Opening Soon

Kaylee felt a great cold emptiness after their breakup, like a railroad spike driven down through her heart then pulled out. She’d been with Tim for three years. Three years. He had told her that morning at Holly’s Café: He and Stasi were getting married in October.

After delivering his news, Tim dashed off without finishing his coffee, late to meet Stasi and make arrangements with Father Antonio at St. Mary’s. Quaking as she left Holly’s Café alone, Kaylee found the nearest bench along the street.

A taxi pulled to the curb, and a young woman in a white tennis outfit jumped out. A tall, fit man in red running togs and a white Adidas shirt caught her up and embraced her. After remarking how good their timing was, they passed Kaylee and went into Holly’s. Three pre-teen girls walked past, laughing, carrying books and a jump rope, and saying, “My momma, she … My teacher said …”

Kaylee heard none of it. Staring blankly, she barely noticed when the rain began to fall, gently then heavier. Dark spots widened on the pavement to join others, forming hopping splotches that ran to the drain. Kaylee rushed for home, grateful for the drops that cooled her tear-streaked cheeks.

Then the sky burst. Wind-blown rain lifted Kaylee’s dress and soaked her legs. People covered their heads with packages and backpacks as they ran, and cars dancing with rain sent waves up from fast filling puddles. Ducking onto a walking street, Kaylee leaned against the yellow brick on the lee side.

The rain picked up and wind shifted. Kaylee took cover under an old theater marquee and wondered how long she would have to wait.

A wide banner spanned the theater’s glass double-doors, red letters on white, THEATER printed diagonally on one door, CLOSED on the other. Inside the lobby was dark. Cupping her eyes against the glass, Kaylee saw an empty counter, an upset refuse bin, and playbills of past shows in framed, glass cases.

She pulled the handle and the door opened. The lobby smelled like a moldy, old theater complete with worn red carpets. Tan, threadbare paths leading to the auditorium arced around both sides of the service counter. Kaylee pushed through one of the doors and entered.

The auditorium was cool, dark, and dank, with a steady sound of dripping water. In the faint light from exit door markers and the ends of the rows, Kaylee saw the aisle sloping down in front of her and the outlines of seats—a quiet place to think. She took a seat in the fourth row, three seats in. As her eyes adjusted, she detected scattered trash and a broken seat with torn upholstery in her row. The dim-lit stage had no curtains and was bare except for a card table near center stage, three folding chairs, and a shaded floor lamp.

Something scurried at the foot of the stage. “Maybe it’s Tim,” Kaylee snorted, but she knew she couldn’t dismiss him that easily. She felt too empty to be flippant. He’d been so cheerful that morning, telling her his big news, seemingly unconcerned about her feelings. Was it really that easy for him? She would never feel his hands again or his kisses. When she reached over at night or looked across the table, he wouldn’t be there. No more running in the surf together or flying kites. Would she hear his laugh again, feel the same thrill, possibly in harmony with another laugh? Would she laugh again—ever?

The sound of unhurried footsteps crossed the dark stage then the lights came up bright. Kaylee blinked, blocking the glare with one palm. A lanky, young man in faded jeans and a white T-shirt strode onto the stage. He slapped a sheaf of papers on the card table and rattled a metal chair as he sat. Pulling one sheet off the stack, he crossed his legs and leaned back to read.

A woman walked to the front of the stage then down the steps, turning to sit in the front row. She had long graying hair and wore a loose smock. After nodding to Kaylee, she spoke to the man on the stage.

“Will Jenna be joining us?”

“The metro tunnel is flooded. She’s stuck between stations.”

The woman leaned one arm across her seat and turned to Kaylee. “Excuse me, Ms., if you have a few moments, could we ask you to sit in, just until Jenna arrives, and read a few lines?”

Kaylee sat up, thinking of leaving.

The woman said, “You know, My Dear, Life Goes On?”

“Excuse me.”

“The play, you might have heard we’re doing one by our local playwright, My Dear, Life Goes On.

“Of course, I’m sorry. My mind was wandering.” She introduced herself to the woman then to the man, who handed her the script for Jenna’s part.

After reviewing her lines, Kaylee noted that the card table had a white cover cloth and its legs were carved wood. Her seat had become an armchair upholstered in brocade. When she looked up, the man was wearing a white dinner jacket and she a strapless gown.

10_oriental_theater_chicago-e1483917340596Heavy curtains parted to applause, and the lights spotted the dinner scene—all quite lovely. Kaylee stumbled reading her first lines, but no one seemed to notice. Her gestures slowly smoothed as she got into the scene. Before it was over, she found she no longer needed a script. The audience applauded at the end, and her leading man insisted she take a solo bow center stage.

“Oh, that was wonderful,” she said. The lights dimmed. Then everyone slowly faded. The white-covered, carved wood dinner table returned to a bare card table. Her seat was a folding metal chair and her clothing what she’d put on that morning, still damp from the rain. Finding herself alone on the dark stage, Kaylee followed the dim-lit stairs and aisles out through the lobby.

The rain had stopped, and sun-haloed cumulous clouds cast rays of brilliant sunshine.

Kaylee looked back at the marquee she hadn’t seen clearly in the downpour. The last showing was still listed on the billboard: Time of Your Life by William Saroyan. Only one of the letters was missing. Tim_ of Your Life was crosshatched in black with a big CLOSED sign.

Below it another sign read, OPENING SOON – A NEW PLAY.

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The Child Has Good Instincts

“She has sad eyes,” the four-year-old girl said, tapping Terrell’s crossed knee and watching the creature on the examining table. “Can I show her my dog?”

She was the beetle Professor Terrell brought back from his travels. The shiny black Madagascar beetle tipped the scale at 176 pounds. Her six splayed legs drooped over the table edges. The beetle’s compound, black eyes glistened under the lamps. Smaller simple eyes glinted along its dark-bristled forehead.

Without lifting his eyes, Terrell nodded and pointed an index finger from the touchpad.

Little Jenny dashed to the lab table, carrying a squirming golden retriever puppy in her arms. “Want to play with Chloe?” she asked. She offered the puppy to the dark, horn-ridged creature. Terrell noted the time and turned on the recorder.

The beetle touched the sniffing puppy two or three times with its antennae then extended a clawed forward leg. Chloe leaned into the outstretched claw, stretching to better feel the saw-toothed edge comb across her back and down her rump and tail.

Jenny laughed and said, “Chloe likes that.” She sidled up close to stroke her dog’s head and look into the beetle’s eye. “Can you talk, Mister Beetle?”

The beetle ratcheted a few squeaks.

“It’s okay if you can’t. Mommy says I talk enough for two people. I talk to Chloe all the time, and she never says anything. Some of my stuffed toys talk, but you have to squeeze them.”

“Aaaaa,” Jenny’s mother screamed and raced into the room. “Jenny, don’t.” She snatched up her little girl then backpedaled, keeping her eyes on the beetle. The beetle arched one antenna in her direction. Chloe curled tight and closed her eyes as the beetle continued smoothing and stroking her coat.

The mother screamed her outrage at Professor Terrell. “How could you let such a thing happen? Put my precious little Jenny in such terrible danger?” The professor shrugged and made another note. “I’m calling the police. I’ll have you investigated for child endangerment.”

She looked down at Jenny, nearly crushed in her tight-wrapped arms. “Are you okay, my darling? Did that nasty, nasty thing harm you? Oh, when I think … oh my, what it might have done, killed you, eaten you.”

She pressed the back of her hand to her lowered face then glared at Terrell. Waving to the beetle, she said, “We don’t know anything about this, this awful thing.”

“We know it likes Chloe, and it likes me,” said Jenny, wide-eyed and smiling. “Mommy, could you get me one? Please? It’s very sweet.”

Her mother winced, baring her teeth. Jenny wiggled free and ran to the beetle, handing it the fuzz-stuck, lime lollipop from her pocket.

Professor Terrell made a note. “Observation: the child has good instincts as does the dog. Unlike the adult subject, they appraised the situation with open minds.”

My Visit with Kuday Kolun

All the cross training I’d done at Jacqueline’s Gym in uptown Manhattan hadn’t prepared me to climb fourteen thousand feet into the Tian Shan mountains. Every frost-billowing breath sucked heat from my body and drained energy from my limbs. I concentrated on hand and footholds. Cold stone and my heartbeat pressing into my throat numbed me to whatever wonder I might have felt seeing the bright yellow sun, crystal blue sky, and snow-capped peaks.

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I topped the latest precipice and, seeing no sign of Kuday Kolun or his temple, decided to rest. I wedged my quivering buttocks into a crevice out of the wind, pulled the flaps down on my argali-skin cap, and dug into my satchel for a boorsok fried pastry I’d saved from breakfast. I took a bite and sipped mare’s milk from the sheepskin flask I’d tucked inside my tunic to keep it from freezing. My entire body relaxed, wanting sleep, but a passing vision of being found frozen the next day kept me awake.

It struck me as funny that I’d been here before. Not the Tian Shan mountains but the point of no return, where going on seemed easier than turning back. That was funny, too, because I had no idea why I’d come, which pretty much summed up all my life decisions.

When friends asked why I’d dropped out of school, offhandedly I’d said, “I must seek the mountain of wisdom, fountain of truth.” It sounded good and went over well. Truth was I was bored with school, getting drunk, and the girls who hung with our crowd. I also wanted to avoid anything like actual work.

My beer-sodden brilliance told me that wherever the mountain of wisdom was, if it even existed, it most likely would be found among other mountains. And since Eastern wisdom always fascinated me, I headed eastward and upward. Several zigzag hops on various odd aircraft later, I found myself in Nookat, Kyrgyzstan.

The pilot from Osh-Avia airlines didn’t bat an eye. “Ah, mountain of wisdom, Kuday Kolun. I know way. Take you for small fee. Nephew Temir be your guide.” Osh-Avia had one plane, a tri-motor biplane.

Being a New Yorker, I suspected a hustle, but everyone assured me that the mountain of wisdom’s fountain of truth could be found in the great Tian Shan mountains. His name was Kuday Kolun, Kyrgyz for “Touched by God.”

After one night in a Nookat hotel room that could have passed for a prison cell, the pilot flew me to Shankol and introduced me to Temir. Mercifully noncommittal about my unpreparedness, Temir provided a sheep’s leather tunic, pants and boots, a fur-lined parka, gloves, and a head-wrapping cap. He carried our knapsacks, bedrolls, and sheepskin flasks.

We reached Sary-gol late the second evening and bedded down in a small brown woman’s family yurt. The village comprised seven conical-roofed yurts made of skins and felt, a run-down, brick-walled building, and a corral with three shaggy horses whose smells, along with smoke from the cooking fires, permeated the crisp air. Temir told me the brick building had been a rest station for Genghis Khan’s pony express. Sary-gol had once been on a major trade route.

Next morning our hostess greeted us in a red and gold flowered dress. When I mentioned my quest, her eyes lit up. “Oh, yes, Kuday Kolun,” she said and pointed up a very steep ridge.

I must make that climb alone, Temir had said, and I needed to bring an offering. Kuday Kolun met only with solitary visitors and survived on the benevolence of wisdom seekers. In recent years, those had grown few.

The few now included me, sitting in a butt-cold crevice. Another thought of freezing to death, more inviting this time, brought me to my feet. I looked down and back. Ahead still seemed best, so I hoisted my satchel strap and stepped up the slope.

Twenty minutes later, I saw a stone plateau not a hundred meters up. I quickened my pace. The plateau extended from the mountain face and a sculpted gate façade that framed a green-painted wooden door. Before the doorway, a wizened old gentleman sat in the lotus position. He had a flowing white mustache and long white hair that began well up on his forehead and joined his mustache to cover his shoulders.

The man neither spoke nor moved. His loose white robe, open at the throat, seemed ill fit for the cold and frosty wind. I struggled to cross my legs and sit on the frigid stone slightly below Kuday Kolun. Ten cold minutes passed.

“From where have you come, my son?” the man said in heavily accented English.

“I live in New York City, but originally I’m from Detroit.”

“Ah. How did the Tigers do this year?”

“The Detroit Tigers, the baseball team?” I asked.

“Yes, I’ve been a Tigers fan ever since I spent a summer with my uncle outside Toledo. We listened to the games on the radio while we rebuilt his barn.”

“They didn’t make the playoffs this year. No pitching.”

“That was always their problem.”

“Here,” I said, “I brought you something. It isn’t much.” I pulled out the bag of leftover boorsoks and a sealed ceramic bowl of beshbarmak noodles. “My hostess warmed them. The bowl still has some heat.”

“That will be fine. Please join me.” The man produced two spoons from inside of his robe and a short knife to pry up the seal on the bowl. I slid closer. We took turns scooping noodles and chunks of turnip and mutton.

“You are young,” the old man said after slurping a long, dripping noodle. “Much life journey lies ahead of you. What brings you to Kuday Kolun?”

“I guess I need to know why.” The words stumbled out of my mouth. Like everything else, I hadn’t planned for the moment. “Why life? Why confusion? Why evil? The great why.”

“Simple questions become great only because we reject their simple answers. Life is to experience. It is a gift. Confusion and wrongdoing are what we do with life.”

“But what direction should my life take?”

“That is for you to decide.” The old man, his mustache in the broth, sucked in another spoonful of noodles then held up his spoon. “If all decisions were made for you, the gift of life would be very small indeed.”

Feeling the cold, I laced my fingers. “It’s just that most of what I see is misdirection, fingers pointing everywhere.”

“Every garden has snakes hocking wondrous fruits with false promises. There are two things that will help you find your way.” The old man tipped the bowl of beshbarmak and finding it empty set it down and continued.

“You are not God nor can you become God, not with special diets or exercises, not with magic mushrooms or leaves, not with gold, telescopes, or mathematical formulas. So you can relax. You are not in control and cannot be of anything beyond yourself. We get neither credit nor blame for the world’s happenings—only for ourselves and our choices.”

I opened the bag of boorsoks and Kuday Kolun took one.

“You mentioned two things,” I said. “What is the other?”

“We are all on the same journey, not separate,” he said over his pastry. “So we are together and must help our fellow travelers.”

“Where does the journey lead?” I asked.

He smiled and looked to the sun dropping in the West. “I must turn in, and you must find your way down while it is still light.”

I took the hint, thanked Kuday Kolun, and repacked my satchel for the downward climb.

I had just left the plateau when the old man called down after me. “Nicholas, next time you come to visit, could you bring me a Tiger’s ball cap?”

Keeping my eye on the downward step, I called back, “Certainly, and I’ll bring you a blazer, too. You could use one up here.”

“Thank you, and when you’re in range of a cell tower don’t forget to call your mother. She has worried ever since you left school.”

I was too busy concentrating on my footing to answer and didn’t think about it until I got back to Sary-gol, but I had never given the old man my name.

Name’s Cole…Morty Cole

“Gotta go,” the girl said, taking a last draw on her half-smoked Pall Mall. She snubbed it out in the molded glass ashtray and hopped out of bed.

Morty marveled at how her upturned nipples jiggled tiny circles when she gestured. She was pretty and cute, he thought, the way a small animal is cute. Her slender ass swayed as she walked to the bathroom. He hoped she’d leave the door open, but she closed and locked it. The shower faucet squeaked, water flowed, and the toilet flushed. Maybe she thought she could find another customer before morning.

The hotel Régale was hosting a cyber technology seminar, and he’d met the girl in the cocktail lounge. She said she was a nursing student and needed money. Name was Laini. Morty didn’t believe her or that she’d be interested in him, a pock-faced, middle-aged man.

He rolled out of bed and pulled on his boxers, noting how his roll of flab hid the elastic. He touched the entertainment panel on the side table. The opening sequence to Trevor Hart Secret Agent burst across the wall display. A big-breasted blond swooned into Trevor Hart’s open arms. Then came a scream, a car crash, an explosion, and a rapid exchange of gunfire. Morty slid down the volume bar.

He clapped a pack of Pall Malls on his hand until a cigarette emerged. Lighting one, he took a long suck and exhaled then checked his watch. Almost midnight. Huh, little nursy-girl made good time.

With one eye on the bathroom door, Morty pulled his sample case from the closet shelf. He pressed the latches and lifted the lid. Inside were quantum processors and optical chips arrayed in tailored slots of black foam. Secure in slot 3Z-7102, the slot normally reserved for standard processors, was the quantum ‘Zuigau’ chip passed to him that afternoon in a discarded Gyro Palace sandwich wrapper.

The exchange in the park had gone almost as planned, except Dr. Ho hadn’t noticed the young man on the park bench pretending to play a video game. The man wore a red Manchester United football jersey. When the doctor tossed his sandwich wrap into the waste bin Morty was pushing, ‘Manchester’ leaped to his feet.

Morty swung the dustpan up, pressed the lever lifting the cover cap, and sent a toxin-laced needle into Manchester’s chest. The man stumbled, grabbed the back of the park bench, and sat for the last time. The needle dissolved quickly. Its pollutant-emulating toxins would be dismissed as confirmation of environmental warnings. No further investigation would be required.

Morty heard the water stop and the shower door slide. He pinched both interior edges of the sample case and lifted the chip display. Below lay the lethal dustpan, a hairpiece and mustache, and fragments of a plastic nose.

“Sir,” the young woman called from the steaming doorway while covering her chest.

“Yes, Laini,” Morty said, securing his case and thinking how strange it was that some women became modest after selling their bodies.

“I can stay the night if you’d like…for a little extra.” She glanced up at the projection. Agent Trevor Hart was one-handing his roadster on a winding road pursued by a convoy of rocket and machinegun-firing spies. “Oh, I just love it when he says,” she deepened her voice, “‘Hart, Trevor Hart,’ and levels those smoldering eyes.”

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Morty wanted company. He always felt lonely and guilt-ridden after wet work. But the girl’s eyes remained glued to the projected action scene, her real interest, he suspected. “That would be wonderful, Laini, but no, I’ll just grab a drink downstairs then turn in.”

She shrugged and came out wrapped in a towel. On the edge of the bed she slipped on her stockings and kept her eyes on the projection—Trevor Hart rewarding himself in the arms of a chesty Italian countess.

Sighing, the girl rested her chin on her pulled-up knees. “A secret agent. It would be great to meet a man like that.” She glanced sideways at Morty.

He nodded.

 

That evening, the Régale lounge bartender asked whom to charge the drinks to. Morty looked straight at him. “The name’s Cole…Morty Cole.” The bartender shrugged and put a vodka martini on his tab.

Fill in the Blank

“The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things …”  – Through the Looking-Glass

 

Booths on one bare wall of the windowless waiting room were flanked by glass cases on two walls and opposite a single metal door centered on the far wall.

A new human strode boldly from one of the booths toward the exit. It wore red tights and a canary-yellow, breast-peaked T-shirt, and had spiky blue hair, pouty lips, and impossibly blue, saucer eyes. A second human wearing a white dress shirt, dark tie, and beige canvas trousers, walked out more slowly, her face buried in a schematic design for a fusion rocket motor.

“Next, L-F-O-O-Z, you’re next,” a handsome young walrus called from one of the assignment booths. A doughy blob in one of the glass cases looked around. None of the other blobs moved. It looked down at the label on its case. “Yes, you, Lfooz. Please come along. Don’t worry. Your name will change when you get assigned.”

The blob slid over the case wall onto the vinyl tile floor then oozed toward the assignment booth. The walrus official walk-paddled to the other side of a low counter and motioned for Lfooz to slide up. The nested stack of trays on the counter looked like one used to display jeweled earrings for purchase or to distribute communion cups.

“You understand why you’re here? Why this is important?” the walrus official asked, wiggling his close-cropped whiskers. Lfooz wrung itself like a wet towel. “Okay, let’s start with the basics. Do you know what you want to be in life?” Lfooz gave a slow twist.

“These,” the walrus said, setting a display tray in front of Lfooz, “are life choices.” The tray held capsules of all colors. “The one you pick determines your attributes: interests, character, intelligence, sense of humor, skills, and your setting—race, sex, nationality, family background. Some like to call it ‘the hand you’re dealt.’ Once you make your decision, you’ll proceed to birthing, forget your experience here, and live out your life. At life’s end, you’ll transfer to Ever-Endeavor (see explication in “Time Cube”) to harvest the fruits or wretchedness you’ve sown. Shall I show you some of your choices?” The walrus waved a flat flipper over the display trays.

Lfooz pointed a pseudopod. “What me? A walrus? Yah, some choices you only get once in life. I was being cocky—thought if I did something stupid they’d give me a do over.” Lfooz motioned to the door on the bare wall where the women had exited a moment before.

“Those two?” Lfooz’s dough body rose and fell. “You get to drive your life choice out of the showroom, but they’ll still have to go through birth, childhood, and adolescence. Sorry, that’s life.”

He pointed to a red capsule. “This one’s very athletic and doesn’t think too much. It comes in male and female versions, or a mix of both. Fans cheer and mates throw themselves at you. You make a lot of money, cover yourself with tattoos, abuse yourself with drugs and alcohol then die young in a bar fight. Comes with a full guarantee.” When he got no reaction, the walrus pointed to the blue capsule.

“This little baby is brilliant and also comes in male and female makes. It’s an inventor, a creator, makes a boatload of money designing stuff, but doesn’t have much time to spend it or to find mates. It lives a long quiet life with cars and cats for companions. Also guaranteed.” Lfooz rolled two doughy arms together, and the walrus moved on.

“The green capsule provides everything you need: food, housing, medical care, clothes, and you don’t have to lift a finger. You spend your days outside, looking at flowers and pigeons, and collecting money from passersby. It’s nondescript, most people won’t care what your sex is and neither will you. Guaranteed.”

The walrus went through the entire stack of trays and choices, and got no reaction. Then he asked, “See anything that interests you?”

Lfooz’s boneless mass rose and fell twice. It extended a dough finger to specific attributes for several capsules: the first, second, fifth, eighteenth, thirty-seventh.

“I see,” said the walrus, “you want a balance, to be a stable, healthy, wise, hard-working, dependable, and friendly person who divides time for family, profession, and other interests.” Lfooz rose and fell slowly.

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“Of course.” The walrus pulled a small cloisonné box from a rear shelf. Within its gold interior was a single white capsule. “This one can provide everything you hope for.”

Lfooz scanned the attributes list, each line followed with a single word “optional,” and pointed to the blank on the last line.

“No, it carries no guarantees.” When Lfooz looked puzzled, the walrus explained. “My mistake, it does have one guarantee. However you arrive in life, whatever your situation, your fate will be determined by decisions you make and the courage you have to see them through. This life starts where it starts and has neither ceiling nor floor.”

Lfooz took the white capsule and walked upright from the booth, determined to take the best of whatever life offered. No guarantees.