Category Archives: Writing Expedition

A Hunger Artist

Caleb was a smart, funny, middle-aged real estate salesman who dressed well and seemed amused by the world.  He sat apart in my Shakespeare seminar, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, shrouded in the kind of invisibility that accompanies older, returning, so-called “non-traditional” college students.  The rest of the class, early 20-something undergraduates, were only interested in each other and passing the 3 credits of Shakespeare required for their various humanities degrees.  But I paid attention to Caleb and listened to him when he occasionally spoke up.

Maybe this was because I spent my childhood and early adult years in search of male role models, my father having been emotionally absent for most of my life.  Whatever the reason, while the other students were busy trying to get together with each other and / or ridicule each other’s ideas—oblivious to everyone and everything (often including the professor and the work) that stood outside the narrow purview of their post-adolescent obsessions—I was taking it all in, especially the things Caleb said. 

I remember thinking that he seemed to have everything a man could want: intelligence, style, money, wit, and enough virtue to believe that he could better himself by getting a second bachelor’s degree.  In my own very naïve and superficial way, I thought he was teaching me something by example.  I paid attention because I believed there were life secrets in plain view that could be discovered as long as I showed up, closed my mouth, and opened my mind.  But the lesson I was destined to learn from Caleb would not be taught until I got to know him better.

Toward the end of the course, we had to find a partner and prepare a presentation on one of Shakespeare’s history plays.  I was a hard worker.  So the presentation was relatively easy.  And since, like Caleb, I was a social outsider in the class, it seemed natural that we would be partners.  In this way, I got to know him a lot better.  We met a few times at the country club, of which he was part owner, and he taught me the basics of golf—which I found interesting but which I have not played since then.

We did the work, but I also got drawn temporarily into his social sphere.  Caleb had a magnetic personality and was constantly surrounded by money, activity, assistants, and stunning women, most of whom were professionals in commercial real estate or finance.  His lifestyle was impressive and a bit overwhelming to me.  Still, working with him over the course of a month gave me an insight I hadn’t had, a vision of what life could be like after college.  But it all fell away one afternoon over lunch when Caleb gave me some frank advice.

We’d just finished eating with a woman named Eva, who was about 5 years older than me and already a heavyweight in east coast corporate real estate.  She could have easily been a girl in one of my classes, but she’d graduated a year before from Princeton.  She was also one of the most physically beautiful people I had ever looked at.  When she said her good-byes and went off towards the tennis courts, Caleb and I watched her go.  I felt like I’d been struck by a bolt of lightning—that curious blend of admiration and despair that started wars in the ancient world, made poets fill their heads with absinthe and jump off bridges, and makes everyday people like you and me weep in the dark.

Caleb noticed the look on my face and said, “Don’t be a walking wallet in your life, Michael.”

I said I didn’t understand and he just looked at me with a faint smile as if to say, yes, you damn well do.

“This is no life to fall in love with,” he said.  “Study hard.  Do what you’re good at.  This—” he frowned and waved his hand to take in the people sitting around us, Eva (now a tiny figure in a white skirt among other tiny white-skirted figures on the tennis courts), the rolling golf course, the perfect blue sky—“is artificial.”

Over the years, it has occurred to me more than once that I could have sincerely responded with: “Most things we want are.”  But I wasn’t that glib at age 21.  Instead, I must have nodded or changed the subject because I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.  I do remember how Caleb pronounced artificial, like it was covered in some kind of excrement.  And I clearly recall how my sense of Eva immediately changed from infatuation to a kind of dread. 

If Caleb, a man who seemed to have everything, could feel bitter about his choices, then what lay in store for Eva?  For me?  How long would it take for the acids of commercial real estate to etch lines of acrimony and despair into her beautiful face?  And to what lengths would she go to cover all that up and approximate her former smile?  To what lengths had Caleb gone?  And how unsophisticated and superficial was I that I couldn’t see this while he could read my deepest longings and insecurities over a Caesar salad at the club?

I suppose he’d taken his own advice in spite of his regrets.  Caleb was doing what he was good at: reading me, helping me understand how to find satisfaction.  A gifted salesman knows your likes and dislikes, knows how to help you get what you want.  At the deepest purest level, a salesman is your best friend.  No one cares more deeply about fulfilling your needs, about why and how you’re hungry and how to feed you.  It has occurred to me that a true salesman—someone following his inner gift such that a writer like Cormac McCarthy might say he carried the secret fire—is as much an artist as any painter or poet.  He merely works in a cruder medium: human desire.

Caleb was one of the few people I’ve met in my life who carried that fire alongside his pain.  The possibility that one could actually do this was the lesson he taught me in a single conversation on a beautiful California afternoon sometime in 1993.  It opened my mind, not to becoming a real estate salesman like him, but to the reality that I had the secret fire, too; that somewhere it was already burning; and that discovering it was more important than all the dreams of avarice.

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As the Leopard, So the Coliseum

The latest on Splice Today.

Source: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/as-the-leopard-so-the-coliseum


Hurricane Dreams

I feel toxic, radioactive. || Michael Davis

Source: Hurricane Dreams


Burning Down the House

What’s next after the violence in Charlottesville? || Michael Davis

Source: Burning Down the House


My Friend Has Gone Nazi

Trump, Brexit, and what we can learn from Anthropoid. || Michael Davis

Source: My Friend Has Gone Nazi


Midnight Gladiolus, a science fiction novel in progress. Chapter 3.

3

Still twitchy, but he had to go to work. And, now that he’d arrived, swiped in, got his black coveralls on, printed a soy-tuna sandwich in the break room and put it in the mini-fridge, Donny almost felt normal. The pills would prevent the chip from communicating with his body for three or four days, but the inhibitory drug’s side effects would last a whole week. He wouldn’t be able to smell or taste anything and his pounding headache wouldn’t go away no matter how many vending machine painkillers he took. Felt like someone dropped a heavy weight straight down on top of his head. And then there would be the dangerous period when the pills wore off. The lingering side effects prevented Donny from taking more, leaving him completely vulnerable for a few days before he could dose up again.

The code didn’t always run on those unprotected days. There was no telling exactly when it would. But it did once, right in the middle of his shift. He barely survived that night. So he now kept a pair of handcuffs from the equipment locker with him at all times. There was a spot in the sub-basement where Donny could lock himself to a pipe coming out of the wall if he felt the chip coming online. Unlit hallway. Nothing else around. Even Loach, his supervisor, wouldn’t look for him down there. Because if Loach ever found out, that would be the end. And what better job was there for someone in Donny’s situation than as a night guard? Better to pass out down there in the dark and tell Loach he’d gotten drunk, overslept, something.

He made Postum in the ancient tin percolator and poured it into his thermos. The tiny break room had caged red lights in the ceiling to discourage sleeping on the job and it smelled like a rubber tire. Donny spent as little time in there as possible. Tonight, especially since he was feeling on edge, he wanted to get out and do his rounds, just be out there in the dark with the heavy flashlight and the motion detector, where nothing ever moved and the only sound was dripping water. He stepped into the dark and swiped his key card through the magnetic reader, locking the break room down. Old tech, but there wasn’t much of value in the tiny closet apart from the filthy printer. The red light at the bottom of the door faded, and Donny clicked the strong LED flashlight on, did a sweep around what had once been a synthetic play-garden for children. The beam lit up a 300-meter cone, made the distant shop windows flash and the drops coming down through the dome ceiling far above glitter like falling diamonds.

The Shung Building was gigantic, deserted, partly flooded on the ground floor. By the time Donny made his first round through the dark shopping levels with wires hanging from the ceilings and the old silver mannequins still posed in shattered storefronts, he’d be ready for his sandwich and second thermos. He didn’t remember being hired for the job at Bug Security. It, too, was from before. But he supposed it couldn’t have been hard to get. Most people probably didn’t enjoy being all alone in such an enormous dark space. Then again, Donny wasn’t most people. It suited him just fine. Even if he’d never been chipped, he felt he would have sought out a job like this.

As he passed, the smooth chrome eyes of a mannequin stared at him from a shop that used to sell synthetic canaries. He had no idea what use a canary shop would have had with a mannequin, but the whole place was like that. He noticed strange details now and then on his rounds—enough that he no longer questioned why a mannequin head might be staring up out of a broken toilet, why a half-skinned animatronic cat might be hanging from a snare in the one of the vacant bedrooms on the hotel level, or why the steel hatch to the jump pad on the roof might be banging open in the storm when it had been supposedly welded shut. Maybe normal people would be unnerved by things like that, things that didn’t have answers. But not Donny. The world was too much, too broken, too sick and evil for him to ever feel like it owed him an explanation.

The motion detector hummed softly, occasionally making a set of quiet pings when it sent out a pulse. The semi-circular display had a glowing grid he could use to pinpoint exactly how something was moving and how far it was from him. It never picked up anything bigger than a rat. And he’d killed the last rat weeks ago. He hooked the motion detector on his belt and took a sip from the thermos, panning the cone of light over the broken shop windows like jagged translucent fangs and then out across the vast ground floor. Far off in the dark, the constant rain had collected in a stagnant puddle that seemed more like a small lake. Loach said it was draining, but Donny didn’t see how it could. The rain never stopped.

Still, Loach was the man. You didn’t argue with him. Donny climbed the dead escalator, listening to the motion detector ping and then answer itself. Somewhere, on the other side of the dome, in an area where the subcrete floor had partly fallen into the basement level, there was the rubble of an old-fashioned 20th century glass elevator. Loach showed it to him on his first day, shining the flashlight at the shards of chemically treated glass, lighting them up like rainbows. Loach chomped on his cigar and said, “Look at them lights, man. You ever see anything like that?” Donny said he hadn’t. But, to be honest, maybe he had.

The mezzanine level was mostly broken equipment and piles of garbage. It overlooked the ground floor and was the real reason whoever owned the property still paid for Bug Security. There wasn’t much to steal, but if people wanted a quiet place to squat or smoke sand, this was it. Through Loach said he’d caught some junkies once, there was never anybody when Donny did his rounds. The motion detector pinged as he shined the light between piles of broken furniture, shredded paper, packing cartons, useless machinery brought down from the hotel level and dumped here long ago, the burned torso of a mannequin protruding from the side of a junk pile like it would crawl away if it only had arms.

There were 32 empty levels, part of a corporate arcology that never took off, and Donny’s job was to check them all three times during his shift. The Shung Corporation disappeared 30 years ago. Loach had told him all about its history, how the entire workforce lived at the top. When the company went bankrupt, everyone got chipped for a one year lifespan. The big tech corporations did things like that back then. And though it was still legal to contractually agree to a post-termination death date, technology had improved. Now an employer could reliably erase a worker’s memories without having to cause a fatal aneurysm, rendering corporate espionage and data insecurity a non-issue. The Shung Corporation had been notorious for a number of things. But they were long gone, just another ghost in a city of ghosts.

Still, someone was paying for the power. The whole building was jacked into the greater metropolitan grid and could be turned on from a control room in the basement. Donny found the access hall to the freight elevator. The two-meter-wide hallway was totally hidden unless you knew to turn right at an enormous urn that must have once held an equally large plant, maybe a shrub genetically engineered to grow as large as a tree and emit relaxing pheromones whenever anyone stood close to it. Now the urn was full to the brim with rain water. It was directly under one of the holes in the dome, which sat like a five story high blister at the base of the tower block. If you took a drone from LAX to Griffith Admin Center, the Shung Building resembled nothing if not an erect cock and ball. At least, that’s what Loach called it and now Donny couldn’t look at it any other way.

He reached the end of the access hall and swiped his key card on the elevator’s call panel. A distorted male voice said, “Thank you. The elevator is approaching.” It had an antique AI. Donny could talk to it, but what was the use? Its firmware hadn’t been updated in three decades. It never said anything interesting, though it might spontaneously offer inaccurate weather reports and the incorrect time. If he asked it a human question, like “Do you like it here?,” it would respond with “The Shung Corporation is on the cutting edge of biotechnological innovation.”

Donny stepped onto the elevator, pulled the steel doors shut, and told it to go to level three. Then he glanced, as he always did, between the safety bars that crisscrossed the top of the elevator car. Tiny points of light set in the dome twinkled like stars, some of them caught in an endless cycle of sputtering and flaring, and there was something beautiful about that—unintended beauty, like the shards of the old glass elevator or the silver eyes of the mannequins in the shops staring into the dark.

Do you like it here?” he said to the elevator.

The Shung Corporation is on the cutting edge of biotechnological innovation,” the elevator said.

Donny nodded and looked back up at the artificial stars.

< Read Ch. 4 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Iw >

< Read Ch 2 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Ir >


The End of the Hustle

Trump knows he’s drowning. || Michael David

Source: The End of the Hustle