JOB AD: Business Development Manager

LitroUSA, a new 501c3 non-profit literary journal based in Manhattan, New York, is looking for a Business Development Manager to help us grow and expand. 

Salary: Salary to be determined
Conditions: Part Time

Job Description & Person Specification:
We are looking for a Business Development Manager to help us grow and expand LitroUSA. Help us tell and, crucially, sell our story without ever selling out. Our community value independence and transparency and fairness and so do we. We require a self-driven, well connected and engaging individual to help secure partners and brand sponsors for our live events and content, including podcasts, short form video and online content. Existing partners include the London Library and The National Arts Club, New York and past events and partnerships have featured Virgin Atlantic, the Brooklyn Book Festival and James Cohan Gallery.

Key qualities and experience
• Be able to pick up the phone, engage with people at events and send effective emails
• Have strong, existing relationships and contacts with brands – especially lifestyle and culture
• Have a proven track record of developing and maintaining brand partnerships and creative collaborations and grant application experience.
• Understand that diversity isn’t a box to tick but how we live and work
• Be self-motivated but know you can ask for help and share ideas
• Strategic thinking/planning and a strong focus on tactical objectives
• Love books, writers and readers and associated brands Have proven experience of negotiating
• Be excited about stories- help us develop and monetise new formats and ideas
• A passion for books, stories and experience of live events and varied content creation would be advantageous but ultimately this is a business development role.
Key objectives
• Help us identify the brands and people we want to work with
• Work with our existing relationships and network to maximise opportunities.
• To oversee and lead on the completion of high-level proposals and pitches. This will involve working closely with the Litro team, ensuring proposals meet company needs
• To identify and take up opportunities to influence corporate prospects’ priorities, through proactive relationship development and peer-to-peer introductions.
• To set, manage and monitor an excellent quality standard for new business written documents, proposals, presentations and pitches.
Working hours and salary
Part time / Freelance Role working from home with meetings in New York and London.
You will be expected to attend the Litro events.
Salary is dependent on experience and to be discussed.

Who are we?
LitroUSA is a community in-print on and offline which began in London in 2005 with a monthly print magazine and live events. A literary and creative arts platform that champions emerging and established writers in New York-and beyond—in print and online. At its heart is the nurturing of a literary & creative community that produces works that are enjoyed and appreciated by the general public while connecting cultures and building creative communities. Published four times a year, each edition of Litro U.S will feature various literary genres including short stories, long-form essays, fiction, interviews, poetry, and more.
Litro wants to be a platform for writers to write, emerging voices to be heard, and for readers to enjoy.
As well as our live events we have a strong online presence, with a lively and engaged social media following on Facebook and Instagram (including influencers and big names), and we’re producing an increasing amount of original content, including videos and podcasts from our Litro World Series, and an original series currently in development for our YouTube channel.  Previous partners or sponsors include the Brooklyn BookFestival, The Booker Prize, United Airlines and the ACE Hotel.

To apply, please send a CV and any other information you feel to support the application to [email protected]




A Lack of Understanding: Storytelling for Robots

I.

“Have you ever heard of the poet Xu Zhimo?” asked Paul.

I hadn’t, nor was this a question I was expecting to hear from my Uber driver in a discussion about autonomous vehicles.

“A great Chinese poet, studied at Cambridge. The Chinese tourists love him. They go get their picture taken by the plaque over at King’s College. Problem is, it’s a big plaque, so they have to step back into the road to get a picture of it. So whenever I drive past King’s and see a group of Chinese tourists, I know I have to be on the lookout. Could a driverless car do that?”

Paul had a point. On the face of it, at least, being able to anticipate a pedestrian’s behaviour like that would require not just quicksilver silicon reflexes, but the ability to get inside their head, to understand their motivations, their goals, the reasons for their actions. In other words, to tell a story about what they were going to do and why they were going to do it.

Most of us make these kinds of predictions effortlessly. From planning a perfect date to getting the seating right at a dinner party, we’re able to understand and anticipate each other’s behaviour. This capacity is what philosophers call folk psychology – not the psychology of scientists in labs, but the psychology of everyday life. If I know my co-worker feels undervalued, I know he’ll appreciate an earnest email of thanks, and if I know my friend likes to be seen as an expert on arts and culture, I might make a point of asking her opinion on the latest Tarantino movie. At its most exalted, folk psychology can seem like magic – that moment when the detective intuits exactly what the murderer will to do next, or the lover knows just what to say to make her beloved swoon.

At its core, folk psychology is a matter of constructing models of people – their beliefs, dreams, fears, wants, and needs. In this sense, it’s a matter of storytelling, of creating narratives about the people around us. When we tell a story, we transform a dry and chaotic cosmos of objects, properties, and events into a vivid and tractable world of characters and motivations. And just as a story requires characters, so too do characters require a story.

It’s perhaps tempting to think that these abilities are a rarefied human quality – something required of people navigating complex social environments, but hardly a requirement for an artificial system. When Siri yet again gives me the wrong answer to my query, and I say an exaggerated thank you, it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t recognise my sarcasm. But cognitive scientists have long recognised that our ability to construct and elaborate stories and characters is key to many everyday tasks, from language, coordination, and leadership. And if we want artificial systems that aren’t just crude tools but colleagues, then they’ll need to learn to construct and understand stories – or at least, to convincingly fake it.

 

II.

In thinking about the importance of storytelling, language itself provides a good demonstration. Consider a sentence like “the scientists gave the monkeys bananas because they were hungry.”

This might seem like a simple bit of text, readily digestible without the need for storytelling or understanding. But there’s more complexity here than meets the eye. Nothing in the rules of the grammar or syntax of English tells you that the ones who were hungry were the monkeys – the word “they” could just as easily refer to the scientists themselves.

The reason we know it’s the monkeys who were hungry is that we’ve constructed a microstory: some scientists are doing an experiment, and they’re making sure the monkeys are properly fed. If we’d been given an unusual backstory – for example, one in which the scientists were only allowed to eat after giving bananas to their experimental animals – then we would naturally interpret the reference of the word “they” quite differently.

Examples like this have created a fertile test for artificial intelligence known as the Winograd Schema. If an AI can satisfactorily resolve this kind of ambiguity, the reasoning goes, it must actually have some intelligence, some ability to understand. Unfortunately, as is often the case in AI research, it turns out it’s easy to cheat on the test. By exposing artificial systems to large corpuses of text, it’s possible to teach them patterns of language and speech which they can use to work out the most likely reference of an ambiguous word. Artificial systems may not be able to understand, but – as it turns out – understanding isn’t necessary in this case for successful prediction.

This kind of ambiguity, though, is just the tip of the iceberg. Philosophers have long recognised that language doesn’t consist of simple atomic propositions, utterances like “the cup is on the table.” Most human language conveys far more than meets the eye: it’s full of shades of nuance and unspoken assumptions that can only be decoded once we have a grip on who we’re speaking to and the purpose of the conversation. This is most obvious when we speak obliquely. If I ask you if Jane is dating anyone, and you pause before replying that she’s been flying to New York a lot recently, I’ll naturally (and effortlessly) recognise that you’re hinting at a distant love affair.

This kind of implicit meaning – what linguists call pragmatics – underpins even simple communication, and involves a dizzying amount of interpretation that we conduct unconsciously. Imagine you’re sitting on a bench in the park and your friend leans over and points in the direction of an ice cream van. You instantly recognise that the person working in the van is your friend’s secret lover. But are they pointing out the ice cream van or their lover?

It depends. If they’ve disclosed their secret lover to you, then it’s reasonable to assume they’re pointing her out. But let’s say you know about their lover secretly – for example, by having read their secret diary without their knowledge. In that case, you know, but they don’t know that you know, so they’d have no reason to expect you to recognise their lover and must be pointing to the ice cream van. But things get yet still more complicated. Imagine that they caught you reading their secret diary. Now they’d know that you knew, and you’d know that they you knew that they knew, so it would make sense they were pointing out their lover (if you know what I mean).

It’s easy to get lost in descriptions of these kinds of complex “mind-reading” scenarios, but none of us have any difficulty in navigating them as they arise. We can keep track of who knows what, and who knows who know what, thanks to our effortless and largely unconscious social minds. It’s interesting and perhaps telling that even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, don’t seem to use pointing gestures in nature, and struggle to understand when scientists use pointing to help them locate food; even in these simple gestures, there’s a rich tapestry of social cognition woven into our everyday communication and even body language.

This casual facility for understanding others is brilliantly demonstrated by flash fiction. When we read a story like Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”, our minds instantly fill out background details, turning a black and white sketch into a technicolour portrait, something no existing AI would be remotely capable of achieving. In order to understand stories, you have to construct them, by filling out a world with characters, motivations, backgrounds, and personalities.

Of course, not everyone has it so easy. Neurodiverse individuals, and in particular people with autism, often struggle to decode the subtle implications buried in these simple short utterances, and sometimes face real challenges in interpreting indirect communication. I should stress that autism takes many shapes and forms, and many people with autism have managed to find effective strategies for dealing with the frustratingly circuitous communicative tendencies of others. But their experience at the very least shows that the easy social understanding wielded by neurotypical people is a tricky cognitive achievement.

The exact nature of the achievement, however, is still something of a controversy. Do we learn to construct stories about others, or are we born with the ability to do so? Philosophers and psychologists are deeply divided on the issue. One famous experimental paradigm known as the “Sally Anne Test” (or more prosaically, the false belief task) has suggested that there’s a specific window in childhood development – around the age of four or five – when neurotypical children acquire the ability to understand that other people can have their own beliefs and agendas. In the classic version of the test, children see a doll (“Sally”) put a marble in a basket. Sally then leaves the room, and another doll (“Anne”) comes in and moves the marble to a different basket. Sally then re-enters the room, and the children are asked where she’ll initially look – in the basket she put the marble in originally, or the basket that Anne had moved it to?

Somewhat surprisingly, children younger than four seem to adamantly believe that Sally will look in the basket where the marble really is; the idea that she might not know that it’s been moved just doesn’t compute. But around age four, something seems to change for the neurotypical children: they pass the test fairly easily, suggesting they can now make sense of the fact that the world contains people who don’t believe the same things as them. By contrast, children with autism struggle with this test, suggesting that they haven’t yet acquired this ability. And while most adults with autism can pass it, they acquire this ability later, perhaps suggesting that they’ve had to learn to construct stories about others the hard way, rather than relying on some innate ability.

Even as adults, people with autism struggle to pass some subtler tests of this kind. In one such test, for example, participants are told a story about Sarah and Tom who are going on a picnic. Just as they sit down, torrential rain starts pouring down, to which Sarah remarks “How wonderful.” The participants are asked to say what Sarah meant by this. While most neurotypical adults immediately infer that she’s being sarcastic, those with autism are less confident, suggesting, for example, that perhaps Sarah really likes the rain. Here again, it’s the ability to tell accurate stories – to project ourselves inside Sarah’s head, to gauge her likely motivations – that’s key to understanding.

Exactly how to interpret results like these is still hugely controversial among philosophers and psychologists. But the most straightforward reading is that neurotypical people have an innate ability to understand others that “comes online” early in childhood, while people with autism have to acquire this ability the hard way.

It’s not hard to imagine why evolution might have endowed most people with this ability. We’re fundamentally social creatures, and the ability to easily model others’ beliefs and goals – to construct rich stories about each other’s minds – is extremely useful for our thriving and survival. Some thinkers have suggested that this ability is what makes humans so distinctive. For most of our recent evolutionary history, humans have lived in tight-knit social groups in which coordination, cooperation, and reciprocity have been key skills, whether via working together to bring down large prey or just keeping track of our friends and rivals, and stories are what enable us to do this.

There’s also a darker side to our ability to tell these kinds of stories, namely that it lets us manipulate and control each other. If you can effortless intuit other people’s motivations and beliefs, then it becomes easier to control them, whether by feeding them plausible lies or playing on their hopes and fears. And while not every social environment is as cutthroat as Game of Thrones or House of Cards, we’ve all encountered brilliant persuaders and manipulators who always seem to get their way. There’s even a view – the so-called “Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis” – that claims that it was this aspect of our social intelligence rather than cooperation that drove the explosion in our brain size in our recent evolution. Put bluntly, we’re smart because we need to be devious.

While systems such as DeepMind’s ToM-net (short for “Theory of Mind network”) are capable of predicting certain kinds of behaviour – and effectively passing the Sally-Anne test – they lack the understanding required for true manipulation: we need not fear an imminent virtual Iago. And while the cold impersonal intelligence exhibited by the ruthless artificial systems of Terminator or 2001 are certainly dreadful, their wickedness pales in comparison to the Machiavellian hatred of genuinely devious AIs like Harlan Ellison’s famous AM (“Aggressive Manipulator”) of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. A system that was blind to the existence of others and their inner lives might be a killer, but it couldn’t be cruel, malicious, or exploitative. If this is right, then we should perhaps be somewhat relieved that this is a kind of intelligence that AIs seem to lack (at least for now). For humans, by contrast, the ability to tell stories is like the forbidden fruit: expelled from the Edenic solipsism of early childhood, we’re faced with a world of actors both malign and benevolent, and become ourselves capable of good and evil.

 

III.

We construct stories to understand and control. But we also create them to share. From the blind bard of Chios who stitched together the myths of Achilles, Odysseus, and Priam to the Mesopotamian scribes who laid down the tales of Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk, every civilization with a written record has bequeathed to us its folklore and mythology. Exactly why we tell stories – their social and cultural function – is itself a vexed question among evolutionary psychologists, but it’s certainly true that the use of stories not merely as interpersonal tools but as a form of shared culture is that rara avis of anthropology, a near-universal human trait.

It’s tempting to think that our ability to craft and share stories publically is a development of something more basic, namely our ability to construct private mental stories to understand one another. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine that someone could write convincing fiction unless they already had a good grip on how other people tick. When the hashtag #menwritingwomen went viral last year, Twitter delighted in exposing the embarrassing blunders many male authors made when trying to craft believable female characters. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the critique was a charge not merely of literary ineptitude or anatomical cluelessness but a certain lack of empathy and understanding for the different experiences of women (apparently women do not routinely look in the mirror and compare their breasts to large items of fruit). It’s natural to think, then, that to tell a story about someone, you first need to get inside their head.

If this is right, then the one career that doesn’t need to fear automation any time soon is that of fiction author. But as proved to be true with linguistic ambiguity and theory of mind, even if artificial systems don’t really understand, they can do a passable job of faking it. A striking demonstration of this came with the development of a system called GPT-2 earlier this year by researchers at OpenAI. GPT-2 is a language model trained on some eight million webpages with a simple goal: predict the next word in a sentence. In this sense, it’s loosely comparable to the predictive text systems we’re all familiar with from smartphones. But GPT-2 goes way beyond their capabilities. Give it a prompt – even a few words – and it’ll wax lyrical, turning a sentence or two into a text resembling a news story, an essay, a short story, or even a poem.

It’s an unsettling experience which is worth experiencing first hand (you can try it yourself online at talktotransformer.com). For example, when I plug in “once upon a time”, GPT-2 returns a nice little poem –

Once upon a time
I was a very strong girl,
But soon I began to fall.
I’ve fallen too far.

But maybe that was too easy. How about a more specific opener; say, “Draco looked at Hermione coldly”?

Draco looked at Hermione coldly.

“I have to keep up appearances in class, you know,” he said. “The whole world gets to know me, that’s part of what makes me so mysterious. But I will keep it quiet if it means we will all be fine.”

“We must all be fine,” she said. “No one is going to want to touch your wand.”

Of course, GPT-2 isn’t operating in a vacuum here: of the 8 million webpages it was trained on, doubtless at least a couple of million of them were Harry Potter fanfiction (many of which probably involved a fair amount of wand-touching). But faced with an AI able to produce passages of fiction that could easily have been written by a real person, it’s hard not to feel human exceptionalism slipping away.

 

IV.

When we think about humans, stories, and AI, there’s a tension that’s hard to resolve. On the one hand, stories seem critical to our understanding of the world, of language, and of each other. They’re part of what makes us human, and part of the reason our species has been able to thrive so destructively. And yet everywhere we look, we can see artificial systems encroaching on our estates, clumsily but relentlessly doing what we do with stories, all with a complete lack of understanding. For now, most of what we see is a bad cover version: a simulacrum of human behaviour built on very different foundations. But with every new press release from Google or research paper from IBM, it feels like a little bit of human distinctiveness slips away.

When Paul had first told me about Xu Zhimo, I’d been impressed: clearly, anticipating the behaviour of pedestrians in the way he described was impossible for an artificial system that could get inside people’s heads. But the more I thought about it, the less sure I was. If there’s one thing AIs are good at, it’s learning from mistakes. A few chance collisions or near misses outside King’s College would be all it would take for a driverless car to realise that this was a dangerous spot. Given enough time and data, it might even learn to be cautious of large groups of tourists in front of Xu Zhimo’s plaque, and all this without a shred of understanding or empathy.

If AI can do so much without stories, then we face the question of why we tell them at all. Is the understanding they grant more superficial than meets the eye – nothing more than a rose-tinted Instagram filter on reality? Is it a mistake to argue, as I have, that they’re so important for our skills and abilities?

I think not. Even if stories aren’t essential for intelligent beings to understand the world, they’re a cognitive shortcut – an incredible interpretative strategy that lets us pull off miracles of prediction. When someone – even a person we just met – tells us that they’re afraid of flying, or have always dreamed of visiting Paris, or are excited about their new job, we can easily to fill out a picture of them that lets us understand and anticipate their behaviour. When we read a first-hand account of a parent who has lost a child or a soldier left to die on the battlefield, we can gain powerful new insights into human actions and emotions. As far as raw prediction goes, perhaps an AI will one day be able to match us at guessing what a desperate lover will do next, or how a community will react to a sudden tragedy. But it will do so thanks only to having copious amounts of data analysed grindingly over hundreds of millions of processing cycles. We can do it on the cheap.

There’s something almost mystical about this ability. In a memorable passage from Hogfather, the author Terry Pratchett asks us to grind the universe to the finest powder, and find a single atom of justice or molecule of mercy. If we grind the universe to a powder, we won’t find stories, character arcs, or motivations. Yet somehow we can use these things to understand, anticipate, and even manipulate each other. They may not be real in same way as atoms and molecules, but – to borrow a phrase from philosopher Daniel Dennett – they’re real patterns, and we’re exquisitely attuned to them. The stories we tell ourselves aren’t just some Dulcinea we need to believe in for our own comfort; they’re a royal road to understanding.




The Representation of Augmented Reality in Fiction by Olivia Belton

Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is set in a near-future where everyone is effectively immortal, and money has been replaced by the crudest form of social capital – power is determined by popularity rankings called “whuffies.” The book’s protagonist, Jules, and his girlfriend, Lili, live an idyllic life in Disneyland, maintaining and repairing the old rides. However, new engineers are in town, peddling augmented reality sim rides that adapt to consumer preferences in real time.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she said, after a hard moment’s staring into the moonlight reflecting off the river.

“Tell you?” I said, dumbly.

“They’re really good. They’re better than good. They’re better than us. Oh, God.”

[…] “I don’t think so. I don’t think they’ve got soul, I don’t think they’ve got history, I don’t think they’ve got any kind of connection to the past. The world grew up in the Disneys — they visit this place for continuity as much as for entertainment. We provide that.” I’m offline, and they’re not — what the hell happened?

“It’ll be okay, Lil. There’s nothing in that place that’s better than us. Different and new, but not better. You know that — you’ve spent more time in the Mansion than anyone, you know how much refinement, how much work there is in there. How can something they whipped up in a couple weeks possibly be better that this thing we’ve been maintaining for all these years?”

She ground the back of her sleeve against her eyes and smiled. “Sorry,” she said. Her nose was red, her eyes puffy, her freckles livid over the flush of her cheeks. “Sorry — it’s just shocking. Maybe you’re right. And even if you’re not — hey, that’s the whole point of a meritocracy, right? The best stuff survives, everything else gets supplanted.”

In this exchange, a contradiction immediately emerges – the augmented reality is both self-evidently better than the real thing, and self-evidently worse than it. If it wasn’t better, why would Lili be so threatened? If it wasn’t worse, why would there be reason to mourn? Jules insists that the original staying power of the Disney rides is due to ineffable qualities, such as history and soul. The augmented reality is, yes, potentially more entertaining, more immerse, but it is not real.

Disneyland is perhaps an odd venue to use as a stage to fight about the real. After all, postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard refers to Disneyland as a space designed to confront hyperreality. As he wrote in his 1981 book, Simulacra and Simulation, “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.” Baudrillard argues that in contemporary society, our reality is filtered through new media (primarily, but not exclusively, television) and our urban lives are designed to cut us off from nature. Therefore, there is a very real sense that our reality is no longer “real” – that we are surrounded by representations that don’t have a real counterpart. This is the simulacra of the title. Disneyland exists to be an incredibly visible copy of America – to reassure us that, by contrast, everything outside is real.

And yet the characters of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom cling to the reality of the physical rides over the augmented reality. Part of this is because one symptom of the postmodern condition is the belief that we have run out of anything meaningful to say through art – as Frederic Jameson argued, the best we can hope for is new and novel forms of pastiche. We cling to the past forms of art as inherently better and more authentic.

Augmented reality is at the cutting edge of entertainment technology – most peoples’ first experience with it will have been 2016’s mobile game Pokémon Go. (Again, even the new technology is packaged with a nostalgic intellectual property – Pokémon Go promises to make the childhood fantasy of Pokémon real, combining the old and the new.) Although the concept of AR has been around for a while – hence Doctorow’s usage of it in his novel – it has become more commonly included in science fiction literature, film and television since 2016. Part of the reason is surely novelty – these works portray the use of AR, now novel, as commonplace, reinforcing the futurity of their settings. But AR functions as more than a curiosity.

Augmented reality’s ghostliness is emblematic of the cheapness and ephemerality of modern capitalism. We live in a rentier economy – fewer and fewer people own their own homes, for example. Video streaming services curtail our choices (try finding a film on Netflix made before 1970) while ensuring that we never own films or music. Even tracks bought on iTunes are not really ours – they are subject to recall at any time. Augmented reality in these works is a frustrating reminder of this reality. It is a form of entertainment that you pay for, but can never touch – and never truly possess.

Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 film Blade Runner 2049 gets at the pitifulness of augmented reality. A sequel to the 1982 cult classic Blade Runner, the film follows K, a replicant (an enslaved artificial human) who works for the LAPD to track down and kill rogue replicants. K’s personhood is evident, even though he is owned by the state, as evidenced by his longing for companionship.

After work, K comes home to a tiny apartment in the sprawling megacity. He is greeted by his holographic girlfriend, Joi. Joi is programmed to adore her owner, and she is quite literally confined to the home. Joi can be a hard character for a feminist to love. Although the use of holograms in science fiction is not new, there are several moments where Joi recalls contemporary AR – the moment when she superimposes her image over the replicant sex worker Mariette, their movements not quite syncing up, recalls not only contemporary deepfakes controversies, but also plays off the same eerie disconnect between the incorporeal image and the real world that makes, say, seeing a Pikachu in a graveyard so fascinating. The incongruity calls attention to the lack of embodiment.

In many ways, Joi is a retrograde sexual fantasy – a virtual woman utterly devoted to her man, willing to do anything to please him. The old-fashioned gender politics seems to be baked into Blade Runner’s DNA. The original film featured Rachael, who was styled like a 1940s femme fatale. Unlike the duplicitous yet in-control women of film noir, Rachael passively fell in love with Deckard after he forces himself on her. Blade Runner’s use of film noir elements is emblematic of our inability to imagine a different future – this is perhaps even more apparent in the countless cyberpunk novels and films since then that have shamelessly plagiarised Blade Runner’s “Art Deco for the rich, dirty Asian-ish back alleys for the poor” visual aesthetic. The films also reassert the primacy of the male – if Rachael was a 40s new woman defanged as part of the 1980s backlash against feminism, Joi is a 1950s housewife for a generation that can afford neither a house or a wife.

On the other hand, it may be that Joi is not so simple to read. After all, Rachael was meant to be a “real” woman – she was unaware of her status as a replicant before Deckard figured it out, and her memories are that of Tyrell’s real niece. She is meant to be fully in control of her actions, and yet she is utterly subservient to Deckard. There is little indication in the film that her declaration of love at the end is false – despite her insistence that she didn’t want to sleep with him. Joi, on the other hand, is explicitly a fantasy, bought for one specific purpose – to provide companionship for a being that is deemed unfit for human company. Even then, Joi manages to break from her programming. When K leaves the city to track down Deckard, Joi insists on coming with, even if it means that her automatic backup will no longer work. She is murdered on the trip – lost forever.

One recurring image in Blade Runner 2049 is the extensive use of large-scale holographic advertisements. In one sequence, K walks between the giant feet of a ballerina, projected to be storeys high. After his copy of Joi dies, K encounters a giant advertisement for a new Joi. Although this one is also played by Ana de Armas, her look is entirely different – she is naked, with neon-blue hair. Her features are smoothed out, and her exaggerated size emphasises her unreality. She flirts with K, but he walks away disillusioned. The Joi he knew was different, and she will never come back. We are one of the loneliest generations, and K finds to his despair that love – real love – cannot be bought.

The theorist Mark Fisher argues that contemporary art, and contemporary society, is locked into “capitalist realism.” While the 2008 financial crash has exposed the failings of the capitalist system, we are no longer able to imagine any alternatives to it. However, 2016 had the effect of rupturing, at least partially, the logic of capitalist realism. The Bernie Sanders movement and the current UK Labour party have rejected the dominance of capitalism, while followers of Donald Trump have rejected the logic of realism. Blade Runner 2049 shows some of the cracks in the ideology of never-ending capitalist stasis. Film academic Robin Woods wrote that Blade Runner should have ended with Deckard joining a replicant liberation movement – Blade Runner 2049 shows us that movement gaining ground. Augmented reality also plays a large part in two 2017 video games that criticise privatised capitalism – Prey and Tacoma.

Both games are set in a world where privatised space travel has become commonplace – in many ways fulfilling the dreams of Elon Musk and Richard Branson. Prey is set in an alternate history where John F. Kennedy lived and rapidly advanced the space programme, while Tacoma is more clearly extrapolating from our current world, as companies such as Amazon, Hilton and Carnival (a cruise company) are explicitly name-dropped. Both programs feature a protagonist exploring a largely-abandoned space station. In Prey, Morgan Yu is exploring the Talos station after the release of deadly aliens; in Tacoma, Amy is investigating a lunar space station on behalf of the fictional Venturis Corporation following a purported accident.

In both games, augmented reality is not a recreational tool, but is key to corporate tracking and surveillance, and is used to help understand what happened on these space stations. The use of AR is fairly incidental in Prey – Morgan uses the recorded footage of the lead-up to the aliens escaping in order to figure out why they lost their memories, and determine the true motivations of their brother, Alex. The use of AR is utilitarian, although the effect of Morgan walking around the projection and seeing the same event from different angles is fascinating.

While AR is merely used as a narrative shorthand in Prey, AR is central to the narrative and themes of Tacoma. The AR is used to track the movements of the workers at all times – speaking to an extreme version of current corporate surveillance culture. The crew of the Tacoma are absent from the ship, but their recorded movements and conversations are represented by brightly-coloured silhouettes. Much like the previous game made by Fulbright Studios, the highly influential indie hit Gone Home, Tacoma allows you to dig through other peoples’ lives in order to solve a mystery. Like Gone Home, the pleasure of eavesdropping is in uncovering the full humanity of the absent people you are observing. While Amy is hired to assess the corporation’s liability in the accident, that is not what is most striking about the narrative. While the AR is also intangible and ethereal, it is also remarkably intimate. The player can watch a crew member rehearse his declaration of love for another – an endearing moment of privacy. While it is immensely rewarding to discover these moments, it calls to mind the pervasive access that their employer has to their every movement.

Like Blade Runner 2049, Tacoma both takes place in a dystopian extension of current capitalist logic, but also offers a way out. (Without spoiling anything, Prey is much more pessimistic.) Tacoma’s recordings take place on Obsolescence Day, which is an annual holiday for the blue-collar workers. It is later revealed that Obsolescence Day commemorates the day that human workers were meant to be replaced by artificial intelligence. This was blocked by a strong trade union movement. It is then later revealed that the Venturis Corporation engineered the accident in order to have an excuse to remove human workers from their spaceships. The ruthlessness of the corporate system seems to resonate with, say, the despicable conditions in Amazon warehouses, and the human crew members are often stuck in impossible positions – while none of them are particularly happy with the Venturis corporation, they are also unable to leave steady work. The crew are in the end rescued by a rival company – suggesting that, while Venturis may be harmed by these revelations, the capitalist system will continue unimpeded.

However, the existence of trade unions in highly precarious industries seemed like a fantasy in 2017. Silicon Valley, and start-up culture in general, is notoriously hostile to organised labour. But Google contractors recently became the first significant union in the tech sector. Tacoma suggests a future of human solidarity (and AI solidarity) in the face of corporate malfeasance. Banding together can work. In the end, the humans survive because a rebellious ship AI (ODIN) rebels against its programming and tips off the crew as to the corporation’s plans. ODIN is then due to be destroyed for disobeying orders. In one final twist, Amy is revealed to be a secret agent for an AI liberation movement, and she offers ODIN asylum. Like the replicants of Blade Runner¸ ODIN is an intelligent creation that is owned by an organisation that does not have its best interests at heart. Tacoma suggests that there may be a way out of this bind, but it requires class solidarity and radical action.

Augmented reality, then, holds a strange place in contemporary science fiction. It reflects some of the direst failings of our current system – our inability to own anything, our loneliness, our reliance on employers who seek to exploit us. But in these works of fiction, we can see a way out of this conundrum. It won’t be easy, and the gains may be partial – but it is better than surrendering to despair. Science fiction reflects our world, extrapolating our hopes and fears in a distant setting. But science fiction also provides a vision of the future. These works suggest that what we want this future to be is entirely in our hands.




Art and Algorithms: The Work of Manfred Mohr by Charlotte Kent

Algorithms don’t seem like fun. New sources regularly announce how algorithms are responsible for assorted prejudices against certain populations that will only get worse. They are part of the reason that artificial intelligence is getting stronger every day, going to take over jobs, and make humanity useless. But even if these dire forecasts are true, there is another side to algorithms epitomized in the art works of Manfred Mohr.

Mohr had been an abstract painter and a musician before he turned to computers. He played the tenor saxophone and oboe in jazz clubs across Europe and was a member of the band Rocky Volcano. Reading about Max Bense’s information aesthetics in the mid 1960s, however, launched Mohr on a career-defining trajectory. Bense aimed to create a rational aesthetics and “program the beautiful.” His work influenced many across Europe to investigate the computer as a system of art making. He saw the computer not as a mere tool but as embodying the rule of art. Many engineers started creating art-producing programs, contributing to the later explosion in graphic design. For Mohr, Bense provided a new way of thinking about art. If algorithms allowed a sense of order, then introducing randomness was a means of introducing the unforeseen, akin to the artist’s intuition. Mohr would later say: “Even though my work process is rational and systematic, its results can be unpredictable. Like a journey, only the starting point and a hypothetical destination are known. What happens during the journey is often unexpected and surprising.” His works are visual analogues of the algorithm’s process. They are the visualization of an event.

An algorithm is, at its simplest, a set of instructions. It provides a set of rules for a specific procedure. Roman Verostko, an artist who left the priesthood to become one of the pioneers of computer art, explains that even a recipe for baking a cake can be understood as an algorithm. The cake is the visualization of the process that is an algorithm. The formula on the page appears static, but it describes an event in time and space. Euclid’s geometry provides algorithms that, for example, lead to Proposition I.48 wherein the square of two sides of a right angle triangle equal the square of the hypotenuse. Beyond mathematics, however, algorithms appear in many common situations, like knitting or tying shoes. What transformed the concept of algorithms was the advent of the computer. Computers made it possible to solve far more complicated problems within a useful time frame. For some, the extraordinary power of those calculations also meant a new ability to generate forms.

Software wasn’t commercially available until the 1980s so most of the original artists using computers needed the ability to program. They designed algorithms but also recognized that the process could be made visual with devices like plotter arms (a kind of robotic arm for drawing). Jean Pierre Hebert proposed the term algorists in 1995 for those who create an object of art with a process that includes their own algorithms. Included in the original list were Yoshiyuke Abbe, Harold Cohen, Charles Csuri, Herbert Frank, Hiroshi Kawano, Manfred Mohr, Frieder Nake, Georg Nees, Vera Molnar, and Edward Zajec, all part of this early period of computer art. Hebert even created an algorithm that determined an algorist, which speaks to the playfulness of the group and their idea of what it means to work with algorithms:

if (creation && object of art && algorithm && one’s own algorithm) {
include * an algorist *
} elseif (!creation || !object of art || !algorithm || !one’s own algorithm) {
exclude * not an algorist *
}

Mohr’s titles all include the numbers that are significant to the algorithm. The first number references the specific body of work. For example, in the case of P2400-299_714, 2400 is the number Mohr assigns to the series. 299 refers to an older program he wrote in 1978 which is an important and substantial aspect of the P2400 series. The number 714 is the random number from which that particular drawing process started. It would be a mistake however to think his work is about the math. He uses multidimensional hyper cubes and charts paths through them to expand what people can see and think. In the early days, he was one of the few artists who found respect across the sciences and humanities. Scientists appreciated his work because of his precision and rationality while the art world recognized the purity of his abstraction as a clearly aesthetic practice.

 

Similar but different

When Sol Lewitt wrote that “the artist would select the basic form and rules that would govern the solution to the problem,” he could have been describing the type of work that Mohr was doing. Similarities exist between conceptual art and algorithmic art in the 1960s. Both aimed to eliminate the artist’s presence. Lewitt wanted to disassociate from the individual craft of the artist; the process should be able to be replicated by anyone. The works of Mohr, likewise, eliminated any spontaneous gesture. The algorithm was fixed and the plotter arm drew the work as indicated.

The stunning resemblances between Mohr’s P-154-C (1973) and Lewitt’s Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes (1974) often lead people to think the two artists, as well as conceptual and computer art, are the same. Both works display the construction and deconstruction of a rotating cube, adding and removing one line at a time. In a grid-like formation, Mohr’s investigation of the cube occurs across ten images for seven lines, while Lewitt’s grid is thirteen by ten. Despite the impersonal use of serialization, standardization, and a strict logic and order suggestive of a certain commonality, Grant D. Taylor describes the radically different critical reception of these works in When the Machine Made Art (2014). He explains how those engaged with computer art did not write manifestos or articles articulating their relationship to other avant-garde movements. They did not present philosophical statements. Computers were seen as “cold and soulless” and so the works were too. Today, the term digital art is most common but despite the change of term, many audiences still reject its artistic merit.

A difference can also be drawn to those who combined art and technology but weren’t specifically interested in how technology produced visual forms. In 1966, Robert Rauschenberg collaborated with the Swedish physicist Billy Klüver to produce a series of performances at the New York City 69th Regiment Armory. It laid the groundwork for Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) the following year, a movement largely responsible for introducing technology within art practice in the United States. EAT brought artists and engineers together, as well as industry professionals from companies like AT&T, IBM, and Pepsi, to encourage collaborations across the disciplines. At that time, computers were large, cumbersome objects mostly held in research facilities, so artists who wanted to produce works had to find willing partners in the military and science fields. This had led to culture clashes, as described infamously in C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture, then published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.

In the post-war period, use of computers was largely dedicated to the growing technocratic military-industrial complex. Mohr was once accused of using a “devilish capitalistic instrument” and someone else at that same lecture threw an egg at him, all because he used computers. EAT participants aimed to reorient the cultural potential of the computer to transform the social order. Rather than cultivating ever better tools of war or expanding industrial pollution, the arts could harness technology to “infiltrate engineering and reform industry,” as the digital artist and critic Edward Shanken would later describe of the movement.

In this way, EAT had a significant socio-political goal to question the underlying moral implications of technology, an attitude that was not present in many computer artists whose background in mathematics and engineering often did not feel a need to examine the social implications of what was for them simply their tool. Since EAT sought these larger goals, it wasn’t particularly focused on the computer and so embraced all media. They produced large-scale performances, sound works, and displayed the computer as a part of the visual art work. This distinguished it from computer artists specifically interested in the potential aesthetic output of the computer.

 

Algorithms for a new generation

Mohr continues to produce works but many artists these days are more interested and concerned by the impact of algorithms within social structures. Algorithms allow for quantities of data to be analyzed and turned into specific results. Target could identify pregnant women by their shopping, long before those pregnancies were apparent or shared with family. The algorithms of many social media sites have been blamed for creating filter bubbles, whereby audiences only see posts, news, and advertisements that are similar to what they have liked previously.

Many companies use algorithmic decision systems to mitigate human error, improve accuracy, cut costs, and increase efficiency. Unfortunately, as evidence of bias and harm increases for those within criminal justice, education, employment, and healthcare systems, there is inconsistent proof of their benefit. Organizations like Data & Society or AI Now actively address these issues and disseminate research to help create a more informed population. Artists like Stephanie Dinkins, Yang Jian, Esther Hovers, Jennifer Lyn Morone, Inc., Trevor Paglen are only some of the many artists addressing these complex issues in very different forms and formats. Daniel Canogar is among those whose work responds to environmental factors. Jim Campbell examines notions of memory in a world of databanks. The list goes on.

A tendency remains to clump artists working with technologies together, as if all were somehow doing the same thing. Just as we recognize that oil painters differ widely in style and content, so do artists whose work now revolves around computers and the use of algorithms. Artists working with algorithms may actually produce their own algorithms to create a visual output, just as Mohr and many of the algorists did. But artists may adopt software to create projects and thus implicitly use algorithms; just about any artist using a computer or digital camera falls into this category. Artists may use data from others’ algorithms to create work. They may produce work about the social use of algorithms, though the art work does not per se involve algorithms or even computers. These are wildly different projects, all of which use or respond to data and algorithms.

For Mohr’s most recent show at bitforms gallery in New York City, the artist did an interview about his work. That video is titled “I Can Trust the Machine.” These are powerful words in this day when so many feel overwhelmed and confused by what the computer seems to already know about and do for us. Beyond these anxieties, however, Mohr’s work is also a reminder that algorithms in and of themselves are not the problem. The recent show’s title points a different direction for thinking about algorithms: Manfred Mohr: A Formal Language. Working with algorithms is an opportunity to create forms with affective and intellectual possibilities. Artists like Leo Villareal use algorithms to create light effects in public spaces; they may be engineering feats but audiences respond with feeling. Mohr investigates mathematical configurations to examine how we can think about what we can’t see. These inquiries remind us that algorithms can produce positive contributions. In better understanding algorithms, we can become better judges of those that harm and take pleasure in those that expand our world.




When there is Silence

Picture Credits: Ryan McGuire

‘The patient in room six is dead.’

Edward, twenty-five years old and in a thick ironed shirt, takes the binder of notes from a nurse and drops the weight of them on a desk. He opens them at the last page and reads the hurried scrawl.

‘He’s been dead since he came in,’ he says.

Nurse Grace waits for him to look up at her from the notes, then puts a hand on his shoulder. ‘His family will be here soon,’ she says. ‘Tell them he’s dead.’

Edward takes the notes behind the nurses’ station. He opens the thick brown wad, places his arm across them and then rests his head. A couple of chocolate wrappers have been left on the desk and the red foil reflects the white halogen from the lamps above. Edward plays with the wrappers, blowing at them gently from centimetres away, watching the reflected light shimmer against white marble.

Edward’s pager bleats. He sits up, checks the number and reaches for a phone.

‘It’s Paul on Havering ward. Four patients still need blood.’

‘Anything else?’

He hears the connection cut, but keeps the phone to his ear as he sees two people enter the ward: family. They are in a fluster, the woman pressing the door release switch in rapid bursts, continuing even as the electric doors begin to swing open. She is wearing a green puffer jacket. Edward hears her asking Nurse Grace to see the Consultant immediately. He sees her wipe her nose with the back of her sleeve. She has been crying. A man in an old brown suit jacket follows her a few paces behind. He nods at Edward.

‘Evening, sir,’ he says.

‘Sorry,’ Edward says into the phone. The ‘sir’ was surprising. ‘I’ll be with you in a minute.’

Nurse Grace takes a black cardigan from the nurse’s station. She does this to soften the clinical blue uniform. Her and Edward have exchanged these kind of tips since the start of his placement, looking out for each other. She takes the family to room six. Edward ends the fake phonecall. He reads the rest of the notes: Mr. Davian Lawrence, seventy-six, heavy smoker; collapsed this morning with a large haemorrhagic stroke. Treatments, tests, tubing… Neurosurgeons assessed but won’t operate.

Nurse Grace comes out of room six and carefully closes the door. She re-ties her hair.

‘They want to see a Consultant,’ she says to Edward.

‘Why didn’t they operate?’ he asks.

#

In room six, the woman in the green jacket is sitting on a plastic chair by Mr. Lawrence’s bed, holding his hand. Mr. Lawrence’s chest rises and falls with the ventilator:

Pshhhhhh—ft-ft—Pshhhhhh-ft-ft

The man in the brown jacket is standing by the door and greets Edward as ‘sir’ again.

‘We want to see the Consultant,’ the woman says, standing up.

Edward pauses. He remembers the Pathologist’s lecture about difficult families: there is always a path to empathy. What do you see in them? Yourself?

‘My name is Dr. Norrie,’ he says. ‘I just need to examine your father, if that’s ok?’

Edward takes a few steps towards Mr. Lawrence, aware that everything he does is being watched carefully. This minute of silence will be important for communicating the seriousness of the situation. There are choices he makes in the way he performs. First, he takes Mr. Lawrence’s hand, not to examine it, but to begin with an action that seems gentle, mirroring the care of his daughter. Then he flips Mr. Lawrence’s wrist to find his pulse in a swift, well-practiced action, hoping to show that he has experience, despite his relative youth. Pretending to count the pulse gives Edward the time to consider how he will break the news to her. The silence extends its warning. With every small concerned look he gives during his examination, he is helping them to prepare.

‘We bought dad his ciggies,’ says the man in the brown jacket. Edward notices that his tie is too long. It is dangling over the bed by Mr. Lawrence’s feet.

Edward completes his performance by placing a hand on Mr. Lawrence’s shoulder. ‘Do you mind coming to the office?’ he asks.

#

Nurse Grace is already sitting in the office. Edward sees that she is holding the white envelope containing leaflets on bereavement, instructions for contacting funeral services, how to register a death. He remembers the leaflets in detail. Mr. Lawrence’s son is smiling, still calling Edward ‘sir’. His daughter is leant forwards on her chair. She looks aggravated, cracking the knuckles of her fingers one at a time.

It is best not to delay.

‘I am really sorry to have to tell you this. But your father has passed,’ Edward says, and then wonders why he has phrased it so poorly after so much practice. ‘The ventilator is…’

He cannot continue with his speech because the son has transformed. He is bent over. He wails. It comes from his stomach, from his skin. He is smaller than he was, his jacket shoulders are up above his neckline and engulfing his slight, arched frame. He is holding his eyes and sobbing with an intensity that Edward recognises. It is loud, genuine. He has to make space for it.

The daughter has not changed her position. She has not tried to comfort her brother.

‘Dad is still breathing,’ she says. ‘You’re giving up on him.’

Edward waits to answer, not wanting to seem sharp in his reaction. He is desperate to smoke.

He tries a different approach: ‘I can see that you’re…’

‘You have to give him a chance,’ she says.

‘Your dad has had a very large bleed,’ Edward says. ‘He won’t recover. The ventilator is breathing, but he is not.’

Nurse Grace, who has a hand on the son’s back, holds out the white envelope. ‘If you need more time with your father…’ she begins. But the daughter stands up, snatches the envelope from her and points it at Edward.

‘You’re going to kill him,’ she says.

#

The next hours of Edward’s shift follow the usual pattern. What promises to be a quiet night on a well-run ward, becomes more complicated as the hours pass. One patient’s oxygen levels drop suddenly, the night-shift radiologist is called. Blood results that are missing turn out to be the most important, most urgent; and all the while the metallic bleating pager. Every task is made harder by the lingering feeling Edward has, that he has not managed room six well.

Bleat!—Bleat!—Bleat!

Havering Ward. Edward picks up the nearest phone and dials through, telling them he’s on his way.

#

In the corridor between HASU and Havering, Edward is away from the noise. No-one is trying to get his attention, no-one is watching him, but in the relative hush, Edward thinks he can hear music. At first it is so soft that it hardly exists above the low hum of the elevators. But as he moves closer to the ward the music is surer, more precise, coming from somewhere other than himself. It is a piano—four minor chords in series, building in volume and then resolving on a soft bass note. It is late. Edward is annoyed. He enters Havering ward, rushes past the nurses station to the rehabilitation room at the back. There is music.

Lilly Beale, eighty-four and paralysed down her left-hand side, is playing the piano with her left arm propped up on a bar. Her fingers are moving as if released from their palsy by a charm. Nurse Paul is sitting beside Lilly, helping to position her arm and nodding encouragingly at her. Edward stands at the door unnoticed, watching Lilly play the chords. He thinks of Mrs. Campbell in room four who needs to sleep; her greying skin and darkening eyes, the erosion in her stomach, the shaking necessity to drink. He stares down at the pattern on the linoleum floor. The harsh hospital lighting reflects off the blues, blurring the edges of the patterned white circles and causing them to tilt.

’It’s late.’

‘Dr. Norrie.’

Mrs. Beale stops playing the piano. The sounds of the ward, which were smothered by the piano until now, return. They are just as loud.

‘Amazing isn’t it?’ Nurse Paul says. ‘The Physio says it’s muscle memory. Retraining.’

‘The trick is to ignore her left hand,’ he says. ‘Forget that she’s playing.’

#

Edward’s pager begins. Bleat!—Bleat!—Bleat! Bloods need taking. Bleat!—Bleat!—Bleat! A new patient coming up from emergency. Bleat!—Bleat!—Bleat! Mr. Moise has fallen out of bed and needs a neuro assessment. Bleat!—Bleat!—Bleat! then Bleat!—Bleat!—Bleat! and then Bleat!—Bleat!—Bleat! With no time to see which number is bleeping at him. Bleat! Three one five four Bleat! Three nine four… Bleat! Zero one… Bleat!—Bleat!—Bleat!

Back on HASU Nurse Grace tells Edward that the Consultant is coming in to talk to Mr. Lawrence’s family. Edward feels an urge to look in on Mr. Lawrence again, check back on the ventilator. Nurse Grace sees that he is stressed, asks if he wants a cigarette. But there is no time, since another bleep sends him to Bexley ward.

Bleep: Mr. Childs, ninety-four, End of Life Pathway. Nil-by-mouth. Edward scans through the notes when he arrives. Son has asked if he can bring in a beer tomorrow for his dad. Ask on-call doctor.

Edward turns over the page. This is the last entry. He sighs—why can’t this wait until the morning?

Patient is not advised to take any fluids by mouth: risk of choking, Edward writes, and then closes the notes. He looks down his list of tasks and catches sight of his watch. He stares at the second-hand moving and becomes aware of the silence on Bexley ward. It is something remarkable. When his pager is not bleating and he is not scribbling notes or rushing between wards, the hospital can be noiseless. The racket he thought he was hearing was only a projection of the endless list of tasks in his head. He wishes he could switch it off, for the patients to stop hassling him. If only their issues could go unnoticed.

Edward re-opens Mr. Childs’ notes and continues writing. On this occasion, however, Mr. Childs and his son should be allowed to share a beer. He is on an End of Life pathway. They know the risk.

#

On the way back to HASU, Edward takes the stairs. He climbs three flights and at the top he pauses to listen. He can hear the piano chords again, he thinks, but if he concentrates he can make the sound disappear.

On HASU, Nurse Grace is standing at the entrance waiting for Edward. She nods towards the doctor’s office.

‘Dr. Andrews is with the family,’ she says.

Edward brings up Mr. Lawrence’s brain scan on the computer, knowing that the Consultant will want to see it. He looks at the thick white circumference of skull and the wisps of grey matter bundled over to the right-hand side. Pushing against it is a giant white ball of blood. It is death. It grows, shoving itself against memory and personality, the ability to control a limb or to blink; to listen to a name and repeat it. Desires, madness, a capacity to suppress them both, gone. It was over a long time ago. Anything left is just noise. At the borders of the remaining grey tissue, a bright white flame of active bleeding. This blood—how did he unlearn the horror of it?

Edward turns off the screen. He feels the computer monitor had been screeching at him. He takes a deep breath in and two sharp breaths out. Edward takes the batteries out of his pager. He places them on top of the red foil wrappers. They crackle and slam like thunder. He looks for Grace, but she is gone. He is shaking.

Standing up, Edward is knocked back by the force of noise on the ward. Mrs. Fairway is shouting again, an oxygen alarm pings and the slow hiss of the ventilator becomes shrill. Edward steps back, finds the handle to the medicine room, enters the code and slips inside.

He pictures himself lifeless, silent. His face blue and mottled. His eyes sunken, bruised. He sits on the floor and opens a cupboard, knocking boxes of paracetamol and antibiotics to the floor. At the back he finds a white plastic bag that Nurse Grace has kept for him with his cigarettes and pills.

In thirty minutes in room six, Mr. Lawrence will be lying still, except for his chest, which will continue to rise with the rhythm of the ventilator. Edward will be standing next to the bed. Whilst watching Mr. Lawrence’s head, he will be able to see two realities. In the first he will see Mr. Lawrence sucking air into the tube, his desire to live drawing oxygen from the machine. And in the second, he will see it as it is. There is nothing here that is alive. The movement is an abuse. Edward will take two cigarettes, put one between Mr. Lawrence’s lips and take the other for himself. He will hold the cigarette in his right hand. With his left he will hold a finger against the switch.

Pshhhhhh—ft-ft—Pshhhhhh-ft-ft—Pshhhhhh…

When there is silence, there is peace.




Controlling the Means of Production

Picture Credits: Mike MacKenzie

In the café adjoining the AI art gallery, I’m devouring a robot-made tofu banh mi. Perfectly crispy, savory and spicy, the sandwich is a wondrous feat of flavor and mouthfeel that I suspect could only have been possible through the use of taste preference patterns identified by my food logging app. If this superlative gastronomic experience is the result of a meal-prepping AI unobtrusively pulling dining data from my infome, I can’t complain. Far from it. My compliments to the data-harvesting chef.

As I crunch my way through the last third of the palate-enthralling sub, you plunk a book down on the table beside my crumb-strewn plate. You tell me that I have to read it and that you have to buy the bespoke algorithm that authored it. I’m not surprised by that last part. The sway story has over us is powerful, so once this one struck a chord (as it was likely engineered to do in the kind of person who frequents venues like this), of course you’d become keen to possess the algorithm behind it, to secure this inexhaustible source of fiction that suits your sensibilities.

You tap the book emphatically with your index finger as if to stave off my skepticism. Then off you go, back to the gallery—to no doubt follow through with the purchase you’re intent on making—leaving me to enjoy the last bites of my sumptuous sandwich and consider the AI-generated novella that has so thoroughly enchanted you. I could do with some after-lunch reading. So once the banh mi has exhilarated my palate one last time as a final morsel of baguette with bits of seasoned tofu and cilantro, I open the slim paperback, and it catapults me right into another kind of devouring.

With compelling interiority (impressive for a “writer” without any), the story centers on a young, earnest chronopsychographer eager to do impactful work at the cutting-edge firm she’s recently joined. Soon, her diligence, acumen and insights secure her a string of early accomplishments that garner praise from management but also pique the jealousy of a coworker. To the degree that he surreptitiously sabotages her epiphany timer so it goes off too early, before her epiphanies are ready. Oblivious of this, the protagonist treats her inchoate epiphanies as fully formed and is puzzled when they don’t make immediate sense and can’t be easily used in her psychography projects. It isn’t long before she becomes frustrated and distraught—worried she is choking under pressure, fearful that if she can’t succeed at her job with the help of her epiphanies then she will never be successful.

After a woeful chapter, in which she mopes about and laments openly in the company of a friend, the young chronopsychographer figures out that she has become so despondent not because the future of her career is imperiled but because her epiphanies haven’t let her down like this before. Thinking, then, that perhaps she’s been overlooking something, she redoubles her efforts at the firm. Trusting her unfinished insights, she soon finds—no, makes them applicable to her work. This turning point coaxes the reader into the realization that because incomplete insights require effort to understand and harness, they are conducive to mental engagement that ultimately allows them to surpass the efficacy of full-fledged epiphanies, which in their crystallized form are well-suited to play particular roles in a project and are therefore less flexible. Now jealous of the protagonist’s greater success, her unscrupulous coworker makes the same alteration to his own insight timer, hoping this will benefit his work as it has hers. But with only a myopic perspective on what’s happened, he doesn’t know what to do with the partially formed epiphanies he ends up with.

When I emerge from reading this engrossing philosophical and moral tale (notably—cleverly?—concluding with near-literal self-sabotage), you’ve been the owner of its author for a short while. Your receipt is a bright rectangle of creamy beige on the green-gray tablecloth, angled beside the bowl of potato salad you are now gleefully eating across the table from me.

Regardless of the merits of this technoliterary accomplishment, I think you’re playing right into Big Tech’s hands, paying an exorbitant amount (ostensibly to cover R&D costs) for haute entertainment that they’re billing as revolutionary artificial creativity. But I mention nothing of my suspicions that you’re being duped by a computer program purporting to reveal humanity (or at least designed to appeal to your humanity) when it has none. This isn’t the place for a discussion of my concerns.

As we carpool to work the next morning, you rave about the novella the AI author generated overnight, thrilled by the outcome of the first run you’ve had it perform. Though you only read a few pages of the new novella this morning, you’re enamored with their description of the main character’s job as a patience tuner, making careful adjustments to people’s attitudes towards delays, incompetence, etc. Redolent with infatuation, your ebullient words fill the car’s interior.

“There’s clearly a degree of superficiality to this,” I protest. “It’s all ideas combinatorially assembled with statistical models, not trenchant human thought refined through multiple drafts and feedback from editors.”

“So the process is different. That doesn’t mean the result can’t be as valuable,” you rebut. “Or insightful. So the AI doesn’t develop plot and characters and theme through deliberation and dialogue. It’s doing what none of us can, producing work based on a training set comprised of countless literary masterpieces. Finding and expressing patterns in human nature this way could be just as valid. Its own kind of dialectic. Different, sure, but still meaningful—even trenchant.”

There’s a plausibility to what you’ve said that I can’t easily overturn, but I’m unconvinced. Something still feels wrong. My gaze goes to the thin strip of bright sky beneath the clouds in the distance. That could very well be our destination—your autonomous car ultimately carrying us into the morning light.

“So what if you look at a mirror that wasn’t made by you. It still reflects you,” you add, the analogy the indisputable icing on your argumentative cake.

Then, it’s as though you greedily eat that cake by saying, “And with this, I may never have to buy another book again. The algorithm can create all the literature I want.”

“Yes, want, but what about need?” I lob at you in attempted repartee. “Even if there’s no issue with the origins of all the work it produces, the direction you’re going with it is problematic. You’ll be losing the richness of human creativity.”

“Is it really that rich? For society, certainly, but do all those acclaimed books actually enrich me? It’s an understatement to say that I don’t enjoy mainstream artistic tastes. You know how hard it is for me to find literature worth my while, and now I have a guaranteed source of it. There’s no more harm in this than in any other literary poison people pick. We’re not in high school anymore. Adults have no required reading.”

“Okay, you’re right. It’s your information diet. You do what you like with it.”

And you do, to tremendous success, reaping varied benefits: your vocabulary expanded, mind refreshed by intriguing ideas, social circle widened by the inclusion of other artificial creativity early adopters and “book club members”—people with whom you share freshly synthesized novellas and hold weekly meetings dedicated to discussing this literature.

It’s the last part that worries me now. By finding people who have the same taste as you, and reinforcing that taste with them, you’re thickening the cultural insulation you’ve begun wrapping yourself in. Or is it worse than that—are you cocooning yourself from reality? Will you soon be reading these novellas at every opportunity, feeling an ever greater affinity for their worlds over ours?

When it does come, however, trouble befalls you in a way neither of us expected: one of your book club members becomes obsessed with the AI-composed novellas. She frequently sends you lengthy analyses, elaborating on points mentioned during book club meetings. Her messages often end with requests for any additional novellas you have or could generate. You alternate between politely evading and aloofly disregarding these solicitations for further discussion and more reading material, but she is undeterred by your lack of enthusiasm. So you need to temper—or better yet, quell—her oblivious persistence.

After this has gone on for a few weeks, you talk about the situation at length when we meet for one of our after-work dinners.

“I’ve considered leaving the algorithm running 24/7 just to make a whole library for her,” you tell me over biryani and saag paneer. “But then she’s bound to bombard me with dissections of all the new novellas.”

“I would’ve thought you’d get along with her,” I reply. “You both love the same literature.”

“But not to the same degree,” you tell me after hurriedly swallowing a mouthful of naan and saag. “She’s a full-on connoisseur who makes me look like a hobbyist—a casual enthusiast swilling what I like while she deftly peels through layers of terroir, cataloguing tasting notes.”

The urgency in your voice makes your irritation unmistakable, especially in the restaurant’s dim lighting.

“I’m guessing her… zeal is also off-putting to other book club folk.”

“Yes, to the point where some no longer attend our meetings, claiming other commitments—though they want me to continue sending them new novellas, which is telling.”

“Speaking of getting new novellas, if she’s so eager to get a hold of more reading material, why doesn’t she buy herself one of these algs?”

“The price tag.”

“Oh, a captive market situation,” I remark, going with the analogy that has come to mind. “Simple solution: make the consumer their own supplier. Tell her that you have to disband the book club—work getting busy and all that—then give her the AI Scheherazade. But in actuality, a different one.”

“So shell out for another algo.”

“Or make one.”

“Like… mod an open-source bedtime story bot and run it through a training set of my AI’s novellas.”

“Precisely. Tweak some output parameters yourself for a human touch and also refine it with some literary critic bot.”

“Nice, but it would be much easier just to ghost on her.”

“Sure, but I don’t know how well that will go over long term. Didn’t you say she was obsessed?”

“Good point. Who knows what will happen if I cut her supply cold turkey. I mean, she’s even considered becoming a chronopsychographer or an epiphanist. That’s how into this stuff she is.”

“That definitely puts this in perspective. Best to get her off your hands by putting a story-spinning AI in hers.”

“I’ll work on that,” you say, tone resolute.

With the matter settled for now, you resume eating with gusto. I continue eating too but with less vigor. I have some misgivings over enabling this technocultural addiction, but if the choice is between your wellbeing and hers, it’s obvious where my loyalties lie.

Spooning some paneer on to my plate of biryani, I wilfully overlook the fallaciousness of the dichotomy here, to disregard the possibility of a solution in accord with my allegiance to humanity. Perhaps, you might say, enacting the deficiencies borne of my training sets.




My 3 Favorite Dramatic Crime Reads of the Past 5 Years.

As the summer progresses and the warm weather-induced laziness sets in, I’ve found myself longing for a good summer read. This has caused me to reflect on some of my most recent favorites that I’ve enjoyed either by reading the entire novel in an afternoon on the beach or on a cool summer evening by a backyard fire pit. As so many of us book lovers do, I then wanted to share some of these favorites, so that if you too are looking for your next summer read (and you haven’t read them already), you can give them a look!

1. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This is a thriller you could easily read in just a day or two. Admittedly, the flow of the book takes a bit of getting used to, as each chapter is narrated by one of three main characters, but it is certainly worth any initial confusion you may experience (particularly if you’ve trained up by reading the whirlwind of character narratives that is worldwide sensation A Song Of Ice and Fire!). The entirety of the plot is complicated to explain in just a short review, but it involves an alcoholic who can’t trust her own memory, abusive husbands and ex-lovers, a suspect therapist, and a missing woman holding onto a shocking secret. And, as you can guess from the name, this all centers around one woman’s daily train commute to the suburbs of London – a routine that had become mundane until drama began to unfold. As you may know, the book was turned into a a film starring Emily Blunt (who did a lovely job) as lead character Rachel, and though some major creative liberties were taken, it was still quite a strong adaptation. As usual though (always??), the book is best!

2. Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom

This story is especially captivating given the fact that it is based on true events and was written by the antagonist herself. The full title of the book explains the plot pretty well: Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World! . Molly Bloom had trained for years to become an Olympic skier, but after a career-ending injury, she was forced to pick up a new hobby, and wound up running underground celebrity poker games Part of the charm of this story is in fact how it introduces poker games reminiscent of mobsters playing in Prohibition-era speakeasies, or even Rounders-style back rooms, where there was always more on the line than just money. This is certainly in contrast to the gambling world of today, where the expanding availability of online casinos is slowly digitizing and individualizing the experience, further relegating physical poker rooms to the past. In other words, the atmosphere of this book is somewhat intoxicating! And once you give it a read, this one, too, produced an excellent film adaptation (starring Jessica Chastain).

3.Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

Give Me Your Hand is a particularly good read because of its relatable nature: at it’s core, this is a novel about two women competing for a position in the male-dominated field of science and technology. Of course, Abbott let her imagination run wild with this common situation and turned it into one of the best crime dramas of 2018. This book is unique in that it flips the usual victim-oriented plot and instead delves into what can happen when a woman’s rage is bottled up for too long. As was eloquently explained by a New Yorker review, this book takes a slightly feminist twist and “explores what characters who have been beaten down and confined by sexism might be capable of.” Unlike the first two selections on my list, Give Me Your Hand has not yet been made into a movie. But if you give it a read you’ll still experience high drama, and likely believe (as do I) that an adaptation is likely in the cards at some point!




Litro Desire Issue: Summer


Cover design Noa Gravesky

Table of Contents

Summer 2019

The Editor’s Letter
Eric Akoto

Guest Editor’s Introductory Note
Ira Silverberg

Nadia Owusu- “A Good Mask
Chika Onyenezi – “Complicated Blues
Lawrence Schimel – “Fresh Sheets and Five other short stories
Frederick McKindra – “Unmastered Desires
Ingrid Norton – “Into the Pleroma
Laila Halaby – “Court
Leah Dworkin – “The Little Mermaid
Hannah Seidlitz – “Homebound”




My Room in Seville

Six hours on the highway brought me back into Spain from Lisbon.

How can you get tired, just sitting in a bus, staring out a window? It’s not possible. I’d read that Lord Byron made this identical journey in 1809 and it took him four days, but then again, he was doing it on horseback. He arrived in Lisbon of the packet ‘Princess Elizabeth’. He brought one personal valet and two servants with him. He understood there were sacrifices needed to be made.

Byron entered a Spain that was in the process of being turned over by Napoleon. He wasn’t too keen to join in the defence of Iberia, so he left for Cadiz and then eventually sailed to Greece. Seville is mentioned in ‘Childe Harold,’ after publication it made him probably the first international literary celebrity. And the guesthouse where he stayed is still here.

Number nineteen, Calle de las Cruzes.

My entry is a lot calmer. There are no legions of Frenchmen wanting to pillage the countryside. Although a financial crisis is threatening. Modern warfare is conducted in a different manner, the place is now being squeezed and plundered by anonymous bankers. Yet there seems to be no evidence that the people are building defences, to repel an invader. They cannot even see the approaching enemy.

I take a taxi to my preferred hotel. It’s in the old town, where the streets narrowed to alleyways, yet the driver has no intention of slowing down, honking and abusing pedestrians as they casually move off the road. They pressed themselves against the ancient buildings, with a genuine indifference, to let our rude passage progress. Then resume their map reading, their orienteering, trying to understand the irrational medieval grid of the place.

Yes, I begin to recognise the immediate area, we were in the right vicinity, I knew that cafe and that square, then the hotel itself. I paid the driver and even gave him a tip. I feel relief at the front door, anticipating room 305.

There is a lightness in my demeanour, I feel safe, in a hostile world.

The manager himself was there, although he always seems to be, he raised his eyes as I opened the door. I recognised him, but there was no returned acknowledgement. He was most mature, perhaps even eighty years old, could that be possible? Dressed like a caricature of a British television barrister and was clearly a man in command. He belonged to an order of ancients that controlled most hotels and a steady mature bureaucracy that held the city together. It seemed the elderly didn’t want to retire, which left the younger generations contemplating migration.

“I need a room for to-night.”

I kept it succinct. There was no need to elaborate what I might actually need. It all goes quicker if he only concentrates on one thing.

He examined my luggage, scrutinised my clothing, then looked deeply into my eyes, he then crushed a piece of paper, threw it in an invisible waste bin on his right, repositioned the office stapler and began to study the computer screen. Finally, he spoke to me.

“One night?”

He asked without even looking up at me.

“Yeah. Well certainly to-night. I mean I might stay longer. We’ll see what happens. What do you reckon?”

“You. A reservation senor?”

Again, not bothering with eye contact.

“No. Don’t have one. Just showed up. As you can see.”

This information changed the entire sequence. I knew it would. He quickly looked up and studied me again, then contemplated my luggage. Or was he investigating my footwear? I’m not sure what he was looking for but my image held some secret knowledge. He crushed another piece of paper and threw it in a bin on his left side. I think he had a waste paper bin positioned either side of him, stereo bins, then emitted a deep sigh. His face returned to the screen. It was no easy procedure and his audience understood this as well. Although, I was confident he could do it. I mean I had seen him do this before. Several times. I had no doubt. He punched a secret algorithm into the keyboard, his concentration intense, but it eventually eased. Then he finally offered me my room. The tension dissolved. We had come through the check in process together. There was a bond. A new relationship. We were now landlord and tenant. Again.

“Can let you have 305?”

“Yeah. OK. That’s just right. No. That’s great. That’s exactly what I want. I mean I expected it.”

I think I was talking nonsense.

It was the third time I had been through all this. I knew and anticipated the dialogue. I appreciated the minor strain of checking in. I understood my appearance would provoke some clerical drama, but I was sure a room patiently awaited my arrival.

“Your passport? Credit card?”

I had them ready. This is who I am. All the information you would ever need to know about me is in my passport and credit card. I could be identified in any part of the world with only these documents.

The manager had a luxuriant full head of dark oiled hair, very handsome, his coiffure way cooler than even a young Mick Jagger. Perhaps he was a retired footballer from Madrid or even an old matador that had survived or what about a redundant dramatic lead from the national theatre? Not impossible.

Then I wonder why I need to attach all that nonsense to him? He’s probably a career manager. A position he has held for fifty years. But he had the competence and efficiency to quickly check in a foreigner and understood how tourists had a low tolerance for time wasting. But I knew he secretly understood that I enjoyed the check-in procedure. There is only disappointment if your audience does not appreciate the theatrics. If the arriving guests have no idea of hotel clerical protocols.

“Is room 305. And here your wi-fi password. Must need it.”

“OK. Thanks. I know my way. I’ll be alright. And can you send up some white wine. Dry.”

“Water? Dry water? Senor?”

“No. Not water. Wine. Vino. Blanco. But dry. And a proper wine glass would be appreciated. If you can do it. Thanks.”

“Ah? Is done. With no complications. Away straight now.”

Once he had my credit card he switched with ease to the role of wine waiter. But it was my room. Room 305. Why did he always put me here? It did play on my mind. I could see there was hardly anyone else in the place. I didn’t care, I had grown accustomed to it. There was a view out the window to my preferred evening tapas bar. I opened the window and let the noise from the world below seep into the place. The bar was too crowded at the moment, but it will be just right in an hour. The wine arrived with a proper wine glass. I had my own cork screw. This world still used corks. I liked it. It suited my backwards vision of the world.

There were no metal stelvin enclosures here, or anywhere else in Spain, that I had observed. We were prepared to keep all that out. Even if it meant buying cork from the Portuguese.

I unpacked a few things, connected myself to the wi-fi and enjoyed some of the wine. I couldn’t understand the label, but it was at the right temperature and most enjoyable. There was an interesting lifted fruit. If only I knew what kind of varietal it was.

But I was thinking food. Acorn fed Iberian jamon. Jamon iberico de bellota. Yes. I might even go with the one that had been cured for two years. And some red wine from a local vineyard. Although they had salted cod with potatoes that was most agreeable. I’d had that before and it seemed a reliable dish. Well I’ll have both of them. I am feeling hungry and the tapas made the effort with their food.

I knew there was a waiter there that could understand my minor needs.

He was their English expert, adjudicating on all requests made in English. I wondered if he got paid extra for securing orders from these foreigners with their limited communication skills? Most places seemed to have a designated English interpreter, usually they were hopeless, but some could grasp what you were trying to say.

I logged on and brought up the days emails. Nothing that required an immediate response. It seemed I was lost. Or the world had forgotten about me. I was not being asked to participate anymore. We seemed to be free of each other.

The room was comforting, I think it was glad to see me. I had a spare hour. I might wash some clothes, or I could watch a bit of Spanish television, or I could just look out the window, at the alleyway and wait for my bar to surrender a spare table. These were the pressing issues I had to confront. And I had no intention of evading any of them. They were pitched right at my skill level. Someone understood my ability. All I needed was a bit of time. I’d come back and decide. And then explain why I thought my choice was the right one.




Planting Season

Step One: Consult a professional.

Buy a bag of discarded bones and meat scraps from your butcher. Take them home and plant them. Be sure to use good potting soil and water regularly. You don’t have to wait long. In late spring, early summer, you will see the tips of horns, and ears waving at you if there is enough wind. You will see entire heads bursting forth like filthy swimmers breaking the surface of an undulating, dirty little sea.

No matter how urgent your hunger, how great your need, don’t be impatient. Resist the temptation to yank them out of the ground at first sighting. Let nature help you by doing its work. And if you do, you will see the entire row that you have planted, growing into fully grown, matured cattle as your garden is magically transformed by a chorus of moos.

Step Two: So much meat. Where to begin.

Take a large serving spoon, the size you might use for scooping a generous serving of scalloped potatoes from a casserole dish. Carefully dig around individual cows, loosening the dirt until you get past the shoulders and hips, until you begin to see cow legs. Grab them. Grab then and, working with your spoon, loosening dirt with one hand while pulling on the legs with the other. You should, through your labors, soon be able to extract the cow from the ground where, in no time, it will be ready for slaughter.

Step Three: Don’t just stand there. There’s more work to be done.

Don’t stand there admiring your achievement. First you must welcome the cow, embrace it, help it celebrate sunshine, the wind, and an entirely new experience of life. As soon as that’s over, you must kill the cow, extracting the meat as soon as possible. The freshest meat is the best, and all those unused organs… all that blood from the butchering, goes right back into the soil, replenishing it with vital nutrients for the next planting.

Note: The best part of the cow is the tenderloin. This part will only reveal itself once you have your cow right where you want it…In little bitty pieces, speckled with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, in a pool of in its own juices and A-1 Steak Sauce, over charcoal.

Step Four: Have a plan. Thinking ahead.

Next season, because cows will in time drain the nutrients (specifically nitrogen, fluoride and antioxidants) from the soil, you are going to want to consider planting green beans, corn, soybeans, or cilantro, followed by chickens, squash, hogs, spring lamb, short ribs, bacon, or maybe carrots and turnips, then back to cows, or perhaps children (mostly boys) if you are considering starting a family. Remember though, to begin with a prayer; an incantation according to your faith…words of gratitude for your hoped for bounty, for this privilege.




How it Ends

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It was Dom and Tony’s second day in anatomy lab when Philip the cadaver started speaking to them.

“I’m an excellent specimen. If you don’t fuck this up you could end up being cardiothoracic surgeons one day. Maybe ENT oncologists. Hemorrhoidectomy specialists,” Phillip said. His voice was dry and harsh like a smokers angry whisper.

Dom looked at Tony who looked back at Dom, a scalpel held tightly in his hand. Tony shook his head.

“This shit ain’t right,” Tony said and stabbed Phillip in the right hepatic lobe. No blood came out. It was all coagulated and dense—purple, Jello-ed pudding. Phillip stayed quiet while Tony pressed the blade into the edematous, dully-maroon organ a few more times until he was apparently satisfied with the amount of puncture wounds he’d inflicted and went back to cutting Phillip’s left ear off.

“This fuckin’ guy,” Tony said.

Dom continued to slice Phillip’s skin away at the forearm revealing the taut, white tendons layered and parallel to one another.
“It’s like lifting the lid of a grand piano. All those strings ready to be struck and ring out a chord,” Phillip gargled.
Dom began to sweat as he dissected the fascia away from the muscle bellies, revealing clearer and clearer anatomy until it fit the image from his textbook and he felt like he finally could understand, now, that the body was not a book.
The next day it was time to open the chest cavity. Tony held the bone saw in one hand; his clear safety goggles fashionably askew in his glistening, pomade infested hair. Dom plucked Phillip’s palmaris longus tendon at the same time as the flexor digitorum longus tendon and a perfect F sharp rang out in the basement anatomy lab.

“No music!” the instructor shouted from a few tables over.
Dom smiled and looked down at Phillip’s dead, stale and suspended eyes staring laterally at nothing.
“Nice,” Phillip croaked.
“This oughta’ shut this bastard up,” Tony said, revving the bone saw and placing the now blurred with pomade safety goggles over his eyes.

Dom watched the air fill with floating bits of bone and skin as the spinning blade dug deep into Phillip’s breast bone—his sternum, just below the manubrium.

“I want to be a psychiatrist, though.” Dom said to Phillip, barely audible over the roaring sound of bone splintering. It smelled like burnt marrow. Dom imagined bone particles entering his nose and triggering his olfactory nerve.

“Examine my brain then,” Phillip said. “I always thought of myself as a left sided brain type of guy. I might start there. The left side that is.”
“I’m gonna do tits,” Tony said, applying the chest retractor. With some effort, Tony split the chest cavity open revealing a large tortuous heart, nestled between two black and hardened lungs.
“I was a smoker,” Phillip said. “Menthols.”

Tony held a cigarette between two gloved and bloodied fingers. He brought it to his mouth and took a long pull. The red ember glowed and then vanished into grey ash.

Dom placed his hand on Phillip’s heart. It was cold and lifeless. He could feel his own heart pressing against the inside of his chest as it swelled and deflated around ninety times per minute.

“This is what happens, isn’t it?” Dom asked. “I don’t need to see your brain. You’re dead. We’re all dead, right?”
Tony masterfully cut the heart out and then held it at arms length, examining it from different angles and light. He grunted.

Phillip didn’t move.

“Hey, hey!” Dom yelled shaking Phillip’s lifeless body. “I don’t want to be naked and cut up.”
“I never knew it would be like this. At least you know. You know how it ends,” Phillip said.

Tony ignored them both. He strung a severed finger along with Phillip’s ear on a necklace that he placed over his head.

“How do I look?” Tony asked.




The Other Shore

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Backyard. Summer. A Child covered in bees.

Sink. Water. Dishes. Mom.

Outside. Buzzing. Velcro shoes. Lurching. The crunch of grass.

Kitchen. Window. Mother. A glance.

Plates. Clatter. Feet. Scrambling. Screen door. Swinging.

The sky. The grass. Blue. Green. Cloud country. Expansive. Overwhelming. So blue. So green. Screams. Mom. Toddler. Arm. Extends. Mouth. Open. Bees. Fill.

Broom. Hose. Towel. Nothing.

Headspace. Memory. Intrusive. Mom as a girl. Florida. Home. A man. Inconsolable. His love. Swimming. Pulled under. A gator they said.

Whiskey. Guns. Man. Friends. A truck.

Horizon. An orange line. Dawn. Squealing brakes. Yelling. A crowd. Mother as child. Weaving. Men. Sweat. Flatbed. Full. Jagged shapes. Shovels. Wedging. Flatbed. Open. Dust. Wafting. The butcher’s block sound of meat.

A pile. Alligators. Dead. The man. A knife. Tears. Ribbed bellies. A cut.

Her son. Collapsed. Face down. Blades of grass. Bees thinning. Skin. Pink. His head twice its size.

Fingers. Fumbling. Phone. 911. Operator. Please. My son.

Grass. Knees. Crunch.

A child. A baby. Her arms. His body. Her lap. Convulsing. Tremors. Breath. Her eyes. The sky. Virgin blue. And the clouds. Grand. Muscular. The clouds. Dinosaurs in the sky. The horizon. The trees. The wilderness. Beyond the pines. An ocean of lapse.




The Public Beach

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The American sat sweating on the Abu Dhabi public beach, wondering how long he could stay out for. To his left a group of Pakistani guys swam in long shorts or thin cotton salwars. They had a picnic, talked loudly and were having a good time. To his right was an Iraqi family. Two large women sat in long swimsuits beneath wide parasols. They chatted continually, occasionally shouting to the only man in their group who played with a gaggle of young children in the water. He would throw himself over, generating great splashes as he disappeared beneath the surface. The children would approach, giggling and nervous, and then shriek and flee as he burst from the water, arms wide and growling like a great sea bear.

The American swam out to sea and lay on his back, enjoying the cityscape horizon which stretched along the length of the beach. From the water he watched a woman arrive. She was young and seductive and swayed her hips to a place in the sand close to his berth where she laid out her towel. Seeing this, he casually made his way back to the shore, ducking under the water to enjoy its coolness and letting his imagination play with the fantasy of a possible union: women generally preferred the family beach, which charged a fee and was off limits to the single male. The Iraqi man continued to play with the children, without seeming to tire or lose excitement. He smiled at the American, as he passed, raising his eyes as two boys each grabbed hold of a leg in an attempt to topple him in the water. He had also noticed the woman, a feeling registered by a tug of lust as she removed her sarong to reveal a leopard print bikini underneath, followed by a quick check to make sure that his wife and sister had not noticed. On seeing that they were facing the opposite direction to the woman he dived back into the water to continue his game with the children, occasionally checking the swaying of a leg or the peak of a breast where she lay in the sand.

The American lay on his towel and watched the woman from behind his sunglasses, trying to decide if she was Latin or Lebanese and how he might initiate some sort of interaction with her. He sat up on his elbows as she waded into the sea imagining the feeling of her grinding against his crotch as the swaying of her hips in the sand made her round ass roll.

The Pakistani guys noticed her too. Three of them were playing with a tennis ball in the water and began to tease their friend who was nearest to her, angling the ball to try and bring him and the woman together. He remonstrated loudly at their game but eventually the ball landed with a smack in the water beside her head. To their surprise, she picked it up and threw it to the man nearest her, who caught it, embarrassed, and flung it hard at one of his friends. A flurry of excitement passed between the men – what could this mean? One asked. She could be a film star she’s so beautiful, another suggested. She’s probably just a prostitute a third replied – otherwise why would she be on the public beach? If she is a prostitute she’d be too expensive for us, somebody else replied and they all laughed nervously, all except the embarrassed man who had already left the water in disgust.

The Iraqi man’s passive vigil was interrupted when his wife and sister noticed the woman going into the water: it was disgusting, they told him, for a woman to wear a bikini at a public beach where there were so many young men around, she was probably Lebanese. He had agreed with them wholeheartedly, commenting that she was too young to be out without her father or brother and suggesting that he keep an eye on her to make sure that she was OK.
The American lay back and closed his eyes, then rolled over onto his front to hide his erection. When he opened them the woman was sitting on her towel again, her long black hair fanned out across her back.

The Pakistanis were all aflutter, continuing to joke like nervous teenagers about the fact that she had thrown the ball to their friend. They started throwing the ball at him, mimicking a woman’s throw, but he eventually lost patience, caught the ball and flung it out to sea. Although it was too far out to be retrieved, another was found, which one of them threw over the man’s head, so that it landed near the woman’s foot.

The woman looked across at them as they goaded him into retrieving the ball, noticing their excitement and knowing that it was probably her who had caused it but not inclined to move. This was, after all, a public beach. Why should she have to pay to use it just because she was a woman? If she went to the family beach she would be stared at by other women’s husbands, or chatted up by some fat businessman with his three kids, which was no different and just because they were Pakistani didn’t make any difference either. Her friends and family in Abu Dhabi seemed to somehow think this was worse, but really, on a public beach, it was no different to Colombia, where men would come right up to her on the beach with lewd suggestions. And what did they know anyway, they spent their time between the embassy, the mall and the beach club. Everything they knew was based on expat gossip behind high, expensive walls.

Eventually the embarrassed man gave in to his friends and walked over to pick up the ball, dropping his eyes low and not looking at her. He wagged an agitated finger in the face of the thrower and placed the ball in his pocket. Another ball appeared and was again lobbed over the embarrassed man’s head by one of his friends. It landed in the same spot, by the woman’s foot. Remonstrations began as the thrower implored the man to again collect the ball but to the amazement of the group the woman picked it up and threw it back to him. Their chatter rose a pitch as the thrower took the ball and waved it in the embarrassed man’s face: it was a sign, he reasoned. She had thrown it to him twice – not to anyone else. Why would she do that? The embarrassed man wanted no part in the game and ignored the thrower, moving away to sit at the edge of the group with his back to the woman. In his mind the whole scene was shameful. The prostitute was shameful, the ball game was shameful, the conversations were shameful.

The American took this as his opportunity to engage the woman in conversation. He wandered over to where she lay, the Pakistani’s watching him intently to see what he would do. He was surprised when she told him in an aggressive and frustrated tone that she was perfectly aware of the family beach and that it was offensive for him to even suggest that she move there. He tried to think of something funny to say in order to save the situation but nothing came, so he wandered back to his towel to think about whether or not she was worth pursuing further as the Pakistani’s again chatted over the scene – unsure how to read what had just happened.

A moment later the ball arrived again, this time landing right beside her and rolling along until it rested against her waist. She looked across to the group. They all looked back in anticipation, except the embarrassed man, who wanted no part of it. She held up her palm in what she considered a universal gesture to stop and then wagged her finger for emphasis, but the group all turned away, embarrassed by her directness, chattering and laughing amongst themselves. This was getting annoying, they were like a group of children. In a bid to shut them up she picked up the ball and put it into her bag before lying back down again.

There was a long pause as the thrower again led the group in discussion: what could this mean, the ball in her bag? Was it a sign of something? Did it mean she was available? How should they respond? Out of balls, and not knowing how else to continue the communication, the thrower tried to get the ball back from the embarrassed man’s pocket, but the man wouldn’t give it to him. Eventually the embarrassed man took up his clothes and walked off up the beach, remonstrating furiously with the ball thrower when he tried to follow him. He wanted no part of the situation, it would only bring trouble. Trouble, and shame. The thrower then noticed that the ball in the sea had drifted in. He waded out to get it, holding the bottom of his kameez around his waist, his salwar becoming wet up to his knees. Moments later the ball was lobbed up and landed on the towel between the woman’s legs. A whole world of commotion erupted from the group as she sat up and looked at the ball.

It was at this point that the Iraqi man decided to get involved, striding up the beach from his family, with the two women stood behind, urging him with flicks of their wrists. He started by instructing the woman to go to the other beach for families. When she refused he assumed that she was ignorant of her situation and tried to imply it by asking her if she had any idea what the Pakistani men might do to her. The woman, in a sarcastic tone, asked him to explain what they might do but the nuance was lost on him and he considered it ignorance that had triggered her question. She was young, and foreign – from who knows where – and it wasn’t the sort of thing you could explain to a woman if she didn’t understand already. He tutted and looked away at the men and then shook his head. “Hey,” he shouted, moving towards them. They all moved back, gathering in a group behind the thrower. “Hey.” He wagged his finger in the thrower’s face and shouted at him to go home, pointing back towards the city.
The woman followed him, shocked by the sudden outburst. She pulled his shoulder, raising her finger in his face in the same gesture that he had used, and told him that he couldn’t make them leave, it wasn’t up to him. The thrower’s eyes jumped between the Iraqi’s outstretched finger and the woman’s bikini.

To the Iraqi she was no longer a thing of lust. She was a crazy woman. Crazy and stupid. She knew nothing. He turned back to the group and repeated himself. Some of them had already bundled their things into their bags but the thrower stood strong looking back silently and not moving.

The woman again told the Iraqi man to leave them alone. He turned but before he could speak another voice shouted from the edge of the beach. Two police officers in khaki uniforms strolled casually across the sand. The woman shook her head and walked over to her towel, wrapping a sarong around herself and taking out her phone. One of the policemen pointed at the American as he neared the group and ushered him across with the wave of an open palm. They were in their twenties, with neat uniforms, close shaves and a strong kick of cologne. The American walked over thinking this could be another opportunity to show the woman he wasn’t the prick she had clearly thought he was. The officers smiled at him and asked if he spoke Arabic. As he didn’t they instructed the assembled group that the conversation would be in English and asked what the problem was.

The Iraqi immediately jumped in, explaining that the Pakistanis had been making problems for the woman. The officer raised his eyebrows and nodded then told the woman that she should go to the family beach. He drew an imaginary line in the air between her and the entrance further up the seafront. This beach, he explained, was no good for women. When she refused, and tried to explain that there had been no problems, with anybody, and that the Iraqi man was mistaken, the officer was momentarily confused. He addressed his companion briefly in Arabic before repeating himself, more slowly, and again drawing the imaginary line from where they stood to the family breach, adding that this beach was no good for bikinis, something he hoped would make the situation clear. She huffed as if to protest but changed her mind and turned away.

The American and the Iraqi were dismissed with passive ease before the officer turned to the Pakistanis and asked to see their ID cards. They rummaged in their things to present them in line, familiar with the routine. The woman seeing this returned, worried that things had got so out of hand and gone so wrong so easily. She again tried to explain to the officer that there had been no problems.

The officer nodded and sighed in frustration, letting out a huff of air and not listening. He agreed, that there was no problem and that she should go to the family beach, no problem. He pointed again and then looked away, taking the card of the man nearest to him and pretending to pay it attention.

The woman collected her things. Before she left she took the tennis ball out of her bag, walked over to the thrower, who was being addressed by the policeman in a broken mix of Arabic and English, and gave him the ball. She thanked him and apologised, but he barely noticed. He was waiting on the police officer’s every word, straining to understand and to agree, where he should, or disagree, where he shouldn’t. The Policeman considered, as he asked the men why they had attacked the woman, if he should bring them to the station and file a report. He had nothing else to do, but it was a lot of paperwork and probably not worth the trouble. And the woman really had been very stupid, wearing a bikini on the public beach, what could she expect?

The American followed the woman away from the beach, still hoping to strike up something like a conversation, maybe find out where she was from, where she worked. Can you believe that? He asked her – it was fucked up; lucky the police arrived in time. She didn’t look at him. She wanted to scream but the police were too close and she didn’t want to end up in trouble, Columbian was only one rung up the ladder from Pakistani and well below American. She hailed a cab and jumped in, leaving him stood on the pavement in his board shorts.




SHOTGUN WEDDING: VANCOUVER, 1960

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WITHIN A WEEK OF THE DAY ED MET GIOVANNA IN THE BEER PARLOUR AT THE COBALT, Mrs. Pinsky married them in the living room of her house near the corner of Pandora and Triumph. Mrs. Pinsky was the mother of Ed’s shop steward on the docks. She was also a marriage commissioner without a commission. Norman, the shop steward, set it all up for them with his Ma. Ed was grateful. Her fee? Fifty bucks. Less than a quarter of what it would have cost if they’d gone legit. “We’re in business,” said Ed to Giovanna. She blushed.

When the formalities were ended—that is, when the government forms had been signed and imprinted with a freshly inked stamp lifted years before from the Marriage Registry—Ed and Giovanna sat down together with Mrs. Pinsky on her faded green sofa, ate Pot o’ Gold chocolates, popped some bennies and drained their Lucky Lagers. Mrs. Pinsky put “Our Love is Here to Stay” on the record player (as, indeed, she did for all the couples she married illegally in her living room). Ed and Giovanna watched the record turn round and round, lost for the moment in a vertiginous happiness that had just been sealed forever with a stolen, yellow-gold ring.

Ed’s alcoholic parents, and Giovanna’s, learned of the civil ceremony a week later. He had nicked two postcards displaying Mounties in red serge on horseback from the gift shop in Stanley Park. She wrote the news of their fait accompli in a loopy hand on the backs of the cards and together they dropped them into a post-box.

Ed and Giovanna should have paid Mrs. Pinsky’s fee.

The postcards reached their parents the same day the couple set sail on a cargo ship bound for Hong Kong, their bodies stuffed into a refrigerated container in a lower hold labelled “salt pork” in both Chinese and English.

Norman watched the Empire Peiping slip its lines just as his shift on the docks was ending. A tugboat nosed the vessel slowly out into Vancouver harbour. It was a Wednesday and, as was their habit, Norman and Mrs. Pinsky would soon be nestled comfortably beside each other on her faded green sofa with their TV dinners balanced on their knees, waiting for The Honeymooners to come on.

“That Ralph Kramden—he’s such a card,” Mrs. Pinsky would say the minute the laugh track kicked in after the first gag.

“Isn’t he just, Ma,” Norman would almost always reply, never exactly sure of what “card” signified in this context but reflecting, this one time, that—like “honeymooners”—the word must carry more than one meaning.




Crank Call

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The police were always at our building, shaking down suspects, and belting out questions. Where did you get the drugs? Why did you leave the scene of the accident? He said you started it, and hit him first.
Grownups are really stupid. Always barking about us kids, when they’re the ones lighting up the ghetto. Why not party like me and my friends, dishing out crank calls?
When the phone rings, we’re that menace looking to rat you out. Posing as the police, teachers, the parent of a chick you have the hots for. By the time your mama hangs up, she’s in a twist. That’s when we call back, and go on laughing.
Rainy day mischief meant random pizza deliveries, calling in taxis for the lady down the street. Hooting in the hallways as traffic piled up, horns honked their brains out, confused pizza boys rang the bells of empty houses.
Once the sun broke us free, we’d sneak off to the pool at Rockaway Gardens. Most folks at that apartment complex didn’t swim. So friggin’ old, they didn’t do anything, except sit around and complain. Others played cards and dominos, unfazed by the hooligans splashing around.
Our clowning and jeers always shook the super out from his office. Or was it one of my buddies with a cell phone? Either way, some fat guy chomping a cheap cigar would appear waving a folded newspaper as if we were flies. He’d chase our tails, and threaten to call the cops. Boo him. The police around here don’t respond to this kind of chaos.
Later on we started goofing about the prank calls. The one with the taxi cabs came to mind, spitting up another round of laughs.
“That’s not funny. Those guys work on commission and tips, plus they pay for their own gas. You start running them around, it’s a waste of time. We need that money to live,” Kevin Callahan said. His old man drove a cab on the graveyard shift for Apollo Taxi.
Kevin Callahan was a cry baby who needed to loosen up. I thought he was a phoney and a mooch who I never liked. Kevin only tagged along when his so-called real friends left him behind. And once they reappeared, he’d ditch us like days-old fish. Boo him too.
That night was my turn to place a funny call. Something to brag about and dare the bobcats to step up and beat.
After midnight, I left my bed to use the bathroom and the phone. I snuck into the parlor, and dialed the number for Apollo Taxi. I also punched star-six-seven on the keypad before the digits in case those stooges had caller ID.
I slurred and slowed my speech just like a drunk. The bartender announced last call at Barney’s Pub, and I needed a lift home. The dispatcher bought my act and told me ten minutes. I hung up, muttered sucker under my breath, and returned to bed.
When I woke up, I learned Kevin’s dad was killed by a head-on collision with a drunk driver. Mr. Callahan had responded to a phantom call, what the cabbies call a goose. Barney’s Pub told the cops nobody called a cab, fueling their investigation. The phone company jumped in the game, handing over the call records from both Apollo Taxi and Barney’s Pub.
That’s when the police showed up to the building and knocked on our door. The detectives had questions for me and my family. One of them was who called Apollo Taxi in the middle of the night.




Louisville Slugger

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And maybe he only did it because he was tired.
Maybe that was it, maybe mama not baking the honey baked ham with the glistening mounds of soaked black beans like she said she would did it, maybe her waving the spoon in his face and going “No, Jerry Arthur, no food for you tonight,” or maybe it was grandmama upstairs with her old toe under her pink blanket with all the stains, watching Wheel of Fortune or some such darn thing and weeping, weeping. And maybe he only did it because the ve-hicle was late, the bus, his bus, and maybe the big old fat bus driver with his cap all low like a big pig oinking going “come on now, get in the bus, Jerry Arthur,” maybe that did it for him too. Or maybe it was the old woman in black in the back of the bus, who looked like one of them doves he’d held at the farm upstate when he was smaller, real tender, real delicate, when he could still be delicate like that. His hands had got too large for that, now. He’d hold a spoon and it’d look like a tiny little pinprick in his hand, and he’d drop it nearabouts as often as bend it, and mama would sigh and go “Jerry Arthur” and grandmama mostabouts would look down at her grits in the little plastic scooby-doo bowl with the dark marks on the edges and go all gummy and wouldn’t say anything at all.
And maybe he only did it because it was raining.
Maybe he did it for no reason at all.
And maybe he only did it because of Sallie-Mae, who was supposed to be the hostess of “The Corral”, which was where he worked, except she never did much hostessing at all (Lou-Ellen who had a right eye gone and a real bad hernia somewhere around the waist region did all that.) Maybe he only did it because Sallie-Mae walked around him so fast like a big old moth that he couldn’t turn right to see her and walked all over the floor he’d just mopped, knocked all the plates from their places with a real big crash—-usually Sallie-Mae wasn’t so bad like this. But today she said “re-tard, re-taaaaaard, you fuckup—-My boyfriend left today for California and you don’t even care, you fuckup—-re-taaaaaard” And every time he tried to clean the kitchen and get it looking to rights she made it dirty again.
Maybe it was because the old fat man weren’t driving the morning bus, it was a little woman, dark and skinny and small like those snakes you hit and hit and hit with a rake back on the farm until they stop twitching, and when he got on she didn’t understand that mama would pay later, that she always paid for him, that he didn’t concern himself with money or anything like that.
“Off the bus with you,” she said. And from the back of the bus somebody said “Hey now, that’s Jerry Arthur”, but she didn’t pay him no mind, and she made him get off the bus.
And he felt real ashamed.
And maybe it was that mama had never loved him much or he couldn’t tell, maybe she did her good loving when he was sleeping and he couldn’t hear it, or when he was gone, or maybe it was the fact that grandmama was dying and he couldn’t put his head on her chest and have her pat it real good, anymore, because she couldn’t breathe then—-he tried it once and she had slapped him with her tiny bony hand and I just wanted my head on your chest he tried to say, and she said—-“no more trying to talk now, Jerry Arthur.” And maybe it was that.
Maybe it was the fact that he got mad sometimes, that everything was so hard and broke when he didn’t mean it to—-maybe it was the fact that deep down behind his belly button he felt tickled by the thought of getting to hit and hit and hit and hit. He really couldn’t say.
But when he went to the store that night to steal some eggs and maybe a lollipop the tall brown boy with the shiny white sneakers lifted his shoulders and shouted it, like a song—-“Retard! Retard! You fucking beast!” he turned and hit and hit and hit and hit until the boy’s soft brown face looked like a fruit and maybe he shouldn’t have left him there all broken in the street behind the Louisville bus station on the night of the big baseball game but he did.




Litro #148: The Going Home issue

Cover Art: Rising by Jeanie Tomanek

Contents:

Letter from the Editor by Eric Akoto

A Mother of My Own by Lucy Kellet

A New Place on The Map by GC Perry

Chinese Hamburgers by Kevin Baker

I Heart Containers by Patricia Morris

Listings by Brad Ellis

Mendacities by Michael Cohen

Going Home by Grazyna Plebanek

Author Q&A with Steph Cha

Welcome! to The Going Home issue Litro#148.
Become a Litro Member for access to back-issues and member exclusives.




The Taste of Water

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Can you describe it? Can you describe the taste of water?
No, not mineral, not bubbly water…
Plain water, flat, pure water…

* * *

Those cartons, square… cubic I should say… I will always remember them.
They were handed out after the show, back stage. In the rear of the truck, I mean, whose front was the theater on wheels. It went from town to town, suburb to suburb, periphery to periphery, favela to favela.

I sat there. I collapsed, exhausted like a beaten horse, not even removing my stilts, my complicated harness. Still on my wooden legs (those tall sticks I wore, for kids to hold their breath), I recovered after an acrobatic performance: in the tropical sun and equatorial dampness, tramping thick yellow sand…
Someone, a member of the modest production, graced me with a carton cube full of water. I remember pouring the contents into my throat, with the ecstasy of one sipping chilled champagne. I consumed that thing like ambrosia. It was nectar to me.
For, you see, I was thirsty.

What’s special about it? Well, as for many other issues, it is degree that matters. There are nuances. I’ve been around quite a while, but I experienced “the” quintessential thirst in those Brazilian favelas. Summer, midday, a soft muddy soil where we staggered on stilts, feeling, I believe, the opposite of what astronauts felt on the moon.
If they floated we sunk, sucked in towards the center of earth, lifting tons at the end of our fragile extremities.

Still I looked like a butterfly in pink satin: sporting feathers, pointy hats, fancy masks… Tracing arabesques with Chinese ribbons while galloping around, my gaze at roof level, my accordion tickling the unforgiving blue sky.
Miracles of youth and adrenaline, when they mix.

All that effort, that tremendous display of energy and grace, was paid pretty little moneywise. But enormously when I finally, simply, was given that thing.
Water I mean.
Oh my, how could I love it so? Maybe for I had little to love otherwise.
How sad was I, without even knowing. Sadness was like the sand grabbing at my stilts, entwining my steps… while I danced away, just sweating it a tad more. I didn’t notice my sadness or solitude.

Lord, how lonely I was! I knew I would be, from the very beginning.
He had told me about an old flame, about a previous lover living close by. He said she would visit during our tour and I shouldn’t nag or protest.

Did I ever protest? I took it as a natural flaw, like a storm or a draught, something you don’t especially wish for, but then what? If it happens it happens. So I knew I would share my booty with a double, a twin…
I had seen pictures. She didn’t look very different from myself. Dark and small, maybe a little plumper, less angular: all right.

Then he suddenly fell for a third gal, brand new adventure and local actress. Local beauty? Not truly. In fact, that one time I sincerely puzzled, night after night, about what made that plain sweetie so much better than me.
But indeed do our rivals have something that makes them better? Do they ever?
Or is it another problem entirely? Is the question a totally different one?

* * *

As I was saying! Can you tell me what water tastes like? Can you please give me the taste of water?
You can’t.
Water has none.
What you feel is the taste of your quenched thirst.
And sometimes it is all that matters.




Instinct

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It was winter again. Jijo’s favorite day came in winter. The “Annual Excursion Day”. All of junior school was packed into four buses and dropped at one of the cut and dried locations with a handful of trainee teachers as caretakers. This time it was to be the local zoo.

They gathered outside the school building sharp at nine, indistinguishable rows of ironed uniforms and oiled hair. It was no different from other gray mornings; the wind blew heavy towards the north. Jijo peered outside the bus window at the gathering clouds and remembered the new word he had learned in class. ‘Sinister’.

It excited him, the thought of impending doom. He imagined himself as a supervillain from one of his favorite comic books. In his excitement he pushed poor Ketu sitting next to him. When the boy fell on the greasy floor, Jijo pointed a finger at him and said, “Your end is near” in a venomous voice.

When the PE teacher stood in line to get entry tickets, Jijo saw the first board. “Do not tease the animals. Do not throw stones at them.” He didn’t intend to either. All he wanted was to go inside and buy a softy with the money mother had given him.

The first cage was always the giraffe’s. He liked the giraffe and the zebra best, they looked the least insidious. If he was a beast in the wild they would have been his favorite hunts. But it was not until they reached the tiger’s enclosure, surrounded by a moat and distanced from the public that he saw the second board. This time the language was harsh. “Do not tease the animals. Do not throw stones at them. There are consequences for your actions.” The tone was almost challenging.

In a few minutes the phalanx of thunderclouds broke and everyone ran for shelter. The teachers started counting heads, only Jijo managed to slip away. He managed to find the softy store but in his rush forgot about the note inside his pocket.

When he brought it out it was soaked beyond recognition. Savagely he tore it into pieces and started walking back. It was the smell that repelled him first. Of animal skin, termites and oxidized iron. Then he saw the monkeys, cramped inside a boxy coop, looking straight at him as if mocking him for his idiocy.

And there was the third board. “Do not tease the animals. Do not throw stones at them. There are consequences for your actions. And vengeance will be theirs.” That was it. Jijo picked up a stray piece of rock from the wet mud and hurled it towards the cage. The rock hit the biggest one on the head and it squealed in pain.

Something happened that moment. Jijo felt victorious but his head felt heavy and vision got blurrier. When he could see clearly again, he first saw the rusty iron bars. Then he extended his dense furry arm and felt the icy corroded steel. The repelling stench was now seeping inside his system.

Outside the sky was clearing. The stray rock lay at an arm’s distance in his cage. His own body stood outside, free and smiling at him. With the monkey now inside.




The Mouth

Somewhere in the dark, I heard them hit. I heard it one, two, three, and the boy crying for them to stop, then just crying, then nothing at all. If any of them saw me there, they didn’t say.
But how could they not when the stairs fell plumb into the middle of that room, the big echo of shower stalls on one side and the rows of lockers like teeth on the other. I think what makes it stand out all these years later is the way he seemed to take it—their fists, their kicks, the saliva from their guffaws and laughter.
Lying there, the straight lines of his face going impressionistic, he looked like some strange apparition of pleasure.
Not like in the cafeteria when he sat down on a cup of chocolate pudding that made his pants look like a bomb of diarrhea, nor at recess getting pelted with a million snowballs. Here in the dark, in the deep dark, with just him and these others—no teachers to witness, no girls—I saw the smile crest on his face as he gave himself to this strange, lurid dance.