Arnold liked to spend the one-hour Southwest flight from Oakland to Burbank looking at another customer and trying to figure him or her out. His style was somewhere between Sherlock Holmes and childhood fantasy. On this particular afternoon, Arnold spent his time examining the man in the blue sweatsuit and white baseball cap, calling forth an elaborate story of a hip-hop mogul doubling as a sous chef. Toward the end of the flight he glanced behind him and noticed another man watching him. Arnold smiled uncomfortable, prompting the other man to say, “You’re a competitive sailboat racer, right?”
There was this dog named Bernie. No, there was a mouse named Sammy. (Wait, I’m not really doing this, am I?) And Davie the Bear had a friend named Sally who was a butterfly. (No, animal stories are totally lame. Don’t do this.) And Tony the Dragon had always wanted to be a professional tennis player. (You have to stop). But Arnie the Alligator didn’t know how to read, or even hold a book. (That’s it, I”m stopping now.)
The great American politician of rank — let’s call her Diane — sits on the comfortable airplane and dreams of fighting with her hands. This isn’t quite the airplane that the Big Fella gets to use, but it’s impressive nonetheless, part of a fleet that the Air Force keeps on hand for people like herself. It doesn’t have a code name like Air Force One, or at least she doesn’t know it. But she imagines it landing at an unfriendly airport in Eastern Europe, forced down by weather or mechanical difficulties. Diane and her entourage make it as far as the main terminal building but then they suddenly are confronted by a group of separatists or nationalists or whatever synonym for bad guys is in vogue. And it’s then that she stands, side by side with her security detail, kicking some serious ass until the Marines arrive.
For Derick, there was a certain aesthetic to the cults of the 1970s that he found particularly appealing. Maybe it was the clothes, maybe it was the way these underground movements twisted the “it’s all about love” vibe of the 1960s into something intensely creepy, all the while combining the latest trends in music, fashion, and counterculture. He watched that documentary about the Manson family for hours and hours, getting an erotic thrill at that clip of the girls playing crazy sexy with their guns. So drawn to all this was Derick that he decided to mimic it all, gathering a few friends and throwing “love revolution” parties, complete with pseudo religious/Marxist lectures and live music. Then to play things even crazier, he convinced his girlfriend, Darlene, to have sex with a few of the other members in exchange for food. Then everyone moved to a “compound.” It was all getting so ironic and funny that no one paid any attention when Derick gave orders to kill the cast of a popular television comedy. Thankfully, the police were already onto them and no one got hurt.
When sport utility vehicles were on the rise – and wow that seems like such a long time ago, but really it wasn’t – Chester felt that the trend was permanent. He felt that the next level was even bigger, heavier vehicles adapted for suburban housewives. Ultimately, he felt that farm equipment was the way it would all go. So he convinced his bosses (who were very important people, important unnamable people) to invest heavily in designed and early prototypes for a kind of family tractor. And, well, as you can guess, Chester’s career is over, and no one will ever see the designs upon which he wagered everything.
Rex was a play-by-play man who excelled at the sports that bored most people to death. Originally a baseball announcer, he quickly showed his unique skillset working rain delays, spinning stories and recalling obscure statistics for an increasingly adoring audience. Then he moved to golf, where he was proficient at describing overweight white men walking on grass in terms more appropriate for the Roman conquest of Europe. Then came sailing – ah, no one could call a regatta like Rex.
Jenson loved the city — the sights, the sounds, the activity, the cars, the people, the diversity of viewpoints, the creativity, the energy, the voices, the smells, the concrete and asphalt. OK, he really didn’t like the city that much.
And after so many awkward events, Raymond decided that, fuck it, whenever a strange rumor about him arose, rather than prove it wrong, he would just do his best to make it true. So when a coworker asked him if it was true that he was looking for another job, Raymond immediately cleaned up his resume and began applying for positions elsewhere. When it got back to him that people thought he was cheating on his wife, he went right out and cheated on her with a waitress from the brewpub. And it went on and on, and all the while Raymond realized that everything was working out quite well for him. People liked him more. He got a promotion. He was having sex more often. It became clear that being the object of fantasy for so many people gave him great power over the world. And so he remains unstoppable today, and forever listening carefully to what people might be saying about him.
The bar was a large room with windows entirely on one side and a high ceiling with industrial elements like I-beams and ducts and pipes. Which is to say that the place was loud, so loud that Thomas and Elaine had to shout to each other to make themselves heard from only a few feet apart. Then Thomas said something – something unimportant – and Elaine laughed politely, but did not reply. And at that same moment, every other conversation in the place, perhaps as many as a hundred, also stalled and went silent. The room was quiet. It was as though space had the wind knocked out of it. Then someone across the room said something, and then someone laughed, then another person spoke and in another second it was all over and the room was a cacophony, and anyone who had noticed something strange a few seconds earlier had already forgotten the aberration, struggling so hard to hear what their friends were saying.
Every writer has at one point or another lost a work in progress. Computers fails, manuscripts get lost in the mail, storage units get flooded. But if every writer merely dabbled in these kinds of accidents, Henry Birch was the patron saint of the lost art. He had literally lost – through a variety of means – everything he had ever written. His first short story, a resonant piece about youthful longing crafted entirely in crayon, was actually eaten by the family dog. In college, he hammered out a masterful first novel on an IBM Selectric II before his crackhead roommate burned down the entire dormitory. This was just the beginning, as over the years manuscript after manuscript fell to the cruelty of chance. A computer virus took one, his second wife shredded another out of spite, and still another was erased when a truck carrying a giant magnet crashed into the apartment next door and erased all his data (don’t even ask). And yet Birch soldiered on, confident that his talents were only getting better for the experience, and that the most recent lost novel would be the last. He certainly believed this to be true of his epic three-part opus depicting a fictional narrative spanning the Civil War to the Vietnam War and the International Space Station. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, every time he hit the Save button on his laptop, the document was saved and updated on multiple servers in Los Angeles, New York, Des Moines, Hong Kong, New Delhi, and Berlin. Then, just days after it was completed, a combination of lightning strikes, terrorist attacks, avalanches, tsunamis, and over-the-edge postal workers wiped them all out within three hours of each other. Unheaded, Birch began his next novel the following day, an idea that had been simmering in the back of his mind for more than a year. “Chapter One” he typed, anxiously.