Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Tom Learmont. Tom was born in the Golden Age of Science Fiction – to grow up in Scotland and Rhodesia, filled with “sensawunda” from reading H.G. Wells, Theodore Sturgeon and James Blish. He scraped a degree and taught for a few years. Then he bought a typewriter, commenced living by his wits and moved to Joburg. Tom wrote the Swiftian afrofantasy “After the Eclipse” (Sanlam Literary Award 1998). “Light Across Time” (Kwela 2011) is the first part of his Stapledonian sequence, “Brief Music”. At the moment he’s a newspaperman, and serves as the fiction editor of DRUM magazine.
This is the story’s first publication.
Morrie and the Grand Potato
Morrie Kantorowitz flew into Vegas and was waiting for a cab at McCarran when his second stroke felled him. He could feel the hot gritty sidewalk against his left cheek; he couldn’t see straight. At 74 years of age Morrie knew he’d had it, and his first reaction was one of fury. Then a train of quick images flickered through his head.
Morrie saw the tires explode on an automobile that caught fire when he was four… his first day at school… being a barmitzvah boy… making out with Arlene in the back of the Ford… a rumble with a spic in the wee hours at City Island… an asshole drill sergeant… the splash that night when he pushed his sonovabitch unsaleable Buick into the East River just to get rid of it… the trifecta he re-invested at Yonkers Raceway… his first wedding… a firstborn son… the second divorce… the first slot machine…
Morrie knew what it means to have your whole life flash before you. His final thought before the black curtains came down was: Aw shit, I suppose –
Then he woke up in bed. A woman in a white robe was bending over him. She had long, wavy dark red hair, big golden-brown eyes, a porcelain complexion. And a nice pair of bazoombas under the robe. The girl smiled at him.
“I’m here to help,” she said, in a cute Limey accent.
“Why thanks, honey. I thought I was a goner at McCarran, but I seem to have made it, and I’m feeling just fine. So where am I?”
“Sub Prime, Mr Kantorowitz.”
“That’s a hospital already? With a name like that you should give home loans to the underprivileged!”
The redhead took Morrie by the hand and said, “This isn’t a hospital.”
He looked at his surroundings: sunlit window with a view of the Strip, flat screen TV, modern art oil painting on the wall, writing desk, couple of easy chairs, archway leading to the closet and bathroom. It looked like a regular upmarket Vegas hotel room, the kind he had slept in thousands of times since he went into the slots business.
“The Sub Prime Inn, huh? Listen – I’m kind of confused. I don’t remember getting here. And I had a stroke – sure as hell I had a stroke. I’ve had one before. But how come there’s no after effects? Am I sick?”
“You’re dead, Mr Kantorowitz.” She gave his hand a comforting squeeze.
Morrie was silent for a second, then he burst into laughter.
“Yeah, yeah! And now I’m in Heaven, and you’re an angel. What kind of a snow job are you trying to pull? You want to kid me there’s a Heaven? I don’t believe any of that baloney, young lady! If I was dead, I would be potting soil. There’s no ghosts, no soul, no Heaven. There’s no Hell, and when you die, you rot. Everything else is bullshit!”
The angel heaved a sigh. “There is no Heaven, yes. But there is a Sub Prime. You have just been cut and pasted from Sub Sub Prime.”
“I give you this, sweetheart, you’ve got a good act. I don’t know who’s behind this, but you seem like a cute kid, so I’ll play along, okay? So talk!”
“You’re right. I’m no angel. I’m a married woman with a checkered past –”
“So who’s your husband?” Morrie was beginning to enjoy himself.
Morrie’s barking laugh filled the room. “What’s his other name – ‘Archangel’ or something?”
“I am Mrs Gabriel Rossetti.”
“No relation to Tommy Rossetti in Atlantic City? Hey – there was a casino manager in Reno by the name of Rossetti, Frankie Rossetti. No connection?”
“My husband was never in your line of business, Mr Kantorowitz. But I very rarely see him these days.”
“It happens. Look at me – four marriages. Listen, what do I call you, Mrs Rossetti?”
“Lizzie will be fine for now. May I go on?”
Lizzie was walking back and forth like a sexy schoolmarm, with a fine swing of her hips in that silky robe, going on about Sub Prime. From what Morrie gathered, first there was Prime, like a universe. The people, or the UFO aliens – whoever, who gives a fuck – were smart enough to invent a second universe inside the first one. It runs on a different system. Lizzie said the wise men she knew had no idea how many sub-sub-sub primes there were. But she was happy to work with three.
“So you see, we can only be sure of Prime, Sub Prime where we are now – and Sub Sub Prime, where we all originated as flesh-and-blood organisms largely based on chemistry. Life in Sub Prime is numerical, not protoplasmic. Mr Kantorowitz, it might help if you were to think of us as living inside some gigantic computer –”
“Hey, I saw The Matrix on TV. Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that, I’m afraid. Have you ever read a book called Riverworld by Philip José Farmer?”
“Hell, you know – me and books… I don’t have much time for reading.”
“Very well, I shall try to explain. You and I, Mr Kantorowitz, and everything in this room, everything outside that window, everything out as far as the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto, everything beneath our feet, right to the Earth’s core, even to the heart of the Sun – is made of numbers.”
“So I’m fake and you’re fake! Listen, girly, when I pinch myself hard – like this – I can feel it. And it don’t feel like no number pinching another one.”
“Mr Kantorowitz – would you take out your false teeth, please?”
Morrie stared at Lizzie blankly, then ran his tongue round the inside of his mouth.
“Open!” said Lizzie, striding across to the bed with a hand mirror.
Morrie seized the mirror and gaped at himself. He saw a much younger face, and raised a hand to feel natural teeth which were firmly rooted in healthy pink gums.
“Yes, Mr Kantorowitz – all that you feel, and see, and think is numbers bumping into each other. You are no longer flesh and blood. You are made of numerically-simulated atoms and molecules. Try to think of yourself as software that once ran on a computer made of living tissue. That program has been transferred into a different sort of engine – a computer too vast to imagine adequately, with an operating system of unfathomable complexity.”
“Okay, okay – but why am I so young, I mean, I must be about –”
“Thirty-eight. And I’m twenty-four, despite dying of a drug overdose at thirty-two. I was not a well woman at the time, and rather too fond of laudanum. Physical age in Sub Prime is determined by the individual’s preferred body image, you see – which is something that’s stored in the hippocampus –”
“It’s part of the brain. And the information from it means that you will keep that body image for the duration of your stay on Sub Prime.”
“How long is that?”
“We don’t know. My personal experience of Sub Prime only began on the 11th of February 1862. But I’ve encountered people who died half a million years ago.”
Morrie’s brain was racing. He was beginning to believe the girl. He thought of meeting up with his mom again, but maybe not so much the old man. Slow down, he told himself. He took a deep breath and asked: “You mean, kicking the bucket is like on Star Trek, when they say ‘Beam me up’? ”
Lizzie smiled. “Not quite. If the Star Trek transporter really worked, it would destroy Captain Kirk completely and create an identical-looking Kirk. But he wouldn’t be the original.”
She stroked his wrist. It didn’t look like she was wearing a bra. Morrie felt a stirring in his pajama pants that hadn’t happened so often over the last couple of years. He shifted slightly in bed and tried to concentrate as Lizzie went on.
“Our ‘souls’ were once electrical impulses; information on central nervous systems constructed of flesh and blood. When that protoplasm dies, the original personality and all its memories are transferred to a new housing along a link from Sub Sub Prime to Sub Prime.”
She stood up. Yep, definitely there was no bra.
“I was in a coma when I transferred,” said Lizzie. “So I never experienced what they call ‘review’. Did you? Did your whole life flash before your eyes?”
“Yeah! I heard about that, and it happened to me,” Morrie said.
“That’s all the conscious brain can register of the high-speed transfer to Sub Prime, just a few flickering memories. The immense riches of the personality and the entire life memory take only a couple of seconds to transmit,” she told him.
Morrie’s erection shrank a little as his mind stretched to take in what Lizzie was telling him. She went on about how a personality can program his or her immediate environment in Sub Prime. How he had already created familiar surroundings for himself, in the shape of the Vegas hotel room. How he could think up clothes at will; food, a car – yes, even that first Ford.
She described how the self-perpetuating programmer that ran Sub Prime accepted only entities possessed of what she called ‘imagination’. They seemed to be largely mammals, especially primates. Two notable exceptions were certain species of octopus and parrot. To populate the Earth of Sub Prime, species below the imagination threshold were recreated from the memory banks of individuals. People had been dreamed up from scratch, said Lizzie, but only by highly-talented artists.
He heard about how life goes on in Sub Prime, how the population tends to gather in cultural and temporal ghettos, occupying their time in ways that fulfill them. Scientists investigate the nature of things. People cure their own diseases and escape their chemical addictions; enjoy numerically tasty food and drink; maintain all simulated normal bodily functions. But there are no pregnancies; that sort of stuff can only happen in the protoplasmic Sub Sub Prime universe.
Lizzie sat down on the bed and took his hand again. That was some perfume she was wearing. She said: “And there is such a thing as love, believe it or not; just as fragile as it is in the place we came from. But it does exist.”
“Talking of love, how about this?” Morrie said, flipping back the bed linen and placing her cool hand on the best boner he’d had in a decade. “What do you think, huh?”
Lizzie gave it a cruel flick with a sharp fingernail that sent it creeping backwards into Morrie’s pajamas.
With a fierce look, she stood up and told him: “Frankly, Mr Kantorowitz, I’ve seen thicker – and felt harder. The quality of my compassion is definitely strained, so I’ll thank you not to be so tiresome. You’re behaving like an adolescent suicide bomber who has been promised a harem of indiarubber concubines. Behave! Or I shall go back to Number 14, and the much more congenial company of Guggums my bullfinch and Miss Dorothea Brooke.”
Morrie’s hands were up in a gesture of surrender throughout her brief tirade. His pecker felt as if it had taken a shot from a BB gun. “Sorry, sorry – my misunderstanding, Lizzie! It’s cool – I promise. I’ll behave. Just don’t get mad, okay?”
Morrie knew he needed her help, so he showed willing. “What about running the country,” he asked. “Is there a legislature?
She was still tight-lipped, like a schoolmarm. “Anarchy is the best word for the system.”
“But… law and order, the cops?
“Whatever runs Sub Prime has a sort of combined inertia effect that makes people behave. There’s no need for money, or jobs you don’t like, because everyone has infinite resources. You should take up reading, now that you’ve got the time. It might help you understand how we live here. Try reading Ubik – that’s by my friend Phil Dick, a most interesting fellow.”
Morrie had a bright idea. “Now just supposing I was hell-bent on suicide. Supposing I dream myself up a big car and drive head-on into other people on a freeway…”
Lizzie laughed. “The system would reset.”
“But what about really evil guys – yeah, what about Adolf Hitler?”
“Oh, him. Well, he bothers no one on Sub Prime. He came through as a nine-year-old, and lives with his mother. She doesn’t object – quite likes it, from what I hear. Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Elisabeth Bathory, Stalin, Vlad the Lad… They’re all rather banal here. So pathetic that revenge would seem superfluous. Napoleon’s hippocampus had him come through as a 14-year old; he paints watercolors and plays with tin soldiers on a green baize table.”
“Moses, Mohammed, Jesus?”
“Not much religion on this plane, I’m afraid. Moses looks after his sheep, Mohammed seems content with his wives. We do have a former Galilean carpenter who was crucified, but he disavows all knowledge.”
Morrie said: “But is there room for all these people? All the guys who’ve passed since the days of the cavemen. They must take up a lot of space.”
“And they do,” said the girl. “But the Sub Prime operating system has a trick – some sort of multi-tasking that makes the world quite elastic. You’ll have to ask someone else about that, I’m afraid. I have no aptitude for natural philosophy.”
Lizzie’s eyes were sparkling again as she went on. “That said, I find Science very stimulating. Some adventurous men want to build a starship to see if Sub Prime is infinite; Isabel Burton’s husband Richard for one. There are any number of theories about the purpose behind the universe and whether we can transfer to Prime.”
“But what about the people back on Earth?” said Morrie. “Why don’t we help them?”
Lizzie shook her head. “The traffic is strictly one-way. We don’t even know about new books and art and films and inventions in Sub Sub Prime until people bring them along as part of a transfer.”
She sat down at the foot of the bed and smiled at Morrie. “I know it’s very early days, Mr Kantorowitz, and it must be frightfully disorienting for you. It was for me. But with a little help, you will settle down.”
“If it’s not a rude question – what did you do for a crust back on Sub-Sub, Lizzie?”
“I was a model.”
“Honey, with your looks, I’m not surprised.”
Lizzie picked up a TV remote and pointed it. She appeared on the screen, wearing an old fashioned outfit, lying flat on her back, soaking wet, floating in some sort of swamp with a dopey expression on her face. Morrie didn’t get it.
“Ophelia. Done by a gentleman from the Brotherhood called Millais – my friend Effie’s husband. It was all the rage. What’s your opinion, Mr Kantorowitz?”
“Well, that’s some oil painting, all right,” said Morrie. “So, do you still model?”
“No. I help people who have just transferred. I find social work more fulfilling than posing, or dabbling in painting and poetry. There is such a plenitude of fulfilling ways to pass eternity. Enough for anyone, I should think. And I have no doubt that you will settle down and find an absorbing occupation for yourself.”
Morrie sat up in bed and pulled the blankets to his waist. It felt strange not to have a belly any more. “Hell, I don’t know anything else besides slots. I mean, like marketing them. Do they have casinos here? They must, if that’s Vegas there outside the window. I see the Strip, so that answers my question. Maybe I can get a job as a slots consultant. What do you think?”
“It’s possible that you’ve created several casinos just by virtue of your arrival, Mr Kantorowitz. But we have no addictive behavior in Sub Prime, so I’m not sure that they would be a commercial success. And gambling for money doesn’t mean much either. You see, we can have everything we wish for without having to earn money, or win it, or steal it. There must be something you would like to do instead.”
Morrie felt dubious. All he knew was slots. Floor layout; yellow brick roads, lighting; slots mix; signage; theming; belly glasses; stepper motors; pay tables; hoppers; candles; bonusing; jurisdiction compliance; player tracking systems.
He had taken a few early false career decisions: sales, retailing, the agency for those stupid BMX kiddie bikes his dumb ass second brother-in-law had got him into. But slots made a lot of sense – especially after the Telnaus patent in the eighties brought in eproms and virtual reels and wide area progressives. Yeah, and good crowd-pleasing shit like volatility. He was on a roll with slots – never looked back. Well-liked by a lot of big guys in the industry; on first-name terms with Mr Steve Wynn. Morrie was a respected figure in the universe he had just quit.
Lizzie was talking again. “Very few of us carry on with our former pursuits on Sub Prime, with the exception of certain historians.” She picked up the TV remote. “Let me show you what some of my friends are doing, it might suggest a pastime you could enjoy in your new life.”
A vast gathering appeared on the screen. Morrie saw potted palms and fiddlers in tuxedos.
“You could join a club,” said Lizzie. “This is the Titanic Passengers Association – 1600-odd members. Some of them are very agreeable people. But there are smaller clubs, like the so-called Birthday Gang. Geniuses, every one of them. Will and Miguel started it; they arrived simultaneously on 23 April 1616. François is also a member – such a naughty man! He used to call Sub Prime “le grand peut-être”.
Noticing Morrie’s expression, she said: “Oh, I do apologize, Mr Kantorowitz. How discourteous of me to assume. What I said was French for ‘the great perhaps’. In a jokey mood we English speakers refer to his saying as ‘the grand potato’. That’s what the French sounds like to our ears. It was actually a jest by another member of the club, Sirin. Let me see if I can find him…” She clicked the remote. “Yes! Look, that’s Sirin – the young chap in the passenger seat.”
Morrie shook his head. “What in the hell kind of cockamamie auto is that?”
“Superb, isn’t it? A 1932 Hispano-Suiza with tulipwood coachwork. That’s Sirin’s wife Véra at the wheel. He hates driving, so she chauffeurs him everywhere.”
“Good looking girl. Listen, should I know these people?”
“That’s a possibility, Mr Kantorowitz. He’s called Sirin now, but he was Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita.”
“I heard of that,” Morrie said. “Some dirty book about an underage hooker, right?”
“I should try to avoid that terminology,” said Lizzie. “Especially if you meet the lady in question. She’s my age; an absolute poppet, and very special, because she was created in Sub Prime. She’s known as Mrs Dolly Schiller, and she’s often with Sirin and Véra. By the way, he’s given up writing. These days he researches evolution – mainly mimicry – and he designs his own butterflies. Accelerates their breeding numerically to see what happens. Charles, Julian and Gregor come to help out occasionally.”
Morrie was feeling a lot better. The insult to his dick head had improved to a dull throb. He said, “I apologize, Lizzie. I sincerely apologize for being out of line. It’s all so new here. I didn’t mean to be such a jerk. No hard feelings?”
She gave him a dazzling smile and shook her head.
“And call me Morrie, won’t you?”
“As you wish, Morrie. Now, if you’re ready to move out of this hotel room, we can venture a little farther afield and introduce you to your new surroundings. Have lunch with some of my friends; go for a drive, perhaps.”
“Right, right,” said Morrie. “But let me take a shower first. Then I want to dream myself up an outfit, okay?” He sprang out of bed and bounced on the balls of his feet like a boxer, spun round and disappeared through the arch that led to the bathroom.
Lizzie sat in one of the easy chairs and pointed the remote again.
Outside the hotel she saw a pink 1957 Cadillac convertible with the top down. Its tailfins were almost as high as the wraparound windscreen. The big empty car was still quivering on its springs, and someone had left the driver’s door ajar.
She depressed another key on the remote, and tuned in to the hotel interior. Lizzie saw a woman come flouncing along the corridor on scarlet heels by Christian Louboutin. She had a matching clutch bag and a red, clinging bouclé mini-dress; the unbuttoned mink was flying open. Big solitaire, pout, botox brow, smudgy eyes. A bouncy platinum bob topped off the overall effect.
Lizzie heard Morrie imitating Sinatra in the shower, and snapped the screen image off.
He came through with wet hair, in a white toweling bathrobe, and bowed.
“Tah-dah!” said Morrie, and turned in a circle to show off the garment. “Get it? Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair, okay? What do you think?”
Then Morrie heard the knock on the door; and from outside, slightly muffled, a toxic whine he recognized instantly.
“Morrie, you’re in there. Coming to get you!” it said.
“Holy shit! That’s my third wife, the bitch. Where’s the fire escape, Lizzie? Jesus, is there no way out of this? Lizzie, what do I do, for chrissakes?
Lizzie just looked at him.
The voice outside said “You owe me, Morrie – you piece of shit!”
Morrie’s heart was pounding, and he said, “I get it! This is Heaven, okay. But it’s Hell as well, ain’t it, Lizzie?”
Lizzie said nothing. But her golden eyes were full of an infinite tenderness.