Bewildering Stories

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The Busy Life

by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

Jack didn’t know what to do. That surprised him. He wasn’t a noob on the Columns; he had been around their blocks for years. Fort Knox could hardly store all the things he did know.

He knew, for example, that ignorance was not bliss, and that only the ignorant didn’t know it. He knew how to freeze the chaotic billow of the American flag into a perfect shape of stone, culled from the experiences of Michelangelo, da Vinci, and better. He knew the capacity of Fort Knox.

He didn’t know what to do about Camera, or if he even could do anything. Frustrated, he saw himself as a plumber; one of the normal, dumb people who didn’t even care to take the exams, post their DNA, submit to the clinicians, and finally to receive the beautifully cold metal stud at the base of their spine. Freedom condensed into a drop of titanium alloy. No, those lack-wit working people, dulled by a patina of pure, boring life preferred to keep to their workin’ on the railroad jobs, hammers in hands, pounding proverbial nails into metaphorical tracks, barely ahead of the pounding train of progress.

Of course, Jack thought, even they were better than Camera. At least they do something with their lives, even if they’ve missed the chance at the million worlds held in the Columns.

As he pushed the button for the handicap exit, Jack reflected that he would much rather drive home, lie back on his couch, and have Gretta bring him a bottle of beer. Beer was better when it came in bottles. Jack made a mental note — he doesn’t forget mental notes — to see if there was a stone-set reason for this his next time on the download banks.

He leaned against one of the marble pillars that flanked the door and let his breath catch up with him. He had left it back in the leather chair, pulling at the racks of post-modern Jamaican feminist poetry. This pillar wasn’t actually marble, Jack knew. Marble was made by millions of years of thoughtless geological work. The pillar was as close to being unearthly as a thing can get without having been transported from off-world. But it felt like marble, and as much as marble had a smell or taste, the pillar probably had it, and that was good enough for Jack.

Eventually, his breath came and found him, and he hobbled down the steps. His car came when he called. It was a couple years older than Jack, and he always took it to the quick shop on Monday mornings for a touch up and to tune the engine to a steady middle C. It wouldn’t do to have a vehicle that did anything but help along the ailing image of its owner.

The shiny plastic knifed down Old Elm. Jack kept one hand on the lowest tip of the wheel. It got awfully tiring to keep both hands at eight and four as they taught him to back in Driver’s Etiquette. Jack was one of those types that appreciates guidelines because they keep thoughtless people under control. He, of course, automatically filed himself out of that category. Now if only the bastards would listen to the authorities once in a while and stop whining about their taxes and their property annexes and their feuds with neighborhood security. If Jack had to hear one more complaint about uniformed men illegally breaking and entering on what was assuredly a completely legitimate search for contraband, he was going to calmly unplug his television set and carry it to the recycler. Or have Gretta carry it to the recycler.

Sunday afternoon smiled down happy and completely benign. He didn’t ever show it his face for more than a few minutes. Up early, kiss to Gretta’s sleep-creased brow, outside before the morning could roll out of bed, into the car, from the car to the Columns, and there until late afternoon. When he had his daily fill, the carefully rationed amount of data absorbed through his spine, he retrieved his breath and left, showing his skull to the sun for no more than absolutely necessary. Then into the car, and down Old Elm to Camera’s house. Every Sunday.

He hated both the drive and the routine. But it had to be done. If he didn’t go to Camera’s house, then nobody would. The guy would probably just waste away until he was blown through one of the air vents the next time the furnace got its ancient act together and kicked in.

Old Elm was a haunted stretch of pavement. There were no graveyards, no hazy houses to make it so; just the sense that the whole road was an old man, forgotten by his family in a threadbare recliner, two years and a week before his heart caught the hint and stopped beating.

Billboards leaped from shoulder to shoulder, images all faded and, had they been metal, rusty. Built before by a society that still looked up, and made by hands that assured the nation that nothing steel would ever crumble; your legacy will last, your celebrities revered, your radio stations tuned to, your general stores patronized until the dying age of this Earth. This we swear on Rockefeller’s grave.

Jack pulled into Camera’s empty driveway. There was no garage. Camera didn’t own a car. He opened the door, paused to let his breath know he was getting out, and shuffled up the front, and only, walk.

He knocked.

Camera heard it in his dream not as a sound, but as a picture. The Minotaur winding through the labyrinth, its eyes flashing perfect knowledge of the serpent maze. It knocked its horns rhythmically against alternate walls of the corridor, as though it was flushing a hind out of the bush. Camera didn’t know how much longer he could stumble stupid, avoiding the whip, the somehow beautiful strength in the beast’s killing arm.

He woke up. The Minotaur followed him out and into Jack’s patient thumping. Naked to his waist, Camera tensed his muscles, listening for long moments, afraid to move because the knocking would be behind him. That’s stupid, of course. The door was locked. The bed was soft. The sheets were a comfortable shade of cold.

The knocking was getting louder, driven by impatience, though — not the thrill of the hunt.

Camera fumbled for the release button, and the electrodes slithered off his skull, coiling themselves in their berths. He rolled over while the disc automatically ejected, burned to the brim with the fear and flickered images. He grabbed it and a pen, scrawled a phrase that looked something like “monster twenty-two” written by a creature with cloven hooves.

He poured out of bed and swung a robe around his shoulders. The seat and elbows had been worn down to transparent, which made the whole garment about as decent as a wisp of rain cloud. The front was fine for greeting visitors, and Jack never hesitated to be grateful for that.

Camera came to the door in the middle of the loudest barrage of knocking yet. He paused until Jack’s knuckles withdrew, not wanting to scare the man, then he opened the door. His face held the same color and emotional content as the China Wall.


“Who else, my friend?” Nothing sounded forced, but it was hard to tell with Jack, who took pills to keep himself regular, and used a spray bottle twice a week to make sure his vocal cords didn’t attract any cancer.

“Come on in.”

“Thanks. You just get up?” It was a ritual, just like the data and the driving. Jack knew that Camera hadn’t been up before he knocked on his door. Jack knew a lot of things.


“Sure. Already got a pot?”

Camera shook his head and turned for the kitchen. Jack swiveled his head away, feigning critical interest in the nearby book-case Camera had filled with unicorns. He had inherited the collection from his mother when she died. He never dusted them.

With Camera’s threadbare bottom safely in the kitchen, Jack felt the comfort of propriety sneaking back in. It wouldn’t get far because it was Camera’s house. The property line served as societal baleen, screening out everything familiar. “I need my emptiness and privacy.” Camera’s words to Jack’s wilting amusement toward this wild-haired sloth on one of their first visits.

That was when Jack had brought over the unicorns. He had had them in his basement since the funeral as a cousinly favor to Camera. He hadn’t known what was in the box; it had stayed sealed the whole time, buried and black among Gretta’s vintage movie collection, and her much newer exercise equipment. Camera, scruffy at first sight, had bent over and sliced the packing tape. Jack had had to jump back to avoid the spill of packing popcorn and porcelain as Camera dumped the contents of the box all over the floor.

“Faster this way,” was his bald and brief explanation.

Jack had tilted his head toward a window, sure that he could hear a wailing from beyond the grave. He had decided not to mention anything to Camera. Soon, the unicorns were arranged. Then they were forgotten.

“Feel like milk?” came Camera’s voice from the kitchen. Jack mumbled a harumph to anchor himself to the present and pulled a newspaper out from under his jacket. He always brought the newspaper, though he never read it. When you want to learn, as Jack did, you don’t read the newspaper.

“Just sugar.”

He walked into the kitchen as Camera set two cups of coffee on the table, sliding them almost exactly into the blood-brown stains left by a line of predecessors. Jack took a sip of the coffee. Camera completely forgot about his. Jack made an approving noise that Camera ignored. But did he ever respond? No.

Jack the Undaunted unfolded the paper to the want ads and slid them across the table into what he assumed was Camera’s field of vision. He was wrong, of course. Camera’s field of vision was draped with shadows and the foreground filled with the murdered eyes of the Minotaur. Jack built a crescendo of coughs until Camera was forced to tell him to

“Stop that, please. The filters are old.”

“Right. Right. Sorry, my friend. But look: no experience necessary.” Jack tapped a finger against a random ad, a call for a computer network specialist with ten years of background. The lie was pale and stupid, crawling on all fours. Camera could have looked down and pinned it to the page, but he didn’t.

He finally took a sip of coffee.

“I had goofy dreams last night.”

Jack sighed.

“Of course you did, Camera.”

“Want to see them?”

“Of course I do, Camera.”

“I’ll go get the tape.”

The words didn’t matter. If Jack disagreed, Camera was perfectly content to leave him alone in the kitchen, go out to the living room by himself, switch on the television and melt back into whatever nightmare had stolen him last night.

Jack saw himself stand, dressed to kill in shining plate and brave colors. He knelt on the linoleum — a print somewhat in common style as that of a typical Roman bathhouse of second-century before Christ, Jack knew — and bowed his head in prayer to all the gods of intelligence and critical thinking and bloody good sense. He had learned a few Anglo-Saxon insults earlier that day in his studies, and invoked them now, green fungus totems standing to Camera’s bull-headed incompetence.

“Give me strength,” he prayed, and didn’t mean it. He’d much rather have had a divine exit, a sudden family emergency to attend to, oops I left the iron plugged in and wouldn’t you know it Gretta always burns herself when she tries to touch it, no really, she’s clumsy like that.

He heard the television click on and went out into the living room. He glared at the back of Camera’s head as the screen flickered from Neuromancer-grey to 1984-black, studded with strips of white, beacon-like neurons. That image, too, faded as Camera slid back from the screen and onto his side of the couch. That end was deeply lived in, stained by the aura of unwashed man. The other side was showroom new.

Jack let himself down into the cushions and crossed a million hands of mental fingers that last night’s dreams were short; or, at least, that they were sexual. When Camera dreamt about sex, it always gave Jack something to think about on the drive home. Not about Camera, but about Freud and Jung and Kasper.

Jack had been to dream exhibitions of several famous and well-known celebrities: politicians, actors, professional dreamers. They always gave rather lengthy introductions to their night-time collages, detailing the history of symbolic imagery, describing catalyst events, explaining where this girl or this reprobate had shown up in their real, solid lives. Camera never did anything like that. His face just went slack, and his eyes almost closed, living through a somnambulant déjà vu.

Jack settled back, scratching the dry skin around his data port, and waiting for Camera to snore, though not expecting. The screen took life, and pulled away from the opening image, the neurons, the leader that most people erase from their dreams before showing them to respectable public.

Camera didn’t care, and probably wouldn’t until he found a wife to govern the small bits of his life, to micro-manage on the atomic level, to, Jack dared say it to himself, civilize him.

She had quite a knot to unwind, the poor imaginary dear, thought Jack as coherency stepped through the strange, swirling colors and Camera’s real dream took its shape.

A black path, set against walls that were silver etched in tan. Hieroglyphics — though not actually hieroglyphics, Jack reminded himself, because he couldn’t recognize any of the symbols. There was a feeling set in stone by those crude chips and angles, Jack knew, but he could not read them. He realized, after a few moments, that they were moving. Not sliding past on either side as the dream-Camera walked, but slithering, like the author was constantly revising his ideas and the words were meek and followed. Jack was sure he didn’t want to meet the author.

Camera had slipped, he noticed as he glanced across his shoulder. Jaw had drifted slightly open, eyes alternating between memory and the refreshing realizations of what was missed the first time through. Jack sighed heavy air, turned back to the screen, found he was still holding the newspaper; blank puppy-dog stares from the ads blazing out into disinterested eyes.

How could he be so heartless? How could he ignore the pleading for so long? Take me home, Daddy! You can care for me, and receive on-the job training, and a good dental and psych plan, and I won’t even piddle on your carpet.

“I’m only trying to do what’s best for you,” said Jack accidentally. Camera didn’t respond. Jack realized he was sore, bruised in the heart of his grand American pride, the soul of the soil, the hardworking, freedom of-information, God-blessed-us-so-we-can-bless-the-world kind of justified importance. Jack was a bird, and Camera was an old metal Buick arc-welded to his wings.

Jack stood up. He had had enough.

He sat down. There actually hadn’t been anything...

He stood up again. There had too, blast it. Camera’s indifference to the world. That was plenty enough. And his indifference to his indifference was insulting. He couldn’t even manage as an existentialist, thought Jack with bite. He doesn’t even care that he exists.

“I’m leaving, Camera.”

“You’re going to miss the best part.”

“Not me.” Camera didn’t ask him to clarify. As he opened the door, Jack saw a unicorn that he had never noticed before. It was small, and white, with a purple horn and a grimace on its mouth that held none of the emotion intended by a poorly sculpted grin. Gretta would appreciate it. She liked unusual things. Jack looked between the miniature and its alleged care taker, made a decision, and grabbed.

Back outside, a quick dizzying run to his car. He slammed the door, slammed the key into the ignition, slammed his hands against the steering wheel and let out a more modern curse. He shouldn’t get this angry over something so pointless and, on the grand scale, invisible.

Think of the blood pressure, after all.

Once the red drained away, he noticed with wide eyes that it was dark out. His day had been hijacked by those useless, timeless images that Camera saw once every night and twice beneath daylight. He hadn’t even noticed the clock draining away its seconds. They couldn’t possibly have filled a whole afternoon, spilling over into evening. Could they have?

Jack let the thought go away, unconcerned. It was evening. It was time to be home, even if he wasn’t frustrated with Camera. Gretta would be worried; or if not worried, then at least following the prescribed routes of a proper wife’s concern.

Frustrated with Camera? There was a thought that wouldn’t get away so easily. Jack didn’t like having thoughts with shrouded origins. He had learned in short seconds on the Columns the map of the brain, the homelands of each little type of thought. From this hemisphere, region, village came the insecurities of weighty sexuality, from this came the sense of justice, and the thoughts that swore it fealty: duty, honor, and service. And from this stormy little valley escape anger and frustration, carried on soft wings so you can’t hear them coming.

Jack could sit and watch frustration’s creeping advance, but would get hopelessly lost trying to backtrack its trail to the house it snuck out of, the thought in which it gestated and forced its own birth.

And that, Jack gleefully observed, brought on a frustration of definite origin. A concrete thing — paved.

He sped along Old Elm, passing houses dark and bright, blurring along his periphery in an encryption of dits and long dashes. He imagined lives for the people behind the blinds.

They would come home, tired, after a day of productivity and mud. They would kiss their husbands, give foot-rubs to their wives, greet the kids and sink into their peaceful chairs. They would eat. With the enchanted mix of digestion stupor and labor weariness tucked around their warm shoulders, they would flip through their collections of taped nights, look for calm angels to speed them to their rest; or a captured night-terror, if the kids had been good and got their way; or a psychotic, raging mystery, in which the protagonist was the antagonist’s twin-of-the mind, but not the body, and the dreamer couldn’t tell which he was. They’d snuggle, or sit alone, and feel content because they were getting to relax, at last.

When the images went dark, they would stumble to bed for the night, dragging out the comfortable wires, and checking, double-checking to make sure both the alarm and the recorder were set.

They deserve their night’s rest, and their day’s dreaming, thought Jack. But Camera; he takes fourteen hour nights, ten hour days with nothing filling them but strong coffee and the Sandman’s clever images.

Jack sighed, sure it was going to be the last time. He turned off Old Elm, sure it wouldn’t be.

When he got home, he gave Gretta the unicorn. She smiled and kissed him on the cheek. She was barefoot.

“I’m going to go sit down.”

She nodded. When he collapsed into his favorite chair, he was out of breath. He really needed to get into the gym one of these days, or suck it up and buy one of those cardio workstations they’d been advertising at the Columns.

“Honey?” called Gretta from the kitchen. “Will you help me move a couple boxes?”

Jack started to push himself up from his chair in automatic response. He wondered why he always felt like helping her, why he even stayed with her. He’d have to strike out into the sociology archives tomorrow.

He lapsed back, his neck against the Jack-shaped upholstery.

“I’m pretty tired, Gretta.”

“Okay.” Her tone hid nothing and revealed nothing; there was nothing more important than small boxes of Mason jars on her mind.

A wife so understanding, her valleys of judgment so unpopulated, was a very rare find. As rare as a unicorn. Maybe that’s why he stayed with her.

After a while, Jack fell asleep. His muscles gave up another night’s worth of strength. His heart beat with a lazy economy of strength, just enough to speed the blood to where it needed to be. No more.

Copyright © 2004 by by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

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