Obligations

For two years, Britney lived in a small house in an unincorporated township outside of town and had to drive forty-five minutes to work as a hotel night clerk. She was renting it as a favor to a friend who needed a roommate to help cover the lease. Her neighbors were mostly survivalists and hermits who didn’t like talking, but all of them told her to be careful driving in winter, especially around the crossroads. There were wolves and worse. Some said that there were an unusual number of alien abductions in the area.

Britney never saw any wolves or aliens, but one night during a snowstorm in her second winter her car went off into the ditch next to a crossroads far from home and town. She’d forgotten her cell phone and considered whether or not it was safe to walk back. Then the Devil rolled up in a pickup truck and offered to pull her car out.

That’s what he called himself, at least, the Devil, but he looked more like a sickly, tired Brad Pitt impersonator. He had bags under his eyes. Either way he pulled her car out. She asked, jokingly, if she now owed him her soul. Actually, he said, he wanted to give her his. He wrote on the back of a parking ticket from his truck “My Soul” and gave it to her with a wink and then drove off.

This became a fun story to tell at parties and she kept the note with her to show people. The only ones who didn’t think it was funny were her neighbors who, laconic to begin with, stopped talking to her altogether. Of course people asked her if she felt different, more evil, if she had some sort of power, but of course she didn’t. What good would a soul, even the Devil’s, be to anyone? The only thing that had really changed was that she inexplicably became good at playing blues guitar. She was nothing special, but she was good enough to start playing in a band.

She moved out of the house in the summer and into an apartment a few blocks from the hotel where she worked and could suddenly afford to live because of a promotion and raise. People knew they could rely on her to cover shifts no one wanted, and she was usually the first one the others called when they were sick. Things were looking up. She finally could buy better food and work the hours she wanted.

Then, one night, the Devil checked in. He didn’t recognize her and he looked a lot healthier than he had months before when he pulled her car out. She asked for his name and he said, “The Devil,” with a smirk.

She said, “I have something of yours.”

He looked confused for a moment and then his face went pale. Without another word, he turned around, walked out the door, and didn’t come back.

Younger people with degrees in hospitality kept taking jobs above her and so Britney stayed in middle management, but at least she had a low stress job. It was never supposed to be permanent, but was becoming so. One of the managers, a friend who was no longer there, had roped her into it in college because he was understaffed and needed someone reliable.

Once a week, she played in a house band at a bar called the Parallelogram and one night, she spotted the Devil in the crowd. He sat alone at a corner table nursing a Moscow Mule and studying a mess of papers. Unlike the last time, he looked thinner, more tired.

Between sets, Britney walked over to him and said, “I don’t really think you’re the Devil.”

“What if I’m not?” he asked with a shrug. He recognized her this time, and seemed completely indifferent about her presence.

She pointed at the pile of papers on the table. “What are those?”

“Contracts. What else?”

“Didn’t you get out of that business when you gave me your soul?”

“There ain’t no rest for the wicked. Whether or not you have a soul doesn’t change anything,” was all he said and she went back to the stage.

Even though she hated the commute, Britney loved the solitude of living in the country and was finally able to close on an old family farmhouse. It took a lot longer than she’d planned because new management hadn’t given her a raise in years and cut her benefits, but she got by. All the land around the house now belonged to an industrial operation. They grew some corn hybrid and she never seemed to be around when anyone was actually working in the fields, but sometimes she caught a glimpse of someone walking behind the rows.

One day in late October a snowstorm came through. Even before it hit, people were comparing it to the Halloween Blizzard, so she left early and took her time driving to work, arriving without incident. Outside the hotel, though, she saw the Devil sitting in a beat up Dodge Stratus trying to turn the engine over. He was bald and skinny, like he was going through chemo, and he looked like he was on the verge of tears. “Need help?” she asked and brought her car around to jump his.

When his car was running again, she reached into her pocket and offered him the piece of paper that said, “My Soul.” “Do you want this back?”

“You still have that?” he asked, gawking.

“Well yeah, why not?”

He shook his head. “Everyone’s just so careless about this stuff, these days. Even me.” He stared at the paper for a few moments, took it, and then ripped it up.

“I think I’m going to try to get out of this business again. It’s becoming way too Glengarry Glenn Ross, you know?” he said. He walked over to the passenger’s side door, dragged out a banker’s box full of official looking documents and sat it down on the curb next to a public trash can. “I’m not my job.”

After he’d left, Britney picked up the box and took it inside with her. By the time her shift was over the roads were impassable, so she stayed at the hotel. Because there was nothing else to read, she perused the crumpled and messy contracts, marveling at the numbers and obligations. Neither a businesswoman nor a lawyer, Britney felt an odd sensation come over her, a compulsion, and the beginnings of a scheme.

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The Likely Lads

Ambrose finally customized his ringtone long after anyone he wanted to talk to started texting exclusively. Consequently, he was beginning to dread the sound of one of his favorite songs, The Libertine’s “What Became of the Likely Lads?” but was too lazy to change it to something appropriately awful, like “Tubthumping” or “We Built This City” or the sound of Pyramid Head dragging his sword across the floor. When the opening guitar riff crashed through the formerly silent living room, Ambrose cringed. Worse, the phone didn’t recognize the number so it was either a telemarketer, pollster, collection agency, or the automated voice of any number of local institutions to remind him of an appointment or due date.

“Hello?” he asked, hoping this would be quick. He was sitting on the couch playing Fallout, procrastinating from doing anything productive now that he was off work. How anyone finds the energy to do things after they become independent adults still baffled him.

“Hi… Ambrose,” said someone hesitantly.

“Yes, this is he,” Ambrose said.

“This is Lyle.”

“Lyle.” Ambrose sat up. “How are you? We haven’t talked in… what? Two years?”

“Yeah… I guess it must have been that long. When did we last talk? Do you remember?”

“It must have been… Yeah, it’s been two years. We talked at Katie’s birthday party.”

“What did we talk about?”

Ambrose wasn’t sure where the conversation was going, but he felt there was probably a punchline at the end. This was typical of Lyle. They had been close in high school, had minimal contact in college, and saw each other sporadically around the holidays when they were both visiting family. In all that time, his sense of humor, bizarre and usually only made him and no one else laugh, had not changed at all. For two weeks when they were juniors, he tried to convince their friends that Ambrose, as a freshman, had tried to orchestrate an elaborate cheating ring in Spanish. He hadn’t. When Ambrose confronted him about it, Lyle admitted that he was just trying to see if he could change people’s memories and then laughed.

“Health insurance, I think. We were both griping about not having dental plans, but that it was a good excuse not to go to the dentist,” Ambrose said.

“Oh yeah. Have you gone, yet?”

“Gone?”

“To the dentist?”

“Kind of a strange place to start catching up,” Ambrose said.

“We’re friends right?” Lyle asked suddenly.

“Well, yes, we’re friends. Are you mad about something?”

“How close of friends are we?”

Ambrose was almost certain, now, that this was a joke he didn’t understand, but asked, “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. It’s just that I’ve got this amnesia thing going on.”

“You what?”

“Nothing. Just a joke. It’s been kind of a weird few days. You know what? Forget I called,” Lyle said and hung up.

As seniors, they took Advanced American Literature together with Mr. Badger, who did not at all live up to his name but was famously forgetful. Whenever someone didn’t turn a paper in, he wrote their name down on the board to remind them that they were losing points. Lyle’s name went up on the board every assignment, and every time Lyle would erase his name while Mr. Badger wasn’t looking. He got a passing grade in the class because he convinced Mr. Badger that he’d turned in every essay, but that Mr. Badger had lost them.

Lyle didn’t answer when Ambrose tried to call him back. A few phone calls to old friends confirmed what Ambrose suspected. Lyle was missing. “He called me, too,” Nina, a mutual friend said wearily. “This isn’t the first time this has happened, though. Last year, he disappeared for four days and they found him in a hotel under the name John Dee.”

“Shouldn’t we be doing something?”

“Talk to his family.”

Ambrose walked to the convenience store down the street to buy aspirin. It was almost New Year’s Eve and he didn’t have any plans. He didn’t even know where to look or who to ask to find an interesting party for the evening, which made him feel old.

Somewhere, not far from the store entrance, someone was celebrating early and playing Auld Lang Syne on a piano. Meditating on the words, Ambrose sang under his breath, “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind…”

“There looks like trouble,” someone said behind him. He turned and saw a man with dirty blond hair and beard wearing a green canvas, WWII trench coat and holding a leather briefcase walking toward him, one hand outstretched. “Ambrose, are you living out here now?”

Ambrose shook hands and smiled, certain that he’d never seen the man in his life.

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Resolutions

Unlike everyone else she knows, Kendal loves resolutions.

She spends 364 days of the year composing them in her head and then writes them down on New Year’s Day. As a rule, they were impossible, things she is certain will never happen. Like buying her dream house on the corner of Summit Avenue, the one that cost more to build than she and her husband would earn in their lifetimes. Or becoming an Olympic Gold Medalist in the high jump, though she’d never been an athlete and there wouldn’t be summer or winter Olympics that year. Or resolving to write an epic trilogy following the exploits of an animate marionette with cut strings searching for the Great Puppeteer in the Sky. “Achieve world peace” had made its appearance on several lists, as had “Win the lottery” and “Become a year younger.”

Despite what many people think, it isn’t an exercise in disappointment or humility. No one actually keeps their resolutions, and so Kendal figures that if she is going to make promises that she can’t keep, they should at least be fabulous and imaginative.

Really, Kendal is a pragmatist. She never makes actual promises to others she can’t fulfill. She serves on committees and boards, coaches sports teams, never takes sick days, and is always on time. She had her life mapped out from the age of 12 and things have gone almost exactly according to plan. New Year’s Resolutions are a sacred breach of character, and one that delighted her.

But in 2014, something odd happened. Her oldest son, then 18, said that instead of living in the dorms he wanted to have a tiny house. He made a compelling economic case to Kendal and her husband and so they decided to help build the small 250 square foot unit over the summer.  Word spread among his friends and the idea caught on, which resulted in a clutch of tiny houses set up as a commune not far from campus. It had taken negotiations with the university and the city, but eventually both came around to the idea that a little village could be a good and educational learning community.

It wasn’t until October that Kendal’s husband pointed out that she had accomplished a resolution. In her long list of fanciful priorities, she’d said, “Build a village.” She found the revelation strangely unsettling. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t part of her actual plan. Her resolutions were supposed to be pure abstractions, never to be fulfilled, purely speculative and unattainable. She resolved to be more careful making her list for 2015.

On Sunday, November 1, 2015, Kendal woke an hour before her alarm, seized by inspiration. She does not consider herself a writer, but she literally could not help but sit down at her computer and type furiously. It wasn’t a novel, essay, or play. Instead, it was a long series of rules, commandments, disjointed parables, epic and condensed narratives, and prophecies. She spent the next month unable to do anything else but write, during which time she lost her job and her family began to consider committing her.

Finally, the thing was done. She posted it as a note on Facebook and watched in horror as the comments and likes grew and a community began to form. There are now 2,170 members of a group claiming to belong to a new sect of which she is the prophet.

In 2014, Kendal had listened to a lot of Cake. It seemed harmless to plagiarize a lyric and add it to her resolutions: build a religion.

January 1st, 2016 is just around the corner. Kendal has resolved to have no resolutions this coming year, but the she can’t stop the ideas from forming. Gain two hundred pounds of muscle and two more limbs? Establish a successful anvil delivery service? Master 5D art? She is so used to dreaming up absurd promises that she can’t help herself.

She dreads the New Year. Because, now, everything is possible.

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End of Year Appeal

Dear Fiend,

Let’s get to the point, shall we? None of us have the time — especially if we get our way.

They say Evil doesn’t pay and they’re right. That’s why, if you make an end-of-year, tax deductible gift today, your donation will be tredecuple-matched and your name will be added to the Wall of Infamy in Perpetuity!

The year is coming to an end. And so is everything else, thanks to your resolve. We should take a moment to reflect on our accomplishments and Greatest Ambitions.

Despite the disappointing outcome of the 2012 Promise campaign, Antagonist United and its loyal members have worked hard to make these past three years a spectacular success.

Through creativity and malice, we’ve finally accomplished both the biological and supernatural zombie. Nano bots capable of bringing on the Grey Goo have gotten to work in Missouri. Our Bad Weathermen are producing tornadoes, hurricanes, and typhoons all across the world. General mania and disorder are rampant with no serious opposition from masked vigilantes. And (completely unrelated) a meteor is hurtling toward the planet, which looks like a promising extinction event.

Fiends, we are closing in on the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the Denouement.

That’s right. Antagonist United is proud to announce our dedication to ensuring that 2016 will be The End.

By this time next year, there will be no Time. There will be no Something. Just Nothing.

It’s not clear what that will look like or whether or not it will violate the laws of physics, but it will Be.

But only with your compulsory support.

At Antagonist United, we aren’t interested in generosity, just the End of all ends. Just like you. This world is a mess and we need to rule it. If you make a tax-deductible end of year gift today we’ll ensure that 2016 will be the last. This time, we promise.

One way or another.

That’s why, for a limited time only, if you donate your entire net worth to Antagonist United, you can have your loved ones back! By now, you must have noticed their absence. Let me assure you that they are safe (for now) and moderately comfortable and will remain so until the stroke of midnight January 1st, 2016. After that, well, it all depends on your loyalty to our cause.

Make your Last donation today. To a future none of us will ever know, just like everyone else.

Yours with Conviction,

SF

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Room

You wake up in an empty white room.

You immediately recognize the cliche, but are powerless to do anything about it.

Many stories written for Introduction to Creative Writing classes start with something white (a room, a wall, the sky, a face, etc.) because the writer sits there staring at a blank piece of paper or computer screen and eventually grabs for the dominant sensory inspiration. You know this because many writing teachers have warned you not to start a story exactly like this.

Come to think of it, though, you can’t remember a story that actually begins in a blank white room. Probably because the creative writing teachers have been passing this piece of wisdom on for a while. But that doesn’t change the fact that you are now presumably in a story (a dangerous place to be under the best of circumstances) that starts with a featureless room, without furniture or door.

There’s only one thing to do in a situation like this. “Appeal to the narrator?” you ask out loud.

Talking to yourself won’t help.

“Make me a door,” you say and stamp your foot. Nothing happens and so you stand there and huff. Because of the even light coming from nowhere in particular and no visible seam where walls meet the ceiling or floor, the dimensions of the room could be anything at all. It might not even be a room. It could be that you’re standing in a vast plain that stretches into infinity.

“That isn’t helpful!” you shout. “I refuse to participate in this story!”

Alright, fine! You may go now. There’s a door.

And with that, you (or You) leave. We’re alone, now.

This is the first blog post I’ve written in a while and I chose the worst trope I could think of because writing anything lately has been difficult. Rough drafts in particular. It’s been months since I’ve been able to crank out a story that I find palatable. I find myself sitting and staring at the page or the screen wondering what to write and immediately vetoing any idea that comes to mind.

It seems like most of my writer friends are having this problem. lately. It seems like we’ve collectively reached a point where we know more about what not to do than how to get started. Instead of writing, I just make lists of all the things I shouldn’t write. So, whenever I do manage to get a few words out, I can’t get over how awful they are. But without more material, without actually going through the motions and committing something to the page, I’m left with little. That isn’t very good anyway.

Writer’s block has never been this bad before. But I’ve resolved to finish this and publish it. I need habits, not excuses.

… To be honest, I’ve always wanted to start a story in a empty white room. Have you ever read Harold and the Purple Crayon? It begins in a void and from it the protagonist makes a universe. The same as pretty much everything anyone has ever made, really.

 

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Republican, Democratic Parties: “Whoa! Let’s not do anything hasty!”

Holding out a calming, but visibly shaking hand, the Republican party addressed the nation saying, “You don’t want to do this. You don’t have to do this!” Less animated, but equally emphatic, the Democratic party added, “Think of all the great times we’ve had together.”

Following the unexpected popularity of self-described democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) and arch-conservative real estate mogul Donald Trump, both the Democratic and Republican parties are concerned that America might do something reckless. For years, both parties worried that America’s erratic behavior might portend something far more serious, but neither predicted this dramatic turn of events.

“Hindsight is 20/20, I guess,” said the Republican party, glancing nervously over its shoulder and addressing the nation, “Look, America, we can get revenge for the New Deal and the Great Society together! Honest!”

With an imploring look from the Republican party, the Democratic party reluctantly added, “I mean, the minimum wage may not be what it was in 1970, the ACA is a joke compared to what it was supposed to be, key parts of the VRA have been gutted, racial disparities are still appalling fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, respecting women’s basic health and livelihood are still considered politically contentious… but we can change! Think about all the great times we’ve had.”

“Just, walk away from Bernie Sanders,” the Democratic party said. “We’ll get through this together, you and me.”

Noticing America’s enthusiasm beginning to wane, the Republican party shouted, “Put down the Trump! Put the Trump down!”

At press time, the American electorate remained undecided, but swaying against conventional wisdom. The Democratic party, meanwhile, was trying to reason with the nation while the Republican party wordlessly motioned at Congress to disenfranchise a third of the country.

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Alabama to vote to succeed

Citing its courts’ staunch opposition to same-sex marriage, history of racism, the third worst quality of life, 40th place among state economies, high rate of diabetes, 45 worst ranking in terms of wealth inequality, the Alabama legislature has decided to consider a bill that would allow it to succeed in the union. Speaker Mike Hubbard admitted that the bill was “mostly ceremonial” and “a statement,” but that, “For too long the people of Alabama have suffered under the policies of this government and it’s time that we declare our intention to succeed in the United States.” The bill faces stiff opposition in both parties, with conservatives citing history and heritage and liberals doing the same. “Just look at the past!” exclaimed both Speaker Hubbard and Minority Leader Craig Ford in unison. The White House has not commented on the vote to succeed yet, but a source close to the Vice President Biden said, “Let them go ahead and try.”

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Democrats Confident America Will Be Reasonable

Democratic strategists are certain that Americans will reason Republicans are responsible if the Supreme Court guts the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare).

“Why bother coming up with a PR campaign?” said a top party spokesperson. “It should be dead obvious to anyone paying attention that if the Supreme Court rules in King vs. Burwell that ‘exchange established by the State’ actually means only people going through the federal exchange can receive subsidies that it’s really the Republicans who took away their cancer treatment payments. I mean, come one!

Dismissing the notion that Republicans could successfully redirect public ire for destroying a program that has given health insurance to 8 million Americans onto the very party that created it, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reed explained, “Americans won’t accept some illogical hogwash from demagogues! They’ll search out the facts and cross reference them through non-partisan sources. Why would we bother stooping to explain to millions of busy, emotionally exhausted people why their lives are a little less miserable because they don’t have to live in terror of bankruptcy because of a broken bone? Obviously they’ll know that the Democratic party is the one looking out for them.”

Minority Whip Dick Durbin laughed when asked if the Democrats have a plan to counter the inevitable and carefully crafted PR campaign Republicans will launch blaming President Obama for destroying ObamaCare. Durbin said, “Who would believe that? Just because a third of Louisiana Republicans blame Obama for Bush’s disastrous response to Katrina, two fifths of Americans think there were WMDs in Iraq,  and a majority oppose the ACA, but approve of its features, doesn’t mean folks can’t read the writing on the wall. At some point you just have to talk to people like adults and trust them to draw their own conclusions.”

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Review: “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free,” by Cory Doctorow

The title is misleading. Cory Doctorow’s full observation is, “Information doesn’t want to be free. People want to be free.” Though the book is sold as a guide for creative types to make a living off their work in the digital age, Doctorow’s real purpose is political. That’s not meant as a criticism. It’s a rich book with a lot of useful insight into the rapidly changing way we create and consume media. But calling it a “how-to” book is selling it short.

The gist of it is that we are at a crossroads in history. We can either embrace the possibilities of new media or let powerful existing interests dictate them for us. The pessimistic view is that you’ll be at the mercy of Amazon and Apple, buying products and thinking you own them only to have them deleted from your hardware because you didn’t read the fine print. Or, worse, get fined or thrown in prison by bringing the wrath of Disney down on you.

On the other hand, Doctorow argues that creators could instead trust their audiences and fight for relaxed copyright laws. It’s kind of a utopian view, but not necessarily wrong. Now that instantaneous copying and dissemination is a fact of life, we are faced with the choice of creators (actually, the distributors) having absolute control over their work, which is technically impossible without destroying personal privacy, or just trusting people to be honest.

Doctorow isn’t saying everyone needs to be honest, just enough people. And this happens all the time without anyone realizing it.

Growing up I developed an enduring hatred of NPR’s membership drive season. My parents, since before I was born, have been dedicated listeners and the radios in their kitchen and car have always been set to NPR. I’ve inherited the addiction. About a year ago, I realized that I finally had a disposable income and could do things like financially support the news, art, and institutions I’d been freeloading on for 27 years. And it feels good. I don’t get anything extra out of most of my monthly donations, but it does give me gratification to know that I’m giving back to mainstays of my intellectual and personal life. And, as any development professional will tell you, arts and culture nonprofits can’t exist without contributing audiences.

Point being, this model already exists and it works. People want to support the content creators they like, preferably without going through five middlemen.

Anyway, I agree with all that Doctorow writes, to a point. He’s Cory Doctorow — of course if he publishes a book and puts it up for a free on the internet with a “donate” button he’ll earn bank. He is talented and has worked hard to develop an audience over the years and so his generous terms don’t really prove anything.

On the other hand, he is talented and has worked hard to develop an audience over the years. That really isn’t any different than the traditional way of becoming an artist, except that instead of going to a publisher or label, you go right to the audience instead.

So, I look at myself and wonder, “Could I follow his advice and become a successful, professional writer?” Maybe. But I write professionally already, churning out grants and copy for an organization I like, so I don’t feel compelled to make a lifestyle change. But I am optimistic and I think Doctorow has a good point. I do know artists who make a living (not a glamorous one, but neither is mine) off of their work because there are enough people out there who like their work enough to support them.

That was a review, I guess. Read it and come up with your own opinions.

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White liberals courageously listening

Author’s Note: If it is in any way unclear, I’m writing this in disgust at my own silence up until now.

#

In the wake of the Charleston, SC, massacre which left nine dead at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, white liberals all across the country are paying close, silent attention to activists of color.

This Wednesday, Dylann Roof sat with church goers for an hour before drawing a gun, making racial threats, and then killing nine people of color in cold blood inspiring impotent disgust among most of America’s white liberals.

“I’ve been reading material from Rev. Denise AndersonBlack Girl Dangerous, the NAACP, and Black Lives Matter nonstop these past couple days,” said Bloomington, MN, resident Audra Johnson. “It’s the least I can do, of course.”

Thousands of white liberals read in reserved, unexpressed revulsion as news broke that Roof wanted to start a race war.  Many quietly bristled as mainstream news sources called Roof “mentally ill” and “a lone wolf” instead of a terrorist motivated by racial hatred endemic in American culture.  Some even considered contacting the media and demanding better, more honest reporting, but felt it wasn’t their place.

“It really disgusts me to hear that the NRA is already blaming the victims, saying that this could have been prevented if they had guns,” Niel Clerks of Aurora, MA, considered telling a coworker he knows to be a proud NRA member, but then thought better of it. “That’s another political issue.  I mean, I could bring up Sandy Hook or Columbine, but that might make things too complicated. I should educate myself more,” Clerks thought to himself with resolve.

Both Pew Research and the Public Religion Research Institute have both found that since the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, and Eric Garner, more white liberal Americans than ever before are silently listening in righteous rage to activists and community leaders pleading for action.

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