But the Melrose Hack said it expired this year,” I said.
“Tell them to pay more attention,” he told me. “It’s not that hard.”
Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” crawled out of the deep recesses of my brain as I headed back to The Hack for round 3.
I pushed my dead computer at the same service guy standing behind the desk. “You said this is out of warranty and Apple says it’s not.”
He looked and shook his head. “Nope, expired this year. Sorry about that.” But before I could respond, he looked up at me, surprised “Yeah, I guess you do have AppleCare until 2021.” He sent the computer to Apple for repair.
In the movie biz, this is what’s called the plot turn. It’s when the music goes, “DA-DA-DA,” and the story turns in another direction. So, DA-DA-DA.
Cheery Woman called about a week later and said my computer was back and ready to be picked up. I headed over singing to myself, “On the road again, ain’t it great to be back on the road again.” Back at the Hack, I walked in and nodded to the guy at the reception desk, who reminded me of Winslow Leach from the Brian De Palma cult favorite, Phantom of the Paradise.
Standing in line behind a nice frustrated guy, I began to chat with Winslow about nothing, really. He seemed like a nice enough guy but he was bummed to be working at The Hack instead of writing his master rock cantata based on Faust. I like to assign lives to people when I stand in line and am bored out of my mind. I flashed from Phantom of the Paradise to another movie, Groundhog Day. I’d been in this line several times before.
AH HA!!!! I realized why it was taking so long: they couldn’t find the computer for the guy in front of me. I waited patiently, looking at the same displayed computers that I had already looked at fifty times. The guy in front of me turned and shrugged. “Been there done that,” I said. He snorted, and turned back to stare into space.
A new customer sauntered in. Winslow instructed her to wait outside in line and then turned to me and said, “You have to go outside too.” He lowered his voice to tell me, “We don’t want too many people in the store.”
As my dad would say, “Hold the phone!”
“But there are no more people in the store,” I said. He shrugged.
Now he’s telling me this? Now? Really? I had been standing in line for twenty minutes and now he asks me to move to the back of line which had formed behind me.
There were no more people in the store than when I’d first entered, clearly a logic board fail for Winslow. This made no sense.
I tried telling my story again, but he cut me off. “You still need to go outside,” he said. I looked at him and asked, “Are you kidding me?” He fidgeted and looked down and said, “I don’t know. This is my first day. I don’t know anything.” Poor shmuck, I thought and then asked for the manager.
This is where the DA-DA-DA happens again and Justin “The Terrible” enters the story. Every good tale needs a villain, and Justin “The Terrible” is our Gene Hackman’s characterization of Lex Luther in Superman II. You know, a goofy kind of bad guy. When Justin “The Terrible” emerged, he looked more annoyed than if I’d interrupted him watching Bachelor in Paradise.
His eyes were glaring before I said a word. I repeated my tale of woe but he was not impressed and showed no sympathy that The Hack had caused the problem in the first place. He didn’t care that their ineptness was going to cost me $1,500 as I sought to sell a perfectly fixable computer for a hundred bucks. I asked if I could just get my computer.
He angrily said that Winslow was right, and I had to go outside. He barked at me, “Go wait outside!”
Taken aback by this order, I asked him for a logical explanation of why I’m being sent out at this point when I wasn’t asked to stand outside when I entered the store twenty minutes earlier. He literally said, “GET OUT OF MY STORE RIGHT NOW!” I had no idea that this was his store, and I’m sure the owners of Melrose Hack didn’t know that, either.
I took a breath and said, “This is a great way to treat a customer.”
“Get out!” he shouted again. I wanted to tell him that Get Out was a pretty good movie, but I thought I might never see my computer again.
As I walked out the door, I turned back and told him, “I’m a writer and I can’t wait to write about this―it’s better than fiction.”
Now, sometimes in this world you see adults regress to their teenage years. And although I didn’t see the synapse misfire in Justin “The Terrible’s” brain, what I can tell you is that he became 14 years old instantaneously. He was not the sweet little boy that Tom Hanks became in the movie BIG, but the total ass bully that can be found on the playground picking on the little kids.
“Oh, you’re a big man, you’re a really big man. I hope that makes you feel like a big man,” he said. The name Biff came to mind from Back To The Future.
Let’s paint the picture. Here’s this 30-something guy, hands on his hips, raising his voice and yelling at me in front of staff and customers, “Oh, you’re big man!” By the way, I had a great retort, but he had me by the balls and I wanted my computer.
I went outside and stood at the back of the line.
In about three nanoseconds and a half, Cheery Woman (who now didn’t look so cheery) came out and told me to come in and get my computer. When I entered the store, everything was exactly the same. Guy was waiting for his computer, Winslow sat at the reception desk and Justin “The Terrible” was staring at a computer. Nothing had changed other than I had been sent outside, I guess so that Justin “The Terrible” could show me that he was the really big man.
The same guy at the service desk handed me my computer and looked at me with sympathy. He knew the story and saw it all happen, but he needed the job so he kept his mouth shut. Computer in hand, I turned to leave. As I passed Justin “The Terrible,” he said, “Big man, you’re a big man."
So, The Hack cost me jack and a hell of a lot of aggravation, plus some dough but, I chalked it up that I got some great material. As Vonnegut wrote, “And so it goes.” I took my computer, mounted my pony, and headed into the sunset to fight another day. So long, Melrose Hack, we shall not meet again.
Rocky Lang is a writer living in California.
Moonscope 1 and the Ant People
It’s the most powerful telescope ever built, one that will let us see millions perhaps billions more worlds, and one of those worlds could be the next stop for the human race.
The commissioning of Moonscope 1 in the late 2050s got a lot of attention from the press. HoloTV sites that followed it focused on the first moon-based telescope’s features, noting that with the buildings housing its AI system it covers more than two square miles of moonscape.
My name is Barbara Tiller and I’m Moonscope 1’s general manager and chief astrophysicist. But it was astronomer Jerry Harwood who first noticed the patterns back in April 2058.
He and IT specialist and tech handyman Barry Gutman are my colleagues on the moon.
The Moonscope Global Council chose to build the telescope here because the moon has infinitesimal atmosphere compared to Earth, about the same as what International Space Station 1 had. Unlike Earth telescopes, there is virtually no light pollution because Moonscope 1 is on the dark side of the moon, facing away from the sun, for two weeks every month.
About four months into the ramp-up of the telescope we began observing bewildering light patterns from a nearby star system.
Jerry kept seeing flashes of light he thought were coming from the TRAPPIST-1 system. “They stop and start at irregular intervals, making me think there could be a glitch in Moonscope’s system,” he said.
“We have a lot of work to do to get this device and the computers fine-tuned. Let’s focus on that for now,” I told him. He was curious about the intermittent flashes but agreed to put it off for now.
TRAPPIST-1 is an ultra-cool dwarf star with seven stable planets. It was discovered in 2015 by the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in Chile. They call it TRAPPIST for short.
It’s only about 12 parsecs away, the equivalent of 39 light years from Earth. That’s a relatively short distance when you consider our Milky Way is 100,000 light years across. The TRAPPIST-1 system is a good place to explore for a planet suitable for humans or for life already there.
As Jerry and I booted and sync’d the systems, I had Barry check Moonscope 1 out thoroughly. “It’s working fine,” he said. “The problem isn’t with my telescope.”
Later, Jerry confided to me, “You know Barbara, ever since I found the flashes I’ve secretly been hoping there’s a pattern here indicating more than a random episode.”
We didn’t talk about it the next few weeks. We were busy making preparations for deep space telescope exploration. We were functioning at nearly one hundred percent capability when we turned again to the question of the strange light patterns.
“Azimuth to thirty point zero one degrees,” Jerry said dully to the computer as I entered the room. A slight mechanical whirring from a quarter mile away hung in the air for a few seconds and Moonscope’s giant electronic motor stopped after it made the precise adjustment.
“How’s it going, Jerry?” I asked as I approached.
Without looking up he said, “It’s slow and steady. Right now I’m getting adequate data for analysis to determine whether there’s water on 1D.” That was the name given to the third planet from TRAPPIST-1, the name of the star it orbits. “So far it looks barren.”
Jerry waved his hand, enlarging the holoimage of the planet. He gestured below the image and a chart came up with mass and composition data. He studied the data for a minute and then said in a monotone, “Azimuth thirty point zero two degrees.
“All the characteristics I’ve found so far make me think we could be on a wild goose chase. Just like with 1B and 1C, there doesn’t seem to be any way this planet could support life,” he said loudly, venting his frustration. “TRAPPIST-1 is just a tenth the size of our Sun and cooler, so chances of finding a habitable planet are slim and getting slimmer.”
“Keep at it, Jerry. That’s the last of the three planets in the habitable zone.”
“Yes, thank God. This is more boring than when I was studying chemical compounds for my doctorate.”
I went back to my quarters to rest. I’d been crunching numbers all morning and I was tired too. Usually we each ate dinner in our underground homes, resting comfortably in the living room or dining room. That evening we all happened to be at the communal dinner table eating and chatting when Edison Six came on the intercom. “Please come to the main telescope room as soon as you’ve finished eating. There has been an interesting development.”
We looked at each other a few seconds, then got up as a group and ran toward the telescope room.
The computer interface for the AmaznBigBlue Edison VI AI computer, which we just call Edison Six for short, minimizes important news at times. An “interesting development” might be worth letting dinner get cold.
When we got to the main Moonscope console, Edison Six said it had found a pattern in the light pulses. The odds of contact with an extraterrestrial life form had just ticked up a notch.
We refocused at full power on TRAPPIST-1 and I called the Moonscope council to assign us additional Earth-based computer networking capacity to help us crunch the numbers.
It quickly became clear that the pulses of light appeared to be organized, not random. Someone or something was regularly sending them out in complex patterns. That didn’t mean they were being sent by an intelligent life form. An unknown light source could be emitting them, such as a bit of decaying dark matter emitting light pulses at regular intervals. I figured it was time to let the council know. I called back.
“Tony, we’ve identified the source of those light pulses I was telling you about. It’s just like we thought, they’re coming from planet 1D in TRAPPIST-1.” Anthony Machado is head of the Moonscope Council and my boss.
“Are you saying there’s a chance we could make contact with a near-Earth life form?
“Well I don’t know that I’d call it near-Earth, but yes. We still have to run the numbers to determine whether the pattern is a message that we can understand, which would indicate it was created by intelligent beings.”
“Damn, this is exciting Barbara! I need to let the council know so we can start thinking about what our response will be if it’s a coded message.”
“I don’t know that’s such a good idea, Tony. We’ve just...”
“I know, I know, it’s still up in the air. But we have to start discussing it. We may be on the verge of contact with
another species, another civilization. Think how enormously important that is!”
He hung up before I could answer. I let the crew know that our possible find was about to go global, thanks to Tony.
“Jeez, he could’ve waited at least until we know more about what we’re dealing with here!” Barry complained.
“Agreed, but we don’t have the power to stop him so let’s get back to work. The more data we feed Edison Six, the more certain we’ll be that it’s a pattern. Or not.”
“Scientists on the moon have found what could turn out to be the most exciting discovery in the history of mankind,” the holoTV announcer said in a dramatic voice. A day after my talk with Tony it was all over the news. We hadn’t a clue yet what the source of the pulses was and already the media was building it up into the biggest thing ever.
I watched a panel of talking heads discuss the finding and debate whether we should make contact with the species, all of them assuming there was one.
“Are you kidding me?! Of course we should contact them,” one of the panelists said. “Look, if they’re sending out signals, they are at least as intelligent as we are, perhaps even smarter. We could learn from them.”
“No, listen. Look at the examples in history. In the past when an advanced civilization like the Romans made contact with a less advanced one, they conquered and subjected it. When the Europeans came to the Americas they decimated the native tribes as they colonized it. The same could happen to us!”
When Edison Six confirmed that the signals were not a random pattern, we were overjoyed here at Moonscope 1. But we kept it to ourselves. We’d learned better than to share everything with The council before we knew what the signals meant.
Edison Six said there was a definite pattern but it had just done a quick search of all of Earth’s libraries and it was like nothing anyone had ever encountered. Six said it could decode it, but it could take as long as fifteen minutes to do so.
We huddled together in the lunch room again. But this time we were all too excited to eat.
“Barbara, what do you think we should do if we receive confirmation that the pattern indicates intelligent life?” Jerry said.
“I think the first thing is to take a look at that message and see if it makes any sense. If it’s gibberish then we’re back at square one. It could be anything; a command to take some action, a distress signal. There are so many unknowns that we
can’t consider what to do next until we have that message in hand.”
Edison Six, as usual, had been conservative in its estimate. It had the message deciphered in thirteen minutes and called us to the telescope room again.
“What does it say,” I barked as I walked through the door.
“You may not like what I found,” Six said. “I’ve decoded the message, but its meaning is unclear to me. I think it may be a riddle. It says simply, ‘I stand beside my friend and my friend stands beside me and yet we see each other not. But when dawn comes and darkness fades, the friends are reunited.’ ”
“We’ve made contact with a planet of poets!” Barry said.
General Rungg Gruntuh of the Colonies United Forces planetary exploration group studied the report again. There could be no doubt there was a response to the message sent out from the Lothtar communications center. He would have to notify the queen.
The response had come from the OKT-8 system, so named because it has eight planets, although some scientists choose to call a small orbiting body at the edge of the star system a dwarf planet.
Gruntuh wiggled his antennae, sending a coded message to Captain Bargg Torgrahh, his next in command. Torgrahh in turn wiggled her antennae to send the message to a long distance transmitting soldier called a runner who quickly sent the message to the center of the colony. Within seconds the queen had been notified that contact with another sentient life form had apparently been made.
While he awaited her response Gruntuh stared out the large picture window at the city. He leaned his large frame against the windowsill. At five foot, three inches, he towered over the officers under his command, most of them well under five feet. His gaze wandered up one of the distant dull red walls that lay in every direction fifty miles away. Actually, it was a single wall that wound in a several hundred mile circle around the perimeter of the city. He could see skyships rising from the CUF base ten miles away and watched as they ascended toward the opening of the underground pyramid onto the planet’s surface.
There, strong seekers would forage for food, hunting down two-hump katygrels and cutting down sucrose laden plants and trees to bring back to the city. Sometimes a seeker carried a katygrel that weighed as much as twenty times its body weight back to the skyship. The seekers ran in straight lines because they could only transmit short distances and needed to stay close to one another as they scurried around. They would return to the city before dark. If they stayed on the surface at night they could be killed by large predators that roam the surface of Lothtar, many of them long-tongued fendrels.
“This is pretty crazy business, coming into contact with aliens, eh Bargg?” Gruntuh said.
“They could be friendly, hostile or predatory. We took a big chance sending the light pulses from the surface."
“What do you make of it, Bargg? Do you think we made a mistake reaching out to other star systems?”
“It’s not for me to say, sir. I live to obey the queen’s orders.”
Gruntuh sighed heavily. “Yeah, I know. We all do, but you must have some thoughts on it.”
Gruntuh lapsed into silence. He knew that Bargg would not share her thoughts on the matter. A colony soldier is trained not to think, only to act for the good of the colony, while at all times following the queen’s orders. Gruntuh sometimes wished he was one of the queen’s harem of husbands, living only to eat, sleep and mate with her.
The queen finally relayed her command to the CUF planetary exploration group. She commanded them to abandon the mission and cease transmissions.
Gruntuh was astounded. Here was a chance for two species of intelligent beings to communicate for the first time and she wanted to break it off. As usual, there was no explanation, just the terse command to cease all transmissions.
He delayed for a few seconds, feeling that it was somehow wrong to stop reaching out, and yet that he had no choice in the matter. He would obey of course. In all known history the colonies had survived only by each member playing his or her part, acting on instinct in a pattern as old as the planets.
He summoned his courage to send the queen another message, imploring her to reconsider, adding that he would, of course, obey her wishes. The queen immediately replied by courier:
General Gruntuh, you will immediately cease communications with the alien species. I do not generally explain my reasons to anyone, including you. I indulged you in launching this project but I did not expect we would be contacted. Because I have great respect for you, I will tell you this much. They reached out to us. Therefore, they must have superior technology. There is a chance that they mean us no harm, but I am not willing to take that chance. Let us continue to
progress along our path and, if and when the time is right, we will go out into the stars and make contact with them and
whoever else is out there. For now though, you must cease all operations immediately. Reply at once to assure me that you understand and obey. — Your Queen, Tarthana
Gruntuh felt like someone had taken a sledge hammer and smashed it into his chest. He delayed only a few seconds though.
Finally, he gave the command to cease all transmissions and a ship began ascending to the surface to shut down operations there. Gruntuh felt good again. He had done his duty to queen and colony.
“What do you mean it’s gone!” I yelled.
“It’s gone, Barbara. It has ceased to exist,” Edison Six said.
I wanted to tear my hair out. Talking to an intelligent machine is sometimes like being in an ancient Monty Python skit. It simply made no sense. How could a signal that we knew had come from a certain planet, and that we had ascertained to be a carefully constructed message, be followed by nothingness? Our responses had been friendly, warm even. When the light pulses ceased three days ago, we tried again and again. One time thinking we may have somehow offended them, we literally begged whoever or whatever it was to contact us, all to no avail. I had no choice. I called Tony over at the council.
“How could that happen?” He said. “Did you send the messages we agreed on?”
“Yes, exactly as we agreed. We welcome your message although we are unclear of its meaning. We greet you in friendship and it is our desire to work with you as partners to become close friends. Please respond to acknowledge that our greeting has been received."
“I’m wondering too how this could happen, Tony. They reached out and we responded that we would welcome communications. And now they’re gone.”
“If it was ever there in the first place,” Tony said.
“What do you mean?”
“We’re assuming that the message was created by some intelligent beings. But it could have been a random set of characters that our AI systems misinterpreted as a message.”
“I think the odds of it being random are somewhere near a trillion to one. I’d stake my career on it.”
Tony hesitated before answering. “I know you would, Barbara. But I’m not going to ask you to do that. We simply don’t know what happened. There is nothing we can do. Intergalactic travel is just in its infancy and we won’t be able to go there and see for ourselves for at least a couple of decades anyway.”
“So then we keep sending messages to them and monitoring! I know it wasn’t a fluke.”
“No, we don’t. We sent messages and if there was anyone there they’ve received them. We have other research on our agenda and I don’t want to waste time chasing what could turn out to be a dead end.”
“What do you want us to do then?”
“Continue deep space exploration. With our expanded reach we have greatly increased the odds of finding life on another planet in another solar system. Don’t turn a blind eye to them if you get more light flashes from that region, but don’t make it your primary focus. Our resources are limited you know, and we have to keep our options open.”
I thought about ignoring Tony and going full throttle to establish communications with them. But I came to realize he’s right. There’s nothing we can do if they choose not to continue communicating. We tried our best and failed. It began to seem that, as he said, it was an awful coincidence, and that’s why the message seemed so cryptic. It could have been a temporary series of electronic impulses of some sort, incredibly enough, arranged as words. We have to put that in the past and push out further than we’ve ever been into the universe.
I could hear the motor for the telescope whirr gently as it swung the giant device away from planet 1D in the TRAPPIST-1 solar system, and aimed it as far out into the cosmos as we can reach. To search for signs of intelligent life.
James DeTar is a writer living in Los Angeles.
Let’s talk. I don’t say that lightly. Let’s talk about anything and see where it leads us. Let’s talk about things we didn’t even know we wanted to talk about. I’m on my knees, which I’ll prove to you on Zoom.
I put this out there for a reason, on another day where it seems hard to find a reason to do anything. Six months into the Grayness I see I don’t miss movie theaters, restaurants, even most of my friends; I miss conversation. I miss how you fall in love someone you’ll never see again through a conversation you didn’t expect to have. Zoom calls are a marvelous invention, although as with most Modern Breakthroughs the only truly marvelous thing about it is finding out you can do it at all. After that, it — whatever it is — pales, and you go back to the old way (which hasn’t happened yet). True conversation doesn’t demand a level of presentation, flattering lighting, fiddling with controls and crying I lost you! I hate this thing!Can you hear me? True conversation, like a true friend, doesn’t mind if you wander, and in fact encourages it, as the wandering is a good sign that you feel free enough to wander, to relax in the just being with someone that conversation inspires.
And for all its wonders there’s none of the necessary just-being-with-someone with Zoom. The technology is the someone; it has no warmth, no comforting human curiousity, and doesn’t pretend to, unlike the social media platforms which pretend to have warmth. The name “Zoom” as much as says no musing, please, get to the point, don’t let the door slam behind you. There’s a Nora Ephron essay in which she describes what starts out as a pleasant evening with friends. Nice dinner, good coffee, a torte but not a cake, general name-droppy-schmoozing in the kitchen while you (or Nora) do the dishes yourself (“Thursday’s our Just us night”) which gives way to trying to remember the name of some wonderful old character actor in some wonderful old movie. Some helpful person does a little Googling and in two seconds has the name — Thomas Mitchell! Franklin Pangborn! Eugene Pallette! — and Ephron points out the answer kills the evening. No one really wanted the answer. They wanted the conversation that circled it; we long for connection, not information.
I tested this theory/observation not too long ago, during a strenuously merry Zoom birthday party. I wrote out a question that I didn’t know the answer to, that could be answered — this was a movie lover’s birthday, one of the guests was even an Oscars Rainman — but would at least lead to interesting speculation and might sprout odd tributaries along the way. The question: who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1954? I dropped it in, casually, and someone said “Who knows? Let’s Google it!” But I stopped them. I told them about the social experiment I had in my mind — to see if not knowing is still bearable? — and the result was a terrific conversation that jumped from Bob Hope to the Vietnam War to Sacheen Littlefeather and on and on. The question was forgotten, and the evening was saved.
And it was Donna Reed, by the way. Yes, that one. In From Here to Eternity, a movie set during WWII that is somehow about a time like ours, when no one knew what was coming and had to live their lives and have conversations that could go where they would go. See it, if you haven’t, and then call me. We’ll talk.
Richard Kramer is a writer living in California.