May 13, 2010

“Spin” was originally written and published on the MyT blogsite as an entry in the online novel competition that took place during the publication of Alexander McCall Smith’s first online novel, Corduroy Mansions.

Although the author would like to believe that people like the characters in “Spin” exist, they are in fact imaginary and any resemblance to the living or the dead in this galaxy or anywhere in the multiverse is purely coincidence and likely a cruel joke by il miglior fabbro.

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1. The New Job

May 13, 2010

There were fewer tattoos than you might expect. Fewer piercings as well. And the people who bore them appeared mostly in clusters, lounging around the front door of Plutonium Music—LPs and CDs, echoing the fashion of the street’s panhandlers and passersby. Tattoos were regimental dress for the guys at the music store’s front counter, like black leather, shaved or dyed heads, torn T-shirts, and an impassive face. Passing by them was like diving into a cold pool: the diver balanced on the edge of the pool, imagining the thrill of splashing water yet hesitating while the body, in cahoots with the part of the brain that wants comfort and ease, debated with the diver’s misguided impulses.

Rose, who was never one to dive into a cold pool, always found it difficult to come to work. Inside the store, there were small islands of calm, especially upstairs in Classical. It was just a matter of navigating past the hordes of tattooed young people, punching in at the time clock in the back storage room, and then making her way through the aisles and up the stairs.

Even though she had been working at Plutonium for four weeks, Rose had yet to find a route to Classical that was fast enough, and that wasn’t haunted by the specter of obstacles: absorbed shoppers, stacks of records in musty smelling covers, boxes of newly arrived CDs. She could not adjust to the light gray paint of the floor, the walls and the CD shelves, or the rock music blasting over the loudspeakers. But gray somehow was the right color for Plutonium: a post-apocalyptic drab—the perfect camouflage on an eerie foggy night, with smoke twisting up from burnt buildings.

Rose could not imagine why they had hired her in the first place, except perhaps that she had heard of Messiaen and knew that Leonard Bernstein was a composer as well as a conductor. Luckily, they hadn’t asked her any of the questions that shoppers seemed to ask her daily.

It might have been her age though. Everyone in Classical was forty or above, including the customers. On her first day working at Plutonium, her supervisor, Bob Winston—a tall, jittery, blond man with pale eyes behind spectacles—had told her, “Bruckner. No one under fifty … listening … only people over fifty … want to …” He paused as if about to jump into that icy pool mentioned above.

“Listen to Bruckner?” she finished.

“Right! … Yes!” his arms stretched out toward her as if he were presenting her on stage, even as his feet danced away from her. “Yes! Yes!”

Possibly, thought Rose turning away from the alarming Bob Winston to look at the racks of CDs that stretched away from her. If you were the methodical type, it might take you fifty years to get from the composers whose last names began with A all the way to Bruckner. Even forgetting the As, you might need that long to get through the prolific Bach and Beethoven and all their many interpreters. The logic was dodgy, but she couldn’t help feeling there was something to it.

Bob Winston and the managers might have been grateful to hire someone who wasn’t twenty, but Rose was simply shocked. Shocked that at the age of sixty she was sitting behind a counter in a gray-walled room, selling used CDs, and being paid just over minimum wage, when most of her working life she had earned many times that amount.

Is this what happens, she thought, that you become suddenly expendable? All the talents and skills that you develop over decades become irrelevant? Even though your energy and ability to think and reason (or even sympathize with the tattooed panhandlers who posted themselves around the Avenue) were at their most acute?

It wasn’t just the economy, which had been staggering toward some Parkinson-ridden demise for some years; Rose had to admit, depressingly, it was also her.

She had never been able to achieve that focus on the self that the ambitious and successful were so comfortable with, and which would have helped her secure her career as an artist. That uncanny ability to exalt one’s desires and talents over others. Nor was she able to project the air of authority that would have impressed her students when she was teaching, inspiring them to give her the highest evaluations, evaluations that might have ensured her teaching jobs.

Instead, she had led discussions with a series of non-sequitors, not quite as bad as the jittery Bob Winston, violinist and classical buyer for Plutonium “It’s a Blast” Music, but just as distracting, just as worrying to the listener.

Eventually her adjunct teaching jobs dried up, and the one teaching job that had remained hers for almost two decades, due to the sympathy of the department heads who were awed by her artistic skills despite her lack of classroom charisma, had collapsed, victim to the financial conniving of the school’s upper administration.

The college, born during the 70s, catered to those who could not function in a normal college, whether because of their rebellious attitude toward the establishment, an outspoken distrust of authority, or a lack of basic educational skills like the ability to read and understand or write and be understood.

The young people that the school welcomed made for a fractious student body and the upper administration, cut from the same cloth, made for fractious record keepers. Getting grades posted was a task and getting an actual physical diploma was beyond possibility. Finally, the college had collapsed like a black hole. Rose felt no loss, either for her students or teaching. But the school’s collapse had come at a bad time in her life. She bid farewell to retirement, or even the possibility of finding decent work.

It had been time to find a job. Happenstance, fate, kismet, whatever, had led Rose to Plutonium Music, hippest music store on the Avenue, and, she mused, she would continue here until happenstance led her elsewhere.

“Is that your lunch?” Rose asked.

The thin man with white hair tufted around his face like a ragged halo was pouring dry cat food into a dish with the concentration befitting life-and-death surgery. The dish and two others—one with water and the other with an especially pungent tuna fish—stood in a tray of water. Neither he nor the man watching him—David, was his name, she remembered (wrongly)—said anything.

David (whose real name was Nate) looked up at last and said, “This is Arnold.”

“Glad to meet you,” Rose murmured, wondering, as she had on other occasions, why Asian families so often gave their children names they couldn’t pronounce.

“The food’s for Arnold’s cat.”

Rose nodded. In the downstairs bathroom, plastered like a fragment of graffiti on the wall next to the bathroom supplies, was a postcard-sized black-and-white photo of a cat dressed in a frilly jacket and bonnet with the inked-in caption, “Never forget Arnold.” She hadn’t been able to decipher the caption, like most of the graffiti on the wall, hastily jotted in a crabbed calligraphy, it was punctuation- and pronoun-challenged. Was it supposed to be, “Never forget [me,] Arnold”? Or “[I’ll] never forget Arnold”? Not both, though, she was pretty sure of that.

The three of them moved to the open back door, David (Nate) and Rose lingering in the doorway to watch Arnold as he balanced the tray filled with water and dishes of food while he navigated the back stairs.

At the soft clatter of the food tray, a large orange cat with white bib and paws sauntered out from the trash bins to weave itself around Arnold’s legs.

Upstairs, Rose wondered about Arnold, wondering at the same time why she was wondering. He was definitely not her type, with his nervous glances and breathless speech, but she tried to imagine what his life was like—where he lived, did he have a lover, did he love anything besides classical music and the big orange tabby cat? But she had wondered that about Dave (Nate) as well, when she was first there. Especially because he had blinked when he mentioned his wife—he hadn’t called her name, simply said “his wife”—blink.

Men often blinked when they mentioned their significant other, girlfriend or wife. She wondered why, puzzled over it, perhaps more than was worthwhile. She had thought about asking—she was, most of the time, a very straightforward person—but she knew there would be no meaningful response.

“Why did you blink just then, when you mentioned your wife?” Rose might ask.

“Excuse me?” the man would reply.

“When you mentioned your wife, why did you blink?” Was that any clearer?

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I don’t know what you mean either—when you blink, that is, but I believe in body language.”

“Unh-hnnh”

“You know, that the way we move and gesture when we talk, or even when we don’t talk, means something. They say women can read body language better than men. What you call “women’s intuition” is really just reading body language.”

“Everyone blinks.”

“Yeah. But this is different. And the blink is a very specific kind of blink. Like this.” Demonstration of blink. “And you do it when you mention your wife. See? You do it when I mention your wife, and I don’t even know your wife. What does it mean?”

“I did not blink.”

“Yeah, you did,” Rose would insist.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” the man would reply.

Conversations like that were definitely not good for friendly relations, so she never tried to solve the enigmas that plagued her. She just continued to wonder. Rose was not very good at understanding men, even though she had grown up with four brothers. Perhaps that was why: she expected most men to be like her brothers, even to be her brothers perhaps, but most men were not. And inside their strange and unapproachable minds, there was something unknowable bubbling around about women.

It had to do with sex. She was pretty sure of that, and her women friends confirmed the idea. Her generation had been obsessed with sex and had made little effort to suppress that; they were known for “sexual freedom.” It was part of the free speech movement. Her best friend in high school, Annie, had been nicknamed Annie Jane Freelove by the boys. And in college, dating, accompanied by uninhibited sex, seemed more like a game of musical chairs than a search for a longtime, monogamous partner.

The orange tabby continued to weave through Arnold’s legs. A large metal comb with a plastic handle had mysteriously appeared in Arnold’s hand, and he was making futile gestures to pass it through the cat’s matted fur. The cat lived outside dodging the daily challenges that oozed from between the smelly dumpsters where it hung out, sleeping in the sun. Cat clearly wasn’t a big groomer. It was a pretty cat though, with large golden eyes in its broad orange and white face. Rose could see why Arnold was smitten.

The cat started wheezing, its head outstretched and wobbling back and forth. Part of kitty’s dinner lay, newly risen, on the cement. “Nate,” Arnold’s fluty voice floated up from below. “Can you throw me some paper towels?” David (Nate) stirred next to her. Oh! thought Rose.

Nate moved past her carrying a roll of paper towels and one of the store’s plastic bags meant for CDs.

What Rose really wanted, as she watched the men scoop up the cat’s reworked dinner, was to be home. In her cottage that stood in the middle of a large garden, with her own cats—the brave Fergus and Baby.

“Yo! Roger!”

XR137!, who in another mental state and time was named Roger, kept shuffling through the park, ignoring the call that was clearly directed toward him by some scruffy guy, who was unshaven and red-eyed. Humans. They always called him by the wrong name, and some days—like today—it was unbearable. Humans: their lack of understanding, their inability to imagine that there were other life forms in the universe. You’d think with that self-absorbed arrogance the least they could do was care for their little planet. And their disrespect for him as another—superior—race was appalling.

“Hey, Roger! Man!”

XR137! tried to shuffle faster; if only he could inhabit his real body, free himself from this vile and transient body, vile vile, but no, it was a weight around his soul.

XJ0*3 suddenly appeared to his left. All light and glowing, her tentacles floating around her, XJ0*3 was sitting on one of the park’s wooden benches and eating a bowl of noodles, with no apparent bowl. In the sunlight, she looked magnificent. She had no need to shout at XR137!, her thoughts just appeared among his—vivid and shimmering like a fine curtain of iridescent particles, not unlike the Northern Lights that Roger remembered from his childhood, a lonely child visiting his aunt and uncle’s farm. Life had been easier then, his body moved effortlessly in the Earth’s atmosphere. Not like now when everything about his body hurt. He shuffled to a stop.

Our mission, XR137!, is to study the human race. They are a sad and lonely race, forever separate from each other, trapped in their bodies and thoughts. Speak to them, XR137!. Make contact. Interact! Soy sauce ran down her long digit-like tentacles that held the noodles. There was a tiny flake of red onion near her orifice.

“Yes, yes, of course,” returned XR137!. He was humbled. Once again he had forgotten his mission. This lovely creature who was his superior officer had to remind him over and over.

As he gazed at her, XJ0*3 faded, first the tips of her tentacles and then slowly from her edges inward, until nothing was left except a glowing half-eaten noodle, which suddenly, abruptly disappeared.

Slowed to a stop, thinking about the planet and his mission, he’d forgotten about the shabby grizzled man who had been pursuing him.

“Yo, Roger! Where you been, man? Nice scarf, dude.” The man grabbed the red-and-black-check shawl that Roger had found in the free box and wound tightly around his neck. The man clapped Roger on the shoulder. Pain shot through his back. XR137! hissed.

“Sorry, man, did I hurt you?” The man stepped back and hesitated.

What was this human’s name? XR137! couldn’t remember, but he did remember that the human had a name—

“Hey, man, I scored a chicken salad. Some girl on the Ave. gave it to me. Said she wouldn’t give me money but she bought me a salad. I hate salad.” That’s what the man was carrying in his hand, the other one, the one that hadn’t grabbed Roger’s shoulder. Roger’s eyes narrowed in on the plastic container half-full of ragged green leaves covered with an icky white fluid. He began to salivate.

“You want some, man? You can have the rest of it. I hate salad.”

The container seemed to float in the air before him. XR137! gathered it into him, one arm resting on its top, the other below. He backed away from the man, then stumbled over to the bench where he had last seen the beautiful XJ0*3. He sat down where she had sat and, with shaking hands, pulled open the container.

The grubby man had followed and sat down next to him. XR137! hissed again, but this time into the soggy green leaves. Milky looking fluid—poppy seed dressing, he remembered, whatever that was—sprayed onto his sad clothes.

“Hey, man, did Mike tell you?” the man leaned into him, his breath was rank. All of him was rank. “Mike scored some pot. We’re going to smoke it tonight, in the alley behind the record store. That new woman at the record store? She always closes the backdoor early.”

XR137! closed his eyes. Tempter! Vile tempter, vile vile, XR137! sputtered inside. Little do you know I could blast your wanton and smelly carcass to the far reaches of the solar system, to the ends of the universe—to the garbage dumps of Tsfosng of the Five Suns where tar bubbles sticky and sulfurous over the surface of the planet. How would you escape the pain, tempter? As the black sludge burns away at your skin? Or better yet I could sell your stinkpot of a body, vile excuse for a life form, to the Evil Empress of Bogogj, who would slowly and endlessly torture not simply your wreck of flesh hung on porous bones but also that meager force you call a soul. Vile vile tempter.

From the corner of his eye, he caught the luminous glimmer of XJ0*3. She was moving down the sidewalk, barely visible, more like a displacement of atoms, as if she were shifting them from another dimension.

XR137! choked on his lettuce.

“Hey, Rog, you OK?” The tempter smacked Roger on the back.

Tears began to run down XR137!’s face. If he could only stop the pain. The tempter’s foul weed helped, and he knew he would be behind the record store that evening if only so he could sleep through the night without the aches that made the ground beneath his bruised body an unending torture.

No doubt about it: the human body was an imperfect domicile.