Hats and Love (in the age of drones)

Mr. Z was getting off the monorail when he ran into Ms. P. They have known each since Conditioning School, during the Last Great Incorporation.

It was a cloudy, volatile day. Above the monolithic skyscrapers shadowing them the sky was churning, grey and foreboding. It hasn’t rained in months, though, this was just electricity.

Ms. P was wearing a straw hat she recently purchased, Model XB39, the one with the flower on the brim. The wind was whipping it about and she struggled to keep it on her head.  Mr. Z complimented the flower. Just before she replied, a large metal object fell out of the sky and crashed violently to the ground. They both looked up and saw nothing. When they turned their attention back to the metal object they discovered it was a drone.

Mr. Z was alarmed. He told her, “Ms. P, I think they are following you!”

“Nobody would be following me. I live a very uneventful life, until this little incident, I suppose. Maybe they are following you?”

Mr. Z was taken aback. He reached for the skin on his wrist, where his chip was implanted. “Me? I’m sure my life is more uneventful than yours. I work in a library scanning books into computers, only the approved books, of course. I even bring my lunch to work. No, there is nothing interesting about me.”

Ms. P countered, “Well, I sew my own sweaters and don’t even watch the news. I never gossip, not even about celebrities! If you asked me who the Grand CEO of the Incorporated States was, I’d even have to think for a second.”

“Come on, you know it’s…”

Ms. P interrupted him. “Shh….”

They both looked at the drone laying broken on the sidewalk next to them. Any minute the men would come for it. They picked up and began walking briskly toward the river.

Mr. Z began to feel that everybody they passed eyed them suspiciously. The city flew by in a parade of overcoats and hats. He wanted to talk to Ms. P, really talk, like he hasn’t in years, but couldn’t find a place to begin. Every thought that entered his brain felt dangerous. We have to moderate our speech, he repeated obediently in his mind, to create a harmonious citizenry.

“I can’t even get to the end of a magazine article in Science Weekly before falling asleep,” he said loudly. “There’s no reason to take an interest in me. No, I’m a regular, abiding citizen without much excitement to note.”

They passed a store specializing in straw hats. Ms. P recognized seven models that were almost exactly like hers. The window was full of them. It reminded her of the rules and she felt a tinge of sadness.

Ms. P told him, “I eat oatmeal, a lot of it.”

“I pay my bills the day they arrive in the mail.”

“When I have sex I don’t make a sound.”

Mr. Z paused, considering this, then told her, “When I have sex I always warn the lady before climaxing — and then cuddle for at least thirty minutes.”

He watched her squirm, not in an ever-present-fear-of-being-watched sort of way, but, like, something-itching-her-from-the-inside sort of way. He tried not to be excited by this.

They stopped at the tracks of the B78 train. A 38-carriage monster roared by, carrying thousands of people out to the factories and making conversation impossible. When it finally passed after eight minutes, they continued.

“I look forward to my parents visiting,” Ms. P announced.

“I call my mother once, sometimes twice, a day.”

They could see the river now, black and swirling in place, rather than flowing downstream as rivers used to do. A small portion was aflame with orange and yellow fire. They looked over their heads but the clouds of electricity made it impossible to tell if there were drones or not. The terrible wind shoved the putrid smell of the river in their face. They tried not to gag.

“Look. It’s really on fire today,” Mr. Z said. She nodded. “It’s beautiful,” he added for protection.

They stared at the river, at the tornadoes of flame licking its surface. The heat blew at them fiercely, causing beads of sweat to coat their faces. Ms. P removed her hat. Her flaxen hair fell softly on her shoulders. In the reflection of the fire, she was quite beautiful, glowing even, Mr. Z thought. He noticed that she had a mole next to her ear and wondered if it was natural, or if it was an Incorporated Implant. You never knew where people shop these days. Still, he couldn’t help admiring it.

Enough is enough, he thought, then swallowed roughly, preparing for something terrible to happen. “Look,” he told her, “Sometimes in the Autumn, when there are a lot of leaves in piles, I’ll kick ’em and laugh, like when we were young… before.”

She gave him a concerned look and thought it over, then replied, “I pour chocolate milk into my cereal when I’m bored.”

They started walking along the river, sludge and flame and all. They slowed to a more languid pace, trying to control their blood pressure, both secretly trying to outsmart the chip. Conversation syntax that walked the line.

He revealed, “When I’m lying in bed I think about what it would be like to ride horses again and grow my own vegetables… just as an exercise, I never would.”

“Of course. I do the same… I think about picking flowers from the public gardens.” She instantly regretted saying this out loud. “Just sometimes, just as an exercise.”


They walked silently together. It was nice.

Mr. Z told her, “I have a ukulele at home that I bought in Hawaii, back when it belonged to us.”

“I love Hawaii,” she said.

“I know! The smell of the flowers they put around your neck at the airport and the green mountains. The blue of the water. It’s so peaceful.”

“Sooo peaceful,” she agreed.

“So peaceful, and so clean. It’s like the entire island is made out of a bar of soap.”

She added, “A bar of soap that is also like a piece of fruit.”

“Yeah, Hawaii is exactly like that,” he agreed, impressed. “Anyway, the point of the ukulele is I never play it. I’ve had it for seven years, but I haven’t even taken it out of its case.”

“Why not?” She asked.

He thought for a second, debating whether or not to tell her. Then, “Because it reminds me of Hawaii…” he mumbled under his breath.

They went quiet, both contemplating things that aren’t allowed, places in their souls they’re not allowed to go. He grabbed her hand and they felt a surge of electricity, attracted from the clouds to their bodies. The also felt their chips activate, their wrists tingle. A warning shot.

He held up his hand. “This damn thing! I’ve thought about removing it and living in the unassigned lands, even though they say it’s impossible,” he revealed. Then, realizing he’s said too much, he added, “Maybe it’s just a dream, I don’t know.” The electricity intensified to the point of excruciating pain, but neither let go. He thought about going to bed with her and having sex with her, and about not having sex with her, but just lying in bed next to her. “I really do like your hat,” he told her.

She looked into his eyes and saw this strange mixture of excitement and fear. She felt the same thing, saw her deepest thoughts reflected in those eyes, and told him, “It’s impossible to live when you can’t dream.”

Mr. Z grabbed her shoulders and held her gaze. The electric field between them was now reaching critical levels. You could hear it crackle around them. “I’m not that boring,” he confessed, the electricity almost bringing them to their knees.

Ms. P swallowed deeply. Her teeth chattered. If love will kill you, then maybe it’s worth trying, she thought. The air was thick with charged, emanating particles — lightning bolts circled around them, they were utterly exposed now. She whispered to him, “I sometimes do make a sound,” just as their chips delivered the fatal voltage.

The love was too much. Their bodies were quickly located and disposed in the river. Her hat was returned to the store, and within a day was back in the window. The Incorporation owns everything, even hats and love.


After Everything Had Been Spilled

Animals. Plants. Your voice. The morning I woke
and heard the screaming outside. The dog on the bed.
Bread baskets. Light jokes. Falling over ourselves to be heard.
Won’t you take this match and find some flint? Take this
chalk and trace my arms and legs and the way they splayed
on the street like a marionette. A parrot in a minaret.
A blind palm reader reading my mind. Bath salts and Balzac.
I found your hair on my pillow 6 months after Big Sur.
After everything had been spilled.

A Beautiful Thing Part 844

I wake up late. I have so much to do I don’t know where to start. I go outside and the sun is shining, people are moving about happily, flowers are reaching for the sky. It gives me anxiety, everything being so beautiful.

I walk to buy a coffee. I hope this will kick in some work ethic, take me out of this vague discomfort. I have so much to do.

There is a man reading the paper at the coffee shop. He looks so peaceful, his glasses teetering on the edge of his nose. I stop and read the paper once he leaves it behind. After an hour I look down at my watch and realize I am not wearing it. There is a pigeon nearby. We regard each other briefly and then carry on with what we are doing.

There is an article in the paper about all these people fleeing a war and all these other people worrying about what they are going to do with them. I read half of it and start to worry about it too, then fold the paper and put it under my elbow. Just like that, problem solved.

A man drives up in a silver Mercedes. He looks about my age except he is wearing a suit which makes him look ten years older. I feel incomplete, like I should be wearing a suit, or driving a Mercedes, or just doing more than ignoring the plight of refugees. It reminds me that I have all these things to do, but makes me so upset about not doing them that I decide to walk to the mall instead.

When I get there the sun is at a low angle and makes it hard to see. I weave through the crowd like a slalom skier, blinded by the sharp rays. I have a ton of stuff to do today, but none of it involves being at the mall. Hey, life isn’t a to-do list I tell myself, go with the flow.

I see a crowd surrounding a fountain that is blaring music from a movie I remember vividly but can’t place its name. I decide to join them. Maybe this is the key to feeling normal, just join the crowd, watch the spectacle, don’t think too deeply about…. anything?

They are smiling and talking and taking pictures. It makes me hate them all, which makes me hate myself for hating them. We’re in a goddamn mall, I want to shout, get a hold of yourselves! You robots! This isn’t life! We’re outside a fucking Banana Republic!

I can’t do it, I can’t be normal.

Why did I come here? This mall is an exploitative, demoralizing attack on my character and my art! And what is my art? Those flimsy, flitting phrases and prose I put on a computer page. Shooting them in an ethereal void — just like a million others. Maybe I’m just a robot too?

It makes me think about my bedroom wall. I have a collection of mix-matched artwork placed sporadically upon the wall. Sometimes I look at them and half of them look crooked, but I can’t ever figure out which ones. Something’s wrong, but I can’t find the source.

I burst into a department store and converge quickly on the beauty products. I take a sampler of face moisturizer and squirt a large dollop into my hand. I smear it all over my face, leaving it thick like sunblock at the beach. I feel strange today and I can’t escape it. The urge to have people to look at me like the strange man I am fills me up.

I leave and walk through the mall like that, face covered in white lotion. I don’t feel human, not right now. But the thing is, even though I look like a flesh walker, like a spirit captured in a body that just happens to also be mine, nobody seems to notice. They continue on as if I’m invisible, swinging their shopping bags and taking selfies. It’s like I don’t exist, as beset with sadness and odd-angled as I feel, they walk on by like I’m a ghost.

And for the first time all day, I start to feel alright.

A Beautiful Thing Part 799

Soccer practice was over and he was walking home from the park. There was a man following him. He had been for three blocks, and slowly getting closer. Occasionally he’d steal a quick glance over his shoulder to track his stalker’s progress.

Usually this was a busy street but today hardly any cars were driving by. Where was everybody? Distress began to fill him up like a turbulent bathtub.

He thought about all those stories they tell in class. Kids getting snatched up off the streets, thrown in white vans, bad things happening. He began to consider breaking into a run, but he was small, this man was bigger, he’d surely catch him. What about going up to a house? Knocking on a door? Telling them, ‘help, I’m being followed by a strange man’?

But what if he were wrong? What if this man was just walking the same direction? How terribly embarrassing that would be. He would look like a paranoid freak. Yes, it would probably be easier to just be kidnapped then make a fool of myself like that, he thought, resigning himself to a nightmarish fate.

“Hey, wait up,” the man finally called out, using his name — which scared him even more. He froze. He didn’t recognize the man at all, how did he know his name? This is part of it they teach you: strangers who pretend to know you, say things like, ‘Your mom is delayed at the bank and asked me to pick you up.’ Etc.

This was it. This is how his young life was going to end. At the hands of a stranger coming up from behind and him not being able to shout out, ‘help me,’ or anything. Just a dumb, silent obedience to an unnecessary, grim fate.

The man yelled again. “Hey, you dropped your ball at the park!” He said.

He turned around and saw that the man was carrying his soccer ball. His name written in black marker on the side. He stopped walking. The man reached him and handed it over. “I’ve been following you for three blocks.”


“Well, don’t leave your ball behind again. Your parents will be upset.”


The stranger kept walking. He stood there, confused and relieved, reevaluating and recalculating his own suspicions, and then a big, shaggy dog came and barked at him, but not in a threatening way, just, like, saying hi.

A Beautiful Thing Part 611

The grass was a vibrant, neon green on a vast, sloping field that rose toward the immaculate sky. There wasn’t a cloud to be found. All these people were there, people he barely recognized and many he didn’t at all, wearing black that cut the blue background like cardboard paper.

He hid in the shade of a tree while the crowd gathered around the hole.

The priest began speaking and his thoughts closed down. The entire world was just a hum of sadness with occasional spikes of anger, an electronic drone running between his ears. He felt the earth under his feet. It was soft and spongy and threatened to liquefy.

A plane flew overhead, a tiny, large thing in a large, tiny sky. The thought of running away intoxicated him. His feet were already dug into the ground, though, and everybody was looking at him, waiting for him to speak. It was his turn. There was nowhere to go. He opened his mouth and out came a grinding sound at first, but then, after, a sonorous, plaintive serenade to all things painful and lovely.

When he finished there were people crying and smiling at the same time. There were birds chirping. Rose petals on the grave. Worms tunneled deeper into the Earth, nourishing all life to grow. Another plane hurtled toward the horizon, carrying strangers to their waiting baggage claims. There was life and death all around, indifferent to the assembly of man.

He wasn’t sure how, but he had tapped into something deep inside of him, and outside of him at the same time, something horrifying and beautiful and real. He spoke, and it really, really happened.

A Beautiful Thing Part 603

The nurse walked by pushing a computer on wheels. He stepped out and watched her grow shorter down the hall, an optical trick, like the moon being larger as it’s closer to the horizon. I guess it’s all an optical trick, he thought, like that computer being able to save lives and Jell-O being considered food and that every day it’ll get easier.

He walked out of the hospital and saw a rabbit hopping around the lawn and the man on the lawn mower pack it up into his truck. The air was syrupy in that Colorado way before a storm comes in. The flag flapped in the breeze and as it hit the pole a metallic ping reverberated out across the quiet plains.

He wanted to get drunk; not really drunk, he just wanted a beer, right now, cold as can be, with the beaded moisture dripping down the glass. He crossed the street to a little dive playing loud country music. Not the kind of place he likes to find himself in, but nothing was these days.

The bartender walked over. She had fake blonde hair that screamed at you from across the room. On her right shoulder was a tattoo of a palm tree that made him want to walk out and not have that drink, then he remembered his father tied up to machines with a mask over his face that made him look like some horrible Science Fiction villain-to-be, and the world made no sense and the ache in his being screamed for one.

“Hey, sweetie, how are you doing?” She asked, masticating a piece of gum in her mouth like a wolf chewing through deer flesh.

He wanted to open up and tell her.

This is what he said: “I’m American. I’ve got two lungs and one liver and I’m not afraid to put either of them to the test tonight. Pour me a Fat Tire and let’s talk.”

She laughed as she grabbed a glass and poured from the tap. The jukebox switched from one country song to another one that sounded identical to it. For the moment he had nothing to say. He just watched with silent awe his mug filling up with amber waves of pain.

A Beautiful Thing Part 549

I asked her about Kurt Cobain, if she knew what band he sang for. She looked at me confusedly. She knew the Foo Fighters but had never heard of Nirvana. We broke up the next day.

Two weeks later I was on my way to the hospital when she called. Seeing her name come up on my phone made me want to throw it out the window — not because I felt any amount of anger toward her, but because it made me feel anger at myself. She knew about Modest Mouse and that should’ve been good enough.

I couldn’t answer it, because then I would have to talk about why I was going to the hospital, and talking about going to the hospital might make me feel the emotions I’m so good at shoving down and compartmentalizing. Instead, I put on an old Nirvana album and listened to Kurt lie about not owning a gun.

His room was on the 6th floor. In the elevator I did a quick calculation about how many sick and dying individuals were housed in this building. Hospitals… oh shit. Lots of pitfalls. On pause. Awful possibles. Stop-able. Oh, holy hostile, inhospitable hospitals.

He was lying in a bed behind a yellow curtain with dozens of different colored tubes plugged into him. I immediately thought of a car at the mechanics with the hood popped and the engine scattered in pieces.

“How are you doing, old man?” I asked, summoning strength and trying to carry on as normal. Normal for me is avoidance through humor, cynical syllables.

“Oh, I’m alright,” He slurred through an oxygen mask. “Are you still dating that young girl? Lisa?”

Her name was Leslie, but I told him, “Yes. Lisa said to tell you ‘hi.'” I changed the subject. “Boy, you looking to rack up frequent flier miles with all these hospital stays?” He smiled but did not laugh.

I sat down and looked him over. It had been four years and there was flesh and spirit absent from the last time I saw him. His face held a grey scruff, his eyes were wild, scared things. I held his hand and it trembled, but it still had that impossible strength I remember from when I was young and held it just to cross the street.

He faded in and out of sleep as I sat with him. Time carried us gently, a brook trickling through a shaded gulch.  There were bags of his urine and blood hanging off the side of the bed.

I stood up and went to the window. On the other side of a drainage ditch there was a sloping hill. I watched a man pull up in a pickup truck and unload a riding mower down a wooden ramp. He turned it on and began to traverse the hill, cutting the grass.

He woke up and looked past me, out the window. I went back to his side. He squinted and struggled to see what was happening across the way, staring intensely. Life went on. The gardener continued to ride his mower across the hill. Grass got cut. Elevators took loved ones up and down.

— My heart continues to survive vicious cuts. 

He finally asked, “Is that a horse?”

I looked at the man on the hill, his blue L.A. Dodger hat on his head, underneath it a black mustache, and wearing blue jeans with grass stains. I could see Yamaha on the side of the riding mower. Behind the hill was a Conoco gas station. Next to it a billboard for Jiffy Lube.

I didn’t know what anything meant anymore.

“Yes, dad,” I told him. “It’s a horse.”