Ptarmigan

a grouse with completely feathered feet

4/15/2004

Home of the (part 5 of 6; read part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 below)

Once in town, the foreman walked to the failure mall and killed the fence, which wasn't hard. The foreman was on a business trip. Every trip was a business trip. Several figurines shattered.

Where is it? it had asked in its woman voice, the one it used to establish the contact. I thought you and I had an arrangement.

The fence stammered. You don't understand. She didn't want to leave the pieces behind.

Everything, the foreman said, will be left behind.

Afterwards, it put the "security" system to sleep and rifled through the fence's possessions, looking for the pieces. Most of which were poor and worthless. It bit its fingernails in boredom until it found Cleo's dossier in the secret library. The library was in a compartment behind his desk. How original. It was heartless. The secret library was mostly 20th century porn and chess books. Bestiality and endgame strategy, mostly. Your boat is floated motherfucker, it said, standing on the fence's windpipe and providing a small benediction that it thought tender, though it was not. Chess was a way to convince itself not to self-destruct. Between two horse copulation magazines was a slender, stapled volume of anonymous sestinas. It smiled. It had once lent the book to the fence as collateral. The compartment smelled like gobstoppers and melancholy. It secreted the sestinas into its pouch and left the mall. It needed pieces. Crossing 13th, it started walking to the East Side, towards home.

The streets were empty except for police pretending to be homeless. But their ragged jackets were too clean and had too many iron-on sponsorships. The homeless had no sponsors. They didn't bother the foreman. They might have even winked. In the failure mall, it had memorized the sestinas, poems about picking blackberries for the untenable Lord and effervescent failure.

Its cogs creaked. It truly had been in Cambridge Springs yesterday, surveying the ruins of the old grandmaster's hotel. For future development. At some point, no property would be too far away. However, it was not arrogant, and was more than compliant to admit its own shortcomings. It had thought that Cleo's proximity would corral any ambition or chance ecstasy she might have had. That she would merely confuse yearning with confusion, and let the tensions settle into her. And she did, for a long time. But people weren't solvable, unfortunately. Not that it didn't try. The old set had to be acquired. Her friendly takeover broke the deal. Her reluctance couldn't have been anything else. This made the foreman faux sad. Crossing State Street, it began whistling the old national anthem. Its favorite song. The 100 year old peanut and macadamia nut shop was closed. Most recently the store sold circus peanuts and only that. Circus peanuts were the undead of the candy world and were in a strong market position. It heard waves crashing over Dobbins Landing, half sunk and tilted. Upon reaching East and 10th, it crossed itself at Saint Anne's as a lark. Novenas were held there for a long time. The trick was: go to the church 9 days in a row and one would receive a plenary indulgence. One had to appreciate the psychosis needed to perpetuate that worldview. However inelegant an exchange of spiritual capital it was. Much simpler to declare Jesus as savior, enter a Christworld nexus, and invest your annuities in the war futures in paraclete funds. Or distill the bones in a temple into a system of material production, i.e., the factory.

It reached the outskirts factory. The lights were turned on at the silent gates but it kept walking, toward her house. It could hear the copiers caterwaul, the eyelashes twitter. The eviction notice didn't move her in the ways it intended. It needed compliance. The house was empty and lightless. After letting itself in and finding no one, it sat on the elliptical couch. It appreciated, in a way, the venomous quirks of the mother. The gardener drowned himself. So easy to drown when living next to a lake! It heard patters from the baustrelaides of the factory. It saw the ukulele on the floor. It stood and took it. It started to pluck at it. A string broke. It smashed the ukulele against the television, shattering the instrument. Inside the ukulele was the skeleton of a small bird. A passenger pigeon. It laughed and plucked the bird out by the wingtip. It could tell the bird was a passenger pigeon by the bone structure and beak size. Poor bird, it said. Where are your children. Where is your flock. The last of your kind died in a zoo. It placed the bird in its pocket with the sestinas and went outside.

From the backyard it saw the robot, a classic Walbot, sitting in the cemetery behind the stucco house. The cemetery had a slope and an emptiness. The foreman opened the unhinged gate and walked towards the robot. The robot was nursing a small campfire. Campfires were illegal. The robot was male-like, with beach blond hair and a Wal-Bowl identification plate on its chest. Anyone with beach blonde, finely tuned hair in Erie could easily be recognized as an android. The robot didn't look up; it rubbed its hands. The foreman liked to brew tea from black cat blood.

What's your name, son, the foreman said, crouching on one knee.

Nicollette, the robot said. With a French accent.

The foreman smirked. It learned how to smirk at board meetings of the godly and unimpaired. Do you know you're trespassing on private property, Nicollette? Do you want me to cite code?

The robot shivered and crossed its arms. It knew not sadness in its face, its Ken Zen eyes.

Cleo said I could live here, it said.

And where is Cleo?

Nicollette didn't respond at first. It stared into the fire and its features became blurry, somnambulant. Its physiognomy and identity confusion would have made a fine addition at the factory.

How about this, Nicollette said. I have an offer for you. A game of chess. I win, and you leave Cleo alone. You win, and I'll deliver her to you. And her possessions.

The foreman could not lose. It had many years of study for such a competition. It had once carried on a correspondence game with a Maori grandmaster, who had become a used car salesman in Wellington, for several
years. Won handily.

I accept, it said.

The robot produced a board and pieces. The board and pieces. Not a cheap plastic set one would buy at Wal-Mart, cardboard board, plastic pieces light enough to float in water. The foreman was nearly struck dumb.

Play here? the foreman said.

The robot pointed to a revolutionary's tombstone that had been flattened by time. It placed the board there.

There's no black queen, Nicollette said.

Of course there is, the foreman said, cracking its knuckles. It's just not present.

What do you propose we do then, the robot said. Your call.

Pretend as if it's there.

Invisible, you mean.

Sure. Why not.

All right, the robot said. If I want to move her, then, I will indicate the proper square.

The foreman stiffened. Unacceptable, the foreman said. I always play black.

Black always moves second. It is not an advantageous addiction.

It is for me.

You misunderstand me. I always play white. The arrangement will ensure that neither one of us will trust our gift too much.

You're not Nicollette, the foreman said.

It doesn't matter, Nicollette said, turning the board so that the foreman was white. Move. The foreman looked up at the moon, spider-webbed with cities. It could call the tree doctors in any second. Or summon white phosphorous from the secret kites, down to end Nicollette. But it didn't.

It tried to contemplate an opening. Across the street, it tried to cue up its database of every chess game every played and recorded. There was a silence. It set its mind to dreaming solutions, but only found considerable terror. It wanted to step away, overturn the board. Move, Nicollette said.

The foreman—which wasn't really a foreman anymore, as much as a compilation of inert, powerful ideas trapped in a body—reluctantly moved F4. An oddity.

Bird's Opening? Nicollette said. My. Very brave of you. Very brave. It remembered her face as she was pulled from the temple roof, how she kept trying to laugh when the captain put a musket in her mouth. The captain refused to let her laugh when he pulled the trigger. He killed himself a few years later at LeBeouf.

Does chess have to be about winning and losing, though? the foreman asked, trying to squirm. So single minded?

Niccollete squinted at the board. Well, there is the draw.

It became exasperated, and said: That's not what I mean.

Across the street, noises. It wanted to turn its head. Its memories were caught in a sphere akin to a soap bubble. The foreman never went to high school, never kissed anyone, never became moved by anything except other people's capital. Its existence led credence to the idea that children with medieval ideas of right and wrong ran the show. They grew up. They ran an economy or two. A fiefdom. They never died. They became imaginary. It heard cats escaping from the front gates. Thousands of them. The cats' brains were used as processing power. Which was not to be confused with process and power. It wanted to close the gates. It wanted to sleep. It could never sleep. Cleo must have let them go. Cleo could sleep. The cats scampered onto Dunn Boulevard. Some were as large as elephants, some were as small as field mice. Some had eight legs and some dragged themselves away with two. Some had cancer, some had bubonic plague, some had dementia, some had agoraphobia, but managed to escape somehow. Some could speak French, some could speak Mayan, some could speak Basque, some could think in every language but not speak any. Some could give lectures on industrialism and living wages, some could teach Go. Some had napalm tails, some had rope tails, some had switchblade tails. Some had diamond claws, some had lapis lazuli claws, some had hardened corn syrup claws, some had no claws. The only traits they shared was their catness. And in a way, they weren't even really cats; much as the first Cathars in Erie weren't really Cathars.

Whatever their state, the cats turned a hairpin turn and headed south, away from the bay, towards upper Peach, towards the mayoral domes and Christworld. They ran away from their history, and yet, at the same time, into it. No one could say whether anyone lived in Erie or not after the cats were freed. It was likely, but inconclusive. The city became unimportant to most purposes. Lost in the footnotes of the sun's fog and the moon's fog. Even the fog's fog. It was not its story anymore. The story became smaller and smaller. Nicollette—the robot calling itself Nicollette—was lost, and the foreman was lost, and Cleo was certainly lost. They might have existed everafter, but they were still lost. Someone in the office turned off its photocopier and its story was no longer copied nor illuminated for others. Someone unauthorized in the factory entered the break room—which had a roof—and left the refrigerator door ajar. For the hell of it. A ghost left a body, fled the coop. The foreman was happy, in a way. As much as it could be. Happiness itself was a frail ghost. It closed its eyes and felt the passenger's proxy skeleton stir.



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(to be continued...soon!)

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