A dollar badly spent (work in progress)

Hello. [blog update 07 August 2012]

In the interests of opening up my writing process, I’m posting a work in progress. The following text is from a short story currently called “A dollar badly spent”. It’s being written for a competition of the same name. I’m posting it so I can get feedback from a general readership, to inform where it goes next and help tighten up the writing so far.

I have to give some legal disclaimers before I go on. (Intake of breath.)

The characters in this story, whether human or mechanical, and any specific organisation names, are the copyright of Orion Pictures Corporation or Lucasfilm. That’s because it’s based on Robocop. I am using them in a non-profit manner. The story is mine though.

Right, enough legal gubbins. Here’s the first part of:

 

A Dollar Badly Spent

A Dollar Badly Spent

 

“Mr. Snyder, can you recall how it all started?” The journalist looked at the man in the faded dressing gown, ready to take down notes.

“I’d buy that for a dollar,” Bixby Snyder said. He fumbled with a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, his geriatric hands shaking with the effort. A cough animated him for a moment, but the life quickly faded, leaving just the shine in his rheumy eyes as a hint of who he might once have been.

“Ah, Mr. Snyder, if we could concentrate on the story?” The journalist wondered if the man’s mind was going. On the table by the man’s chair was a jar of baby food. What did it mean? Teeth gone? Digestive problems? He made a note about it. Sometimes the small details were what brought to life a story.

“No no,” wheezed Bixby, “my catchphrase. ‘I’d buy that for a dollar’. You ain’t never seen my show on re-run?”

The journalist shrugged his shoulders and scribbled “Snyder – TV?”

“Course, you’re a baby. This was back in the bad old days.” Bixby appraised the journalist. “Look at you, so young. Why you here anyway?”

The journalist shrugged, “Assignment from my editor. Your date’s coming up next year. Early research for an article. You know, ‘End of an era’ kind of thing?” The journalist cleared his throat.

“Yeah, but why you here?”

The journalist shrugged. “Pop always said to pay attention to old folks.”

“Yeah, well maybe good advice. Maybe not.” Bixby picked up the baby food. He just held the jar in his hand and gazed at it. The lid stayed on. Behind the glass, on his chair, he re-arranged his faded dressing grown. “Let me tell you how it all went wrong.” He put the jar down, “How I went from millionaire to death row.”

*

I was lucky. Society was going down the pan. Crime everywhere. Police privatised. Corruption so normal no one bothered fighting it any more.

And I had this TV show. No one was sure if it was ironic, a bitter attack on the spiralling economic collapse or if I was the ultimate product of that society. But there I was, primetime. Surrounded by beautiful women and shouting my catchphrase every other minute, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” They were the best times.

It all came to an end when OCP was brought down. You must’ve heard of that. A new generation of police enforcement, the Robocop, uncovered evidence of murder, corruption. But he did something different. He broadcast it live to Chicago and from there it went viral. Things changed over night. The OCP share value plummeted so quickly that it was worthless within a few months.

The government brought all the police back under their control. Some politicians, somewhere, found some balls. You know about the televised trials, the express death sentences handed out. That’s all recorded history. Things are good now, it’s amazing how quickly you forget how bad it was.

Once OCP became worthless, the buildings and police assets were re-possessed by the government, and there was hardly anything left of it.

And there was nothing left of me. The new society didn’t want my kind of humour. Rolling in money of my own, buying everything for a dollar to show how little value life had left. Even I wasn’t sure at the time if I was celebrating that old culture or parodying it. Who knows? I was happy. The people who watched were happy. They took what they needed from it. So did I. I was rich. But when that new spirit of community appeared, of holding the powerful to account, the humour changed. I was everything they now hated. I tried to change, to keep up. It was like changing the direction of a road train at full speed. You either take a long time to slow and turn in a huge circle, or you try it quickly, flip the trucks and crash. That was me. Biggest RTA in television history. When I tried a live comedy show trying to buy the new government departments and trotting out my catchphrase, the network’s value dipped fifteen points. The next day I was fired. I was furious at the time. In retrospect I would have done the same thing as they did. I was now dead wood, an embarrassment.

I still had my money, most of it. Takes a while to change your spending patterns though. You get used to being able to buy what you want, do what you want. Being out of work with no income was a shock. I hid from it for a while. Had this store of drugs. And the women were still around. I still smelled of success, you see. People love that smell, the aroma of power. Of course, when the drugs ran out, so did the women. And my money was going fast, too.

A year later, OCP went up for sale. I hadn’t worked for months. I was desperate. I went along to the auction. There was no one else there. Collective amnesia, I think. Everyone just wanted to forget about what Chicago had become. Now, at the auction the judge looked at me, sighed and said, “What are you willing to bid?” You know, just like that. Kinda tired sounding. Weary.

Half-heartedly I shot back, “I’d buy that for a dollar.” It was meant as a joke. I just wanted someone to recognise me, you see? A last shot at fame.

He banged his gavel and that was it. Suddenly I was the new owner of OCP for a dollar.

*

“Sorry,” the journalist interrupted. “You owned the entire company? For a dollar?”

“A bad dollar. Worst I ever spent. Gotta remember back then, a dollar was worth a lot to some.”

“And what, you got the employees, files..?”

“Nah,” Bixby said, “lemme tell you what I got. Damn thing put me in here.”

*

I left that auction house thinking nothing more of it. Signed some forms, you know how it is. Legal sale, all of that. Walked home. You had to walk in those days. Public transport was all gone. My car had always come from the TV station; I didn’t know how to drive. Fortunately the auction house was in the financial district and I only lived ten blocks away. I owned my property, one of the few who did. It was an apartment in a converted hotel. Still had some of that early twentieth century charm. Like Hemingway crossed with Art Deco.

Took me a while to notice the sound.

I’d been walking in a daze. Despite the drugs and the lack of work, I was still thinking about new characters, new acts. It filtered in eventually, the sound I mean. With every step I heard this kinda wheezing-clanging sound. Eventually I just had to look round, see what it was. You still got punks then, kids looking for trouble. Though most of them, even the punks, had been caught up in the great ‘work reform’. But they still gave you trouble from time to time.

I turned around and there it was. An ED-209. Following me at a distance of fifty feet.

You ever hear of an ED-209? Think about a metal chicken. Take off the head and neck so it’s just a body. Then turn its wings into moveable machine guns. Oh, and a short temper. That’s the guy. Autonomous law enforcement robots they were. You’d never see the like now. It’s genetically modified slave animals. But back then robots were the big thing.

Well I tell you. I looked this thing in its black shiny face plate. And I was terrified. You look one of those in the face you have maybe twenty seconds to start being nice or… Those guns ain’t for show. So I was looking at this thing and quailing. And I swear. It put one metal foot forward and pawed the ground. Like a dog, begging for a treat. Pawed the ground, made an awful screeching noise. And then it rocked, just like a puppy ready to set or git.

Never saw a more surprising thing.

“What d’you want?” I shouted.

It just played one word from its pre-recorded phrases, but it was enough. “You,” it said in that menacing voice. The end of the word kinda dipped, because it should have been followed by, “have twenty seconds to comply.” But the ED-209 just played the same bit, communicating as much as it could with a limited vocabulary.

“What do you mean, me?” I was shaking, I remember. Hid it though, didn’t want to show weakness to this thing.

It moved forward and dropped its head. Bowing before me. It said, “…comply,” when it bowed.

Well you could have knocked me down with a feather. The streets were empty, thank goodness. It was a Sunday, most people were at home, with their family. Some had started going to the churches, which had re-opened.

If that thing had had eyebrows, I swear it would have looked at me from under them. I couldn’t say no. Damn thing looked so pathetic.

“Did I just buy you for a dollar?” I asked it. It couldn’t answer. There wasn’t the vocab recorded in its memory. But it nodded. It knew enough to do that. I wavered. What the hell was I going to do with an ED-209? They’d killed so many people before they were taken out of service. And they were only in service for a couple of months.

“Gonna shoot me?” I asked.

“…comply,” was its answer.

“OK,” I said, “you can come home with me.” Well it just jumped up at this. Just like that puppy I mentioned earlier. As if I’d said, ‘walkies’ or was about to throw a stick. For some reason it stayed fifty feet behind me. Can’t imagine what its programming was up to at the time. Damnedest thing I ever saw.

For the next four weeks I got used to having it in the courtyard area of my apartment. I even fixed up a shelter for it, to protect it from the rain. I’d watch it sometimes, from the upstairs window. My apartment went over two floors, you see. Ground floor was for the kitchen, and most of it taken up with the lift shaft for the apartment block. I’d got a discount on the apartment because of that, and the ground floor space. My apartment proper was on the first floor. From there I’d look out the window at this robot in my yard.

It patrolled. Imagine that. Industrial killing machine ran regular patrols of the courtyard. Even saw it shoot a pigeon once. Can’t say I was too bothered. Even made me laugh, and I was glad of it at the time. I wasn’t seeing friends or colleagues. There was little pleasure in life. Watching ED-209 obliterate that pigeon in a cloud of feathers was the funniest thing I ever saw.

That was what gave me the idea. The one that led me to death row.

*

The journalist interrupted again. “Sorry, Sir. Do you have a picture of this thing? This,” he checked his notes, “Eddy 209?”

“It’s E.D., like the initials. ED-209. No, but there’ll be some on the internet. Most of the case file is on there. Surprised you haven’t done your research.”

The journalist flushed. He’d assumed this was going to be a boring assignment. Interviewing some crazy old guy in prison who was about to die. And it was only research notes anyway. When the execution went ahead next year, it would be a bigger affair, more experienced journalists would take the centre stage and claim credit for the articles.

“I’ll look them up, Sir,” the journalist said. “So tell me, ah. You had this thing in your courtyard and what? It got out, ran amok, killed people?”

“If only it had been that simple,” said Bixby, “I could have sued the manufacturers. No, what happened was this.”

*

Eventually OCP’s final assets were delivered to my house. It amounted to technical files for the ED-209, and some expenses claim forms. I gave those straight to my accountant, and he found a way to claim a couple of hundred thousand dollars against tax for me. That kept me going for a while and gave me the seed money to start a new business.

Yes, I’d had a business idea.

Before I took up comedy I’d been a computer programmer. I could still remember most of it. I was rusty, of course, but it was still up there. I started leafing through the technical manuals and they showed how to program the ED-209. By this time we were friends. It was summer and I was spending a lot of time in the courtyard, keeping myself brown. The ED-209 stood by me, and I started interacting with it when I had to move its shadow from my sun. Pretty quickly I was talking to it about all sorts of things. I didn’t think it would understand. It was just the only thing I had to talk to. And for the first time in my life, the first time I had someone to talk to who didn’t talk back, want my money or drugs or tell me what to do.

At one point I considered sticking a woman’s face on it, but that idea went out the window very quickly. I was starting to enjoy my solitude, starting to enjoy not having someone around, a human. Seeing another person’s face would have spoiled it. But I did dress up the ED-209. Put a little sun cap on it, gave it a little bit of personality. It didn’t seem to mind.

During those long hours, long days outside in the courtyard, I started teaching it some manners. Like not suddenly opening machine gun fire on squirrels bounding through the yard. Damn thing scared the crap out of me more than once doing that. And it could serve me drinks. I had to set them up, put them on a tray. There’s only so much a machine can do when it has machine guns for hands. But it could stand there holding the tray wedged between its gun barrels.

Leafing through the technical manuals I came up with some ideas.

There was a nostalgia movement starting, the older generation getting interested in old films, music, that kind of thing. Kids wanting to have some artistic expression, going to these cinema nights put on by the oldies. I went to one, in disguise. There was still antipathy towards me. I watched television, saw the new satirical news shows, comedy programmes. They lampooned me, and well they should have. Each passing generation needs to make a fire break from the worst excesses of the last. I didn’t mind, you know. I was starting to have my own nostalgia, too.

At this cinema night, someone had rigged up an old machine, I think it was a Blu-ray. There was a projector screen, too, with a tear down one side, and stains on it which the old timers had done their best to wash out. They pretty much disappeared during the darker parts of the film. But not during the parts with lighter colours. It was the first thirty minutes where I got my idea.

The film was the Empire Strikes Back.

*

“Sorry to interrupt again,” the journalist put down his stylus and adjusted his seating. “I think I know this film. Late twentieth century, right?”

“That’s the one.”

“Don’t tell me. The one about the Enterprise?”

“Ah kid. You people make the same mistake over and over. That was Star Trek. This was Star Wars.”

“Damn it, I knew that,” the journalist scratched his stylus across his electronic notebook. “Crazy old films, looks like they were all made with a toy cupboard.”

“Well, back in them days they still used some puppetry, and mechanical animation. Before my time, too, before you make any smart comment.”

“Not my place to judge, Sir.” The journalist checked the wall clock. There was only thirty minutes left of visiting hours. “Could we maybe get to the part where things go wrong? Just I’m being kicked out of here, soon.”

“I’d gladly swap places with you, son.”

The journalist gave a nervous smile and stayed quiet.

“Yeah. So, where was I?”

“Something about programming and old films?”

“Oh yeah. So I went to this screening…”

*

The film gave me an idea. Old timers like me were misty eyed over the special effects. Kids were real critical at first until the old timers explained the technology and such. Then of course you had this one kid says, “Let’s make our own.” Just like that. Let’s make our own.

Got me thinking. New society, new jobs, economy starting to move. Not me, I was unemployed, but solvent enough, though starting to look at a danger zone. It’d been a long time since I’d seen those films and they brought back feelings of, what? Innocence, I guess. How I felt when I’d watched them as a child. Not exactly nostalgia, more a feeling that everything would be alright. Childish thoughts, I guess.

With those childish thoughts came a similar emotion. Wonder. And wonder is like a virus. It moves from emotional state to activity far too easily. I started wondering. If they can make their own Star Wars vehicles, can I?

Well arriving home I went to sit in the court yard to enjoy an evening drink. And then it struck me. ED-209.

I worked hard, long long hours. First the programming, and then the costumes. Took me a week of hard work. And you know what? I really enjoyed it. The programming came back to me pretty quickly, considering the break I’d had. The costumes were the harder part, but I had experience from my early days on the comedy circuit. After those long, long hours, I was ready to start my new business venture. But I needed a launch event.

I waited another week, tested the costumes. Ran a few dress rehearsals. Remember, I was still a professional performer. I was used to scripting, rehearsing, going into costume, make up.

Eventually it was time for another film screening. This time the follow up, Return of the Jedi. It was perfect timing.

The screenings were in the evenings, when everyone was locked up in their houses. Despite the general lack of punks and the uplift in the economy, people were still in the habit of staying inside at night. That whole ‘reclaim the streets’ thing hadn’t yet happened. So I was able to travel to the screening without being spotted or stopped. It was held in a backroom which you had to access from an alley way. I’d love to destroy your mental images, but this was a typical alley way. Overflowing dumpster, puddles, stains. A creaking old fire escape running down one wall. And this crappy little door with a home made sign, “FILM NIGHT!!!”

I made sure I was last to arrive. The ED-209 I left outside, and my costume I hid behind the dumpster.

I went inside and settled into the screening. There were maybe thirty people there. A few more kids this time, one or two more old timers. Some of the kids had brought along their first attempts at model making. One of them had his computer and was showing off an animation he’d done. They were all pretty good. Just as I got inside, about to take my seat – one of those fold-up metal chairs so popular in community halls – one of the old timers called everyone to order.

“Now here this,” he called. He organised the thing, so I think he fancied himself a Master of Ceremonies. “Now here this,” he said and tapped one of the metal chairs with a pen. Clonk clonk clonk went the sound. An empty metallic noise. Everyone quietened. The only sound was a coffee machine, going through its final slurping sounds, waking up the air with those bitter aromas.

“Tonight these fine young men have shown us how we can make capture the glory of the old days. Make our own entertainments. But I have a special surprise for you.”

I sat there, suddenly nervous that I’d been found out. Had he been outside while I’d been looking at their crappy little vehicles and animations?

He walked over to a table in the corner which was covered with a cloth. I think we’d all thought the same thing. This backroom had obviously been cleared of whatever it stored. It was dusty, there were cobwebs in the corners. You know, it was a place that hadn’t been animated for a long time, except for the few movie screenings they’d held so far. The smell of dust still dried the air and tickled the nose. So we’d all ignored this table. Figured it was still storing something. The cloths covering some old piece of equipment.

Well not so. The self-styled MC whipped away the cover. “Ta-da!” he croaked. He was older than me at the time. Probably in his 70s, I’d say. His “Ta-da!” reveal was as graceful as a rheumatic dog clearing its throat.

There was stunned silence. The kids looked on, eyes wide, whispering to each other.

The old timers squinted, reaching for their glasses. They’d all been wearing their close-to glasses and had to swap to their distance ones.

The MC guy, he looked over the room waiting for a response. He waited and waited. His face turned from glory, the lines and wrinkles stretched back to an almost child-like sheen. But as long seconds passed and no one spoke, they sagged and the skin fell together again.

“What is it?” asked one of the kids. Of course, they’d never seen the like.

Eventually one of the old timers got up and walked over, sitting as they were on the other side of the room. “Where the hey-all you git that?” he asked. One of those southern gents who’d moved up to Chicago shortly after the coastlines were swamped by rising sea levels.

“Had this in storage the last six decades,” the MC said. “Used to belong to my pa.”

“Sorry, what is it?” this kid asked again. I stayed quiet, trying to figure out the right moment to introduce my own surprise.

“This here’s a Scout Walker,” said the MC.

“An AT-ST,” said the old-timer who’d gone up to look at it.

“A what?” one of the other kids had stood up, and soon they’d all gone to crowd around.

I took this as an opportunity to sneak out and suit up. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity, all those kids crowding round to see some original Star Wars toys. The door creaked a little when I opened it, but it was lost in the sounds of reminiscing and excited questions. Some things don’t change. Comedy changes. Parody and satire change with politics, and the target of a joke shifts depending on who’s powerful at any given moment. But you put boys and toys together, and it doesn’t matter what age you’re in. Could be 1784 or 2046. While they played with that faded lump of plastic and some of the other little figures and toys that old man had brought in, I snuck out.

I pulled on the costume behind the dumpster. Mostly I was wearing. The trousers with a stripe, the waistcoat, shirt. I was wearing a light jacket to hide them, so I took that off, put on a long green coat. Closest I could get it. The ED-209 I woke up. It rose on its haunches, its little servo motors whirring.

By the time I got back inside they’d all settled down and were just starting the film. I bided my time. We watched the Jedi return, the battle on Endor, the Death Star blow up again. Before any of the conversation could descend into the usual conversations, I stood up.

“Er, hey,” I was at the back of the group and wearing a long green coat.

“Who are you?” said one guy.

“I was here the other week, for Empire.”

Blank looks.

I fiddled with the coat buttons, each one popping out of its little slit like I was shelling beans. “I, er…”

I didn’t get to finish. One of the old timers shouted out, “What the heck you doing man? You some kind of pervert?”

“No, no,” I protested. I got the last button undone and shrugged off the coat.

Everyone tensed. The old timer had obviously made them feel like I was about to expose myself. Just what I needed. No job and facing a misdemeanour charge.

Finally one of the kids said, “Cool.”

I was dressed like Han Solo.

“Hey, nice outfit man.”

I looked this second kid in the eye, “There’s more. I want you all to come outside.”

“What for?” The MC looked suspicious. I could tell what was happening. He’d ruled the roost all night. Trumped the kids’ efforts with an original toy. And still in its box, too, though the cardboard was held together with tape and had some moisture damage. And then shown Jedi, blowing the kids minds and generating enough nostalgia from the old timers that you could tell his little film night was secured as a regular thing, now. He was king. And then here was I, right at the end, with something new.

“Just come along,” I walked to the door and activated a little remote control I’d built. The alley way floated through the door on its molecules of damp and decay. And then everyone heard the wheezing servos and metallic thunk of something heavy moving. I was pushing fifty years old at this point, but I still managed a cocksure smile and a wink. You know at this age, sitting in prison, I realised how young fifty years old is. I know how it feels when you’re younger, twenty or something. Fifty’s ancient. But believe me, the energy you still have, the confidence. It’s your peak, really.

In the backroom, with the smell of alley way piss wafting in, I said, “Trust me,” and slipped out.

*

“Time!”

The prison guard patrolled the line of inmates. The journalist looked through the glass and glanced at the wall.

“Ah, come on. I need more than this,” he said through the grille.

Bixby looked at the guard, nodded, stood and folded his dressing gown over his chest. He smoothed his hair and held up a hand to the guard. “Come back next month, I’ll tell ya the rest.” He winked, a slow affair which involved a fold of skin loosening and retracting with some difficulty. Bixby shuffled away without a second look or a goodbye.

Another guard tapped the journalist’s chair. “Time to leave, stringer,” he said.

“But,” the journalist began.

“You heard the man. Come back next month. Or write to him. Old fashioned way, mind. They ain’t allowed on the internet.”

The journalist gathered his things and left the prison. Outside it was bitterly cold. Winter had come to Chicago and a bone chilling wind arrested any pedestrian foolish to set foot outside. The journalist hailed a cab and warmed his hands as the vehicle made its way back to his offices.

Something bothered him.

He read through his notes and started tried to work it out. But it eluded him. Whatever was scratching at his brain wouldn’t come out. He went home.

The journalist lived alone. He thought himself lucky to be able to rent a few square metres of room. Chicago was full of immigrants after the sea level rises in the south, and then the drying of the mid-west. People wanted to live further north where rain fell and there were lakes for fresh water. The centre of the country burned while the south drowned. It was the same across the planet. Deserts crept northward eating the fertile land, while coastlines were reclaimed by a hungry sea.

The journalist made noodles and sat on his bed, which was his only furniture. His clothes he kept under the bed. His entertainment was provided through immersion goggles. The walls closed in around him. At the foot of his bed the door to the room barely opened before it scraped against the frame. There was a groove in the door from years of openings. Down one side of the bed was just enough floor space to walk. A small sink unit stuck out from antique pipe work and next to it was a 2-ring hob.

How very much like a prison, he thought. Except I’m free. I can leave whenever I want.

The journalist looked around again. This was how everyone lived now, in all the big cities. The rent was extortionate. Most of his salary went on keeping this place. There was always pressure from immigrants, and landlords held all the power. He’d once a read an early twentieth century book about a similar situation where a man had discovered some extra space behind a false wall. But the journalist had tapped every wall of his small room and found nothing. He put his hands behind his head and thought over Bixby Snyder’s story.

It struck him then what the flaw was in Bixby’s story. Not that he knew the ending, though he’d already put a request in to meet the following month. The flaw was this. That coming out of an auction house, this ED-209 police robot had followed him home. How could that be? Why hadn’t it been acquired by the government? How was it loose on the streets, in an auction house, powered up and active? Especially after Bixby had said the robots had killed so many people.

The story was starting to unravel. The journalist pulled out his computer and stylus and started making notes. Satisfied, he slept, while trains rattled past the tiny, cupboard-sized apartment and rain started to fall outside.

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