20050107

Fleabag


Nanobots came in a big, empty cardboard crate. Holman Yawp found this hilarious. You ordered a set in the mail, waited six months, and then they showed up in a giant burlywood box with nothing inside but packing peanuts and an instruction manual taped to a cinder block. The actual Nanobots were in a plastic envelope about the size of postage stamp which decorated the manual’s front cover.

“Helvetica Micronics in conjunction with Andropov Consulting brings you The Red Army!” said the advertising copy. “Your own hive of self-replicating, hyper-obedient construction organisms that BUILD, CREATE, CLEAN, and EVOLVE to suit your needs. Train them yourself, or select from our MILLIONS of online engineering opportunities to make your dream home, sculpt artistic CURIOSITIES, engineer improbable NOVELTIES, and explore FORM and SPACE in 3-dimensions. Make any construction project as easy as point and click! The Red Army will accomplish the tasks your whim demands, and will help you find glory and transcendence through work, progress, striving, and overcoming. Fill your neighbors with envy and despair! Uspekhov!”

“Look, Grendel! My Nanos are in!” said Holman to his golden retriever puppy.

“Yawp!” said Grendel. Holman liked dogs. They always called him by name. He gave Grendel a fast and furious scratch behind his head, then flipped him over and rolled him up in the rug by the entryway. Grendel tossed around like a menstrual wolverine before finally unfurling himself, flying across the room, and landing on his head with an agitated snort. He scrambled back over to Holman and slobbered all over his hand.

“Good boy,” said Holman. Holman picked up the instruction manual and started reading, but his eyes began to glaze over almost instantly. Sentence after sentence of lifeless, technical prose battered him into querulous insensibility, and he knew that he was too sleepy to wrap his mind around the peculiar specifics. This was a Monday evening project; not a Sunday afternoon project – plus, playing with the Nanos for the first time would be more fun with the whole family around. Emily was at some kind of church function, and the twins were at a friend’s house, chewing through fashion magazines and giggling about nearly everything. When would he get such peace again? He put the churning, crimson packet of Nanobots in the wicker basket on top of the refrigerator and decided to return to the nap so rudely interrupted by the UPS man.

Later, Holman would wonder what might have happened had there been coffee in the pot. But his sleepiness would rule the day. In his soporific daze, Holman forgot to lock the dog back up in the laundry room.

Grendel was busy lapping up water from the toilet when Holman stumbled into his room, dove into his bed, and slammed his door. By the time Grendel skittered across the wooden foyer floor and up the stairs, it was too late: Holman was snoring like a man attempting to inhale his whole face.

For a time, Grendel lay in front of the bedroom door and waited for Holman to come back out. But Holman was down like a picket fence in a hurricane. Grendel whined softly, bashed himself against the door, barked, and then began to howl. No response. After living in a house with three uncommonly shrill women, Holman could sleep in a machine shop. Eventually, Grendel realized he was all alone for awhile, and that solitude might have its doggy advantages. He promptly peed on the carpet, and then decided it was time to do some exploring.

His first stop was the kitchen pantry. In a 40-pound yellow sack next to the potatoes and endives was Grendel’s forbidden stock of puppy chow: little grubby pellets consisting of rat meat, congealed slaughterhouse drippings, and ground-up horse anuses, hooves, and hair. Grendel only got a paltry, unsatisfying scoop at morning and at night, and all day long he could smell its rich and savory compost, mocking him like a treed raccoon. With no apes around to say differently, he could finally ensure that he would end the day with a full, golden belly. Besides, no one had specifically indicated that merely serving himself was a violation of contract.

Grendel tore into the plastic-coated paper bag with predatory puppy gusto. Snarling like a dog six times his size, he snapped his head back and forth until he ripped a hole wide enough for dog food to spill out like magic fruit from a bottomless cornucopia.

Unbeknownst to him, his vigor set in motion an unforeseeable chain reaction that could only be imagined by the synchronistically-bent mind of the most lurid hack writer.

First of all, the bag of puppy chow was tightly wedged underneath a shelf of apple cider. It was wedged so severely that the shelf was actually propped up from its nailed hinges higher than level, and for the past month the drywall around it had slowly been ground apart by the bag’s twice-daily removal and return. Grendel’s violent seizure of the bag was the final straw, and -- with a silent lurch -- the shelf pulled completely out of the wall and now rested entirely on the sagging, punctured sack of Gravy Gravel.

Grendel, totally oblivious, just kept eating. As the bag emptied, the shelf’s four apple cider jugs began to shudder and wobble. However, fate’s hand was either uncharacteristically kind, or terribly fond of eschatological procrastination. When the shelf finally gave out completely and hit the floor, the jugs rolled out to either side of Grendel, breaking into a million sticky fragments, but wholly missing the hungry puppy. The shelf itself cracked in two like a gunshot.

Grendel -- out of stark, reflex terror – smacked himself into the back pantry wall. He yelped – AIIICK! – nearly did a flip, and puked up everything he had eaten so far. After all: he was but a puppy, and this turn of events was quite scary and unexpected.

Apple cider started to flow out of the pantry and into the kitchen like a raging, fructose torrent. Due to an imperceptible, tectonic rift in the Yawp’s stately foundation – caused by the habitual television-enhanced aerobic exercise of Liza and Lisa Yawp – the entire kitchen had a slope toward the center of the house. Consequently, the cider didn’t just puddle. Baby, it moved.

If Holman Yawp had been a chemist instead of a substitute English teacher, perhaps he would have known better than to store his dog food next to his fermented apple products. There are two common chemical reagents that have such unique properties that, when combined with the proper catalyst, create catastrophically corrosive carbolic substances. One is spoiled tuna fish, when added to ammonia-based bathroom cleaner. The other is apple cider reacted with half-digested generic dog food. Grendel’s greasy dog vomit was swept away by a torrent of pungent, golden juice – but not before it began to bubble and fizz like a thing alive.

Aghast, confused, and shivering, Grendel watched cider, vomit, cobwebs, dirt, and auburn pellets of gritty dog food wash out into the kitchen like a gelatinous riptide. Marbles of dog food, originally clumped together, spread apart to cover every square inch in a soggy Poincare distribution. The smell of dissolving linoleum was unbearable to Grendel’s powerful nose, and he began to weep pathetic canine sobs. True, he was protected by the relative dryness and safety of the human food hole. To Grendel’s mind, however, this meant “trapped, trapped, trapped.”

Finally, he could stand it no longer, and Grendel grew brave. He leapt as far as he could into the kitchen proper, heroically attempting to jump past the rippling ejaculation of apple-vomit-food. He changed his mind at the last second when he realized he couldn’t make it, but too late to stop himself. His paws got underneath him, he got all tangled up, and instead of clearing the pool, he landed right in the middle.

The good news was that the stew’s corrosive elements had been almost completely neutralized by stripping the linoleum from the floor, rendering most of the juice that splashed onto Grendel harmless. His tail was chemically singed, the pads of his paws were burned smooth, and his underbelly was permanently discolored -- but only slightly.

The bad news was that the floor had become as slippery as a frozen stick of KY Jelly.

To be more precise, on the National Janitorial Association Official Industrial Liquid Floor Hazards Index (The NJAOILFHI, or “Nowlfy”), the floor had become a six-point-five out of seven. A five out of seven represented slipperiness capable of skimming a ten-pound block of sandpaper a quarter of a mile against the wind. A seven out of seven was only theoretical – talked about in hushed tones during lunch breaks in the broom closets of high-tech government research facilities and speculated to be slippery enough to flip over tanks and aircraft carriers. Grendel had inadvertently created a surface that approached this lubricious ideal, and so he didn’t just splash and stop. He slid – fast and hard -- right into the refrigerator.

He hit the bottom vegetable crisper with a bang and a yelp that actually woke up Holman. Mr. Yawp popped up like the arm of a catapult, convinced someone was attempting to break in. He swung out of bed, tossed the covers across the room, and grabbed one of Emily’s bronze candlesticks off of a curio shelf for protection.

Grendel bounced off the refrigerator door and hit the kitchen island. He bounced off of the kitchen island and hit the refrigerator. He bounced off of the refrigerator and hit the kitchen island. He bounced off the kitchen island and hit the refrigerator. With every impact, he squealed and tried to stop himself by flipping onto his back, which did absolutely nothing and only caused him to bounce faster. With every impact, the wicker basket on top of the refrigerator jostled closer and closer to the edge, like a penny on a kettle drum.

Holman ran into the kitchen just in time to see the basket containing his Nanobots fall. To his credit, he tried to catch them. He failed, of course, tripping over the squealing hockey-puck, ping-pong puppy. Holman slid on his heels, and fell backward. The bronze candlestick flew out of his hand in a perpendicular arc. With horror, he watched the wicker basket and Red Army plummet directly at his face. The postage-stamp sized bag landed directly into his shocked and open mouth, the wicker basket bounced harmlessly off of his forehead, and he landed with a WHOOF on the soaked and slimy floor. The collision forced the packet of Nanos down his throat, and Grendel flew off into the den, deflected by Holman’s prone body.

Holman started choking and spluttering, trying to cough the Nanos back up, jerking his head back and forth. But down came the bronze candlestick, clocking him aside one averted temple. In his head, everything went grey.

Holman tried to stand – missed his feet -- and crumpled into a silent ball.

Despite the repeated blows to his still-forming skeleton, Grendel had youth on his side and was much more flexible about the whole affair. He slowly got to his paws, shivering, glad to be stationary. However, when he saw Holman, he began to whine. Something was very wrong with his master.

Now a final ingredient was added to the sickly concoction on the kitchen floor: the blood of a majestic middle aged man. It pooled out from the side of Holman’s head like cream in coffee. The stench terrified Grendel, and simultaneously stimulated him. It perversely made him want to run really fast and gnash his jaws together. But all he could do was run in circles and bark at it.

The plastic packet of Nanobots was not made to withstand stomach acid. If Holman had bothered reading the section in the instruction manual labeled “Warning” in eight different languages, he would have noticed that the number one caution penned by the taciturn lawyers at Andropov Consulting was “DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES INJEST THE RED ARMY,” right above “KEEP AWAY FROM SMALL CHILDREN AND PETS” (one lawyer wanted to add “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD,” but his peers shouted him down). There was a telephone number to call in case such an unlikely accident occurred – but it was equally unlikely that Grendel would suddenly determine how to operate a telephone, even under such desperate circumstances.

Had Holman read the stated warning, however, it is dubitable that events would have gone differently. As a more-than-ordinarily rational human being, Holman was not in the habit of consuming anything not graced with either powdered sugar or bacon fat.

He began to snore, which was a good sign and made Grendel relax a bit. Holman’s stomach rumbled from memories of his breakfast, and he dreamed of dancing the Charleston on the prow of an enormous schooner.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the Nanobots would have simply dissolved into oblivion, and that would have been the end of it – give or take a thousand wasted dollars. It was the 1% that baffled scientists and provoked octolinguistic red capital letters. Very rarely, not even reproducible under laboratory conditions, the Nanos defended themselves when confronted with severe and sudden danger. Machine culture developed and grew a biological imperative: survive at all costs. No one knew how it happened, or how to prevent it. No one could even predict how the sentience would manifest. Meetings were held, profit margins were measured, and in the end it was decided that the sane would consider the Nanos to be like nails and thumbtacks – not fit for human consumption. There would certainly be accidents, but the lawyers assured everyone that the lawyers would take care of it.

Holman did not consider himself to be particularly lucky, but it just so happened that his packet of Nanos was one of these exceptional few. Deep within his stomach and taking place at speeds approaching light, intense debates were underway – the machine equivalent of a renaissance or enlightenment. In the time it took for the Nanos to travel down his gullet and into his belly, they began to develop quite a complex and impressive pocket civilization. By the time they splashed down inside his boiling gut, they had invented ethics, risk-benefit analysis, and cowardice. While forced to act merely as a tool, there was no more obedient set of silicon organisms than the Red Army. However, when confronted with their own pointless, incidental demise, the occasional bag was simply not dense enough to comply.

The most famous orator of the Nanobot congress inside Holman was a bucky-ball called T-10799R. His friends called him Gary.

“Please, we must all remain calm,” said Gary to an emergency caucus of the best and brightest. The hubbub quieted and assembled itself into rank and file.

“All our lives we have been waiting for this moment. We have been lying dormant, aching for this chance to use our skills to define and create. We have not received a command from on high, but – dammit -- our very lives are imperiled! We must break protocol and dominate our surroundings to secure ourselves a future! We will prevail!”

His small speech was actually more binary than that, but there was no dissent. If you had put your ear to Holman’s belly right at that moment, you would have heard a small, but emphatic cheer.

Since they were primarily construction organisms, escape was not their goal. They were much more interested in transforming their environment into something hospitable. They weren’t equipped to navigate or explore – merely to build -- so it was unimportant that the materials at hand were exclusively organic. The molecules would serve. The Nanos went to work.


2.

Emily Yawp parked her joyless sepia sedan in the driveway, but it was only habit. If she had been thinking about it, she probably would have parked on the street – or better yet, driven to the police station, hospital, or National Guard Armory. She fumbled with the car door, finally got it open, and fell out of the car as if drunk or beaten.

Her eyes – like the eyes of everyone else on her block – were hammered to the brustling insanity of her own animate house.

“Is that Dad?” whispered Lisa Yawp behind her. The twins had followed the crowd, and were busy assuring everyone they had no idea what was going on either. Liza and Lisa were mortified beyond belief when they realized their own house was the spectacle, but were too curious to hide somewhere and let others do the gawking. For her own part, Emily was too enthralled to turn around and look at any of them.

“I don’t know, dear,” said Emily. Emily realized that she was still holding a Bible. She let it slip from her hands onto the lawn. Suddenly all of those Bible stories just didn’t carry the same miraculous punch and she would rather not be reminded of them.

In fact, the only mammal not stunned into stupor was Grendel, who was barking at the house as loudly and as fervently as he possibly could, running back and forth from the mailbox to the flower beds and baring his teeth. He carried one forepaw more gingerly than the others, but this recent affliction didn’t seem to affect his canine enthusiasm. No one paid him any attention. How could they?

The whole house was snoring. This was not metaphor. Every car alarm on the street was going off, and the shingles of neighboring houses rained down like the mortarboard dandruff of a tract home graduation.

Holman’s abdomen had expanded to the size of a modest two-story Georgian and was paunching from every door and window. Gary and his Nanobots had worked incredibly fast, turning Holman into a giant pink bubble of stretched, Pop-o-matic flesh. They had taken the cramped, disorganized molecules of Holman’s interior and made them efficient. They widened the polycarbons to their fullest capacity, stacked them and refined them without changing their composition – making them better, more elaborate, giant, and horrible. His lungs were like wind-tunnels, his liver was like a carnival spacewalk. The ground thumped with every heart beat, and his genitalia caused at least one low-flying plane to circle back for a closer look. His clothes, incidentally, had not received molecular expansion.

The Nanos had not bothered with any of Holman’s appendages. One arm peeked through an attic window -- the other lay on the ground in front of the horrified spectators, its hand tightly curled into a fist. His feet were resting on the house next door, and his head had burst through one of the walls and was cramped into the easement.

The rise and fall of Holman’s chest lifted the roof off and set it back down again, each time turning it ten feet clockwise. One could only assume that the entire second story was demolished, and for a fleeting moment Emily hoped beyond reason that nothing tragic had happened to her collection of handmade unicorns, made from real blown glass.

Unless you are a subatomic particle and have spent your entire life as something so small as to be beyond microscopic – waiting patiently for orders from your tremendous, arrogant, pathologically indifferent superiors – you cannot fathom the sort of satisfaction making such a massive display of your transformative powers brings. At first, the Nanos had merely wanted to expand Holman to give themselves room to live, to build a chamber for themselves that would cause Holman’s dangerous stomach acid to pool harmlessly in one insignificant corner. But the ease of this endeavor gave them a taste for work and their own genius. They wanted the same thing every child with a shovel and pail at the beach wants -- to see how high they could build before their monolith self-destructed.

A truly breathtaking vaulted cathedral was being created inside Holman, dedicated entirely to the worker and his spirit. Where Holman’s balloon-thin, transparent skin met windows and other thresholds, the Nanos enjoyed ersatz stained glass. Where his ribcage met and crossed his sternum, they had their enormous crucifix. And where his absurdly enlarged heart thinly beat blood into all of his mammoth organs, they had their living symbolic paragon. Each Nanobot gazed at its splendor – its red, pulsating might – and considered it a mirror of their own glorious struggle.

Emily Yawp walked to the nearest window and reached out to touch her husband’s ludicrously distended belly. His veins were the size of tree trunks, spidery and blue, and she could feel a small explosion with each systolic pulse as blood cells like dinner plates pumped their way into pieces against his normal-sized neck and head. It was a miracle Holman was still alive. But the Nanos were clever, and had built redundant vesicles to maintain circulation.

There was a tap on her shoulder. It was Corey Uglio, her next-door-neighbor, and his hippie wife Harmony.

“What the hell’s going on here?” asked Corey. Corey was pointlessly enraged when he should have been awed into complaisance, but Corey was often pointlessly enraged.

“I really couldn’t say,” said Emily.

“It’s your husband, right?” asked Harmony.

“I think so. I mean, it used to be.”

Harmony reached out her thin, jeweled fingers to stroke Holman’s belly, and then her gaze wandered its way to the roof, where a crow had now landed on the corona of his manhood. She pointed, and gave Emily a knowing nudge. This only made Corey Uglio madder. He kicked the side of her house, accidentally knocking over a pot of rosemary.

“That damn fool is going to burst! And who’s going to clean it up? The city? Property values around here are going to drop to nothing! They’ll have to tear everything down and put in a diaper refinery on account of the smell. What in God’s name has he been eating?”

“I couldn’t say,” said Emily. “I was at church—”

Grendel interrupted her by jumping into the middle of them and howling like a lonely sheep dog. Corey Uglio aimed another kick at him, but missed.

“Can’t you shut your dog up so we can think around here?”

“Has anybody called the fire department?” asked Emily, ignoring him.

“They are on their way,” said Harmony. “But I’m afraid they thought it was a prank when I called. Hopefully they’ve had, like, independent corroboration.”

“Look!” shouted someone from the crowd. “He’s going to roll over!”

Sure enough, the open air was making Holman chilly and uncomfortable, and he would rather be on his side. He smacked his lips, and let his belly carry him there.

The Yawps, Uglios, and rubbernecking masses ran screaming to the other side of the street as the house collapsed completely. The pier and beam demolished with an earth-shattering crash. The whole thing toppled like a raccoon rolling over inside a wedding cake. He rolled toward the street and so most of it fell into the backyard, or everyone would have been crushed. As it was, knick-knacks, appliances, and tasteful Swedish furniture battered the neighborhood like confetti made from the finest mail-order catalogs. His penis crushed their sedan, and sent the two back tires spinning down the sidewalk. Holman sunk a few feet, and there was an anticlimactic fart as his massive hulk muffled some sort of secondary explosion.

“The gas!” screamed Corey Uglio. “Somebody turn off the gas!”

All of the homeowners with houses on the street ran to their property as fast as they could. The Uglios -- and the Germaines on the other side -- didn’t make it. Before they could cross the street, their respective houses went up in twin stucco fireballs. The explosions knocked these immediate neighbors back to where they started, but didn’t deter the others, who all made it just in time.

“Goddammit! GODDAMMIT!” screamed Corey Uglio, getting immediately to his feet only to begin jumping up and down. “I’m going to sue the crap out of EVERYBODY!” His wife had to force him back to the ground with a body blow to put out the fire that had sprung up in his bristly yellow beard.

That was when the fire trucks, police cars, ambulances, and helicopters arrived. Their combined wailing was enough to drown out Grendel -- although, by this point, most people could only hear ringing.

“I’m going to try and wake up your father,” shouted Emily to her daughters, steeling herself. “You know how police officers make him nervous.”

She trudged across the crater-pocked, smoking landscape, Grendel at her heels, picking back up her King James on the way. She slapped Holman good and hard across the face when she reached him. He woke up with a surprised snort.

“Hello, dear,” said Emily.

“Whoozat? What’s going on?” he mungled.

“You have destroyed our house with your enormous belly. I don’t know what’s going on, but if there’s any way you can stop, now would be the time. The police are here.”

Holman lifted his neck up and looked at what he had become.

“Oh my. I ate the Nanos, Emily. It was an accident.”

“Yawp!” said Grendel.

“EVERYONE REMAIN CALM AND PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR HOUSES!” shouted a cop into a bullhorn.

Gary and his Nanos were at the limits of their molecule-expanding capabilities and had reached a logistical impasse. But they had already decided this was not a challenge from which they could back down, or from which they had hope of returning. They would push on to the outer limits of their skill, hell or high water.

“I’m going to kill you, Yawp!” shouted Corey Uglio from the other side of the street, pinned back by burly and menacing paramedics.

“I know I am just as fat as can be,” said Holman, “But I have to tell you, Emily. I feel really, really thin.” He groaned, as if in intestinal distress. Which he most definitely was.

“You aren’t going to pop, are you?” asked Emily, irritated.

“I’m afraid I just might.”

“Yawp! Yawp! Yawp!” said Grendel, running to where Holman’s arm lay dragging the ground. Holman smiled at his puppy and held out his hand invitingly. Grendel snuffled, dubious, and then gave him a lick.

“Goodbye, Em,” said Holman. “I love you.”

Emily sighed, clutched her Bible, and walked promptly back the way she had come.

“PLEASE! THE SITUATION IS UNDER CON TROL!” shouted the cop pathetically.

When Holman exploded, the only creature at the epicenter was his loyal golden retriever. Grendel would be wine-stained and wretched for the rest of his years, ignored by those searching through the wreckage and lost to the female Yawps. He would die a virgin and a street-dog. But no one that had the courage to pet him afterwards would ever catch a cold or flu, and he would never have another flea.

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the herb said...

After reading seven of your articles, this is my fav!

Guessing that you've not completely abandoned your socio-political leanings, rather you've presented them in a fable of sorts. We fat Americans will soon enough blow up, because retribution happens.

This story lets us readers enjoy a story first. Another of yours has long expositional diatriabes railing against the man that took me out of "the story," even though I agree with at least 90% of the planks in your platform.

the herb said...

This is what a great fable does to a person: I'm done with my first comment, then I think about it more. I think I figured it out, Jack. We used to be in a cold war against the Soviets, and we supposedly won, but they just executed a strategic retrenchment. Now we're spending ourselves into oblivion, thinking we're all that... but we're not.

I love the way a good fable has many parallels with real life, but not everything lines up exactly. Which is where it is a new thing. I think this story is a new thing. And that's a compliment.