xina had heard bad things about planet e, and especially about the city of satan which was its capital and largest city, but she had nowhere else to go. she was a big girl, she had been out of work for months and her mother would not support her any longer.
her cousin, mary lou, had gotten a job for xina on planet e , and she expressed the hope that xina could do the job and not make her, mary lou, look bad.
xina arrived on planet e and found her way to the office where she was to work. the office had a number on its door, but did not seem to have a name.
a woman named cathy, who looked a little meaner than xina would gave liked, brought xina over to a row of small tables. each table held a small video display and a tiny keypad and a set of small headphones.
about two thirds of the tables were occupied by women with the headphones on, who xina assumed were doing whatever cathy was going to instruct xina to do.
xina sat down at one of the tables and cathy, standing beside her, pressed a button on the side of the display and it lit up.
“this is some pretty simple shit,” said cathy in her nasty voice. “look here.” she pointed to the top half of the screen. it consisted of a list of numbers, which xina recognized as probably being phone numbers, although some were quite long, indicating they were from other cities or planets. the top nunber was highlighted.
“you will be going through these numbers,” cathy said. “just hit the enter key to call the number. and when you finish with one call hit the down arrow for the next one. simple enough. if the number doesn’t answer, and 83 percent of them won’t, they will get an automated message and the highlight will turn pink. so just hit the down arrow and go to the next message. all right. now look at the bottom of the screen. that is the message, if the number does answer, read that message exactly - exactly. got that?”
“o k, read the message to me.”
xina looked puzzled, and cathy laughed and said, “we get some dumdums in here who can’t read, so i just want to make sure you can read.”
“oh.” xina read off the message which was “your health coverage is going to expire at midnight. i repeat, your health coverage is going to expire at midnight. to ensure continuation of your coverage, please press the number 1 to speak to a customer representative, or press 2 if you no longer wish to have health coverage.”
“that’s good,” said cathy, “you got a little sex in your voice. that’s good. this isn’t phone sex, but it doesn’t hurt to have a little sex in your voice.” cathy scowled and looked around at some of the other women at their tables, who presumably did not have a little sex in their voices.
“you can see the numbers 1 and 2 on the bottom of the screen,” cathy continued. “if they press one it lights up, and you move on.”
“and that’s it?” xina asked.
“almost. now, sometimes the person will try to ask questions. just repeat the message. you can leave out the “i repeat, blah blah, but get in the ‘your health coverage is going to expire at midnight’ and the ‘please press 1 to speak to a customer rep.’ don’t try to get creative or be their friend or any shit like that. repeat one time , then rinse and move on. got it?”
xina nodded. “i think so.”
“good. now, once in a while somebody will get really nasty and smart-assy, but just ignore it, repeat one time like i said, and move on. all right, go ahead, let me see you do it.”
xina pressed the enter key. she could hear a phone ringing on the other end, but after two rings the number lit up pink. she hit the down arrow and the enter key for the next number.
the first twelve numbers xina hit turned pink, and cathy said, “fuck, i can’t stand here all day. you’ll be all right,” and she moved off.
xina finally got a hit on the second number after that.
“hel-ooo?” a snarky young male voice answered.
xina read the message. neither number 1 nor number 2 was pressed and there was a pause.
“what happens if i press number 2?” the voice asked. “do i die like a dog in the streets?”
xina was perplexed for a second, but remembered to repeat “ your health coverage is going to expire at midnight - “
“is that right, bitch? is that fucking right? listen up, now, you think i can’t find you? you think i can’t see you right now? they probably told you i can’t see you or know where you are, but they lied, bitch, they lied. i’m going to track down your skinny ass - your skinny fucking ass that no man in twenty galaxies would fuck - and i’m going to cut your lying scamming heart out and your lying scamming cunt out - oh, i forgot, you’re a trannie - and i’m going to put them on a sesame seed bun with a special sauce and serve them to satan - “
could xina hang up? was there something else she was supposed to say? yes, she remembered! “please press 1 to speak to a customer representative - “
“fuck you1 fuck you! fuck you! “ xina thought she heard something in the background of the call but hit the down arrow.
“adam, what are you making all that noise about down there? you’re upsetting grandma again.”
“get up here and help me move the couch. i want to get behind it with the vacuum cleaner.”
xina got through the rest of the day. a couple of the other women invited her to lunch and were nice and that calmed her down a little bit but she was still upset when she got back to mary lou’s apartment, where she got no sympathy.
the next day xina went back to her home planet. her mother was very angry and threatened to beat her with a stick “like in the old days” but did not actually do so.
an old prospector was sitting in front of his campfire and a rattlesnake came along and bit him.
when the old prospector expired, a coyote came along and took a few bites out of his carcass.
then the rattlesnake and the coyote sat around in front of the dying embers of the old prospector’s fire and swapped yarns.
the rattlesnake told this tale.
once upon a time there was a little grain of sand.
the little grain of sand lived in the middle of a sunny beach.
one day a senior systems analyst came along and told the little grain of sand that she could be granted four wishes.
the grain of sand’s first wish was to become a pearl, in a string of pearls around the neck of a beautiful princess.
that is one wish, said the senior systems analyst, what are the others?
i will save them for later, replied the grain of sand.
very well, replied the senior systems analyst, i will see you again next year.
a year went by and the grain of sand was happy being a pearl, but when the senior systems analyst returned to hear the second wish, the pearl asked to become a princess herself.
this wish was granted, and the senior systems analyst promised to return in a year.
when the year was up, the princess told the senior systems analyst that she was happy being a princess, but that she would like to be married to a handsome movie star and to be taken away by him to an estate on a private island .
very well, said the senior systems analyst, but you understand that that counts as two wishes, one to marry the movie star, and one to live on the island, and that you will thereby use up all your wishes.
the princess agreed, and found herself on the private island under a blue sky, married to the handsome movie star.
when the princess went for a walk on the beach on the island, she realized it was the very beach she been a grain of sand on herself.
and she was walking along stepping on all her little brothers and sisters who were still grains of sand.
and she began to cry.
“and that’s it?” asked the coyote.
“that’s it,” said the rattlesnake.
“that’s the stupidest story i ever heard,” said the coyote.
“well, that’s just too darn bad,” said the rattlesnake. “if you don’t like it, i suggest you take a hike, because i got here first.”
the coyote took the rattlesnake at her word, and trotted off and howled at the moon.
arthur had had a great deal to drink, which he was not at all accustomed to, and he had become separated from his classmates, and he did not know where he was.
his brain cleared slightly, and he found himself seated at a round table in a brightly lit, high ceilinged room.
the tall windows of the room were uncurtained, and arthur could see that it was night, and he remembered that it had been cold, very cold outside.
in fact the cold was seeping into the room, as luxurious and well-appointed as it seemed.
two men he did not recognize were seated across from arthur, looking at him in no friendly fashion. they were both middle-aged, in their forties at least, but had the look on their faces of particularly nasty schoolboys.
arthur was a poor boy from the provinces who had won a scholarship for his patriotic verses in praise of the new regime, but in his short time in the capital, and from his association with his more privileged and sophisticated classmates, he had learned enough to recognize that the two men, though dressed casually, were wearing the finest cut of the finest cloth, and that the room itself, though somewhat disordered, had the feel of a lair of wealth and power.
arthur and the two men were alone in the room, but from many indications - glasses and plates on the table and on other tables, a few coats on chairs, even some lingering smoke in the air - this had until very recently not been the case.
a party had been held, but was now over.
more came into focus. arthur looked down and saw a pile of money - bills and coins - in front of him.
had he been gambling? playing cards? arthur hardly knew how to play any card games.
the taller and thinner of the two men now held something out to arthur, which he recognized as indeed a deck of cards.
now the man turned the deck sideways and ran his thumb along it. “you see that, my friend?” he asked arthur, with a sneer, “that is how a deck looks when it is shuffled honestly.”
arthur was bewildered. was the man accusing arthur of somehow cheating them?
“i propose, “ the man continued in the same snide tone, “that we will continue play, but with ourselves shuffling the deck. does that meet with your approval?”
“yes, yes, of course,” arthur managed to say.
“very well, then.” the man put the deck down in from of arthur. “the cards are shuffled. would you like to cut them?”
“uh -no.” arthur tapped the deck with one finger. he vaguely remembered that this meant he passed on his chance to cut the deck.
“no?” the man laughed. “that is too bad, my friend, because if you had cut them you might have had quite a good hand.”
the man dealt cards to arthur, to his accomplice, and to himself.
arthur did not even know what the game was. poker, baccarat, canasta, whatever.
he understood that he had to lose the money in front of him to the two men. all he wanted was to do so as quickly as possible, get his coat, and get out of the room and the building.
by not even looking at his cards, and matching all the bets the two men made , arthur quickly lost all the money. as he had no idea where he had got it in the first place, he did not feel it was any loss.
when the money was gone, arthur stood up, shaking slightly as he did so.
“well, gentlemen, i bid you good night,” arthur began .
the shorter man, who had hardly spoken before, interrupted him. “sit down, i don’t think we are quite through with you.”
“but i have no more money,” arthur said. he searched his pockets, and in fact they were empty. “now if i could just find my coat - “
“your coat ,” the shorter man repeated. “your coat. you know, i think you owe us something for the aggravation you have caused us, and your coat, wherever and whatever it is, will do nicely.”
“and your shirt,” added the taller man “i like your shirt. leave your shirt with us too , if you please.”
“but - but - it is cold outside,” arthur protested.
“cold outside?” said the shorter man. “maybe you should have thought at that before you tried to cheat honest gentlemen.”
“we will let you keep your pants,” the taller man added. “who knows what mischief you might get into with no pants on, eh?”
and they both laughed.
the taller man stood at the window with a glass in his hand and watched as arthur disappeared into the night.
his name was boris, and the other man’s name was conrad. they were cousins of the y————— family, which ruled and owned the country, at least until the next revolution.
“should we get our cameras?’ boris asked conrad. “and follow him? record him freezing to death, ha ha?”
“oh, he is not going to freeze to death,” conrad replied wearily. “some kind soul will take pity on him.”
“but the interaction with the kind soul, that might be amusing,” boris replied. “especially if we were to interrupt it, eh?”
“i’m not in the mood. besides. as the fellow pointed out, it is cold out.”
“a little cold never hurt anybody.”
“but i’m tired,” said conrad. “so, so tired.”
this struck boris as hilarious , and he almost choked on his whiskey.
he was neither a good king nor a bad king. and the people rose up against him because they were bored.
war broke out between the followers of a good king and the followers of a bad king.
the deposed king took to the highway in search of refuge.
a rich pig woman took pity on him and took him in, but he was expected to earn his keep by tending the pigs.
but the pigs did not like either the songs the former king sang them, or the stories he told them, and they, like the subjects of his lost kingdom, became restless.
the pig woman beat the king with an ugly stick and drove him back out onto the road.
next the king found shelter in the kitchen of a rundown estate, where he offered to make himself useful by catching mice.
but he could not do it as well as a cat, and he expected too large a portion of the scraps from the table, so from there too he was driven away.
he became a beggar, one of an increasing horde as the war dragged on, and eventually he was rounded up with some other beggars, deserters, looters, and assorted riffraff by the soldiers of one of the armies and hanged.
in time the spot where the king was hanged became a football field, and the descendants of the followers of the good king and the followers of the bad king gathered there for many a stirring match, and fights often broke out in and around the field between the two sets of descendants.
thankfully, such nonsense is no longer tolerated in these enlightened times, where peace and harmony reign under the wise rule of our glorious and immortal leader.
jane and her mother arrived at their new home at dusk.
the carriage that had brought them drove off.
jane looked up at the darkening sky and at the tall towers of the new home.
bats were flying in the sky.
“that is a tall building,” jane said to her mother. “why is it so tall?”
“because it is a castle,” jane’s mother replied.
“a castle!” jane exclaimed. “i thought castles only existed in stories!”
“well, now you know better,” her mother replied.
jane and her mother settled into a routine in the castle.
the castle had only two servants - a gamekeeper and a cook. jane had to make her own bed in the morning, and dress herself.
the gamekeeper kept the cook supplied with animals from the marshlands surrounding the castle - furry and scaly beasts of uncertain provenance that jane did not like the look of.
jane did not care to partake of the flesh of the animals the gamekeeper brought to the cook, so she subsisted on porridge and oatcakes, which meant she did not much look forward to mealtimes.
jane’s mother spent most of her time as she always had, staring into space and looking out of windows.
jane found a couple of old rooms filled with books, and she was initially encouraged to read them by her mother, so that jane might be kept occupied and out of mischief. not that she had ever been a mischievous child.
jane arranged all the books into neat piles, and began reading them one by one.
one day jane came down to the large gloomy room where her mother usually sat staring into space.
jane asked her mother, “are you a vampire?”
“am i a vampire? no, of course not, whatever gave you that idea?”
“i have been reading a book about vampires. i had never heard of such creatures before, and i thought perhaps you might be one.”
“no, i am not a vampire, and so far as i know neither are you.”
on the next day jane came down to the large gloomy room again and asked her mother if she was a witch.
“no,” her mother answered shortly.
“i have reading a book about witches, and i thought perhaps you were one,” jane explained.
on the following days came down to the room and asked her mother if she was a courtesan, a princess, a ghoul, a water sprite, a succubus, an heiress, a poisoner, an empress, a pirate queen, a bandit queen, an abbess, and other things that she, jane, had encountered in her systematic reading.
one day jane came down to ask her mother if she was a werewolf, but her mother forestalled her by announcing,
“i have had quite enough of your nonsense. a carriage will be here shortly to take you away. go and pack your bag.”
jane considered this. “can i take some books with me?”
“i suppose you can take whatever you can put in the bag, or choose to carry under your arms. i am not hiring a special conveyance to carry books.”
so it was that jane found herself outside under a threatening gray sky, with her clothing, five or six volumes, and a couple of oatcakes the cook had provided her.
the carriage arrived.
the driver, a surly looking fellow with a black mustache like a bandit’s, helped jane into the carriage and they drove off.
the road was long and winding, and it seemed to fan and ban that they kept coming back to the same places.
fan and ban were, so far as they knew, the only persons left on the planet.
they had been wandering for a long time, under the same dull copper colored sun.
they spent most of their time looking for half way clean water, and berries and edible leaves and edible fungi, especially a type of red and gray mushroom which was the last tasty thing left on the planet.
at first they had derived some comfort from each other’s company, and at night had taken turns sleeping and watching for predators, but as time went by no predators showed up and they relaxed their guard in this matter.
they never had much to say to each other, as their backgrounds and interests before the obliteration of civilization had been very different.
when they did talk, they at first bored each other, and after a while did not even hear each other.
fan had been a poet and a member of an old aristocratic family.
ban, even before the obliteration, had been a homeless person, a scavenger and panhandler.
fan’s conversation was mostly about poetry, and beauty, and abstruse theories of aesthetics and the nature of time and reality, and about the lives of famous artists and poets and composers.
ban seemed to have one interest, at least a subject of conversation, and that was the relative merits and fabulous accomplishments of “great fighters” - professional boxers and wrestlers.
what fan did not know - and would not have cared about in any case - was that the great figures of ban’s accounts were not even famous in any sense, but only local hometown heroes.
“everybody thought billy bartwell had the next fight in the bag,” ban was saying one day as the afternoon was getting on, “ but then this new lad, the red thunderbolt, was brought in as a substitute for hank the tank -“
fan and ban were approaching a big tree with spreading branches that they had passed many times before.
“you know,” said fan, “i think it might be a good idea if we split up, what do you think?”
they stopped and looked at each other.
with a silent nod, ban agreed.
fan stood and watched as ban started down the road alone.
the figure of ban got smaller and smaller and finally disappeared over the horizon.
brad baker was an ordinary guy. he did not deny it.
he was forty-eight years old.
he was a senior systems analyst in a mid-level consulting firm.
he had a wife, his second, and two children, a 24 year old boy from his first marriage who still lived with brad and his wife but who was sincerely seeking employment, and a 16 year old girl from the second marriage who was a junior in high school and played cornet in the high school band.
one evening brad was sitting at home alone eating a pepperoni and sausage pizza and drinking a miller lite and watching tapes of old american idol shows. american idol was his favorite show, although dancing with the stars was a close second. he also liked to watch golf tournaments.
his wife, linda, was at one of her classes - yoga, or whatever, brad junior was out doing god knew what with his buddies, and carol ann was practicing with the high school band.
the doorbell rang.
who could that be, brad wondered. he was not expecting any packages. hare krishnas and jehovahs witnesses and their ilk were for the most part successfully kept out of the community by its slightly overzealous and gung ho police force.
he decided that linda or one of the kids must have ordered something online.
but when he opened the door , he did not find a deliveryperson from ups or amazon but a couple of men in well-cut gray suits.
one was young and tall and bald, and the other shorter and older with thick glasses and white hair like noam chomsky’s.
“good evening, mr baker,” the taller man greeted brad. brad did not think to wonder why the man was so confident of his identity that he did not ask him if he were brad baker but assumed that he was.
“my name is mr gray,” the tall man continued, “and i’m from the government. and this is my colleague, the professor.” he flashed his wallet at brad so quickly that brad couldn’t see anything. the tall man seemed to think that was introduction enough.
brad assumed they were some sort of scam artists, but was amused rather than angry.
what could they do to him? tie him to a chair and torture him for his passwords and social security number? he welcomed them as a diversion from his familiar evening routine and thought they might be good for a few laughs and a story to tell at work.
“well, come in , gentlemen, come in,” brad waved them in with a smile meant to convey that they were not fooling him but he was willing to humor them. he didn't ask them for any i d.
“what can i do for you?” brad asked when they had found chairs and pulled them around so that they faced him. brad stopped the tape he had running, but decided it would be going too far to offer them coffee or anything else.
“i’ll get to the point, mr baker,and not take up too much of your time,” “mr gray” said. “i am what you call a bureaucrat,” he smiled . “and i am required by regulations - one of the infinite government regulations so maligned by one and all - to inform you of the results of a scientific study.”
“oh?” was all brad could think to say. “why?“
“because you were the subject of the study,” mr gray replied. “or i should say, you turned out to be the result of the study.”
“meaning what exactly?” brad asked.
“to put it as simply as possible, the study determined that you were - are - the most average - or the median - person in america, what do you think of that?”
brad stated at mr gray. “you went to the trouble of finding the most average person in america?”
mr gray smiled at brad. "yes."
“so now what?” brad said. “am i going to go on some kind of secret mission?” brad had almost forgotten that he had considered them scam artists.
mr gray and the professor both laughed. the professor had a really deep, nasty laugh.
“nothing of the sort, mr baker,” the professor said, “nothing of the sort. but tell us, what do you think of being the most average person in america?”
“so you don’t take offense?” mr gray asked, leaning back and putting the tips of his fingers together.
“no, not at all.”
“i’m glad to hear it,” mr gray replied.
“but what was the point?” brad repeated.
“the point,” growled the professor, “as with so much scientific research, was simply to see if it could be done. we wanted to determine if it was indeed possible to pinpoint and identify such an entity as the most average person, and it turned out that it was, and you happened to be that person. and as my colleague explained, we were required by regulation 1-2-3-fuck-all to notify you , and here we are.”
“and that’s it?”
“not quite,” mr gray said, with a deliberately “serious” look, “ there is one more, very important matter. and that is, that we have to ask you not to reveal this information to anybody. i mean anybody, anybody at all, not even your nearest and dearest.”
“you mean,” asked brad, “ that i can’t get a book deal out of it, or a mini-series, or go on dancing with the stars, or - or - even get a story in the local paper?’
“no - absolutely not.”
“but, what happens if i do? suppose i get an agent, and try to get a book deal or something?”
“in the first place,” mr gray answered, “nobody will believe you, so you will just look foolish. and in the second place,” he added with a scowl, “we can and will make it very unpleasant for you. very unpleasant indeed. do you understand?”
“i guess,” brad told him.
“good,” mr gray put a smile back on his face. “then in that case we will be on our way.” he started to get to his feet.
but the professor held up his hand. “hold it. hold it, pardner. i’d like to ask mr baker here a few questions. in a spirit of disinterested scientific enquiry, you might say. i suspect he might not be quite the ordinary guy we took him to be.”
brad just stared at him.
“you seemed awfully eager, mr baker, awfully eager indeed, to cash in on one what you thought was a chance at fame - what is the old cliche, fifteen seconds of fame - “
“fifteen minutes,” brad corrected him.
“fifteen minutes, excuse me. tell me, mr baker - “ the professor stared at brad - “what would you do - just how far would you go - to grab a little bit of fame - to grab the brass ring - there is another good cliche - eh?”
“just about anything,” said brad. “of course.”
“just about anything,” the professor repeated. “would you be willing to sacrifice your loved ones - your wife and two children?”
“in a heartbeat.”
“in a heartbeat. tell me , exactly how would you be willing to go about sacrificing them?”
“i don’t know,” brad laughed. “ feed them to the alligators, throw them in a burning pit, whatever it takes. just win, baby.”
“i don’t really like them much. i’m sick of them, and they are of me. you know how it is.”
“well, that’s very interesting , mr baker, very interesting indeed. might put our researches in a whole new light.” the professor stood up, and mr gray got on his feet again.
“does that mean you will study me some more?” brad asked the professor.
“i really can’t say, mr baker. i really can’t say. there are so many factors. funding and all that. you know how it is.”
“i understand,” said brad.
the pair left without saying anything more.
brad had been so caught up in talking to them he had forgotten they were almost certainly con men.
now he laughed. what a crock!
but they had never hinted at money.
or his passwords, or his social security number. of course, if they were for real, they would know those things anyway.
maybe they would come by a second time, or call or e-mail him.
but brad never heard from mr gray, or the professor, again.
when alex and stacy got on the train the only other people on it were two shapeless humans in clothing heavier than the weather warranted, seated across from each other.
they both had shopping bags and green garbage bags in the aisle in front of them, which would have blocked other passengers if there had been any, and they were having an animated conversation.
alex moved close enough to them to hear what they were saying, and stacy, with a look of annoyance, followed.
the one in the red coat was saying, “i don’t care how many times i let you use it - it’s still mine! mine!”
the one in the blue coat retorted, “prove it! prove it! get a lawyer and prove it!”
red coat: “you wouldn’t talk like that if bill brown was still chief of police!”
blue coat: “but prices are still going up, aren’t they?”
red coat: “what’s that got to do with anything?”
blue coat: “what’s anything got to do with anything?”
they fell silent for about thirty seconds. then red coat started up again.
“meryl streep was great in her last movie. she’s the greatest actress ever.”
blue coat: “meryl streep sucks! totally sucks!”
red coat: “you shouldn’t talk like that.”
blue coat: “what, to say ’suck’? everybody talks like that now, stupid.”
red coat: “that doesn’t mean they should. and don’t call me stupid. especially if you want to use my stuff.”
blue coat: “you don’t see godzilla or king kong rising up out of the sea and swallowing the city, do you?”
at this point alex’s and stacy’s stop came up and they got off.
they walked the three blocks to alex’s apartment without speaking. stacy had been sleeping on alex’s couch for about two weeks since arriving in the city.
“that was great, wasn’t it?“ alex said when they were back in the apartment.
“what was great?”
“those two bag people on the train. i should have tried to record it.”
“you know,” said stacy, “nothing personal, you understand, but i think it’s kind of creepy the way you like to listen to people’s conversations.”
“what? i’m just interested in people, that’s all. should i just sit on my ass all day and take selfies like the rest of the human race?”
“i just think it’s creepy. you are invading their space.”
“space? they don’t have any space. they are doing their business for all to see and hear.”
“yes, because capitalist society forces them to. that doesn’t mean you should take advantage of them.”
“you know,” said alex. “it wasn’t that long ago that people didn’t think anything of starting up conversations with complete strangers.”
“i think it was that long ago. before my time, anyway. i’m happy to say.”
“even with children. my grandfather told me when he was a little boy people would just stop and talk to him on the street. just stop and say ‘hi there, little feller, nice day today’ or whatever. with his mother there or not.”
“they didn’t have data banks back then, i guess perverts just ran wild.”
“what, now you are implying i’m a pervert on top of being a creep?”
“oh, don’t be so sensitive. i didn’t say you were a pervert, although your attitude might be seen as enabling them.”
“thank you for clearing that up.”
“and how did your grandfather react to these cheery old souls?”
“i asked him that myself. he said it didn’t thrill him, but it didn’t traumatize him either.”
“he says. he thinks. i bet he still has nightmares about it.”
“i’m making some tea,” said alex. “do you want some?”