I’m Starved for You: Positron, Episode One (Excerpt)

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  1. Stan opens the large green locker and stows away the clothes he’s been wearing: the shorts, the T-shirts, the jeans, the summer stuff. He won’t be wearing these clothes for a while: by the time he gets back here the hot weather will most likely be over and he’ll be into the fleece pullovers. He won’t have to do so much lawn maintenance then, which is a plus. Though the lawn will be a wreck. Some guys have no feeling for lawns, they take them for granted, they let them mat up and dry out and then the yellow ants get into them and it takes a lot of work to bring them back. If he were here all the time he could keep the lawn in peak condition. As it is, he’s constantly in repair mode.

    His clothes are all washed and neatly folded: wife, Charmaine, did the laundry last thing, before she set off on her scooter for the women’s wing at Positron. In recent months he’s been leaving the house after she does, so he’s been the one doing the final check: no bathtub ring, no orphaned sock, no ends of soap or wispy gatherings of shed hair on the floor. When they return on the first day of every second month, Stan and Charmaine find the house pristine, spotless, hinting of lemon-scented cleaning products and without a trace of recent occupancy—and they like to leave it that way.

    Though it hasn’t been spotless every time. Three months ago Stan found a folded note: the corner was sticking out from under the refrigerator. It must originally have been attached with the silver fridge magnet in the shape of a duck, the same one Charmaine uses to post shopping reminders. Despite the strict Consilience taboo against contact of any kind with Alternates, he read the note immediately. It was typed and printed, but it was still shockingly intimate:

    Darling Max, I can hardly wait till next time. I’m starved for you! I need you so much. XXOO and you know what more—Jasmine.

    There was a lipstick kiss: hot pink. No, darker: some kind of purple. Not violet, not mauve, not maroon. He riffled through his head, trying to recall the names of the colors on the paint chips and fabric swatches Charmaine spends so much time brooding over. He’d lifted it to his nose, breathed in: still a faint scent, like cherry bubble gum.

    Charmaine has never worn a lipstick that color. And she’s never written him a note like that. He dropped it into the trash as if it were burning, though on reflection he fished it out and repositioned it under the refrigerator: Jasmine must never know that her note to Max had been intercepted. Also, it’s possible Max has been trained to look under the fridge for such notes—it might be a kinky little game they play with each other—and Max would be upset not to find it. “Did you get my note?” Jasmine would say to him as they lay stuck together. “What note?” would not be a good thing for Max to say. “Omigod, one of them found it!” Jasmine would exclaim. Then she would laugh. It might even turn her on, the consciousness of a third pair of eyes having seen the imprint of her avid mouth.

    Not that she needs turning on. Stan can’t stop thinking about that: about Jasmine, about her mouth. It’s bad enough here at the house, even with Charmaine breathing beside him, lightly or heavily depending on what they’re doing, or rather on what he’s doing—Charmaine has never been much of a joiner, more of a sidelines woman, cheering him on from a distance. But at Positron, in his narrow bed in the men’s wing, that kiss floats in the darkness before his open eyes like four plush pillows, parted invitingly as if about to sigh or speak. He knows the color of that mouth by now, he’s tracked it down. Fuchsia. It has a moist, luscious feel to it. Oh hurry, that mouth would say. I need you, I need you now! I’m starved for you! But it would be speaking to Stan, not to the guy whose clothes repose in the locker beside his own. Not to Max.

    Max and Jasmine, those are their names—the names of the Alternates, the two others who occupy the house, walk through its routines, cater to its demands, partake of its modest luxuries, act out its fantasies of normal life when he and Charmaine aren’t there. He isn’t supposed to know those names, or anything at all about their owners: that’s Consilience protocol. But he does know the names. And by now he knows—or deduces, or, more accurately, imagines—a lot of other things as well.

    Max’s locker is the red one. Charmaine’s locker is pink, Jasmine’s is purple. In an hour or so—once Stan has left the house, once he’s logged out—Max will walk in through the front door, open the red locker, take out his stored clothes, carry them upstairs, arrange them in the bedroom, on the shelves, in the closet: enough for a month’s stay.

    Then Jasmine will arrive. She won’t bother with her locker, not at first. They’ll throw themselves into each other’s arms. No: Jasmine will throw herself into Max’s arms, press herself against him, open her fuchsia mouth, tear off Max’s clothes and her own, pull him down onto—what? The living room carpet? Or will they stumble upstairs, reeling with lust, and fall entwined onto the bed, so thoughtfully and neatly made up with newly ironed sheets by Charmaine before she left? Sheets with a border of birthday-party bluebirds tying pink ribbon bows. Nursery sheets, kiddie sheets: Charmaine’s idea of cuteness. Though, like everything else in the place, they came with the house.

    ***

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Story Updates

  1. Peering into the Future

    “I saw a public librarian today reshelving Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. She moved it from Science Fiction to Current Events.” This quip—of unknown origin—has been all over Twitter lately. Is it a joke? An urban legend? A scrap of reportage? Who can tell?

    But right now, at the time of Rick Santorum’s musings on how to restrain women and Rush Limbaugh’s anti-birth-control rant and slutfest, The Handmaid’s Tale tweet is resonating. How does it feel to be so prescient, people ask? Do I have the second sight? A crystal ball? The ability to read the stars? How soon will The Handmaid’s Tale change from novel to recipe?

    The future is like the afterlife: no one can actually go there and return. So I can’t predict the future; it just looks like that sometimes. I don’t stargaze: I read the newspapers. And the magazines. And the blogs. They don’t tell me the future, either, but from them I can gather bits and pieces that might be fitted together into something fictional, but plausible.

    I’ve just published a long/short story, I’m Starved for You, on a site called Byliner.com—in itself a sign of the times, because this is the first story I’ve published as an original in e-form. Is this a straw in the wind? Let’s hope so. The magazine publication of short fiction—which flourished from the thirties through the sixties—has been drying up for a long time. Now the Internet, by providing destinations where such pieces are welcome, is opening up the market for short stories again.

    I’m Starved for You is set in a near future that may be even closer to us than the one envisioned in The Handmaid’s Tale. Its world is an expansion of present-day mega-prisons, rationalized to provide full employment by having prisoners and civilians take turns in the cells. To duplicate its setting, the town of Consilience and its central prison, Positron, all you’d need is some walls and a lot of surveillance: all the equipment needed is already with us.

    There’s one feature of any future that a writer has to take into account: the role of our digital technologies. These determine who knows what about whom, and they also determine who wants to control what, and how. All around us, the cyber wars are being waged—between governments and rebels, between security systems and hackers—so in Consilience you can have a phone, but you can’t dial the outside world. We are probably the most spied-upon generation in history, and the future world of Consilience is no exception.

    And now the thing you really want to know: what do they read in Consilience? Because, above all else, any self-respecting controlled society wants to control your mind.

    Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that, for obvious reasons, the citizens of Consilience don’t have access to the Internet.

    The good news is that you do. Or you wouldn’t be reading this.

    Crossposted from the Kindle Daily Post

  2. Every Utopia Has a Dark Side

    I’m Starved for You takes place in a future in which prisons serve an agenda that is rarely confessed to today: pure and simple job creation. In an America with its rust-bucket patches and swaths of empty repossessed homes, more jobs would be welcome, and prisons do provide jobs. How much handier and more cost-effective would it be if guards and prisoners took turns in the cells? And if everyone, not just the truly criminal, were to participate?

    But then, sex would be an issue—it always is, one way or another, with imprisonment. And what about the real criminals? Wouldn’t they take advantage? Every utopia has a dark side: what to do with those who don’t fit into it? Desire and the unpredictable human psyche are hard to regulate, no matter how idealistic things may appear on the surface. From this age-old complexity come the temptations of Stan and Charmaine, two inhabitants of the brave new world that is the gated, prison-centered town of Consilience.

    The inspiration for I’m Starved for You, as with all my “speculative fictions,” is real life. How are we using prisons today? Not very effectively, because they do not achieve the desired end, which is fewer criminals at large. And they are much costlier than other means of lowering the crime rate—like better education and increased opportunity.

    America has tried many experiments with prisons, and is continuing to try them. Texas tried mandatory minimum sentences and bigger facilities: the crime rate went up. Canada has before it a proposed bill, Bill C-10. If implemented, it would rubber-stamp a large number of mega-prisons for a huge but unspecified amount of money at a time when the crime rate is falling. Is this a job-creation scheme? Will “Build it and they will come” change into “Build it and we’ll fill it?” Will more actions have to be criminalized and mandatory sentences imposed for small infringements in order to justify the newly created prisons?

    Once the cost exceeds the public’s ability to pay, the Consilience model might be just around the corner. Full employment for all. Tasty chickens. Guaranteed living space. And the odd secret love note, complete with a lipstick kiss.

Originally published in Byliner, March 2012