Harrier and his young wife Judy stood in the kitchen of their house. Their daughter was still asleep and they were trying to be quiet. Between them stood a pile of eggs and toast that neither had really touched.
“You’ll do great,” whispered Judy.
She put her hands up and Harrier bent down and hugged her with his usual stiff precision. They kissed each other with hard bird lips and he walked out through the kitchen door.
As soon as he was gone, Judy threw the hood of her robe back and sat down at the kitchen table. She picked up a piece of toast and began luxuriously coating the top with jam, frowning and listening to the ticking clock.
“You know, we aren’t allowed to touch them here in main Mothersland,” said Peteman.
“Of course I know that,” said Harrier. “That’s rule number one.”
“Not like the franchise colonies,” said Peteman. “You can touch them all you want in the colonies. But we follow what’s right. We go home each night, and we can look a priest in the eye on the street, and smile, and he does his thing over our heads, and it is all fine. Fine as paint.”
“I am here to learn,” said Harrier.
“People forget, or they think it is a wink, or they think it is something we ignore,” said Peteman. “But it is a real rule. We follow it like we are robots, and it is our punch-card heart. Never touch them. Never.”
“I am a professional,” said Harrier. He was nervous, and they both knew this was a strike against him. “I’m not from main Mothersland like the rest of you, but I’ve done my time. I’ve worked in the equator. You wouldn’t know Mother’s ‘Yum Cookies’
“It is not,” said Peteman, selecting a sheet of smart paper from his pad, and uncrossing his legs in order to bend forward in his chair. He carefully snapped through the scored perforations, and then put the sheet of paper down on his desk, his stylus ready. “So let’s play a hypothetical. You’ve got a subject. A woman.”
“I like women,” said Harrier.
“Hmmm,” said Peteman.
“Not like that,” said Harrier. “I’ve got a kid, you know – a little girl. A toddler. I like women because you never get a false positive. You either get nothing, or something. Sometimes you get less than you need, or sometimes you get more. But you always walk away with something in your hand, even if it is the realization that there is no use -- no use smashing your head against…what…against a brick.”
“So you do have some experience,” said Peteman. “But back to the hypothetical. You’ve got a woman. She has been accused of smuggling something minor. Let’s say hairspray. She has been smuggling hairspray to an underground salon where women pay to be extra beautiful for each other. They fix their hair up nice, and take photos, and wear color without shame, and then they hit the street again in their robes and hoods like nothing happened.”
“She goes to these clubs, or she is merely a smuggler?”
“She is sympathetic, but she does not go. She is afraid for her reputation. She smuggles for the money. She works hard, and she has no time for erotic dalliances.”
“And what do we need to know?”
“Principals. Locations. Routes and methods. We want higher-ups and addresses.”
“And what are my limits?”
“She must walk out of our offices smiling, happy, and never again wanting to deviate from Mother’s Suggestions. Of her own choice, mind you -- not out of fear. That’s how we do things in main Mothersland. You want a job here? You do it our way.”
“I would expect nothing less.”
“So what do you do then?” asked Peteman.
“First of all, I would get her a cat and a litter box for her cell. A tame cat. Declawed. No genitals.”
As he said this, Harrier’s voice skirted up into an excited tremolo, and he patted his knees in a rhythm which lasted for six measures before dissipating into nothing in the silence of Peteman’s office.
“A cat?” asked Peteman.
“Someone to talk to. And we can listen in. And infected.”
“Trivial. Why not a dog?”
“We will only let her change the litter box once a week. The fumes. The fumes will get her. A cat infected with toxoplasmosis. Do you know about toxoplasmosis? The parasites in cat excreta have a profound effect on the minds of mice. The plasmon parasites breed inside mice brains, and chew through vitals until the mice are no longer afraid of cat urine. The parasites want cats to eat the mice, you see, so they can continue growing up inside cat brains. The mice now walk around pools of cat urine like it is new fallen snow, amazed and chipper. And then the cats who have marked their territory scoop them up, rip off their heads, and feast.”
“This is not a mouse: this is a woman.”
“Yes, yes. But what the parasites do to HUMAN brains, in their next stage, is even more interesting. During the early stages of acute contamination, people experience actual personality upheaval. It turns men into recluses and criminals. They lose respect for the law, drink heavily, and fall apart in their lives. It is documented that women, on the other hand, open up. The poison makes them flower. The most shy and retiring among them become talkative, outgoing, needlessly promiscuous. They flirt. They become incredibly open to suggestion. They want to talk. And any decent society would never be able to blame us for giving her a cat. They’d blame the cat. Or fate, or God.”
“Hmmm,” said Peteman. “This is documented, you say. And then what?”
“Then we proceed by the book. Innuendo. Conditioning. Deprogramming. We let logic win. We are the good guys, right? Eventually logic always triumphs over the selfish thoughts of those persuaded by…what…by momentary gain. We get names, we get addresses. She’s our girl from then on. We might even get a date out of it.”
Harrier smiled to show he was joking.
Peteman did not laugh. Instead, starting at Harrier’s shoes, he gave him a steady, penetrating look that rose all the way to Harrier’s liver-spotted scalp and scallop-grey sideburns. Harrier was dressed casually in a collared shirt and slacks, and he had a scar that ran all the way across his chin from ear to ear. The rumor was that he had once been accosted, slashed, and left for dead by unknown enemies when he was just starting out in information, but Harrier never talked about it and no one ever asked him.
The truth of the scar was in Peteman’s file, but it wasn’t as interesting as the story. A sports injury. As boring as could be.
“Fine,” said Peteman. “Tell me: do you believe in God?”
“It is a simple question, and one that generally everyone can answer. Directly. Without equivocating.”
Now Peteman smiled.
“Do I have to believe in God?” asked Harrier.
“No,” said Peteman.
“Fantastic,” said Harrier, relaxing. “I thought I might be in for a sermon, or a loyalty test.”
“No,” said Peteman.
“I think God is a child,” said Harrier. “A little girl named Gina.”
“Yours?” asked Peteman.
“Mine,” said Harrier.
“The only reason that I bring it up is because so many people have strong beliefs,” said Peteman. “And now I have to show you something.”
Peteman scribbled “CLEARED” on the sheet of smart paper, and then folded it up and put it in his coat, which lay draped across the back of his chair.
“Follow me,” said Peteman. “I will show you how we conduct our interrogations. We don’t have to be sly, or tricky, or infect people with brain plasmons. We have science. This is an easy job. We have perfected the mess of it all, and now it is the mistakes that are out of the ordinary -- not the successes. Working here, no one will be impressed with you. But you will make a lot of money, and you will be doing good work for Mothersland.”
“That is enough for me,” said Harrier. “Plus,” he added, “I like the job. I enjoy it.”
As they walked down the hallway toward the containment cells, they paused underneath the Central Information Office’s crest and banner, where a complete list of “Mother’s Suggestions” had also been tacked to the wall with pushpins.
- No killing, please.
- Clean up after yourself: I am not a maid
- You have to respect yourself and cover up, ladies, if you want to land a man. Wear your “pretty” on the inside.
- You shouldn’t take what doesn’t belong to you. Period.
- Mom may not always be right, but she is always your Mom (and she loves ya, kiddos!)
- Do right by your women, and don’t sleep around, fellas
- None of that gay business, okay?
- How about getting a job, huh?
- Everybody has to help pitch in to help the little ones.
- Don’t forget to have FUN!
Beside the list of Suggestions was the brand-accepted, franchise-integrated Holofoil of “Mother” herself. The Holofoil looked like an oil painting, but it morphed between two pictures with a slow dissolve that took you by surprise every time. Even though the new Holofoil had been out in Mothersland for years, you would still find people staring at it on street corners and in shops, their groceries nestled in the crook in their arm, benevolent grins stretched across their mugs, their children tugging their pants and whining.
In one picture, Mother was looking stern and majestic, with her hands on her hips and her lips drawn tight and crisp as bedsheets. In the other picture, she was grinning broadly and had her hands in the air, as if saying: “What the hell? Today, let’s order pizza!”
When they first got off the airplane, Harrier and his daughter had stopped in the terminal to look at the poster while Judy went to the airport bathroom.
“How come you never see Mother on TV?” Gina asked, twisting in his grip. “In real life, I mean?”
“Oh, Mother isn’t real,” Harrier rebutted. “She is a brand icon, a symbol of all the values our society holds dear, and a beacon of hope for a future where her Suggestions are taken to heart all over the world. She is the soul of the world.”
“I think she should be real,” whined Gina.
“That’s because you are a child, and you have sweet, precious, idiot child ways,” said Harrier, leading her away from the poster, and making sure no one was listening.
Peteman and Harrier continued onward, until they came to a containment cell with a red light blinking above it, signifying occupancy. The cell was right next to the Central Information Office lab, and that’s where Peteman went, while pointing back to the cell door.
“Go ahead inside,” said Peteman. “I have to get something.”
Harrier opened the door to the cell, went in, and sat down in the steel chair bolted to the floor. The prisoner was asleep in a soft feather bed against the opposite wall, and he rose to a groggy elbow as soon as he heard the door open. The prisoner was a grizzled-looking war veteran if you believed his tattoos – forty years old with a salt and pepper beard. He got up out of bed, scratched himself, and then put on clothes. He coughed, hawked up a bloody loogie into the sink, and then lit a cigarette from a pack in his pants.
“Here to torture me, eh?” said the prisoner with a grin. “I ain’t budging you know. Don’t know nothing, never did.”
“Ah, how come you’ve got that word ‘torture’ stuck in your head?” said Harrier. “Too many movies.”
“Maybe,” said the man, slapping his knee. “Maybe so.”
“We are negotiating,” said Harrier. “Hopefully we will find a proposition you like, and we can let you go free.”
“Well, since I don’t know nothing, it’ll probably be awhile. I got nothing to barter, and you got nothing I want.”
“An impasse,” said Harrier.
The man laughed and coughed at the same time.
“Damn right!” he said. “An impasse! That’s exactly right! We aren’t getting NOWHERE!”
Peteman stepped into the room, carrying a Petri dish and a nest of wires curled around his arm like rope. He set the wires on the floor and handed the Petri dish to Harrier.
“I see you’ve met Rudolph,” said Peteman. “That’s a good start. He doesn’t wake up for everybody.”
“I sure as hell don’t,” said Rudolph, sitting down on the foot of his bed and stubbing out the cigarette in an ashtray made from molded tin foil.
“What does Mother say about cursing?” said Peteman.
“Some goddamn thing,” said Rudolph. “I figure she’s against it.”
“She is,” said Peteman. “She is against it.”
Harrier peered into the Petri dish. There was a glob of red gunk inside about as big as a child’s fist. It was slimy and gelatinous, but thick, and it glistened in a puddle of oil that looked like the scum that forms on top of peanut butter. He poked it with his finger. The gunk yielded like dough, but kept its conformation, even as more golden oil bubbled from the sides.
“We were going to calibrate Rudolph to his putty yesterday, but since we knew you were coming in, we figured we’d wait, and let you see how it’s done.”
“This is the putty? What is it?” asked Harrier.
“Yeah, what is it?” asked Rudolph.
“It’s neural putty,” said Peteman. Peteman took a black magic marker from his pocket and got down on his knees in front of Rudolph. He squinted, stuck his tongue out, and drew a dot on Rudolph’s forehead, right between his eyes. Rudolph frowned, and batted Peteman’s hand away.
“What are you doing?” asked Rudolph.
“If I don’t get your markings accurate, then Harry here is liable to mess up your metrics,” said Peteman. “It’s his first time. We have to make it easy for him.”
“Oh yeah, that makes sense,” said Rudolph. “Carry on then. I guess.”
“What is neural putty?” asked Harrier.
“Psychoanalogous, biofeedback-active, braincloud gel,” said Peteman. “That’s what it says on the carton. You stick these electrodes into a person’s head. Don’t give me that look, Rudolph, they don’t go in very far. And then you stick the other end into the goop. You wait a little bit, and then the goop will start to sizzle. That’s when you know it’s done. Then you take the electrodes out, you clean everything up, and you’ve got your neural putty all calibrated and ready to go.”
“And what does it do?” asked Harrier.
“I could tell you, or I could show you,” said Peteman.
“How about both?” said Rudolph.
Peteman wagged his finger at Rudolph, and kept drawing the dots. One at each temple, one at the back of the neck, four on the forehead, one between his mouth and nose, and one to the side of either eye.
“Okay Harry,” said Peteman. “Stick in those electrodes. And try to remember where they go so that you can do it without the dots next time.”
Harrier cleared his throat and did as he was told. The cables were 20 feet long, and so most of their length stayed curled up in a pile at Rudolph’s feet. At the end of each cable was a tiny clamp with miniscule hooks at the end. There was a flexible bend to the clamps, and yet they were made of thick, hard steel.
“Careful,” said Peteman. “Remember the rule.”
“Yeah, humanity first,” said Rudolph.
With his fingers shaking, and Peteman’s encouragement, Harrier carefully attached each clamp, the teeth like four little needles punching into the skin of Rudolph’s face.
“Do you feel that?” asked Harrier.
“Don’t feel a damn thing,” said Rudolph. A trickle of crimson ran down from one of the punctures on his forehead, but the rest of the clamps didn’t draw blood.
“Humanity first,” said Harrier. “Now what?”
The clamps were fused together into a single probe at the other end, and Peteman stuck it into the center of the red goop, where it hissed like a hot pan under cold water.
“These cords are magic,” said Peteman. “They amp up the body’s natural electric charge by something like a thousand percent.”
Harrier and Peteman watched the Petri dish as Rudolph sat on the foot of his bed with his knees high, smiling and rubbing his biceps.
“What have we got for dinner today?” asked Rudolph.
“Roast beef on toast, with a side of beets.”
“Potatoes?” asked Rudolph.
“Always potatoes,” said Peteman. “Probably mashed tonight. If we ever have a meal without potatoes in here, I’ll let you go free.”
Peteman and Rudolph laughed, and Harrier smiled.
“That’s alright with me,” said Rudolph. “Anyway, I like potatoes.”
The goop in the dish started to bubble, and the bubbling quickly gave way to a roaring sizzle. Peteman pointed, and Harrier pulled the probe out of the putty. The boiling immediately began to taper down. Harrier removed the clamps from Rudolph’s face, and gave him a washcloth from the sink to wipe the blood from his forehead.
“Is it safe to touch?” asked Harrier, staring at the putty.
“Should be,” said Peteman. “It cools off real fast.”
“And what does it do?” asked Harrier.
“Pick it up,” said Peteman. “Find out for yourself.”
Harrier wiped his hand on his pants and then reached into the dish. The putty was still warm.
“Mash it,” said Peteman. “Squish it.”
Harrier squeezed the ball in his hand, and let oil drip from the putty back into the dish. On the bed, Rudolph began to shake and spazz and laugh and scream, all at the same time. His feet went out straight and his shoes fell off, and he waved his arms in wild, jerky directions as if signaling a plane to land.
“Oh my God,” shrieked Rudolph. “What are you doing to me? That feel so good, so good, so good. My whole body! My whole body!”
Harrier looked at Peteman.
“Keep going,” said Peteman. “You’ve got a complete neural imprint of his nervous system in your hands. And some kind of…little robots…with smashed-up atoms for brains are doing to his mind what you are doing to the putty. Some people don’t say mind: some people say soul. But I don’t think any of us believe in souls in here.”
Harrier rolled the putty into a perfect sphere. On the bed, Rudolph lolled his head around, screaming. His eyes blazed, his mouth was so wide and happy that drool was spilling out between his teeth in glistening rivulets. Harrier squeezed the sphere. Rudolph curled up into a ball -- humming, singing, his toes by turns splayed and contracting beneath his socks.
“I don’t care,” said Rudolph. “I don’t care. This feels so good, so fucking good.”
Harrier took the putty between his hands and spun it back and forth, making a long snake out of it. By now, his hands were coated in oil, and there were smears across his casual collared shirt.
Rudolph lay back on his bed and put his hand on his groin. He had a massive erection, and his pants were slick and wet with discharge.
“We can make it into a mold so that it looks like a person,” said Peteman. “Then you can do more subtle things. Targeted things.”
Harrier squeezed the ball back together, and Rudolph curled up in his bed like a cat, rubbing his face against the sheets.
“That’s enough for now,” said Peteman, taking the ball away and putting it back in the dish. “I think you get the general idea.”
“It’s amazing,” said Harrier. “Think of the pain. Think of the new pain.”
“It is very, very, VERY rare that we have to go into pain,” said Peteman. “Usually, what happens is…”
Suddenly, Rudolph sat bolt upright in his bed. His eyes were wild. His teeth were chattering.
“Can I have it?” said Rudolph. “I need to hold it. I need to have it. For myself.”
Peteman winked at Harrier, and guided him to the cell door. He turned back to Rudolph, and crossed his arms.
“Suddenly we’ve got something you want after all,” said Peteman. “And I guess we’d better hang on to it, haven’t we?”
“You are taking it away? What are you going to do with it?”
“It will be somewhere safe. Unless you decide you’ve still got nothing to say about those pictures we found you with. Then maybe we’ll put it in the freezer. Or pinch it up into pieces.”
“No!” said Rudolph. “Don’t do that!”
“You think about it,” said Peteman. “And I’ll be back later to talk.”
Peteman and Harrier left the room, as Rudolph scrambled across the floor, only making it halfway to the door before it closed.
“See?” said Peteman. “Easiest job in the world. He’ll be out of here within the week, with his putty in his pocket, and everything we want to know written down, indexed, and filed in triplicate with Alan Fielding in operations.”
“He gets to keep the putty?”
“Trust me,” said Peteman. “He’ll take care of it. Anyway, it will be mass market soon, in a majorly diluted form. It loses its strength over time, like flavor from chewing gum. If you can think of a brand name, let me know. Sometimes we call them jivas.”
“Jiva. It’s Hindu. Not a soul exactly, but an immortal living presence that inhabits the body and has its own ends. We extract the jiva from the believa.”
“What would happen if you destroyed it? If you froze it, or burned it, or something like that?”
“People freak out, even if they can handle the pain. They demand we make a new one, whatever it takes. They always talk. We aren’t bastards. We always make another one, unless they kill themselves first, which happens sometimes.”
“But you never touch them.”
“Not even a pat on the head.”
“Where do you store the jivas?”
“We keep them in a humidor in the commissary. A nice warm, wet place where the putty won’t harden into crust.”
“Do you have one? An imprint of yourself?”
“Never,” said Peteman, stopping in the hallway, and making Harrier stop too. “No. Never. You don’t want to go there. You don’t want to do that. Trust me. Learn about it first. Watch the way people act.”
“It is dangerous?”
“I don’t know that,” said Peteman sharply. “I don’t know that at all. I don’t know anything. Never done it.”
Peteman’s hand went to his mouth, and he began chewing on a fingernail. Harrier knew he was lying.
“Come on,” he said, leading the way. “Let’s get you your new security badge.”
“Oh my God! Oh my FUCKING God!” came a scream from the bedroom. Judy only heard it with her ears.
“What is Daddy doing in there?” asked Gina to her mother.
“We are not allowed to know, and we’d better not ask!” said Judy cheerily, sweeping Gina up in her arms and giving her a big kiss on the cheek.
“Mwwwwah!” said Judy with a smack.
“But I want to see,” said Gina. Gina leapt down from Judy’s arms and ran across the living room floor to the hallway and turned the corner with her diaper creaking underneath her.
The door had been locked, but not shut all the way. Harrier had been in a hurry when he got home from work. When Gina crashed into the door, it popped open, and Harrier ran across the room, naked, a bright blue gob of neural putty in his hand.
He tripped over a pillow, and fell sprawling. The blue gob fell out of his hand right in front of Gina.
Gina picked it up, and Harrier began to shiver and moan.
“Don’t touch that, darling,” he said, taking it from her. He set her outside the door and closed it in her face. This time he closed it to the jamb, and leaned up against it to make sure.
It was a Tuesday, and so Gina was with the babysitter, while Judy went out for lunch with her Knitting and Poetry Club. Harrier hadn’t touched her in two months, but Judy was a favorite at the KPC, so it was the one happy day in the week.
The babysitter was a freckled thirteen-year old girl named Candice, who sat cross-legged on the couch the whole time she was being paid, staring into space while her brain ran. Candice let Gina make as many messes as she wanted until half an hour before Judy got home. Then she cleaned them all up and gave Gina iced cream so she would sit still and be good for her mother.
While Candice stared, Gina ran around the house pretending she was an airplane, bumping into walls, but not crying. Crying would make Candice have to get up off the couch and tend, and that would mean an end to exploring.
Gina had a plan. She was going to get into the scent, and try on the bras. But first, she wanted to know what was under Mommy’s bed.
The room was dark and cool, and Gina couldn’t reach any of the light switches, but a peep of illumination came in through the curtains – just enough to see by. She scooted across the room, and rolled under the bed like a spy. She peered out from underneath the mattress and tugged the overhanging sheet down lower to shield her from enemies.
There wasn’t much under the bed but dust and old magazines, unfortunately. Dust, magazines, and a cigar box.
“Daddy’s box,” said Gina.
She was a spy. Gina opened the cigar box and saw the blue gob of gunk inside it. The same blue gob she had seen Daddy playing with that one time when he had been screaming and naked.
She sniffed it. It smelled like old spaghetti.
“Ew,” said Gina. She closed the cigar box lid and went to go find the patchouli. Spy was a stupid game.
Judy stopped the car to let Candice out. As Candice opened the door, Judy opened her side and got out as well, taking them both by surprise.
“Wait here,” said Judy to Gina, patting her knee in her car seat. “Be back in a sec, hon.”
Judy adjusted her hood and led Candice over to the trunk of the car.
“Candice, tell me something,” said Judy. “It’s important.”
“What’s that, mum?” said Candice.
“You babysit for a lot of the women in this neighborhood, don’t you?”
“That’s right,” said Candice.
“You hear things. You hear secrets, right?”
“Not like you’d think,” said Candice.
Judy closed her eyes and put her hand on her forehead. When she opened her eyes back up again, they were blazing.
“Do you ever hear anything about my husband?” asked Judy.
“No mum,” said Candice.
“He works for the Central Information Office, you know,” said Judy.
“I did know that,” said Candice. “You told me.’
“And no one talks about him, like a joke?
“No, nothing like that,” said Candice.
“You never hear about how he’s got somebody else, somebody on the side? Do they say it like that? Someone on the side?”
“No, mum,” said Candice.
Judy stared at Candice until Candice repeated herself. Judy’s bottom lip quivered, she put her head down on the trunk, and she began to cry.
She lay there, tears streaming from her face, until Candice put her hand on her shoulder and squeezed.
“He comes home and he goes to his room for HOURS, and I never see him, and he never wants to touch me,” said Judy. “I know I’m not supposed to question. I know he’s in charge. But I don’t understand. I don’t understand what he’s doing in there, screaming about how good it feels. Has he got someone in there with him, Candice? What does he do in there?”
Candice lowered her eyes and stared at the penny loafers peeking out from under the hem of her long, burlap teenager’s robe.
“Do you think I’m pretty?” said Judy, defeated and weary, but trying to smile. “Do you think I’m pretty enough?”
“Oh yes, mum,” said Candice, brightening up. “As pretty on the inside as ever there was.”
Harrier and Peteman stared at each other across the lunch table.
“You’ve got bags under your eyes,” said Peteman.
“So do you,” said Harrier.
Peteman’s hand went to his face.
“I don’t sleep well,” said Peteman. “Every time I lay down the wife wants to argue.”
“I know what you mean,” said Harrier.
“It’s hard for a wife to understand the kind of thrill a man gets doing this job,” said Peteman, choosing his words carefully. “What she used to offer sometimes isn’t so exciting anymore. Lately, there have been some divorces.”
The two men were silent for awhile as they contemplated their stroganoff and French fries.
“What about love?” said Harrier.
“You have to find a way to reconnect, if you are smart,” said Peteman. “Maybe if you both focus on your daughter. She is made of both of you. You have to find a way to let go of the things that we offer here.”
“What if there was another way for us to share experience?” said Harrier. “What then?”
“I can’t even begin to give you a suggestion about that,” said Peteman. “Let’s talk about sports.”
Judy was crying again. Crying so hard that she couldn’t speak properly. Crying so hard that she could only hug him and blubber why, why, why.
So Harrier put her in the car and he took her to work with him, so early in the morning that no one else was there yet, and even the prisoners were still asleep.
“Be brave,” said Harrier. “These clamps don’t hurt at all.”
Judy smiled at him as Harrier caressed her face with one hand, and bent back the teeth in an electrode with the other. The bright yellow lump of neural putty sat waiting in its dish on his office desk. Her new jiva. Still cold. But not for long.
“Wake up!” said Gina, standing on the floor of her Mommy and Daddy’s room, dragging her blanket beside her.
“Wake up, I’m hungry!” shouted Gina.
Neither Judy nor Harrier stirred. It was a Saturday morning, and usually Gina was watching cartoons by now while sitting in front of a huge, steaming plate of waffles, syrup, and hashed browns.
But Gina didn’t understand how to make the TV work, and she knew that she would get in big trouble if she so much as got into the breakfast cereal without asking.
“I need you to make the cartoons!” shouted Gina as loud as she could. She stomped across the carpet and climbed up into the bed. Harrier and Judy were both dead asleep, taking huge gasps of breath as they lay tangled and naked under the sheets, curled up in each other’s arms like snakes around roods.
Gina lifted up her Daddy’s arm and tried to pull him off the bed, but he wouldn’t budge.
“UUUUUGGGHH,” huffed Gina, throwing her blanket down on the floor and jumping off the bed.
“Wake up!” she shouted again, right into her mother’s blank, exhausted face. Sweat had dried in a white spray across Judy’s forehead that looked like talcum, and her thick blonde hair was tangled in dirty knots.
Judy didn’t even flinch.
The cigar box lay open on the nightstand. There were tissues all around it, and tubes filled with colored oils, and tubes with ridges and strange buttons. Gina noticed that there were two balls of gunk now in the cigar box – one blue, one yellow.
“Mine,” she said.
She grabbed the box and stalked away into the living room. She pulled a chair from the dining room and used it to hit the “power” button.
She could turn the TV on, but she couldn’t figure out how to change the channel. She pressed every button she could find, but nothing worked. Two men in suits were now discussing things that were boring.
Still, the noise was comforting in the cold, quiet morning. She spread her blanket out on the middle of the living room floor and opened the box to get a better look at the new toys.
She picked up the yellow ball and mashed it between her fingers. It was sticky, but felt good to her. She picked up the blue ball in her other hand and mashed it in her other fist. She put both balls back in the box and looked at her oily hands.
“Gross,” she said. She rubbed her hands on the carpet and then picked back up the yellow ball. She poked it, and molded it. She decided to turn it into a doggie. Carefully, she made the ears and nose. Then she made the blue ball into a monkey with a long tail. She put the monkey on the doggie, and made them ride around the room.
There was a noise from the bedroom. A low moan, and then a long, long laugh.
“Be quiet!” said Gina.
Gina was fascinated, and didn’t want to be interrupted. She pulled the monkey off of the doggie and smashed the monkey back into a ball of nothing. She flattened the blue ball out as thin as it could go on the cigar box lid and then she rolled up the yellow doggie into a cup. She put the yellow cup on top of the thin blue plate of putty and stuck them together. Then she pulled them apart.
Where the yellow ball touched the blue plate, there was now a little strip of green.
“Green!” said Gina.
Gina put the cup back on the plate. There was another loud moan from the bedroom and what sounded like slapping. Her mother was screaming now, like Daddy was screaming, about how good it was.
“Be quiet!” shouted Gina, furrowing her brow. If they didn’t wake up, they weren’t allowed to play.
A commercial came on for Mother’s “Fun Sneakers” Brand. Two kids were leaping up, up into space from a basketball court. Gina watched, mesmerized.
She sat back down in front of the putty. She looked at the yellow cup, narrowed her eyes, and smashed the yellow cup into the blue plate. She smashed and mashed and squeezed and rolled the two together, while singing along to the sneaker song.
“Mother’s Fun! Having Mother’s Fun! In out-ter spaaaaace!”
She looked down at the ball. It was a messy splotch of blue and yellow, with huge swatches of green.
“Green!” said Gina. She pounded the ball, and flattened it, and smoothed as much blue into the yellow as she could find. She kept kneading, and kneading, and kneading, and she pretended she was making waffle batter. Green waffle batter for green waffles.
From the bedroom, there was a low constant moan from both Judy and Harrier. The same pitch. Rising and rising, like a church hymn.
Gina held up the ball of putty proudly in both hands.
It was all green! Pretty, pretty green!
Wouldn’t that be fun, thought Gina. Green waffles. She knew where the waffle maker was. It was right next to the toaster! There was only one button – not like the TV. Wouldn’t Mommy and Daddy be surprised?
She stood up with the ball in her hands to take it to the kitchen. But on TV there was a bright flash of color, and the sound effect of a clown being bonked in the nose. Cartoons! Finally! Gina put the green ball back in the cigar box, closed the lid, and sat back down on her blanket. Her thumb found her mouth, and pretty soon she was fast asleep.