Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Nora had just finished painting, on a five foot by six foot canvas, a depiction of what she thought was, on at least a few occasions in the midst of composition, the calm, cool inner workings of sub atomic structures on the planet Pluto. Of course she had never been to the planet Pluto and neither has anyone else. Yet it seemed to her, at least during those few moments, to be what the painting was trying to describe. But, after cleaning her brushes, placing them into the tomato soup can which served as their holder, and walking to the spot some twenty feet from the canvas which she used as a vantage point for viewing her larger works, she wasn’t so sure. Perhaps the calm, cool surface was really a disguise, a gauze curtain trying ineffectively to contain something much more driving, much more erotic. She was pleased with the painting, at least for now. What she would think about it tomorrow was another matter.

Nora’s studio was in a one story building which had once been a store. What kind of store neither Nora or the landlord knew for it had stopped being one a long time ago and had spent many years alternating between a storage shed and an abandoned building. It was in the old section of the downtown full of similar buildings. Sometimes the city government took them over for taxes, tore them down and then tried to interest developers in buying and building on the land. This strategy, judging by the gap-toothed appearance of Nora’s street and many of the streets surrounding, did not work. Instead it resulted in empty lots growing weeds between pieces of broken concrete. Yet, in the past few years the area had been having a sort of resurgence. Many buildings had been taken over by small enterprises such as bicycle shops, second hand furniture stores and art galleries. A few of the new owners had even redone their fronts in bright colors and hung above the store windows hand painted signs. Things were looking up, or at least the young urban planner who Nora spoke to at the coffee shop a week ago, thought so. Nora was not sure if she wanted things to look too far up. She had rented in the area precisely because it was beat up and the rents were cheap.

The interior was one large area with a section partitioned off at the rear. This contained a bathroom, a tiny kitchen and a larger room Nora used as a bedroom. In its store days the bedroom was probably the office. Legally speaking, she wasn’t supposed to be living in the building, but Nora, along with the occupants of many of the other buildings, faced with the impossibility of paying two sets of rent and expenses, ignored the regulations. Occasionally an inspector came sniffing around making veiled threats but nothing ever came of it. Nora suspected that the city fathers were ecstatic to have any tax revenue from the buildings and were not about to kill the goose laying the golden egg, whatever the regulations said. The inspectors, a queer mixture of the literal and the idealistic, were incensed. Nothing unusual in this for the world has never had a shortage of outraged inspectors.

In the front of the building was a large store window extending across the front. Nora had taped over this a patchwork quilt of brightly coloured wrapping paper leaving, at the very top, a six inch band to let in the light. The band was six inches above average eye level so she didn’t bother to curtain it. The window faced east, giving morning light. Most of her work was done between six and noon but sometimes she worked in the afternoons and evenings as well. Two three bulb fluorescent light fixtures, rescued by Nora from a bin in the back lane, hung over the work space. When she found the fixtures the bulbs were still in them. They all worked.

Nora had a buyer for the painting she was working on which was highly unusual. Six weeks ago, at a show she had at a gallery a block over, the President of an insurance company commissioned it on the spot. He had just been elevated to his position from twenty years as a VP and wanted to put his own personal stamp on his office and the boardroom. All of the previous ten presidents of the company had been followers of the representational in matters of art, or ‘wolves and grain elevators’ as the President put it. He preferred non representational. He wanted a painting five by six. Other than expressing a wish for something ‘not too gloomy’ he left the subject up to her. “The rest of them won’t know what the hell to make of it anyway,” he said.

“How much would you be paying for it?” asked Nora.

“Fifteen is the usual but since it will be larger than usual, seventeen. If that’s all right by you.”



“That will be all right by me,” said Nora. The most she had ever got for a painting was nine hundred. She suppressed a rising current of pure joy until the man, after writing out a personal check for half of the amount, left. Then she slipped out the back door into the lane and shouted. Seventeen thousand was two years living expenses, maybe more. It was September. They agreed on delivery in March. She wanted to have plenty of time to produce something really exceptional. As well this meant that the income would be spread over two tax years. The President told her that the company would have the work framed. Many painters insisted on doing the framing themselves but she didn’t. Once she sold a painting she forgot about it. When she came upon one of her pieces in the house of an acquaintance, or in a public space, her emotional response was like running into someone you once knew very well but whom time and circumstance had turned into a stranger.

Nora told none of her painter friends she had received the commission. She figured it was a one off, a passing bubble and informing them would only excite envy and jealousy. Although legally it was unnecessary, she gave Lois, the owner of the gallery where the show was held, five hundred dollars but she refused to tell her why or where the money came from. She took another five hundred and converted it into twenty dollar bills. Over the next while she gave these away to her mooching art friends who were always on the lookout for a handout to buy cigarettes, coffee or beer and a sandwich at the bar. She became very popular for a while but when the five hundred was gone she started saying no. She had to eat and pay her own expenses.

A month into the new painting the urban planner, whom Nora had met at the coffee shop, came knocking at her door. It was noon, his lunch hour, and since she was finished for the morning she invited him in and made coffee. She supposed he was doing what urban planners do, building informal contacts with people in the neighborhood. Usually she was suspicious of bureaucrats and intellectuals who, in her experience, spent a great deal of time trying to find meaning in things which essentially have no meaning. She had found it best to discourage such idle chatterers. They wasted your time and the discussions were tedious and repetitive.

The urban planner sat on one of the wooden chairs at the kitchen table. When he started out the conversation by claiming that he hated urban planning, Nora said to herself. “Another romantic idiot!” When he said he was saving money for a change into sculpture and that he had in the rucksack sitting on his lap a few examples of his work she inwardly groaned but tried to keep her face as neutral as possible. He pulled the sculptures out and placed them on the table. She sat down and looked at them very carefully. She hating giving her opinion on another person’s work but if there was no way out of it one had to shoulder the burden and be brutally honest. Or, in cases where the person was a hopeless noodle brain, where her real opinion would be merely a matter of violence and pain, to be kindly, vague and encouraging. Even someone without talent could enjoy themselves doodling and dabbing. Why not? What she saw before her on the table, however, was in a different category.
The sculptures were small – six inches high – and representational, which did not bother her in the least. As far as she was concerned artistic endeavor had many rooms and to close the door on any of them was pure prejudice. Into his representational figures the urban planner had introduced a distortion, a poignancy which made them seem incredibly alive. She picked one off the table and held it up to the light. It had been carved out of a medium dark wood and been rubbed with oil until it shone in a dazzling shine of grain and detail. An old woman at a bus stop looking, with a deep yearning, a deep longing, to see if her bus was coming. The figure made such an impact on Nora that she gazed at it intently for two or three minutes while wondering how it was possible for such a thing to exist in the world. Finally she put it down and picked up the others, one by one and looked at them. A bartender. A young woman doing her fingernails. When she was finished she put the last one back on the table and said,

“You poor bastard!”

They talked for some time until the urban planner put his sculptures back into his bag and went back to the office. He left one for her as a gift – the old lady at the bus stop. He was a careful observer. It was the only one she had held up to the light twice. The urban planner’s name was Jeff and they made a time for him to come back and bring more of his sculptures.

Later that afternoon she took the old lady figure around the corner and showed it to Lois.

“Who did this? You?” Lois asked.

“No. Just somebody. He didn’t give me permission to bring it here so I can’t tell you his name. I just wanted to see what you think of it. I think it’s the most marvelous thing that I’ve seen in a long time.”

“Send him to me!” pleaded Lois.

After some commission talk Nora agreed. Lois usually took forty percent but with something she thought she could move quickly she would take less. After a bit of jostling she offered twenty-five. It took them very little time to agree on price. The figures were obviously of the highest quality and would demand a good dollar.

When Jeff came back it was December and already snow was piled high against the front of the building. It was deeply cold – minus thirty-five. When he came in he spied the electric heater and rushed over to it, turning himself round and round while he removed his toque, mitts, scarf and gigantic parka. Nora explained her talk with Lois to him. She explained about the commission and the price range. He listened with apt attention. When she was finished she asked,

“How many pieces do you have?”

“Two hundred maybe.”

“Two hundred! How did you find the time to make two hundred of these and still be an urban planner?”

“I’ve been carving since I was sixteen, in my spare time. At the university, if your parents are paying the bills, you have a lot of spare time. I wasn’t interested in the things the other students did, like drinking and football games.”

“A monk of art then?”

Jeff smiled sheepishly.

“Are they all the same quality as the ones you’ve shown me?”

Jeff shrugged his shoulders. “I guess. The first thirty I did, up to the age of nineteen, I burned. I didn’t want them around bugging me.”

“If Lois offers an exclusive contract, don’t give it to her. Give her ten of the best to sell and only ten. You choose them. If she wants to choose them, say no.”


“Lois is a friend of mine. She’s very intelligent, has excellent taste and isn’t particularly money hungry. But she is a businesswoman. Right now she probably lives on as little money as the artists themselves do but there will come a time when she won’t be able to spend it all. She’s a comer as they say. The deal I negotiated is the best you will get right now. Later you can see. Just make sure you don’t sign an exclusive contract, for God’s sake.”

“I won’t,” said Jeff.

As he was preparing to leave, performing the elaborate routine of scarf, mitts, toque and parka, she asked. “So why did you become an urban planner?”

“My parents insisted on a career and they were footing the bills.”

“A good reason, especially when they were also giving you time to learn to sculpt.”

“Yes, but they didn’t know about that.”

“They didn’t?”

“No. I have lived in my own place since I was sixteen. They have never been to one of my apartments. I visited them twice a year in Utah. If they knew about the carving they would be ‘dissappointed’. They would frown on it as time wasting and frivolous. They are quite wealthy and judge everything by money and social position. They wanted me to do an MBA and go into the business world. We compromised on urban planning. I think they see it as a passing fad and later, when I sober up, I can use the urban planning as a kind of entrée to the world of company directorships.”

“Ah,” said Nora whose own experience was very different. She had put herself through art school with part time jobs.

“They are not bad people. In fact they are very kind and generous. But they are limited in the way they look at things.”

Before he left Nora took the cloth off the new painting. Jeff took a good look, moving about to see it from different angles. As he was going out the door he said, “Something’s missing.” Nora could have punched him but she knew he was right and she let him go without another word. She put the cloth back on and went off to spend the afternoon in the bar. There she met a graduate English student who entertained her by quoting long passages from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Beautiful but void of meaning. “Inventing your own language is more like a freak show than it is literature, don’t you think?” Nora asked him. “No. I do not,” he replied. Shortly after he left her table for a group of long hairs in the corner and she was left to drink her last two beers with Janice, a hooker who often worked the corner just outside her building. Janice explained to her the trouble she was having with her daughter whom she referred to as “the teenager from hell”. Nora didn’t say much. She had no children and had no plans to have any. The terrible conflicts people get into with their teenagers were a mystery to her. After Janice had told her, in gory detail of several blood curdling episodes, she asked, “Why don’t you try letting her do whatever she wants?” Janice looked at her as if she had lost her mind. But she was a good natured woman and after absorbing the shock, was soon rattling away as if Nora had never intervened and made such an insane suggestion.

Back at the studio Nora took a nap. When she got up she took three aspirin and had a hot bath. Then she worked on the painting until midnight.

Jeff put his sculptures in at Lois’s and they sold like hotcakes. When they were all gone he gave her fifteen more. She raised the prices and lowered her commission to twenty-three percent.

Nora spent the month of January in misery. She couldn’t paint. Almost mad from inactivity she bought a second hand TV and started watching movies she took out of the library – classic American movies and European art films.

When she went to the bar she bored everyone with her opinions on “High Noon” or “Public Enemy Number One” or “Roma”. She even read some film criticism which the Finnegan’s Wake student suggested to her. Contrary to her usual practice she stayed up late at night watching. When she lay down to go to sleep bright coloured images appeared on the screen behind her closed eyes and snatches of dialogue whispered themselves into her reluctant ears.

Early in February she started going around to the galleries. After the first two days she decided that all artists were phonies and the boring details of their struggles less worthy of attention than the monologue of a wino in a back lane. On the third day she saw some photographs she really liked. Then, in an obscure little gallery in the burbs she saw a series of paintings which excited her. She began to paint again. In two weeks the painting for the insurance company was done and she was working on three others, simultaneously.

When Jeff came this time it was six o’clock rather than his usual noon hour. She was arguing with herself whether to spend the night reading or in the bar. Reading had a slight advantage and she was rummaging through a box of books in a corner when the knock came on the door. She noticed he wasn’t carrying his usual rucksack of sculptures.

He sat at the table and she gave him a cup of coffee. “I suppose we could go out for supper at a restaurant,” he said.

Jeff talked like that. It was as if he had thrown out a matter for analytical debate rather than asked a question. It was a way, Nora thought, of protecting himself from rejection. “OK,” she said.

“O good,” he said, “I’ll pay.” He left the choice of restaurant up to her and she chose a hole in the wall Chinese place within walking distance. It was a Tuesday night and the place was empty. They did most of their business in the day. They ordered separate combination plates. They ate mostly in silence. When they were finished coffee Nora asked, “Would you like to go to the bar?”

“The bar?”

“Yes. There’s one in the hotel down the street. I go there frequently.”

“OK,” he said. He paid at the counter and then left at the table, Nora noticed, a generous tip.

At the bar the graduate student, in his usual corner, (“What a soak!” thought Nora.) waved to her but didn’t come over because she was in the company of another man. A diplomat, thought Nora, who reads meaningless languages. Nora let Jeff chose a two-seater in a corner and they ordered German beer. Jeff insisted on paying and Nora let him. If we have sex, she thought, at least I’ll get a meal and a few beers out of it. After four beers Jeff was slurring his words slightly. Not used to drinking, Nora thought. Besides, being from Utah, his parents were probably strict Mormons. He did have the blonde hair and clean cut, squarish good looks Mormon missionaries often have. At one time they frequently knocked at her door until she hung up a terrifying picture of Lucifer cut out of a horror magazine, on the inside of the door glass in front of the curtain. She remembered thinking that they were not very vigorous Christians. If they had been vigorous Christians such a door would have been exactly the one they would have knocked on. She suggested to Jeff they go for a walk and he agreed.

He was a bit tipsy but the cold and a half hour walk sobered him up. After forty-five minutes Nora started leaded them towards her place. When they were a block away she said. “We could go to my place for a cup of coffee.” He seemed to be relieved at the suggestion.

When they were inside Nora took off her outer gear and then continued on until she was clad only in her underwear. “You can have the first bath,” she said.

“I’m not very experienced with women, “ he said.

“That’s OK,” said Nora, “neither am I.”

Jeff laughed and headed toward the bathroom.

Jeff wasn’t greatly experienced but he wasn’t hopeless. A few times she had to tell him what to do. She already knew what to do to him. Although inexperienced he was passionate and uninhibited. They came a few seconds apart after a vigorous race to the finish line. After their breathing had returned to normal Nora took him by the hand and pulled him out into the big room. She turned on the light above the work area and took the cloth off the insurance painting. It was magnificent. Intricate, full of exquisite detail, layered into a great depth which was numinous and shining and seemed to go on forever.

“Wow,” said Jeff. Nora playfully punched him on the right bicep. “See,” she said, “you are not the only one who can do it.”

Jeff didn’t have to be at work until noon the next day so he stayed the night. Nora had a Queen sized bed so there was lots of room. Jeff slept the whole night with his hand on her left buttock. In the morning he went out to get take out breakfast from the bar. Before he left he kissed her on the cheek. Nora uncovered the three paintings she was working on and began to work.

After they had spent three nights out of five together, Nora asked, “Where do you live?”

He seemed a little abashed by this question. After a slight pause he replied, “In a tower.”

“A tall one?”


“Does it have a balcony?”


“Then after supper we should go there. I love balconies.”

She wasn’t surprised that the place was very neat. She also wasn’t surprised that the furniture was the usual kind of furniture people have in such places – bland and interchangeable with thousands, even millions of other pieces of furniture inhabiting similar places. But she was surprised his bathroom was dirty. “Your bathroom is dirty,” she shouted out to where he had remained standing in the living room. Her own was impeccable. Never, since the age of fourteen, had she had a dirty bathroom. For five years before she left home, she cleaned the beat up bathroom in her parent’s house even though it was mostly her brothers’ dirt that she cleaned out of it. Pubic hair in the bathtub, piles of smelly underwear and sport’s clothing. And, after an initial period of self-righteousness, she hadn’t complained either. Even then she was a fatalist. The moon shines in the sky. Boys, especially smelly, arguing, pain in the ass brotherly boys, seldom clean the bathroom. Her mother who spent her afternoons smoking Pall Malls and watching soap operas, left to her own devices, that is to say not hollered at by Nora’s loud, cantankerous father, would have cleaned it perhaps once a year. If it was going to be done properly she was the one who had to do it.

When she came back into the living room he was actually blushing. My God she said to herself. Hard to find a man who can blush like that nowadays, unshakable as we all seem to be. “That’s OK,” she said. “I’m a nut about bathrooms and like to have them done just so. It would be tragic to have arguments about cleaning the bathroom.”

Jeff’s balcony overlooked the river. The river was frozen and covered with a great depth of white snow laid down in corrugations created by the wind. Nora took thirty pictures with Jeff’s digital camera. He had a telephoto lens and she took some close ups of the houses on the far bank. They spent the night at his place, first changing the sheets. Well, at least, Nora thought, he isn’t as perfect and innocent in all things as his chubby Mormon cheeks would have you believe.

After a few months they settled into a routine. Some nights they spent at his place, some at hers. Jeff cooked and three or four nights a week he made supper. Other than bacon and eggs and sandwiches, Nora didn’t cook. The other nights they ate out.

When a year had gone by they decided not to move in together. Instead Jeff let the lease on his apartment expire and moved into a small brick block down the street from Nora’s. It was a one bedroom. He wanted her to help him chose the furniture from his apartment to go into the new place.

“It would be kinder to torture me with hot knives,” Nora said.

Jeff wasn’t insulted. He was neutral about furniture. Although he could look at period pieces in books from the library and admire their great beauty, for him what he had in his home was purely a functional matter. Actually all the furniture he had in his old place had been chosen out of catalogues and shipped to him by his mother but he didn’t tell Nora that. He put an ad in the paper and sold it all. Then he and Nora went around to thrift stores and second hand shops buying a mixture of truly odd, strange things and three traditional solid oak pieces – a buffet, a bureau and a night table. Before this he made do with the floor for a bed and four milk crates borrowed from Nora, to sit on.

After five years Jeff was selling in the big centers and quit working as an urban planner. Nora was selling out of a gallery in the east and bought her studio building. Jeff helped her build on a small extension at the back. They did it at night when the inspectors were sound asleep in comfortable beds in the burbs.

When they were thirty-three (they were the same age) Nora had a baby girl with cherubic cheeks and a square forehead just like her father’s. “You Mormons have powerful genes,” Nora told him when he was visiting her in the hospital.

Jeff’s parents came to see the baby. His father left after two days but his mother, Evelyn, stayed a full week, visiting them every day from her suite in a swanky downtown hotel. It was obvious that she was a little fearful of the neighbourhood but she adored the baby and, surprisingly, at least for Jeff, liked Nora. They had the same sharp, sardonic way of seeing things.

When they were seeing her off at the airport, the baby, asleep on Nora’s shoulder after being kissed perhaps thirty times by her departing grandmother, Evelyn handed Jeff an envelope.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“A bank draft. I enquired at that condo building next to you and one will be going up for sale in two months. Buy it for me, please. He may want to spend his time in Utah counting money but I want to be part of the life of my grandchild. I’ll be here half time I figure. He can play golf. You won’t mind, Nora?”

“Certainly not,’ said Nora, “I can use the help.”

“Good,” she said. “and what will you do Jeff, when he leaves you all that money?”

“Give it away,” said Jeff.

“A very good idea. An excellent idea,” said his mother. Then she turned and walked down the short corridor and through the security doors. They watched her until the doors flapped behind her and they could see her no more.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Cat Lady

Marvin lived on a side road running out of a tiny town containing a Post Office and a small café. He had five acres at the front of which sat a low roofed bungalow entirely covered in galvanized steel. Around this rather industrial looking building were scattered an assortment of old cars, radiators, tractors, steel drums, and old farm machinery. To most this collection was simply a messy pile of junk but to Marvin it was a kind of garden of meditation. In the mornings, after breakfast, as he strolled through his yard examining a commercial air conditioner, poking his head into the engine compartment of a 93 Mazda or running his hand over the bonnet of an ancient Massy tractor, his mind was a flux of imaginative possibilities and his heart filled with pleasure and delight.

Luxurious, timeless mornings were now a feature of Marvin’s life for he had recently retired. But this was less a change for Marvin than it was for most people. Marvin had always refused the ‘iron harness’, as he called it, eschewing it for odds and ends of employment, mostly self employed. He cut grass. He hauled scrap. He painted houses. Sometimes he fixed cars and he had an old bulldozer he used for digging dugouts and grading. From all these he had made a barely sufficient living which was good enough for him. He still did some work when one of his old customers phoned with a problem but by the age of seventy this had become less than half time.

An old lady lived on the property next to Marvin. She lived in a farmhouse long ago the envy of the district but now fallen into old age and disrepair. It was a rambling building cladded on the outside with dried out and crumbling shingles and walled inside with decaying plaster. Five years before, Marvin, along with three of his drinking buddies, had replaced the asphalt shingles on the roof with old steel roofing they took off an abandoned barn, or at least a barn they considered to be abandoned. When the owner showed up six months later looking for his steel Marvin explained the situation to him and gave him one hundred dollars as a belated recognition of his property rights. Marvin arranged to have a small article published in the local paper praising the owner for donating steel for such a worthy project. The steel stopped the rain from coming into the old lady’s house, dripping from the ceilings and running down the walls. The year after the roof was redone was dry. The old place dried out very well and, as the old lady herself said, it was just as good as new.

The old lady’s house was full of cats. There were cats on all of its three floors, cats in the basement and cats in the three ramshackle out buildings nearby. There were cats of every shape, size and colour imaginable. Since the old lady had no car, and even if she did she would not be able to drive it because of poor eyesight, Marvin brought the cat food necessary to keep all these cats alive in his quarter ton every Tuesday. Monday was his day for going into the city to visit his son and when he came back out on Tuesday he brought the bags of food and carried them into the house.

The smell of cat urine in the house was staggering. But after many visits Marvin had got use to it and now had no problem at all sitting down at the old lady’s kitchen table and having a cinnamon bun and a cup of tea. The old lady made top notch cinnamon buns. Unlike the modern skinny variety they were topped with a generous slavering of icing. Marvin, who at the age of seventy could still eat as much as he wanted without getting fat, ate two at a sitting, washing them down with three cups of tea. While he was doing this with one hand Marvin patted an endless procession of cats with the other. Sometimes, an old tom, a favorite, leaped into his lap and Marvin suffered him to lay there and even fed him a few mouthfuls of cinnamon bun for as it often goes with old animals, the cat had a sweet tooth. While Marvin was consuming his breakfast and patting cats, the old lady, Matty by name, kept up an endless patter concerning the doings of her vast brood.

It was very hard to put a number on the cats although on occasion Matty gave it a try. Firstly cats, when not sleeping, are constantly on the move, bobbing and weaving in and about and trying to count them with out counting some twice or even thrice and leaving out others all together is difficult if not impossible. Secondly none of Matty’s cats were spade or neutered so every week or so births occurred which would invalidate any counting. As the mother cats often gave birth in the outbuildings or even in the woods, the presence of five, or six or seven new cats was not revealed until the little ones grew enough to totter about on their own, making their presence known. Matty’s rough calculations were one hundred and fifty but Marvin put the number at more like two hundred. Fortunately the cats defecated outside in the yard which was bad enough but much better than in the house. However cats are territorial animals and the house reeked from their marking and urinating. If Matty noticed this she gave no sign. Marvin thought that her sense of smell was gone.

Matty was ninety-eight and she looked ninety-eight. When young and middle aged she had been rather husky but in old age she shriveled up into a scarecrow and the skin on her hands and face took on the look of old withered parchment. Despite this she was a tough and vigorous old thing. She cut all her own wood for the winter. She did all her own cooking and cleaning. At one time she used to run three chicken barns but those days were over and she now lived on her pension check. Sometimes the government social worker would phone and suggest that Matty move into town for the winter or accept homecare but Matty always refused. She was polite but she refused. What would happen to all her little darlings? And she didn’t want any government social workers snooping around her house and then putting reports in files and so on. Once when the social worker suggested a home visit Matty refused very emphatically. So emphatically that she was moved to use swear words, most unusual for Matty, a strict Anglican. When Marvin came to eat cinnamon buns he had to be careful with his language. When he and his pals had redone the roof she had given them three or four severe lectures on the topic of bad language.

Some of Matty’s cats had names but there were so many and their ranks so constantly added to that most did not. There was a coterie of ten ancient cats who spent just about all their time in the big kitchen with Matty. They all had names. They slept in a corner behind the wood stove where, in the winter, its heat kept their old joints fluid enough for them to hobble over to the food bowl and go out into the yard twice a day to do their business. Mostly they slept. Some of this group were on a special diet. On the stove there would be steaming pots of ground beef or liver. Matty had a small pantry off the kitchen filled with jars of medicinal herbs. When Marvin came into the kitchen on Tuesdays there was often an old cat on her lap (like laying on an oven grating) being spoon fed some kind of concoction.

Things had changed in the neighbourhood. Twenty years ago it had all been country people. Nobody had much but there was an ethic of live and let live. People were friendly but they left one another alone. Then city people, looking perhaps for an English country estate, started buying up acreage, knocking down the old farmhouses and building new middle class homes. The houses were immaculate and looked like they were scrubbed squeaky clean every morning. Vast sod lawns were laid and then cut with ride on mowers. To keep this grass shining in an unearthly shade of green the owners regularly doused it with pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Three car garages held large SUVs which the country people were now told were an essential part of country living. These people looked askance at Marvin’s yard which they considered unsightly. It did not matter that Marvin thought their perfect lawns and freshly washed houses were unsightly and their chemicals an abomination for as time went on those who thought the way he did became a minority. If when these new people looked at Marvin’s yard their hearts were filled with a correcting fervor, when they looked at Matty’s they were filled with horror. They could not believe that such a thing could be allowed to go on and when they elected some of their own to the local council they started to do something about it.

The Council had never had unsightly premises or animal control bylaws. No one had ever seen the need for them. If you saw an unsightly building then you just kept driving and it was soon gone. If stray domestic animals showed up in your yard one day, then you adopted them, gave them away or took them behind the barn and shot them with the twenty-two. Eccentrics such as Matty were looked upon humorously, even fondly, rather than censoriously. To the newcomers this laissez faire attitude was deplorable.

It took the new people some time to pass the new laws. Five years in a row the proposed laws were brought before Council and defeated but then two new councilors were elected and they passed.

One day, in the early spring when the roads were muddy and rutted and the fields great seas of shining black water, Melvin was sitting on his front steps. He was drinking a cup of what he called cocoafee, a combination of cocoa and coffee, a mixture, which as far as he knew, he had invented himself. The early birds were back and Marvin was listening to them singing. He was also thinking of overhauling the engine of his quarter ton and where he could find the money to do it.

When he had been engaged in these activities for twenty minutes a vehicle came along the road, a shiny new SUV. When it came to Marvin’s gate instead of continuing on as he expected it turned into the driveway. It stopped in the drive behind his truck and a man got out. He walked up to the steps where Marvin was seated.

“Good morning,” said the man.

“Good morning,” Marvin returned.

“A beautiful morning,” said the man.

“Absolutely. Couldn’t be better,” said Marvin.

“Do you know the old lady next door?”

“Yes I do.”

“A Miss Lalaber?”

“Uh huh.”

“What do you think of her cats?”

“I can’t say that I think of them at all.”

“Don’t you find them a nuisance?”


“There are many that do.”

“Well, that would be up to them.”

The man seemed a little disconcerted with this attitude and came to the conclusion that he was in enemy territory. He looked around nervously at the junk strewn about the yard. He stuck a baby finger in one of his ears and twisted it a few times. Then he said. “There are new laws now about these things.”

“About what things?”

“Animals and yards filled with litter.”

“And what do these new laws say.”

“I could give you a copy.”


The man reached into his inside pocket and brought out a folded piece of paper. He handed it to Marvin who opened it and read it. At least the new bylaws were short and succinct rather than long winded. When Marvin was finished reading he held out the paper to the man but the man waved his hand in refusal.

“You can keep it.”

“Thank-you,” said Marvin.

The man turned to go but when he was half way to the vehicle he turned back and said,

“I’ll be back.”

“Why?” asked Marvin.

“I am responsible for enforcing bylaws.”

“I see,” said Marvin. “Well then I will see you when you come back.”

“The yard will have to be cleaned up. And the old lady’s cats will have to go.”

“I see.” Said Marvin.

“If it’s not done then the law will be invoked.”

“And how would that happen?” asked Marvin.

“There are many ways. Orders could be issued. Expenses could be put on your taxes.”

“I see,” said Marvin.

“And so will you be doing something about it?”

“About what?”

“The condition of your yard.”

“What condition? What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s messy. There is junk laying all about.”

Marvin looked at the front yard and then he looked back at the man. “It’s been like this for fifty years. And if you don’t like it nobody asked you to come driving over here and look at it. You could have stayed at home and saved yourself the aggravation.”

“Other people complain.”


“That’s confidential.”

“Well if there are people who don’t like the look of my yard there are many that do.”

“Such as.”

“Me to begin with. Many others as well. Matty loves my yard. Joe Criegton, Bill Stopover and George Fulton often spend an entire afternoon poking about in my yard. Sometimes I trade them some of my stuff for some of theirs. That’s easy to do when things are spread out nicely the way they are.”

“Spread out nicely?”


“Well,” said the man, “I suppose it is a matter of phrasing. Anyway something will have to be done. And you are telling me you won’t do this voluntarily?”

“I said no such thing.”

“O. Then what did you say?”

“Nothing. I didn’t say anything one way or the other.”

“Perhaps then you could do me a favor and bring yourself to do so.”

“To do what?”

“Tell me if you are willing to clean up your yard voluntarily.”

“Of course I am.”


“Yes, really.”


“Very soon.”

“Could you be a little more specific?”

“Not really. I have health issues and never know from day to day what I can or cannot do. Maybe I could get at it next week or maybe the week after.”

“That is a bit vague.”

“So is my blood pressure.’

“OK. So let me get this straight. You will get at it within two weeks.”

“More than likely.”

“More than likely.”


“OK, I’ll tell you what. In two weeks I’ll be back.”

“Fine,” said Marvin.

The man climbed into his SUV and drove away.

Over that spring and summer the man came to see Marvin ten times. Each time Marvin had moved a few things about or constructed a poplar pole fence, or cut a small patch of weedy grass. The man couldn’t say he did nothing yet he was insistent that a major effort would have to be made rather than little bits here and there. Marvin agreed that a major effort would be the best. He was very disappointed that circumstances had made that impossible. But Marvin, if he was anything, was an optimist. He had always been an optimist. He was sure everything would work out for the best in the long run. The man was not so sure. He mentioned penalties under the law. He mentioned orders. Marvin said that the man should do what he had to do. Marvin certainly didn’t take it personally. There was an early snowfall which stayed down that year and the last time the man came Marvin said. “We’ll have to wait until the spring I suppose. It’s hard to find anything under all that snow.”

Meanwhile Matty had received an order about her cats. All but three would have to be removed. She showed it to Marvin the next time he brought cat food. Matty was in tears.

“They want to murder my darlings,” she said.

“When is he coming back?” Marvin asked.

“Two weeks he says.”

“Don’t worry about it. I have an old pal who’s a lawyer. I’ll talk to him.”

Marvin’s old pal sent a letter to the council. Apparently there was some technicality which made the order illegal. At their next meeting the Council corrected the technicality sent out another order. But there was something wrong with that one too so they had to send out another. There were many corrections and reissuings and they went on all winter and into the spring. In May, on a warm sunny day, Marvin took his camera over to Matty’s. She put on her best dress and sat her in a chair in the kitchen with two of the most photogenic cats on her lap and another in her arms. Marvin gave this picture to the local newspaper and they printed it along with a human interest story about a woman, soon to be one hundred years old, a pensioner and long time lover and rescuer of cats, being harassed by rich, heartless bureaucrats. The Council received a bagful of letters expressing indignation and it backed off.

That spring Marvin began to kill some of Matty’s cats. He used a twenty two pistol. He picked up a cat, carried it into the woods behind Matty’s barn. Here he put down a bowl of canned tuna. When the cat was almost finished eating Marvin shot it through the head. He carried the corpse home in a bag and buried it in his yard. Matty’s hearing was not very good and she did not hear the pistol shots. Over the summer he killed fifty cats but there were so many to begin with that at first Matty did not notice. But by winter he had cut down the population by half.

“There seems to be less of my precious babies,” Matty said to him one day.

“They say that when there are too many animals in one spot,” said Marvin, “then nature makes it so the mothers have less babies.”

“Isn’t that interesting,” said Matty.

The bylaw man came to Marvin’s twice more that year, once in the spring and once early summer. The last time he sighed very deeply before he took his leave. Marvin sees him at the coffee shop now and again. He nods and the bylaw man nods back. Occasionally Marvin sees him driving along his road but he doesn’t slow down and come in the gate anymore. He just waves as he passes by on the way to some important appointment.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bot Killer

On August the 30th Roger received a letter. It was in his mailbox, a large rural type mailbox he had installed on his front fence, lying with its blank side upward. Roger picked it up and brought it inside to his kitchen table. He examined the envelope. There was no return address either on the front or back. His name and address were printed.

It was unusual for Roger to receive a letter so rather than open it right away, he made a cup of tea. When it was steeped and poured into his cup he opened the envelope, slitting the top with a penknife. It contained a single sheet of paper, 8 1/2x11. This is what it said,

“It has come to the attention of the local authorized agent of HUM (Human Unit Monitoring) that you are in violation of various statutes. A board of examination has been convened and you are required to attend its hearing, September 17th coming.

The board regrets that it is unable to inform you of the exact nature of your offence, the giving out of such information contravening regulation 4987. However it is possible for the board to say that the offences are grievous and a finding of Culpability 463, the most likely out come of such a hearing, will result in a penalty involving absence from the social mileau you now inhabit. You are therefore instructed to bring with you on the assigned day three suits of clothes and personal grooming items. Such items should be carried in a bag 16x14x18.

Failure to attend the hearing will result in immediate elimination. It is wise for the addressee to recall that there are no privacies presently allowable. Any avoidance behavior will be considered Culpable Offences and result in immediate elimination.



After reading this Roger reinserted the letter into the envelope and laid it on top of the table. “How efficient the Authorities; how well they serve the New Reality,” he said aloud. Then he relaxed, or to be more accurate, appeared to relax, and drank the remainder of his tea. The sun was shining in the kitchen window and he allowed himself to doze for a few moments in its soft, warm light.

Doze completed, Roger said, “How efficient the authorities; how well they serve the New Reality.” Then he rose and walked into the bathroom.

The authorities were efficient and they did serve the New Reality well. That’s why Roger had a very special bathroom. Actually he had two, one a completely normal bathroom and the other lined with a double layer of lead sheeting. This was the bathroom he entered, the one which created what the authorities called ‘a dead zone’. On the floor was a throw rug and under the rug a trap door. The opened door exposed a set of stairs. Roger descended.

The trick to absconding is to create a confusion of identities. Easy enough if one has time to prepare. Roger had. Roger was the kind of man who was always prepared. The small ASZ (above surface zipper) was at the bottom of the stair. Its eID plate was not his own. As soon as the illegitimacy of the plate was recognized by the trackers a new plate would replace it and then another and another. Six replacements, together with a little added pulse from the sixth, would erase all tracking memory from the system. Most ingenuous. All this could be recreated by programmers, even the dull witted ones at Central but his would take two or three days. He need far less. When the doors opened he flew out. After five minutes he put on the auto pilot.

There is the old and the new. Sats tracked everything; the sky was full of them. However old radar was still alive as well. To avoid this the auto pilot was programmed to cross the city and once beyond its borders drop into the channel created by a gas pipeline. It then followed the line which was nice because four hours along it brought Roger to a section of country uninhabited excepting for the odd trappers cabin. Here he unloaded gear, covered the ASZ with a lead cape, and drove an electric two wheeler ten miles along a narrow trail to a dugout cabin. He was bleeding slightly from the right shoulder for he had removed the finder tab to be found there back in the lead lined bathroom. Inside the cabin he cleaned the wound with alcohol and, wrapping himself in a down bag, went to sleep.

In the morning, after a breakfast of boiled eggs and toast, there was equipment to be packed into the electric truck. Electric vehicles, ancient and rusting, were the means of transport in outback. Although it was illegal they could be bought from recyclers in the city for next to nothing. This was just right for the people in the outback had next to nothing if you were counting in money and gizmos. They had other things like clean air and functional sensoriums but even the thought of these had been edited out of the NR (New Reality) some time ago.

When the truck was packed a beep on his homemade finder warned him of a seeker bot, one of the lazy meanderers Central sent out randomly to see what they could pick up. Roger waited until it appeared above the trees and picked it off with his shotgun. Clunk it hit the ground and he had a lead envelope around it in a few seconds. Technically they could tell where it was from the leave off of the signal but that would require attention paid by techs and there was little of that at Central. Easier to write malfunction on the Missing Report and surf porno sights on the internet. Roger hit the encapsulated bot with a sledge hanmer. He removed some of the innards and, packing them in another lead envelope, tossed them into the back of the truck. The NR was prolifigate with its technology. If you knew what to look for they gave you almost everything.

Loaded up Roger drove for five miles down a rough narrow trail til he came to a gravel road. Two hundred miles down this road he tossed the seeker bot’s tab out the window. He didn’t want some keener Redeemer Bot finding it near his cabin. Five miles later he pulled off the road and made ready for the Pike bots. That’s what they had up here; humans were too expensive. When he was ready he pulled back onto the road and drove under the limit for another ten miles until he came to the Pike.

There were four visible which meant three hidden. They were old bots, obsolete, dispensible and thus here in the boonies. They had limited vision analysis which was helpful to know. They saw a plastic ray burner as a plastic ray burner but a shotgun did not compute. Perhaps they saw it as a thermos bottle. Roger blew away the four then, wrapped in a silver foil cape he stepped clear of the truck. All three remainders came around the corner of the little guard house blasting away at the smashed remains of their companions they computed to be rat bots. Roger blew them away too. He harvested things from the smashes and stripped the guardhouse of weapons. Nothing too fancy but certain friends would appreciate the old time burners and sacks full of circuit boards. There were four flatbombs hidden under a pile of rubbish in a corner. He timed one of these for the house and heard it go off twenty miles behind him, a satisfying sound. That night he drove into a slip, as his northern pals called it, a cave dug into a soft hill just off the road. No rain, out of the wind and no detection. Propane stove, beef stew and canned pudding. He heard three searchers, sleek air cushion units, go by on the road before he went to sleep.

In the morning he gave himself a treat – ox tongue cooked in raisin sauce, bannock and tea. After he filled his pipe and had a long meditative smokefest. Ready to go, he checked his finder. They hadn’t tuned in the sats; what loss a few backwoods bots? But there was a truckful of finder bots roaring down the road ten miles south. The flatbombs had a squish blower but his own were more reliable. He took out the old one and installed his own. From the slip he could hear it but it didn’t hurt his ears. When the fire was out, everything cooled down, he harvested odds and ends and headed north. That night, after dark, he pulled into a slip which turned into a tunnel and then into a great cavern. An old potash mine. Here there were lots of people and they came running over to greet him as he climbed out of the truck.

‘Non citizen Roger T.’. That’s what the nitecast called him. The photograph was shadowy. A dangerous fellow the talk bot said, full of hate and death. Death maybe, thought Roger, but not hate particularly. But a face projector made all that flat ID useless so why bother? Why even give him a name? They needed a monster, of course. Ah fellow citizens, look at the demon we are protecting you from. See how he salivates at the thought of your suffering.

He spent three weeks in the cavern building a colon bomb. That’s what he called it – small, high intensity, packed in a rolled tube three hundred feet long. All ready for uncoiling along a utility pipe under Central, a pipe so full of search bleepers you could die from their radiation alone, never mind the crusher bots they would direct upon you. Failsafe they said. Seven, folded systems, separately sourced. Seven different bots in seven different offices on seven different floors, all of whom Roger would ignore.

Bleeper beams had a weakness; bear grease exploited that weakness. Why Roger didn’t know for sure but many experiments taught him that it did. And if it didn’t? Well the first crusher bot he would disable and then take his shot. He was ready to go. Nobody could resist forever and he was almost forty. A much longer run than most.

There were three young men who wanted to come with him but he said no. “Go east,” he told them. “Marry, farm. Have children. This life is dreadful and it ends in early death.”

“Then why do you live it?” asked one.

“I was born saying no. I can’t help myself.”

He left early morning when everyone was asleep. When he reached the cabin he stayed four days reading and then packed his gear into the ASZ.

If you knew what you were doing it was easy to plate yourself like a bot, a cleaning bot in this case, rough and ugly, waiting at the gate with all the others, a smashed bot’s plate on your chest. Pick me, pick me for tunnel detail but that was already set up. He did it from the cabin, so cleanly the boss bot saw him as his dear brother. Shall I clean this tunnel dear leader? Oh yes, indeedy do. Do the door with an e disabler, down three flights of steel stairs and there she is just where the schemata said.

Bear grease is messy but messy is good here. It does something to the beams when they hit, who knows what? Maybe they slide. Maybe there is a chemical. One hour and the tube is unrolled. Timer. Two actually, to be sure. No need to be embarrassed explaining the grease to one’s fellow bots for tunnel 46 goes a long way into the city, fifty-five minutes in this case for the timer’s one hour five. The outlet is in a back street where no one ever goes. There is a little whiz car parked there and it moves so silently back to the ASZ.

Half way there he hears and feels the rumbling explosion. Then the ASZ and the cabin. Rest, fish, build a few devices.

One can’t trust the nitecast lies but he soon gets reliable info from friends. Poor Central. Five thousand smashed bots and a giant hole. And Roger T - they want him even if he owns a thousand face projectors.

“I think I might become a monk,” he said to the woman he was with three weeks later.

“You? You must be mad,” Ruth replied.

“The mad monk. Wasn’t that what they called Rasputin?”

“And who might Rasputin be?”

“Some guy I read about.”

“Sounds like some kind of rat poison.”

“Yes it does now that you mention it.”

Three months later he and Ruth went into the mountains so Roger could rest from his life of killing bots.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Fourth Room


Doctor McIvor ran the Clinic built on stilts at the edge of town. The money to build it had been provided by the rich man who lived back from the river on a rise, the only rise in that part of the country for many miles. His money came from mining and he had a private army which, along with the eight foot electric fence, batteries of video cameras and guard dogs, protected his property. The Clinic was a kind of protection too for it gave free medical care to those who could not afford it. You couldn’t say the poor who lived along the river were grateful but at least they didn’t take potshots at his house with twenty-twos like they used to before the Clinic was built.

Doctor McIvor had three nurses for assistants and a middle aged man who did the administrative work. Benson, the rich man, paid their salaries rather grudgingly but still he paid them. Doctor McIvor received his salary from a far away entity still called the Government although exactly what it governed people were hard put to say. Mostly it collected taxes and sent around edicts, long involved edicts filled with rules and regulations. These edicts were baffling to the residents of the little town for they did not concern anything that went on there. They were very abstract and seemed to be about ways of thinking which the residents assumed were matters of concern to people living in the great cities. But the Burns had destroyed the great cities and most of the smaller ones too so why the Government kept sending around such edicts was a mystery to everyone. Most people ignored them but a few of the educated ones read them for entertainment.

Doctor McIvor was a sour man. He had a sour face, sour eyes and even a sour way of walking. He walked as if he were saying he didn’t expect to get anywhere and if by accident he did, it was more a matter of inconvenience than anything else. He was thirty which is a young age to be sour. He himself claimed that he was born sour, the reincarnation of a disillusioned Greek Philosopher called Malen. He made all this up for the Doctor was a man who diverted himself from the sorry state of the world by imagining things and then talking about them as if they were real. Despite these and many other eccentricities the Doctor was an excellent medical man. He claimed the reason for this was precisely because he was a man who indulged his imagination. The educated people in town sniggered when he said this for they knew that science had nothing to do with the imagination and he was pulling their leg.

The clinic had three waiting rooms, one for the townies, one for the poor along the river, called ‘Mud People’ by both the townies and themselves and one for Benson and his chief men. Benson had insisted on this and the government had agreed. Nobody asked the Doctor for he came on the scene after the clinic was built, but if they had asked him he would have spoke up for a fourth waiting room. If asked for whom he would have said for nobody for the fourth room would remain empty. Empty or filled with nothingness as the Doctor put it, the fourth room would act as a kind of potential womb, a reminder of the possibility of things to come even the surety of things to come. People to whom the Doctor spoke of the fourth room became a little afraid. They became concerned that this man who was such a good Doctor and such an energetic, fruitful man, might contain within himself a seed of mental fragility which one day might overwhelm him. When the Doctor mentioned the fourth room to the Mayor at a Town Supper the Mayor told him he was mad. Perhaps, said the Doctor, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a need for a fourth waiting room. The Mayor, a social smoothy if ever there was one, changed the subject.

The Mud People lived along the river in what at first were a series of shanty towns but which eventually bumped into one another to form a continuous line of settlement three miles long. Their ‘houses’ were made of cardboard, old sheets of plywood and tarpaulins so old the color had been bleached out by the sun. Some did odd jobs in town. Some fished and hunted. Others stole. Most combined all three and by doing so made enough money to stay alive but barely.

Many of the Mud People had scars and growths caused by the Burns. But they were not alone in this for many townies had them as well and even a few of Benson’s chief men. Human hierarchial arrangements have no influence on solar flares or bursts of radiation. So the three waiting rooms were not created for the purposes of segregating categories of illness but rather as an expression of the new social arrangements. The Doctor would have said the old social arrangements repackaged. The poor, the middle class and the rich, as the Doctor called them, the three Great Eternals.

When Benson came to his waiting room he did so with an armed guard and a bevy of chief men. The chief men were so similar to Benson that one would think them clones and with the state of outlaw medicine this was not impossible. They were heavy men full of gravitas and glowering looks. Benson’s party filled the waiting room. They sat on plastic chairs placed around the bare white walls, chewing tobacco and spitting green gobs into the waste paper baskets. Benson himself smoked a cigar, a very expensive cigar the size of pony’s erected penis. Nobody but Benson smoked a cigar; there was no law against it but it was generally considered to be forbidden, at least in Benson’s presence. This pleasure – if that is what it was – was reserved for him alone. At least Benson thought so but he thought wrong. The Mud People grew dark tobacco along the riverbank and rolled homemade cigars with it. The Doctor had smoked both – Benson had given him a cigar in an expansive moment when he found out he didn’t have cancer – Mud People sometimes gave him one as a gift of friendship – and he liked the Mud People cigars better. They were richer and tasted of smoky fires and the river. They reminded him of the beautiful brown skinned women you sometimes found in the Mud People shanty town, women with facial bones so exquisite they made the Doctor’s whole body ache with what seemed to him to be unachievable desire.

Benson came often for he was a hypochondriac. If his scalp was ichy from not wearing a hat in the sun he was sure he had skin cancer. If he had a back ache he was sure his discs were crumbling. If he could not achieve orgasm with his young mistress he was sure he was impotent. And so on. He was in the clinic at least once a week with the symptoms of an incurable disease which could finish him off at any time. First one of the nurses checked him out, usually the middle aged one with the gravelly voice for Benson would feel up the legs of the younger ones as they were examining him. After this preliminary examination and the filling in of many forms which minutely described his latest symptoms, Doctor McIvor came in to speak with him.

“What’s the matter?” he would ask.

“Flaccid erections,” might be the answer.

“How many orgasms do you have in a week?”

“Three a day.”

“Too many for a sixty year old man. Cut back to one.”

“A week?”

“No, a day.”


Then Doctor McIvor would shake his hand and leave. This would take one or two minutes. With Benson the Doctor was brusque and business like. Benson didn’t mind for he thought it revealed the Doctor to be a serious man, snappy and brisk, the kind of man he liked.

Most of the people with radiation burns didn’t die of them or at least it took them a long time to do so. Right after the burns occurred was when many people died; if they survived the first year they often lived a normal life span. But there was a lot of work to be done. A plastic surgeon came twice a year and stayed for two weeks at the clinic. He did skin grafts and reconstructions. The Doctor and nurses did some of this themselves but they left the complicated cases to the plastic surgeon. There were new drugs and the Doctor dispensed them. He gave out drugs for pain. This was sometimes a problem for patients would ask for pain killers they didn’t need and then sell them. On the whole Doctor McIvor dispensed quite freely. He thought it better that a few deceivers made money than somebody who needed pain relief went without it.

The Edicts which the government sent around three or four times a year were printed on expensive paper. The pages were bordered with pale blue and the words printed with bright red ink. In the left hand bottom corner there was a picture of the Great Leader, a rather grainy picture which gave the impression of vague benevolence rather than facial distinctiveness. From the evidence of the picture the Great Leader could well have been any of many thousands of pudgy middle aged men given to beaming brightly and smiling widely. The Doctor thought of him as the owner of a flower shop. The Mayor, who had been in his presence as a member of official delegations, thought of him as a kindly dentist. Benson who met with him secretly once a month thought of him as a crude sonofabitch, a nasty bastard. The Mud People thought of him as an institutionalized joke which had repeated itself every day over a long period of time until it had grown stale.

It was late April. The snow melted early that year and the days were unusually warm. Birds were singing in the trees. Bears just up from winter’s hibernation roamed the trees on the south bank of the river and the Mud People hunters carried shotguns loaded with BB’s while checking their rabbit snares. The Spring Edict, due to the warm weather, was early. Mallomere, that great fat bag of guts stuffed into his bandstand conductor’s uniform, came riding his bicycle down the river road (path really) stopping here and there to staple a copy onto a tree.

No one said anything to him. No one even waved for Mallomere was the man who came to knock down the shacks of those whom the Townies deemed too enthusiastic in thievery. He brought with him four brawny workmen and a small bulldozer. The occupants of the shacks were not allowed to remove their belongings. With a few pushes of its blade the dozer knocked the building down and then ran over it, breaking it into little pieces and pushing them down into the mud. The women connected to the shack stood off to the side lamenting, wringing their hands. The men, not wanting to be associated with such female complaining, stood some distance off, silent and stoical.

But when it was over and Mallomere and his cronies retreating up the road, the men suddenly became agitated and shouted after him – “You won’t live forever you fat pig! Something will run over you some day you turd, you rooster fucker!”

But that Spring day there were no dozers or insults but just Mallomere stapling his edicts and the Mud People watching him with cold, hooded eyes. When he was finished he climbed laboriously onto his bicycle and rode silently away as if he were been a visitor from another planet suddenly called home.

The new Edict was different in tone from the others. The others were avuncular. They emphasized the kindly, all giving nature of the Great Leader, his endless striving to provide the good things necessary to his people. The poor man worked day and night. Seldom did the light in his office go off before three in the morning, and so on. This new Edict was stern and demanding.

It had come to the Great Leader’s attention that certain of his children were avoiding their duties. Could you imagine that? While the Great Leader and his companions were working day and night ruining their health, certainly their complexions at the very least, ‘Lazy Elements’, ‘Disturbed and Confused Personalities’ were slacking, refusing to put their shoulders to the wheel. This saddened the Great Leader so much that mere thought of it brought him close to uncontrolled weeping. But the Great Leader was not the Great Leader for nothing. With steely determination he turned away from such unproductive self indulgence toward ever more vigorous, ever more focused work. The light in his office now did not go off until four in the morning.

The Great Leader was sad to report that the avoidance of duty was growing especially when it came to service in the New Army. Letters went out requiring recruits to attend but few of these recruits came at the appointed time. In fact most did not come at all. When agents went to their homes they were told the recruits had died or that they were off far away in a foreign country or they were deathly ill and in the care of a Doctor who held out little hope for their recovery. As a result the New Army, although strong, invincible and incomparable, was not as numerous as it should be for the purposes of carrying out its national duties such as defeating the armies of neighboring states, crushing uppity provincial governors, sacking disobedient towns, and butchering crowds of disorderly unarmed civilians. Something would have to be done.

The Great Leader in council with his advisors, wise men and women all whose only thought was the good of the country along with the comfort of their relatives down to the fourth cousins and even beyond, eventually including every single soul in the nation, babies and even fetuses included, had thought long and hard on the issue. Some had gone two weeks without sleeping although this may have been partially caused by new drugs the doctors had given them. They had come up with a new policy.

Whereas before individuals were selected as recruits and notices sent to their homes, from now on, communities would be assessed capable of producing a certain number of recruits and be held responsible for them arriving at training centers at the appropriate times. The river shanties of Xtown, in the last conscription had been sent four hundred call up notices of which only twenty produced a serving soldier. The others were dead, sick or gone away. Under the new system these same river shanties would be responsible for sending three hundred and fifty recruits to Y town barracks on such and such a date. Failure to comply would result in penalties unspecified at this time but surely to be avoided. The Great Leader was not just a toothless old mystic counseling love. True he had a beautiful smile but his teeth were made of the hardest steel.

The elders in the shanty town were much agog at this. Where were they going to come up with three hundred and fifty recruits? Especially now that the contents of the Edict was out to everyone and the few prospects would soon be melting away. They wrung their hands. They moaned and groaned. They lamented. Then they decided to speak with the Doctor whom they considered to be a good man who had their best interests at heart.

“Figure out how many you can come up with and then send a letter to the Army Center explaining,” said the Doctor. This they did that very day. The reply came within the week. Three hundred and fifty it said, not a man less.

The Doctor went to see Benson. Benson recieved him in his office at the back of his house where the older man sat behind a desk not much smaller than the deck of an aircraft carrier. Doctor McIvor explained the situation. Benson was not sympathetic.

“What does it matter?” he asked. “These people are totally useless unless it be for the Government tapping them now and then for cannon fodder. If they are useless for even that what is the good of them? If they bring in the Army, shoot them and throw their bodies in the river, good riddance.”

“But surely there is some value in human life,” said the Doctor but Benson would have none of that. “Produce or die,” he said. “That’s the iron rule.”

The Doctor met with the Mayor. “It’s out of my hands,” said the Mayor.

“But surely you have some influence,” said the Doctor. “Perhaps by you talking to some of the influential people the number might be lowered, some kind of compromise achieved.”

“Many of the people around here think the leveling of the shanty towns would be a great blessing,” said the Mayor.

The Doctor advised the elders to bundle up their goods on the back of their donkeys and flee.

“If you don’t produce the quota the Army will be sent to kill you,” he said. “At least in the wilderness some of you will survive.”

After some days of beating the bushes for quota the elders came up with fifty names and they knew that by the time they tried to muster them there might be twenty five. This would never satisfy the Army or the Great Leader.

The elders were crafty men. The shanties were left intact. The contents were packed on donkeys in the night and led across the river five miles downstream where there was a ford. Then they dissappeared into the great forest south of the river. But the shanty town still looked fully occupied. There were fires outside each building, people moving about. So when early one morning, two weeks later, the Army moved in, they were surprised to find empty buildings, everyone gone. Or at least the officers were surprised. With bulldozers they pushed the shanties into the river and marched back to barracks. The Great Leader was livid but then he was naturally livid. Being livid for him had become less the result of a mood than a state of being. He wanted heads and punishments but the Army Commander convinced him that to pursue would be counterproductive. Firstly it would be very difficult to find them. Then it would be difficult to engage them. And even if they did what would be the result? A few dead bodies. A handful of donkeys and a few rusty pots. Reluctantly the Great Leader agreed. But he did command that Rangers be sent to find their location. The Army commander did as he was told but the Ranger units were instructed to find nothing. The Commander had better things to do with his troops than to waste them roaming about uselessly in the forested highlands south of the river.

Three weeks after the Army bulldozed the shanties the Doctor disappeared. One evening he was at the clinic sewing up a sport’s injury and the next morning he was gone. The furniture in his little apartment at the back of the Clinic was untouched but his personal effects were gone along with all of the drugs the Clinic possessed, even the aspirin.

“The man was unstable,” the Mayor said to his secretary. “Did I tell you what he said to me about the waiting rooms?”

“These idealists come and go,” said Benson to one of his chief men.

A man who farmed the river east of town said he saw the doctor crossing at the ford early in the morning. There were two people with him, a man and a woman. They led donkeys carrying packs across the ford and then went off into the trees.