From the Archive: jp Rodriguez (CAROUSEL 34)

Staff/ November 23, 2020/ Fiction


The Heavens

“Can’t believe you can stand a basement apartment,” I say to Rob, growing damn tired of waiting for Scott to make his word. Rob just murmurs away to his iEyes, either not hearing me, or hearing me but ignoring me. No. I’m sorry. I’m misrepresenting. I guess I didn’t say it at speaking volume. I must have murmured it, out of habit, and that’s why my iEyes have picked it up as a command and want clarification. Rob obviously just didn’t hear me, so I say it again, this time at normal volume. Still no response. So I’ve officially said it to me, myself, I, and whatever cockroaches or spiders or fucking nematodes? crawl along the walls and warped wood floors and unwatered plants with nothing but air shoved in their ears.
       At the kitchen counter I refill my wine glass and look out the squat spider-webby window at ground level. It fills me with memories of my childhood, subterranean memories that haven’t visited me in a godly long time. The window I could look out of only when I stood on my bed. A worm-level view of the fenced-in pitch of grass that formed my back yard world. The dampness. The smell of soil. The not just having to look up to the light, but the having to leave the room to find it. And I’m proud to say that I’ve pulled these recollections from the sludge of my own grey matter, no reliance on iEyes and The Heavens at all.

I re-join the Scrabble game just as Scott’s leaning back into his chair after finally placing his word. “XZ?” I exclaim, hating these goddamned two ten-point-letter ‘words’ that are not words in my dictionary.
       Scott smiles and actually seems to lengthen his gaze to look through his iEyes all the way to me, but of course his iEyes are opaque and so for all anyone can tell he could be watching sports or porn or he could be savouring the sight of my ex-girlfriend creeping up behind me to slit my throat. I look behind me and there’s nothing but Rob’s cat splayed out asleep on the floor, legs straight out, as if he died in the act of walking by and just tipped over.
       By attaching the X to the Z of ZINE on the triple word for sixty points, Scott’s snatched the lead from Len. Not that that hairy bastard notices. Neither does fucking Rob. Both are absorbed in the space between their iEyes and their pupils, dutifully minding the gaps.
       Scott takes his replacement letter and leans back into his chair, murmuring away, and I long for the days of iPhones and madly tapping fingers rather than this catatonic murmuring to iEyes connected to The ostensibly omniscient Heavens that none of us really are a part of. No. I’m sorry again. More accurate to say that none of us are a part of anything but, anymore.
       “Len! Your go,” I yell and he doesn’t acknowledge me directly, but his hands go to his letter tray, allowing me to rest assured that he’s heard.
       Looking back, I never imagined this distance between everyone; it snuck up on us all gradually over time. I certainly always loved my space and solitude, but there’s space and solitude and then there’s isolation and alienation. I look past my iEyes into my friends’ faces and I want to see discontent, but I don’t. Is discontent even possible anymore? Isn’t that supposedly part of the point of all this? I want to see loneliness, dissatisfaction and worry, but when I do I’m only seeing myself. Am I the only lonely one in the world?
       “Kwarks,” Len announces at last, placing the five letters messily on the board and connecting to an S, and I lean in to straighten them. “Forty-five,” he adds. I double-check and he’s right. I try to straighten the letters further, but end up ruining my previous work.
       “This shouldn’t even count as a word,” I say, referring to the simplified spelling resulting from the removal of the Q from the English language with the implementation of iEnglish a few years ago.
       No one says anything.
       Rob’s apparently unaware that it’s his turn. I decide to let him figure it out for himself, but after a minute of listening to the incessant murmur drone — like hearing your own blood rushing through your head, like turning inside-out, like shrinking down to nothing — I can’t take it anymore. The best my brain can come up with is to punch Rob in the shoulder, and so I do. This knocks his iEyes askew and I almost get a glimpse of his eyes. His hands go to his face as if he’s just had acid thrown there, and he quickly repositions his iEyes. “Your fucking turn,” I say.
       I expect him to launch into me, but he just says, “What the fuck are we even doing here, John? Who the fuck plays these fucking games anymore?” His tone’s robotic, grudgingly realised.
       I watch him. I watch him reposition his letters. I want to hit him again, and again — crush his fucking iEyes and see what happens. But I just sit and watch him reposition and reposition and reposition his tiles. I want to say something funny, to whistle something beautiful, to present a fact amazing and unknown by The Heavens, to make a connection of any kind, to offer him a pill, to shoot him in the knee, to even fucking kiss him. Whatever’s required to get a glimpse of the Real him. But I might as well try to elicit tears by stepping on severed toes.
       Len has the same model iEyes as Celia. Celia, the girl Kevin set me up with three days ago. We met in The Heavens, of course; no one meets in Real unless they’re desperate for some Real sex. And no one’s all that desperate for that anymore, given that in The Heavens a person can pick pixels and wash away whatever they might dislike about themselves on a given day — make large what’s small, small what’s large, smooth what’s rough and harden what’s soft. Celia had given herself rock-like nipples sticking out of a pink nippleless bra, and skintights that left little to the imagination as pertains to pudenda. Wonder if she looks that way in Real. And who can say what her Real eyes are like. Thinking about the possibility of looking into them I feel myself growing aroused. Wonder how long it would take me to get behind those iEyes.
       The eyes. Sex itself. The condensate, the crushing reduction. Easy in The Heavens to reproduce the lovely lobe of a youthful breast or the weighty lethargy of petalesque folds of labia, but far more difficult to capture the fractalous complexity and violent penetration of the eyes …
       “Wow,” Rob says, of his word. In my own distracted state I haven’t seen him lay the tiles and I assume he’s got something good, but WOW is his word. He doesn’t even tell me the points, just takes his two replacement letters and places them in his tray with no expression whatsoever. One of them’s an I and he’s put it in his tray with the back to him, thinking it’s a blank. He leans back in his chair, murmuring, murmuring. I can’t wait to call him on that fake blank face when he tries to win the game on a seven-letter with it.
       My turn. My letters: E, E, A, W, X, L, L …
       “Fucking come on, John. Jesus!” is Len’s retribution.
       Fuck. Now I can’t concentrate. But at least my problem’s not a shadow self that knows everything I no longer even think to wish I did. Okay, I admit it; it is enticing in a way, having everything without holding it. But I can’t give up on my self like that; I’m too attached. You’re right. That is indeed my fucking problem. Mine.
       I interrogate my letters. I put down WEAK for eleven. No one claps or jeers or taunts or anything.
       Scott’s turn. Ostensibly sifting options.
       Len and Rob murmuring away.
       In The Heavens.
       The Heavens — fuck. What a master-play by Samsung. Killed Apple’s Cloud and dominated ever after, a black hole in the iUniverse. And how artfully they quelled the ridiculous god zealots. The Heavens as sciency sky-and-stars-above, rather than nonsensical airy-fairy paradise-beyond-death reserved for the deserving. Oh, and the double and triple entendres, how everyone has fun with them! And, bottom line, it grew on people, so, here we are: heaven — The Heavens — on earth.
       Fuck this shit.
       I get up, almost stepping on the maybe-dead-maybe-not cat, grab my coat and put it on. Press into my shoes and step outside.

It’s 10:30 and raining. I don’t know this neighbourhood well, but up at Kween Street there’ll be somewhere to go for a drink. My iEyes lead me to The Bearded Screw. Ranking: one out of five stars. It’s dark, scant, simple. Owner probably paid off the mortgage years ago and can’t be bothered to do anything new to bring in any more people than necessary to cover upkeep and taxes and to keep food in his belly. And, really, who can compete with Heavenly-Reality and the EyeCafés that are all the rage and likely will be until there’s nothing left with which to rage. Rage itself has withered and died inside modern man, too shallow to produce significant resonance. Might as well try to scuba dive in a puddle. Scratch beneath the surface of plastic.
       Too much?
       Yes, fine, a little melodramatic. Sorry. This is why I need more booze. If life doesn’t cure you, death will, some writer once wrote.
       I settle into a booth and the order window pops up on my iEyes. An old-school program presents itself, simple 3D with unnatural shadowing effects and even some out-dated spellings of things. I love it. I murmur for a double Jameson. There are about twelve people in the place, some alone, some at tables for two. All within these blank walls, screens meant for superimposition. Strange how the blinding twenty-four hour pulsing and throbbing wall-to-wall billboards that everyone fought so pointlessly against that Summer of Pushback have now silently and naturally evaporated into sun-faded, dead-battery obscurity. No need for them now that all the ads are plastered on the windows of people’s iEyes — their decidedly half-full glasses.
       My drink arrives, placed silently on my table by a black-clad waitress who doesn’t even slow down on her way past. Fine by me. I slide half of it down my throat and then an alert flashes on my iEyes — Len, making sure I’m aware of my cunt-nature and asking where the fuck I am and informing me that if I’m not at the table in two minutes they’re all leaving. No mention of my doing them a favour.
       Another alert. The woman alone at the table by the window wanting to hook up. In Real. I murmur no thanks and down the rest of my whiskey, which prompts the order window to pop up again. I select another double and it comes the same way as the last and I down it. Another automatic withdrawal from my tragically anaemic bank account.
       Two alerts. Train coming in four minutes. Rob saying they’re done. Another $50 subtracted from my account. Comforting this, the constancy of my friends’ competitive nature — and the need for documentable victory and defeat via strengthening and weakening of bank accounts.
       Comfort. Cold as it may be.

The train’s full of murmurs and I sit and imagine silence. On the other side of the window solemn columns of high-rises slide by, block by block, mosaics of faint light, a universe of square stars burning diffuse and shallow. Virtual billboards transposed onto the scene by my iEyes blink and flash, and the mind-reading side-banner ads are for anti-depressants and tutorials on maximizing the moneymaking opportunities of The Heavens.

Home. The elevator arrives at the 29th floor and I discharge myself and make it to my front door. No one seeing, or seen. I leave the lights off, stretch my neck, remove my iEyes and rub my eyes. Tired. I step onto the balcony, surrounded by buildings that tower above and below. If only I could at least see through the windows, but they’re all mirrored. One-way glass. My mirror box. Reflecting the same surfaces back and forth ad nauseam. All I see is myself. Might as well live in a basement apartment, then I wouldn’t be so broke. And The Heavens sure ain’t what they used to be.
       In bed, I put my iEyes back on, murmur for and partake for a while, but I can’t get it up. I take my iEyes off. From the drawer in my bedside table I take out two pills of SleepAnywhere, throw them down, lay back and close my eyes. Sleep aids you can count on are one definite benefit of being alive in this age.

I dream of sex, legs topped by a miniskirt, flat-topped. It’s just legs and lampshade, a machine grinding away at me. Then it’s a Real girl. Small breasts, tight stomach, someone I don’t know other than here. I know her better than anyone. I try my best to prolong it, to keep it Real. I don’t want to lose these gorgeous, deep brown eyes that only come to me in my dreams. And even in dreams, banner ads at the edges — discounts on counselling sessions and ViagraAlways.

I awaken, hung over. Should have drank more. Then I might at least still be drunk, instead of drawn and drifting. I go out to the balcony. A hazy day in the mirror box. Nothing to see but my reflection and my reflection and my reflection and … I wonder if anyone’s voyeuring me, fantasizing to my iEyes-less face.
       There’s a caterpillar inching along the railing, with more presence and purpose than I’ve put into anything in a godly long time. If I had my iEyes on I’d know what kind it is, where it lives and where it doesn’t. What kind of butterfly it’s programmed to turn into. But who cares? What would be gained by knowing what kind? It’s here now and is what it is and isn’t what it isn’t, will become what it’s supposed to become and won’t what it won’t. Whatever that is.

Like I guess we all will. Us.

jp Rodriguez grew up in Thunder Bay, ON, and studied in various universities and earned a teaching degree. He began writing fiction in Tokyo while teaching English to students ranging in age from 3 to 88, and after two years teaching in London he returned to Canada to pursue a career in social work. He completed a master’s degree and currently works in that field in Toronto. He is the author of the novels The Space Between (Dundurn Press, 2009) and Escape!!! (Quattro Books, 2015).

The Heavens
appeared in CAROUSEL 34 (2015) — buy it here

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