December 29, 2017--My novel has been thirty years in the writing, and maybe it has come into it's time. I call it "speculative fiction," depicting a world that might be if we get past the lock-jawed moral one-up-man-ship of the Baby Boomer generation. Yes, we're not dead yet, and we still have a chance to leap-frog over the Armageddon the soothsayers are so determined to predict.
It's About Time: Bud, Beon, and the Bots, Chapter One, "Joe's Nightmare," opens with protagonist Joe and his doctor friend, Marian, at Mack's Bar and Grill.
I've presented the first five pages, the opening scene, to an impromptu test market, you the would-be reader. I hope to o uplift and entertain, to tell a story, and perhaps to provoke some thought.
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 settled into her thoughts. She wasn’t sure when she first noticed Joe, sitting on that bar stool at Mack's, so many months ago. Like a cloud, he had eased into her awareness, emerging as if from thin air, until one afternoon he was sitting on that bar stool 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 bar stool 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.
“I’m a curious person,” he said, without moving eyes from glass. “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.”