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'Spilling Clarence' ()

Book Excerpt: 'Spilling Clarence'

by Anne Ursu
Mar 31, 2006

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Anne Ursu

 

one.

Clarence, Before Spill.

The break room microwave is dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. It has been in the process of dying for a great many years; for the psychopharmaceutical factory employees, the chunky box has always acted as an orangy-brown reminder of bygone decades.

Through the years, the appliance's failure to shuffle off this mortal coil (never mind the management's refusal to replace the thing) slowly changed from seeming absurd to downright inspirational. As a result, people have been using it less and less, and recently the brave factory workers who have attempted to cook food in it have done so surreptitiously, lest they be identified as the one whose ultra-lite popcorn finally did in their Saiushi EZ Wave 2000.

So, now, with the break room empty and the hallways clear, one of the secretaries turns the primeval knobs to the appropriate settings, then scurries out the door. Thus, nobody is in the room to hear the prophetic crackle crackle pop as the magnetron tube bursts, or to notice the smoke rising, or to see sparks come out of the thick black umbilical cord. The microwave sighs its last sigh and the break room quickly transforms into a funeral pyre.

The fire alarm shrieks and wails, and as workers begin to proceed in a calm and orderly fashion out the door, the sprinklers activate throughout the Harris Jones psychopharmaceuticals factory. It does not take long for the old old sprinkler system to short out the old old electrical wiring. Just as the plant safety engineer takes the massive Emergency Procedures binder off the shelf, a red light on his operations panel begins to flash, foretelling the demise of the refrigeration system. As he skims the index of the manual, the blue light that monitors the super cooled chemical tanks begins to blink frantically. As he flips to page 34, the molecules of the liquid chemicals in the refrigerated tanks begin to excite and expand, ready to transform into a new state of matter and reach a higher plane. The safety engineer finds the appropriate code, and as the tanks swell, he turns to his old old computer and punches in Code 121: Fire in the Factory. Likely Airborne Dispersal.

Then he calls his wife and tells her to get out of Clarence, pronto. And take the cats.

It will be a few more minutes before the sound of the civil defense sirens startles the customers flipping through books and sipping lattes in the town of Clarence's new Davis and Dean superstore. For now, though, it is commerce that is airborne. Through the currency of bright smiles and swooshes of credit cards and thank-you-for-shopping-have-a-nice-days, capitalism foams and bubbles over like frothed milk. Booksellers beam at book buyers, cash registers pop open, receipts churn and coil, bags blouse, doors revolve — the people of Clarence enter and leave inexorably, accompanied by noncontroversial jazz and humming air conditioning. It is a perfect sixty-eight degrees in the store, and Clarence wants to buy.

Bennie and Sophie Singer sit in the bookstore's cafe today, as they have every Friday since the Davis and Dean was built. Friday has been Bookstore Day for the two of them ever since Sophie learned to read. Lizzie, actually, started the tradition, back before there was a Sophie. Bookstores with cafes were a rare and wondrous phenomenon back then, and the newly wedded Ben and Elizabeth McCourt Singer would sit at a table every Friday afternoon reading the magazines they couldn't afford to subscribe to. Lizzie would pore over women's magazines — her secret obsession — gleefully searching for tropes, discourse, and dogma, and Bennie would read news weeklies searching for nothing in particular. One Friday, he reading The New Yorker, she studying advertisements in Elle, he picked up her hand, almost knocking over her coffee.

When we have a child, we will take her to the bookstore every Friday.

Lizzie looked up from her magazine and beamed.

Bennie blinks the memory away.

Bennie and Sophie Singer sit in the cafe today, as they do every Friday. Bennie will schedule no students, attend no meetings, allow no exceptions. I have a standing date, he explains to the sputtering cognitive behaviorist as he shuts his office door and scurries out of the psych building to pick Sophie up from school. We'll do it on Monday. I'm here late on Mondays.

It's not as if the department could like him any less.

Bennie is the token Personality professor at Mansfield University, and is thus looked upon with some derision by those who think an understanding of the human psyche is best achieved through close interaction with rodents and computer simulations. Bennie, in turn, despises the notion that human behavior can be explained through the interplay of impulses and neurons, chemicals and electricity, mice and mazes. If humanity is really so base, what is the point of living? What is the point of experience? What is the point of the mind? At Mansfield, psychology students dissect and experiment. They will be excellent researchers, yes, but who will treat the patients?

Sophie can buy one book a week. She always knows what she will buy as they enter the store; she spends her time amongst the stacks categorizing and prioritizing for weeks to come. Then, after Sophie has crawled through the kids section, the two retire to the cafe. Sophie has an Italian soda. The first Friday of the month she has cherry, the second orange, the third raspberry, and the fourth lime. If there are five Fridays in a month, then she has strawberry kiwi, which is her favorite. Bennie has the coffee of the day with three to four packets of artificial sweetener.

Now, Sophie sips her raspberry soda and flips through books from children's reference while Bennie wishes thoughts away. Sophie eats these books up every week, washing facts down with neon soda. She will remember them all. Sophie remembers everything. She knows countries and capitals, states and dates. She knows wars and treaties, tribes and tributaries. She knows Greek gods and Roman hills. She knows Tippecanoe and Tyler too; she can list First Pets, First Ladies, and even some of the mistresses.

It awes Bennie. Did he ever know this much? Could he reel off the posts of the cabinet and the ranks of the British peerage system fueled only by childhood alacrity and a sugar high?

I don't know, sweetie, he smiles as she quizzes him. You tell me. I'm getting old, sweetie. Bennie gave up on history long ago, but when did it give up on him? When did all the facts leave him? Where did they go? Sure, there are remnants. Mnemonic devices still linger. Every good boy deserves favor. Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally. My very earnest mother judiciously served us nine potatoes. King Peter came over from Germany seeking fortune. The phrases rattle in his head, but Bennie can't remember what they are for — random keys cluttering a drawer and he has no idea what doors they unlock. Stripped of their meaning they become surrealist mantras. His own Dada manifesto. Art for Art's sake. Meaning is dead. Facts are a lie. His little girl can list off Great Lakes, types of rock, and geological eras, while he struggles every night to recall the smell of his wife's hair.

He would have killed himself if it hadn't been for Sophie. There's no doubt about that.

Sacred Fridays with Sophie give respite from real life days of blue books and department meetings and nights of clammy sheets and irrevocable dreams. He has given his life to his daughter, and now there is no going back. The agreement is unspoken, unconfirmed, but six years ago when Bennie chose Sophie's nascent life over his much desired death, he made a bargain with his toddler daughter: I, Benjamin, will live for you. In turn, you, Sophia Madeline, must never leave me.

It is absurd, impossible, he knows, but why not? Couldn't the world freeze, and he always be sitting here with Sophie as bright as her soda, eyes full of Lizzie?

"Hey Soph . . ."

"Hmm?''

"Do you remember that story I used to read to you? About the magic watch?''

She sighs and looks up from her encyclopedia. "Which story?''

"You know, the watch that controlled time. There were trolls and they had this watch and they would speed time up, stop it, send it back, stop the world.''

"Dad, they weren't trolls, they were elves. The girl elf made a wish. The genie heard. She got this watch.''

"Elves. Yes, that was it. That was one of my favorites.''

Sophie tosses her thin blond hair. "Yeah, it was okay.''

Bennie leans in. "Wouldn't it be nice if it were true? If we could wish a genie down here, if he could give us a magic watch. We could just sit here and you could read your books and drink your sodas as long as you wanted.''

Sophie sighs again in the way she sees on TV and closes her book. "Dad, you should know better than that.''

"Oh, Soph, it's just pretend.''

"Yeah, but didn't you learn anything from the story? Don't you remember what happened to that girl elf? That's the way it always happens in stories — wishes seem like a really good idea but then you get your wish and things get all messed up. That's what wishes do. That's the way stories go. That's the whole point.''

Sophie smiles at her father compassionately and opens her big white book back to "Flags of the World.''

The civil defense sirens will go off in another two minutes. For now, Bennie Singer sits in the cafe and stares at the wall and wonders at how still the world has become.

The Davis and Dean superstore sits equidistant from the psycho pharmaceuticals factory and Mansfield University. Walk outside the bookstore's revolving doors. Stand on the sidewalk. Turn your head to the right, and you'll see the three smokestacks on the horizon. Turn to the left and you see photo-perfect towers and spires. The effect is off-putting; the dissonance dizzying. Look again. And again. And again. The factory and the university face each other warily, and you, caught in the middle, do not know which way to turn.

Harris Jones Psychopharmaceuticals is owned by HJ Medical Systems down in the cities. The company's particular specialty, and the Clarence factory's niche, is the mind. Harris Jones dedicates itself essentially to treating the modern condition; their medications attack such ailments as anxiety, distraction, depression. Their stock is on its way up, and you might consider making a small investment.

Occasionally there is some grumbling among the factory workers of Clarence about the nature of the drugs made at their plant. After all, the economy of the town is based on the factory, but anxiety, sleep, fear, depression, and despair are not the town's problems. (At lunch, a worker points at the photo-perfect towers and spires to indicate just whose problems these are.) The people of Clarence make drugs for outsiders to take. They work day and night making drugs for rich people. What kind of medications are these anyway? Medications are for sickness. For life and death. Not for mood. What kind of people have the need and resources to medicate their mind?

Shouldn't their livelihoods be based on something they can use? Harris Jones worries about insurance, losses, reputation. Who will take care of Clarence? What if something should happen? All those chemicals . . .

If there were any poetry at all in Clarence, there would be a great river running through the town. The river would bisect Clarence perfectly; factory on one side, college on the other. Time card punchers on one side, dentists on the other; American cars on one side, European on the other. If there were any poetry in Clarence, the river would divide the town's two worlds with a deft blue stroke manifesting the bifurcation in perpetual motion. If Clarence had poetry, there would at least be some good old railroad tracks to give the town its proverbial right and wrong side (which is which would be depending on your point of view, of course.)

Clarence has no poetry, though. Clarence has Bargain Barrels, Krazy Savers, Dollar Hutz, and Pizza Domes. The division, then, must remain invisible. Theoretical. Philosophical. Literary. Like the international date line or the boundaries of good taste.

The best anyone can do is invite you to take a tour. Visit some restaurants and compare — say Vinnie's, then Tandoori Jewel. Bob's Bar, then Strange Brew Cafe. Susie's Second hands and The Closet. Contrast the crowds, the clothes, the conversation. Hairstyles. Accents and accessories. Study. Use what you have learned. Go to the common grounds — gas stations, grocery stores, fast food restaurants. Guess who is from which world. There. You are able to begin drawing the line yourself. A deft stroke in perpetual motion.

The Davis and Dean superstore has tried valiantly to bridge the gap. The Clarence store is an experiment after all, and harmony is essential to the experiment's success.

A few years ago, the Davis and Dean muckety-mucks met to discuss the next phase of the war between D&D and its nemesis, Vanguard Books. The combatants had already consumed and exhausted the cities and suburbs and exurbs; there needed to be a new battleground. Thus was born Operation Hinterland. D&D would strike in the less populated areas. Where men wear flannel shirts and smell like a hard day's work. Real People. America's heartland. Mom, Pop, Apple Pie, Bait and Tackle, and the Good Lord. Research teams and focus groups led Davis and Dean straight to Clarence — home of Mom and Pop, and of Mansfield University. Thus, there would be deportees from the city — with their proven able brand recognition — to lead the way through the store's doors.

Clarence's mayor has a strong sense of capitalistic duty, and the experiment, to be sure, would be talked about in all the trades and business weeklies. People would be watching closely. Other progressively minded nationally sanctioned companies might come. The economy would soar. Clarence would soar. So when Davis and Dean officials came to the mayor carrying proposals and compensations and all kinds of charts with towering majestic columns and bright happy graphs with arrows going up, up, up, the mayor in turn said, Yes. Please. Come. What shall we knock down for you?

There were a few protests of course. A Chamber of Commerce splinter group called Stop National Chains in Clarence (SNCC) held a Breaking the Chain rally on the front lawn of the city hall steps with folksingers and a bad sound system. The rally was small;

Many of the Clarence elders thought that they could not possibly support anything that involved folksingers. Those who did march on the town hall spoke passionately of a desire to keep Clarence Clarence without those nasty big city chain influences coming in to homogenize and desensitize. What would separate Clarence from any other city, now? What good are these corporations? Who will watch out for Clarence?

But in a few weeks everyone stopped caring, as is the general way of things. Hands were shook, documents signed, announcements made, ground broken, espresso imported, and Bingo! Clarence joined the Davis and Dean empire well before Vanguard could move their troops into the hinterlands.

And the experiment is working. D&D has become a community center. A piazza. The factory worker and the college professor sip coffee side by side. And since the store was built, no aimless Mansfield humanities graduate has ever been in want of a job. You know this place. You may be there now. And we have a good place to begin our story.

As bennie finishes the last gulp of his coffee, the safety engineer's wife and her two cats get on the freeway leading straight out of Dodge. Police sirens sound quietly in the distance. Add fire trucks. Ambulances. One screech after another joins the chorus and the sirens crescendo, grow more immediate. The emergency is close. And getting closer. One after another, people in the store look up, look out the windows, joke nervously and laugh like choking.

Is the store on fire? Heh heh. Heh. Heh . . . Heh.

Then the cacophony passes by and fades off into the distance. Someone else's emergency. The bookstore exhales and the air returns to normal —

— and then the emergency alert sirens go off.

There is silence in the bookstore. Customers and employees look at each other. Nobody moves.

Is it a test?

It's not the right time of the month.

A tornado this late in the year?

A man peeks out of the window. The sky is smoky and yellow. "Look at that!'' he yells. Everyone looks.

The stillness grows. The sirens blare on. Everyone watches each other watch everyone else. Bennie is frozen. His mind flashes to his yearly freshman psych lecture on the bystander effect: after Kitty Genovese was killed on the streets of New York while an entire neighborhood watched and did nothing, a group of psychiatrists ran an experiment: in a room where students are taking a test, smoke pours through the vents. If a person is by himself, he will pull an alarm, call someone, leave the room. If the person is in a group, smoke will fill the room and the students will glance around, cough, wait for someone else to act.

Bennie has always given this lecture with a degree of arrogance, of reassurance. I am a psychologist. I know the urges. I understand the nature. I will be better than this.

But in the face of all this stillness he finds himself frozen. His lungs constrict. The sirens burst in his ear.

It is not until Sophie looks at him, big eyed, her body shrinking into the chair. "Daddy?''

"It's okay, sweetheart,'' he whispers, and smiles, then announces to everyone, "Perhaps we should turn on the radio?''

The black-haired girl behind the cafe counter emerges from the back room with a small radio. Sophie smiles at her father worshipfully. The sirens continue to wail and with a twist and click, the radio begins to harmonize.

This is the emergency broadcast system. This is not a test. All residents of Clarence are asked to stay where they are. Repeat, stay where you are. This is not a test. All residents of Clarence, stay inside. Stay tuned to this station for further instructions.

Davis and Dean employees begin to bring other customers to the cafe. A man in a cartoon bird tie introduces himself as the manager. "We'd like to ask everyone to stay in the store. We're bringing down more radios.''

He smiles non threateningly, and the relief among the customers is palpable: It is all right. Someone is in charge here. We have a manager. He will tell us what to do.

Outside of the window of the store, creatures covered in yellow billowy plastic begin to appear, carting road blocks.

The customers in the bookstore start.

What the —

Yellow guys do not just happen. Yellow guys are not in my life. Yellow guys do not just emerge out of thin air. Yellow guys are in the movies. Yellow guys are not real. Yellow guys are for Chernobyl, not Clarence. Why don't I have a yellow suit? I do not have a yellow suit. Where the hell is my yellow suit? I quite clearly need a yellow suit.

People begin to stare at each other more frankly. They appraise obviously, guiltlessly. Their eyes ask, Who are these people? Is one of them responsible? Are they all bystanders too, hostages in a movie, trapped in an elevator, on a bus with a bomb? Will we be huddled here, days later, on the floor, dirty and thin? One person always dies. One is always afraid. One is brave and sneaks through the vents and frees us all. The rest are extras, with muddy, panicked faces, providing occasional squeals and moans.

And through the room, the thought passes: I am an extra. The time has come, and I am just an extra.

This is the emergency broadcast system. This is not a test. All residents of Clarence are asked to stay where they are. Chemical accident. Possible toxic exposure. Stay inside. If you are in your car, park, close the vents, and stay where you are. Stay tuned to this station for further instructions.

"It's the factory.''

People nod their heads.

"Goddamn chemicals.''

"What's going to happen to us?''

The room is as close and shrill as the sirens.

Bennie turns and glares. Be quiet. Everyone. Can't you see there's a little girl here. Can't you see my daughter is young. Can't you see my Sophie is scared. Take a deep breath, everyone. Remain calm. Panicking is human instinct but we can overcome it. Mind over matter.

Bennie cares about three people in Clarence. There is his accidental friend, Phil, Contemporary Studies professor. Phil will be at the university, working. Phil will be all right. There is his mother, Madeline, in Sunny Shadows, Clarence's retirement community. She will be there, in her apartment. They will have procedures for this sort of thing. They have people in charge. Fire exits, tornado cellars, bottled water and canned food. Mother will be all right. There is Sophie, shrinking, withering, here. Sophie has only him.

The manager fingers his tie nervously. He whispers to the cafe worker, Lilith, who begins to cut up scones and muffins from the cafe. The radio blares on.

There has been a fire at the Harris Jones pharmaceutical factory. Barrels of chemicals have exploded. There has been a deletrium leak, repeat, deletrium leak. Possible harmful exposure. Chemical spill. Stay inside and await further instructions.

"What the bloody f—- is deletrium?'' a bookseller mutters. The manager glares at her. But nobody minds. Everyone shares the sentiment.

Sophie says in a small voice, "My dad will know. He's a professor. Don't you know, Dad?''

Heads turn. Bennie blushes and shakes his head. Sophie looks down at the table. Bennie grabs her hand.

Susannah Korbet sits in the cafe tugging at her brown ringlets, absorbing other people's panic, and thinking about her fiancée, Todd. Todd will be working at the school lab. Todd wouldn't leave anyway. Todd may not even hear the sirens. But Todd would know what deletrium is. Todd would know exactly what this does. Todd would look it up on his computer, print out fact sheets, conduct his own experiments. Todd would have multicolored easy-to-read charts printed up. Todd would stand in the center of the room humbly stating his graduate student credentials and would make a presentation that would both soothe and edify. Half the girls in the room would develop a crush on him. The men would cede the title of alpha male without complaint.

There was a time when Susannah would think about this with pride. Now she feels nothing but blame. If something happens, it is because Todd brought her here. If something happens, he will probably be immune.

Before the sirens, Susannah Korbet sat in the bookstore cafe twirling her masses of curls in her fingers, trying to discern any differences between the mural on the wall here and the one in the D&D cafe by her home one thousand miles away. She thought she could almost be there. If you added diversity, urbanity, and fashion sense to this small-town bookstore crowd, Susannah could have pretended she was back home.

Now, sirens blaring, things become more urgent for her. If she closes her eyes and concentrates on the mural, she could be transported back to that D&D. Holes in the stores could open up, and she should be able to move through them effortlessly, one to another in a blink and a click of the heels. Away from sirens and away from Clarence.

The radio continues to proclaim, the manager continues to smile, and everyone's thoughts continue to run on the same current: Is this the moment when everything changes? Will my life thus far be thought of as Before the Spill? Ah yes, that was Clarence, Before Spill. You're referring to Clarence, B.S.? Will we be those people, those people on the news and on mini-series who lose all of life as they know it? Will our children have six heads and bad dispositions? Are we living a disaster movie? Where is the ominous music? Where are the heartfelt declarations? There must be more than the radio, pieces of currant scones, and these billowy yellow men.

A dozen lives flash before a dozen pairs of eyes, and the reckoning begins: Nothing. I've done nothing. I am nothing. I am a waste. It has all been wasted. I could have done so much. I would have done it all differently. Now I become a cancerous blob with a tail and too many toes, a living hideous monument to failure and regret.

But our heroes do not reckon. Reckoning is for people whose lives have motion. Susannah Korbet and Bennie Singer look at their lives at the same moment and find that they feel nothing.

Of course, they look at the present. They stalwartly refuse to awaken what lies in memory.

Excerpted from Spilling Clarence copyright © 2002 Anne Ursu.

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