Friday, April 20, 2012

Clearance Sale - Part 2

My contract had ended and until I got another one I was left to drift around the apartment, cleaning, adjusting furniture, surfing the net and so on.
We had plenty of groceries after a friend gave us a ride to a bigger store so I had no reason to head to the supermarket.
One day, however, I had a craving for some rich chocolate ice cream. After shouting my conscience into silence I set off down the road.
Once again there was a small crowd in front of the ex-office supply store. I was startled. What else could be left to sell? As I got closer I saw that the store had been modified in strange ways.
There were heavy looking struts on the windows and a peculiar and heavy looking door at the entrance. In the door was some kind of pressure outlet and from it ran a hose to a powerful and noisy machine.
"Ah, madam. welcome back," the tall man said. His face was flushed a deep red, as though he'd been drinking heavily. "Are you here to see the latest part of our program? Perhaps to purchase our latest product?"
I looked in the window and couldn't see a thing in the store.
"What on Earth are you selling now. There's nothing left."
"There is something. That machine is set up to suck air out. Look."
I saw to my astonishment that there was an attachment to the hose that ran to a bottle. As each person in the line reached the front a new bottle was hooked up and the pump presumably filled it with air from the store. The person then paid and left, bottle of office store air in hand.
"You're selling air aren't you?"
"Of course. We have to maximise our profit. And people seem ready to buy our product."
I lost my temper. I hit him with everything from my left wing youth: exploitation of the people; the corrupt nature of capitalism; the failure of material things to give happiness. The word "proletariat" may have passed my lips once or twice.
Through all this he remained completely frozen, his smile and his stoop unchanging. When I was done he thawed and began to move again.
"Poor arguments from a practical perspective I'm afraid. People want stuff. Also, given the recent interest in things green, we are a most environmentally sensitive company. We sell that which is no longer needed and impact a volume equivalent to several large homes with minimal ecological damage. There's no air conditioning in there now. Not needed. And that compressor is running on biofuel. We're a highly successful, deeply green, customer satisfying company. Look at those people. Tell me they aren't happy."
As a matter of fact they didn't look happy. They looked just as beaten down and tired as everyone else.
I couldn't face pushing the argument any further so I made a brusque farewell and went home
Two weeks passed before I went to the grocery store again, our friend with a car being very generous with his time. I was still working at home and was spending my time doing some self-training in new techniques in my field.
After a hard day at the screen I decided to reward myself with some chocolate ice-cream. Once again I set off on the long hot trek to the store. Once again I was astonished when I turned the corner to the strip mall.
As seemed usual now there was a small line in front of the ex-office store. This time the ones at the front departed with very sturdy cubes containing who knew what.
I reached the store and saw something that horrified me. Through the struts across the windows could be seen the empty expanse as before but right in the middle, hanging in the air, were small cubes of nothing. How I knew it was nothing I don't know. They were a glittering grayness, or so it seemed. It hurt to look at them. The eye slid off them as though they were cubical blindspots, as though they were the nothingness that was left when the vacuum was taken away.
It turned out I was correct.
"Hello again. Calmed down a little?"
This time he looked even more artificial than before. The stark sunlight accentuated the sharp creases of his suit and the now angular facial features. He looked as though he'd been folded from paper, an origami figure made of cotton, flesh and light. I frostily said hello and asked what was going on.
In front of the store was a large truck covered with what looked like control boxes and gas tanks. From it ran two heavily insulated pipes from which small sheets of ice would fall occasionally, both pipes running to the now medieval looking door, a mess of massive sheets of some dull metal, small pipes and heating elements.
"We're reaching the end of the project. We just had one thing left to sell. Do you see, or rather you don't see, those cubes in the air in the middle?"
"I see them. They're horrible."
"Yes, they are aren't they?" He seemed rather pleased by my reaction.
"What are they?
"It turns out that it's impossible to get to an absolute vacuum. So we decided to just go straight to another, even more extreme impossibility. Removing the vacuum itself."
"That is just non-sense. By definition a vacuum is empty. There's nothing there to remove."
"It turns out that according to modern physics (you have no idea how useful that field of science has been to us) a vacuum is full of fleeting little fizzes of subatomic particles. We saw an opportunity to make a little money there. And we were right. People will pay for little pieces of the local vacuum state. We throw in the virtual particles for free."
"That's impossible."
"Well, yes it is. But as long as there's money to be made the impossible is not a problem for us.
We have to think of the shareholders. We really don't want to piss them off."
I was speechless. I decided that to stop myself crying or laughing uncontrollably I had to speak. So I asked the first thing that came to mind.
"What's next? Take away and sell absolute nothingness?"
"Sadly we've gone as far as we can. After we're done here we go on to clean up another closing store. With the economy as it is we have no shortage of victims available."
"But what's the point? Surely you could make almost as much just selling the stock and fixtures?"
"You'd be surprised how much we make when we start the physics part of the operation. But the larger point is for us to form a network of emptiness. Then we do the difficult bit: joining the nodes. And then the shareholders come for, well, call it an inspection."
With that he walked away as though he'd lost interest in me. And I walked away, filled with a terrible foreboding.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Clearance Sale - Part 1

That summer we had no car. Fortunately we lived within walking distance of a supermarket, although it didn't seem like walking distance after struggling home with a backpack in one hundred degree temperatures.
Each time I went to the store I would walk past another that specialized in office supplies. As big as the supermarket with large glass windows at the front, presumably to show off the wonders within. The fact that it was obviously failing ruined this image.
The store always appeared to be a place of dust, no-one there except for obviously demoralized staff and a few zombie-like customers.
Then one day as I walked to the supermarket I saw large signs in office stores' window.
As I'm sure was intended, the red and blue stripes filling the poster around the text were less a patriotic statement than a crude attempt to arrest the eye of a casual passer-by.
I stopped to see what I hopefully expected to be a train wreck. Anything that required the deployment of those posters could not end well.
The trucks passed by on the high-way, making a noise like mechanized rain. It made for a suitable soundtrack for what I saw in the office store. Half filled shelves made of raw steel tubes, a floor that could do with a cleaning, bowed down customers amazed less by the cut prices and more by the fact that they were in this place at all. It was as though Communism had come to the USA, decades late.
A tall man came up to me. Later his appearance was often fluid so it seems important now to record his initial, possibly fundamental, image.
As I said, he was tall and of average build, against my experience with the very tall who usually tend towards pronounced thinness. His facial features were irregular, asymmetrical and, when he flashed one of his frequent smiles, extremely attractive. The crooked smile under the sparkling blue eyes gave one the feeling that the world needs pranks to be played out within it.
He lurched towards me and loomed like a crane.
"Care to come in madam? We have many great bargains. The end is near, so to speak." Then he grinned.
"No thank you," I said. "I have all the office supplies I need."
"But it's not just office supplies you know. Come back in a few days and you'll see."
Changing the subject before he made any more strange statements I asked, "It must be depressing to see one of your stores go under like this."
He laughed and as he did so his feature seemed to change, become far more angular. Then his laughter ceased and he replied, "Oh no. We didn't own the store when it was a going concern. We bought it as-is when the parent company made the decision to close it. Our speciality is making a profit from failure."
I was disgusted by this and, after a curt goodbye, set off home.
I was working at home that week and my husband made the grocery runs. When he came back one day he seemed a little dazed.
"You should see that Office store. It's amazing."
"How so?"
"You'll have to see for yourself."
Bored that afternoon I went to buy some milk. As I turned the corner to the strip mall I saw a small crowd around the door to the office store. As I got closer I saw that people were carrying out roughly cut tubes of steel. I realized, astonished, that they had been in there specifically to buy pieces of the racks. Who knew what they expected to use them for. Some people were carrying small grey boxes. I stopped one and asked what was in it. He told me -- dust. Shaking my head I walked on until I saw the tall man. He caught sight of me, smiled and waved at me and turned away to talk to someone in overalls holding a clip board.
Getting my milk I left for home, increasing my pace as I walked past the weirdness next door.
Unfortunately I was trapped by the tall man. He smiled and loomed over me. "Amazing isn't it. There is value in even the smallest things and people sense that and buy it when it's available."
"You're ripping these people off. They're naive enough to buy anything if you put a price on it," I said.
"Well, that's another way of looking at it. Either way our existence as a company depends on squeezing profit out of this store in any way possible. And shopping is the opiate of the masses after all."
Feeling that I could be about to enter into a pointless argument I said goodbye and left.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Disguise the Secret - Part 3

She tried to shake off the inhibitions of a lifetime and set off towards the hill. She climbed it feeling fragile and was intensely nervous, filled with thoughts of what she had been told about this mound. That witches gathered there each new moon; that the fairy folk, with their silver skins and strangely jointed limbs, lived beneath it; that it was the centre of the world and the protecting walls of cloud spun slowly around with the top of the hill as their pivot.
As she reached the top she saw a fire had been lit in the middle of a wide circle of flat stone slabs. On the other side of the fire from her sat the old man, unexpectedly tall with a face invisible under his thick dirty beard but with eyes a friendly, warm brown.
He said nothing, just looked at Ana as though sizing her up for some task. She felt like a free labourer being assessed by a potential client. He began to play on a small drum -- a simple repetitive beat that got inside Ana’s head.
She could see the sparks rising in a fountain of speckled light. The old man's eyes were black through the fire. Confused and a little frightened Ana considered leaving but from somewhere she found the strength to stay.
She could see the stars spinning, a sprinkling of snow against soft black felt. She remained silent.
She could see that which all the inhabitants of the land could see but always denied, sometimes with great force. She could see the flesh-in-ice itself.
She'd seen it once before, in a waking dream she'd had as a child.
Huge, mountain sized but without the solidity of a mountain, it drifted, somehow obscenely, over the ground, as light as feathers with a body that was roughly conical in shape, three sets of tentacles projecting from half way down. The tentacles tapered and coiled inwards, each set of coils wound around the body when not in use.
It moved on countless stubby, unarticulated legs and where each leg fell ants of ice, translucent blue, emerged.. They hurried across the ground in stark contrast to the slow gait of their parent and they  ate the ground, turning it to tiny lumps of ice which they piled up, producing ever growing spires, watchtowers of the cold they spread.
She'd run to tell her mother about the dream but mother hadn't listened to details, just laughed in joy that her little girl was becoming a woman. She'd been dragged before the council which called for a celebratory feast that night. Her waking dream was a form of prophecy, a rare skill and one that only came with puberty, hence her mothers delight.
At the end of this reminiscence the old man had stopped his hypnotic drumming and sang in a high fragile voice. Ana listened, almost drifting into a waking dream such was her concentration. She didn't understand but she felt as though something important was happening to her.

I once had a world in box
Speckled blue, the size of your fist
Resting on aromatic wood shavings
I can smell them now as I sit in my dark cell
I smashed it, I was only a child
I dropped it from a top floor window
It shattered and out came a drab brown bird
It flew high, then higher then disappeared
We all get one world and every world gets a bird
To warn other birds of a new predator
To be lured away from the speckled blue eggs

She was slowly understanding what the old man’s mission involved. He wanted to repair the world, he was just an old tinker repairing the bottom of a pan.
He stared into her eyes and, without breaking eye contact, reached to his neck and pulled over his head a small cloth bag.
He tossed it through the fire and to her surprise Ana was able to catch it. She loosened the drawstring at the top of the bag and poured out onto the stone in front of her a handful of pure white bones, slender white flutes.
At first she wondered if she was supposed to read some deep truth from the way the bone straws had fallen but then, looking up at the old man again, she realised that something stranger and more fundamental was expected of her.
Bones laid out on a stone in front of her she reached out to the fire, as did the old man she only knew from this clearing. Together they made a tear in the way things are and opened a way to the land of screaming birds.
Drums everywhere overlaid by the desolate screaming of birds. There was a terrible emptiness in her eyes. It was a world that was one giant blind spot -- the eye skid across it. The near gray (but really as far from gray as ice was from water) space defied the eye to look at it but defeated the eye every time.
There was only one set of directions to move in here, up or down, and nothing was moving up. Ana realised that this place had been constructed especially for one purpose -- to torture a bird, to take away its chance to move gloriously in all the directions available, to blind it and replace what it could usually see with its great acuity with this visual wasteland. Even in the short time she had been in the land of screaming birds she had found herself forgetting what the other directions were; what blue looked like; how there was an option other than to endlessly fall.
She couldn't see, the wrenching visual emptiness of the land prevented that, but she sensed a dot coming towards her from below, growing larger, clearer to whatever non-visual sense she was using. Somehow the ragged broken object was _flying_ towards her. Then she realised it was a small bird, one that seemed to have been mangled then burned. How it was still alive, let alone flying in this terrible place, she didn't know. The bird landed in her arms.
"She's here because she let a man kill her and take her feathers. Or rather she's here because of what happened afterwards. He ate her eggs you see. She was supposed to protect them by luring predators away, pretending to have a broken wing. She'd be easy meat then you see? Easier than rooting around for some nest that might not even exist. She died and couldn't protect them. Or you.
"You will gain nothing here and will lose much."
She would have screamed at the unfairness of it, but every sound she tried to make simply became another layer of drums.
Then, winding its way through the rhythms, came the old mans wavering voice.

We own who we are
We all live forever
We all have a home
In birdscreamingland
Just one more black dot
Reach out and take
The Lapwing

She held the bird, its heart strong despite its injuries, and turned in an impossible direction.
She was back on the hilltop, the world was complete again.
After gently putting the bird down on the stone slab she tried to wipe off the vomit she must have thrown up when she was in the Land of Screaming Birds.
Finally looking up she saw that the old man was gone. For some reason she wasn't surprised. She now knew what came next and it only needed her.
Ana held the bones, now somehow turned soft, and easily molded them together with her hands into a ball. It was like firm clay and was slightly warm to the touch. She rolled it into a long cylinder which she divided into three sections and these she wrapped around the body of the bird. Then she halted. She wasn't sure what would happen next but she had the feeling that once she performed this last action in the ritual she would be changed. There was always a cost to such powerful science.
She took a deep breath and gently breathed on the corpse of the bird.
It fluttered, the loops of bone were absorbed, she held it high over her head then threw it into the air.
The bird flew up, higher than high, silhouetted against the squirming bulk filling the sky. It should have turned away or been driven back by the icy winds issuing from the pores in the flesh-in-ice. Instead the bird got closer and closer, vanishing one second as its wings closed, flashing a pure white from the underside of its wings the next.
As it seemed to get impossibly close to flesh-in-ice, the flashes so tiny as to tax the eyes, the blinks of white became syncopated, as though one wing were ailing. Simultaneously it began to drift to the left, a hurt bird favouring its bad wing and looking to land as soon as possible -- a small, brown, deceitful bundle of love.
All this took place against a backdrop of smooth, dark green-grey almost covered by clouds of pure white ice powder. Gradually the clouds grew. The flesh-in-ice could still be seen but now it gave off an air of confusion, as though its concentration were split and something new had taken its attention.
The clouds that gyred around the hill lightened and seemed to speed up. A sweet breeze came from the sea.
The old woman slowly climbed down the hill. She muttered to herself as she went and even if the words couldn't be heard the tone of her voice was filled with a kind of triumphant regret. Occasionally she would rub at her forehead as though it pained her, but whatever was there she had covered with an improvised head-scarf. She kept trying to stand up straight, to place her feet more delicately but her body lost no time in reminding her what she had paid for those white clouds over a smiling blue sky.
She reached the camp but, being an old woman, was invisible so she kept walking until she reached the forest. There she paused and looked back at the refugees. Soon they would realise that the world had changed, return to their old homes. For now they would bicker among themselves and with the villagers, eat that foul blue paste in incomprehensible stews.
The old woman laughed shortly. Then she turned and began the long trek to the edge of the world. There she hoped to see a bird and, if possible, protect it from senseless hunters.