This month’s Futurismic story is a sober yet striking piece of work; Douglas Lain has constructed a moody and multilayered metaphor that compares our approach to waste management with our approach to our own minds… and the minds of our children.
Charged with subtle emotion, “Resurfacing Billy” will provide you with plenty of food for thought, and greatly rewards a close re-reading. Enjoy!
by Douglas Lain
About half way through my thirty-fifth year, some problems came up. My young son was unbalanced and maladjusted to school, my wife’s bohemian tendencies made her myopic and unable to respond to the situation, and the garbage buried under the wicker weave surface of our neighborhood leaked through. Toxic sludge oozed up in the parking lot of our local Food Co-Op, on the bike trail, and in our own backyard.
I didn’t know what to do about my wife and son, but my solution for the leakages in the Hawthorne neighborhood was the gumball. The design was colorful, nostalgic, and tactile. I felt confident that resurfacing the district with red, green, and yellow globes designed both to stick into a coherent and easily traversable surface and to separate into individual objects that pedestrians could manipulate, would work. I would win another ASLA prize. Organic and absorbent, they were designed to neutralize and sanitize leakages that occurred where the tarp lost integrity; the gumballs would change colors when exposed to toxins, serve as a warning system as well as a surface.
There was a movement inside Waste Management to suspend resurfacing and start a project of recycling and detoxification, but such a project was prohibitively expensive and would require the transfer of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Such a project would create resentment against the politicians currently in office. Excavation and evacuation would never gain support outside Waste Management itself.
Ross’s tie was loose around his neck and his suit jacket rumpled when he turned up at my office. “Looks like your surface is cracking,” he said. He pointed to an irregularity in the hard wood floor, used the sole of his left loafer to spread the green liquid oozing through the crack across the polished surface of my floor, and then went to my desk and picked up the piece of Velcro surfacing that I used as a paperweight. The Velcro was an artifact from my design for Beaverton in ‘42.
“Today I’m working on gumballs.”
“You like them sticky,” Ross said. He was two decades older than I was, more than a little overweight, but he was also rugged; he had an aura of masculine charisma that I found difficult to oppose. “Your own floor is cracking, Mark. How can you oppose me on this?”
“I’m a member of the Resurfacing team.” I handed him a white spearmint sphere. “Of course I oppose you.”
“Nice work,” Ross said. “You want to sneak out for a bit and get a drink?”
Ross popped the gumball into his mouth and smiled.
“How does it taste?” I asked.
“Sweet. It’s good.”
“I’m not thirsty,” I said.
I was just a child when they first started dumping on public land, and I was thirteen the first time I encountered the garbage. The Kohn children took me to see the dumping grounds near their house. They were my father’s business partner’s kids, and they were a little older than I was. The Kohn boy was the younger one, maybe fourteen. I don’t remember his name. Rachel was their daughter; she was sixteen and treated me like a child. I remember her sleeveless yellow t-shirt and the freckles on her upper arms.
Rachel told me to stay back and just watch when she climbed to the top of a pile of dust. She was careful not to reach out with her hands to steady herself, or to let her feet sink too far, but when she skipped back down it turned out she’d got some dust on her chin. An angry red streak ran from her chin down her neck, and under her collar. I kept looking at the spot where the streak disappeared under fabric. I wished that she would stop being so polite with me.
There was a crank on a discarded machine made of bicycle chains, gears, and I tried it out. I turned the crank while Rachel climbed up and then hung upside down on the metal ladder attached to the side of a boxcar. I watched her shirt drift down, looked at her exposed midriff, and then let go of the crank. I watched the crank turn and then looked back up at Rachel. The machine started to lose momentum, the buzzing noise dropped an octave, and I absently reached out for the handle to start it going again, but instead of finding the handle I found a bicycle chain and then the teeth of a gear. I reared back, and sucked on the torn flesh around the knuckles of my right hand. I’d cut myself, and when I looked at my hand I could see flakes of metal in the wound.
Rachel and her brother didn’t come back to the house with me but, instead, just gave me directions so I could get back on my own. I felt betrayed. She didn’t care about me.
It was Rachel’s mother who washed my wound in their kitchen sink. She filled the metal tub with water from the tap, but the water smelled bad and I stepped back involuntarily. Mrs. Kohn assured me that she didn’t intend on putting my wounded hand in the dirty water, and then opened a drawer below the sink. She took out a variety of green and red bottles, squeezed drops of decontaminants into the water, and then took out a kitchen timer shaped like a lemon and set it for five minutes, and as the lemon ticked my hand throbbed as infection set itself snug in my fingers.
Mrs. Kohn put her hand on my back and then, when the timer rang, she plunged my hand into the water. She’d put iodine and alcohol in the water along with a tincture to kill bacteria. The mixture seeped into my wound. It stung and I cried out even as I felt relief.
I looked up above their sink, and gritted my teeth. It started to be difficult to keep my hand in the water, but I figured that I should wait for a cue before pulling it out. I gritted my teeth and looked up at the window frame, at the little crystal they had hanging down to catch the light. There was a postcard reproduction of an old painting tacked to the wall–an etched outline of a bearded man brandishing a knife was colored by a splash of red paint that didn’t stay inside the lines. The bearded man leaned over the prone body of the younger man whose body was colored by a thin coat of yellow paint.
“That’s Abraham and the angel,” Mrs. Kohn said. “I especially like that one because it asks so many questions.”
“What kind of questions?” I asked.
“Questions about what’s right and what’s wrong. Like, is there justice handed down to us by some supernatural being? Can a person do something that’s unethical and immoral and still be just?”
I looked at the postcard again. There was Abraham holding a knife to his son’s throat, but, above him, the angel was reaching down, ready to stop him.
“God didn’t let him do it. Doesn’t that mean the answer is no?” I asked.
Mrs. Kohn didn’t say anything, but wrapped the fingers on right hand with a paper towel and told me to use my left to apply pressure. I was bleeding again.
“It’s a messy painting,” I said. “The painter just put the colors on the canvas without watching what he was doing or staying in the lines.”
Mrs. Kohn told me that the mess of it was what made her like it best of all.
My son was in trouble. The administrators told me that the power failure was not the causative factor in the incident, but suggested that Billy had been predisposed towards anti-social violence. I blamed the system failure anyway. After all, if the screens hadn’t turned off Billy wouldn’t have taken the trouble to find the seam.
At the Unocal Learning Center and Institute for Child Care and Development they give the kids safe toys: Styrofoam cars and trucks, light plastic vehicles, furry puppets, and stuffed animals. Nothing sharp, nothing breakable, reaches the children’s hands. The institute is safe, with padded walls and spongy floors, and the kids are encouraged to spend most of their time interacting with the screens. They can talk to dolphins and giraffes, zone out on hypnagogic patterns of light.
A safe environment and a learning environment, that’s the motto, but on Tuesday, September 15th, 2047 the power went out. The kids were immersed in darkness. The screens went blank.
When the lights came back on, they found Billy had dismantled a Styrofoam Mammoth. He’d found the seam and ripped the toy open in order to expose the plastic skeletal structure underneath. He moved the skeleton, checked out the hinged legs and snap-on trunk, and then found the serrated edge of the creature’s primary frame. The animal’s backbone was hard, sharp and grooved so the legs could be adjusted. Billy ran his finger across the edge of the creature’s spine, cut his finger, stuffed it in his mouth, and tasted the salty liquid that was oozing out of him. Then he reached across and slashed the boy next to him, just a little kid, maybe three years old, two years younger than Billy, and when this toddler got cut he just looked at the gash on his arm and watched the blood come out. It wasn’t until the guardian appeared, wasn’t until they dragged Billy away, wrestled the weapon out of his hand, that the kid started wailing.
I didn’t understand it, didn’t want to understand it really. I just had to help Billy adjust, to get him past it. They had to test Billy early, and I had to make sure that Billy’s MB personality metrics demonstrated that he was extroverted and feeling. He was a sensitive kid, not anti-social, but surprisingly analytical. Things that most children never noticed fascinated Billy. For instance, Billy liked garbage. He wanted to know how it all got where it was. He collected garbage; he and his mother searched out leaks in the neighborhood, even found one in our backyard. I came home from work to find them wearing rubber gloves and using gardening shears. They cut through the surface. Louise made sure they’d cut the plastic tarp in a way that was easy to reseal and I made them test the stuff with a Geiger counter, made sure that none of it was hot, insisted that they figure out a proper storage system.
Rows jars with garbage inside ended up on exhibit in our house, glass jars that contained various bits: a piece of a microprocessor, a smiling stuffed dog covered in green ooze, shards of a silver disc, a rainbow colored rubber band. Billy even found a cellular phone.
“People called each other on those,” I said.
“What do you mean?
“Like when the visors talk to us. People would talk to each other on these.” I put the device up near my face, held it up to my ear. “They’d say ‘hello.'”
I took off my visor, retracted the microphone, and put it in my front shirt pocket, then pressed the phone up to my ear and gave a demonstration. “Hello?”
“Not visor voices, but other people?”
“What would people say?”
“I told you. They’d say, ‘Hello.’ They’d say, ‘I’m not home right now.’ Things like that.”
“‘Hello,'” Billy said. He took the cellular phone and pressed the buttons on its face. “‘I buy corn nuts and Zelden pills. So, I’m not home right now.'”
Violent outbursts are not particularly rare in the school setting, but what is troubling to the Administrators is that Billy dismantled a safety toy. Violence alone they could handle, but the cold-blooded process of tearing the stuffing out and finding the blade, that disturbed them. Billy’s education couldn’t continue unless they were certain that he would not seek to thwart the basic parameters and safeguards of the classroom. They gave me a Personality Adjustment workbook to use with Billy. There were charts, graphs, and key phrases, and I followed the instructions, but I didn’t understand them. I didn’t grasp the theory behind the exercises.
N+ and N++ groups can present obstacles and must be kept calm. A more open-ended approach should be taken with the N- and N– groups.
This was indecipherable, but before Billy could return to the Learning Center, we had to complete the adjustment course. I helped him fill out the worksheet.
“Billy when I say the word ‘sunset’ what do you say?”
“I don’t know.”
“When I say the word ‘sunset’ you say…”
“It’s only 2 o’clock.”
“No. If I say ‘slap’ you’d say…”
“No, what would you say?”
“‘I’d say slap too. I’d say slap back.'”
Obviously, the slashing incident was an act of aggression, but we all have aggression. Billy was curious and sensitive, and it seemed perfectly understandable that he might want to find out what is inside a toy or a stuffed animal. Further, the aggression was probably spontaneous, innocent. And Billy felt remorse about it.
“Dad, can we change our genes?” he asked.
We’d been doing homework for about an hour and were watching a supplemental program on our visors, a 15-minute program about Natural Selection, when Billy interrupted.
“Dad, can we change?”
“Shhh,” I said.
“Did the man say we could change?”
“Not us, our offspring. We can change our offspring.”
“I’m your offspring, right.”
“Why didn’t you change me? Why won’t you change me now?”
“Pay attention,” I said, and tapped at my glasses.
Billy stopped fidgeting and sat still, staring straight ahead at nothing but the visor pictures. I felt relieved.
“Evolution,” the man in my glasses said.
McMinnville was covered over in a baby blue blanket. It was a poor design because, while the fabric gave an impression of absorbency, the blanket’s synthetic fibers were thin and water resistant. The toxic liquids seeping up from under the tarp were pooling on the surface. Outside of the city limits, but only about a half mile from the town’s shopping district, there was a lake one half mile across, and eight to ten feet deep.
I stopped on Third and checked out the MACK theatre where the owners had reported some surfacing issues. Fluid from the landfill had collected directly beneath the theater, and the theater’s basement filled with what was a typical garbage solution of mercury and detergent, and the ooze damaged the building’s central air conditioning unit. The theater’s owners were demanding that the State pay for renovation, demanding that the building be drained and secured.
A vine pattern in the red carpet obscured the fact that the ooze was coming up in the lobby. There were several slick spots, and where the carpet was thin in front of the snack bar counter, a small pool of green ooze had formed. The puddle was directly in front of the popcorn machine.
Across the street from the MACK Theater was a small shopping center, and I stopped in for lunch and to assess the data. Looking down from the second floor, sitting on a bench in the hall outside a locally owned diner, I put the Styrofoam box that contained my fried cheese sandwich, a bag of chips, and warm coleslaw on my lap. I stared over the railing at the empty space below. There was a cold concrete floor with artificial rust colored tiles set in the surface beneath me. I was glad not to see any evidence of leaks. The steam from my lunch fogged my glasses. I leaned in to inspect. The pickles on the side were crunchy and cold.
Next door to the diner was a fabric store and, as I ate my pickle, I examined the display of dresses and sweaters in the window. A mannequin was wearing a paisley patterned dress, brownish and without sleeves. It was polyester, an antique, and had probably had adorned the mannequin in the window display since the turn of the century.
I bit into my sandwich and then coughed, nearly choked. Behind the mannequin was a rack of baby blue fabric, yards and yards of it. The surface of McMinnville was still available on sale.
McMinnville was a disaster. A simple resurface job wasn’t going to cut it. To protect the city’s water supply the State would have to lay new tarp.
I didn’t want the problem. I ate my cheese sandwich, looked at the rack of baby blue surface, and decided to get rid of it. The McMinnville project would not stay in my department. It would be a simple thing to pass the problem on down the chain.
I sat in on Billy’s class as was required. They took my visor along with the visors of all the children at the front door, and while I found it disconcerting at first, the lack of the usual babble of instruction and transparent images was eventually a pleasure. Without the visor, it was easier to focus my attention on the wall screens.
Overall it was a much more pleasant space than I’d expected. There was a guinea pig pen with a guinea pig inside it, there were blackboards, a toy kitchenette, puzzles and books, and a slew of Styrofoam toys: cars and trucks and people and animals. I knew these toys were perfectly safe. Safe unless you ripped along the seams and exposed the hard plastic frames inside.
We watched an educational film about morals and cooperation, bleached out Technicolor pictures that featured outdoor photography of yards without surfacing, on the wall screens. The title of the film was “A World of Lies.” The narrator asked us to imagine what life would be like if everyone always lied. We were asked to believe that such a thing was possible.
The protagonist, a blonde girl, maybe ten years old, with a Dutch boy haircut wearing bellbottom jeans and a yellow and blue striped shirt, pedaled her bicycle down a pristine American roadway to a town, the narrator explained, called “Liar Villa.” She whistled “Row, Row, Row your boat,” as she pedaled. She occasionally stopped, caught her breath, and sang out a line or two.
“Life is but a dream,” she sang.
The first lie came when she passed a road sign that read “Liar Villa ½ mile.” The girl was glad to arrive, and she pedaled faster. She glanced left and right, looking for an exit, but the road just went straight on without an intersection or side street. The camera angle changed and the light shifted, it grew darker. The girl pedaled along the same road, obviously tired after hours of riding. She was no longer smiling, no longer whistling.
The girl rode up to a boy in a straw hat and red and white striped shirt. He had a piece of straw in his mouth and a stick with a bundle tied to one end slung over his shoulder.
“How far to the next town?” the girl asked.
“Which town is that?”
“You passed it. I just came from there. It’s about a half mile back,” the boy said.
The girl turned her bike around, pedaled in the opposite direction, and almost immediately came upon another couple of kids in striped shirts and blue jeans. The girl and boy were sitting in a tree on the shoulder of the road. Again the protagonist asked for directions, but this time she didn’t ask for directions to town, but asked if there was a gas station, a fountain, or a stream nearby. She was very thirsty.
The liars in their green and white striped shirts pointed to the field and suggested she ride until she reached the trees. There would be a stream there.
The film jumped; there was a flash of white light, some strange dark lines, static, and then a still picture. Astride her bike and on the edge of a desert, the girl was silent on the walls of the Learning Center. Then the stillness broke and, with a quick cut, the girl pedaled down the same road where she had started. She passed a man on horseback. He was wearing a green and white striped shirt, and the girl asked him for water.
The man handed over a canteen filled with sand.
“You lied to me,” the girl said.
In our work group Billy wanted to explain lies, while the other kids were more interested in explaining why they should always tell the truth. I kept out of it, didn’t offer an opinion one way or the other. It was clear to me that the students were expected to champion honesty, but I was only there to observe.
“Lies are always mixed up with true stuff,” Billy explained. “They don’t work on their own. The Land of Liars is silly. Those kids in striped shirts didn’t know how to lie right. You can’t just make up stories and pretend. If you really want to lie you’ve got to know what is real.”
“We’re supposed to explain why it’s wrong to lie,” one of his classmates, a little blue-eyed girl with black hair and the sparkling clean clothes of the bureaucratic class, a monochromatic red sweater and dark blue jeans, answered back.
Billy frowned and then moves his pen across the page, filling in the spaces on his worksheet. “Honesty is hard and most people won’t believe you,” he wrote. As an answer to the second question he wrote, “The truth is good even if nobody listens.”
I couldn’t hold back any longer, and stopped Billy’s hand from moving. I told him that he had it wrong. What he’d written wasn’t what honesty was at all. “Honesty is telling the truth even if you get in trouble for it,” I told him. “Honesty is looking out for other people. Honesty is listening and using your brain to follow instructions. Honesty is telling the truth.”
Billy clearly didn’t believe me.
The three of us, Billy, Louise, and I, dug holes in the surface of our backyard, looking for artifacts worth saving in the underground garbage pile. Billy enjoyed it, and while I disapproved generally, I assumed that the Learning Center, the upcoming personality adjustment, would curb Billy’s desire for excavations. There was no harm in digging one last time, as long as we adhered to city guidelines on garbage removal, and as long we washed thoroughly after.
“The Learning Center is a private company. You may feel that we, as consumers, must abide by their decisions, but we are not actually compelled by law to do so. These corporate judgments are just recommendations. Just rules we have to abide by if we want to continue with their services. There wouldn’t be any legal consequences if we declined,” Louise said.
Billy was preoccupied digging, he used his trowel with skill and enthusiasm, but Louise and I assumed that he was listening despite appearances to the contrary. We kept our conversation as abstract as possible. We didn’t want to worry him. There was no reason to complicate an already chaotic situation.
“We have a six year contract that stipulates our compliance,” I said.
“We can’t afford to lose our deposit and pay the fine?”
“Where would we send him? Where would he go to school?”
Billy looked up at me, and then over at his mother. He had plastic flags in his fist. He pulled the string of them out of the soil, a line of pink triangles with purple butterflies and green flowers…green daisies.
“Are we going to move?” he asked.
“That’s an interesting find. What do you think those triangles were for?” Louise asked.
“Were they used in manufacturing?” Billy asked.
Manufacturing is just a word to Billy. He’d seen factories on his visor, but the words factory and manufacturing didn’t really connect for him, besides there aren’t any factories anymore, not on this continent.
“They were decorative. There is no utility to them, is there?” I asked. I was stuck in an abstract mode, but Billy followed me.
“No. I can’t see how anyone could use these,” Billy said.
“Here.” I took the butterfly flags and scanned for radioactivity. They were hot. “Shit.”
I hurried across the lawn to it, got rid of the butterflies and green daisies, but knew we’d been exposed. I suggested that we stop and clean up, but Louise shrugged and handed out antitoxins.
I put the chalky green pill under my tongue and waited as the sweet medicine dissolved. Billy chewed his up and kept digging. He pulled out a toothbrush with soft bristles and a melted handle, held it out for us to examine, and then pantomimed brushing, holding the object far too close to his mouth.
“The Institute needn’t resort to legalities,” I said. “I “If we allow for expulsion we face the expense of home child care as well as fines. We can’t afford to drop to a single income.”
“We could move and reenroll.”
“Don’t be naïve. The system is integrated.”
The toothbrush was clean and I let Billy stow it away in his shirt pocket. Next Billy found a fully intact paperback book. The embossed red lettering on the cover spelled out the words “Future Shock,” while the blurb on the back informed me that the author was also responsible for the books “Super Industrialism” and “Revolutionary Wealth.”
“Are we going to do something?” Louise asked.
I didn’t answer. I let the two of them, my wife and the boy, wait while I read the back cover of the paperback. The description of a society overwhelmed by information and technology seemed quaint to me. It was hard to comprehend that there was a time when people expected comprehension to be obtainable, even routine.
“Billy found something of real value here,” I said. But Louise scanned the paperback for radiation and found that it was hot. She took it to the incinerator and handed out another dose of anti-toxins.
We were one phase away from compromising our systems and Billy knew that whatever he found next would be the final artifact of the day. He turned away from us and dug with real vigor.
“Billy has to be made better. There is no way out of it. We’ve followed the steps exactly, and we’ve arrived here, at this,” I told her.
Louise looked cross, but she didn’t object.
Billy found another phone. He held it over his head and smiled victoriously, put his fingers on the keypad and pressed a button. The machine let out a small chirp.
“It still works,” Louise said.
Billy pressed the keypad again, and the device began to chirp. It rang. The little rectangle of plastic was a phone.
“It’s for you,” Billy said.
I held the warm lump of plastic between my thumb and index finger, certain it was hot.
“Say, ‘Hello,'” Louise suggested.
My first surface, influenced as it was by the pseudo-rebellious theories I picked up at university, won awards for its conception and disparagement, censure, and fines for its practical application. Using polished stainless steel grates and open air, my surface ran across the Willamette river, perforated the tarp that already spanned the sewage and sludge that ran there, and allowed the smell to waft up and assault pedestrians and those in older unsealed automobiles. The idea was to make people think about the dead river, but the scandal that ensued instead raised issues regarding city hiring practices, and concerns over spending and oversight, instead. The eventual solution was to fill the gaps in the grate with quick drying cement, and as I drove my son over the river on our way to the Learning Center I stared down at where our white wall tires touched the silver and red stripes. I had plenty of time to consider how my rebellion had nearly cost me my career, plenty of time to consider how it had found expression in my son, and how it made a victim of him.
“Billy,” I said, “when the doctors give you your instructions I want you to listen and obey.”
Billy was watching a program on the Hero network, a Technicolor pattern streaked back and forth across the screens of his visor. Sound effects and explosions were audible to me if I leaned down and put my ear next to the wire in his. I removed his earpiece.
“Do what the doctors tell you.”
Billy adjusted his visor so he could see through the lenses, and turned toward me in the front seat. He lowered the volume on his wire.
“Is it true that the Batman wasn’t always a cop?” he asked.
The traffic started moving, however slowly, and I restarted the engine and rolled our vehicle forward the few feet that had opened up.
“They say that he was a vigilante? What’s a vigilante?” Billy asked.
The adjustment would consist of talking therapy, drug therapy, statistical and biomorphic analysis, and finally, if necessary, surgical interruption. Billy was facing the prospect of a total alteration. It was vital that he convinced the technicians and doctors that his deviance fell within ordinary bounds. He had to convince them that the foundation of his personality was sound, but instead of reviewing the questions and procedures with Billy, I let him use his visor to watch cartoons. It was easier for both of us that way.
“A vigilante is a criminal. He’s a regular man who acts as a judge and executioner,” I said.
“Like a bank robber?”
“No. A vigilante would stop a bank robber, maybe kill a bank robber.”
“Like a cop?”
“Only he’s not a cop.”
“He’s a criminal?” Billy paused for a moment, stared down at the steel and cement stripes. “I don’t understand. Stopping a bank robber would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?”
“If you’re not a policeman then it is the wrong thing. If you’re not a cop then acting like a cop makes you a criminal.”
I nodded and then reached for the turn signal. We’d reached the exit. “The crime is based on who you are, or what you are, and not what you do,” I said.
“That doesn’t seem right,” Billy said.
We rolled up to the Learning Center campus and sat idling on the artificial ice before Billy reached for his door. There were construction paper streamers around the entrance to the school, and there was a sign that read “Welcome Test Takers. Good Luck. Be Healthy.”
Billy was still lost in thought, caught up in the dilemma of an illegal act that was illegal because it created an illegal subject and not because the act itself was unjust.
“Batman was a bad guy?” Billy asked.
I told my son to put away his visor, to pay attention to what was happening around him. “You have to be polite to the doctors,” I said. “Answer their questions, but don’t ask any questions yourself. Smile.”
Maybe they would go easy on him.
They aren’t really gumballs; they’re not hollow or sweet. Compromises were made along the way. Now the individual units don’t quite cohere in the way I’d planned, but as long as I keep moving there is no slippage. You can’t stop moving, if you stop for even a few seconds the gumballs unhitch.
I can’t stand up in my own backyard, and there are already lawsuits pending. Pedestrians in the Hawthorne area have filed after twisting a knee or breaking a hip, but there are no wrongful deaths filed yet.
I’m at home, it’s my day off, but I’m still working. I’m trying to figure out the problems that keep coming up, rethinking my design, trying to fix it.
A quick glance out the window clued me in immediately. All the gumballs had turned blue, but I did not want to believe it. I had to go out to look past my own yard, look over the fence. Now it’s blue fields and yards in every direction, and that’s why. Once the balls are toxic they won’t stick together.
I’m rolling back and forth, trying to stay upright, because the tarp is leaking. Hawthorne is the same as McMinnville. The tarps are disintegrating.
I glance back at the house, our double ranch with chalk siding, and worry about the foundation. Billy is at the back window, in the kitchen. He’s standing on a stool at the sink and looking out at me, past the potted plants my wife bought, past the small crystal hanging on a plastic string catching light. There are rainbows on Billy’s forehead, on his cheek, flashing in his eyes.
They operated on Billy, took out a small portion of his brain, but you’d never know it. Six months later, it’s hard to pinpoint how Billy is different, how the procedure has changed him. He doesn’t want to dig up the garbage anymore, I was right about that, and he doesn’t ask as many questions as he once did. He doesn’t start conversations at all, but his IQ is the same. His level of manual dexterity hasn’t changed. There is nothing overtly wrong with him. There’s no change on the surface.
Looking away from Billy and back at the fields of dark blue, it’s clear that there has been a rupture, some sort of catalytic reaction. The tarps have suffered terrific damage, even if the sunshine and the scented gumballs make everything seem small and manageable.
The scope of the damage is impossible to calculate really, but it is obvious that, while the State and most especially the resurfacing department will insist that the situation is manageable; repair is no longer a realistic option. All that remains are coping strategies, last ditch efforts to put off the inevitable toxification.
I pick up a gumball, put it my mouth, and try to chew. The gumball is solid, not gum at all, but made of absorbent plasticine. I roll the ball back and forth in my mouth, and then spit it out. Billy is still at the window with red, yellow, and blue streaks of refracted light on his chin. There is nothing to do but take the anti-toxin pill, put it under my tongue and let the saccharine sweetness dissolve there.
In light of the recent 700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street, Douglas Lain thinks of himself as a member of an entertained but bankrupt public– a public that Guy Debord admits in his 1978 film In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni “are always spoken to like obedient children — always willing to do what they’re told as long as they’re told that they ‘must’ do it. But above all they are treated like retarded children, forced to accept the delirious gibberish of dozens of recently concocted paternalistic specializations, which one day tell them one thing and the next day perhaps the very opposite.”
Lain’s first novel, Billy Moon-1968 was recently purchased by Tor Books, and his short story collection Last Week’s Apocalypse was published by Night Shade Books in 2006. He is the editor of the ‘zine Diet Soap, and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and four children. Email him at douglain (at) dietsoap (dot) org
[Editor’s note – I think Doug is the one of the right in this picture, though having never met him in the flesh I can’t be sure.]