previously unpublished short story
Q: How did the invention of plastic change the 20th century?
A: In exciting and meaningful ways to be sure. Straws for drinks are one way. Before plastic came along straws were made of wood which sometimes left splinters in the lips. If left untreated, the seceded wood could infect the area in which it was lodged, eventually leading to amputation of said lips (I’m assuming). Assorted organs are transported across time-zones in plastic coolers of various primary colors, but sometimes the coolers are absconded with, relocated to far-flung locales, sold to the highest bidder. A similar scenario happened to a co-worker: desperately in need of a kidney transplant and the one he was to receive was kidnapped by organ thieves at gunpoint. That would probably be organnapped, in point of fact. And: plastic drop cloths. Dear God and Father Christmas Who Art in Heaven, plastic drop cloths are everywhere in the house! They cover everything. Furniture mostly. Available in both 1 and 3 mil. thickness. They keep everything from harm, from air-borne damage. Discounts are sometimes passed along if bought in bulk (but I didn’t tell you). Avoid putting plastic drop cloths over the head, though. They (the plastic drop cloths) tend to blur the world around you in ways that are wholly unpleasant. Another: plastic utensils of every size and persuasion―forks, knives, spoons, the rarely seen spork. Picnics wouldn’t be the same without plastic utensils. How would we eat all of the animals and animal related by-products stored in plastic containers (Tupperware, and their resulting parties) and neatly packed in the wicker picnic basket that we hauled into the large grass clearing near the graveled parking lot filled with the gleaming cars hot to the touch? With our fingers? Savages! How on Earth would we kill the army ants that deploy themselves at the very base of our food; battalions of ants enlisted against their will for the good of their colony, the good of their Nation?―with our feet most likely: rubber-soled or steel-toed, perhaps both. Or the ends of our fingers, the middle digit descending like a missile above the frontline of those enlisted ants, crushing them into oblivion upon impact. Using your finger in this fashion is so much more personal than using a foot; like stabbing someone instead of shooting them with a gun―or so I’m lead to believe from all the late-night movies I’ve consumed over the years. There are other ways. Let me count them. TV Ads. I almost forgot those! Without plastic we wouldn’t have advertisements for plastic related products, undulating and luminous as they move across our eyes, inserting barely perceptible urges into our brains. The one where the child touches the side of the father’s whiskered face always makes me cry. These are the kind of things you take for granted, because they’re always with you, you never envision your life minus these sorts of things, you never think, “gee what would have happened if the person who invented blank was run over by a car, or hit in the head by a large rock―the kind one would find at the bottom of a quarry―when would blank have come along?” There are also these: Plastic Safety Men. The one in the closet is made entirely of plastic, smooth and cool to the touch, the sound it makes when you run your hand over it like a sort of resistance. It is just like the blow-up Incredible Hulk punching bag I had when I was a kid, although this one isn’t green, or angry, in reality he is completely without emotion, as if a lobotomy had been preformed. Plastic Safety Men are meant to accompany those among us who are too afraid to move through this world alone. It is in there now, sequestered to the back of closet next to the formal shoes I never ware anymore, and the tennis racket that never presumed to have made contact with a ball. I have dressed it with a nice, crisp white shirt and a golf visor (no pants; Plastic Safety Men are born into this world without legs)―otherwise they’re simply inanimate vessels for your oxygen. The one made of flesh left and the plastic one replaced her. All that remains in the house is plastic. And the ant problem—did I mention that? I kill everything with my finger now.
Q: Have dramatic recreations produced for a TV audience altered the way in which we view historical events?
A: The other day I was excavating various unmarked cardboard boxes from the attic―an unwitting archeologist of my own buried past―when I came across a video tape of my 4th grade history class play about Custer’s last stand. I played Custer. This was me: yellow-bearded and perched on stilts hidden under my Calvary uniform pant legs; my teacher―long, spindly limbs, back pitched forward, a face rendered dull from years of mediocre experiences―insisting that the false height lent more credibility to my performance. Near the end of the play I was the only Calvary solider that remained alive, as per the script, the other students/soldiers playing dead, heaped in piles of strange death poses and my other classmates―those playing Indians―closing in on me; tiny fists turned dead-fish-white, clutching plastic butcher knives. It felt all too real. I panicked and began to urinate in my Calvary-issue pants. However, I was unable to leave the stage; the stilts made every step awkward, belabored. Then I fell. My classmates, red-faced, baring the whitest of teeth, closed in on me. Their heads seemed too big for their smallish bodies, like floats in a parade. I began screaming, “Custard has fallen! Custard has fallen!” my teacher watching―how do they say it―from the wings?, holding the script, franticly flipping the pages with fingers coated in colored chalk, no doubt to confirm her suspicion that I was improvising my lines. The warm liquid in my pants was already turning cold. I watch the video tape in my living room, the sound muted, sitting on the couch, holding the remote control with both hands, clutching my breath in my mouth, as if it were my last, as if it might escape and not return, the house silent except for the heavy panting of the dog in the kitchen, the hollow scratching sound of his nails echoing against the tile as he stretches. I try to think of the worst thing possible. This is the only way to eliminate this videotaped atrocity that has been unearthed. I imagine myself jumping out of a thirty story window, cutting through the air head first, the concrete below coming up fast, upon impact my head going straight through my body, and out my ass. I try to replace this image with the one that I see on the screen. Unfortunately it still remains―my frantic, static-forged likeness crawling off stage, blood-thirsty classmates trying to pull me back on, under those large stage lights that rendered everyone a bleached-out sweaty mess. The day after the play my mother stopped at a corner convince store for milk and tofu and was shot dead when she walked in during the middle of a robbery. I couldn’t help but wonder if the last thing she pictured before she died was me pissing my pants.
Q: Has technology enhanced or detracted from the way we interact with other people on a daily basis?
A: My leg for example. It is currently wrapped in duct tape―two rolls worth. No, wait. Actually, to be more specific, it’s what you would call electrician’s tape. There’s a difference, I’ve been told. One is for ducts, the other for wires. To begin again: my leg is wrapped in electrician’s tape―two rolls worth. I shaved my leg first (I’m not an idiot!) so that when I eventually extract the tape I will not (hopefully) be in an extreme amount of hair-related pain. Problem: I can feel the hair growing back under the duct tape even now. At night, while I lie awake on my side of the bed, I hear the individual hairs emerging from beneath my skin, like bamboo in the forest. It’s lunacy, I know, I know. I am restricted to certain forms of movement, all of which seem overly dramatic, as if I were faking some sort of injury in order to gather sympathy from those around me. But it has to be done. No way around it. I have certain obligations to fulfill; specific experiments to conclude. I am a test subject, you see. For a company that manufactures electrician’s tape. However, for reasons stated in the contract, which I signed with my own hand, I cannot not proceed any further with this explanation. Rest assured this hasn’t stopped me from meeting people. On the contrary, I feel I am emboldened by the handicapping this presents. Video dating, internet dating, phone dating, inter-office/adjacent cubicle dating, park dating, bar dating, supermarket dating, movie theater dating, alley dating, hot air balloon dating, vehicle/bumper car dating, DMV dating, bookstore dating, blind/deaf/mute dating, dating abroad, dating while in mid-air, arms outstretched―I have attempted all of these rituals with certain vigor and a level of acumen I would classify as fair to competent. I am nothing if not thorough. When I am not occupying my time with all of these freestyle forms of dating I sometimes sit at my kitchen table and thumb backwards through a pile of outdated calendars that my wife collected habitually. Obsessively is a better word. Seasonal photographs of various country settings begin in winter, then transition to fall, then summer, then spring. She never threw calendars away; she thought it was bad luck. I pour over a stack of my old journals (I still fail to use the term diary, as if the very word were a knife poised to emasculate) that I have kept for reasons that having nothing to do with bad luck. I search for any indications of failure on my part, but there are only mechanical ones: the time I drove headlong into a neighbor’s picture window for example. I pay special attention to the entries that mark the first of a new year to determine if the resolutions I’ve made previously actually transpired. I have found that a life not lived in reverse is not worth living at all.
Q: Do you feel the government has done enough to address problems of pollution in this country, i.e. regulations, fines, etcetera, or do you believe more could be done to safeguard the environment in which we live?
A: The lake near my house is―to use a term of the slang variety―in a bad way. The chemical factory upstream has dumped God Knows What into the water over the years; chemicals of all colors and odor spreading its own patented brand of ruin across everything. Last year the factory was shut down and executives from the company were escorted out of the darkness of its placid headquarters and into the broad sunshine by plain-clothed government agents. They were ushered into unmarked cars, their sport jackets and raincoats placed over their heads as if in private contemplation. The following week I deposited myself over the landscape around the lake, looking for signs of chemical devastation in the wildlife that claimed residence there. I began to find squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and birds of all sorts, damaged in some way by the chemicals that had been poured into in the lake. I’m no vet, but I could see the resulting wreckage in their eyes. It was abundantly clear. Now: the animals are in my backyard, in the guest bedroom, in the garage. My dog has since runaway from home. Perhaps he was jealous of all the attention I was giving to the other animals. Selfish bastard. I strap birds to model airplanes and airplanes fostered from balsa wood, proxy wings by which they can fly. The birds glide through the air upon simulated wind and air currents provided by an array of various electric fans I have placed about the interior of the house. The animals migrate from one room to another. They are all in ceaseless pain, or so I am lead to believe by the way they look at me. I am on 24-hour suicide watch now.
Q: What other benefits that arose as a result of the industrial revolution still apply today?
A: Look in my garage. Wall to wall tools poised to cut-through, tear-down, break-up, nail-in, saw-off, adhere-to and split-to-and-fro objects that I deem necessary to alter. They hang there like hungry children waiting to receive a scrap of parental affection. We had plans, my wife and I. They (the plans) involved the building of extensions to the house, remodels of existing rooms, additions to existing rooms, the buttressing of interiors against the insidious decline of age. But the only remodels that we executed were those which involved our own failed structures; my wife underwent plastic surgery on her drooping eyelids, I on my crooked nose. The both of us were architecting remodels upon ourselves, tearing down that which was detracting or that had aged inappropriately. Curb appeal is everything these days. The house remained confined to plans which were still blue pencil marks upon graph paper, the unemployed tools meant to foster these designs loitering in the garage, a testament to those failed initiatives. Recently I have learned just this: Plastic Safety Man is not always reliable. Air escapes him, like exiting desires. Plus he is a man. I am not that way inclined. I have begun using the unused tools, constructing a new her from the ground up. This one will have legs, unlike Plastic Safety Man. There is much cutting of wood, forging of intentions. Yes, what I lack in woodworking skills I make up for in intentions. Intentions are as plentiful as the failures that followed them. It takes me a few weeks. Working into the night, toiling under mists of sawdust, festoons of curled wood that look like the fancy chocolate shavings they put atop ice cream in your better eating establishments. I nearly slice an errant finger with a table saw. I just miss impaling myself with a piece of rebar. There are several other near-accidents, but I am resolute. She is completed in the early hours one Tuesday night, the dangling fluorescent lights bathing her in a baptismal glow. She will assist me in my grief, unlike the Plastic Safety Man, that wretched bastard. The next night I am ensconced in a dream of myself and Veronica, the name I have bestowed upon the wooden woman. We are in the house, the house as my wife and I had dreamed it; the structure rising and vaulting, expanding and jutting-out, pregnant with the expectation of children. Even in my dream Veronica is still wooden, my quiescent imagination not sufficient enough to Pinocchio her up. I must then rely on myself for certain activities; she merely provides the color commentary. Then there’s my mom. Poof. Out of nowhere. She is wandering about the house, tidying up. She ferries a flowered vase to better spot. Adjusts pictures. Refills the ice tray in the refrigerator. The side of her head is gone. The grey matter is exposed, matter-of-factly. She looks small and shriveled, a balloon deleted of air. She stumbles upon Veronica and me; one hand on Veronica’s lovingly varnished breast, the other on my stiffened self. She tells me I’ll go blind and then she is gone. I awake in the garage, Veronica splayed into a position I am not aware that most figures made of wood can acquiesce to. I close up the garage and go to bed. I leave Veronica behind. She is not ready to move inside the house just yet.
Q: Are there are modes of transportation that might one day render the car obsolete?
A: Here’s one: Coney Island. I went to New York City once on a high school trip―you know the kind: excursions where parents who don’t trust their kids as far as they can toss them let said children go on a school expedition with little to no supervision. So: the girl that I had been dating at the time, Clair, she and I broke away from the group and ended up on Coney Island (or was it Carla? Cassandra. That was it. Like the sound a woman feigning seduction might make when she breathes the word snake). Cassandra was my first love, the first one I had crushed on. Her face, even now, was rendered in the most abstract of terms: a lollypop of sorts―her colors vivid as a cartoon, her scent sugary; the smell of adolescence. We spent the afternoon riding some of the amusements. We boarded the Ferris-wheel just as the sun packed its bags and went south. The air swiftly turned cold; neither she nor I were dressed for weather that was anything but considerate. Then, a few minutes into the ride, the Ferris-wheel suddenly ground to a halt and we were stuck at the top of the wheel, watching the ocean gobble up the sand then regurgitate it rhythmically. Cassandra was calm. A face of unblinking nerve. She placed a strand of stringy blonde hair behind her left ear, her fingers curled to form the top of a question mark. I, on the other hand, was flirting with panic. Had the guy operating the Ferris-wheel told us what to do in a situation such as this? Had he done so when I was concentrating on Cassandra’s blank expression? Maybe he hadn’t said a damned thing. Typical. Let kids board a dangerous machine and give them no clear instructions as what to do when it fails. The sky turned cotton candy pink. I vomited over the side of the Ferris-wheel, clutching the metal rail on the outer rim of the car, my knuckles drained of any color that might look natural. The pink of my vomit mixed with the pink of the sky as it went down. Leaning over the side I felt a hand on my shoulder, the carrier of the softest touch I had ever felt. I said Cassandra’s name aloud, but all I heard in response was the gritty, bottomed-out voice of the guy who was operating the Ferris-wheel telling me it was alright to let go.
Q: Has better hygiene in the last 100 years improved our overall health or simply made us more susceptible to newer diseases?
A: There are tiny animal corpses everywhere. I have become an expert of animal suicides. Squirrels climb to the top of the roof and jump off, pirouetting into space like tiny ballerinas. There I am in the kitchen, at the sink looking out the window and a little furry body goes screaming by in a colorful blur. I find raccoons that have drowned themselves in the pool. I scoop up them with a drooping pool net and cast them over the fence, into the neighbor’s yard. A robin tied to a balsa-wooded plane crashes headlong into a closed patio door. I hope the recently Windexed glass door was merely hard to see. I hope that was all there was too it. I disinfect surfaces and spray furniture. I build tiny coffins. The backyard is mined with little mounds of dirt where I have buried the recent dead. There is also the following to distract me: I move about the house attempting to discover bits and pieces of my wife, things she left behind. Her hair clogging the drain in the bathroom sink, nail clippings abandoned amid the cushions on the couch, pieces of dead skin that may have fallen into the shag of the wall-to-wall carpeting. I seek out her smell. It’s almost undetectable now; utterly eradicated. All that’s left are my own stale, awful smells that hang presciently in the air. At night I sleep as if my wife were still in the bed with me: curled into myself like a tick, at the very precipice of the mattress, her ghost-self splayed out next to me, arms open wide, as if waiting to embrace something from above. I am not so much losing sleep, as I am estranged from it. Still: I have a blouse. She doesn’t know I kept it. A white cotton blouse speckled with ivory buttons down the front. The same blouse she wore the day we bought this house. The same blouse she wore the day we brought our dog home from the pound. The same blouse she wore when I found her in the hallway one day after work, fidgeting with one of the ivory buttons, the fourth one down, her mouth working awkwardly, fumbling towards a sentence that was soundless. I can’t read lips, didn’t she realize that? Right now: I crawl inside the coat closet in the hall, next to the Plastic Safety Man and Veronica, and the apparitions of my mother and Cassandra. We are all in here, together. It is getting crowded. I raise the blouse to my nose. There’s a hint of a scent. It’s still there. I keep the blouse in a plastic bag with one of those sealing devices where the red has to meet the green. Did I mention everything in the house is covered in plastic?