(Below is Jeff Maehre's The Machines that Wait a Half an Hour After Eating To get in the Water.)
(More fiction, from Albert Huffstickler and Charles Chaim Wax, in the print version of The White Crow, available for $2.00 ppd from Osric Publishing.)
The Machines that Wait a Half an Hour After Eating To get in the Waterby Jeff Maehre
I slept only fifteen minutes last night, long enough for the nightmare of the square machines that wait half an hour after eating to get in the water. The machines were four abreast on the sizzling concrete, after me, moaning and clomping after me, stupid, not stopping or knowing how.
My mom called from her kitchen, a sixty-one-year-old woman, and mentioned that you no longer have to wait a half an hour after eating to get in the water. It's an old wive's tale, she said. She saw this on Jenny Jones or something (there was a source: some doctor). An old wive's tale: my mother's tale. She renounces it now.
My son Ben has blond hair that he clips himself, in back, so it won't curl. He has white eyelashes and lips that stay closed for every smile. When he eats, I feel a rush from the tantalizing, sneaked view of his teeth. He wants to be a police officer. Next week, his high school, across from the Pentecostal church, will install metal detectors because a kid pulled a knife on a gym teacher. In Ben's world, you can't scare a kid from swimming within a half an hour of a meal.
Did I ever disobey my parents, who, like any decent human beings in the 20th century, enforced the swimming rule like it had comefrom Mount Sinai? I know my sister Caroline did, at a public pool, when we were on our own. She'd had a hot pretzel, and before that, bags and bags of candy. She told me the next day that she'd gotten a horrible cramp, that she'd been afraid of puking in the pool, but she suspected the mustard from the hot pretzel, which was different from what we had at home. The cramp went away after she stopped the splashing fights with her friend, and went to shallow diving.
A few weeks ago, my friend Shane and I couldn't remember the name of the guy who hit the game-winning homer in game 2 of the 1984 World Series. We knew he was a San Diego Padre. Shane's baseball encyclopedia, three inches thick and forty dollars, had his name: Mark Bevaqua. The more I stared at the name in the book, just one of millions of names, the more I was sure it was wrong--not the man, but the spelling. It should end"c-q-u-a," not the way the book had it. When I said this, Shane laughed and nudged my Labatt's with his, and kept pushing it until I had to jump or it would've been in my lap. The bottle flipped to the floor and gurgled out its contents and Shane reminded me not to disagree with black and white.
A few days later I looked it up in a baseball card price guide and it was spelled my way. But it had always been like that anyway, in my mind, the only thing I have, the same thing that would've allowed me to remember it without a "c" if I would've just read Shane's damn book, rather than living through that World Series myself.
When I was a kid you felt yourself waiting to swim. My cousin Brian and I would take the picnic's paper napkins, rattail them and tie four or five together, to make headbands. We'd tie them in back and start to run and maybe they'd fall or maybe they'd squeeze out craniums right into the warm mucus of our cerebellems. We'd always have to start over. I'll always remember it: waiting to swim was real because I can feel it to this day: the sweat the napkins didn't soak up, shocking the eyes as it dripped down; the dirt ground's pounding on the bare balls of my feet; the tepid vapor of potato salad in our mouths. I can't apologize for not questioning this old wive's tale, because I felt the reality of what believeing leads to, and people feel so they can stay alive.
Shane told me his encyclopedia was a better source than a pricing guide, because, well, goddamn, it's an encyclopedia. I told him that even if we could see Mark Bevacqua's birth certificate, how would we know there wasn't a typo on it? The guy was born in the days before correction ribbon, and secretaries are only human.
Kids today will go right into the water, and they probably won't get cramps. Not very many anyway. My parents never said there was a hundred percent chance of getting cramps if you didn't wait--it was preventative. But some will get cramps--there's such a thing as getting cramps from swimming and it's bound to happen right after meals sometimes. The only thing is, we'll have to invent a new explanation. We now know that eating absolutely, positively--know because it was on Jenny Jones--does not cause cramps. Something else does.
One day you won't be able to go near any water, because common knowledge will have established its link with cancer. Our skin is laced with cancer at all times, it's just water that activates it. Avoid water at all costs, don't even drink it, and you'll be fine. The human race will die out, of cancer, theoretically, until future races realize it was a gradual change in maetabolism that made us unable to digest the sealing wax that was once a staple of our diet. Then the tin, square monsters will rule the land.
I know they'll wait a half hour before swimming. It's because of instinct. Machines, common knowledge tells us, in all its fascist eloquence, can do nothing but what they're programmed to. They're nothing more than the men who build them. And so I'm sure, and the dreamer I was last night was sure to the point of panic, that millions of years from now, common tin machine knowledge will have it that you have to wait a half an hour after eating to get in the water; and that the robot equivalent of masturbation makes you go blind. These machines come from people, who began their reign on Earth in gut-wrenching ignorance, in appalling superstition. The machines will do as we did for the same reason: to keep the race around as long as possible. Did anyone really believe the world was flat or did they just want to stop exploration and progress and all the ugliness it breeds? Were they trying to slow the day when we know so much that we have to invent unspeakable atrocities to keep ourselves challenged?
In my dream, I wasn't afraid the monsters would kill me. I was scared because they were marching on--thriving. They'd have baby monsters, and for them, life would be so painful. I was dreaming of my son, Ben. If only I could've--someone--could've killed off the square monsters, kept them from mindlessly stomping through time--stopped the race when they still had simple beliefs. Their next generation will suffer throught he reality that what was known before was wrong and that really nothing is knowable, and that overcoming misconceptions of the past is mere ego-stroking in the face of complex terrors of the present.
When I awoke this morning, I decided to have breakfast at a diner I'd frequented before getting married, before my son was born. I ordered pancakes with a side of bacon and milk and orange juice. Chewing slowly through the dough and syrup mess, I knew I wouldn't go to work. I was already late anyway. I walked across the street to a party store and bought a pack of Salems, a habit I'd quit two years ago. I sat in my car, smoking and smoking, feeling the sun inch up my back and onto my hair. I digested as I smoked, thinking with the radio off. When I strated the car it was only because I was sure I'd been sitting in that parking lot for half an hour. When I dived into the water in the public pool, the momentum pulled me halfway across and in minutes I'd breezed three laps under the surface.
Crowright 2001 Osric Publishing. Last updated 05.05.2001