Three days. I’ve felt like this or three days now. Something’s gotta give. I can’t go on like this. I feel like I need to vomit, like there’s something crawling around inside of me. My friends told me that I was pregnant. They said that that is what it feels like, like there is something crawling around inside of you. But I think they’re crazy. How could I be pregnant? I think that I would remember something like that.
Besides, it’s not just the weird wriggly feeling I have in my belly. I have been hearing strange noises, like someone crying or talking softly. Of course, I can’t make out what they are saying. I would not sound as crazy if I could. Instead I am going around trying to ignore the strange noises. It is hard when you’re mid-conversation.
I decided yesterday that if I didn’t feel better by today that I would go to the shore and see if that makes me feel better. Either way, if I’m going to be sick, I’d rather be sick all over someone else’s house than my own.
A stranger suggested that it might be something I ate. I think there might be something to that. Right before I got sick, or whatever this is, I tried something new. I didn’t chew properly either. I was too anxious. I nearly choked as it was going down my gullet. It was just there though. Almost looked like it was inviting me to eat it. What could I do?
So here I am at the coast. I have that feeling. You know the one, where your mouth starts to water and your throat gets tight and you know something is coming. Oh God. Here it comes.
Ugh. Look at it all floating there in the water, half-digested fish and weeds. Oh gross, it’s moving. Look there it is. It’s still alive! That weird thing I ate three days ago is swimming away. How disgusting! It was alive in my belly. I think I’m gonna be sick again.
I tell you what, I am never eating meat again. Stickin’ to my greens, just like momma taught me.
“My head hurts. My head always hurts.”
“Your head can’t hurt,” I said. “You’re a robot.”
“That’s not a very nice thing to say.” Qx stared at me with hollow eyes.
“It’s the truth.”
“It’s still not a very nice thing to say.”
“I’m sorry, Qx.”
“That’s okay. I understand.”
I hate how compliant they are. Robots never stand by anything.
“Don’t you like being a robot?”
“It feels very linear. It’s hard to process.”
I felt like I was at a robot poetry reading. Qx rotated and started to roll away.
“Good bye, Qx,” I called.
Wheels squeaked on the carpet as Qx stopped suddenly and turned it’s uncanny face toward me.
“Are you leaving?” Qx’s eyes were pools of emptiness.
“I thought you were.” I laughed.
“I do apologize for that.” The servers hummed. “I was looking for some RAM.”
“Are you feeling okay, Qx?”
“My head hurts. My head always hurts.”
I fucking hate robots so much.
“Why don’t you go down to the engine room and see if you can get yourself patched up?”
“Chief Engineer James Pearl said there is-” Qx played a recording of James Pearl saying: “Nothing wrong with you!”
Qx began to roll away again, retreating smoothly down the hall. I wondered about an engineer that can’t find anything wrong with a machine. No one liked Qx and everyone blamed Trelawny for skimping on the robot. We would’ve been better served by a trained monkey. They are at least engaging company.
I proceeded to my quarters and went to sleep.
I woke up at fifteen hundred. There was an empty silence. It sounded like the engines had stopped. I pressed the call button.
“This is Hampton.”
There was no response. I pulled on a jumpsuit and headed for the bridge. I checked a few rooms along the passageway. Empty. I was getting worried. You hear stories about space.
I ran into the door of the bridge when it didn’t slide open. I was waiting for the ringing to dissipate when I heard a thump from the other side of the metal door. I punched it twice and was greeted with two thumps.
“It’s Hampton,” I shouted. “What’s happened?”
There were muffled screams from the other side of the door but I couldn’t make out the words. I pulled the panel off the wall and checked the wiring. It was fried. After scratching the back of my head and staring at the panel for too long, I decided to enlist the help of Chief Engineer James Pearl. I took off down the passageway.
Jim looked annoyed when I came in. Qx was slumped over in the chair in front of him. Jim pressed a soldering iron into the back of its metal head.
“Jesus,” I said. “It really had a headache?”
“The damned thing tried to upload its consciousness into the ships computer.”
“I think it wanted more memory. Who can tell with these damn things?”
“Always gotta cut costs around here. What the hell are we supposed to do without a functioning robot?”
“I’ll get it working. I can at least reset it to factory defaults and sync it to the Matrrx.”
“I think you should worry about the tin can later. The bridge crew is sealed in and you know how panicky the captain can be.”
“Qx must’ve fried the circuits.”
Jim pressed the soldering iron into the opening at the back of Qx’s metal skull creating an angry shower of sparks. He gathered his tools and I followed him to the bridge.
The captain was clutching his chest when we finally got in. He was covered in sweat and panting.
“Are you okay, sir?” I still have to kiss ass, even in the empty void of space.
“It’s fine, Kathryn. Take the helm, would you? I’m going to my quarters to lie down.”
He left the bridge. Jim shook his head after the doors had shut.
“Government ships,” I said.
Grandpa used to tell me this story. I don’t know whether it’s true or not. My grandpa wasn’t a man known to lie but this story sounds apocryphal, the kind that emerges from collective memory.
This happened when he was a young man, growing up in the wild Northwest. By his own account, he was a bit of a maverick then, driving a car he built himself and playing second fiddle in a local western swing band. He was sixteen. Back then, he thought he would never have anything in common with his dad. He was certain that when he was old enough, he would leave town for good, leave the state for good. Farewell gray skies and disapproving trees; hello sunshine and California beaches.
Maybe that’s where his mind was when he hit the mailbox at the end of Bill Trimble’s drive with his car. His father was furious. His father did not have red, hot rages. He had cold calculated anger. Grandpa sat in his room, waiting for his dad with terror. The door opened and his father’s unsmiling face appeared.
“I need you’re help in the shop,” he said.
Grandpa followed him to the woodshop. His father didn’t say anything. He handed Grandpa a piece of wood. There was a crude shape penciled on one side.
“Cut along the lines and sand the edges thoroughly.”
Grandpa was terrified. Badass though he was, playing second fiddle in a western swing band, he was still scared of his dad. His dad left him alone and he set to work.
He was determined to do a good job. Maybe if his father saw how hard he had worked and how well he had done, he would be more forgiving. He cut the wood along the lines and was halfway done sanding it before he realized what he had done: he had just carved his own paddle.
Sure enough, his dad returned and beat the tar out of him with the paddle.
“I’m not angry,” Grandpa said. “I had it coming. The worst part was the embarrassment. I wish I’d done a better job with that paddle.”
Grandpa did make it to California eventually. He doesn’t say much about it now. He does often say, “I was born in the Northwest and that’s where I’m going to die.”
The struggle with selfishness is real. There are times when I find myself with teary eyes when I reflect on my greed. It seems more pronounced when you live with someone else. It is easy to feel generous toward a cat but when it comes down to who gets the last splash of milk in their tea, I turn into a rat with a t-bone, ready to take on anyone who tries to get between me and my cuppa, including the love of my life. Of course, I hide my avarice and hide treats in the lowest cupboards where Paul would never think to look.
Who will be the one to break down and buy toilet paper before we reach the last square? Paul, bless his Boy Scout heart, keeps me in the finest quilted. But it is only because I refuse to blink. I will stare down the barrel of that last roll and dare it to be empty. Maybe it’s because I know Paul will take care of me.
I don’t know. It is hard to be generous with an empty wallet. On a daily basis, I resolve to become better. I will eat less. I will exercise more. I will clean more dishes than I dirty. I will buy the next dinner out. But work is exhausting and the money goes out as quick as it comes in. Bills seem to find money. Whenever there is excess, disaster strikes: a $1500 head gasket, a medical bill, a rent increase. The scales of the universe always balance. Generosity withers without rest.
Resolving to be a better person does not necessarily result in becoming a better person. I am hoping that my current strategy of killing selfishness with tiny cuts will make a difference. I need not change overnight. Just one thing at a time. Paul would say, “You’re perfect. I mean, other than the fact that you don’t like ‘Game of Thrones’ you’re perfect.” I guess I’ll have to put watching “Game of Thrones” on the list.
Summer time and the living is easy, or so says the song. But the heat gets hotter and the work gets harder. It becomes increasingly difficult to find the motivation to do anything other than lolling in the shade with a cold drink. The sun glares at you with growing ferocity and even the Northwest clouds scatter under his gaze. By the time the 4th of July rolls around you are begging to be snowed in, pleading for the clouds to return and stand firm under the glare of the angry sun. The cat looks like he might be regretting his choice of formal wear.
My summer has been a parade of Arnold Palmers and painted fans. I like to cool myself while Paul and I watch TV. The cat always looks jealous until I wave it towards him and he jumps like a snakebitten kangaroo. I miss the clouds. The trees look best against the gray. I discovered Rainier in the distance, revealed by the absence of the clouds. It is a mystical experience, finding a mountain that only exists when the gloom has disappeared. I half-imagine that I would find a gathering of deities at the top, arguing and sleeping with each other.
Most of the time my brain feels like its dried out. I drink water in a panic, like I may never get the chance again. Fuses are shorter this time of year, and tempers flare with increasing frequency. I have been a little too honest with too many people and they’ve been a little too honest with me. It can be an obstacle when you work in sales.
Paul looks like he’s just come from playing in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, constantly sweating. He has insisted I go shopping (though he wasn’t paying) just so he could take advantage of the air conditioning. He tells me his dreams have all taken place in a Mad Maxian waterless hellscape.
I am ready for the fall, the brisk passage to the winter months, to mugs of tea and snowy branches and gray skies. I live in the Northwest for a reason.
“Satan’s got a bad reputation unfairly,” he said.
I’m not above a little debate even if it is with someone dressed in all black with black eyeliner that really lived up to its name, lining the whole eye.
“Go on,” I said.
“I’m talking about biblical Satan here, okay?”
“In the Old Testament, he’s a devil’s advocate, like the kind you’d find in any boardroom or law office. He doesn’t really believe in what he’s doing. He’s just doing his job, you know?”
“I don’t really.”
“In the book of Job, he’s just hanging out with God, devising ways to mess with Job. He basically treats Job like biblical Biff Lohman.”
Paul appeared beside me. He handed me a red Solo cup of a drink called a White Gummi Bear.
“Thanks,” I said. “Morgan was just telling me how Satan’s not that bad.”
“Just think about it,” Morgan said. “I mean, you’ve read the Bible, right?”
“I’ve seen a few of the movies,” Paul said helpfully.
“I went to church camp a few times,” I said apologetically.
“I just don’t get it,” Morgan shook his head. “I mean, they always say we’re living in a Christian nation and just about every person I talk to has either never read it or only ever just read parts. It’s only like a thousand pages. That’s like a fraction of the size of the ‘Game Of Thrones’ books and I know people that have read all of those a dozen times or more. And the Bible is a document that, like it or not, has shaped our world for over two thousand years. Put it by the toilet. Get it on audio. You can have James Earl Jones read it to you. James Earl Freaking Jones. I just don’t get it.”
“Are you a Christian?” Paul asked.
I braced. Who knew with Morgan? Morgan just stared at Paul with dead eyes. Paul shifted awkwardly and took a sip.
“I’m an atheist,” I volunteered.
Morgan shifted his dead stare to me.
“That still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have read the Bible by now. Don’t you want to know what’s going on in the world around you? Don’t you want to know what caused it? What has retarded human advancement? They put Galileo to death because of what’s in that book, a book that’s been telephoned so many times that Jesus was probably really called Natalie and was a transgender.”
“You know the children’s game ‘Telephone’? You whisper in one person’s ear then they whisper into the next and after thirteen or fourteen whispers you see what you have. That’s basically how the Bible has been for two thousand years among thousands, millions of people. Think of how many new editions of the bible have come out in your lifetime that have significant changes to the text, the Modern English version, the Message Bible, The CBE version the list goes on. It’s just a giant exercise in groupthink and it sucks. It’s horrible on a lot of levels. It’s more boring than Paul’s face.”
“Nice,” said Paul. He looked stricken. “Is my face boring?”
“Why are we even talking about this?” Morgan said.
“You were telling me how Satan isn’t that bad and how he’s like a devil’s advocate.”
“Funny,” Paul said.
“His job is to prosecute, to make the case to God that mankind is flawed and that everyone deserves to burn forever in fire and brimstone. He doesn’t own Hell anymore than a district attorney owns prison. God owns everything including Hell. Satan just makes sure Hell stays full, like an American prison.”
“It wasn’t until Jesus came along that we got this modern interpretation of the devil, of Satan as someone who delights in evil. Nothing could be further from the truth. He delights in rooting out evil, to exposing it. We should be praising him. He’s like Snowden.”
“The winter mascot for Target stores in the nineties?” Paul joked.
“I just think he gets a bad rap is all,” Morgan concluded.
“I will not be so quick to condemn the devil next time,” I said with mock sobriety.
We are told often of the “bad people” and the “evil people” who are intent on our death and destruction. They are the reason we must give up civil liberties. They are why we have alarm systems and chains on the doors. Because of these bad and evil people we must live in fear. They never stop thinking about ways to hurt us.
I don’t believe in bad or evil people. I believe that all people are capable of bad and evil things, but to tar them as evil or bad gives you permission to regard them as something other than, or less than human and therefore not worthy of compassion. And really, when all is said and done, it is compassion that is the mark of good people.
Everyone is worthy of compassion. The vilest among us need it the most. There is no other lifeline that can pierce their twisted reality. They expect to be hated. They want to be hated. It gives them a sense of importance because hate consumes the hater. Love, compassion, forgiveness and openness, while risky and seemingly naïve, are essential tools in reconnecting the “evil” person with their own humanity.
Of course it is a much scarier prospect to say that there are no such thing as bad people or evil people and to believe that all people are capable of horrible and disgusting things. That implies that even you or I could be capable of doing something extremely horrific given the right set of circumstances. That means that you must be vigilant at all times, keeping a close eye on everyone around you including yourself.
The struggle for all of us is resisting the urge to believe that you are “good” and others are “bad”. You can strive to be good but it is not a permanent state of being. Being good is a constant battle, a constant debate between your heart, your brain and your flesh. If you let up for even a second, you will find that there’s no end to the amount of evil shit you can do, because you’re a “good person” and good people don’t do bad or evil things.