Category Archives: fiction

Joe’s Nightmare

December 29, 2017–In a slight divergence from my normal posts, I’d like to present here the first five pages of my novel.  This magnum opus has been over 30 years in the writing, keeps getting shelved, evolves, and may be coming into its time.  I call it “speculative fiction,” describing visions that leap-frog over the Armageddon the sooth-sayers are so ominously predicting.

It’s About Time, Bud, Beon and the Bots, begins with “Joe’s Nightmare.”  Protagonist Joe and his doctor friend Marian are sitting at Mack’s  Bar and Grill on a busy Friday night.

I present this opening here, to WordPress friends and would-be friends, seeking correspondence of ideas and imagination.  I hope to entertain, tell a story, express a philosophy, and inspire the forces of vitality to all who are touched by it.

CHAPTER 1

JOE’S NIGHTMARE

Marian glared at Joe, but he didn’t see.  He was slouched low in the booth, staring at his beer. His faded white shirt hung loose over thin shoulders.  His brown eyes, usually bright and inquisitive, were dark, brooding, and sad as those of an old, dying dog.  His eyelids drooped, and even his large, floppy ears seemed to sag.  Marian chuckled at his woeful appearance.  Joe’s eyes didn’t move.

Her eyes followed his to the glass, then scanned the room.  Mack’s Bar and Grill was hopping, the Friday night crowd jubilant and loud.  Tiffany lamps interspersed with hanging plants sparked with bejeweled light.  The misted window beside their booth gleamed with trails of glittering raindrops outside.  Mack’s mirror collection covered the walls, giving an impression of friendly spaciousness that Marian found refreshing.

As people swarmed, eerie, surreal shadows played across Joe’s face.  Televisions with muted sound in front and back showed sports highlights.  A dank, musty smell rose with moist heat from the milling bodies.

Marian leaned back and closed her eyes, absorbing the lively mood.  Occasional bursts of laughter here and there rolled over her like waves.  A loud gruffaw from the center of the room startled her, but Joe’s eyes remained fixed on his glass.

She sat up and sipped her wine, watching her strange friend.  As narrow as a line in his personal life, Joe was a genius when it came to science.  More than a genius, he was a wizard.

But tonight even the bubbles in Joe’s beer showed more signs of life.  “Joe!” she almost, but not quite, shouted.  He jumped.  His knee hit the booth’s underside and jostled the glass, but he caught it before the first drop spilled. He held the beer and glared at her.

“Where are you?”  she asked.

“I’m here, of course,” he retorted.  “I live inside my body.”  He put finger to pulse with a flourish and closed his eyes. “My heart is slowing now,” he finally said.  “Had me worried for a minute, a minute and six seconds, to be exact. It was racing at 144 beats, after you so rudely interrupted my experiment, but it has calmed to a mere 86.”

He released his wrist and blew on the chilly glass.  “I would fog a mirror if I had one, so I appear to be breathing.  Would you like to see? I didn’t bring my blood pressure cuff, this time, but perhaps you have one in your purse.”  He chugged half the beer and thunked the glass on the table.

“What experiment?” Marian asked.

Joe gave her a disgusted look.  “I was calculating the volume of air coming out of an invisible speck.  I was counting the bubbles, of course, to multiply their spherical volume by the number.  Then, I was going to add another speck and keep track of its air volume.  From that I was going to determine how much CO2 was dissolved in my beer to see what effect it might have on global warming.  Why?”

Marian sighed.  “I wondered if something was wrong.”

“Nothing but the ruin of my experiment.”  He chugged the rest of the beer.  “Another scientific failure.  Now we may never know how we could save the world by dissolving more carbon dioxide in beer and drinking fast.”

He waved his glass high in the air, exposing a thin wrist bounded by a frayed white cuff.  A passing hand with rings on every finger swept past and escaped with glass on tray, leaving a trail of french-fry smell. When the next beer arrived, Joe slumped into bubble-counting position, his head at eye level with the glass.  His feet struggled to find room under the table.

“Quit kicking if you want me to be quiet.”

“OK,” he said.  “Sorry.”

Marian was left to her thoughts.  Marian wasn’t sure when she first noticed Joe.  Like a cloud, he had eased into her awareness, emerging as if from thin air, until one afternoon he was sitting on a barstool at Mack’s in full flesh, still and silent, his stiff brown hair forming spikes around his head, unshaved chin jutting over a coffee mug. He sipped coffee and stared at the back bar mirror, which revealed the scene behind him, of booths, mirrors, and windows lining the restaurant’s long side.

Over the ensuing weeks, Marian noticed Joe sitting on the same stool every afternoon, drinking coffee, staring into the mirror above the bar.  She liked relaxing at Mack’s, too, where she, exhausted from a long day of writing prescriptions and ministering to other people’s ailments, could let Mack alleviate suffering instead.  Most days she watched, sipping herbal tea at her favorite barstool near the cash register.  Here, she and Mack exchanged ideas on economics, as he collected low-overhead money for treating customers’ problems.

Mack’s Bar and Grill was an independent country, the front door claimed, the “State of Freedom, Democracy, and Capitalism.”  It pictured a lion with Mack’s face lapping beer out of a mug.  It declared Mack’s roar the “Loudest in the Land.”  So far, no one had challenged his independence, and the local police were some of his best citizens.

Mack claimed the lion was the ideal free market capitalist, king of the jungle, who sleeps 20 hours a day, eats two hours, and makes whoopie the remaining two.  Also, he gets his harem to do the hunting and killing for him. Mack complained that Linda, his wife, didn’t understand lion thinking.  She thought he was too fat.  “You have to work for your supper,” she told him.  As for the harem, she only smiled and shook her head.

Until the day Marian noticed Mack’s limp, she could have believed Joe knew only three words.  “Just coffee, Mack,” was all he said.

But Marian’s interest in Mack’s arthritis brought Joe out of his trance.  He jumped into their conversation and regaled them for nearly an hour on the anatomy of the knee, physiology of muscles, histology of bones, the causes of inflammation, and all the current treatments.  Marian was awed, because he was accurate in every detail, and his knowledge seemed infinite.

Who is this strange creature, she wondered.  He looks like he lives in the street.  Over time she found that his aloof manner discouraged personal questions, but Joe was always eager to discuss medicine, technology, and science.  Now Marian took his wizardry for granted and followed him from topic to topic with delight.

“How do you know so much?” she asked tonight.

Joe’s eyes didn’t waver from the glass.  “I’m a curious person,” he said.  “I read a lot.”

Suddenly, a hot dish of fried calamari landed in front of Marian.  Joe looked up.  He glared at the calamari.

Marian offered Joe a sample but knew in advance his answer.  He knew everything about squid, except the taste.  He explained its biology, physiology, anatomy, life cycle, mating habits, and preferred habitats the last time she ordered calamari.

“Fried food is bad for you,” he said now.

“That’s what they say,” Marian replied.  She dipped an offending morsel into tzaziki sauce and popped it in her mouth.  “But I believe in homeopathic doses of lard, from time to time.”

Joe’e eyes followed her hand, glanced at the TV screen, at Mack behind the bar, then looked briefly at Marian’s face before settling back on the beer. He spoke as if to the bubbles. “I had a nightmare,” he said, his voice barely audible.

Marian laughed.  “Is that why you’re so gloomy?  I thought it was something serious.

Joe ignored her.  Marian sighed.

“Is there anything I can do?” she asked.

“Shoot me,” he said.  “That might help.”

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It’s About Time: Bud, Beon, and the Bots

kcoartsplit1

Sunday, July 2, 2017—This is a scene from my novel, a decades-old perpetual work in progress.  Superficially sci-fi, it is based on a philosophy that life is immortal, everything has consciousness, and everything runs its course then evolves into something else.  Time and space are illusions within a “spacious present.”  Death is like a phase change–like water converting to steam–while retaining the essential qualities of water.  From this perspective, there is no end point, and the process is the goal.

The purpose of the novel is to make you smile.  Let me know if you want more.

CHAPTER 4

CAUSE AND EFFECT

The sun, shining through dingy, crocheted curtains, cast a mosaic of light and shadow across the worn rug. By the angle of the light and content of the shadows, Joe knew it was at least 11 AM.

His head throbbed with an intensity of 200 on a one-to-ten scale.  The light hurt his eyes, but he didn’t have the courage to move.  He remained curled stiff, eyes clenched shut, until his bladder forced him to attempt the impossible and get out of bed.

He moaned, then winced.  He eased to a slouching position at the edge of the bed, resting his aching forehead between tender hands.  Slowly, ever so slowly, he stood and staggered to the bathroom, carefully shielding his eyes from the light.  He downed two aspirin and then a third, to abort the stroke he must be having.  It was at least a stroke. Maybe an aneurysm had burst.  He stared into the mirror.  Images of his certain, agonizing, and imminent death spread like acrid black goo across his quivering brain.

“I’m dying,” he told his haggard face. It stared back at him—coldly critical, his appearance substandard today, even for him.  He and his reflection eyed each other.  He noted the dark eye sockets, red eyes, fuzzy vision, chin stubble, wrinkles, and greasy hair.  He didn’t smell too good, either.  Let the embalmer handle it, he decided.  That’s what he’s paid for.

He trod a wobbly path through the living room to the kitchen, where the percolator was full of yesterday’s grounds.  His stomach wasn’t feeling much like coffee, but his head told him he was in caffeine withdrawal.  He cursed Marian for getting him so drunk that he forgot to prepare the coffee pot.  He imagined her boiling in a vat of coffee, begging for mercy.

Suddenly, Beon’s face loomed across Joe’s inner screens.  The balding, round visage grinned like the Buddha, his eyes innocuous, his portent ominous.  Joe’s head pounded harder, and his knees felt weak.  An image of lab rats, pinned to boards and randomly shocked, blotted out Beon’s face.  Then, the lab rats became little Joes, with Beon delivering the shocks.

Joe listed the objective, measurable reasons for his agony.  Unendurable pain. Undetectable caffeine levels. Betrayal by his only friend.  Violation of sacred coffee ritual, and death without absolution.  Beon.  He threw fresh coffee in the pot, spilling half the grounds on the counter, creating yet another reason to feel miserable.

Percolator finally started, Joe turned to face new trouble.  He opened the freezer and scowled at empty ice trays.  The little Joes in his head jumped and slumped.

He dragged his failing carcass to the couch. He imagined the pain in his head could power a small city, if he could figure out how to harness the energy.  Not today, though.  And tomorrow wasn’t looking too good, either.

Beon’s face returned, and with it, thoughts of the healing machine.  Joe wondered if it could cure his headache.  “Yes,” said Beon’s image.

“Who asked you?”  Joe demanded, not realizing he spoke out loud.

“You did.”  Joe decided he was going crazy, too.  “DALE,” said the face.  “Diet-Associated Life Enhancer.”

Joe covered his ears, but it did no good.  Beon’s image swelled in his head, and dream pictures bombarded his brain, rocking his scientific foundations.  The throbbing and pounding got louder, clanging against his skull.  Joe closed his eyes and waited to die.  Through it all, Beon’s face smirked, as if he enjoyed Joe’s suffering.

But death defied him, and Beon continued to grin.  Joe glanced around the room.  A single picture, hung askew, showed a listing clipper ship, an artifact left by the previous tenant.  George White left a few pieces of tired furniture, too, good enough for Joe.  His mailbox in the foyer downstairs still bore White’s name.  When neighbors called him “George,” Joe didn’t bother to correct them.  It was as good a name as “Joe.”

Now Joe wondered for the first time what happened to George White.  His couch may not look great, but it had personality.  It was warm, comfortable, inviting.  It was friendly.  It was taking care of him, helping him feel better, as a friend would do.

“I have tangible evidence that you existed,” he told the former tenant, “even if we’ve never met.  I still get your mail.  Beon is only imaginary, but he’s torturing me, and I can’t get away from him.”

Joe’s eyes began to blur.  His stomach felt queasy.  Vague terrors swept over him, and sweat poured from his upper body.  He wiped his face with a dirty napkin and dropped it on the floor.  “This is only a hangover.  It clouds my perspective, makes me think crazy thoughts.  It was only a dream.  A machine like that is impossible, and Beon doesn’t exist.”

Fiction: Belle, 0806

by Katharine C. Otto
Posted April 13, 2016 katharineotto.wordpress.com

“Help me,” cries the aging but still beautiful Belle.  Huge bejeweled rings sparkle on her liver-spotted hands, and diamond pendants drag cuts into her earlobes.  Her eyes are wide with pain and fear.

He can see that she is fragile.  She limps and leans heavily on the banister.  The modern Southern Gentleman takes her tenderly in his arms, soothes her sobs, and says he, too, suffers.  No one understands him.  People can be so cruel.  They gossip, tell lies.  He feels he can trust her.

But today’s version of the Southern Lady has 150 years of experience under her Oscar de la Renta sweatsuit.  She has thrown the corset into landfill, invested in liposuction, and now breathes a lot easier.

“Are you proposing?” she asks.

“Not exactly,” he stammers.

“Good.  I don’t believe in marriage.”

“Nor I,” he says, with a sigh of relief.  “I propose a toast, instead.”

He pulls a bottle of Chivas Regal from a shimmering sack and offers it to Belle.  She pours hefty dollops into crystal tumblers. They toast their mutual understanding with delicate sips.  He kisses her.

They toast their understanding again.  And again.  They lose count.  She pours more Chivas.

He pops a Viagra.  What they do the rest of the night is unprintable.

He promises to return for dinner that evening.  He blows a kiss goodbye from his convertible Saab.  She spends the whole day cooking.

At dusk, Gent gets lost on the way to Belle’s colonial townhouse.  He stops at the Oglethorpe Club, then the First City Club, or was it the other way around?  He stops at Johnny Gannem’s for directions.  He stops at O’Malley’s to get a cup of coffee, and doesn’t remember how he got home.

She waits and waits.  She tries to call his cell phone and gets a voice mail.  The dinner overcooks.  She cries.  She takes a bite of the salmon in white wine and dill sauce, decides it’s awful, and throws it away.  She finishes the white wine while staring into the glass, an antique, engraved collectible that she bought for too much money downtown.

She goes to bed, worrying that Gent has been killed, or worse.  She must find him.  She must.  But she’ll worry about it tomorrow.  She falls asleep and dreams of stock in Pfizer.