Excerpts from an unfinished novel #4

Back in November 2011 I started working on a novel tentatively titled Ghost Hand. The story is about Marine sniper who returns to Los Angeles to recover from severe injuries only to find that the war for him has just started, and there’s more to the world than he knew.

Part of his story is dealing with his PTSD. As he starts to work out his issues he discovers a whole class of people worse off than he is: The homeless.

After several starts at the novel I had to set it aside. I just was not happy with the story. I needed to sit on it more. But in the process I did write a whole of lot fun pieces in the voice of the protagonist. Several of them were designed to be chapter headers, to show up at the beginning of every third chapter or so. These ones are all about mental illness, and are presented from the point of view of someone who has gone through it, and made it out the other side.

I’m going to put them up once a week, for five weeks. This is number four of five.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The brain is the first victim

It should be obvious that the term mental illness means an illness to the head. Most people have an understanding of this. They know someone with mental illness is “crazy” to some degree or another, but they don’t understand why. They say things like, “Why would someone stay in bed all day?”, or “I don’t understand why would anyone wash their hands so hard that their skin bleeds?”, or even, “Why does my husband act so cold?”

These questions are asked because the normal person doesn’t understand what mental illness means to the one who is sick.

In simple terms, the first victim of mental illness is the brain. When one is mentally ill, the very first sign, indeed the only reason most mental illness are categorized together, is that the person who is sick does not know it. Their normal thinking has been blocked by the disease. One could even go so far as to say the brain has been co-opted, taken over, by the disease.

And they cannot tell.

This is why people do crazy things when they are mentally ill. Why they stay in bed all day under the crushing weight of Depression, why they repeatedly wash their hands until they bleed under the feverish anxiety of Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, or why they withhold all affection towards their loved ones under the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In each case the person with the mental illness is a victim of their own thoughts because, like a terrorist their mental illness has taken over their brain and is holding it captive.

This is why mental illness is such an insidious disease, and so difficult to cure.   When you’re ill, it is almost impossible to tell from the inside of your head. From the inside it all looks normal. Even worse, a lot of mental illnesses carry with them a distrust of outsiders. Not only can you not know the truth (because your brain has been taken over), but you will be inclined to not trust the very people who are telling you the truth.

 

Excerpts from an unfinished novel #3

Back in November 2011 I started working on a novel tentatively titled Ghost Hand. The story is about Marine sniper who returns to Los Angeles to recover from severe injuries only to find that the war for him has just started, and there’s more to the world than he knew.

Part of his story is dealing with his PTSD. As he starts to work out his issues he discovers a whole class of people worse off than he is: The homeless.

After several starts at the novel I had to set it aside. I just was not happy with the story. I needed to sit on it more. But in the process I did write a whole of lot fun pieces in the voice of the protagonist. Several of them were designed to be chapter headers, to show up at the beginning of every third chapter or so. These ones are all about mental illness, and are presented from the point of view of someone who has gone through it, and made it out the other side.

I’m going to put them up once a week, for five weeks. This is number three of five.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Different types of mental illness

If you have PTSD someone might say to you something like, “You have the some of the same symptoms of a crazy person, but that doesn’t mean you’re stone cold crazy. See, you can get better. A crazy person cannot.”

Well, that’s not quite true either. A crazy person can get better to, but it’s a different kind of better.

See having PTSD is like being obese. Sure you’re overweight, but you have this certain knowledge that if you just put some effort into changing your diet and exercising more, you can be thin again. Most crazy people have never been thin. They don’t have that certain knowledge. They don’t have that hope. Healing for them is like learning to walk by crossing a tightrope high above a stage. Not only they do not know of a single person who has successfully crossed before, they don’t really know how to walk. They understand the concept of putting one foot in front of another, but its just a concept to them, they’ve never really done it before. And their sense of balance is crap. The one thing they do know, the one thing they have any certainly about, is how to fall. They been falling all of their lives.

So if you ever meet a person recovering from mental illness, salute them. I’ve been in a lot of hairy situations with bullets flying and friends falling right and left, but the bravest people I have ever met were those few who were attempting to recover from their own insanity.

Excerpts from an unfinished novel #2

Back in November 2011 I started working on a novel tentatively titled Ghost Hand. The story is about Marine sniper who returns to Los Angeles to recover from severe injuries only to find that the war for him has just started, and there’s more to the world than he knew.

Part of his story is dealing with his PTSD. As he starts to work out his issues he discovers a whole class of people worse off than he is: The homeless.

After several starts at the novel I had to set it aside. I just was not happy with the story. I needed to sit on it more. But in the process I did write a whole of lot fun pieces in the voice of the protagonist. Several of them were designed to be chapter headers, to show up at the beginning of every third chapter or so. These ones are all about mental illness, and are presented from the point of view of someone who has gone through it, and made it out the other side.

I’m going to put them up once a week, for five weeks. This is number two of five.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

You can’t tell when you’re crazy

Here’s the thing about being crazy. The thing no one will tell you unless they’ve been there. When you are crazy you cannot tell. You cannot know it. Your brain can be so scrambled that the idea of emptying your weapon into a room full of strangers sounds perfectly reasonable. Yet from the inside your thinking feels perfectly normal, logical, even rational. Exactly as if there is nothing wrong.

How fucked up is that?

You see, from the inside, being insane feels exactly like being sane. And that’s the trouble. When you are crazy it feels just like being normal. The only difference is a sane person doesn’t believe the proper response to waiting too long in line for a bank teller is to rip the bank apart, or when they get startled by a car horn while crossing the street, they don’t pull the driver out of their car and bounce their head off the hood.

See, when you’re sane you get that. You understand that one doesn’t just go and hit every asshole in the world. You can look at some jerk, and say to yourself, “Oh, he’s just being an ass,” and then go about your day. I can’t. I don’t have that ability. I used to, but now its gone. Burned out of me like a lot of other things.

Worst still, when you are crazy you cannot hear to the good advice of others. Its like a part of your brain has been turned off. So when your best friend tries to tell you that you’re acting crazy, you won’t believe them. Why? Because on the inside it doesn’t feel crazy to you. It feels perfectly sane. So you start to think, “What’s wrong with him? Is he loosing it?” when in fact you are the one who is loosing it. Which makes for some pretty messed up relationships, let me tell you.

And remember, no one plans on being crazy. It’s not something you set out to do. You don’t wake up one day and say to yourself, “I think I’ll go nuts today.” No, it’s something you become.

Take me for instance. I was perfectly sane for years, killing people I didn’t know. Now I know what you’re thinking, “How can a man be sane when he goes around killing people?” But its true. You see, it was my job. I was a sniper, a Marine sniper. And a damn good one too. I killed a lot of people, yet I slept perfectly fine at night. That’s because they were my enemy, and I can tell you that each and every one of them would have happily killed me first, if he had half the chance. More than a few have tried, let me tell you, which is why I have so many scars. But none of them succeeded. So far. Not to sound harsh or anything, but that’s how war goes. You try to kill the guy before he kills you. At least that’s the idea. It doesn’t always work that way, but if you train hard, and travel with the baddest sons-of-bitches who ever walked the earth, you have a pretty good chance. That’s what I did.

But then one day something happened. I went crazy. Not just a little bit crazy either. Whole hog crazy. As my Sargent back in boot camp used to say, “You don’t do anything in half measures, do you Santiago?”

Anyway, now I’m trying to find my way back. Trying to be sane again. And its hard. Harder than you would think. Hell, even Marine Sniper school seems easy by comparison, and that was the hardest thing I ever accomplished.

Until now.

Anyway, this is my story.

Excerpts from an unfinished novel #1

Back in November 2011 I started working on a novel tentatively titled Ghost Hand. The story is about Marine sniper who returns to Los Angeles to recover from severe injuries only to find that the war for him has just started, and there’s more to the world than he knew.

Part of his story is dealing with his PTSD. As he starts to work out his issues he discovers a whole class of people worse off than he is: The homeless.

After several starts at the novel I had to set it aside. I just was not happy with the story. I needed to sit on it more. But in the process I did write a whole of lot fun pieces in the voice of the protagonist. Several of them were designed to be chapter headers, to show up at the beginning of every third chapter or so. These ones are all about mental illness, and are presented from the point of view of someone who has gone through it, and made it out the other side.

I’m going to put them up once a week, for five weeks. This is number one of five, and was intended to be the novel’s opening lines.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

You don’t want to read this

You probably don’t want to read this book. You’re going to get maybe one or two pages in and then think of excuses for putting it down. Something will be on television, you’ll remember to call your cousin. Probably.

You won’t want to follow the story as it meanders all the way to the middle, and I know damn well you don’t want to reach the end.

I know because I wrote it.

I can’t say that I blame you in not wanting to read this story. I didn’t want to write it either.

This isn’t a nice book. Its not full of nice people doing nice things. Its about crazy people doing scary things. Very scary things. Things you will not believe. I know because I didn’t believe them either, and I had them happen to me. I didn’t want to believe this story so much that when it happen to me I went a little crazy rather than deal with them. Maybe more than a little crazy.

Until I had the real world forced on me again, kicking and screaming. I wished it hadn’t done that.

Not that wishing ever got you anything.

 

If it did, what I’d wish for would be sanity. No one will tell you this. No one I know, who has not himself been down this dark road, will tell you that sanity is not so strongly attached to your body. Being sane is a fragile thing, easily taken, easily overlooked. I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking to yourself “what does he know about being sane? I’m fine. My head is in the right spot.” Well I’ll tell you what I know. One can be sane, and have their sanity taken. I know. It happened to me.

One sunny August morning in 2008, along with most of my left arm, and the ability to sleep well, I lost my mind, or at least enough of it to matter.

This is the story of how I tried to get it back, my sanity that is, and what I found instead.

I did warn you, its not going to be pretty. Its not.

The Electrician

A little something for your weekend fun. This is a story I wrote back in 2012 that takes place in my Future LA universe. The story is about the effects of technological change in the work place. Since I’ve lived through a massive change like this in my profession, I can appreciate both what it is like to be the new kid who rides his way up the corporate ladder by embracing the “new tech”, and yet also feel for the older guy who finds himself intrenched in the “old ways” and isn’t able to make that leap. Sometimes the new guy can appreciate the knowledge and skills of the old guard, and sometimes you can teach the old dog a new trick. 

At 6400 words its simply too long to sell in most markets. Its a good story, just not a sellable one, which is why I’m putting it up here. Enjoy.

 

The Electrician

Richard Credo walked past the long row of empty repair vehicles, and let his mind wander.

The underground parking structure showed its age. The grey walls were splotchy with dust and grime. Occasional cracks and hasty repairs marked the odd accident. The smooth floor was stained with a stream of dark spots and spills. In an effort to save energy, the maintenance system only turned on the overhead fluorescents that were nearby. As he walked, each light would flicker and sputter to life at his approach, then go off in eerily silence as he passed. The effect was like a miner traveling down a dark tunnel with a host of invisible companions lighting torches in front, and dousing them behind.

Each burst of light showed another bay, each like the last; two repair vans on either side, identical except for their bold black identification numbers and the odd scratch or dent. Every vehicle bore the logo for Grace Electric and Power on one side, and a smiling guard dog on the other, happily barking the company’s motto: “Safe, and Secure.”

Years ago Richard had walked this route every day, one of the hundreds of crews repairing and maintaining the millions of homes that contracted with GEP for their power. Today those homes were still safe and secure, a fact in which he took a small amount of pride.

Every time he started walking towards the garage Richard did so with the idea of visiting his old vehicle, maybe sitting down in the driver’s seat again just to see what it was like. But each time he made it down several flights of stairs the vehicles all started to jumble together, their numbers flashing across his mind, until he could not tell one van from the next, let alone recall which van was his own. He supposed there was something about the building with its rows and rows of identical vans that made it easy to forget, or perhaps it was the ghostly way the lights followed him around. Maybe it was the deep chill from being so far underground. In any event, he found the temporary forgetfulness soothing, like a cool drink on a hot summer’s day. Now that he was a busy department head with hundreds problems needing his attention day after day, the deep cool parking garage had become a blessing to him, a secret refuge.

Behind him, Richard sensed the lights come on at the end of the row, immediately followed by the tap, tap, tap of wooden high-healed shoes on bare concrete. He knew that sound. It was his assistant, Amanda. He stopped and watched the lights between them suddenly all came on at once, ending his ghostly reverie. He leaned against a nearby wall, and waited patiently for her arrive.

“Running silent again?” she asked when she got close enough to speak. It was an old joke between them. In all of the sprawling GEP complex, only the walls of the underground garage were not covered in smart film, and the parking structure played havoc with the network access. It was the only place a person could turn down their tablet and not be bothered by the outside world.

“Its been a busy morning,” Richard said as if this explained anything. Then changing the topic he said, “Your friend, Diana, from that museum. What’s it called?”

“The Antique Electrical Society?” she asked.

“That one. She kept calling this morning. Asking for our for help. Practically begging. And then, then…” he trailed off.

“I know,” she said in quiet sympathy.

“You know what’s funny?” he said. “In all of the time I’ve worked here, I never thought I would have to fire a friend, let alone my best friend.”

Amanda let out a sigh, but wisely said nothing.

“I kept telling that stupid cabrón to move to another division, to get out of field service, but he wouldn’t listen. We used to go camping together, fishing together, raised our kids together,” he spoke to the dark purple vehicle bay, his anger still fresh like an open wound. “And now…” he trailed off.

There was nothing more to say.

He let out a sigh and turned to face Amanda, ready to focus his attention back on the real world. “Sorry about that. What ch’a got?”

Amanda held in her hands a rolled sheet of what looked like paper. In reality it was a thin flexible screen; smart film. At Richard’s question she flipped her wrist and the film unrolled into a flat sheet. The surface filled rapidly with figures and blocks of text, each stacking on top of the next, vying for the busy executive’s attention. It was an exact copy of what the wall over his desk looked like, only this time there was something different. The upper right corner flashed the bright red of a high priority message.

“Some old man just went loco on one of our crews,” Amanda said.

“Anyone hurt?” he asked automatically taking the film from her.

“Not yet,” she said. At this he raised an eyebrow. She continued, “its on-going. Or at least was when I came to get you.”

Richard quickly brushed the upper corner of the film. A Video of a grey haired man in a bathrobe angrily gesturing at the camera filled the screen. He stood on his porch yelling at something or someone. Richard was trying to make out what the man was saying when he remembered he had turned down the sound on his tablet. Another brush from his hand filled the empty garage with garbled anger. It was gibberish. Not words. An untapped geyser of rage suddenly let loose. Richard noticed the old man’s eyebrows were gray and bushy, his face contorted, blue eyes menacing. In his hands he held a shotgun.

Richard was moving before he realized it. “The vans are still functional here, aren’t they?” he asked. His hand quickly found the answer on the screen before Amanda could reply. Behind him he could hear the tap, tap, tap of her shoes as she vainly tried to keep up with his long strides. Seemingly at random he entered a bay and placed his palm on the side of a van near the door. Almost immediately he heard the loud click of the locks disengaging. As he opened the door he handed Amanda the film. The lights inside the cab blinked on, and the tri-tone from the dashboard told him the van was operational. Closing the door, he lowered the window as he fastened his seatbelt. Only then did he notice the number on the dash. He had found his old van.

Years and years of old habits gave his hands something to do while his mind focused on bigger problems.

He turned to Amanda who stood outside the door, her arms wrapped around herself. “Looks like my day just got worse,” he said.

Amanda shrugged her shoulders, her wide face giving no emotion. The tires squealed on the smooth surface as he shifted into reverse. He opened his mouth to say something more through the open window, but all he could do was sigh.

As he drove off, he saw Amanda wad up the smart film into a ball, and toss it into a nearby trash can.

 

By the time Richard arrived, the LAPD had locked down the neighborhood and carted the old man away. Richard’s GEP ID got him past the first roadblock, and took him to the sergeant in charge. He stood around watching a few cops while they took statements from his crew. The sergeant stood under a tree pulling the feed from the smart film on the work van and all the houses around. Most people forgot that smart film was both a screen and a camera. In theory only the cops were supposed to have access the feed from your own film, but in practice it was pretty easy to find. Nowadays most people didn’t bother to change the factory password. The cop kept watching the old man step onto the porch over and over, looking to see if he actually pointed the gun at anyone, or was just threatening in general. He ran the image back and forth in slow-motion, looking at it from several angles before he finally dumped a chunk of data into a security file.

The old man’s wild eyes, his frayed and ancient bathrobe, the way his jaw worked when he yelled, all painted the same picture: Someone cut lose from the ties of society by age, and the death of friends and family, locked tight into the only place he could control, a tiny kingdom, and too stupefied at the thought of his coming demise to feel anything but rage.

When the detectives were done talking to his crew, Richard went over to see them. As he crossed the lawn he noticed the cops were already picking up their equipment.

Outside the GEP work van stood two men: Johnston and Alverez. Johnston was the younger of the two; tall and thin with light hair and mean eyes. He rarely spoke, but when he did it was with the thick accent of the east LA barrio. Alvarez was older, thicker. He’d been in field service for almost 40 years. The two had been partners for the past 10, and worked well together. They had to. Competition was fierce for the few remaining positions.

Alvarez spoke for the two of them.

“Don’t know Jefe. We got a tip last week, so we came to do an inspection. He went loco on us before we could even open the box. But it wouldn’t matter anyway.”

“Why not?”

“We got the wrong van. That house doesn’t need a repair. It needs a refit.”

“A refit?” Richard asked. “Are you sure?”

“Just look at that panel. Its got circuit breakers. Dumb ones!” he added with obvious disgust as he shook his head. “Thing’s older than I am. Hell, its probably older than you are Jefe.”

Richard scratched his chin as he thought about the scene. Then he turned back to the crew. “You two done with LAPD?”

Johnston gave a grunt. His idea of laughing. Both men rolled their eyes, but said nothing.

“In that case, I’ll finish up here. You up for the next call, or do you want me to get another crew to cover your shift?”

“Naw. We’re good.” Alverez said immediately.

“You sure?” Richard asked kindly. “It’s up to you?” Even as he said this Richard could see the men’s eyes silently calculating the cost of missing half a day’s pay. They glanced quickly at each other.

“We’re fine Jefe,” Alverez said without emotion. “Just shook up. That’s all. Loco bastard.”

“Yes,” Richard readily agreed. “Crazy.”

 

With the cops gone, and the neighbors back in their homes, Richard walked over his the van and pulled out his tool belt. Putting it on was like putting on a different person. Like stepping into the past; back when driving to the next repair was his biggest concern, and complaining about management was a competitive sport. He cinched the buckle, and checked all the pouches. Everything was still there. Closing the van’s door he quietly walked up to the house.

12378 Miranda was old. One of the many post-war houses thrown up in the San Fernando Valley after WWII. The plaster on the walls bore the pock-marks of past repairs, but the paint was still good. He reached out and touched the wall. Unlike the rest of the houses in the neighborhood it was the real thing, not an image on smart film. It’d been a while since he seen a wall that wasn’t screened.

The door on the electrical service panel in the back was still open, the screw used to secure the access cover laid carefully on the bottom. As Alverez had said it was full of circuit breakers. Dummy switches, as the crews liked to call them. It wasn’t the six breaker panel of the original 50 amp service, so sometime in the past the panel must have been upgraded, but still it was very old. Richard carefully checked the box to see if it was live–one never knew when dealing with equipment this ancient–then he pulled off the access cover and looked inside.

What he found was not what he was expecting. He looked at the circuits, and then at the house, and back at the circuits again. Then cursing under his breath, he put the access cover back in place, careful to secure it with the screw, and then closed the door. He was already making calls before he got back to the van.

 

***

 

That evening Richard was sitting in his living room going over the video of the old man again and again. His wife, Patricia, sat on the couch watching TV on the opposite wall.

At some point she turned off her show to stare at him, although he didn’t notice when.

“What?” she said.

“Huh?” he said looking up from his screen.

“You. You’ve been looking at the screen wearing that sad-sack face all night. If you do it any longer I think I’m going to scream.”

“Sorry,” Richard said, self-consciously putting the tablet down, “I didn’t realize…”

She waved her hand, “Oh don’t get in a huff about it. Its not a big deal.” She patted the seat on the couch next to her. “Come over here and tell me about it.”

Getting up from his chair, Richard sat down and told her about his day.

“So he’s just some old nutter then?” she said when he finished his story.

“Is that a technical term?” he asked innocently.

“Don’t you start,” she said.

“Hey, don’t get mad at me. I’m not the one who’s a Psychologist here.”

She smiled at his banter. “Okay, so do you really think he’s mentally incapacitated?”

“That’s the thing. He isn’t.”

“What do you mean, he isn’t? Waving a gun and yelling like a fool is now considered sane?”

“No,” he said, “Its not that. In fact, I thought the same thing until I saw his access box.”

“His box?”

“Yes. It was immaculate. Not just clean. Perfect.”

“I’m not following you here. What does his box have to do…”

“With his sanity? That’s the thing, it doesn’t. I keep looking at the events, trying to find some clue. Everything I see shows him to be a crazy old man. A nutter, like you said. But his service box was so nicely put together that it couldn’t belong to the same man. A man could not be that crazy and yet still have a box so tidy like that. Something doesn’t add up. It just doesn’t makes sense.”

“Did you check with his psych at the hospital?”

“As much as he could tell me, patient privacy and all that.”

“What’d he say?”

“He’s a she, and she said he was perfectly fine. He’d just forgotten to take his meds.”

“Hum,” Patricia said. “The classic non-answer. Do you think it might be true, at least in this case?”

“Judging by his access box, I’d say yes. But I’m not a psychologist.”

“Yes I know you’re not dear. Someone had to be the sane one in the family,” she said with a smile. “Can’t you just send in a repair crew while he’s still in the hospital?”

“It’s more complex than that. Alvarez was right. He doesn’t need a repair, he needs a whole replacement.”

“And you can’t do that while he’s in the hospital?”

“Not without his permission, no.”

“Hum,” she said starring off into space in thought. “Did you ever think that maybe you’re trying to fix the wrong thing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well it seems to me you’re looking at this as if it is an electrical problem.”

“Well, I do work for Grace Electrical and Power.”

“I know, silly, but you’re the President of Customer Support, not the head of field service.”

“And…”

“And you have a customer that needs support.”

“Okay,” Richard said sounding skeptical. “If that’s true, then my ‘customer’ is in the mental ward at the local hospital. How am I supposed to support him?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “How should I know. I’m not the one with the 192 empathy score.”

“A point which you seem to remind me of, every day,” he added dryly.

She snaked her arm around his shoulders, and brought her face close to his. “That’s because its your best trait,” she whispered softly into his ear, “after your taste in women.”

“Woman,” he said. “Not women. I got lucky enough with the one, and I’ve worked hard since to keep it that way.”

“Good answer,” she said nuzzling his ear. He was still staring at his tablet when she added, “Don’t worry honey. You’ll think of something.”

“You think so?” he asked, the problem still obviously on his mind.

“Of course, honey. You always do,” she said with surety.

He set his tablet down on the floor. “Thanks honey. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Probably just starve. That or be a nervous wreck.”

He laughed at her joke. “Hey don’t you want to go back to your show?”

“No,” she said looking him in the eyes. “I’ve got a better idea. I’m going to hug my husband. He looks like he could use one.”

“Oh my God. Is he here?” Richard asked in mock fear.

“Oh yes,” she said as she turned into him, sliding one arm behind his back and wrapping her other arm around his shoulder. “He’s here all right.”

For the first time that day, Richard truly smiled.

 

Late the next morning Amanda walked into Richard’s office to find him hunched over in his chair, head in his hands, and practically every flat surface in his office layered with electronic files.

“Wow,” she said, more in surprise than anything else. “I love what you’ve done with the place. Is it Early American Tornado?”

“Did you know,” Richard said without looking up, “That HB 1615 was proposed by 136 Representatives, but only passed by 128?”

“Hum,” Amanda said. “Been at it long?”

“All morning. I skipped the gym to come in early,” he said as he pointed to a rather stupendous stack of legal files on his desk, “and then fell into that mess. Do you have any idea how many aides worked on this legislation?”

“More than five?”

“More than 100. And each one wrote worse legalese than the one before.”

“That bad, huh?”

Richard gave a groan and sat up. “Worse. I’m telling you, their should be a law against lawyers.”

“Like that’d work,” Amanda said with sarcasm. “By the way, Patty called me this morning to tell me you were in a tear. I can see she didn’t exaggerate.”

“So my wife’s minding me again,” he said.

“Someone has to,” she replied. “I can see I waited too long to intervene. Its going to take me hours to get the place back under control.”

“Hours?” Richard said, “for e-files that go back where you want them to like that?” He touched a button on his tablet and in a flash every surface of his office was clean. “Now who’s exaggerating?”

Amanda stuck out her tongue at him. “Show off. I just came to tell you I’m going down to the cafeteria to pick up some lunch. Want me to get you something?”

“Sure,” Richard said distractedly, “why don’t you…. Wait a minute. What did you just say?”

“I’m going down to the cafeteria…”

“No, no,” he said waiving his hand. “Before that.”

“You mean about it taking hours for me to get this place under control?”

“That’s it!” he said.

“What’s what?”

“Control. That’s it.”

Amanda looked him funny. “Why do I get the feeling, that I walked into a conversation you were already having with yourself?”

“Because you did,” Richard said good-naturedly as he got up and grabbed his suit coat. “Where did you say Mr. Souter was?”

“I think he’s still at Cedars.”

“Do you know what their visiting hours are?”

“No, but I can look them up.”

“Excellent.”

She looked confused. “I don’t understand. So you don’t need a repair crew?”

“For this job? No.”

“Are you sure? Alvarez said he could do it.”

“Oh I’m sure he could,” Richard said. “I very much doubt there’s a maintenance issue that man could not solve. Him and Johnston, that is.”

“But…”

“You see, it’s not a maintenance problem, Amanda.”

“Its not?” she said, sounding surprised.

“Not at all. His electrical system is just fine. In fact its absolutely perfect.”

“So twentieth century electrical wiring is now perfect? Um, Boss. Are you feeling okay?”

He turned to her and smiled, his arms going wide as if to encompass the entire office. “Never felt better,” he said, and suddenly he realized it was true.

 

 

***

 

Richard knocked on the doorframe outside the hospital room. The door was open, but Richard preferred to be polite. A bored looking cop sat in a chair by the nurse’s station, otherwise the hall was empty.

“Come in,” said a shaky voice.

Richard entered the room to find a man sitting in a chair, the nearby bed lay empty but jumbled from recent use. The curtains on the window behind the man were open, allowing the bright afternoon light to fall inside. Richard had to squint to see.

“Are you Mr. Souter,” he asked.

“Who wants to know?” said the man.

“I’m Richard, Richard Credo. From Grace Electric and Power.”

At the mention of Richard’s company the man’s face turned dark. “Look Mr. Creapo, or what ever it is,” the man said as he started to get up, “If you’re here about the wiring you can just forget it. I’m not letting you guys near my house. Do you hear me?”

“Good,” Richard said firmly.

There was a pause. This was not the answer the old man had been expecting. “Good?” he asked.

“Let me be frank with you, Mr. Souter,” he continued before the old man could say more. “Some of my technicians are pretty sharp, but they don’t know shit about old electrical systems like yours. Truth is, if they tried to do anything to your wiring, chances are they’d screw it up, and likely get injured in the process.”

Mr. Souter stared at Richard mouth agape, as if he had grown a third arm. Then he remembered to speak. “Darn straight,” he said with conviction. Then he stopped. “Wait,” he said confused. “I don’t understand. You say you’re not here to convert my wiring?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Richard replied.

“Then why the hell are you here?”

“Well,” he said with a shy smile as he reached over and pulled out the second chair in the room, “funny you should ask. You see, Mr. Souter, I have a problem.” He drew the chair up near the old man, and sat down across from him. The old man waved his arm for him to continue.

“I take it you know about our PTPI systems?” He pronounced the acronym tee-pee.

“Point-to-point intelligence,” the old man said.

“And about HB 1615, the Electrify America Act?”

“I should think so,” he grumbled. “It’s what put me out of a job.”

“That’s right,” Richard said, ignoring the comment as he pretended to search on his tablet for some information. “You’re an electrician by trade aren’t you?”

“Used to be,” the man responded. “Before them damn computer things took all the smarts out of it.”

“Smarts,” Richard said. “I don’t follow.”

“Back in my day,” the old man said, “you had to be smart to be an electrician. Make a mistake and you get more than shocked. You could get killed.”

“That so?”

“I’ve seen it happen. Its not pretty. But now, with all those computerized panels, receptacles, and such, all the smarts are now in the wires.”

“Well not to defend it,” Richard said, “but I think that was the idea when congress passed the act. To make it so no electricity flowed except where it was wanted.”

“Well they got that alright, and I can see how it helped out the boys trying to manage things on the grid, but it also made your guys stupid.”

Despite himself, Richard felt his anger start to rise. “Stupid?”

“Now don’t get all bent out of shape. I’m not talking about you. Just take a look at your technicians. Time was when each one of them had to be an electrician to do their jobs. It was a craft that they had to master, tests that they had to pass, information that was handed down from father to son. I know, I used to teach them.”

“Is that a fact?”

“Yes. And all that skill, all that training, all that knowledge, that represented a trade. And it was a good one. Good enough that if a man was sharp he could buy a house, maybe have a wife and a family.”

“And that’s gone now?” Richard asked.

“You said it yourself. Your crews can no longer manage electricity. All they can do is lay cable, and plug stuff in. They’re no longer smart about electricity. Why? Because they don’t need to be. All the smart is in the wires.”

Richard said nothing, sitting there and staring off into space. The old man was right of course. It was the same old argument he used to have with Hector, back before he went into management while Hector stayed in the field. Hector used to swear that the company preferred the PTPI system because it saved money by hiring cheaper less experienced service techs. And he was right. Right up until the day they let him go for being too experienced for his job.

Richard let out a weary sigh. He turned to see Mr. Souter was staring at him.

“You’re right, of course,” Richard said waving a hand as if in surrender.

“Yes.”

“But that’s not why I came,” Richard continued.

“Then what is it you need?”

“You see, HB 1615 specifies that our computerized systems need to be tested every 10 years against a standard electrical system, to make sure they match or exceed its performance.”

“And…”

“There’s no standard electrical systems left to test against.”

“There isn’t?”

“They’ve all been converted over.”

“Is that a fact?” Mr. Souter said looking thoughtful as he crossed his arms. “Are you telling me you need a control to test your fancy tee-pee system against?”

“Yes. That is exactly the word for it. I need a control.”

“Then why didn’t you say so? I’ll be happy to pit my wiring against anything you’ve got, any day of the week. Heck, I’ll be looking forward to it.”

“Really,” Richard said, not believing his luck. “You will?”

“Sure,” Mr. Souter said holding out his hand. “When do we start?”

 

***

 

The next Saturday found Richard and Mr. Souter (“call me Lee”) pulling off the access cover to the service panel.

“Wow,” said Richard. “That sure is clean.”

“Yep,” said Lee. “Had to be. I told you I used to teach at the local college right?”

“Yep”

“Well, I used to use my house for the final exam. I had them go over everything; from checking every circuit, to testing for grounds.”

“Is that why everything is labeled so well?”

“Had to be. Half of them would get it wrong otherwise.”

Both men laughed at this.

“So,” Lee said pointing to the complex device in Richard’s hand. “How’s this thing work?”

“Simple enough,” Richard said as he dusted off the main testing rig. “First we pull all the breakers here, and set this thing in their place. See these brackets? They go right in the spaces for the breakers. Then we go around the house, and replace all the switches and receptacles with these,” he said as he held up a bag of smart switches.”

“And then what?”

“Then we power it up, and let it do it’s thing.”

“That’s it, huh?” Lee said.

“Pretty much.”

“Hum,” Lee said. “Its not permanent, right?”

“Oh, no. That’s the beauty of it. We can pull this thing back out just as fast as we put it in. You can keep it, or take it out. Its up to you.”

“So, there’s no basic changes to the electrical plan?”

“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t even know how to do that. Remember, ‘Your crews can no longer manage electricity’?”

“I said that?”

“Yes you did.”

“So, you want me to install this testing rig?” Lee asked.

“What I want you to do,” said Richard, “Is manage the project. I don’t care which of us does the work. I only care that the guy who knows the most is the one in charge. ¿Comprende?”

“Gotcha,” Lee said. “In that case, the first thing we do is cut the power to the panel.” Lee reached up and flipped the main breaker at the top. “Cause if I’m putting my hand in this box, then I’m darn well going to be sure its safe first.”

Richard handed him his father’s old multimeter. “Lets test to see if its hot, just to be sure.”

Lee smiled. “Good idea.”

 

A few hours later all the parts were in place and the test rig was turned on. Richard was running through the read-outs while Lee was checking them against an old notebook.

“Okay, circuit twelve,” Richard said.

“Ready.”

“It says there are 4 receptacles on this circuit, with 12 meters of AWG 14 wire to the first receptacle, and 5 meters between the others.”

“Anything else?” Lee asked.

“Yes. Its telling me that the wire to the last receptacle is not 14 gauge, but 16. Is that so?”

Lee looked down in his notebook. “Check.”

“Really?”

Lee smiled.

“You must have been one right bastard of an instructor.”

“Lets just say the kids had to earn their As in my class.”

“Okay, last circuit.”

“Ready.”

“Ah, it says this powers four lights fixtures with six different switches. Is that so?”

“Check.”

“And, wait a minute. It says there’s a problem with the ground on the first switch.”

“It does?” said Lee innocently. Then he reached into the service panel and flipped a small switch almost hidden in the wires. “What’s it say now?” he asked.

“Tricky, tricky. How many students did you get with that one?”

“Almost all,” Lee said.

“Wow. Well, that’s it, then. How’d we do?”

“I’m impressed,” Lee said. “Your tee-pee box got one hundred percent on my final exam. That’s pretty darn good.”

“One hundred percent? Really? I think that calls for a celebration. I’ve got a cooler in the van. Fetch you a cerveza?”

“Maybe just the one,” Lee said.

The men moved to the porch where they rested, tired and dirty, sipping their beers. After a long pause Richard finally asked, “So what do you think of the tee-pee? Not bad for a dumb computer system, eh?”

Lee took a log sip, tilting his bottle back before answering. “To be honest, it worked much better than I thought.”

Richard was careful not to smile. Lee continued, “I don’t know what I was expecting.”

“The fifth horseman of the apocalypse, maybe?”

Lee laughed. “Maybe. I don’t know. It just seemed to come on so fast. One minute everything was normal, the next…”

“… you’re suddenly looking for a new job,” Richard finished soberly.

“Yeah. Happen to you too?”

“No. Just my best friend.”

“Ouch.”

“And the worst thing is, I’m the guy who had to fire him.”

“Really? That must have hurt.”

“Si.”

“So, your friend,” Lee said, “didn’t he see it coming?”

“Yes and no,” Richard replied taking a sip. “He saw it coming. He just didn’t want to do anything about it.”

“Wanted to ride the lightening all the way into the ground?”

“Something like that,” Richard said bitterly. “And there wasn’t shit I could do about it.”

“Bummer.”

“Yes. Some things you just gotta live with, you know.”

The two men sat together in silence, sipping their beers.

“Uh, let me ask you,” Lee said staring off into the distance, “Your friend. Do you think he was a fool, too proud, something else altogether?”

Richard finished his beer with a long swallow. “Does is matter?”

“I suppose not.”

There was a long pause as both men stared into their bottles. “Look,” Richard said breaking the silence. “Do you mind if I ask you something?”

“Let me guess? Is it about the other day?”

“Si.”

“No.”

“So, what happened?”

“Those dam pills the docs give me. They work just fine. The problem is I can’t seem to remember when to take them.”

“Oh,” Richard said thinking quickly. “And all the pill reminders they give you only work on a tee-pee system, right?”

Lee nodded his head. “I must be getting old, I can’t seem to remember anything.”

“Well,” Richard said, “I think I have one of those old converters in the truck. You know the ones that allow a tee-pee device to run on a dumb system.”

Lee looked off into the distance again, thinking. “No,” he said after a while. “Its okay. I proved my point.”

“What?”

“Lets leave the new panel in.”

Richard looked at him, surprised. “Are you sure, Lee?”

“Sure I’m sure. If you can live with it, I guess I can live with it too.”

“You make it sound like its a horse pill. Its not as bad as that, is it?”

“It is if you ride it all the way in. Believe me. I’m just happy I don’t have to make the same mistake twice.”

“Is that a fact?” Richard said, unsure quite what to say.

“Uh, huh.”

“Well,” Richard said. “You wanna see how these new receptacles work?”

“I don’t know,” Lee said with a smile. “Are they difficult to use?”

Richard laughed. “For some maybe, but I doubt they’ll prove a problem for you.”

“That easy are they?”

“That, or you’re especially smart. Take your pick.”

“In that case, I’ll take what’s behind door number one.”

“Sorry?”

“Never mind,” he said. “It’s an old joke.”

 

***

 

The next week was a busy one for Richard, but he still found time to make one call. Amanda, his assistant, discovered this when she entered his office.

“No Diana,” Richard was saying, “he isn’t the least bit dangerous. The police told me there a mix up with his meds. Nothing more. But you know me. I went and checked him out personally. Even spent a day talking with him. He’s sober as a judge, and twice as sharp.”

Richard waived Amanda into the room while he continued to talk. Diana appear in a large window on the wall opposite his desk. Under her image were the countless emails and notes of a busy executive. The sound was set to his earpiece. Richard switched the audio to the room speakers so Amanda could hear as well.

Diana was asking, “…he knows antique electrical systems well? We may be private funded museum, but we’re also open to the public. We can’t afford to injure anyone, especially with a new exhibit.”

Richard smiled, as he caught Amanda’s reflection on the wall. “You can ask Amanda here if you like. I went over to his place myself just to check out his qualifications.”

“And…”

“And he is by far the most knowledgable person about old style electrical circuits I have ever met. His work is quite incredible.”

“So you’ve seen it?”

“First hand.”

Diana looked relieved, but then glanced over to her notes and read something else. “But can he deal with a mixed electrical system as well? Some of our circuits are the more modern ones. What do you call them?”

“Tee-pee,” Amanda said. “P-T-P-I. Its an acronym that stands for point-to-point-intelligence.”

“Point to point?” Diana said looking confused.

“It just means,” Amanda explained, “an electrical system where every receptacle–you know the socket you plug your hair dryer in–is smart enough to ask for the electricity you need before you use it.”

“Really?” Diana said. “It asks first?”

“Sure,” Amanda continued. “And if the main box–the place where the wires come into your house–if it doesn’t like what it sees, then there’s no electricity.”

“None?”

“None at all. That’s why its so safe.”

“And why,” Richard added,” its so simple to use.”

“So this Mr. Souter can do these kinds of electrical circuits too?”

“In his sleep, Diana. Trust me. He’s the best.”

“Well thank you then Mr. Credo. I can’t tell you how much this recommendation means to us.”

“Think nothing of it Diana. Just doing a favor for an old friend.”

“Well, thank you again,” Diana said. Turning to face Amanda she added, “and you too, Amanda sweetie. I’ll call you tonight. Good bye now.”

“Good bye,” Richard said.

“Good bye,” Amanda added.

The window closed up, and the busy wall quickly reordered itself for the next item.

Richard sat at his desk, looking up into Amanda’s eyes. “What ch’a got?” he asked.

“Nothing important. Just some things for you to sign,” she said as she slid a small pile of documents from her computer onto the corner of his empty desk.

“Hum, I see,” Richard said, already distracted by his ever changing wall.

Amanda got up and was almost out the door when she stopped. “Do you think he’ll be okay?”

“Who,” Richard asked still looking at his wall.

“That old guy. You know, Mr. Souter.”

“Lee? Sure.”

“But isn’t he a lot like Hector?”

Richard turned away from his wall long enough to look into her eyes again. “Yes. No. Lee, he’s…”

“Different?” Amanda offered.

“Sure. Different. He’s a tech, just like Hector, and he thinks like a tech, but there’s something else about him. Something different.”

“He can be wrong,” Amanda suggested.

“Yeah,” Richard said nodding his head. “He knows how to be wrong, and yet still be right. If that makes any sense?”

“Sure,” said Amanda. “It does. And thanks,” she added.

“For?”

“Helping my friend. For helping both of them really.”

“Eh, Its nothing,” he said.

“Really?”

“Si.”

Amanda closed his office door gently, but by then his attention was already back on the wall.

A story fragment from a dream

I had the most unusual and vivid dream the other night, and promptly wrote this down when I got up. Its not a story, but a fragment of one. I don’t have any idea who the protagonist is, beyond what you can read here, and I have no idea what his story is, or where its headed.

Stories are like that for me. They come on in inexplicable ways, and often the only way I get to discover the plot, is to write them. A bit like reading a mystery that you also happen to be writing. 

I have another story that started from a dream like this. It eventually ended up being The Peaches of Saint Ambrose. Whether this particular story ends up anywhere I don’t know. I’m neck deep in half-finished stories, and need to focus on finishing many of those before starting on this. I just thought it would be fun to show you what I start with. 

And note: this is unedited beyond my simple spell-checker. 

 

Story Fragment from a dream
12/29/13

It was Christmas time and a friend of my Mum’s was visiting. They had been close mates in University, or so I later learned–I was too young at the time to make such distinctions. All I knew was that he was a fancy Director of several well received plays in London, for which he gathered no small respect from the family, and the servants, and that he was different.

He arrived in the evening, well after dark, for my first recollection of him was of our butler Harold taking off his coat in the entryway, and seeing light snowflakes falling through the open door behind him in the porch light. Mum rushed past us to embrace him warmly, much like she did our father when ever he was away, and then she drug the man into the main room where there was a party going on in his favor. I remember many toasts, and backslaps. Everyone seemed quite proud or happy for him.

Later that evening the Lady’s Maid, Sophie, gathered us up and tucked us into our beds, as our nanny, Mrs. Perkins, was away for the holiday.

The sounds of the party still going on in the distant hall must have lulled me to sleep, for my next memory was the shifting sounds of a lady’s skirts swishing past as someone strode swiftly down our hall. Then my ears detected other noises; a soft voice here, a door creak there, all sounds that were familiar, and yet also somehow wrong.

I got up, putting on my robe and slippers–without any help, something I was quite proud of at the time–and quickly made my way downstairs. I followed the noises to the small courtyard that separated the main house, or the keep as we called it as kids, from the guest quarters. The door to the main guest room, the one we kept for special visitors, was wide open, and outside in the cold air huddled most of the servants. Mixed with them were the dull colored uniforms of the local constable, which I could just make out in the thinly lit night sky about an hour before dawn. It had stopped snowing in the middle of the night, leaving the sky open and clear. Among the people standing there I discovered my mother, with her ungloved hands at her sides in the bitter cold, and her face a white mask. I put my tiny hand inside of hers, feeling the cold of her fingers as she gripped my hand tightly, and lead her through the open door.

I was always a curious child, and when I discovered something of interest, ignored all entreaties from servants and family alike until I had searched out my quarry. This case was no different. Mum had always encouraged me in my little pursuits, much to the chagrin of the staff and of my father, something I was sadly never able to thank her sufficiently for later. This time it proved fortunate for it established a habit in the staff that allowed us to enter the room against the voicing of the servants and the investigators. They were so used to me having “my own way” that they put up little resistance.

Inside we found the rooms clean but in disarray. Uncle Stephen, which is what we called Mum’s friend, must have unpacked only a few things, and then sent the servants back for the night. I saw a half filled wine glass casually set on an end table, a brightly colored ascot discarded nearby. The type of thing that Harold would have made sure was tidied up in the morning before breakfast. Seeing them out like that was more disconcerting than the uniformed investigators asking questions, or the worried faces of the staff.

We walked right by the open door of the bedroom which was filled with people surrounding the bed. Mom clenched my hand at the sight of Stephen’s body covered completely in sheets, but I pulled her on towards the next room. It was there that I found what I was looking for.

The room was a dressing room attached to the main room by a large wooden door, which was fortunately closed at the time. Uncle Stephen’s bags and cases were laid about, some of them still unpacked. What drew my eye was a stack of thin papers, books I was later to find out, laid on top of on of his cases, and neatly wrapped in a bright blue ribbon. Under the ribbon was a small tag reading “for my lovely Kate,” in a small neat hand. I field a shudder in Mum’s hand, but continued on in any event. The ribbon opened with a gentle tug of my free hand and exposed the papers fully. It was a stack of several small books, more like pamphlets in size, on top of a few very large ones. I set the smaller book aside to reveal the larger ones. The first book was a large folio titled A Medieval Tracing Book, the font of which still sticks in my mind of being exemplary of the Art Nouveau period. I opened the cover to discover page after page of die-cut shapes stamped into thick paper, their faint outlines barely visible in the room’s light. There were castles, and fairies, dragons, and knights. I recognized the type of book immediately as they were the kinds of shapes Mum used to cut out of felt for use in our puppet theater. Daisy, Freddy and myself spent many a lovely hour making up grand stories with those shapes and our puppets. It was one of our favorite games. I had often wondered at the source of those shapes, for much as I loved my Mum I recognized even then she did not have the quality of drawing necessary for such marvelous props.

I felt such a stirring of my heart at the moment, for I recognized in an instant the mysterious source of our props, and yet held the certain knowledge of their demise–both of which lay within the body of the man cooling in the bed next door. It was a moment of discovery for me that is hard to describe. At once both joyful and yet bittersweet.

It was with this feeling that I closed the cover of the folio and placed the smaller pamphlets on top. A casual glance at these revealed another mystery. Like the folios they were old, their paper yellowed with age, but in otherwise excellent condition. The pamphlets appeared to be small plays by their layout, but the titles eluded me. One was called “A Man Called Dick,” another was, “A Horse in my Mouth.” They were words I recognized, but they did not make sense to my child’s mind. Both were authored by the same man, one Richard A. Johnson. It was a name I did not recognize, nor would I until much later when a ribald comment brought forth the titles to my then adult mind, and I suddenly understood their significance.

I remember placing the pamphlets back on top of the folio, and replacing the ribbon as best I could with only hand. Mum remained next to me, glassy-eyed and silent, watching my every move as from a distant peak. When I lead her outside to the coming dawn I had no idea that Uncle Stephen’s last gift to her would be confiscated by the authorities as pornography, and kept away from the family until they were returned to us, many years after her death.

Perhaps this was the saddest part of all, for I’m quite sure, had she kept these books in our library, she would have chanced upon them in her later years, and they would have filled her eyes with fond memories. And I have no doubt Uncle Stephen would have liked to be remembered in exactly such a way.