Musings on the 21st Century

“Basic message repeats: V.G. Smith reports. Currently stranded in 21st century. Taking long way around. If possible, establish currency drawing accounts at pre-established banking institutions for living purposes; otherwise, return is set for 6 July 2129. Have Gardiston and crew ready at that date. Best wishes, James.”

Musings on the early 21st century:

Having been born into a particular era, I know a fair bit about the people and society therein. That’s not to say I’m an expert in psychology or sociology or anything; but I know people. Well, at least my own era’s people. People aren’t hard to follow. OK, think of it this way: what separates a man born in 2000 from a man born in 2100?

The man born in 2000 is mired in the muck that is economics and religion; he is trapped in a society that has its morals and priorities all mixed up. How, in all the world, did the human race not realize that you can’t practice religions with rules like, “Love thy neighbor,” while living in an economic system where one has to work for a third or more of a life just to survive?

The man born in 2100 has similar problems, but economics isn’t one of them. People are still, in a general sort of way, fools, ignorant and downright stupid. But at least the majority of them are decently educated, fed and are accepting of decent customs like privacy and an actual application of the Golden Rule.

Having to live through the 21st century for a second time has taught me something interesting about the time that whelped me: people believe only what they want to. Case in point, a man I work with (I picked up a part-time job to observe these people a little.) thinks research into Dark Matter and Kerr black holes will revolutionize science and energy production. Likewise, another man I work with thinks the election of a wealthy fascist into political office will revitalize the waning economy. Is either right? Not at all. But it’s OK to dream of a better tomorrow even if a dream is only a dream if it never comes to fruition.

Just the other day, I had stimulated a conversation with one of the scientists from the labrotory on the other end of town about the future of human exploration. I wanted to see where my coworkers would take the subject she and I spoke so heatedly about, so I kept prodding and playing advocate to the Devil in every point. It amused me, if only because I carry such foreknowledge to this century, that they couldn’t see past the accomplishments of the automobile and the mobile music player. These people seem to worship such small things.

Offhandedly, I gave an exact year to the first Solarian interstellar flight as being 61 years from the present date. Nothing but blank stares and a questioning throat sound; so I explained, “The first time we saw Alpha Centauri up close was in 2077, right at the end of the year. Nothing there, obviously, but the stars were neat to watch circle one another from only a few AU away. Been there myself, once, when I was a kid. It’s a tourist trap now. Come see the Earth-men dance around in zero-gravity. Marstarians and Ellegrans come and fuel the Solarian tourist market by taking in shows and enjoying delicacies of Earth and Mars. Ellegrans especially have a taste for North American grass served with a light soy sauce drizzle or a vinaigrette. Oddly, they don’t like lettuce or other human veggies served the same way. To each their own, I guess.”

More blank stares. To each their own, indeed.

The people of this time period are odd in other ways. They care about skin color and place of birth. If I told someone I have an Britannian/European best friend and his wife is French/Welsh nobility, they’d probably laugh at me. (On which part, I wonder: Britannia or foreign nobility?) If I expanded and made even the slight mention that the Martian Augustian Marquis or the Margrave la Albion had skin darker than a boring, sunless pink, they might even take violent offence. I don’t understand these people that were once my colleagues and peers. But at least I’ve grown away from that way of thinking, though I admit to once being such a close minded fool as well.

It should only be another few years before I can set up delay mail to myself – can’t set up too quickly, should Past Me take notice and start asking questions. 2037 should give me a nice margin for error and it’ll get me free of fallout from the last major war this century. Worst case: the letters don’t make it due to human error or data failure. Doesn’t matter really – I’m taking the long way home regardless of the assistance I get from the Method.

1949 – an original work of fiction

A few months ago, I started working on something of a side project with a friend of mine. He’s writing a book and had asked for my input on character creation. After more than three months of little more than editing my own half-finished book, I was inspired to write something new. The characters are the same, but the setting is one I romanticize a bit.

I’m a little defensive about my work, but still think it should be able to stand on its own. I have to actively try not to defend it from criticism, but rather use those comments to better it. I’ve been posting and re-posting this on Scribophile and it’s in its… second revision? Third? Something like that. I think it’s getting to where I want to publish for real, but to those of you who read my little, personal blog, you are the ones who deserve to see it first and let me know what could use improvement.

Leave a comment below or email me, if you so please, at michaelajohnpoll@gmail.com with comments or just to ream me for the piece of trash you so kindly took the time to read. Up to you.

Until next time,

-M


“1949” – an original work of alternate world fiction

–The night fog kept the police away while the pair visited an old friend–


“Proposed twenty-second amendment to Constitution fails to gather enough votes to consider ratification. God, who reads this trash?”

I threw the newspaper away; probably annoying the news-pusher I bought it from not half a minute ago. Too depressing for today anyway. You remember yesteryear; maybe we could make a real living if the rubberneckers and the bitchy conservatives would let well enough alone. A man used to be able to make a dishonest Dollar without the police knocking at the pub door.

Speaking of… is it the sixteenth already? I know where Roland will be. Her favorite speakie – his too, if memory serves.

I found him in that same shitty pub on the edge of oldtown.

Stepping inside, I sideswiped some kid peeking in and stole his wallet. Solely for my entertainment, you understand, depriving some youngblood the chance to use his, oh dear, no less than three sets of falsified documents that show this overgrown infant is of voting age. Someone isn’t getting his booze tonight.

The stench of smoke, ash and spirits in the air should have driven any man away. The acrid combination cut through me, but I forced myself through, hoping I’d acclimate before I gagged.

I tossed my hat on a rack beside the door and moved towards the bar, staying back a good ways from Roland. I spoke to the owner, a wretched old Brit by the name of Lawrence.

“Barkeep, not another drink for him. Get me?”

The aged man, bearded and grizzled, gave me a once over as if we’d never met. The old fart and I had it out dozens of times and it always ended peaceably. Well, ‘cept the time I tried to block a kitchen cleaver with my own flesh. Not my finest hour. Nor my soberest. Have a decent metal replacement now – this one can even grip my .44 pretty well, unlike the last one. Thank all the Gods I live in such a time where I can get a shiny new arm, but not sell gin to the hard-working men of this fine nation. How’s that for peace, justice and the American way?

“Sir,” Lawrence said, “if ‘e orders ‘em, I gotta’ pour ‘em. Dem the rules ‘ere. Ya don’ like it, take yer drinking uptown to dem hoity-toity Nun-pubs on the Straight ‘n Narrow.”

He spoke, when it suited him, in a heavily affected accent. I have to remind my juniors that he does that to confuse us on collection days. That son-of-a-sow’s been here for ages and owes us his due like everyone else in this part of town.

“Barkeep,” I said more forcefully than I thought I could muster on her anniversary. “Not one more spirit for the boss. I will pay for each pour of water if I must. No more gin. Are we understood?”

No one disrespected Lawrence, or much any barman, in his own place and lived to tell about it. Well… at least not a man made it outside less a beating from his kin. I gulped down air hoping Lawrence didn’t make a problem for me. I want to get Roland out of here in one piece, not get into a fistfight with one of the barkeep’s ham-fisted sons. The git might owe us money, but he deserves more respect than I want to show him tonight.

The barman spoke in hushed whispers right at me. “You have a lot of gumption coming in here and saying that. I might owe you for my ownership of this place, but I got rights, ain’t I?”

Now Lawrence sounded almost civilized, belying his true disposition. Old-fashioned, retired gangster at his finest; stepped away from our way years back, turned to mostly honest trade and owns one of the speakeasies our syndicate used to operate directly. It’s a good gig with prohibition going strong so many years – that new amendment can’t come soon enough for our kind. They push through a whole amendment for when Dewey’s turn at bat is up and they can’t bother to drop old number eighteen?

“Lawrence,” I said, putting on the brass balls and praying a little harder. “You and I have known each other a while. I’m going over there, getting the boss as sober as I can in the next ten minutes and getting him home before the police decide that curfew is a half-hour sooner. Get me now? I’ve got business to attend, friend.”

“Go,” the man demanded. “And don’t expect as kind treatment next time one of your bosses decides to waste away in my tavern. This is an honest establishment.”

“I’d be careful, friend. I can’t control him when he’s at his best. He hears you made this much trouble, he might demand the loan back early.”

I tossed Lawrence a few bits from my own clip, partly paying for the threat I should have kept to myself; partly another silent threat that we’re the ones in the money, not him. I don’t think Roland will want to retaliate over nothing much like that. At least this’ll keep the old man from selling me out to the cops tonight.

I hope.

Over at the other end of the bar, I tapped my friend’s shoulder.

“Hey, Roland. Heard any good ones lately? It’s time for a little water, buddy.”

He moved his head just enough to free his mouth and grumbled, “One more word and I’ll crack your skull.”

“Is that any way to talk to an old friend back in town? Now sit up and drink.”

Roland, in his stupor, pushed the proffered glass back up the bar.

“No more tonight. Room’s Technicolor-y, like a picture show. Don’t seem right.”

“Too true. But this one’ll make you feel better. Drink.”

I pushed the glass back into his hands and watched him finish it off.

“Hasn’t been the same since that pubby Dewey won,” Roland slurred. “Can’t help the lil’ guy no more.”

“Come on, buddy. Let’s think about getting out of here. We’ve got places to go and people to see and I ain’t talking about the President.”

To his credit, Roland Roberts resisted the offer long enough for me to lift him to his feet and make the decision for him. Pulling his overcoat around him, I pulled one of his arms over my shoulder and tried to keep him up under his own power.

He giggled. Twice. “Feet are jelly… can’t stand right.”

“What did you have,” I said, “two, three at most? You’re too thin to be drinking like this.”

I managed to grab Roland’s hat as well as my own and get him out the door before too many people took to gawking. Saw the kid I robbed on hands and knees looking for his wallet. When I threw it at him, minus his fake paperwork, he shot me a nasty look. I glared back and tossed my coat open with more than a little effort. With Roland crossing my right side, I didn’t want to deal with anything more violent than a threat. The kid’s temper seemed sufficiently smothered when the .44 tucked under my left prosthetic glimmered in the light of the streetlamp.

“Come on, buddy. You and I know we’ve got things to do. What’s with the drunken bit? Don’t you know better?”

Roland’s head slumped into my back and he muttered, “You really had some shit parents, didn’t ‘cha? Them drunkards. No wonder you and Danny and Pete got ‘long so well. Freaks, the lot of you.”

I sighed through his laughter. “You’re one to talk.”

“Least I didn’t lock my boy in a cupboard, teach ‘em to kill folk with tinned veggies. Now that’s parenting!”

“And look where I am now. Pro in my field. Playing babysitter to a grown man too sauced for his own good. Whoop-de-friggin-do.”

Roland and I went back and forth for a few more minutes. He’d make a crass statement, I’d retort, keeping in mind that he’s piss-drunk before the temptation to break his arms got too strong. A man ought not have to listen to a lecture on the finer points of parenting and responsibility from someone who, himself, reeks of gin and brandy.

“How’d we ever get it so wrong?”

“Which part?”

“We had it good back then. I don’t see where it all went bad.”

“Roland, you’re rambling.”

“Like this,” he said, flailing his free arm. “We could have done it all better. Run the pubs like real business-folk, see?”

This may be for the better. At least he’s sobering up a little. This’s part of a conversation we had the other night. It’s only a matter of time until he remembers why he was shooting himself three sheets to the wind, but I want to hear him out. Another year, another drunken anniversary, another day to forget my folly.

“Pretend we’re like those wireless stars, you know, like on the radio; or like those fast-talking suits over on Broad and Wall. That’d be the life. Not this shit,” Roland says, waving his free arm around at the darkness. “Living like rats because the law says we gotta’ scrounge. But we did good, eh?”

“We did pretty well, all right.” Well enough for you to go out and get plastered on the gang’s hush money without so much as denting our books. “But maybe we did pretty nice for ourselves too, huh?”

“Yeah,” Roland said. “We did nice. You and me and Dan all made a bundle. Iz and ‘lexis too. Rein–”

One may as well hang for his lies as for his crimes. And this, like every year, is one of mine. I was the target, damn it! They should have taken me!

“James? Where’s Reinette?”

I followed through with the charade. “Just ‘round the corner.”

“That’d be good. Haven’t done that lately. Too busy with work an’ darn fools all over; Dew-boy and his bunch of Congressional pissants.”

“I hear that. My boss has me running all over creation making sure we keep afloat until the bigwigs change the rules again. You wouldn’t believe what a chore it is funding a group like ours.” Or what a chore it is doing this year after year. Ten years is too damn long. But I can’t bring myself to blame you for this; the fault is mine to grasp.

I can’t bring myself to cause a stir. Why he has never condemned me I’ll, perhaps, never know.

I dragged Roland around the block, keeping a watch for police and civil walkers. Not a one tonight. Too much fog and too little moonlight to make a blind search worth the trouble. Most of them will be sitting at the station up on 22nd and 5th waiting for a call that’ll likely come in too late. Ten years of violence and the terror that came from other gangs calling hits became second nature. Even the police have gotten soft of late.

Which is why she’s no longer with us: our first and last casualty, the object of our sorrow and our devotion to the bonds we share.

It didn’t take much to snap the rusted lock on the wrought-iron fence and push the ancient gate open. The problem of the hundred and thirty pound weight on my shoulder subsided when he realized where we were.

With the memories coming back out of his alcohol-induced haze, he stumbled towards one of the markers far inside the site of hallowed ground. We could both find it with our eyes closed.

I held back several steps and refrained from speaking. Nothing would make this any easier and nothing I could say would stop the same thing from happening tonight that happened each of these anniversary nights of the last ten years.

“Thanks, James,” he said, pulling the hat from his head and clutching it tightly, “for bringing me all the way here.”

By the time I came into sight of it through the fog, he had knelt in front of the marble monument. ‘Reinette Roberts,’ it read. ‘She who is granted eternity. 1910-1939. Beloved wife, mother and friend.’