Fraction Anthem by Chris Ames
Associate fiction editor Ben Kinney on today's bonus story: "Life is absolutely shimmering in the blindspots.” So goes Chris Ames' “Fraction Anthem,” but this is a story where competing images come at the reader in visceral detail. Every beeping device and worrying thought demand attention, sending the protagonist reeling. There are so many killer one-liners in this piece that by its end, you’ll be left reeling too.
Even the alarm clock sounds tired. What an ugly noise. It churns out tiny yelps and you wake with your dreams dissolving like an antacid in warm water.
(A carriage? No, a chariot. Forget it — it’s already gone.)
The bladder itches for release. Until coffee burns it off, fog rolls in heavy and low behind the eyes. Ankles click and pop as they drag the legs from room to room. Stretching the skin, cracking the small bones of the neck, knuckles, back. The morning tongue is sticky like nearly-dried paint. How can the body want so many things at once? And yet, the body continues to operate the machinations of daily life. Some grand mechanic in the chest knows what to do: beat, beat, beat.
In the shower, a stray bit of elevator-dialogue floats into the brain, “bread and water can so easily be toast and tea.” And then another one, “all books are self-help books.” Everyone’s a genius in the shower. As water falls, it collects grime and pollutants in the air, leaving it pure. That after-the-rain smell is the brain soaking in a pool of oxygen. Inhale the good ideas.
Is there nothing else to do but absentmindedly tug on our pubic hair and relive every grade school humiliation? Piss down the drain, genius. Leaving the warmth is always so hard. No one departs the womb voluntarily. Cold linoleum and a million pinpoints of mold. It’s constantly sneaking up on you, life. In the lining, under the rug, the in-between, out-of-reach, blindspots. Life is absolutely shimmering in the blindspots.
And how can a towel just displace water around the skin? As if you threw the cloth into the ocean, it would slip through untouched, like the oily feathers of a duck.
Plucking, clipping, filing, brushing, flossing, gargling, spitting, washing, oiling, shaving, and washing again. Fishing contact lenses from their solution. Behold the perfumed, glassy-eyed animal.
Today you have an interview. A job is a job is a job. Rip a page from the flip-a-day affirmation calendar. Hell, rip three pages for good luck.
3/1 You are 100% a being of pure light 3/2 Your light is unswerving radiation 3/3 You’re a workhorse on fire, en gallop
Opening the ironing board sends off high-pitched squeals of metal on metal. Ever tried to start the car when it’s already running? The large gear in the starter begins spinning and jumps forward to grind the teeth off the flywheel. Something similar must be happening in the ironing board. The tiny ants of rust are insatiable; they’ll eat anything that shines. As a blacksmith, all problems can be solved with more heat and a bigger hammer. But here we are, steam-pressing our delicates. Has the modern world lost its bite? Have we gone soft gummed? Which shirt goes best with a robin’s egg blue double windsor?
This job’s supposed to be big money. Well, bigger money. Big for Bluffton, IN. There’s a small tech company being run out of someone’s garage in Marion called Soft.ly, which allows users to upload field recordings to an interactive map. So if one wants to know what the sound of the breeze flowing through Grant Memorial Park sounds like, or the quad at Indiana Wesleyan University, or the swimming pools in Gas City, they can. It ranges from the poetic (bird calls, church choirs) to the mundane (cars idling, air conditioners). San Francisco has been lobbing offers, and they are looking to expand. There’s potential. That inexplicable internet gold rush energy. Their motto? Plug into nature’s song.
It’s all bullshit until you don’t have to look at the price of food on the menu. So, practicing firm eye-contact, a direct handshake, and value-driving posture. Some inane, critical thought experiment: could you detect a missing shade of purple?
Answer: In another way, computer monitors may not always be depended upon for the true representation of a color. At one time, screens were capable of displaying only 256 colors. When a color was detected in an image that was not available, a different one had to be used. This can be done by either using the closest color (fast), or by using dithering (slow). Dithering is the attempt by a computer program to approximate an unknown color by adding digital noise to smooth out a transition between two known colors. The result can be blotchy, but from a distance, identical. Is it cheating to use a computer to answer a human question? Or is that precisely what they’re for? Everyone’s a genius in the computer.
Breakfast is onions going transparent, greens shriveling, a pair of eggs yellowing on LOW. The ceremony of coffee-making is saintly and absolute. Drinking stirs a small sharp glow, floodlighting the insides. An exhaust, fuming. Eat over the sink. Wash hands clean, then the plate. It’s like nothing even happened. A healthy interview tip no one gives: empty yourself beforehand. Masturbate into a warm washcloth. Take a slow, meditative shit. Light a candle then snuff it. A vigil to your clean-out. Amen.
Directions are loaded, gum in the mouth. The 124 W to the I-69 S to the 18 W takes 40 min, without traffic. That’s nearly an hour of downshifting, brake lighting, and sacrificing the right away. Please, after you. Today’s about letting everybody in.
Get in the car. Key to ignition. Fiddling with the phone. It seems there’s never only one thing to do. It’s walk down the street and play with a device. Or, have a heart-to-heart and play with a device. All us supplicants to the device that we work on, which is the same device we play on, is the same device we write with, the same device we touch ourselves in front of, same device for sending tiny messages in the desperate a.m. hours, so be it truly, the selfsame device. And still, the open road needs music. You decide to download the app Soft.ly ahead of time. It brings up a series of notifications:
TOP FIELD RECORDINGS
Rain on a Tin Roof 2:06:39
Basketball Shoes on Gym Floor 00:48:00
Sailing and Ocean Sounds for Sleep 7:57:30
Call Waiting Music 00:59:59
Italian Mass, Our Lady of Pompeii 1:09:14
Ice Cream Truck 00:00:31
Refrigerator Hum 00:00:15
Leftovers in Microwave 00:02:00
Double Dutch Skip Rope Rhymes 00:12:45
Nail Salon Gossip 01:00:16
Speeding on the 124 W soundtracked by Cisco CallManager Default Hold Music, sometimes known as Opus Number 1 (credit to Darrick Deel, Tim Carleton, and Cisco Systems, Inc). At 5:37, the track plays 10 times with 23 seconds of silence after each play, for 60 perfect minutes of holding on. An hour in waiting. The echoey drum machine does its best impersonation of one hand clapping, while the synth lines float in thin, vaporous clouds. Anticipation descends, as if the wait music will cut out, and the rural Indiana highway will split open and begin speaking. Quick, something else.
Gunning the 124 W to the ambient chatter of Mi Nail Salon: five or six different female voices weave in and out, a thousand puny clicks of glass bottles and plastic nails on granite, soft buzz of UV lamps, and the sandpaper static of cuticles being filed down to dust. A woman says, “A ouija board only has the words YES NO and GOODBYE, which is all you really need” and a woman says “never sleep with a man who keeps his mattress on the ground” and a woman says something her mother used to say and everybody goes “ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” Somehow, the smell of nail polish fills up the car, pressure cooks the brain. Unlock the device. Push seek. Change the station.
Who is all this noise for? Disc jockeys? The blind? Homebodies? Who swims the garish channel of big data and doesn’t drown? Could the answer be as simple as going outside? What would a return to form even look like?
Racing down the 124 W to the sound of a babbling brook, 750 tons of corn sifting in a grain silo, a dog park. Fiddling with the phone, wind chimes, whale songs, a high volume copy machine. Merging lanes, heartbeats, a grocery store scanner. The rearview, waking up the device, slide to unlock failed, try again. Touch ID doesn’t recognize your fingerprint, try again. On the third attempt, the screen blossoms just as the car connects with an Amish buggy riding in the shoulder, sending a body over the hood and a horse into the ditch. The car doesn’t crash. Rather, it separates the buggy like a wet paper towel.
It is 6:30 a.m. and there is no one else on the highway. Looking east, a pale sun hangs low in the sky. From the radio, Sailing and Ocean Sounds for Sleep softly plays. The man in the middle of the road is unquestionably dead. His horse, half-eviscerated, swings its head wildly. Some animals won’t accept that their owner is gone until they can sniff their dead body. A noise like a flooded engine comes from the chest of the horse. A wet cough.
The car idles peacefully. It is relatively unscathed. A few dents in the bumper, but those could be from anything, couldn’t they? No headlights in either direction. A key concept for the Amish is the high value they place on Gelassenheit, often translated as “submission” or “letting-be.” Perhaps better understood as a reluctance to be forward. A willful rejection of any technologies that might make one less dependent on community. Outside of time, on hold. Jesus Christ, a carriage on the interstate?
A thought: can a horse be put-down with a tire iron? (Draw an imaginary line from one eye to the opposite ear. Repeat with the other eye and ear. Aim where the two lines intersect. A lot of people go for “right between the eyes” but that’s the sinus cavity, and the horse will suffer.)
And then another thought: if you left right now, you could still make the interview.
Children do not become heavier when they fall asleep on the couch, and yet the stairs to their room never seems longer when carrying them to bed. When a person is awake, they tend to help the carrier by wrapping their arms around them, shifting their center of gravity, or burying their small noses into the carrier’s neck. Of course, dead weight is dead weight. It’s just — how can the body be two things at once?
The man in the middle of the road is now a man in a ditch. A man and his horse. What’s left of the buggy is so spread thin, it could be mistaken for any cousin of wreckage, couldn’t it? This is about safety. Everything out of the line of vision. The radio is cut off by the scream of an incoming phone call. Get back in the car.
On the sea, there are specific kinds of shipwreck. Lagan is goods lying on the bottom of the ocean, sometimes marked by a buoy, which can be reclaimed. Conversely, derelict is cargo that is also on the bottom of the ocean, which no one has any hope of reclaiming. In other contexts, derelict may also refer to a drifting or abandoned ship. Things lost to time.
The missed call is just a telemarketer. In the rearview, two specks of light form just over the horizon. Someone’s coming. At the very least, the car needs to move out of the way. People are trying to get to work. Emergency brake is off. Back into drive. Fiddling with the phone. Headlights in the mirror getting bigger. Gently press on the gas and look for a turnout. 100ft. 200ft. Where’s a safe place to pull over? 300ft. Headlights are tailgating now. A sign for a scenic overlook in two miles. Behind, the driver honks politely, two little bursts that say, don’t slow down. Everyone’s a genius in hindsight. Clucking aloud, to no one in particular, like a skittish animal, whoa girl, easy girl. Feeling it in the guts, the internal population gone mad. The stomach’s always first in line to betray the body. It wants to wear the insides out. Think through fluid. Push through the swell. Needing a floodgate, like a shunt in the brain. The daily routine comes undone as all the morning cosmetics pool in a circle of sweat just above the tailbone. Aftershave and cologne and hair gel, steam heating the conscious. 400ft. Does the driver behind want to pass? Please, let this too, pass away. The headlights balloon up, swallow the rearview, sideview, engulf the entire car in a halogen sun stroke. 100% a being of pure light. Blistering clarity. This is it, too bright. The end, a piece of tungsten filament burning out slow. Waving, the car behind slides through the blindspot to overtake, thanks for letting me in. Its taillights, like red eyes in a photograph, watch you place an anonymous call. They watch you get smaller and smaller still.
In a parking lot, two cops on horses gallop by. The horses eat from feedbags and shit into bunbags. The cops inhale cigarette smoke and exhale into their police whistles. Something urgent comes out of the dispatch radio like: four-nine-teen, four-nine-teen or maybe flee-the-scene, but it’s drown out by hooves on asphalt. They nod to civilians as they pass. A silent gesture. I’m here, you’re here, we’re here.
Over and over, hitting the steering wheel with an open palm, ridge of the hand, over and over, a force of sheer will, wanting it differently, over and over, brilliant comeback comes too late, finding the typo after hitting send, it’s over. Screaming the voice hoarse. Not wanting to be dead, but not wanting to exist right now. Or, wanting the moment of right now to be dead. Or, being dead for only a moment. The body, needing it both ways. Key to ignition. An engine backfires like a trumpet blast, sends the horses rearing. The cops stare from behind their mirrored sunglasses, but you only see yourself in them. You in your vehicle, cosmetically perfect. They wave, as if to say move along sir. Waving back, as if to say it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge.
Turning onto the highway. Fiddling with a dying phone. Turn on the radio: pop song, static, pop song from 10 years ago, classical, mariachi, song for slow dancing, static, first time caller, long time listener, commercial for something fast-acting, wordless chorus, pop song, hometown loss to the crosstown rivals, traffic, weather, pop song fighting through static, accident report on the 124 W, if you see something, say something, expect delays, song to sing in the shower, commercial for something long-lasting — and then radio evangelist Prophet Omega Townsend, with the enthusiasm of a racetrack announcer, imploring the listener to “… repeat these words, I am what I am and that’s all I am is what I am. That’s all I am is what I am… and I am it. Now, repeat those words. If you repeat those words and continue to repeat those words, blessing gonna come to you. You got to remain to being your self. You cannot be nobody else. Ain’t no use in tryin’ bein’ no whirlwind, and jumping here and playing checkers with your own life. That ain’t gonna work, baby. Now repeat these words behind me, I am what I am. Now, that’s all you are! You are what you believe you are…”
Repeating the words over and over creates a pleasurable effect in the mind. And it feels as though the endless refresh of anxiety and anticipation is mixed with a purple colored liquid, a shade of which you’ve never seen before. Mute and calming. Laying a dead phone to rest. No alerts, no notifications. No sound except the gentle weep of the body being filled by purple colored liquid. Unswerving and guiltless, the car slides through space as red and blue lights dither in the rearview.
Chris Ames is a writer who also draws. His work has been featured in No Tokens, Quiet Lightning, Eleven Eleven, and elsewhere. Visit him at chrisames.net.