TheiaCopyright © 2003 Anne Ursu
All right reserved.ISBN: 0786886625
Clarence, before spill
The break room microwave is dead, to begin with. There is nodoubt whatever about that. It has been in the process of dying fora great many years; for the psychopharmaceutical factory employees,the chunky box has always acted as an orangy-brown reminderof bygone decades.
Through the years, the appliance's failure to shuffle off this mortalcoil (never mind the management's refusal to replace the thing)has slowly changed from seeming absurd to downright inspirational.As a result, people have been using it less and less, and recentlythe brave factory workers who have attempted to cook foodin it have done so surreptitiously, lest they be identified as the onewhose ultra-lite popcorn finally did in their Saiushi EZWave 4000.
So, now, with the break room empty and the hallways clear,one of the secretaries turns the primeval knobs to the appropriatesettings, then scurries out the door. Thus, nobody is in the roomto hear the prophetic crackle crackle pop as the magnetron tubebursts, or to notice the smoke rising, or to see sparks come out ofthe thick black umbilical cord. The microwave sighs its last sighand the break room quickly transforms into a funeral pyre.
The fire alarm shrieks and wails, and as workers begin to proceedin a calm and orderly fashion out the door, the sprinklers activatethroughout the Harris Jones psychopharmaceutical factory. It doesnot take long for the old old sprinkler system to short out the oldold electrical wiring. Just as the plant safety engineer takes themassive Emergency Procedures binder off the shelf, a red light onhis operations panel begins to flash, foretelling the demise of therefrigeration system. As he skims the index of the manual, the bluelight that monitors the supercooled chemical tanks begins to blinkfrantically. As he flips to page 34, the molectiles of the liquid chemicalsin the refrigerated tanks begin to excite and expand, ready totransform into a new state of matter and reach a higher plane. Thesafety engineer finds the appropriate code, and as the tanks swell,he turns to his old old computer and punches in Code 121: Firein the Factory. Likely Airborne Dispersal.
Then he calls his wife and tells her to get out of Clarence,pronto. And take the cats.
IT WILL BE a few more minutes before the sound of the civil defensesirens startles the customers flipping through books and sipping lattesin the town of Clarence's new Davis and Dean superstore. Fornow, though, it is commerce that is airborne. Through the currencyof bright smiles and swooshes of credit cards and thank-you-for-shopping-have-a-nice-days,capitalism foams and bubbles overlike frothed milk. Booksellers beam at bookbuyers, cash registerspop open, receipts churn and coil, bags blouse, doors revolvethepeople of Clarence enter and leave inexorably, accompanied bynoncontroversial jazz and humming air-conditioning. It is a perfectsixty-eight degrees in the store, and Clarence wants to buy.
Bennie and Sophie Singer sit in the bookstore's café today, asthey have every Friday since the Davis and Dean was built. Fridayhas been Bookstore Day for the two of them ever since Sophielearned to read. Lizzie, actually, started the tradition, back beforethere was a Sophie. Bookstores with cafés were a rare and wondrousphenomenon back then, and the newly wedded Ben andElizabeth McCourt Singer would sit at a table every Friday afternoonreading the magazines they couldn't afford to subscribe to.Lizzie would pore over women's magazinesher secret obsessiongleefullysearching for tropes, discourse, and dogma, and Benniewould read newsweeklies searching for nothing in particular. OneFriday, he reading The New Yorker, she studying advertisements inElle, he picked up her hand, almost knocking over her coffee.
When we have a child, we will take her to the bookstore every Friday.
Lizzie looked up from her magazine and beamed.
Bennie blinks the memory away.
Bennie and Sophie Singer sit in the café today, as they do everyFriday. Bennie will schedule no students, attend no meetings, allowno exceptions. I have a standing date, he explains to the sputteringcognitive behaviorist as he shuts his office door and scurriesout of the psych building to pick Sophie up from school. We'll doit on Monday. I'm here late on Mondays.
It's not as if the department could like him any less.
Bennie is the token Personality professor at Mansfield University,and is thus looked upon with some derision by those whothink an understanding of the human psyche is best achievedthrough close interaction with rodents and computer simulations.Bennie, in turn, despises the notion that human behavior can beexplained through the interplay of impulses and neurons, chemicalsand electricity, mice and mazes. If humanity is really so base, whatis the point of living? What is the point of experience? What isthe point of the mind? At Mansfield, psychology students dissectand experiment. They will be excellent researchers, yes, but whowill treat the patients?
Sophie can buy one book a week. She always knows what shewill buy as they enter the store; she spends her time amongst thestacks categorizing and prioritizing for weeks to come. Then, afterSophie has finished crawling through the kids' section, the tworetire to the café. Sophie has an Italian soda. The first Friday ofthe month she has cherry, the second orange, the third raspberry,and the fourth lime. If there are five Fridays in a month, then shehas strawberry kiwi, which is her favorite. Bennie has the coffeeof the day with three to four packets of artificial sweetener.
Now, Sophie sips her raspberry soda and flips through booksfrom children's reference while Bennie wishes thoughts away. Sophieeats these books up every week, washing facts down withneon soda. She will remember them all. Sophie remembers everything.She knows countries and capitals, states and dates. Sheknows wars and treaties, tribes and tributaries. She knows Greekgods and Roman hills. She knows Tippecanoe and Tyler too; shecan list First Pets, First Ladies, and even some of the mistresses.
It awes Bennie. Did he ever know this much? Could he reel offthe posts of the Cabinet and the ranks of the British peerage systemfueled only by childhood alacrity and a sugar high?
I don't know, sweetie, he smiles as she quizzes him. You tellme. I'm getting old, sweetie. Bennie gave up on history long ago,but when did it give up on him? When did all the facts leave him?Where did they go? Sure, there are remnants. Mnemonic devicesstill linger. Every good boy deserves favor. Please excuse my dearAunt Sally. My very earnest mother judiciously served us ninepotatoes. King Peter came over from Germany seeking fortune.The phrases rattle in his head, but Bennie can't remember whatthey are forrandom keys cluttering a drawer and he has no ideawhat doors they unlock. Stripped of their meaning they becomesurrealist mantras. His own Dada manifesto. Art for Art's sake.Meaning is dead. Facts are a lie. His little girl can list off GreatLakes, types of rock, and geological eras, while he struggles everynight to recall the smell of his wife's hair.
He would have killed himself if it hadn't been for Sophie.There's no doubt about that.
Sacred Fridays with Sophie give respite from real life days ofblue books and department meetings and nights of clammy sheetsand irrevocable dreams. He has given his life to his daughter, andnow there is no going back. The agreement is unspoken, unconfirmed,but six years ago when Bennie chose Sophie's nascent lifeover his much desired death, he made a bargain with his toddlerdaughter: I, Benjamin, will live for you. In turn, you, Sophia Madeline,must never leave me.
Couldn't the world freeze, and he always be sitting here withSophie with eyes as bright as her soda, so full of Lizzie? It is absurd,impossible, he knows, but why not?
"Hey, Soph ..."
"Do you remember that story I used to read to you? About themagic watch?"
She sighs and looks up from her encyclopedia. "Which story?"
"You know, the watch that controlled time. There were trollsand they had this watch and they would speed time up, stop it,send it back, stop the world."
"Dad, they weren't trolls, they were elves. The girl elf made awish. The genie heard. She got this watch."
"Elves. Yes, that was it. That was one of my favorites."
Sophie tosses her thin blond hair. "Yeah, it was okay."
Bennie leans in. "Wouldn't it be nice if it were true? If we couldwish a genie down here, if he could give us a magic watch. Wecould just sit here and you could read your books and drink yoursodas as long as you wanted."
Sophie sighs again in the way she sees on TV and closes herbook. "Dad, you should know better than that."
"Oh, Soph, it's just pretend."
"Yeah, but didn't you learn anything from the story? Don't youremember what happened to that girl elf?. That's the way it alwayshappens in storieswishes seem like a really good idea but thenyou get your wish and things get all messed up. That's what wishesdo. That's the way stories go. That's the whole point."
Sophie smiles at her father compassionately and opens her bigwhite book back to "Flags of the World."
The civil defense sirens will go off in another two minutes. Fornow, Bennie Singer sits in the café and stares at the wall and wondersat how still the world has become.
THE DAVIS AND Dean superstore sits equidistant from the psychopharmaceuticalfactory and Mansfield University. Walk outside thebookstore's revolving doors. Stand on the sidewalk. Turn yourhead to the right, and you'll see the three smokestacks on thehorizon. Turn to the left and you see photo-perfect towers andspires. The effect is off-putting, the dissonance dizzying. Lookagain. And again. And again. The factory and the university faceeach other warily, and you, caught in the middle, do not knowwhich way to turn.
Harris Jones Pharmaceuticals is owned by HJ Medical Systemsdown in the Cities. The company's particular specialty, and theClarence factory's niche, is the mind. Harris Jones dedicates itselfessentially to treating the modern condition; their medicationsattack such ailments as anxiety, distraction, depression. Their stockis on its way up, and you might consider making a small investment.
Occasionally there is some grumbling among the factory workersof Clarence about the nature of the drugs made at their plant.After all, the economy of the town is based on the factory, butanxiety, sleep, fear, depression, and despair are not the town'sproblems. (At lunch, a worker points at the photo-perfect towersand spires to indicate just whose problems these are.) The peopleof Clarence make drugs for outsiders to take. They work day andnight making drugs for rich people. What kind of medications arethese anyway? Medications are for sickness. For life and death. Notfor mood. What kind of people have the need and resources tomedicate their mind?
Shouldn't their livelihoods be based on something they can use?Harris Jones worries about insurance, losses, reputation. Who willtake care of Clarence? What if something should happen? All thosechemicals ...
If there were any poetry at all in Clarence, there would be agreat river running through the town. The river would bisect Clarenceperfectly; factory on one side, college on the other. Timecard punchers on one side, dentists on the other; American carson one side, foreign on the other. If there were any poetry inClarence, the river would divide the town's two worlds with adeft blue stroke manifesting the bifurcation in perpetual motion.If Clarence had poetry, there would at least be some good oldrailroad tracks to give the town its proverbial right and wrong side(which is which would be depending on your point of view, ofcourse).
Clarence has no poetry, though. Clarence has Bargain Barrels,Krazy Savers, Dollar Hutz, and Pizza Domes. The division, then,must remain invisible. Theoretical. Philosophical. Literary. Likethe international date line or the boundaries of good taste.
The best anyone can do is invite you to take a tour. Visit some restaurantsand comparesay Vinnie's, then Tandoori Jewel. Bob'sBar, then Strange Brew Café. Susie's Secondhands and The Closet.Contrast the crowds, the clothes, the conversation. Hairstyles. Accentsand accessories. Study. Use what you have learned. Go to thecommon groundsgas stations, grocery stores, fast food restaurants.Guess who is from which world. There. You are able to begin drawingthe line yourself. A deft stroke in perpetual motion.
The Davis and Dean superstore has tried valiantly to bridge thegap. The Clarence store is an experiment after all, and harmony isessential to the experiment's success.
A few years ago, the Davis and Dean muckety-mucks met todiscuss the next phase of the war between D&D and its nemesis,Vanguard Books. The combatants had already consumed and exhaustedthe cities and suburbs and exurbs; there needed to be anew battleground. Thus was born Operation Hinterland. D&Dwould strike in the less populated areas. Where men wear flannelshirts and smell like a hard day's work. Real People. America'sheartland. Mom, Pop, Apple Pie, Bait and Tackle, and the GoodLord. Research teams and focus groups led Davis and Dean straightto Clarencehome of Mom and Pop, and of Mansfield University.Thus, there would be deportees from the citywith theirproven able brand recognitionto lead the way through thestore's doors.
Clarence's mayor has a strong sense of capitalistic duty, andthe experiment, to be sure, would be talked about in all thetrades and business weeklies. People would be watching closely.Other progressively minded nationally sanctioned companiesmight come. The economy would soar. Clarence would soar. Sowhen Davis and Dean officials came to the mayor carrying proposalsand compensations and all kinds of charts with toweringmajestic columns and bright happy graphs with arrows going up,up, up, the mayor in turn said, Yes. Please. Come. What shallwe knock down for you?
There were a few protests of course. A Chamber of Commercesplinter group called Stop National Chains in Clarence (SNCC)held a Breaking the Chain rally on the front lawn of the city hallsteps with folksingers and a bad sound system. The rally was small;many of the Clarence elders thought that they could not possiblysupport anything that involved folksingers. Those who did marchon the town hall spoke passionately of a desire to keep ClarenceClarence without those nasty big city chain influences coming into homogenize and desensitize. What would separate Clarencefrom any other city, now? What good are these corporations? Whowill watch out for Clarence?
But in a few weeks everyone stopped caring, as is the generalway of things. Hands were shook, documents signed, announcementsmade, ground broken, espresso imported, and Bingo! Clarencejoined the Davis and Dean empire well before Vanguardcould move their troops into the hinterlands.
And the experiment is working. D&D has become a communitycenter. A piazza. The factory worker and the college professor sipcoffee side by side. And since the store was built, no aimless Mansfieldhumanities graduate has ever been in want of a job. Youknow this place. You may be there now. And we have a goodplace to begin our story.
AS BENNIE FINISHES the last gulp of his coffee, the safety engineer'swife and her two cats get on the freeway leading straight out ofDodge. Police sirens sound quietly in the distance. Add firetrucks. Ambulances. One screech after another joins the chorusand the sirens crescendo, grow more immediate. The emergencyis close. And getting closer. One after another, people in thestore look up, look out the windows, joke nervously and laughlike choking.
Is the store on fire? Heh heh. Heh. Heh ...
Then the cacophony passes by and fades off into the distance.Someone else's emergency. The bookstore exhales and the air returnsto normal
and then the emergency alert sirens go off.
There is silence in the bookstore. Customers and employeeslook at each other. Nobody moves.
Is it a test?
It's not the right time of the month.
A tornado this late in the year?
A man peeks out of the window. The sky is smoky and yellow."Look at that!" he yells. Everyone looks.
The stillness grows. The sirens blare on. Everyone watches eachother watch everyone else. Bennie is frozen. His mind flashes tohis yearly freshman psych lecture on the bystander effect; afterKitty Genovese was killed on the streets of New York while anentire neighborhood watched and did nothing, a group of psychologistsran an experiment: In a room where students are takinga test, smoke pours through the vents. If a person is by himself, hewill pull an alarm, call someone, leave the room. If the person isin a group, smoke will fall the room and he will glance around,cough, wait for someone else to act.
Bennie has always given this lecture with a degree of arrogance,of reassurance. I am a psychologist. I know the urges. I understandthe nature. I will be better than this.
But in the face of all this stillness he finds himself frozen. Hislungs constrict. The sirens burst in his ear.
It is not until Sophie looks at him, big eyed, her body shrinkinginto the chair. "Daddy?"
"It's okay, sweetheart," he whispers, and smiles, then announcesto everyone, "Perhaps we should turn on the radio?"
The black-haired girl behind the café counter emerges from theback room with a small radio. Sophie smiles at her father worshipfully.The sirens continue to wail and with a twist and click,the radio begins to harmonize.
This is the emergency broadcast system. This is not a test. All residentsof Clarence are asked to stay where they are. Repeat, stay where you are.This is not a test. All residents of Clarence, stay inside. Stay tuned to thisstation for further instructions.
Davis and Dean employees begin to bring other customers tothe café. A man in a cartoon bird tie introduces himself as themanager. "We'd like to ask everyone to stay in the store. We'rebringing down more radios."
He smiles nonthreateningly, and the relief among the customersis palpable: It is all right. Someone is in charge here. We have a manager.He will tell us what to do.
Outside of the window of the store, creatures covered in yellowbillowy plastic begin to appear, carting road blocks.
The customers in the bookstore start.
Yellow guys do not just happen. Yellow guys are not in my life.Yellow guys do not just emerge out of thin air. Yellow guys arein the movies. Yellow guys are not real. Yellow guys are for Chernobyl,not Clarence. Why don't I have a yellow suit? I do nothave a yellow suit. Where the hell is my yellow suit? I quite clearlyneed a yellow suit.
People begin to stare at each other more frankly. They appraiseobviously, guiltlessly. Their eyes ask, Who are these people? Is oneof them responsible? Are they all bystanders too, hostages in amovie, trapped in an elevator, on a bus with a bomb? Will we behuddled here, days later, on the floor, dirty and thin? One personalways dies. One is always afraid. One is brave and sneaks throughthe vents and frees us all. The rest are extras, with muddy, panickedfaces, providing occasional squeals and moans.
And through the room, the thought passes: I am an extra. Thetime has come, and I am just an extra.
This is the emergency broadcast system. This is not a test. All residentsof Clarence are asked to stay where they are. Chemical accident. Possibletoxic exposure. Stay inside. If you are in your car, park, close the vents,and stay where you are. Stay tuned to this station for further instructions.
"It's the factory."
People nod their heads.
"What's going to happen to us?"
The room is as close and shrill as the sirens.
Bennie turns and glares. Be quiet. Everyone. Can't you seethere's a little girl here. Can't you see my daughter is young. Can'tyou see my Sophie is scared. Take a deep breath, everyone. Remaincalm. Panicking is human instinct but we can overcome it.Mind over matter.
Bennie cares about three people in Clarence. There is his accidentalfriend, Phil, Contemporary Studies professor. Phil will be atthe university, working. Phil will be all right. There is his mother,Madeline, in Sunny Shadows, Clarence's retirement community.She will be there, in her apartment. They will have procedures forthis sort of thing. They have people in charge. Fire exits, tornadocellars, bottled water and canned food. Mother will be all right.There is Sophie, shrinking, withering, here. Sophie has only him.
The manager fingers his tie nervously. He whispers to the caféworker, Lilith, who begins to cut up scones and muffins from thecafé. The radio blares on.
There has been a fire at the Harris Jones pharmaceutical factory. Barrelsof chemicals have exploded. There has been a deletrium leak, repeat, deletriumleak. Possible harmful exposure. Chemical spill. Stay inside andawait further instructions.
"What the bloody fuck is deletrium?" a bookseller mutters. Themanager glares at her. But nobody minds. Everyone shares thesentiment.
Sophie says in a small voice, "My dad will know. He's a professor.Don't you know, Dad?"
Heads turn. Bennie blushes and shakes his head. Sophie looksdown at the table. Bennie grabs her hand.
Susannah Korbet sits in the café tugging at her brown ringlets,absorbing other people's panic, and thinking about her fiancé,Todd. Todd will be working at the school lab. Todd wouldn'tleave anyway. Todd may not even hear the sirens. But Todd wouldknow what deletrium is. Todd would know exactly what this does.Todd would look it up on his computer, print out fact sheets,conduct his own experiments. Todd would have multicoloredeasy-to-read charts printed up. Todd would stand in the center ofthe room humbly stating his graduate student credentials andwould make a presentation that would both soothe and edify. Halfthe girls in the room would develop a crush on him. The menwould cede the title of alpha male without complaint.
There was a time when Susannah would think about this withpride. Now she feels nothing but blame. If something happens, itis because Todd brought her here. If something happens, he willprobably be immune.
Before the sirens, Susannah Korbet sat in the bookstore cafétwirling her masses of curls in her fingers, trying to discern anydifferences between the mural on the wall here and the one in theD&D café by her home one thousand miles away. She thoughtshe could almost be there. If you added diversity, urbanity, andfashion sense to this small-town bookstore crowd, Susannah couldhave pretended she was back home.
Now, sirens blaring, things become more urgent for her. If shecloses her eyes and concentrates on the mural, she could be transportedback to that D&D. Holes in the stores should open up, andshe should be able to move through them effortlessly, one to anotherin a blink and a click of the heels. Away from sirens andaway from Clarence.
The radio continues to proclaim, the manager continues tosmile, and everyone's thoughts continue to run on the same current:Is this the moment when everything changes? Will my lifethus far be thought of as Before the Spill? Ah yes, that was Clarence,Before Spill. You're referring to Clarence, B.S.? Will we bethose people, those people on the news and on miniseries wholose all of life as they know it? Will our children have six headsand bad dispositions? Are we living a disaster movie? Where is theominous music? Where are the heartfelt declarations? There mustbe more than the radio, pieces of currant scones, and these billowyyellow men.
A dozen lives flash before a dozen pairs of eyes, and the reckoningbegins: Nothing. I've done nothing. I am nothing. I am awaste. It has all been wasted. I could have done so much. I wouldhave done it all differently. Now I become a cancerous blob witha tail and too many toes, a living hideous monument to failure andregret.
But our heroes do not reckon. Reckoning is for people whoselives have motion. Susannah Korbet and Bennie Singer look attheir lives at the same moment and find that they feel nothing.
Of course, they look at the present. They stalwartly refuse toawaken what lies in memory.