Home of the (part 1 of 6)
Cleo was completely happy and devoid of hope. At night she dreamed of photocopiers left on in an office building overnight. On Sunday she'd walk to her church and pray outside of it, for those not inside. Bullet trains passed by. She always waved. They didn't stop. She contemplated what steps she would have to take to make the trains stop. By the time Erie's churches let out, she was back home, watching the minister on TV. No one called on her. Her house was red stucco, painted blue. Which defeated the purpose of stucco. Her mother had painted the house blue in her late middle ages. Her mother bequeathed the house to Cleo. Cleo relented. She was penitent without exactly knowing why. The house was on a cul de sac on the East Side, Dunn Boulevard, between Saint Anne's and the bay. Behind her lot was a cemetery, and across the street from her lot was the black cat factory. Of the two, the cemetery was by far the most interesting. For starters, she was conceived there, in the groundskeeper's shed, which didn't exist anymore. Her mother had an affair with the groundskeeper, who was from western Kansas. Nearly all care had abandoned the cemetery and the headstones inside. There were a few Revolutionary War veterans buried there. Cleo would have loved to celebrate this. Few people left flowers or wreaths. Obelisks tilted. People in general were leaving Erie at a fast clip. There were less dying people left. Faithful people often were left behind. The church, which had fed the cemetery for a century, burned to the ground a decade before. The congregation didn't reconvene, for lack of funds and municipal edicts. No one caught the arsonists. The members joined other churches, more theocratic churches, or turned their faces from God entirely, and took up drag races on Saturday nights and hunting on Sunday mornings. Or they died, which didn't have anything to do with church. Even in winter, Cleo would visit the foundations, the ash square set in the ground jutting against the railroad tracks. There were no deer to hunt anymore, and few small mammals and birds. Generally there were only people left.
She was the only one left alive on her block, aside from the cats and the foreman, who didn't count. Her hair was black with a few gray strands. She resisted dyes. She resisted many things, including the need to smile or laugh at comedic movies at the theater. Movies were small hearted, and easy to coast through, like fog puffs. Movies ended with a public service announcement from a tribunal. Of some sort. A tribunal was a collection of citizens on the lookout for citizens' interests. They declared these interests, which usually involved enemies. Everybody always left right after the shiny heads stopped talking—cameras in the projection room watched the viewing—and right before the credits rolled. People were tired. But Cleo liked to stay and watch the references to gaffer, puppet master, and key grip. She thought that befriending a key grip might have been interesting fodder. She would take the bus to the failure mall downtown. She knew her worth. The bus had issues. Groaning escalators leading to empty shop fronts on the second floor. Abandoned kiosks with scotch tape half-torn off the counters. Huffer cans in the corners. The only open establishments, besides the dollar theater, were the adult bookstore, the tobacconist, and the store that sold nothing but pewter figurines. The store was called Pewter There. The last store made her sad. No one ever entered. She was like the train passing by a strange woman making waving motions. The proprietor wore a white, tight fitting mask and fretted with his hands. As noted previously, she didn't stop to inquire. She wasn't in the mood for small, pewter figurines of dragons and unicorns. Miniatures were not powerful. The house wouldn't have approved. The house was mindful, and resisted paraphernalia. Knickknacks that Cleo bought would disappear shortly after acquisition. Paintings of burning barns she purchased from starving artists sales, a smiley-face clock she resuscitated from the break room, all gone. So she gave up. She didn't like giving up. She took the bus back. Its hood usually smoked.
On rain days, which came often in the summer, spring, and autumn, she liked to walk the East Side. Umbrellas could conceal cylindrical bombs and were thus frowned upon. Tribunals would warn against bomb-like people, who required eagle eyes at all times. Evil truly was wicked, and could quiver to life after any misstep. That was what her betters said. The dealers on the corner of Buffalo and Downing didn't bother her, nor the gyrovagues parading on 10th and Parade. She knew the hoarse ghosts of those boulevards were more terrifying than 16 year olds with post-heroin and .44s. Most sidewalks resembled narrow gravel roads from the despair. She wore beautiful galoshes. They were black with small fleur-de-Frenches along the upper trim. Her mother gave her the boots before she died. Before her mother died, not Cleo. After Cleo tried them on, her mother noted that she pulled them off a dead woman, a homeless woman with no hair in the bus station. Before Cleo could recoil, her mother said, no, sorry, I was only joking. It was a good story though, wasn't it? Cleo liked the boots anyways. They made her look taller. The litter and wind would collaborate on sculptures along chain link fences. Some of the plastic litter was positively antique. Rivulets roared into drains underneath. The drains emptied into sewer tunnels which coarsed toward the bay. The water carried delirium. Mercury could also be called quicksilver. Stray cats died underground. In chain-link fields, cranes built to hoist up rusted cars with magnetic forces rusted. Art was everywhere. It wasn't good art. The city was a non-museum. These were not stories in their entirety, but rather stories that a person would be reading out loud to friends in a bar, and then the bartender would tap the reader's shoulder and say, your house is on fire. Your mother's dead. No one loves you, not really. One of those types of responses. No one read anymore, out loud or silently. Heliotropes flew overhead, shouting bulletins (all point) to precinct commadantes who might have been listening. Hand signals projected onto the cloudbanks. Heliotropes lived in milder climes. Cleo covered her ears. Once there was a boy who loved her, her age, but he fought in California and she never heard from him again. He had delicate fingers and ankles. He was an apostate, though neither of them really felt what that meant. She imagined him in prison--a converted gymnasium holding thousands of bunks, snipers in every nook, spies and assassins enforcing 2nd amendment zones, itching to penknife livers. Cleo wondered if it was better to home he was alive or dead. His emails were in a bankers box somewhere in the cellar, amidst a tangle of potato roots. She often wondered what his penmanship was like, but never had the chance to ask. She was 35 years of age in the thirteenth year of our Lord.
When it was sunny, and she didn't have to wear her containment mask (red, like the stucco underneath her blue house), she worked at Wal-Mart. There was one five blocks from her. People shopped indoors when it was sunny. This too was encouraged. Retractable roofs unless they were broken. Nearly everyone who worked worked in a Wal-Mart. Her Wal-Mart was a bowling alley. The greeter always snarled at her, even though they were on the same team. He'd lost his heart in one of the wars. Because her bowling alley was a Wal-Mart, it was a non-failure establishment. She cleaned the robots that cleaned the lanes and stocked the shoes. Her blue smock smelled like burnt hot dogs. Nearly everyone bowled in solitary fashion. Bowling in duos or trios wasn't banned, per se, but it was certainly frowned upon, and there was an extra tariff per head. The robots usually didn't complain, but they belched silicates. They were already oldish. She loved them, in her fashion, even though she couldn't tell them apart. That happened a lot. They were both blonde. The TVs in the snack bar fixated on victories, which were hard to tell apart from failures. The greeter would tap his plastic chest, where his bonobo heart beat. Personalities tended to be unfortunate, even on sunny days. She worked hard. Her smock had one yellow smiling face and one red, white, and blue smiling face. The robots didn't like the buttons. It sounded crazy, even to her, but she could just sense this. Every month the regional hieresarch would visit and play a frame or two. The lanes had to be calibrated to ensure he bowled at least a 250. But he didn't want a 300 either, for that would have been hubris. Her mother hated bowling because the sport could not exist solely in one's mind. Those visits were horrible for Cleo. She would have nightmares in the days leading up to the inspection, involving her robots defecating on the well-oiled lanes, prompting her quick termination. After his frames there was usually bible study. Cleo would sit quietly through Corinthians, sipping luke warm tea. Revelations scared her. After shaking everyone's hand too firmly, he would depart for the damask domes of Cambridge Springs, where the wife would just be returning from the market with their children, Abercrombie and Fitch, and she would offer a towel to her demonstrative, balding husband, a God-shepherd, and he would wash his hands of the helots' stench. That was how she thought, at least. Once when he bowled a 248 he shook everyone's hand except Cleo's. She cried all that night, though she did not want to. On her ten minute lunch breaks, the sun would play on her face in the break room and the ether from above would settle on the vending machines in a fine film. The break room was a tent outside the bowling alley. She had to be alert to the possibility of white phosphorous falling, in which case there was a plastic tarp for extra protection. Enemy manna. Her shoulders didn't sag. No one would talk to her ever. She wanted to be an action gardener, garden in one of the sky fortresses. Peonies on the battlements. She heard about that job when watching the Sky Fortress Channel. There was one gardener for the entire fortress system. Let luck work! the public service announcements told her. On occasion she contemplated immigrating to India. She couldn't afford passage. She also wanted to keep an eye on the house and cemetery, and she didn't like traveling too far too often. Once in high school her class took a trip to Antarctica. At the south pole, they didn't stray out of the Super 8 much, except to look at the penguin wax museum. The vending machines down their hall had a brand of Burmese cola they'd never seen before. That local color excited her classmates. The south pole bored her, except for their flight away from it, when she saw two service workers make out behind the McDonalds on the Ross Ice Shelf--what was left of it--their mouths frozen to each other. She could see what the attraction was. Their fiberoptic mittens touched and no doubt they sent love mail to each other. No doubt. Cleo's plane kept flying, over glaciers, over floes. The lovers kept getting smaller. They flew over the greenhouses larger than Rhode Island. They harvested kelp and krill inside. When she returned she wanted nothing more than a kiss like that. A year later her mother died. Her graduation ceremony came in a box. College was out of the question. Her grades were Erie good but not actually good. Her few girlfriends saw marriage and conversion as a proper and just path. Her guidance counselor wanted her to become a Baptist. The complexes on upper Peach had excellent career placement networks. She declined. The guidance counselor never communicated with her again. The mayor was assistant pastor at Church of Christworld. He complied.
She wondered sometimes if the world was flammable.
Often she tried to think of her father's face. He loved crocuses and jumbo puzzle variety books. Invisible ink puzzles. Her face was thin, like pictures of him. No one was perfect. He left for the moon with the furries when he found out about mother's affair with the gardener. He won the lottery. How lucky was that. Cleo hid underneath the garbage disposal to hear his teary farewell. It smelled like disposed garbage. She remembered her mother's burgundy silence. Her mother was a failed chess champion and didn't like to talk about it. Her father milled around the house to say goodbye to Cleo, looking without really looking, but gave up after five minutes or so. She didn't want to reveal her hiding place. He was wewaring his fluffy skunk costume. Her parents had met when her mother called his number as a wrong one. Cleo imagined life in space. She would land on the station. She was in the deep for six months, orbiting Triton. She needed supplies or else!
What do you want, the general store manager on the station would ask her. He wore an old-time bowler hat.
A view of Earth, a great view of Earth, she said. The greatest demand she could think of.
You have it! Look portside! She looked portside, and it was there. She could see America underneath cumulus. She knew it was just a holograph of Earth, but she wasn't going to spoil her own illusions.
What else, the proprietor would ask.
Carrots, raisins straight from the vine, pumpkins.
We have those!
Great, said Cleo, lay them on me!
The fruits floated to her.
Okay, Cleo said. Wow, these are great!
They give superhuman strength and fertility.
Why do you think I need fertility. And where are you hiding my father.
Then she awoke from waking, a can of wrench spray in her hand. It was time to go home. The clock told her this. The clock worked; it smiled; it had a job. The robots brayed as they were sheperded into their pens. They, too, could see the futile machinations of the clock. To keep time. Clocks had agendas all right. On her way home the sun obscured itself. Winds began to stir from Presque Isle Bay, carrying danders and debris. The wind held her still for a few seconds in front of the black cat factory. The foreman steeped his tea in the tower office, as he tended to. He waved. He didn't live there. Cleo didn't wave back. The man turned back to his tea and shook his head. The wind let her go. She ran away from the manufacturing unit, as fast as she could. The sky turned teak. She passed the laughter inside the factory, the bull horns far away. Everything was far away. In her book, the less thought about the foreman, the better.
She entered the house and locked the door, to prevent October from entering. From the kitchen window she saw an entire copse of trees sway. A few of them were sick, but she didn't trust tree doctors. Talk about agendas. No one was hanging around or hanging there. On the To Do notepad on her Frigidaire she had written: I am proofing the book of the living against the book of the dead. They are concurrent, for the most part. Sort of. A few typos. Cleo used a permanent marker. The paper had butterflies. She hadn't seen a butterfly in thirteen years. The ukulele fixed to the wall fell down. Her mother had won the ukulele in a tournament. Her mother gave her an admonition: never touch the ukelele under any circumstances. She left it where it fell. In fact she really didn't want to look at it. Sirens and claxons rose a few blocks away. Which didn't really mean anything.
She then drew a bath. She slept in the tub. She heard the cats opening their books across the street, though that couldn't be. She dreamed this time of the photocopier display reading: TONE LOW. A red light blinked, illuminating the entire copy room with emergency. Cleo cried and then floated through the rest of the dream without complications nor reproductions. The absences were pleasurable. She awoke at dawn in a cold sweat, still in the tub. There was a knock on the door. Cleo had no idea who she could be.
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(to be continued...)