As Before by Brent Powers

It is done there. Nothing to be done about it. The funerary burnings have begun, all his awful old stuff, old marked-in books and notes on paper, paper files, lengths of paper tape run over everything, tape smeared with sticky black ink in clumps of his clotted script, the whole of it carrying his stink of cheap smokes, spilled wine, scum of self love … there, so there, ruins of Athens, Rome and Frankland, ravaged by the Goths of restless impermanence. A man not yet dead, no, not yet fully cognizant of a moving on from himself that occurred years before with the disappearance of his wife and friends, the erasure of all that he was in his own memory, leaving only this detritus of paper history. No, no, not yet. He goes on as before, goes on until he can’t any more. Then there is a period of simply waiting. Hoping for something to catch fire. When it does it is the actual fires of loss. Nothing to be done. Nothing to do. But even this is a dream, the dream of an ending.

He wakes before first light on the last day before the Time Change. It is the winter of his first year in formal Exile. He now lives outside a little seaside village in Q, a place of easy retirement. Retirement indeed, for none else are criminal here, merely old, or of middle age early struck down at the futile business of working, by that business, thence put away from society.

He hasn’t yet seen any neighbors, although he does hear occasional earthworks, tractors and cats attacking the bogs which lie among the paradisial trees of what could be taken for a parkland, his loveliest residence ever. He has never even vacationed in such a splendid place.

He had thought to make another accounting of it all. Another falsification of the past, as all accounts must be. Determining to do so one day he discovered that he couldn’t even gin up enough anger to go on for very long. Perhaps he wasn’t even angry any more. Old friends will call and ask him if he’s finally set about the business and he must lie, although he has begun to wonder why he even bothers. It is over with. Over.

It could have been different. With one or two wiser choices he would be someone else entirely. A smug bureaucrat, a shopkeeper. Yes. That little bookshop he’s always wanted. Never really busy yet there is the constant traffic of a regular clientele, people who hang out, bring him coffee or even lunch. It is on the main thoroughfare of a small college town, a place that still holds out false hope. They come and go, come and go. There is talk of books and films, music, politics, the latest religious balloon. Nothing too important happens, although there are rumors. People are always getting something up, even when it’s all taken care of. There can be no peace among humans. Sooner or later someone starts shooting.

One of them comes in and begins simply enough, with a postulate of some kind. From there it follows, marches heavily, like soldiers in the dawn. It would appear to be noble yet it isn’t. One is almost bored. Marching along, as before, marching as to war. What is the war about? Some vague broken promise. An argument at cards. It doesn’t matter, it must be. And so we go on, as before, as always, scratching and biting at each other, blowing each other up. First one dead son, then another dead in retaliation. Then legions, all dead, all burning up with the files and the books and paper, sizzling meat, stench of valor, all of it burning up for no particular reason other than to make way for new conflicts. We don’t like each other very much. Never have. The wise must come down from time to time and remind us to be nice, at least love the neighbor, which is impossible. These are his thoughts, his sometime discourses, admittedly all very comfortable for a bookseller, grand pronouncements made in the safety of a musty indoors, yet all of it somehow necessary. Must keep your hand in, keep at it, generating opinions, for to opine is human, valid as any war.

And yet some time one comes in with a story, even just a small vignette, more rarely a capture of something occurring at the subatomic level which somehow generates a whole mess of sudden springing circumstance, a world born of almost nothing, a Berashith, thus:

Know then that in the year One King Portius rode out grandly with men at arms and claimed Lands to the North, adding these on to his own with the expedition of the flag. Salamander VIII, rightful heir to the North, rose up in contest against Portius and there was war. The plain was flooded. Ships were brought in. There were navel battles. Portius employed Greek Fire. Salamander was defeated. He retreated to Johnswood which is inimical to Portius. “Will we give chase?” asked Bald Walt, hero to Portius. Portius cried Nay. “We must lose our way in the Forest,” he explained, beating his palm with a ruler. “Will we eat then?” Bald Walt inquired further. When the King agreed Bald Walt signaled for his Ensign to blow the trumpet. “Let’s Eat!” Bald Walt cried. Perforce food was put out on long tables. The food was comprised of tacos and pizzas and burgers and fries, all washed down with small beer. For Entertainment there was Suzy, who danced. An argument arose between sergeants and drum majors as to the art of Suzy. One said it was Balanchine inflected belly, the other called it pole sans machinery. Opinions bred out of these like the exaggerations of plague. Let the food fights begin! Hot cheese flying. The stuff of tacos. All the vagaries of burgers. You cannot escape, you cannot escape. Yet the King did nothing but enjoy the show, and it is due to this irresponsibility that History is not kind, for Salamander made insinuation of his troops in the guise of local peasantry albeit surreptitiously armed. After all, one does not throw down with pizza no matter the topping against cold steel. Portius is humiliated. Salamander rides through the Capital with the ensauced chivalry and marchers of Portius under arrest. The gathered citizens are invited to taste of these interesting blends and a fine entertainment was had by all. Again dispute arose, this time among the food journalists. But disputes rarely stay within the boundaries of interest groups, hence this one grew to include the farming community, the tech guys, the recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, our girls in uniform, the baking collective, various lobbies, sundry paid shills, finally the Paris Light Opera entire until there was again dubious warfare …

Once more he finds himself alone. He surveys the historic landscape with an eye for souvenirs. He hopes to establish a business which includes old melted ordnance and the bones of valor beside the usual books, possibly even antique motion picture cameras, music trapped in vinyl grooves, teeth encased in amber, teeth which had broken off whilst they worked at normally soft food which had been stuffed with gravel by the enemy. These are vague hopes but hopes none the less, and he hasn’t entertained such in a long time, no, not since his ambition let him go. But who could be ambitious here? For behold yon northern mulla drawing in his lawn to partake of the customary afternoon siesta, small zs shortly oozing from his little comma mouth to join the flies above as he drifts into guiltless sleep; others following suit short upon, parading various degrees of splendor in their bedding. Even pavilions appear, and suddenly erupting canopies stretched over birch rods cross the sky. All’s well with the world that can be, and much can be well here. In the marina toy ships shift in their slips, wind chimes ring and flicker through leagues of sad air. The boats go creek and the tides reach up and clap and glitter seems to fall from the masts and the breath goes out and out, joining the wind far out to sea, and nothing has changed for him at all except for that loss of breath going out and rejoining the wind and the sea.

The Relative by Brent Powers

My Relative always wore a white dress shirt that didn’t fit and quite often a bow tie also. The effect was very pompous but I don’t know if that was what he wanted. I think the whole thing had to do with monsters and transformations of some sort.

Anyway the fool would start walking along the tracks each morning between the high weeds and that’s the way he got to his office. I followed at a safe distance so he couldn’t see me. I was playing at being a private detective or something. In this work it is important to be surreptitious. I think that’s the word. Anyway he never saw me, or he pretended not to. He just kept walking along determinedly to work. This was a high building without any windows except for the big one in his office way up high which he used to view ducks in the pond below. The office itself was spare and functional. A desk. A computer. A modest girlie calendar which he changed when he felt like it. At this point the calendar said it was a few days ago. The girlie picture had been there for some weeks. She carried two buckets and stuck out her tongue.

From the time he was a boy my Relative had been singled out for accomplishment. He had thought to become one of the Great Train Bombers only he soon got the point that he was conspicuous. Then he turned his mind to becoming Robert Redford and combed his hair accordingly. This hair, however, was of a dark shade, while Robert’s is glorious blond and remains so to this day. Finally he took the path of least resistance and inherited the Family Business which was conducted in this building overlooking the duck pond. The only advantage to his high position was having the only window. That’s how my Relative saw it anyway.

So spying on him all these years from my helicopter I realized that he did little with his work life. He just sat at his desk and looked at the ducks. Occasionally he would make a gun shape with his hand and take aim at them and go POP! Or he would set about giving them names. The fat one was Thadeus, she of the sprung ligament was Mildred, the mottled and dour faced and nearly featherless little creep was Clarence of Africa. There were many others, so many in fact that he forgot their names from time to time and had to set about finding new ones. He did not resent this addition to his labors but welcomed it for providing more adventure to his work day which, as was often pointed out by the Master of Business Administration, one of his few visitors, seemed to be comprised of negatives, of things not done.

For example, he made no effort to discover the nature of the work force, which seemed to be large and cheerfully alienated but he had no idea what they did, and showed even less curiosity with regard to their working conditions. Were there toilets? Were these same properly equipped and sanitized with aerosols? Was there a break room which could also serve for lunch? Was there in fact a cafeteria or something that would sell lunch for chump change. Were there, perforce, contract food service providers whose salaries could be exaggerated on tax forms and written off as a business expense right along with all the pencils and clips and printer cartridges which were pilfered? Did the work force smile and throw paper airplanes? Was there a reasonable amount of sexual harassment that was fun to deal with at in house courts martial? Were there the babes and beefcakes that allow for this, and sufficient numbers of greasily horny executives of both sexes to make any charges stick. I once made a note to check up on all these things but never did because of my failure of nerve.

Also he took no position on Company Policy. Whenever the Form was delivered to his office by the revolving secretary he simply colored in all the squares with pretty inks. The Company Policy therefore remained equivocal, wishy-washy, indeterminate, a sort of ho-hum affair that gathered dust and fly specs at coffee stations. No one read it, certainly. They just did their work and bitched and gossiped and made scapegoats of various people and fought amongst themselves and made attempts to determine the psychology of the Company CEO. Nothing changed, nothing would. It was reported outside the building that inside was a “pretty good place to work.”

Mainly, he had no idea what the Company was there for, what service it provided, what product, if any, that it manufactured, why it existed at all, where the money went, indeed where it came from, why he had so much of it, some had less, some (the Totem Animal, for example) none at all. In fact it never occurred to him that such questions could enter the mind and cause precipitation or something.

The list goes on but I shall not bore.

So, each day for several years I followed him up the tracks and, at a certain point, when he got to the building and opened the door by means of his official card key, I held my position behind some trucks. I then found my way to the helicopter provided by the Agency, revved that sucker up and got it screwing its way into the vasty air. I then proceeded to circle the building until lunch time, when I landed on a nearby emergency field and took my lunch of ham and cheese on rye and a root beer float with a Jim Beam back. Afterwards I refueled my vehicle and took to the sky again.

Ah, the sky. What can I say? Well, say “Ah.” It is accomplished.

Come evening, when my Relative left for home, I followed him back there using the same route. However, at a certain point in our journey, I took a short cut in order to get ahead of him so that I could be waiting by my reflector telescope when he entered our grounds. Ostensibly I had been busy all day observing the patterns of solar prominences in order to tell the future. Being the family oracle, this was my expected occupation. No one had any idea what my true calling was. In order to provide the expected service I had taken out a lifetime subscription to National Prophesy and cribbed things from there when asked for advice by family members.

However, this made for a gap in my understanding of the Relative’s complete daily history, for during the period in which I employed the short cut to keep him ignorant of my surveillance my Relative was entirely free. Unwatched and free. Now, even though this could only amount to moments of time, fifteen of them at most, much could be accomplished of which I would remain in ignorance entire. I took little note of this fact, none at all at first, for what can a guy do in so little time and with so few resources to hand? Well, he did have his briefcase (whose contents were innocent enough: a sandwich and an apple when he left, these absent when he returned; some papers, a book of common prayer, sometimes a magazine from his birth year), certainly nothing with which he could work much mischief. Ah. The cell. I had forgotten the cell. A man can make calls, death dealing calls, of course. A few numbers punched. Some terse words. And his cell had wireless internet connectivity. Oh, dear. Oh, dear. And would I mention this in my report? Dare I?

Well, I dithered some. I was obliged to drink myself to sleep on occasion. But ultimately I assimilated that fifteen or so minutes to the general blur of my Relative’s doings.

Which indeed was my UN-doing. For it is by such ignorance that I find myself here, in this blind universe, in this very fallen time.

The Case by Brent Powers

The Walls of Eden are made of pages torn from an unreadable book. That’s how I see it now, the Lost Paradise, which I seem to re-imagine and fabricate with the aid of prompts I find in the rows and rows of cipher … “Fro”… “Guest Mix”… “DJ GEE” … I’m sure that none of it’s anything like what really lies behind the walls.

One question I have which I’ve never even dared to ask, let alone test. Why not simply tear down the walls, they are only paper? Yet I haven’t even touched them. I’m afraid to. It would appear that there is some constraint upon me. Hence I write these fantastic improvisations, these maunderings around vague themes.

Fro, for example. This is a man born out of his time, or so he imagines it. Fro stands on street corners and explains himself as he waves at the traffic (he has taken on the job of serving as Official Greeter to the City). When some pedestrian happens by he just starts right in.

“I am Fro,” he says proudly. “They pulled me out of the ground and sent me forth without preparation. They told me to do what needed to be done, and that’s all. I saw no point to it so I became a slacker right off. Soon I was a Ward of the State. ‘You can’t help yourself,’ they told me. ‘You’ll never amount to anything. But you shall not want. No, you shall not want.’ They gave me money and taught me how to make shoes out of old tires. These I sold on the Avenue at a little above cost. I was allowed to keep what I made which, together with my Government allowance, provided me with a comfortable livelihood. I lived in large crate which I papered over with various samples, making for a striking effect. I lived out in the Baylands alongside the Freeway among all the sculptures and gulls. My neighbors were other people in crates who didn’t speak to me. At some point I may find it necessary to kill them all.” Continue reading