Real Estate

Another story based on a dream I had.

Real Estate

The old man eating lunch in the park didn’t seem to be interested in his sandwich. Sitting on the grass nearby, a taller, younger man in dirty clothes watched. The old man sighed for about the fortieth time then stood and carried his uneaten sandwich toward the trash can, frowning.

“If you’re not going to eat that, can I have it?” asked the young man.

The old man stopped and turned to look. “It’s salami and tomatoes on Italian,” he said.

The young man could not stop the visible rush of saliva to his mouth. “Sounds great.” He stood up, wiping one hand across his face.

The old man nodded and held out the meal, still mostly wrapped in the deli papers. “I’m Thomas, I’ve seen you here before.”

The younger man took the food from his hands, his face intent on the prize. “I’m Chris. And yeah, I uh, sort of live here.”

Thomas walked slowly back toward the bench. “Sit, eat,” he said nodding toward the other end as he sat down.

Chris sat, smiling briefly toward Thomas before he began eating. He treated the partially wrapped sandwich with care and almost reverence as he extracted a cut third of it from the papers.

Thomas watched him eat and his own face changed. By the time Chris had finished the first third with a bit of tomato dripping from his chin, Thomas smiled. “Glad to see you like that,” he said. “There’s a couple of napkins.”

Chris nodded, wiping away the ruby red remnants from his stubbly chin. “It’s good. And I’m not just saying that ’cause I hadn’t eaten since yesterday, the guys at Two Fat Italian Heroes know how to make a sandwich.”

Thomas smiled but it seemed to pain him. “They do,” he said. “I wish they were better at making the rent.”

“Huh,” said Chris. “How do you mean?”

“I’m the property manager for this block of shops.” He gestured toward one side of the park. “I collect the rents and turn them over to the owners. I take care of problems like roofs and sewers and dealing with police and building inspectors. But Leo and Gio are late with the rent, two months in a row. And short both times, besides. I have to tell the owner.”

Chris chewed his way through the second section of the sandwich and neither of them said anything for a while. Finally, Chris said, “You don’t want to do that.”

Thomas shook his head. “I don’t. But it’s my job. If they are short three times, they go on a list. From being on the list to getting evicted if you don’t make up everything you missed, takes about six months.”

Chris nodded. He looked at the last third of the sandwich, about four inches long and nearly as wide. Salami, provolone, tomatoes and onions with a light coating of olive oil and vinegar filled the bread to overflowing. “You want the last piece?” he asked Thomas.

Thomas looked at the remainder of the sandwich. He hadn’t wanted it at all but now that he had said something to someone, he felt a bit of hunger. It was his lunch after all and he had forced Leo and Gio to accept payment for it by leaving the money on the counter. “Maybe half?” he said, his mouth watering.

Chris carefully tore the sandwich in two and offered his choice of halves to Thomas and they both ate with obvious enjoyment.

“Good sandwich,” said Chris when they had finished and used the napkins to clean their hands and faces. “Thanks,” he added as he threw the trash into the can.

“They do make good sandwiches but hardly anyone is willing to pay eleven dollars for a foot-long hero anymore when there’s a chain sandwich shop on almost every block,” said Thomas.

“Yeah,” said Chris. “They have a nice corner location though, they ought to be able to grow a clientele if they can get through a year or so. You think?”

Thomas nodded. “Probably.”

“But if they go under in six months, the storefront is likely to be empty for a year or so?”

Thomas nodded again.

“That can’t be good for anybody on the block. Not good for the owners or you either.”

“No,” said Thomas. The small part of the sandwich he had eaten sat like a lump in his stomach.

Chris belched. “Pardon. So, what if you went to everyone on the block and asked them if they could help the sandwich guys out with rent for a while. And put it like a package deal to your bosses, reduced rent for a year while Leo and Gio get on their feet?”

Thomas gulped. “That just might work,” he said. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Too close to the problem, maybe?” suggested Chris. “It’s worth a try, anyway.”

Thomas started away, his face showing his optimism in the new solution.

“Hey,” said Chris. “You got any work for me? Run errands? Sweep up? Haul away the trash in the alley? Anything?”

Thomas blinked. “I’m not doing so good on the thinking things through bit today. Yeah, I probably do have some things for you to do.” He smiled at his new friend.

Chris smiled back. “I knew it couldn’t hurt to ask,” he said.

The Inevitable Surprise

She fell.

Through the quiet darkness with the moon over her shoulder, she fell.

Toward the sea below, and the rocks, toward the foaming maelström between them, she fell.

She pulled her hands and arms into a point above her head, or rather below it, steering with her legs in the wind of her own passage.

Down and down and faster and faster, her breath tight and painful, not because she was holding it but because it came so fast that it could not be held.

She fell toward the water, silent except for the pounding of the wind and the roaring of her heart; she fell, not by accident but on purpose; she had jumped and she had not been pushed.

On the cliff above the men watched her fall, knowing that she had chosen escape into death rather than let them catch her, touch her, find out who she was, stop her from living to tell anyone what she had seen.

She struck the sea at the last, at the very end of her fall, the inevitable surprise at the bottom of every dive and she knifed cleanly through the water the way he had taught her and she knew that to the men above she had simply disappeared because she made no splash and hardly a sound at all, not one they could hear anyway though to her it sounded like the crash at the end of a world.

But, she lived.

Where Everybody Knows You’re Drunk

A duck, a kangaroo and a chimpanzee walk into a bar. The chimp says to the bartender, “The usual, Stan.”

The bartender takes a tall glass from the back of the bar, pours in three jiggers of dark rum, one of brandy, one of banana liqueur and one of spiced rum. He adds grapefruit juice, tangerine juice, lime juice and bitters, puts a lid on it and shakes it up. Then he pours it over crushed ice into another glass, adds half a shot of 151 and sets it on fire. He puts the Flaming Haitian Zombie in front of the chimp with a small square box alongside.

The chimp drinks half of it right down, flames and all, then sits there with a long face–what else? After a bit, the chimp opens the box, takes out a revolver, loads one cylinder and begins playing Russian Roulette, solitaire.

The kangaroo says to the bartender, “The usual, Stan.”

The bartender mixes vodka, Red Bull, Tabasco, cranberry juice and boiling beef bouillon in a thick glass stein and sets the Red Hot Bullshot and a beer in front of the kangaroo. “There’s some girls in the corner who might like to get acquainted, if you’re feeling up to it,” he tells the marsupial from Down Under.

The kangaroo drinks the concoction down all at once, shouts “Whoo!”, does a double back flip then takes his beer and hops over to meet the cute pocket mice. “Hello, ladies,” he says smoothly. “I’m your entertainment for the evening.”

The mice are not having any of this, though; they pull out knives and threaten to find out what kangaroo steak tastes like.

The duck climbs up on a barstool and watches the chimp squint then sigh as the hammer clicks down on another empty chamber. The bloody kangaroo runs past pursued by carnivorous lady mice. “What do I usually have, Stan?” the duck asks the bartender.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in here before,” the bartender admits.

Kablooie! The chimp blows his brains out on the next stool over. The mice catch the kangaroo and carve him into screaming tidbits.

The duck looks around the bar and says to the bartender, “You’re right. I’ve never been here before. And I think I know why.”

Shave the World

The Story MachineTM was working overtime last night.

This one was about a billionaire genius philanthropist utopianist who was also a bit of a goofball. Let’s call him George because in the dream he was played by George Clooney. Okay, it was a dream.

George invented things, cellphone-sized 3D TV (JCoaPS! this is real now!) for instance. He made a lot of money. He gave himself superpowers. He built a utopian city and he ran his companies like a benevolent dictator.

This was all very visual, colorful and intense and told from the viewpoint of the sister of a young boy who was also a genius inventor and idolized George. Call the boy Tony and the young woman Bree.

Tony invents something that attracts George’s attention and George showers the kid with money and gifts and even power, giving him his own company to run. George even hires other children and has a whole company devoted to employing disabled children because Tony said something about his best friend, who’s in a wheelchair, having even better ideas.

George also seems to fall in love with Bree and she with him. Bree thinks he’s funny, handsome, charming and way too much of a control freak. He scares her and her feelings for him scare her even more.

In one scene, she complains that her sweater has picked up lint while walking through one of his offices and why does anyone need to wear a sweater when the office is so warm. George has everyone in the office take off their sweaters. They all do, making joke complaints about it but humoring the boss.

One of them observes that George is so PC that he never mentions anyone’s gender and that he’s so smart he can do this without sounding stilted or phony. But when he’s talking about Bree, his speech is filled with she and her. The office workers and some of the disabled children laugh about George’s foibles and go back to whatever they do in their high-tech individualized cubicles that would never be called cubicles by George.

George and Bree have a fight about his micromanagement and controlling attitude and Bree takes Tony away on a visit to their parents.

George gets drunk. He decides that he doesn’t have enough empathy to understand women. In the last scene in the dream before I woke up, he’s disguised himself as a woman and is using his superpowers to sweep and clean up the set of a movie one of his companies is making. He moves in superspeed blurs from one little job to another.

“Bree thinksh I’m crazy,” he says to himself. “She thinks I’m trying to shave the world. It can’t be done, it’s just too damn hairy.” He stops and glares at the dirty floor where someone drove a muddy vehicle across the set. “How do women put up with high heelsh and shmiling all the time? I don’t know what hurtsh more, my feet or my mouth.”

Then he stares off into the distance, genius inspiration has obviously struck. “Shay, you know, you probably could shave the world if your razor had enough blades.”

This is why I wake up laughing so often.

Peanut Butter Fog

There’s something surreal about traveling at night on the freeway. A bubble of greenish dashlight around you, outside the white lights come toward you and red lights convoy alongside. The multicolor lights of cities and towns pass quickly with the hot yellow roadlights of exits and overpasses standing like sentries.

Away from the city it is only more intense. The desert night can be very black and the small hours of morning can bring fog so dense you’re tempted to drive by Braille, hitting the raised-dot lane markers you can’t see anymore with a satisfying tunk-tunk-tunk.

Turn off the radio, you need to concentrate. Dial down the inside lights to cut the glare. Peer into the darkness. Somewhere, you see a white glow in the blanket of fog, a big rig approaching on the otherside of the median strip?

Pea soup fog in the Bay Area, tule fog in the Central Valley — peanut butter fog in the Mojave, thick as a Dagwood sandwich; why are you driving in it? If you pull over and turn off your lights, you’ll be alone in a darkness so complete you’ll feel like a cave fish. Pull over and leave the lights on and you take the risk of someone rear-ending you, thinking you’re moving. Even leaving your emergency blinkers on won’t be safe; you’ve passed two cars doing that already and you didn’t see them till the very last moment.

So you keep driving, slowing down, trying not to overdrive your lights. Then someone blows by you in a quad-cab dualie, doing at least sixty, seventy, maybe one hundred ten, you can’t tell. How fast are you going? You can’t tell that, either, you’ve got the dashlights turned off. Speed up a bit. If you hit the right speed, you won’t see anyone at all because you’ll all be going the same speed.

The fog is so thick, you don’t even see the cotton candy lights of traffic on the other half of the road. You roll down the windows. The fog is cold, blowing in the window like frigid steam but it keeps you awake and you can hear the traffic on the other side of the road, when there is any. You can hear the dots on the pavement better, too.

Tunk-tunk-tunk.

You turn the dashlights back on to check your speed. At forty-five miles an hour, it will take you three hours to reach the towns along the Colorado. Three hours of cold desert wind coming in the window, wet with fog. Three hours of peering into the darkness, wondering if there’s a car stopped in the road with its lights off, or a deer crossing the highway or someone trying to wave you down ’cause they have car trouble.

Going slower would be intolerable, going faster would be insane. You memorize the sound of your current speed, the rhythm of the dots, and turn the dashlights back off. You drive.

That was an exit. What did it say? Eagle Mountain? You’ve never heard of Eagle Mountain. You’ve driven this road in daylight and don’t remember that name. Are you still on the right freeway? There are no mountains here, just flat desert. Is Eagle Mountain a town? Would they have coffee? Too late now, you’ve passed the exit. You make a mental list of who you would kill for a cup of coffee. The list gets longer.

Tumbleweeds appear out of the fog, like golden chandelier-spiders in your headlights, scuttling across the road. Alien-looking, it’s a Steven Spielberg sort of thought.

Tunk-tunk. Tunk. One of the dots must have been missing.

Lights up ahead. Is the fog lifting? You can’t be coming to a town yet, there are no towns on this freeway for another fifty miles. Someone with road flares? An accident or just a breakdown. You slow down and steer off the dots, not wanting anyone to see you doing that.

The fog lifts suddenly, the immense desert opens up around you under hard bright diamonds in a jeweler’s showcase black velvet sky. The tension flows out of your neck and wrists and the open window is suddenly much too cold. You roll it back up.

A road sign says, Blythe 70 miles. Less than an hour away and you won’t have to kill anyone for coffee, there’s a Denny’s there. Talk about surreal.

But the lights in the road ahead of you — maybe you shouldn’t have been thinking of Steven Spielberg?

John Cash

Sentient toilets had a vogue for a while in the capital city of the Bergenalter Empire. Actually, they were a sessile flupe of the warrior caste of the dominant species from Emkaron 6.

Cameron Nguyen Fishbeck hated the things. It creeped him out to think of sitting and doing his business on what amounted to the oral orifice of an alien organism. And the sound it made as an equivalent of flushing was just gross.

But what really annoyed him was payday. His job as the bookkeeper for the Municipal Nujjball Arena meant he had personal contact with the flupes since their religion forbade them taking checks. They had to be paid in cash.

“What do they do with it?” he wondered not for the first time as he made his rounds dropping Impervine-wrapped bundles of coins and the specially notched antique pool cue handles used as money in the Bergenalter capital. “They’re stuck to the floor, they’ll live out the rest of their lives sitting there, eating, well, I don’t like to think about what they usually eat. But every payday they get bundles of money. Is it like an after-dinner mint?”

He didn’t know and didn’t care to find out that the flupes were essentially their race’s incubators and the money they got paid would ensure that no Emkaronian warrior was born without a coin in its pustules and a pool cue on its carapace.

Cameron made his way through all the toilet facilities of the complex, dropping his little bundles and cringing at the lip-smacking sounds the flupes made. He did his job quickly and tried not to think about it at all. “It’s exactly like throwing money down the toilet,” he complained silently.

Since nujjball is played with seven to twenty-three teams, each with as many as 1942 members, the city found it more profitable to charge the players and hire the spectators whose jobs consisted of rooting, jeering and doing the wave at the appropriate times. Usually there were more people on the field than in the bleachers and accordingly the toilet facilities in the stands were smaller and generally cleaner and better maintained. In fact, only one of the Emkaronians was employed as living porcelain in the rooting section.

Not that this made much difference to Cameron Fishbeck who just wanted to get the unpleasant task over. Finishing up quickly he hurried back to his office just before the belching started. Luckily, there were no games on so the arena had a minimum of workmen’s compensation claims to pay since the only one injured was the flupe who merely had a bad case of indigestion. If some of the cheering employees had been there, well, it’s always nasty when the excrement hits the enthusiast.

But when the near disaster was over, and blue hockey-puck-size antacids had been given to the gassy flupe the real source of the problem was discovered. Too much wood for the Emkaronian diet. Fishbeck had figured the paycheck wrong and delivered more than twice the correct number of pool cue handles to the lonely flupe.

His boss called him into the main office and told him the bad news. “Cam, you paid the fans’ loo wrong.” *

Konk!

The odd shell looked as if it might have washed ashore on some alien ocean. At first, Jodie Millbrae thought it might be a conch shell, but it was larger than any conch he had ever seen and differently colored, a tawny yellow with blue-black rosettes outside that faded to ivory pink inside with moss green spots.

The whole shell, more than a foot long with a sharply pointed spire, weighed several pounds Jodie realized after picking it up. It occurred to him that it might have an inhabitant and he cautiously peered into the creamy opening.

“Take me to your leader,” said the cartoonish-looking head that peered back at him from the shadowy inside.

“You mean my dad?” asked Jodie.

“Is your father Dr. Jonas Millbrae, the renowned cosmologist?” asked the head in the conch, coming out just a bit farther where Jodie could see it better. It looked like Jiminy Cricket wearing glasses and sounded like Woody Allen, complete to New York accent.

Jodie nodded. “Yes, he is. He’s really smart.”

“We know,” agreed the head. “We’ve come all the way from the Spiral Galaxy Next Door to consult with him.”

“You’re Andromedans?” shrieked Jodie in delight.

“You could say that,” agreed the head of the alien delegation.

Jodie tucked the ungainly object under his arm like the world’s ugliest football and ran to find his father.

Dr. Millbrae had dozed off on the sand and been buried under an enormous sand castle by his daughter, Miranda. The castle had eleven turrets, seven portcullises and a moat that Miranda had filled with seawater and as many unwary beach denizens that she could indenture, inveigle, and as last resort, indemnify into taking up residence.

Miranda had named the castle, calling it, “The Structure of Western Thought, Solid but Ephemeral,” and thought it entirely appropriate that she had used her father for its foundation.

Coming up from the rocky part of the shore, Jodie could not see his father’s head and neck protruding across the drawbridge on the back side of Miranda’s recondite, rococo, re-creation.

With the alien-inhabited conch still under his arm Jodie asked his sister, “Have you seen Dad?”

“Not for a while,” said Miranda, telling the truth in her own deceptive way.

Jodie danced from one foot to the other. “Somebody wants to talk to him about something important.”

“Uh huh,” said Miranda in that voice she used when Jodie said he wanted to watch Sponge Bob Squarepants and she had already changed the channel. “Well, they can just wait. He’s busy doing something important already.”

“I’m back here,” said Dr. Millbrae waking up. “What is it, Jodie?”

Jodie ran around the wing of the castle that represented the interesting failures and fallacies of natural theology. He held out the conch at the end of his pudgy arms and announced, “The Andromedans want to ask you something.”

“Hello, Pocillovy,” Dr. Millbrae’s head protruding across the sandy drawbridge over the moat greeted the cartoon insect head. “You’ve come a long way. What’s your question?”

An immature elasmobranch in the briny ditch perked up; it wasn’t often a baby dogshark got the chance to listen in on such a momentous conversation.

“Dr. Millbrae,” said the crickety head in its New York voice. “We’ve calculated the sum of all the radiation released in the universe since the big bang and it appears to be concentrated in a particular part of the spectrum visible to humans as blue-green light. This surprises us and we thought to ask you for confirmation of our findings.”

Dr. Millbrae’s head looked thoughtful. “You want to know if the universe is really turquoise?”

“Exactly,” said the Andromedan.

“It’s not any shade of aqua or cyan,” said Dr. Millbrae. “It’s beige.” And he closed his eyes and went back to sleep, still serving as the foundation for his daughter’s representation of “The Structure of Western Thought, Solid and Ephemeral.”