January 2011


As the police pulled up, Vincenzo noticed a slip of paper tucked under the windshield of his car:

Belittling neighbors seems like a blast
But this time ain’t like the past
Showing them where you have park’t
So then your stash you find nark’t

It was the last thing he read as a free man.

“You sure this is the right address?”

Ruttort Produce looked as if nothing remotely resembling produce had darkened its doors since before the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. The grocery’s walls were overrun with ivy, faded advertisements for products that no longer existed, and provided much-needed shelter for generations worth or rats and roaches.

“I’m sure,” Carson said. He pointed at the floor, where the dust was disturbed by sets of human footprints.

The trail led into what must at one time have been the store’s office, only it was doubtful that the long-dead store manager had ever dreamed of anything like the high-powered computer terminal and backup unit humming on his desk.

“Look at this,” Carson said, pointing to cables that snaked across the ground. “This spot’s only a hundred yards from the main fiber-optic pipeline to downstate. Tapped into it like this, Johannes can read the mail of everyone in six counties.”

“Does that amuse you? Viac Funiked was the name of the first president of Pilchardania, the man who led us to freedom after the first World War. At home I am often laughed at because our names are the same, and I see that here it is no different. Your laugh, however, is as borne of ignorance as my countrymen’s was of knowledge.”

Cesar reddened and could only mumble a reply.

The man jabbed at him with his walking stick. “What’s that? You didn’t expect a man with such a name to speak your language? Or did you honestly think I’d join in your fun at my expense?”

The Conabin Fish was named after its discoverer Augustus Conabin, a naturalist on a British exploration vessel. Conabin’s crew took shelter from a Pacific gale in the lagoon of an atoll that the captain named Sarah Anne Island after his eldest daughter. The ship was there long enough for the naturalist to go ashore and collect specimens. Most were unremarkable palms and crustaceans, but a large stream flowing from a freshwater lens yielded a distinct-looking species of what appeared to be a freshwater triggerfish. It was brightly colored in a dazzling pattern according to Conabin’s notes, and fed off small shrimp and other invertebrates in the soft sand.

It was only years later, when the British Navy attempted to press a claim to Sarah Anne Island, that it was found to have vanished, with no trace of the island in its reported position and soundings indicating over a mile of ocean below. Conabin’s specimens were dug out and examined; though badly discolored and damaged by preservatives, experts concurred that they resembled no known species.

It represents one of the most enduring mysteries of zoology to this day.

Carronce took the entire complement of the ferry hostage. A veteran of the war, he’d come home laden with booty from foreign battlefields–machine pistols, rifles, and even a precision scope–that put him far and away above the local Cheboygan County police armed with surplus revolvers. By the time the call went out into the surrounding countryside for able-bodied men willing to lend their own firepower, the ferry had moved too far offshore to be hit.

Forcing the crew to operate the radio for him, Carronce demanded that his seized assets be restored and that his wife and child be tracked down and reunited with him “at taxpayer expense.” The designated negotiator, trying to stall for time as proper boats and equipment were rounded up for a rescue, asked why Carronce was so adamant about the last point.

“I served my country for five years and killed ten men for it. It’s the least she can do.” was his reply. It was the last communication anyone would ever have with the ferry.

Five hours later, a Coast Guard launch approached the ferry under cover of darkness to attempt a boarding. The maneuver was botched, though, and Carronce opened fire even as he lowered the ferry’s car ramps, rapidly swamping the craft. A few bedraggled survivors were hauled out of the water, but the rest slipped beneath the oily-smooth Huron waters with their captor.

Tobias rested a boot on the amplifier. “This, my friends, is the Ampbust 262. Only 250 were ever made before federal noise regulations forced the maker out of business.”

A quiet gasp resonated throughout the group. “What are those?” somebody asked, pointing to nearby amp-like shapes under a tarp.

“These are three more of ’em. Barn finds, picked ’em up for a song and restored ’em myself.” Tobias waited for this to sink in for a moment.

“And?”

“On the same circuit, grounded, with a high-quality axe to back them up? We could tear down a wall or tear a hole in the freakin’ fabric of spacetime, man.”

“I’m lookin’ for John Dirsts,” Cameron said. He clinked the glass down and tapped it for another shot.

“Lots are,” Murray replied, deftly dispensing a fresh belt of whiskey. “What makes you think anyone here knows a whit about ‘im?”

Clink. Tap. “Only liquor for miles around that won’t blind you. Now how about that John Dirsts?”

Murray hesitated until Cameron sent his shot glass back with a silver dollar in it. “Lots of folks come through here askin’ after Dirsts,” he said. “It’s them posters what done it. Problem with posters is they ain’t always current. Dirsts is dead.”

“Another man took ‘im in?”

“Naw. Poisoned by moonshine, or so the doc said. He’s been under a cross on the hill goin’ on a week now. General store sells shovels if you wanna see for yourself.”

Hishout Farm was one of oh so many that’d been abandoned after the area’s topsoil blotted away into dust storms. Rain follows the plow, so they’d said, and so it had–a black rain, the sort that even Unitarian farmers had to admit gave them a certain end-times chill.

Nobody seemed to remember much about Hishout, his family, or where they’d come from. If pressed, one of the old-timers that hung out at Strasser’s might allow that the Hishouts were from back east and struck out for California, but that was speculation commingled with the distant fog of memory.

No, the only matter that set the Hishout farmstead apart from all the others that had failed and foreclosed, swept like flotsam before the black prairie skies , is that it hadn’t been sold or torn down. The fields had returned to plow-untouched nature, but the farmhouse and barn stood tall, unbowed by the weight of years, as if any day now Hishout might return, wipe his brow, and set to tilling once more.

My generation was immersed in lovey-dovey sentiments about “being ourselves” and “doing what makes us happy.” Our parents probably thought they were doing us a favor–the Woodstock and Summer of Love generation, they felt like they had to struggle with their parents to go off and do what they wanted. Hell, even today there are scads of movies and TV shows lionizing the 60’s radicals who bucked what their parents wanted in order to Live the Dream.

The problem was, much of my generation decided that being themselves and doing what makes them happy was being slackers and mooching. I think that a lot of what made our parents such go-getters was the fact that–at least as they saw it–people were always telling them they couldn’t or shouldn’t do things. Who wouldn’t want to go out and get busy confronted with that, especially if there were millions in the same boat? But if from the start you’re told that you’re special and mollycoddled, you get kids working at a 7-11 with a Masters degree, just content to scrape by. Say what you will about the unshaven pot-smoking hippies of yesteryear, but they got shit done.

I was determined to avoid what was, to me, the ultimate badge of shame: moving back in with Mom and Dad and gradually abandoning all pretense of an independent life. Which led me, straight-arrow, to my current predicament.

“I’ve gotta be honest with you, Sandy,” Karen sighed. “Cats creep the hell out of me.”

“Because you are creeped out by things that are awesome?” Sandy riposted. “That explains your Netflix queue.”

“Because of a lot of things,” Karen said. “Like the claws. They can pop out at any time, without warning. One moment you’re petting a loving animal on your lap, and the next it has a dozen needles stuck in the flesh of a very sensitive area. Or you try to pet a cat on the tummy and then five of its six ends are suddenly pointy and whirling. And you can’t talk about declawing, because cat owners react to that word as if you just said ‘Auschwitz.'”

“It’s cutting off the tips of their fingers,” Sandy said. “How would you feel about that?”

“If I was always going around clawing at people you’d look at it differently.”

“Mmm-hmm, right,” Sandy said. “Was that it, or did you have some more ranting while you’re at it?”

“And then you’ve got the cats that bite you and scratch you at will, and while you sit there oozing blood the owner goes ‘Oh, it’s just a love bite!'” Karen continued. “It’s a classic example of toxic codependency in an abusive relationship–the cat bites me and scratches me and scars me and I have to wear long sleeves to cover up the marks but it still loves me.”

“That’s a pretty dangerous sentiment to go spreading around,” said Sandy. “Especially around cat fanciers like me who will defend our fuzzy compatriots unto the death.”

Next Page »