Text Copyright John Sundman 2008
Illustrations Copyright 2008 by Cheeseburger Brown
The beat-up brown Volvo station wagon with a hairline crack in the right side of the windshield and a Black Flag sticker on the left rear bumper flew down Lyman Street doing sixty in a thirty-five zone, straightening curves and drifting over the double-yellow lines, on a chilly April morning.
Despite the cold the car’s windows were rolled down and the punk strains of “Mommy’s Little Monster” from the Repo Man soundtrack poured out of them at 115 decibels, shaking the season’s first leaves out of their buds in the woods and pastures along either side of the road.
Mommy’s little monster dropped out of school
Mommy’s little monster broke all the rules
He loves to go out drinking with the boys
He loves to go out and make some noise
The winter of 1984–85 had been longer, colder, and wetter than any winter New Kent had seen in thirty years. Yesterday, well into April, there had been frost on the windshield. This morning offered the first hint of really nice weather since sometime last October. It was twenty-five degrees warmer than it had been this time yesterday. Suddenly there was a yellow blur of daffodils—daffodils, for Fred’s sake—along the road.
Xristi Friedman, at the wheel, was trying to dig the spring, the fresh air; she was really trying. Her left arm—the one with the double helix tattooed up its length—was exposed to the wind, pounding time to the music against the outside of the car door. Her blue-streaked hair blew in the wind and the eight earrings in her left ear rattled. It was a good day to dig the fresh air. It was a good place to dig the fresh air, out here where Lyman Street passed through what remained of Shaker Woods, the last undeveloped place in Eastboro. Xristi inhaled the cold spring air deeply.
In all truth, however, her hand was freezing. And the fresh air, tinged with the odor of cow shit, really wasn’t all that pleasant. But it wasn’t all bad: the inrushing air would flush out some of the smells of dead French fries, tobacco, pot, and spilled coffee that had soaked into the Volvo’s upholstery since autumn, the last time these windows had been opened.
Her hands were cold, her ears were cold. Besides which, the Party was giving her the chills.
The Party, which she had heretofore tended to think of as a mere annoyance, was starting to become a serious pain in her ass. The Party, embodied in the form of a letter from the Chancellor, was threatening to ruin her day. And it did not help matters that the Party, in the form of Uncle Ronald the Great Communicator, was staring her in the face right now.
From a prodvert board atop a hillock dead ahead— which until recently been the site of Upman’s Forge, a minor historic building that had been leveled as part of the Party’s Great Arrival of Progress—the giant smiling likeness of Ronald Reagan, Minister of Awareness, looked down on her. Xristi Friedman glanced up at him.
As she reached the place where the road turned left around Upman’s Rise, about twenty-five yards from the base of the prodvert board, the volume of the music coming from her car’s seven jury-rigged speakers rapidly diminished to a quiet background, and the gentle, confident voice of Uncle Ronald came over them.
“Hey, friend, slow down!” he said with a hint of a laugh. “That’s a dangerous kink in the road. Take it too fast and you’ll wind up on the wrong side. And remember, thinking wrong thoughts can be just as dangerous as driving on the wrong side of the road! This is just a friendly reminder from your Minister of Awareness that, paradoxical as it might sound—whoa! Where did that ten cent word come from?—sometimes not knowing is better than knowing. Curiosity killed the cat, my grandmother used to say. Remember, ignorance is strength!”
“And this is just a friendly reminder from Xristi Friedman: fuck you,” said Xristi as she reached over to switch off the stereo. “And remember, fuck you. Or, as my grandmother used to say, fuck you.”
Accelerating out of the curve where the road swerved around the rise, the Volvo harvested the energy of that turn like Apollo 13 rounding the moon and rocketed onto a straightaway that bifurcated the Party’s demonstration Farm of the Future. As it did so, an unsecured tank of liquid nitrogen rolled across the back of the car and slammed into the left side wall. Xristi switched the stereo back on.
He doesn’t wanna be a doctor or a lawyer get fat rich.
He’s twenty years old he quit his job,
Unemployment pays his rent!
In pastures on the left and the right of the road cows, that had been standing dropped to the ground and cows on the ground appeared to be trying to place their hooves over their ears. “Mommy’s Little Monster” was playing so loud that it nearly masked the detonations emanating from the Volvo’s shattered muffler.
As the automobile righted itself, Xristi looked over to make sure that the chancellor’s letter had not blown out the window. No; it was still there, smirking up at her like the schoolyard bully who has all the teachers bamboozled into thinking he is the nicest boy in the world.
The Party was trying to bring her down; the chancellor was trying to bring her down. But she wasn’t going to let them bring her down. It was spring, damn it! The return of life from the frozen underworld! Nature’s own cryonics laboratory! She again inhaled deeply the smell of pure green resurrection as she pressed the accelerator harder. Okay, so there was a hint of cow shit in the air, so what? Mostly the smell was a smell of pure green resurrection. And the riot of sound was invigorating.
Her automobile was a mobile sonic bomb, a single-minded assault on whatever bucolic vestiges remained in the township of Eastboro, New Kent, since the Great Arrival of Progress. The GAP was the name given by the Party to its expropriation of the farms and woods from local owners for development into country estates and golf courses for Party Pioneers. They came here for a taste of ersatz “heartland,” the quiet life among the proles. Well, fuck that. Xristi’s car was a giant middle finger to the Party. She wasn’t afraid of the Party. If the Party was so damn powerful, if the Party had transformed Freemerica into such a thoughtcrime police state, why wasn’t there even a cop on the road to give her a loudspeed ticket? The Party was bullshit, a figment, a Wizard of Oz that was only scary if you were afraid of it. And the chancellor was nothing more than a Party hack. The chancellor could go pound sand.
Despite these heroic goodthink efforts, however, Xristi Friedman was in fact not digging the fresh air. She was not digging the new leaves, the promise of warmth, the flowers in the meadows, the return of the birds. She was in a bad mood. A bad fucking mood, thank you very much. Because the Party might be a figment, but the letter from the chancellor poking out from under the box of cassettes on her passenger seat was very real. The chancellor was the pure embodiment of the Party, and this letter was the pure embodiment of the chancellor. Fred, she loathed them. And besides, she was sick to death of this soundtrack.
“You suck,” she said as she pressed the cassette player’s eject button. She was talking as much to spring as she was to Social Distortion, her favorite band. “Where’s that damn Mission of Burma?” she muttered.
As soon as the cassette popped out of the player, the radio instantly switched on. It was the Happy Celebrity Gossip with Regis and Mindy show.
“Evidently his cat got stuck in the chimney,” Mindy was saying with a gratingly fake laugh. “So he put on a Santa Claus suit and put some kat kibble in his mouth and climbed in after her . . .”
“Awwww . . .” Regis answered. A laugh track echoed with sighs and laughter. Cuteness at 115 decibels. But before Xristi could even reach the volume switch, Regis and Mindy dimmed down. And then there was some brass band playing a marshal theme.
“Greetings, Freemericans!” A nasal voice assaulted her. “This is Minister of National Well-Being Oliver North with an important message. These are dangerous times, when freedom-hating terrorists beset our nation from within and without. But we are a strong, proud people, and we will not give in to fear—”
It must be coming from a prodvert board, Xristi thought, but she had never heard this message before, and she drove down this road every day. She looked to her left and saw that indeed a board was there which had not been there yesterday. It showed a man in uniform with a very sober look on his face. She tried to remember what had been at this spot on Lyman Street before this morning, but she drew a blank.
“Every day I hear from hundreds of patriotic Freemericans asking me what they can do to help our country, and every day I give the same simple answer: support our troops. As someone who has taken a bullet for this proud land—with no regrets—I can tell you how much it means to soldiers in harm’s way to have the unwavering support of the citizenry. Nothing hurts our men and women in uniform more than seeing their efforts undercut by so-called loyal opposition. Be Freemerican! Support our troops!”
“Fred fuck,” Xristi said. “Not another one.”
With enormous relief she found the Mission of Burma cassette and violently inserted it into the slot, and like a blessing the first notes of “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” poured forth. And not a moment too soon: she was entering the worst part of her drive, where she had to run a gauntlet of institutional care facilities.
Three hundred yards away to her left was an enormous grey building with gun towers at dozens of vertices. Even from here she could see the caregivers with their rifles standing by machine guns mounted on tripods. Where Lyman Street met the driveway to the rehabilitation center was there was a welcome house surrounded by walls of sandbags from which dozens of gun barrels protruded. Atop the welcome house there was a bright new sign:
Then she passed in quick succession the Women’s Benevolent Association maintained by the Ministry of Special Love and the Home for Little Wanderers maintained by Kindness and Kid Kare, inKorporated.
Here she rolled up her windows. She knew that it was physiologically impossible for her to actually hear screams over the muffler and the Mission. But her ears had been known to play tricks on her in the past, and she wasn’t taking any chances.
The institutional care park gave way again to forest, and Xristi, suddenly sick of the noise, turned off the stereo. She couldn’t turn off her broken muffler, but by slowing down to thirty miles an hour she could diminish it to a reasonable roar.
About a mile beyond the Little Wanderer’s Home, opposite the little ramshackle house on the right side of the road, Xristi turned left. At fifteen miles an hour she steered her car between two decrepit stone pillars that each sported large DO NOT ENTER signs. The Party evidently hadn’t rechristened this place yet, had not yet found a bland euphemism to hide its real purpose. Or if they had, they hadn’t noticed the concrete
Eastboro State Mental Hospital
built into the stonework.
She drove past a succession of buildings on either side of the road, all disused and ill-maintained, set back on giant lawns. She went slowly here: the first time she had driven here she had nearly killed someone who was walking down the middle of the road, oblivious, talking to somebody who was evidently invisible. This shortcut though the old mental hospital was always the favorite part of her drive to her laboratory. It was her favorite place to gather her thoughts, such as they were.
About a hundred yards up the road, still well downhill of the hospital’s Main Hall, she slowed nearly to stopping and turned left down an unmarked dirt path. She drove alongside a ramshackle greenhouse whose windows were mostly broken, then past a row of garages filled with rusted trucks, and eventually to the side of a lake. There, in a small patch of sunlight near some maple trees, she turned off the motor. Her ears were still ringing.
She was tempted to grab a joint from the stash under her front seat, or at least a roach from the ashtray. But she had the feeling that getting a buzz on would not be a good idea. Today, she had the feeling, she would need all her wits about her.
“Well, let’s have another look at you,” she said, and reached over to retrieve the letter from the chancellor that she had received yesterday.
April 19, 1985
Office of the Chancellor
University of New Kent
Eastboro, New Kent
Dr. Xristi Friedman, Ph.D
Professor of Cryoneurology
University of New Kent
Eastboro, New Kent
Dear Dr. Friedman,
On behalf of the Party, it gives me great pleasure to inform you that in honor of your nearly two decades of brilliant and revolutionary contributions to the science of cryobiology, you have been selected by the Trustees of the University to assume custody of the Chronos collection. I am certain that you appreciate that this is a signal honor, among the highest that the University can bestow. Congratulations!
You are hereby relieved of your onerous teaching and research obligations having to do with all non-human life forms. As of today, you are at liberty to pursue research on the reanimation of human heads.
Party Member in Good Standing
She resisted the urge to rip the paper to shreds.
“Oh yeah, Monty?” she said. “You think it will be that easy to get rid of me? Is that what you think? Well, we’ll just see about that.”
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