The Loneliness from Which Love Springs.
He tore a Piggly Wiggly-brand band-aid from its wax paper envelope while the process server sucked her bleeding finger as though to derive sustenance. Early stage rheumatoid arthritis or possibly latent MS had begun to hyperextend its pip joint resulting in a mild swan-neck deformity that reminded him of a pornographic video he'd watched back in high school with other members of the wrestling team in a Pigeon Forge motel following an away meet. He tried not to stare. When she'd finished nursing, he applied the band-aid, also covering a painstakingly detailed metallic-acrylic nail painting of two misaligned hearts pierced and conjoined by a single arrow.
Form D-10: Application for Divorce
a) Reason for Divorce
Mrs. Susan Miles hereby cites irreconcilable differences between the parties as grounds for divorce from the bonds of matrimony to Doctor Clarence Miles as per Chapter 36 of Tennessee Code and as regularly and consistently recognized and upheld by the State's Supreme Court and Court of Appeals in granting the absolute dissolution of marriage contracts. In compliance with procedure decree 36-4-102 (b) requiring "sufficient provision by written agreement for the equitable ..." settlement of property rights, see the notarized photocopy of a personal correspondence hand-delivered by Doctor Miles to the temporary residence of Mrs. Miles shortly after the initiation of their trial separation period, and in particular paragraph 4's conclusion, "Just take whatever the fuck you want you hoor [sic]," that's both acquiescent and in keeping with the irascible thrust of the communique in toto, and that augurs the absence of more biddable documentation: to wit Doctor Miles' uncooperative stance from the onset of this matter further evidenced by his refusal to retain legal counsel in order to represent his own interests or to return any of the calls or reply to any of the overtures of negotiation filed by this office. In short, his efforts to gainsay the matter through non consideration manifest as non compliance has forced us to proceed as per statutes stipulating and providing for "limited" or "uncontested" challenges on his behalf.
The document struck him as superfluous. By virtue of his wife's having six months prior moved into a Chattanooga Wal-Mart s sporting goods associate's tiny Chickamauga apartment and, shortly after that, given birth to the man's child, be considered himself already divorced. But as the process server, who was herself-studying to become a paralegal, explained while tapping her forefinger against her temple, "Ipso facto never cuts it: action must culminate in word under the law." When she stepped forward, she became almost invisible, like the Mississippi when you're right down on it.
The document autopsied his marriage in standard legalistic vernacular and hyperbole that says little but sways judgment. He perused it while she shifted her weight from leg to ample leg. Peeking from his housecoat's left pocket was Joe Haldeman's old sci-fi classic The Forever War, and from his right, William Gibson's award-winning cyberpunk Neuromancer. The process server interrupted to ask him it he read much and also to explain that in signing the now blood-fingerprinted affidavit, he testified only to acceptance of the document and not to agreement with anything in it.
He admitted he spent the bulk of his waking hours reading science fiction novels and watching TV, bur took umbrage at the document's paraphrased implication that he was functioning with his head up his ass.
To which she stated she preferred romances herself, and were she ever to marry, she'd augment her vows to provide for irreconcilable differences so that she and her betrothed might continue to have and to hold one another, not only for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, bur also in reconcilable and irreconcilable difference--though everyone knows a marriage vow, like the currency of Zimbabwe, isn't worth the paper it's printed on--after which she handed him an inexpensive ballpoint promoting a local pet supplies franchise without their fingers touching.
He said the thing he liked about science fiction, and that made it exactly the same as history except maybe not as depressing, was how wrong it could be and still sell, but playing along with the whole divorce charade didn't so much end a marriage as acknowledge it, affirm it, prolong it--drag the grand farce out.
She'd never thought of history as fiction or the future as history or read either of the two books he showed her and so had no idea it either had gotten any of it right as he assured her they hadn't, bur she could say based on her paralegal training to date that, while her signature alone was sufficient for legal purposes, the absence of his might prejudice the court against him, should it come to that. Plus, if pertinacity were all it took to defeat love's abandonment, then there'd be far less joy in the world. Which he might have found glib had she herself looked happy.
There followed then a silent impasse during which they stood in his doorway staring at one another as if to ignore some soulless dark chimera beckoning from the periphery, and blood coagulated in her fingernail's cuticle and her Mercury idled in his drive. Her grey polyester jacket draped open on a simple rayon blouse that was either very subtly and evocatively pink--or white, in which case she owned something red--stirred in him preverbal memories of curtains drawn on cloudy winter sunsets. He returned his books to his housecoat's pockets and placed one foot atop the other. On his left he wore a navy Kenneth Cole nylon-knit dress hose and on his right a yellow Merino wool and Lycra-blend ski sock. His frying pan supper of canned tuna over canned spinach cooled on a tray in front of a televised special that he was not recording. The socks, his two favorite, lent his feet disparate warmth. The meal, the same he'd prepared and eaten every evening since just after Labor Day, was sufficient to sustain life. The special, a Tennessee Valley Media production on companion animals, would never win an Emmy. Eventually he signed the affidavit. But he did not ask her in.
That night, as always, he slept on his own side of the bed and used only his own pillows. But woke from a deep slumber when the medicine cabinet's mirror crashed down into the bathroom sink and his cat screamed and bolted from room to room and, from the sounds of it, up and down walls in the first of her feline night terrors. Then, sleepless in the wee hours before dawn, something onerous and large began to press upwards on the center of his mattress, causing him to roll outwards toward, and eventually off, the edge. Thrice he picked himself up off the floor with his blankets. And, each time, his lethargy frightened him more than the apparition. In the morning he brushed his teeth and shaved without reflection.
On Saint Patrick's Day the process server returned, this time with an Affidavit of Evaluation pertaining to a box of Hallmark Christmas ornaments ostensibly in his possession: twelve snow globes; eighteen tree toppers; six merry miniatures; et al; all of "limited" manufacture; and all, by the affidavit's estimates, over-depreciated, even for Hallmark collectables.
"But alas, all accidentally crushed in a parking mishap."
The process server nibbled at a splinter that his porch rail had embedded in her middle finger. She'd shed a few pounds and was now almost comparable to a family-size water softener. Other things had changed too. Humidity had compromised the adhesive on the mirrored tiles around the tub in the downstairs bathroom so that one by one they'd fallen off. And the leftover ones that he'd affixed above the bed in happier times, he'd taken down himself. He'd run out of canned spinach and so changed his supper recipe to incorporate canned com. The large oval-framed mirror on the chest of drawers in the bedroom had somehow become unbolted and lay face down beneath the bed.
He'd been watching a History Channel program on the druids with his cat, which he'd begun to squirt with a water-filled dish detergent bottle whenever she woke him with her fits. Neither the lime green argyle sock on his left foot nor the olive green McGregor on his right were as appropriate to the holiday as the process server's shamrock green lipstick and complementary though more softly verdant angora sweater. His band-aid still covered her conjoined hearts. But all of her other fingernails now depicted either leprechauns standing in, or rainbows arching up from, glittering pots of gold. She wondered as to the best science fiction book he'd ever read and if be might permit her to draw up a statement detailing the events surrounding the loss of the valued Hallmark Collectables. She happened to be studying depositions and other forms of testimony in her paralegal course and wouldn't mind trying her hand at it for real. Of course it would be totally pro bono as in free and he didn't even have to sign if he didn't want. He thanked her very kindly, and said it was definitely Infinite Jest because of how brilliantly Wallace had failed to anticipate digital media and the evolution of computers, and that he'd give the offer some thought. Then he closed the door.
That night he rose twice to reprimand and squirt the cat. Then in his bed appeared a beautiful stranger whose anger so transformed her face that he was unable to approach her, even when he saw it was a dream.
Form A- 18: Affidavit of Testimony
a) Statement of Events
On September 7, 2007, five days after my wife, Susan Miles, left the matrimonial home, I, Clarence Miles, in cleaning and reorganizing the garage to which I had relocated a box of Hallmark collectables after cleaning and reorganizing the attic where they had been previously scored along with many boxes of paperbacks, temporarily placed said Hallmark collectables including, to the best of my knowledge, several dozen Christmas ornaments and a small number of miniature replica timepieces circa 2001 all wrapped in tissue paper in a sturdy cardboard box at the edge of the driveway with the intention of later relocating them to the shelf above my workbench in the garage once I had cleared and reorganized said workbench. In the course of my reorganizations it became necessary to back my 2004 Toyota Sequoia SUV out of the garage, at which time I passed over the box of collectables with both passenger side tires at a very slow rate of speed. Because of the Sequoia's 6,500-pound curb weight and off-road suspension it did not become clear to me what had transpired until after I had retrained the vehicle to the garage after again passing over the treasured Hallmark collectables in their now structurally compromised cardboard box and went to retrieve said now squashed box of said now crushed collectables to be placed permanently and securely on said now empty shelf above the workbench that I discovered my error.
A few days later, on the evening of Palm Sunday, the process server returned to see if he'd reached any decision on testifying via affidavit re the events surrounding the loss of the collectables. She'd even taken the trouble to draw up a rough draft of his side of the story, as she imagined it could have happened, to sort of get the ball rolling and "Really, isn't it all just fiction when you get right down to it?" He'd finished his supper of canned tuna to which he'd experimentally added half a can of pinto beans but then not eaten and been watching a nature program on the donkey or ass (Equus asinus) which, in spite of having fewer chromosomes, can be bred with the horse (Equus caballus), another species in the family equidae, to produce a hybrid mule or hinny, and which had him wondering if any species of the family Hominoidea known collectively as great apes, and that includes orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans, might someday successfully interbreed. She still wore his Piggly Wiggly-brand band-aids on her middle and ring fingers. His housecoat's hem and wooly slippers partially concealed his mismatched socks.
He moved aside to let her pass, inviting her to leave her shoes on even as she slipped them off. The first mirror had fallen on Christmas, an antique black Winston coat rack hanging beside his front door, when its wire snapped. And the most recent, when the cat during one of her night frenzies had knocked over a wrought-iron hat stand with a small mirror on it. Both had shattered and a shard he'd missed in one of their cleanups cut her left big toe right through her nylons, which she then removed while standing. Her toenails were painted in some palmate-compound foliage that at first he thought cannabis but then realized was palm fronds. Kneeling, he cleaned her cut with hydrogen peroxide from the now mirrorless upstairs vanity and then applied one of the large Piggly Wiggly-brand band-aids from a box he kept handy at all times. He signed her rendition of the Hallmark collectables' destruction, pronouncing the account "historically accurate." But did not invite her to stay.
That night the weight of the living room mirror pulled two anchored screws through drywall after two wood screws independently splintered from their studs. A leather recliner broke its fall and carpet deadened the sound of its hitting the floor and cracking, and so he was not woken from a dream in which all the phones kept ringing, even though none were plugged in and had not been since Thanksgiving. He squirted the cat just after midnight and again an hour later when her moans intruded on a dream in which he watched a stranger make love to his wife. Then something heavy lay in the center of his bed causing it to sag so deeply that he had to clutch his pillow to keep from falling. Just before dawn he hunted for his missing socks, even going so far as to partially disassemble the drier.
The process server next appeared on Mother's Day and presented him with a crayon drawing of a woman and a little girl holding hands beneath a yellow sun. Scribbled white clouds hung from a linear blue sky. A green hill reached amplitude in the center. The woman, a montage of fat ovals and circles, looked like a squashed balloon animal. Her smile appeared false at the corners, as though augmented by a different hand. The girl's arms and legs splayed from her face like the sun's rays overhead. Her cheek's grey freckles might also have been tears. Some attempt had been made at an inscription. Handing it to him, the process server began to cry. Then she got a vicious nosebleed. Not having completely allowed for a canned vegetable diet's impact on his digestive system, he'd run out of toilet paper just after Easter but still had hall a case of cocktail napkins from his bachelor party. She looked angry and unapproachable with them bulging from her nostrils.
That night the cat's laments took on the ubiquitous whistling quality of the ringing in one's ears when one is being choked. He didn't try to stop it. Instead he took a pickax to the basement floor in search of his socks' lost mates. Every time he struck, the house howled. Blood, as if from some arterial spring, spurted up from each fresh puncture and welled in every fissure.
On Labor Day the process server, who sometimes accepted courier work, presented him with a photocopy of a document that appeared to be an internal memo from a regional television station's production manager to his staff. She'd underlined a sentence in the second paragraph. He'd run out of toothpaste since her last visit and had begun brushing with baking soda. He'd also run out of hand soap, dish soap and shampoo, and was on the last of is jumbo box of Tide. His remaining socks were clean, but his drinking cups and cutlery were scummy and his scalp was flaking. The drier was broken. His terrycloth housecoat was starting to mildew. The cocktail napkins from his bachelor party were gone and paperbacks from Hubbard's Mission Earth series and Donaldson's Gap quintology stood stacked beside the toilets in the up and downstairs bathrooms, respectively, in their stead. But he still had half a case of band-aids. He tore open a fresh box while she rummaged in her purse for a penso that when she cut her thumb on her makeup case's mirror he was ready. She'd lost more weight and was now comparable to a ten-gallon refillable water cooler at her hips and bust, and to a woodstove's vent pipe at her waist. She sucked her thumb tentatively, as if counting calories, while he peeled back the band-aid's adhesive strips. Her nails were dirty and short. She smelled like bacon frying and fresh-squeezed grapeffuit juice.
As with the child's drawing, now magnetized to his refrigerator door, there was no requirement that be sign for the photocopied memo pertaining to the upcoming Halloween special. She'd just thought it was something he might be interested in and maybe they could even watch it together and discuss it over coffee? But he'd run out of coffee ten weeks back on Independence Day, and, after three days of low-grade headaches and listlessness, no longer missed it all that much. In fact, good riddance even.
This document contains intellectual property proprietary to TPBS-TV, a division of Tennessee Valley Media Corporation. If you feel you have received it in error, please contact one of the following: Tracy Duncan--Director of Programming; Jennifer Smart--Director of Production; Andy Hames--Media Relations; lane Cochrane--Asst. Counsel; Joe Landon--Station Manager. Do not discuss, transcribe, scan, photocopy, post, email, link to, or in any way share, distribute or disseminate any part of this material. Civil and/or criminal action may be taken against any person or persons violating these confidentialities.
I know we're under a lot of pressure gang. Now all the more with Charlie's passing. Gearing up for a big production always makes me think of playing crack the whip down at the roller rink as a kid. You spend so much effort holding onto the person in front, you forget about the person holding onto you. Next time anyone here feels they can't hang on I hope they'll reach for a hand instead of a rifled slug[end strikethrough].
Now on to happier matters.
Congrats on some outstanding nominations by the National Television Academy in New York last night. Almost pissed myself when I saw our Valentine's Day, "Zoophilia: More than Just Friends?" up for Best Nature Documentary. Especially since we meant it as a social commentary. A bunch of the credit has to go to Darryl and Sheila down in Surveys % Statistics whose dogged field research flagged this trend in mores. Like the song says: "Times they are a changin'." Anyway, an impressive year--a jubilant year. But one I trust won't see us resting on our laurels.
Before I address the suggestions and recommendations of our Aug 10 web confab re our upcoming Halloween special, I'd like to again remind everyone how the whole creative group gestalt thing sirs and sorts. That except for "u" and 'T' there's no difference between collusion and collision. So when I start tromping around on tender tootsies, I want pall to keep holding them out there, wiggling.
Jack, I'm pulling you off that prayer-a-thon thing over at United Trinity, and that web-based writing competition that's just plain too macabre for words. We're not dropping them. We'll get a statistician on the national suicide figures next month. Meanwhile I want you to take over interviewing that psychophysicist staying up in Limestone Correctional as a guest of the state of Alabama. I've FedExed you Charlie's transcripts and tapes. Head on over to Has-vest as soon as you've had a chance to go through them. Tell the guy his prototype's being held as state's evidence but that we've shown his specs to an engineer at Cleveland Tooling who thinks he can produce a higher quality vacuum using liquid nitrogen and centrifugal force. I hope you find him as discomfiting and dangerous as I do. If so, this story's going to dominate the promotional trailers which start airing in October. But I don't think we want to upstage ourselves by leading with it. Let's end with his firing up that doodad maybe.
Millie, I love, absolutely love, your little girl from Mississippi with the "devil voice." I say we kick off with hen Jerry, make sure we shoot that "Jesus is Lord of Marion" sign out on old highway 45 coming in from the south. Hammy, I want the hospital surveillance footage leached antique monochromatic, almost like burnt black & white. Maybe just a splash of scarlet on her eyes and tongue. Of course fade the background. Add some graininess and jiggle too. Not quite Blair Witch amateurish, but analogue and handheld. Try to really draw out her pallor and punch up those dark circles under her eyes. Maybe transition in a few post-op frames from after she wakes up in recovery and still looks delirious. Toggle between tight close-ups and high out-of-body type angles that downplay the swelling in her neck. Don't mess with the sound too much. Maybe, when you remaster it, add just a touch of bass and reverb. Graft in the bite where she says, "Make the girl die," so it sounds like she's referring to herself in the third person and not some other little kid in the ward. There's some footage of her classmates getting told about her situation in assembly. Mix it in so it looks like they're listening to her instead of the principal talk, so that it's her voice that's upsetting everyone. Ellen, find a priest to discuss demonic possession syndrome: odd dietary compulsions and disorders, repulsive stenches, copious foaming saliva, severe abdominal pain, projectile vomiting, screaming fits, teeth grinding--all that. Reference the Goodman study. And make sure the priest mentions speaking in low, raspy voices very different from the speaker's, but omit references to coprolalia unless you can get our little girl to say some pretty nasty words, and pass it by legal first if you do. She attends Sunday school over at East Mt. Moriah Baptist. Get her to recite some of the more ominous scripture from the Old Testament in that setting. The brother's demonstration of her throwing down that hymnal and howling is a definite keeper. Make sure someone mentions she was in the children's choir. Obviously we're going to have to juggle the timeline to preserve suspense, since the sicker stuff's compliments of chemo and radiation, and so comes at us post diagnosis. End with the oncologist's explaining the laryngeal biopsy results and prognosis. Use the needle going in her throat. We're looking for superstition's dark fear and confusion giving way to modern medicine's bright hope and interventions when the demon turns out to be just a melanoma on the kid's voice box. Surgeons excise, and we establish investigative credibility right out of the gate.
It's too bad that psychophysicist's appeal's not till after Christmas. Means we'll have to work from transcripts and interviews. Damn but I'd bludgeon my favorite bird dog with an ax handle for the evidentiary footage of him strangling that young woman in his lab like a starling. Beth, I want you to re-interview that piano teacher juror, and this time get her to emphasize how when he's throttling that poor woman he's not even looking at her but at readouts from that little whatever-you-call-it on his computer. Try to make her cry a little harder this time, too. Joe, see where Alabama case law draws the line on artistic renditions and dramatic reenactments. Sheila, see if you can't scrounge up a few more ex-students of his and get a better feel for how he decided who to use. Darryl, dig more into the science behind that contraption of his. Jack, make sure you get him to talk about zero-point divergence and negative emergent waves and whatever other metaphysical mumbo jumbo will make it seem like that gizmo could conceivably tear open a portal into hell. Try to use the word vortex.
Brady, I'm pulling you off that, woman in Memphis whose dead daddy still abuses her. The notion's a little worn out and pornographic, and she doesn't pretty up all that well. Plus I think she's been on Springer with her brothers. But I like your old lady over in Jonesboro who looks like Aunt Jemima grafted onto the Wicked Witch of the West. Not the pointiest pin in the cushion. Might want to sharpen her up with amphetamines. And let the nephew who called the police do most of the talking. Apparently she's still terrified to go downstairs, so push her as far as you can and keep the camera on hen Hammy, I want all basement footage dark, shaky and claustrophobic. Put the viewer too close to everything. Increase the volume as we approach her haunted fruit cellar, but also drop it to a drone, subsonic so folks feel instead of hear the squeaking. Actually, see if we can go full subliminal on audio. Except I want a taut, clinical male voiceover that comes off as anxiety suppressed.
"For weeks, Bessie Washington complained to her nephew Abraham of ghostly screams and putrid smells emanating from her basement. Finally, on the evening of July 18, 2008, tired of her constant late night phone calls, Abraham Stiller, a bricklayer from Little Rock, made the two hour drive to Bessie's modest Jonesboro home, arriving at 3 AM with a flashlight and videophone. He expected his old aunt might be losing her, mind, possibly from over medication. He did not expect the nightmare waiting for them in her dank cellar: The following images might be disturbing to young or sensitive viewers. We now suggest ..."
You know the drill: blab, blah, blab. Pretty much writes Itself. Keep in mind this is a special, not a documentary, so we don't have to scrimp on cheesy effects. Like stick the viewer's face right in the crack as the door creaks open. Then the chorus of wails. Then let them catch just a glimpse of that dark mass with a thousand yellow eyes squirming on the floor before it slams shut. Let's see that black patrolman puking before we cut to the chase, before the detectives arrive to find, instead of some ghastly apparition, just one big urban ecological mess. End with the chief describing how that junkie crawled through her basement window and overdosed, and the exterminator explaining how there's been a huge rat problem in that part of Memphis ever since last February's sewer maintenance initiatives. And how it doesn't take that many rats to overpower hungry stray cats. We're looking at a mysterious phantasm giving up the ghost to hardened law enforcement within a decaying infrastructure. Like this noisy, stinky poltergeist turns out to be just a dead addict serving as an entree for a swarm of competing rodents.
I can't get excited about any of our "ghost buster" type agency leads. Besides that there's nothing much scary about camera orbs and drafty rooms, it's all just so anecdotal and unsubstantiated. The best's a Tuscaloosa Paranormal Group researcher from the University of Alabama looking into spontaneous choral renditions in a Shelby Hall chemistry lab. Not sure how interesting students all humming the same tune in some classroom is. The melody's apparently been identified as from Clementi's B-flat Major Sonata as plagiarized by Mozart in the overture to his Magic Flute and so not particularly obscure in classical circles, but still not the kind of thing that'd appeal to today's hip-hop jiving, iPod toting undergrad. The TA who first noticed it claims almost anyone who spends longer than an hour or so in the room winds up humming it. Though, now that it's become kind of a local urban legend, you've got a lot of people not affiliated with the university wandering in from all over to see if they'll hear anything too. It's actually become something of a security problem. Everyone wants a glimpse of the other side. They say that as long as you're thinking about it, listening for it, nothing happens. That it's like falling asleep, or in love. It never happens when you're looking. It creeps in from the edges. And it's probably someone else who'll notice and say, "Hey, it's that tune" and it takes a moment for you to realize, hey, they're right. Then of course you've got the posers and fakers, those who are sure it's all a hoax but still want to hop on the bandwagon. But the TA says it's easy to tell who's pretending. And who isn't.
In early October, sick in bed, he was unable to come to the door when the process server knocked. Perhaps one of his cans of tuna had been tainted with more than the normal amount of dioxin or not been properly sterilized in the canning process so that some microorganism had survived and proliferated as life is wont to do. Or perhaps he suffered from generalized avitaminosis or some specific mineral or vitamin deficiency like scurvy or rickets or even Korsakoff's psychosis caused by his diet's dwindling variety. As with his bed's nocturnal visitations, it was his lethargy that frightened him the most as her knocking grew more and more frantic and assertive, until abruptly stopping, and he heard the mail slot creak open and then clank shut, and her stifled curse.
The next morning he felt better and wondered, as he had begun to wonder about most of what transpired, if it had been a dream. Even after a paperback entitled A Memoir of All Mankind by an author he'd never heard of and a blood-gilded Halmark sympathy card on the floor below the mail slot in the hallway suggested otherwise--still he wondered.
A Memoir of All Mankind
Isaiah Rivers is a renaissance man: English professor, published author, professional lacrosse player. A sharp mind, sturdy body, beautiful wilt, and an uncanny feel for threats on and off the field. That is until a seemingly innocuous domestic misstep results :in a freak spinal cord injury that leaves him a tetraplegic, paralyzed from the nose down. Rushed into life support, he's "networked" to an advanced experimental Segway human transporter that becomes his body and voice, its neural net's "intelligent" systems designed to learn, anticipate and augment his own. But it's after his biological body dies and is cremated that the real story begins. For he claims to still live! In the device! Writes brilliant works in minutes, but is banned from teaching. Sprints the hundred in four seconds fiat, hauling twice his armored body weight, but is not allowed to play lacrosse--"even in a handicapped league!" Is he aware? Or are the Segway's sophisticated emergent algorithms and circuitries only mimicking him? Humanity is violently divided on the "miracle." Does it spell the beginning or the end of human evolution? While many seek to migrate from their dying flesh, others litigate, and even kill, to stop them. Only one thing is certain: everything has changed. But is this to be our prologue or epilogue? Is Isaiah the future or a memoir of all mankind?
The process server appeared just before ten p.m. Halloween evening, facing him in ambient streetlight. The incandescent bulb in the hall had burnt out the previous Christmas while carolers from New Life Bible Church sang "Joy to the World" on his steps. Since then other bulbs throughout the house had gradually followed suit. He'd replaced the essential ones, such as in the two bathrooms, the laundry enclave and of course his reading light in the bedroom, with those from less trafficked areas like closets, spare rooms and the matching porch fixtures on either side of his front door. He never allocated more than one bulb to any area so that over time his house had grown dimmer and dimmer, like a person slowly losing consciousness.
The process server wore an angel costume in which she was comparable to a stretched stocking with little plastic wings. He attributed her skeletal thinness to an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa or possibly some wasting cancer such as bowel or lung. Whatever her condition, she'd gone from being a fat balloon creature to an emaciated string sketch, and smelled like overripe candy apples and mothballs. The street was deserted. He'd staunched any potential flow of trick-or-treaters by earlier passing out cans of Piggly Wiggly-brand navy beans-one per party "to be shared by all."
Suggesting it hurts less if you do it yourself, he handed her a safety razor, and then tried not to stare while she slit a thin red incision across her thigh just above the costume's hemline. Then he asked her in. Their program was about to begin.
The living room was dark, not being a high-priority light bulb area. And dank. He'd run out of kitty litter. And though he was conscientious about tidying up after his cat, her exclusive tuna in oil diet coupled with his diminishing cleaning supplies and different sleeping schedule all served to limit his effectiveness. He himself had become inured to the smell of ammonia but apologized to the process server anyway, and also for not offering her anything to eat or drink. Neither of which she insisted mattered as they sat on his leather sofa, she in her angel garb and he in his mildewy housecoat, in the flickering light of a forty-three-inch plasma TV propped up on an armchair. Already she was used to the smell, which served to clear the sinuses if nothing else. And as far as food went, she tended not to keep it down much anyway.
A disturbing image of a long silver needle sliding into the throat of a young and very sick and frightened-looking little girl saw the process server turn and bury her face in his shoulder. Then another of a dead wino half eaten by rats in a fruit cellar saw her spring almost onto his lap. In both instances she relinquished some of the ground she had gained when the scenes transited into commercial. But it was during a story about members of some church congregation's praying in a concerted and coordinated way to try to focus God's attention on stopping people from committing suicide that she laid her hand on his and then left it there right through a CashSmart spot--"We give money until payday! Don't wait to do the things you want!"--and on into the next related story about a themed creative writing competition where you had to submit your suicide "note" (7,000 words max) and then kill yourself to qualify, and which, as the contest administrators stressed, wasn't supposed to make people off themselves but just let those that would anyway leave publishable sentiments and go out winners, as in never have to be disappointed by loss. Which she said was just about the most despicable and ill-conceived thing she'd ever heard of--but still kept her hand fast on his. Even after he as a literary aficionado pointed out that no one achieves true greatness until after their death and so could kind of see the hope and poetry in it, she just squeezed his hand harder.
The final segment involved a scientist who, surprisingly personable for having murdered his research assistant, lectured from his jail cell on an invention he believed could "change everything."
It was the scariest bit yet, though neither the process server nor her host could say why. He said he understood but didn't buy into any of it and she said for her it was exactly the opposite. Then she shooed the cat from his lap and took its place. Focused on more intimate concerns now, the scientist's words came to them as echoes from afar, speech as heard and understood by the anesthetized, clear and uncluttered by analytic thought.
A physicist from a state college confirmed that the vacuum's infinite zero-field energies were "hot in physics now" and that the jailed scientist's theory that enough conscious observers could "spontaneously rent or polarize super-tariffed space into some unique constellation of nigh infinite substructure" to, in other words, "rip open a whole new kind of universe" was well within the current theoretical model's thinking. The process server's wings parted against his chest as she leaned back. "Because, you see, quantum mechanics views matter as a manifestation of consciousness, and not the other way around." On his lap, she felt lighter than the cat--"Mass is an illusion"--almost as weightless as an idea, but warm and trembling. "Of course it's impossible to say with certainty that the Nielsen-estimated audience of one-point-two million tonight will comprise a sufficient observational entity, or that the applied hypobaric technology will produce a pure enough vacuum, especially down here in Earth's gravity well." Her fingertips deftly solved the mystery of his housecoat's knot. "And even if the experiment is successful, we might never know. Change the past, and you change your memory of it. We're probably talking whole new dimensionalities and physics. Maybe history ended in the cave; with the Romans; on the cross; or the premier Trinity nuclear test detonation initiated a chain reaction in the upper atmosphere like a lot of scientists thought it might, and history ended there. Or maybe this universe never began and another took its place. No experiment is without a modicum of risk."
After a life insurance commercial targeting the infirm--specifically the insurer betting against policy holders surviving two years--black-clad stage technicians rolled what looked like a diving bell out on a forklift to the chorus from Metallica's "Enter Sandman" track. The process server closed her eyes and looped her ropy arms up around his neck. "Maybe dreams will become true and truth the dream." Stage lights dimmed and there issued from his television's speakers the electrostatic whirring one typically associates with flying saucers in B-grade science fiction movies. "Concentrate now people. Part the void. Believe and behold. Let there be--"
Unlike the prayer-a-thon that, in spite of the overwhelming success of the creative writing competition, had seen national suicide rates reduced by an amount which, according to a statistician, could occur only one in ten-thousand times by chance, the vacuum experiment appeared to fail. After the commercial, the scientist still sat in his cell, his assistant presumably still dead in the ground. The device had stopped humming, but still looked like a bathysphere.
Her thigh still bled. He shut off the TV with the remote. The house was dark. The process server turned and wrapped her arms and legs around him. A band of overage trick-or-treaters shouted as they ran past on the street, throwing eggs in retribution for the beans. Her angel gown had hiked up around her waist. Inside his open housecoat she began to writhe and undulate as though trying to climb or lift him. For a fleeting heartbeat there was a dream in which he hung by the neck from a sock while carolers sang "Joy to the World." But then it was gone.