I’m too sick of, with, and from current events to write about them. Sorry, Gentle Readers. Co-Conspirators Linda and the Colonel are doing enough of that, so please enjoy (?) their emissions while I flush the static out of my head.
My sovereign remedy for “world is too much with me” syndrome is to retreat to writing fiction. However, in the aftermath of In Vino I’ve been drawing a blank. (Reviews badly needed. Hint! Hint!) It’s frustrating – what good is a writer who isn’t writing? – but there’s little to be done about it. My Muse, at least, is uninterested in my heartfelt pleas to get off her ass and can’t be bribed with dog biscuits.
Still, there are ways to goose a story out of an idle writer. One of them is to pose him a challenge: “Bet you can’t write a story around this!” Such a challenge is responsible for the novelette “A Place of Our Own” in The Athene Academy Collection, and thus partly responsible for the whole Futanari Saga. So I decided to try challenging myself, in this fashion:
- Pick a really inane phrase;
- Make it the title of a story to be written;
- And get to work, hero!
What follows is the result. Enjoy… if that’s the right word.
Alex Smith dried himself as best he could, scowled at the sandpaper texture of the burlap towel, wrapped it around his waist and cinched it, and headed to the bedroom to garb himself for the day. Maura looked up from her book. Her expression was curious, as if he’d done something not to be expected, possibly even unprecedented.
Well, she doesn’t really know me yet.
He smiled. “What’s the matter?”
She shook her head minutely. “Oh, nothing.”
“You’ve already seen me in all my Neanderthal glory, haven’t you?”
She grimaced. “Of course. I was just wondering…no, forget it.”
“Oh no!” he said. “Now you’ve piqued my curiosity. What was the look about?”
“When I looked at you?”
“Yeah, that look.”
She hesitated. Her expression suggested that she’d taken a mouthful of something nasty.
“Come on,” he said. “I know we’ve only been together for a night and a morning, but still…!”
Her eyebrows rose. “Still what?”
“Well, still you can trust that I won’t explode if you have something critical to say, can’t you?”
“Yeah.” She looked a little away. “It was the towel.”
“It was just…”
“You don’t have to, you know, conceal yourself from me,” she said. “As you’ve already observed, I have seen you naked.”
“Oh.” He looked down at himself. “Habit, I suppose.”
“You said you’d been alone here for years,” she said.
“I have. So?”
“So who’ve you been concealing yourself from?”
“Well, yes,” he said after a moment. “But I wasn’t born here. I had parents and sisters. I got it drilled into me pretty early that it was unacceptable to parade around the house naked.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I get it. But it’s not necessary now. And those towels…how can you stand to have one wrapped tight around you like that?”
“Oh. Yeah, it is kinda scratchy.”
Doesn’t dry very well, either.
“So feel free to, ah, relieve yourself of it,” she said. She set her book aside, pulled back the bedcovers, rose and ambled toward him. “I like looking at you.”
He admired her petite, trim form afresh as she put her fingers to where he’d cinched the towel at his waist, gently pulled it away, and let it fall to the floor. “And I don’t like the idea of Oscar and his side boys—” She glanced pointedly at his genitals “—of whom I’ve already grown fond, getting all scratched up for no good reason.”
He grinned and took her hands. “You win.” He kissed her gently. “Would it have been an issue if the towel were nice and soft?”
She made a who-knows gesture. “Less of one, I guess. I mean, I’d still like to look at you.”
“Thank you.” He kissed her again. “May I offer you breakfast? I have a couple of soy cakes that aren’t too old, and an ounce or so of corn syrup for them.”
“Okay. But,” she said with a mock-severe look, “I forbid you to eat your breakfast naked.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“Because the splendor of you would impede my ability to savor so luxurious a repast.”
He laughed and went to the closet for his robe.
They sat at his tiny dinette table lingering over the meager meal, doing their best to prolong it into something worthy of the name. The thought irritated Alex briefly. He had nothing else to eat in the apartment. The emptiness of his cupboard griped him more than it would have had Maura not chosen to stay the night. If it weren’t that his new ration card was scheduled to arrive that morning, the little soy cake would be the last thing he would eat that day.
He looked up from his plate. “Yes, dear?”
“I know someone.”
Her deliberate, gently emphasized full stop immediately piqued his interest.
“Always good to know…people,” he said. “What brings whoever it is to mind?”
She locked eyes with him. “Towels.”
“Oh.” He carefully returned his gaze to his plate. “Who runs it?”
She shook her head. “Not like that,” she said. “It’s just someone I know. His name is Phil Marsden.” She looked away. “He’s pretty old.”
The unspoken word trader seemed to hang around her like a cloak of mist.
Old people are getting to be few and a long way between.
“Do you think he might need something?” he said.
She shrugged. “Who doesn’t, these days?” But her eyes and voice said of course.
And the regime has just cut rations for anyone over sixty to half of the standard allotment.
“Well,” he said as casually as he could manage, “if there’s some way we can help him, I certainly wouldn’t be averse to it.”
The entrance monitor chimed the tone that indicates that a delivery had just come through the slot. Alex stabbed the last fragment of his soy cake, mopped up the drops of syrup that remained, stuffed it into his mouth, chewed laboriously, and rose. “Two seconds.”
A small brown envelope that lay on the floor behind the door. He stooped to pick it up. The return address announced the arrival of his coming week’s ration card.
He returned to the kitchenette and made to reseat himself.
Maura said “Alex…”
He froze, half seated. “Yes?”
“I often don’t go all the way through my ration allotment in the course of the week.”
“Really?” he said.
But they hardly keep. The soy cakes were less than four days old and they were already almost too tough to eat.
She didn’t need to say what she was doing with the uneaten portion, and he didn’t need to guess.
She’s been giving whatever she doesn’t eat to Marsden.
He glanced at the envelope that contained his new ration card, still clutched in his hand.
“I think…” he said, and faltered.
“I think we can help Mr. Marsden,” he said. “Do you think he might be able to help, ah, someone else?”
She smiled. “Why don’t we pay him a visit and find out?”
Phil Marsden was very tall, and very old. Alex estimated him to be about six feet four and in his early eighties, if not older still. He was emaciated, no longer able to fill out his clothes. His tunic hung from his shoulders like a tent. His trousers were held up by an elastic belt drawn frighteningly tight. But even if the spareness of his figure could be ignored or explained, his skeletal hands and arms and his skull-like face could not.
He’s starving to death. Whatever Maura has denied herself to give him, it hasn’t been nearly enough.
He was acutely aware of the fresh ration card in his pocket. A radical thought came unbidden and unwelcome.
If he were careful, he could stretch my card and what Maura can spare into two weeks’ nutrition.
Wait a minute: what would I eat?
Yet the thought would not leave him alone.
“I haven’t got much left,” the old man was saying. “Just my clothes, that love seat in the corner, and what my wife left behind when she passed. But it’s all on the table.”
“Mr. Marsden,” Maura murmured, “did Mrs. Marsden maintain two sets of bath towels, by any chance?”
Marsden’s eyes lit with a knowing light. “As a matter of fact, she did. I always wondered why. We didn’t need two sets. Just to wash one regularly every Saturday, which she did.” He rose from his battered leather armchair. “Get it for you if you’re interested.”
“We are,” Maura said.”
Ninety seconds later Marsden had trotted out a pair of large, fluffy bath sheets in a delicate pink. Alex fought back the urge to grab them and flee.
Maura flashed an inquiring look at Alex.
He hesitated, then nodded.
“I can see that even with what I’ve been saving for you, you’re not getting enough to eat,” Maura said. “Would you consider a ration card—a standard allotment ration card—to be worth one of those towel sets?”
Marsden tried to hem and haw and dicker, but he couldn’t keep the naked lust for calories out of his eyes.
“Mr. Marsden,” Maura said, “it’s our one and only offer.”
Marsden’s resistance crumbled. He held out the bath sheets like an offering of alms. Alex took them and handed the old man his new ration card.
“Thank you,” Marsden whispered.
Alex nodded. He and Maura made their exit.
“I can’t go without eating for a whole week,” Alex said.
“You won’t have to,” Maura said. She fondled the bath sheet in her lap and hummed with pleasure. “I can get by on half rations. You’ll get the rest.”
Alex started to reply, checked himself.
I guess we’re an item.
The towel in his hands was the softest, fluffiest piece of fabric he’d ever encountered. The loops of terry stood out at least a half inch from the base weave. He could imagine having it wrapped around him after a shower, thirstily soaking up the moisture that lingered on his skin, and shivered with anticipation.
Probably the last of its kind anywhere in the city.
I’ll be pretty damned hungry after seven days on half rations, but I’ll live. Then it’ll be back to the previous regimen.
It’ll be worth it.
“All right,” he said. “I suppose you’ll want to keep one of these at your place.”
“I would,” Maura said, “but it was your ration card we traded for them. So only if it’s all right with you. Or,” she said with a sudden lilt, “I could do my showering here.”
He summoned his gallantry.
“You could,” he said. “You’d be very welcome, always assuming the city doesn’t clamp restrictions on water usage. But even so, go ahead and take one home. I only need one, and we’ll get by well enough on one if you ever decide to stay the night again.”
She smiled brightly. “Thank you, Alex.”
He was in the process of framing a courtly demurrer when the apartment door burst open.
The shattered doorframe revealed Alex’s worst nightmare: two large Community Monitors in full armor, including the blast-hardened full-face shields that guarded their identities while allowing them a hundred eighty degrees of outward vision. The two strode in, stun batons at the ready, to confront Alex and Maura.
“Citizen,” the one poised before Alex droned, “a local informant has reported observing you entering this dwelling in possession of luxury textile goods unavailable from the government’s dispensaries.” He indicated the towel in Alex’s lap. “That was not acquired recently. Was it an inheritance?”
Alex fought to control his shaking. “It was.”
The Monitor snatched the towel from him and tossed it well behind him. “Then if, without looking at it, you can describe it accurately in all particulars, you will be permitted to keep it.”
Alex darted a glance at Maura. The Monitor that stood before her had done the same.
The end of a stun baton rose to prod the underside of his jaw. “Well, citizen?”
Alex could only manage a quavering croak.
“We’ll be confiscating them, then.” The Monitor turned and picked up the bath sheets. He and his partner marched out of the apartment, leaving it open and utterly violable.
Alex turned eyes of woe to Maura. She appeared perfectly composed, far better in command of herself than was he.
She held up a hand.
“I know. It’s all right.”
He nodded, face crimson with humiliation and shame.
They won’t turn them in for destruction. They’ll keep one each.
“Alex?” she said. “Come stay with me tonight.”
“You would have me, after this?”
“Of course.” Her eyes were sad but understanding. “Everyone knows how unwise it is to resist them.”
He rose. “Give me a minute.”
He went to his bedroom, pulled a fresh shirt and a change of underwear out of his tiny bureau, stuffed them into a brown paper bag, and returned to the little living room. She rose as he approached.
“Let’s go,” she said.
He nodded, and they left.