Papa and the gun

Papa brought his gun everywhere he went. It wasn’t a small gun, either, no sir. It was a shotgun, meant for bears and the like. Gardening or the grocery store made no difference. He toted it all over Grandville, in the elbow-carry position most of the time. Sure, he got some strange looks when he was off his property, but everybody knew he was a retired Colonel (full bird, not Lieutenant) and cut him some slack. He’d never shot anything or anyone his whole service career, but that didn’t matter now. He’d been an electrical engineer before the World War started and he signed up as soon as he could. He wanted to do his part to help out his country. Maybe deep down he also wanted to make right the shame his father had brought to the family all those years ago when he left his family the permanent way.

But now he was at his new home, his two children (the requisite boy and girl) waving at the edge of the forest. They had just moved there, the 3 bedroom, 2-and-a-half bath, 2288 square-foot house they came from just wasn’t enough for him anymore. Maybe he was like a hermit crab and had outgrown his shell. He’d had to find a new one and fast or he’d die. That unsettledness was his inheritance from his Pa.

Papa was a tender soul in a hard world. Deep down he would have preferred to walk in the woods, without a care or obligation. He married out of social expectation, but had requested they have no children, but his wife had snuck two in on him before he’d insisted on separate rooms. He didn’t want children because he couldn’t bear to think of a child having to undergo what he and his sister had – the hardship, the skimping, the growing up fast after their dad died at his own hand. The family story was that it was during the Depression.  It was a depression alright, but not the capital-D kind. More of a personal kind than a public one.

Yes, that was why he carried a rifle. His father had used a revolver. And while you could kill yourself with a rifle, it was a lot harder.

You’d think he wouldn’t carry a gun at all, but he needed a reminder of the weakness that might affect him. He wanted to never succumb to weakness – whether inside or out. He needed a reminder to never forget how easy it was to go astray. Some former cigarette smokers kept their favorite ashtray, while some ex-drinkers kept empty bottles on display. It was all for the same reason. They kept their old sin before them so it wouldn’t become their new sin all over again. He never knew if suicide would sneak up on him like it had his father, but he was determined to not let it get a chance.

Sergeant Jangles

Jayne sure loved her monkey friend Sergeant Jangles. He wasn’t friends with just anyone, as he so often told her. He couldn’t afford to be, not with his position. He oversaw a regimen of Simian Soldiers, all raised like him to be different from the average monkey. In many ways they were different from the average human as well.

You see, they were educated from birth to be self-sufficient and quite capable. They were given training on how to cook, how to drive specially designed cars, and how to communicate using sign language. Some were assigned to assist humans with disabilities, while others were assigned as soldiers. They were all quite intelligent, insightful, and wise, capable of making independent decisions.

And yet they weren’t citizens. Unable to vote, to marry, to own property, they were beneath the law, an invisible slave workforce. Their owners thought nothing of it. Why would they? They collected all their salary without having to provide any more than food and lodging, both of which were minimal for their charges. When pressed by members of the Monkey Liberation League (whose motto was “Monkeys are People too!”) they would bring up the expense of training and clothing, saying that the fees had yet to be recouped. When pressed further, they hemmed and hawed about exactly when that date would be reached. They’d say things like “Well you see, new uniforms have to be custom-made, and that don’t come cheap. They tear up their clothes so often, you see. And then there’s the hats. You can’t imagine how expensive they are, and they lose them all the time. Just when the debt is about paid up, there they go needing something else again. Why, they should be grateful we take care of them at all, as much bother as they are.”

Meanwhile, their owners never worked and lived in the better parts of town and ate at the better restaurants. You could always count on finding at least a dozen of them in the fancy hip coffee houses downtown during the day while their charges worked.

Jayne wasn’t a member of the League – she was much too young. She had not even heard about it and most likely never would. Her people didn’t waste time on such shenanigans as liberating others. They barely had time to look after their own selves – and when they had a spare moment to think about the plight of the less fortunate, generally thought it was the for the best for them to take up their own fight. It wouldn’t be right to do somebody else’s work for them, now would it? Nobody marched or rallied for them and they were just fine with that.

Jayne first met Jangles when he was a private in the Simian Army Corps, back when he was first starting out. Many monkeys made it up to sergeant, but never any further. It wasn’t for lack of ability. They had that in spades. It was the simple fact that if they became Lieutenants they’d expect to become Colonels, and that was unthinkable. Then it would be even more obvious that they were capable of being full citizens, and that wouldn’t do. So they were kept low to avoid the question even arising.

Not like Jangles ever worried about such things. He was content to do his work as long as he had to. He didn’t count down the days until he could retire. He didn’t look up his pension amount every few months, when things got stressful. He got used to not being listened to, not having any real authority. Sure, his superiors told him that his happiness mattered, but when it came down to providing concrete solutions towards creating said happiness, they were silent. And any suggestion he offered was immediately discounted as being unfeasible. They were all talk and no action, blaming their employee’s dissatisfaction with the unequal work/life balance on the employees and never on themselves. They had fulfilled their required duties by having the “happiness talk” and left it at that. Once Jangles realized this was his reality, he accepted it. It was the monkey way – that which cannot be changed must be accepted.

One thing that was changed was his name. Of course his true name wasn’t Jangles. That was randomly assigned to him by his “caretaker”. Owner, manager, boss, slave master, however you wanted to think about it – it was all the same. Some titles sounded better than others, but they all described the same person. “Caretaker” was probably the most deceptive and sugar-coated, or to put it honestly, the most untrue. They didn’t take care of the monkeys at all. They cared for them just enough to keep them working, not out of any concern for the monkeys well-being, but for their own wallets.

The “caretakers” didn’t bother to ask the monkeys what their names were. They didn’t even consider the question. To them the monkeys were dumb animals, barely more intelligent than the family dog. Dogs got demeaning names like Spot or Scout or Snowball, so why shouldn’t monkeys? In the same vein, the monkeys were taught a sort of sign language so they could answer their keeper’s questions but it was never used to ask them anything. That would be absurd.

Jayne had learned the sign, same as everyone else in the town. They all had to, so they could give orders to the monkeys. But she, being a child, and a female one at that, instinctually understood the position of the monkey workers. She understood the dynamic of lesser-than, of powerless. She understood what it was like to be talked at and never with. Thankfully she didn’t follow the usual course of passing on the oppression. Lesser-thans usually treated their perceived inferiors the same as how they had been treated, handing down abuse the same way poor families handed down clothes. Thankfully, Jayne knew better, and acted better. So she asked Jangles what his real name was when they first met. This was done privately of course, and the name was kept secret. She never spoke it aloud or used his unique hand-sign within the presence of an adult. It was critical that she kept up the illusion of hierarchy, or else their friendship would have been terminated.

Boxing

Lizzie McPherson was young for a widow, but she didn’t let that stop her from her dream of being a boxer. Even when she sat for her formal photograph announcing her new status, she wore her new gloves as a sign to her friends and family of her intentions. Perhaps it was a warning.

Now that she no longer had to answer to a man, she was free to live as she had always wanted. As a maiden, she was under the authority of her father. As a wife, that role passed to her husband. She wasn’t allowed to make any legal decisions without their say-so. Sure, she could decide what she wanted to wear and what food to buy for the household. She was even allowed to pick out the books she wanted to check out from the local library. She understood that this was a rare exception, granted to her by the magnanimity of her spouse. He’d even signed a form, on file at the front desk, letting the librarians know she had free rein.

In the 27 years that branch had been open, only two other women had been granted that privilege. Had the others not known it was an option? Or did they not care? Maybe they were content to read the same old boring stories over and over. Sure, there were new books every week, but only the character names changed and the locale.

Lizzie wanted more. She wanted to be surprised by what she read. She wanted to be surprised by life. She didn’t want to know how the story ended until it ended. If it was predictable, why spend the time reading it? Life was too short for that. Lizzie was busy enough with all the chores required to run the homestead that she didn’t have time to waste on silly books.

James, her dearly departed husband, had moved them out to the wilderness the day they got married. Neither of them had set eyes on the parcel of land that had been allotted to them by the government but that didn’t matter. It was take it or leave it and no second chances with the land grants game. They decided that no matter what, they’d stick with it, come rain or shine, come harvest or famine. What other option did they have? The opportunities to start a life together were few and far between in their town – and the same was true all over.

Just too many people in too small a space. Only the elderly were staying there now, with no youngsters to fuss over and no jobs to go to, what with mandatory retirement. All their needs were taken care of, even food and personal care. They had no worries. Those were for the next generation, the ones trying to set up a family and get their household established. Marriage was the first of many hurdles to being a full citizen.

James took Lizzie out to the plot that very day, right after they’d shared the wedding cake with their family and friends. That act sealed the deal and cemented them as legally joined in the eyes of the law of the land. The plot was three hours away from the town they had known all their lives, and it had nothing on it. Their wedding night was spent in a canvas tent, without even a bed. Their wagon had just enough room for one or the other and they had thankfully agreed that shelter was more important than comfort, even on that night.

From that day onward she wore his clan tartan to tell one and all that she was claimed. Now, a widow, she wore it to fend off possible suitors. She was done with belonging to someone else, done with having to adjust herself to someone else’s whims. She’d had it relatively well with James, but she’d served her time. Now she could live as she wished. It was the best of all possible worlds.

Boxing wasn’t the usual pursuit for a lady, but she’d taken it up out of self-defense. The trouble began with her cousins at family picnics. The male ones, of course. They thought nothing of chasing her down and demanding a kiss, or worse. The adults, if they noticed at all between beers, laughed it off as childish games and told her to play along saying “boys will be boys”. It was then that Lizzie knew she’d have to take matters into her own hands. Literally.

She took up boxing secretly of course, but it didn’t matter. She was much more confident, much more certain of herself. Somehow the boys knew not to hassle her, and for many years she was single because no one had the gumption to tangle with her. This was fine by her. But then James came along. He didn’t ask her to stop boxing. He was proud of it, in fact. He was the first man that was able to befriend her, in part because he didn’t see her as a conquest but as a fellow person.

This was unusual to say the least. No man thought of a woman as his equal in those times. But James wasn’t usual. He was a s/he. S/he’d been raised as a girl until it was time to go to school. Then her parents changed her name and her clothes and nobody knew any better until Lizzie came along. This was why they got along so well. They were part of the same club, as it were. They didn’t agree on everything, of course. Nobody does that, no matter how much they have in common. But they got along better than many other couples, and in private, they even boxed. Maybe that helped too. 

The photographer tried to talk Lizzie out of wearing the gloves for her portrait, but she wasn’t budging. She no longer had to prove herself or make space for other people. It wasn’t that she was pushy, or that she had to have her way all the time. But she was done with shortchanging herself to make others feel rich. Perhaps boxing had taught her that. She wondered what else it might reveal to her about herself.

Written early April 2019

Bicycle lesson

Morris wasn’t pleased with the bicycle instructor that had been assigned to him. He was more OK with the idea that it was a skeleton than the fact it was an “it”. How was he supposed to address it – Mr.? Mrs.? Ms.? Then he started to wonder why women got a different title when they got married, but men stayed the same. But he didn’t have time to wonder very long about that. 

He needed to know the correct title so he would seem like an appreciative student. He looked again at his assignment slip – Terry Hasenmiller. No help there – that first name could go either way. He decided to settle on “Teacher” as a safe bet.

After the preliminary instructions when it was determined that Morris wasn’t a complete beginner at cycling, the instructor decided to go over all the tips and tricks on how to maintain a bicycle. “As my teacher always says ‘if you take care of your tools, they’ll take care of you’.”

Bicycles weren’t for exercise in those days. They were a necessity in a culture that seemed to be going faster and faster. A bicycle (never a “bike” according to Terry) was what made it possible to get a job or an education other than just from what was around you. The bicycle was the great weapon against mediocrity and even poverty. With a bicycle you could pedal your way out of whatever you’d been born into and make for yourself a better future. You were no longer limited by your circumstances – you could rise above.

This attitude is why Terry was still alive – in spite of being a skeleton. Terry didn’t let something as common as death put an end to a good life. Terry hadn’t always taught people how to ride a bicycle, but it made sense now. If it weren’t for the bicycle, Terry would never have known there was a different life, ready for the taking, just on down the road. If it weren’t for the bicycle, Terry would probably be just like everyone else in that town – poor and content with a sixth-grade education.

(Written around 3/30/19)

The illegal alien

Charlie Jones was an extra on the set of a second-rate science-fiction series, but he never took off his costume. He couldn’t. The other actors just thought he was a method actor, that staying in his costume meant staying in character. They didn’t know how he could possibly endure the heat in that suit, or how he got the fake fur to be so lustrous and soft. The trick is that it wasn’t a trick. He really was an alien. Sure, he wasn’t a “Graglethorp” or whatever silly random assortment of letters the writers came up with. He was an Acthun, of the planet Acthunis, in the Gamma quadrant. Of course, his people didn’t call it the “Gamma” anything, seeing as they didn’t know Greek and they certainly didn’t think of themselves as third in line. “Gamma” only makes sense if you think of yourself as first (Alpha) and you’ve already found your first neighboring quadrant with more planets. It was kind of how many indigenous cultures simply called themselves “The People” since they had no reason to differentiate between themselves and other humans. As far as they know they were the only humans.

Charlie Jones had an Acthun name, but it wasn’t pronounceable to humans. Their tongues would need to be bifurcated in order to get the right trill. And even if he said it humans tended to cover up their ears because the pitch was so high. So he came up with a “normal” name, one that wouldn’t mark him as foreign. He really needed this job to work out and couldn’t afford to be discriminated against, even unintentionally. He had a family at home that was depending on him to send back money.

He couldn’t wire transfer it, or mail it. PayPal wouldn’t work for off-world bank accounts (not yet). So once he got his check cashed, he’d photograph half of the money, email the picture to the neighborhood administrator (who had a Gmail account like everybody else) and then burn the money so he couldn’t use it. The administrator would then credit his family’s account with the appropriate amount (once the exchange rate was taken into consideration) and then they could pay their bills.

There weren’t a lot of bills to pay, but even a little is too much when you don’t have an income. Only Charlie was allowed to work, being the only one in the family above 20 and below 50. And male, of course. Everyone else was forbidden by law to work, it being seen as too much of a hardship. Most Acthuns worked the same job nonstop for 30 years and then retired, some to plenty and some to poverty. The jobs were chosen for them in high school. It was believed that by then your personality and aptitude were locked. Everyone took a series of tests and their appropriate career was computed for them. Some care was taken to ensure that the job would be something they would like and be good at it, but it wasn’t an exact science. Mistakes were sometimes made, but usually the citizen just quietly endured, or took up drinking cactus wine to cope.

But not Charlie. He’d been unhappy with his job since the first week, after the (inadequate) apprenticeship was over. He was sure the counselor had made a mistake, maybe swapped his test with someone else’s, or transposed a number when typing in the data. S/he assured him that wasn’t possible because s/he been doing this job for 20 years and there’d never been a complaint.

S/he was an exception, a non-male who was allowed to work. Not a female, and yet not a male, but something other, undefined. The Acthuns understood that there were shades of reality, that rarely was anything 100% one way or another. They understood the concept of “gray” and were amused that was the term for extraterrestrial visitors used on Earth, along with “alien”. So they had a third gender, and these citizens were allowed to work if they wanted to, and could choose any job not already assigned to a male. But they were not obliged to work and could collect the same communal salary that unattached females and seniors were entitled to if they had no male to support them.

But Charlie had to work. It wasn’t optional. And he certainly didn’t want to work in the factory he’d been assigned to. Not for even a year, and certainly not for 30 years. He just couldn’t bear the idea of it. Why had he chosen to be born male? All children were told us – told that they had made a “soul contract” before being born as to who they be. This may or may not have been true, but it was a good story to keep the citizens in line. This way, they thought of their lot in life not as something done to them, but somehow their own fault.

Charlie was a renegade as far as the Acthun way went. He refused his assignment, rebelled against the convention that he chose his unfulfilling and frankly unsuitable career, and even his gender. So he sweet-talked a former classmate and stowed away inside the first transport ship to Earth. The Acthuns regularly made trips to and from Earth to restock and refresh from the vast breeding supply of cows there, who they used as mates. Their own gene pool had gotten shallow over the decades-long war/famine on their planet and they needed new blood. After enough survey teams had tested Earth’s nearest analog to their biology and found it acceptable, the ships began removing cows to use as broodmares. They never took bulls after that first unfortunate incident. It was decided that Acthun males could mate with the cows, but the females would only mate with other Acthuns. The cows were shipped back after five seasons, out of concern some do-gooder would start expecting them to be granted citizenship. Imagine that! A cow, a full citizen! It had been brought to the planet as a servant, a slave, even.  It could not be thought of as even remotely equal to them. That would upset the entire social system.

Charlie had no plans of being an Earth citizen. He was on the planet illegally, a true alien. So he kept a low profile – as low as possible, looking how he looks – and tried to make enough money to support his family and hopefully enough more to pay to get a second (and hopefully better) career assigned to him when he returned.

Second-lifers

It looked like the death of the saints, all over the town. One by one the saint figurines were found, toppled over. The town authorities were sure it was teenagers, bored and unsupervised, but the usual suspects had verifiable alibis. No, this was an event of a different sort.

They decided to look with different eyes. All of the saint figurines on the East side were female, and all were pointed in the same direction. The seemed unusual. At first they thought maybe the perpetrator was right handed, and had pushed the statues down going across himself. But then when the detectives looked in other parts of the town, they realized that the statues were oriented in slightly different ways. So some looked like they were pushed forward, some backward, some to the right.

The lines were plotted on a map and all led to the oldest funeral home in town. “Doc” Brown had run the place since his grandpa died, having inherited the business since he failed out of medical school. His grades weren’t good enough for living people, but his skills were plenty for the dead.

His grandpa took him on as an apprentice all those years back, getting him to drive the pick-up van to transport the bodies. His Papa wasn’t too thrilled that his son wasn’t going to be a doctor. He wanted his progeny to carry on his dreams, not understanding that each generation has its own burdens to carry and doesn’t have time for the past. It isn’t fair to expect somebody else to live your life for you, after all.

Was that the reason the saint statues were pointed towards it? A dream deferred, an accidental career? Was that the reason, or was it something darker? Psychics were called in after the detectives drew a blank. The newspapers weren’t informed of the true nature of these outside consultants, but they suspected. The police had no need to be so cautious – the town was a lot more open-minded than they could have ever suspected.

The psychics pulled out their cards and sticks and crystals. They lit incense at sites. They dowsed, they chanted, and still they had no idea what it all meant. It was only when Bessie Maguire had a dream about the statues that anybody had any clue what it all meant.

Now Ms. Maguire was as quiet as a church mouse most of the time. She kept to herself and never caused a fuss, as you might expect of an elderly spinster. She’d taught kindergarten most of her life, and if you can’t trust a kindergarten teacher I don’t know who you can trust. She didn’t want to share about her dream, but it was so vivid she knew she had to tell somebody. So she went to talk with her pastor. He said she’d have to tell the police, and who was she to go against the pastor’s orders? So down she went to Central and told them all about her dream.

The statues were pointed to the funeral home not because of what it is, but because of what it was. Long ago, way past living memory, that part of town was an oak grove. Not maple, or even chestnut, but oak. That was important. The trees had all been tall and thick, creating a sanctuary of stillness. No pagans worshiped there, but that didn’t matter to the oaks. This was long before the old religions had been rediscovered, or invented, by New Age folks. Nobody in these parts knew the old ways, divorced as they were from the old country. But the oaks still knew. They knew the same way all the cherry trees across the world knew when it was time to bloom and when it was time to drop their petals like some kind of spring snowfall.

But what the oaks knew was darker stuff that spoke of more than just impermanence, but transcendence. The oaks spoke of living on in the next generation, not just as an ancestor or as a memory, but in actuality. The oaks knew that they could hide themselves within every acorn, not as a half but as a whole. It was parthenogenesis. The whole grove was a shrine to Athena, goddess of wisdom and it was filled with owls.

So it was fitting that this Ms. Maguire, this maiden, had a vision about this place, as Athena was not only a maiden but born from the head of her father Zeus, the God of the gods. There was no coupling in her creation. She was fully made, complete, not half of her parent, but whole. She was Zeus, but in a different arrangement of elements, in the same way a lump of coal is also a diamond. One wasn’t better than the other, in spite of the dollar amount. A diamond won’t keep you warm or cook your food, after all.

And then the strangest thing started happening. The bodies in that morgue didn’t stay dead. But only the female ones. It didn’t matter if they were maidens or not, they woke up, completely healed of whatever had ailed them. Maybe this is why it was only the female saints who were affected. But even stranger, the newly reanimated acted differently. They looked the same as long as they been in the cooler when the Event happened, but they were different somehow.

Nobody knew what triggered the Event. All they knew was that there had been a strange advance notice that something was up when the saints all toppled over. Had it begun then? Or long ago? When does a person begin – when they are born, when they are conceived, when their parents meet for the first time? Or even before that?

Does it matter? Because now was all the town could handle. They didn’t have the energy for philosophy. Now they had to deal with people coming back to life. The relatives had already moved into their old homes. The estate process had already begun. The casseroles that had been brought over by kind neighbors and dutiful church members weren’t finished, but that was to be expected.

Here’s one of the ways that the second-lifers acted differently – they could talk with owls. I don’t mean that they could imitate their calls, but that they could actually understand what the owls were saying. It turned out that the myth was true – the owls were indeed speaking about upcoming deaths. They didn’t cause the deaths. They just knew, somehow, and talked about it in the same way that some people talked about the weather. But the second-lifers didn’t share this information with the regular people. They couldn’t handle the truth anyway.

Simon was a simian

Simon was a simian, but that’s not all. He had a pet human. Sure, he was careful about it. He made the human use a leash on him to make it look kosher. It wouldn’t do to have the authorities figure him out before he was ready to show his paw.

Sure, the human would hit him every now and then for show, to make it look like he was in charge. And Simon would snarl at him or cower, depending on the audience. It was all for show. The human knew the right force to use and how to pull back the stick just in time. He knew how to sell the blow so the punters would think he was in charge. But they both knew better. Simon called all the shots, always had.

Ever since he found his human alone and penniless in the side alley down the way from the tobacco shop, he knew his luck had changed. Now he could actually be in show business instead of begging in the streets. A monkey without a human was a nuisance. Everybody knew that. But a monkey with a human – now that was an act. People virtually lined up to put money in his little tin cup. Together they made a pretty penny with their hustle.

Sometimes he got the human to put strings on him to make it look like he was a marionette. Sometimes he’d walk around on stilts with a sign, some public service announcement. They’d do that on days when the cops were extra anxious to pop somebody for something. On those days they didn’t beg, but they still needed to go out to build their audience. Familiarity was important. Most people didn’t put money in the cup the first time they saw the pair.

The punters needed to see them several times, see others put money in first, to know what to do. It was a true hustle. It took a lot more finesse than you’d think. But they never did it too much. Just enough to afford a two bedroom walk-up on the East side, with enough left over to sponsor experiments in brain transfers.

Simon couldn’t wait to be done with his body. Nobody ever took him seriously. Who would? He was thankful that taboo in this culture kept him from being seen as food. The performing pigs and chickens didn’t have a chance once their skills started to wane. Their humans turned them straight into supper without so much as a “by your leave”, not like they would have gotten it anyway. Simon hoped to avoid that unpleasant experience long before it was a possibility. 

That’s why he was sponsoring research to transfer his consciousness into his human. It seemed simple enough on the surface. The brain was basically an electromagnetic medium. It seemed like it should be possible to re-record over what was there, laying down a new recording. His recording. Of his mind. 

He didn’t want anything as messy as an actual brain transplant, and he knew it wasn’t possible anyway, the differing sizes of the brains being the first issue. But also there was the matter of wiring of the nerves. Maybe he’d be able to think, but not able to talk or move. And if the transplant didn’t work, it might not be reversible. No, Simon wanted a sure thing, and he wanted it soon. But he was prepared to wait long enough to make sure it worked. In the meantime he’d continue the hustle and keep his human in the dark as to his plans.