Untitled Story, Part 8

The diner closed at 10 that evening, as activity on the street outside diminished, many people having already left for downtown Chicago, others to their homes. An hour later, the streets were mostly quiet; a few hours later, quieter still.

At 2 AM, a solitary figure, face obscured by a hood, walked past the darkened windows of the diner, and continued down the street. Moments later, the same figure walked back, on the opposite sidewalk, this time slowing as it neared the diner, then passing again. Moments later, the same figure returned, this time more stealthily, sticking within the shadows until it reached the alley next to the diner.

It stayed in the alley a long moment, still and breathless, until finally beginning a slow approach to the rear of the building, stopping upon reaching a dumpster, its green paint peeling in the darkness.

The person in the hoodie checked the rear of the building, then reached into a side pant pocket and retrieved an object that no one else in this world would have recognized, because it would not be invented for another three and a half decades.

Slender fingers tapped the surface of the object, which glowed in response. The dim light reflected off the face of the woman Eric had encountered that morning. She tapped the device a few more times, and a message displayed: Scan complete. No activity.

She approached the dumpster, and lifted its black plastic top, only to have it stop suddenly after only an inch, as metal clanked on metal to her left. A padlock; the woman brought her device over to the lock, then tapped on the devices surface a few times. Chambers clicked within the lock; the woman drew the bolt down, and a moment later, she lifted the black top off the dumpster.

It was half full, this being a Thursday and trash collection coming on Mondays. The woman climbed in, forcing herself not to gag at the stench. Once inside, she retrieved her device again, tapping more commands until a message displayed: Object not found.

“Dammit.” The woman thrust the device into her pocket, then looked at the contents of the dumpster. The restaurant used black refuse bags, common for this era, and attempted to seal most. But bags would often become unsealed as they were tossed by staff into the dumpster; crates and cartons would be tossed in as well, often breaking the bags; at times, harried staff would toss unbagged garbage directly into the dumpster.

The woman heard a sound behind her, then felt something brush against her leg. She knew immediately what it was. Despite management’s frequent warnings that the health department would close the diner if procedures weren’t followed, the dumpster lid would be left open for long stretches of the day, and rats would enter freely.

The dumpster, in other words, was a complete mess. Decaying food was everywhere.

Sighing, the woman began sifting through the garbage, checking her device every few minutes. After an hour, she finally found what she was looking for — the red notebook in which Eric, earlier the previous day, had written the current date.

Advertisements

When to Jump: If the Job You Have Isn’t the Life You Want

In preparation for my recent career change, I read a number of books on the subject, of which I’ve only reviewed one so far. Was this lack of reviews due to a reluctance, almost embarrassment, to publicly acknowledge my ambition? Might be on to something there. In any event, there’s no better time than today to overcome that feeling.

Mike Lewis is a former venture capitalist who decided to leave his job and become a professional squash player. If reading that last sentence makes phrases such as mid-life crisis and white privilege come to your mind, I can’t blame you. While the confidence evident in every page of the book he wrote about his journey is assuring and necessary (this book is supposed to inspire the reader to make a bold decision, and hesitation is never a good source for inspriation), it comes with an alarming lack of humility, as if the author’s decision to follow his dream was a right he had earned. Many people dream of careers similar to the author’s, but most of those dreams aren’t as self-aggrandizing as making money playing an obscure sport, and many people simply don’t have the resources necessary to turn that dream into reality. When I walked away from the world of office work for the last time, a prayer of thanks sang in my heart for the opportunity I had been given, and for all the advantages of family, education, and wealth that enabled my decision; it is disappointing, and quite frankly disturbing, to never read a similar sentiment in this book.

However, the book does have its merits. The author conducted a great deal of research into his career change, and in sharing his discoveries provides a valuable resource for anyone contemplating such a move. The “Jump Curve” he outlines (in short — listen to yourself, make a plan, believe in your success, and don’t look back) is both simple and detailed, and I’ve found it helpful in preparation for my own decision. Of even greater value, though, are the dozens of interviews he conducted and which form the basis of the many first-person narratives running throughout the book. The author’s narcisstic journey might be off-putting, but the reader can relate to the people in these sidebar stories. The main narrative satisfies the intellect (how does prepare to make the jump?), but the side narratives give the book its heart (here’s evidence that people like us can do this).

There are also a number of memorable quotes throughout the book, some from the author, others from the side narratives, and others directly from outside sources. Many of these have stuck with me as I contemplated and finally enacted my decision:

[T]here’s a difference between crazy and stupid

[T]he best things in life lie on the other side of fear.

[I]f you bring forth what is in you, it will save you, and if you do not bring forth what is in you, it will destroy you.

When to Jump: If the Job You Have Isn’t the Life You Want is a niche publication, of interest solely to readers contemplating a change in careers. The author’s solipsism can be overbearing at times, but the advice it offers, especially from the anecdotes shared by the interview subjects, makes it a worthwhile read.

Blackeyed

Most of the works in this collection of plays, stories, and monologues from Mary E. Weems are intended to be performed rather than read, yet they are still powerful and appealing even in solitude. The author’s language is rich, especially when she writes in the voice of women longing of love. An abused wife despairs that her husband “likes my tears with his breakfast;” another woman laments how love sours “like white milk left out too long;” another observes that she and her husband are mismatched “like a well-made and a raggedy shoe.” Perhaps the most poignant passage comes in the play “Purses:”

Sometimes I think we learn how to love backwards. We learn as babies to love our mamas, our daddies, our grandparents, our sisters and brothers, our auties and uncles — everybody close in our lives but —

Ourselves!

Most of the works center on the experience of African-American women, a group that is perpetually underrepresented in literature. However, one play, “Closure,” describes the urban housing crisis of the late 2000s from the perspective of the furniture and appliances abandoned from a foreclosure. A basement light bulb recalls the lives he had once witnessed:

Hope dank as the smell in this basement
that used to hold me, a freezer, and a washer
and dryer for the Ramirez family, their 2 dogs
and three cats. This house once as full of love
as a Valentine’s Day card, emptied like a movie theater
after someone yells fire.

The final play in the collection, “Meat,” is about the 11 Cleveland women murdered by Anthony Sowell between 2007 and 2009. The playwright’s intent is to honor the victims, yet perhaps unfortunately the killer, named Tone in the play, steals the show. As depicted in this play, Tone’s mind is depraved, horrifying, and utterly unforgettable.

The voices of the women, however, rise above Tone’s insanity, and this accomplishment makes “Blackeyed” a compelling anthology.

Trust Imagination

It was some time in November 1990 — I don’t know the actual date, or even the day of the week — when I walked into an office on the northwest side of Chicago and worked my first day in a “real” job. I had just finished the coursework for my doctorate in literature, and my attempts to earn enough money to feed myself through teaching and grants were proving to be frustrating and futile. When the offer of a steady paycheck came up, I was too desperate to say no. My idea at the time was to test the waters for a few months, and if I seemed to be swimming all right, I’d stick with it until I finished my dissertation. Six years later, diploma in hand, I finally left that job — and immediately took on another, which eventually lead to another, and another, until eventually I had close to three decades of experience working with many wonderful and some truly awful people, in addition to a heavy dose of corporate systemic incompetence.

Yesterday, that ended.

After turning in my laptop and identification badge to my manager, I walked out of my most recent office building for the last time. Twenty-seven years and eight months of steady employment, interrupted by a few brief voluntary transition periods, has been left behind in order to pursue making a living as a writer. It’s an ambitious goal, one I had considered as far back as 1990 when it became apparent my academic career was going nowhere. I had known many professional writers during my university years, and they spoke regularly of the occupation’s difficulty, going so far as to actively discourage students like myself from its pursuit. I was easily persuaded (a fault that carries with me to this day), and took the advice to pursue a more practical career.

Yet the desire to write, not as a hobby but as a career — to write as if my life (or at least its creature comforts) depended on it — never left. During those brief periods of unemployment, as well as those times when the mundanity of working life seemed unendurable, I was tempted to finally act on my ambition, only to have those dire warnings from the past urge me to play it safe once more.

So why make the move now? Years of good financial planning, and (let’s be honest) incredibly good fortune, have put my wife and I in a good position. We’re not independently wealthy, but we can afford to take on a little risk in both our careers. My wife runs a cake decorating business out of our home — check it out. We’ll need to earn a living for at least another decade, but if I need to be working, I want to finally do the job, the only job, I’ve always wanted to do.

When I walked out that door yesterday, I started on a new path. journey ahead is full of more uncertainty than I can ever recall. But I’ve never been so certain that I’m on the right path.

On occasion, I use this blog to comment on music. After turning in my notice at work a few weeks back, I was listening to random songs on my phone when a gem from Peter Gabriel started playing. He wrote the song immediately after leaving Genesis, and the decision to pursue his own career left him feeling anxiously excited. I’ve enjoyed the frenetic energy of this song, with its unusual yet uplifting rhythm, for decades, but hearing it now, as I felt my own heart going boom-boom-boom in response to my career move, made me appreciate its power in a way I couldn’t comprehend before. To get what you want, you have to let go of what you have; to stop playing it safe, you have to trust imagination.

Untitled Story, Part 7

As Eric approached the woman, he sensed her awareness of him, as well as a distinct desire to be left alone. He didn’t take offense at her attitude towards him, but enjoyed the opportunity to annoy her even further.

“Excuse me?” The woman looked up at Eric from her thin glasses. “I think you dropped this on the floor.”

She shook her head, and looked back down at the newspaper lying on the table, her mute response as loud as an abusive dismissal.

Eric smiled, and laid the pen on the table. “Know what? I want you to have this. Yours to keep.” He now saw what looked like fear creep onto her face, as she reluctantly glanced at the thin plastic biro on the table.

He decided he hadn’t had enough fun yet. “You could say thank you.”

She looked up at him with pleading eyes a moment, before relaxing and, with a meek voice, said, “Thank you.”

It was as if her voice had the force of a thunderclap. Eric’s head snapped back, his eyes widening, and he responded reflexively, as if his words were being dictated to him — “I know you.”

For just an instant, anxiety returned to the woman’s face, followed by a polite smile. “No, I don’t think so.”

“This is weird,” Eric pressing a palm on the newspaper in front of the woman. “It’s like, I haven’t seen you before, but for some reason you’re entirely familiar to me. I feel as if I should know who you are.”

“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to excuse me.” The woman picked up a purse lying on the bench next to her, then opened it and retrieved a few bills, laying them on the table. “I need to get going.”

Eric followed her with his eyes until she left, then was immediately distracted by Kate’s offer of a lift to campus. Minutes later, he left the diner, and would not realize he was missing his notebook until that evening.

The Spirit of Competing

The latest poem from Matt has nothing to do with fencing, but it does express how I feel about the sport. Victory provides a special kind of exhilaration, and I’m curious to know what earning a rating feels like, but I never want the desire to win jeopardize the thrill of pulling a gray meal cage over my face and approaching my opponent, weapons in our hands.

Neuromancer

My plan to write a review each week hasn’t worked out, but now’s as good as time as any to recommit myself to the goal.

Ever since it was published in 1984, Neuromancer has been on my must-read list. (There’s a lot of books on that list, some having gathered as much dust as William Gibson’s novel; finally pulling one off the shelf, and enjoying the experience, is like eating a perfectly preserved cake.) It’s a book that can be appreciated on many different levels — it has the futuristic detail of classic science fiction, the suspense of a page-turning thriller, the grit of a dystopian fantasy, and the spirit of a countercultural manifesto.

And for all of its noir appeal and rough language (really, if the f-word’s not your thing, stay away), it does have its aesthetic qualities. The prose can be lyrical at times — metaphors such as my personal favorite, words emerging like discreet balloons of sound, are plentiful and never overdone — and it accomplishes the difficult task of making compelling characters of its antiheroes. “Neuromancer” has endured because Gibson succeeded in his attempt to create a unique work of fiction, far superior to the majority of works in the totally forgettable genre of cyberpunk it helped to inspire.

The Penguin audiobooks performance by Robertson Dean was steady but unspectacular. The narrator never overdramatizes, but while his voice was never dull it never was quite appealing either. Listening to this audiobook was like eating a warm bowl of plain oatmeal — you feel good about your food choice, but even better for being done with the experience.

Untitled Story, Part 6

[If you’re stumbling across this title-less story, I invite you to start at the beginning. Or, just pick it up from here.]

Agent Marcel rose from her chair, and as she left the Commander’s office, tapped her slate to message her client.

***

Aided by the two women who had come to her aid, the waitress had gotten onto her feet by the time Eric arrived. He attempted to help clear the debris that had fallen onto the floor, but was quickly dismissed by the restaurant’s manager.

“You sure you’re all right?” The young, brown-haired woman who had asked Eric about his notebook had her arm across the waitress’ shoulders. More embarrassed than hurt, the waitress excused herself, leaving Eric alone with the young woman.

“Well, so much for my excitement for today,” the woman said, extending her hand toward Eric. “It was kind of you to help. Hey, you said you worked at the university?”

“That’s right.” Eric took her hand, touching for the first time the woman he would marry seven months later, and divorce within two years.

“Katie. I’m a senior, in Poli Sci. You work up in North Campus?”

Eric smiled. “Ferold Building.” He began walking with Katie back to his booth, but stopped on feeling something under his feet. He looked down, shuffling his foot aside, and saw a pen lying on the floor. He reached down and picked up the object, showing it to Katie — “This yours?”

Katie shook her head, but took the pen, saying the waitress had probably dropped it after her fall. Eric remained standing at the center of the restaurant as Katie showed the pen to the waitress, who shook her head in response, and pointed off to Eric’s right. He looked in that direction, and saw a woman sitting alone in a booth and reading a newspaper. It was the other woman who had come to the waitress’ aid.

Untitled Story, Part 5

[You didn’t think I gave up on this story? Well if you did, you were almost right.]

“I don’t care how much your client paid,” the Commander continued. “I don’t care about the sincerity of his motives, or your personal feelings about this man. The guidelines of your mission were clear, Agent Marcel, and nothing in your report justifies your actions.”

The Commander sank his middle-aged body back into his chair, and picked up his viewing slate again. Having already read the report, Marcel knew she had an effective parry for the officer’s criticism, but given his agitated state, she realized it was best for him to reach that conclusion on his own.

“Well.” The Commander’s voice had softened, and Marcel felt her body relax. “No disruptions of the time stream have been detected. We’ve positively identified every individual that appeared on your Occuview — most have died already, and those who’ve survived only have a few quiet, inconsequential years left. We’ve also successfully inventoried all the items you took on your leap, and verified you left no traces of your journey. There’s no reason for a cleanup jump. You’re good, Agent Marcel, I’ll give you that. I just want you to realize, you were incredibly lucky as well.”

Agent Marcel forced herself not to smile. “Do I have permission to contact my client?”

The Commander looked back at her, and growled. “Other than for the obvious reason of not further feeding his vanity, I don’t see why not.”

Title to Come, Part 4

[Still not sure what to call this tale I began a little while ago]

Eric glanced over at the source of the noise, and saw the fifty-ish waitress who had served him earlier attempting to rise from the debris of plates, silverware, and food. Coming to her aid was a woman in a business suit, who was soon joined by the young woman who had just asked about Eric’s notebook.

***

The commander shook his head, clearly displeased by Agent Marcel’s report. “Nothing, nothing that happened justified your Injection. You could easily have avoided the entire situation.”

Agent Marcel could no longer hold herself back. “Commander, everyone’s attention in the diner was turned to the waitress. My doing nothing would have been the least conspicuous activity I could have performed.”

“Nobody would have remembered your disinterest.” He placed his hands on the table, and rose slightly from his chair. “But your taking action could have generated any number of possible Temporal Changes. What if a person who would have helped that poor woman, had decided upon seeing you help her, to leave the diner earlier than he’d intended — just in time to be struck by an automobile jumping a curb, leading to his death? And what if that person would have become a doctor, or fire fighter, who would no longer be alive twenty years later to save the life of a person whose impact n history would be felt to this day? You do remember your Temporal Consequences training, agent?”

“Aye, sir.”

“And do you remember at least some of the cases where the seemingly innocent actions of one well-intentioned agent had impacts on the timeline that required one, two, perhaps several additional jumps to undo?”

“But this — ”

“This wasn’t your decision to make, Agent Marcel! The consequences of a timeflux can be catastrophic. We’ve seen what happened when we stopped the 9/11 attacks, or the spread of the Guji Flu — those ‘corrections’ resulted in far worse calamities. Those lessons directly lead to our mission — ” the Commander leaned forward, demanding Agent Marcel’s response.