Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Machine of Death: ABANDONED IN SPACE

In a previous post I explained what the Machine of Death anthology was all about and what the rules for submissions were.  I had been kicking around the idea for my first story, DUCK, for quite a while, but when it was done I was still permitted to submit up to two more stories. But now I found myself faced with the dreaded blank page: what should I write about?

The good folks at Machine of Death have all sorts of fun stuff going on. Just for asking, you can get your very own certified M.O.D. prediction, no blood test required. All that they ask is that you send them something - anything - in exchange. I decided to send them my own home-made M.O.D. predictions for all of the methods of death featured in DUCK, as well as a printout of the 1969 MAD Magazine bit that inspired the title.

I waited eagerly by the mailbox for days after I sent in my request, along with my self-addressed stamped envelope. During that time I decided that my second story would be based on the prediction I received, whatever that prediction might be. Within a week I received a piece of mail with familiar handwriting on it. I carefully opened it and pulled out the prediction card. In my trembling hands I held the card with my ultimate fate: ABANDONED IN SPACE.

What the hell could I do with that?

I thought of various scenarios involving 1950's-style spacemen facing perils in space, but nothing felt appealing. If you knew that your fate was to not simply die in space, but to be abandoned there, why go there in the first place? Maybe you had to? Maybe you had no choice? Maybe some heroic choice led you to this inevitable but seemingly avoidable end?

And what is "space," anyway? It's not just the realm of asteroids and stars and rocket ships. It's everything and everywhere. Abandoned in space? Which space where?

Then I had a breakthrough: I would simply sidestep these difficulties. I would write a story not about the end of this journey, but the beginning. What if some parents found that their child was fated to die by being abandoned in space? Would it be possible to turn that into a positive?

I think this preface is already longer than the story itself, which fell below the recommended minimum length of 1200 words. But I could not find a way to increase the story length by nearly 50% without adding something inessential.

Machine of Death: ABANDONED IN SPACE

“It don't mean nothin', Lila. You know that, I know that. It just means that you wasted our money.”

Huey sat across from his wife and their baby at the tiny table in the kitchen of their apartment. He was slumped forward in in his chair, leaning heavily on the table, a cold pot of beans in front of him. His eyes were fixed on a small white card on the table.

“I didn't waste no money,” Lila responded. “I won the test in the radio contest!” It was almost the truth. She had tried, tried so hard, to win the contest. A free reading at Blood Destiny! It was something she had wanted for little Jacob since he was born.

She tried, but she failed. Story of her life. Story of everybody's lives these days. After the contest was over, she dug deep into the corner of her closet, into the box that her husband didn't know about, and pulled out the $50 bill that her aunt Sophie had given her for her Communion. So long ago, when things were so much different.

Huey wouldn't know. He didn't listen to the radio. He didn't have time, what with his three jobs. And he was lucky at that. Lila had had a job, cleaning the apartments of people who still had real jobs, but she had to quit that when Jacob was coming. And after Jacob, she wasn't going to be able to go back to work, not for a long time. If she could find work.

“It don't mean nothin',” he said again, scooping the last of the beans from the pot. “I heard about these machines. I don't believe in 'em. They say they work, but they jerk you around. Say one thing and mean another.”

Little Jacob giggled in his mother's arms, turning toward the sound of his father's voice. He reached out his arms to be picked up, but his father just sat there, staring at the card.

“'ABANDONED IN SPACE,'” Huey said slowly, deliberately. “So what does that mean? Everything's in space. You, me, the dishes in the sink. He dies abandoned in an alley, that's space. Maybe..maybe we forget him in a parking lot sometime, and somebody pulls into the space and kills him.”

“That ain't gonna happen,” Lila retorted, hugging her son. “I ain't gonna forget my baby in a parking space. Besides, we don't got no car. What would we be doing in a parking lot?”

“I dunno,” Huey admitted. “Maybe we get a car sometime. Maybe we borrow it. Maybe somebody gives us a ride. I dunno.”

“It's not gonna happen,” Lila said sternly. “My baby's not gonna die in no alley. No parking lot either.” She looked into her son's eyes. “He's gonna be a hero. Maybe he and his buddies are out in space, an' they see some aliens coming to attack Earth, and they have to make a run for it and warn everybody, but somebody has to stay behind to blow up the aliens. And little Jacob, he's their captain, an' he tells them to make a run for it, and they leave him behind...and he blows up the aliens, an' saves his buddies, and saves the Earth!” Lila was beaming with pride as she said these last words. She pulled Jacob forward for an extra-special kiss on the forehead, which made him laugh.

“And why don't they come back for him?” Huey got up from the table and put the empty pot of beans in the sink. “They just leave him abandoned there, to starve or get eaten by a monster or something? And besides, there's no spaceships anymore. Who's gonna pay to fly out in space?”

“Well, how the heck should I know?” Lila said, a note of annoyance entering her voice as she bounced her giggling child. “All I know is he ain't gonna die in no parking lot! No alleyway, either!”

Huey shook his head. He finished washing the pot and the spoon and put them aside to dry. He drew a glass of water from the tap, drank it down. He looked dolefully at the clock. “I better get a move on,” he said. He took his cap off the hook on the back of the door, and bent to kiss Lila and Jacob goodbye.

He was pulling the door closed behind him when he cast a backwards glance at his wife and child. “You shoulda' saved your Communion money, Lila,” he said. “It don't mean nothin'.”

Lila watched out the window as Huey exited the apartment building and walked down the street. It was almost dark, but as he reached the corner she could see him look back and wave, as he always did.

“Your daddy's a good man, Jacob,” she said to the cooing baby. “He knows a lot, but he don't know everything.”

She huddled him close as the electricity went out for the night. “My baby is gonna be a spaceman!

Like DUCK, this story is basically a conversation, but I think I managed to convey something more about the characters and their situation. I decided to project the current economy into something slightly worse: to crushing unemployment and underemployment I added the issue of electricity rationing. I wrote this on the day of the final Space Shuttle launch, so the thought of a future where nobody traveled into space anymore was very much on my mind. Economically speaking, we may already be at a point where it is no longer possible to construct a rational argument for manned spaceflight. So a death prediction of ABANDONED IN SPACE becomes an expression of hope for the future: hope that someday this little baby may travel into space, even if he is fated to die there, abandoned.

The notion of a death prediction as a bright and hopeful light is not original. It was explored wonderfully in the Machine of Death (Volume I) story TORN APART AND DEVOURED BY LIONS, in which a simple nebbish in an unexciting job is reinvigorated by the prospect of someday finding himself in the exotic circumstances that will lead to such a death. But in ABANDONED IN SPACE I have tried to use the death as a sign of hope for not only the individual but for society as a whole.

A note on the language: I wasn't trying to capture the dialect of any particular racial or ethnic group. As in my previous stories, I left the characters mostly undescribed, for the reader to fill in and he or she sees fit. I replayed this story dozens of times with various racial and ethnic identities for the characters, and tried to use a language that would be suitable in a broad range of circumstances.