Reset: Chapter 16: Wednesday, September 5, 2001 (1)

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Joe would hold firm. “No,” he said.

“Yes.”

“I’m not going.”

“You have to!”

“I’m an adult. I don’t have to do anything.”

Nick wagged a long finger in Joe’s face like the world’s tallest schoolmarm. “Not anymore!”

Joe rolled over, pulling his blankets around him in an ever-tighter cocoon. “And whose fault is that?”

“Wow. You’re unbelievable, you know that? You really take the cake. You’re like an attack dog. You never let things go.”

“Would you just let me sleep?”

But Nick kept rocking him back and forth like a loose tooth. “Fifteen minutes until class starts. You know what they say about being late for the first day!”

Joe threw Nick’s hands off and sat upright. His blankets fell, revealing his bare chest and flat stomach. He had to admit it felt nice to once again be unashamed of his body. “Of all the things you’ve done, out of everything, this might be the worst.”

“Didn’t you have, like, a son or something?” Continue reading Reset: Chapter 16: Wednesday, September 5, 2001 (1)”

Reset: Chapter 14: Tuesday, September 4, 2001 (3)

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Professor Brennan would never be confused for a professional comedian, but he wasn’t a complete disaster. His comedic prowess didn’t really matter to the seventy-five or so in attendance, surrounded by their peers and ready to laugh.

But not Gwendolyn. While her girlfriends were fixated on Brennan–and Joe couldn’t blame them; the man cut a striking figure–Gwendolyn stayed by Joe’s side, constantly whispering her thoughts on NHU’s Improv Club to him. He liked how her breath felt on his ear, but his heart raced from nervousness in addition to his pleasure at the attention. Really, Joe didn’t know if he could trust himself. He tried to keep an image of Jason in his mind, but it kept fading like an old photograph suffering from the ravages of time.

Again, Gwendolyn leaned close to whisper: “He’s really your professor?”

“Yes.”

Gwendolyn straightened up and said something, but her words were lost in a burst of laughter.

“I didn’t catch that,” said Joe.

Gwendolyn repeated her statement, but again, buried by the laughter, Joe could not understand them.

“It’s loud,” said Joe, taking in the room with a hand. “I really can’t hear you.”

“I said he’s not that good!”

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Her words rang out in that moment when silence reigned between the end of the laughter and the resumption of the performance, amplifying her words in the audience’s ears. A low murmur issued from the crowd, anticipating a confrontation.

“Well, well!” said one of the performers on stage. “It sounds like we have a critic in the house tonight!” She had olive skin and long black hair, and wore pair of thick black glasses. “To whom do we owe the pleasure?”

A group of students began pointing towards Joe and Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn, blushing, tried to bury herself in the wall. She slipped her arm through Joe’s and pulled him tightly towards her.

“Her! It was her!” the students yelled. “Against the wall!” “Her!” “That girl with her boyfriend!”

“If you think we’re not that good, then maybe you can show us how it’s done,” said the girl with the glasses. The crowd clapped and cheered at this idea. She motioned the two of them up on to the small stage. “You can bring your boyfriend along if you’re feeling kind of scared.”

“Come on,” said professor Brennan. He held out a hand. “We don’t bite . . . hard.”

“Oh God,” muttered Gwendolyn.

“They’ll leave us alone,” said Joe, who also had no desire to go up on stage. “Just ignore them.”

Gwendolyn’s friends, who obviously thought it would be hilarious to see her humiliate herself, yanked her by the arm and thrust her towards Professor Brennan’s. She still clung to Joe, and he found himself dragged towards the steps up to the stage with her. Continue reading Reset: Chapter 14: Tuesday, September 4, 2001 (3)”

Reset: Chapter 13: Tuesday, September 4, 2001 (2)

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The pretty girl with the black hair, turned around in her seat. “Hey,” she whispered.

Joe, dutifully trying to write down what he could understand through Professor Pfunder’s heavy German accent, looked up. Joe remembered her. She had sat in front of him every single day that semester. One didn’t forget a face like that, full and round with full, round lips. Her nose was straight, just shy of being called bold. And her hair was a deep black that shimmered under the fluorescent lights. For a moment Joe thought she was talking to him because he had done something wrong, liked kicked her chair or something, but then he noticed that the girl was smiling.

He didn’t remember talking to this girl during his first day of classes, or any other day, though looking at her he wished that he had. “What’s up?” he said.

“Do you get this?” asked the girl. Pfunder was talking about how nuclear reactions from supernovae created the heavier elements in the universe, a topic Joe found almost as fascinating as time travel.

“Yes,” said Joe. He smiled. “You would too if you paid attention.”

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The girl made a sour face. Another girl a few seats over shushed. The girl with the black hair shushed back. “I mean,” she said to Joe, “do you want to start a study group or something? I have a few friends in this class. Maybe we could get together once a week or something and exchange notes.”

“Right. Study group,” said Joe. He nodded absently, trying to follow Pfunder’s words. In truth, now that a conversation had actually started he wished the girl would leave him alone. Wasting time with her would get him no closer to Jason.

To his surprise, she slid a small piece of paper onto his notebook. It had her phone number and dorm written on it. And her name: Gwendolyn Bennett.

“We’ll talk after class,” she said with a glint in her eyes. They were big and dark, like Sandra’s. “Right now, I’ve got to pay attention.” She turned back to her notes.

* * *

Joe hoped that this Gwendolyn would forget about the study group idea, but to his chagrin she waited for him as he gathered his things. She was about Joe’s height and very well-shaped, quite different from Sandra who was short and petite. His eyes, despite being connected to an adult brain, couldn’t help but admire her form, stuffed as it was into black slacks and a white blouse. The clothes fit her well.

“So you should probably tell me your name now; it’s only fair,” she said. “I can’t go around calling you ‘Hey you.’”

“Joe Gallagher,” said Joe.

“‘Gallagah.’” she said, giggling. “Boston?”

“I don’t sound that bad,” he said. He slung his backpack over his shoulders. “But yeah. I mean, I’m from Lowell, not Boston. How about you?”

“New Hampshire,” said Gwendolyn, not, Joe noticed, New Hampshuh. Her diction was very crisp without a hint of regional flavor. “The nice part. Not the flannel part.”

Joe shrugged. She had probably gone to private schools then. It made him wonder why ended up at NHU. “So where are your friends?”

“They were sitting over there,” said Gwendolyn, pointing towards the other side of the hall. “They came in late.”

Joe motioned for Gwendolyn to walk down the aisle in front of him.

“You could meet them tonight, if you’re free,” she said.

“Yeah? One class in and you already want to start studying?”

“No, not studying. The Improv Club is doing a show at the student union and we were thinking of going. Would you like to come along?”

Joe groaned. “Please don’t tell me Professor Brennan is performing.”

“I have no idea who he is, but what do you say?”

He almost said “No,” with the trained reflexes of a spoilsport. But something stopped him. Maybe it was the realization, insane though it was, that he was one of the few people in the universe who could actually change his own past. Whatever it was, it was enough. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

“Exactly: Why not? Let’s get some coffee before we go. This class almost put me to sleep.

With a tinge of guilt, Joe agreed. He wanted to follow the path that led him to Sandra and Jason, but it would be nice if things weren’t in rigid lockstep with the past. He could discipline himself later. Besides, he needed a break from Nick. And maybe, just maybe, the Improv Club would distract him from that other thing, too monstrous to confront right now. Continue reading Reset: Chapter 13: Tuesday, September 4, 2001 (2)”

Reset: Chapter 12: Tuesday, September 4, 2001 (1)

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It was absurd, ridiculous, and childish, but Joe felt it all the same, that familiar surge of dread at the prospect of the first day of school.

All of his knowledge, his experience, and his confidence evaporated, leaving behind a mass of self-conscious jelly as he and Nick walked into Archer Hall to commence their academic career at New Hampshire University for the second time.

Archer’s grand lecture hall, looking more suited to theater than academics, seated three-hundred amidst huge windows flanked by grand columns. But as professors tended to be pretentious sorts who thought every word escaping from their mouths was of great importance, the setting fit. And what was an academic lecture but a type of performance?

He strained to control his breathing. His brain vibrated like a church bell being rung by an excitable abbot, the way it had when The Machine had deposited him and Nick on the field by the Burns Center. More nauseatingly, he felt the world’s strongest case of déjà vu, like his mind couldn’t reconcile the memories of things that had not yet happened occurring at the same time that they did.

“How you feel?” muttered Nick. They were the first words he had said to Joe since yesterday.

“Like my brain’s about to melt.”

“Same here,” said Nick as they took their seats. “For the record, whatever else happens, I’m sorry about this.”

“If this gets any worse, I’m going to start doing coke with you.” The girl sitting next to them looked over, eyes wide.

“He’s a Pepsi guy,” said Nick. “This is a big breakthrough, you know.”

The girl leaned back in her seat. Maybe if I ignore them, her expression said, they’ll go away.

“I don’t know how much more I can take,” said Joe. He pressed his fingers to his temples, probably looking like he was nursing a whale of a hangover, no different from most students in the lecture hall–the three-day weekend had not been kind to NHU’s undergraduate population.

“All I know is that if Brennan begins with that retarded joke about the meaning of the word ‘barbarian,’ I swear I’m leaving.” Continue reading Reset: Chapter 12: Tuesday, September 4, 2001 (1)”

Reset: Chapter 11: Monday, September 3, 2001 (2)

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“Are you ready?” said Nick. He held up a rectangular plastic box.

Jonesy grimaced in confusion. “Ready for what?”

“Ready for pain?”

They sat in Paxton’s second-floor lounge around a square table, bleary eyed and downcast. “I’ve got enough of that,” said Jonesy. He lowered his head against the table with an audible thunk. “You should have let me die.”

“Nonsense,” said Nick. He placed the box on the table. “We had to save you for a glorious death on the field of battle.”

“What are you even talking about?” Jonesy muttered.

“Only the greatest board game in the history of mankind.”

“Monopoly?” said Jonesy.

“No, fool! Risk! Does this look like Monopoly?”

The board game Risk

Carlos poked among the pieces in the open box. “Never played it.”

“And that’s what I’m here for,” said Nick, “to bring culture to you Philistines. You are in for a treat. If you like losing, that is. Which I can tell that you do.”

“You make this game sound like such a blast,” muttered Carlos.

Nick unfolded the game board and placed it on the table. “Remember the epic games we used to have?”

“Absolutely,” said Joe. “Back in high school we’d keep games going for days. Weeks, even.”

“Sounds like you needed a life,” said Carlos.

“Says the guy who spends all his time ‘playing the piano,’” said Nick, making a jerking-off gesture with one hand. “I know what you’re really doing in that practice room. Anyway, the rules are simple, but the strategies will take a lifetime to master.”

“No they won’t,” said Joe. “Just get Australia.”

Nick gave the air a karate chop. “Come on! What the hell’s the matter with you?!”

“Nothing’s the matter with me. They’re smart guys. They’d figure it out in two seconds. It’s so obvious”

“One doesn’t learn if they are given the answers. They must figure them out on their own.”

“Okay Sun Tzu,” said Joe.

“Au contraire, smart guy,” said Nick. “I think that was Confucius.”

“What’s so good about Australia?” said Jonesy. “Do they get boomerangs or something?”

“Yes,” said Nick. “And they ride kangaroos.”

Jonesy’s head shot up, his eyes bright. “Really?!”

“No, not really! It’s all about location!”

“Location, location, location,” said Carlos. “If this game’s about real estate, count me out.”

“Then it’d be Monopoly,” said Jonesy.

As though praying for the strength to teach the hard of heart, Nick gritting his teeth and rolled his eyes heavenwards. “Risk touches on every aspect of the human condition,” he said. “You will learn more about each other, and yourself. More than your own mother even knows.”

“My mother’s dead,” said Carlos quietly.

Nick’s jaw dropped. Joe felt his own mouth go dry. Had she been dead before? Did their meddling with the universe’s clock cause things to go so haywire so quickly?

“Carlos, I’m so sorry,” said Joe.

“I didn’t know, man,” said Nick. “It was just a joke. I feel terrible.”

Joe had to fight the urge to squirm in the midst of that uneasy silence now shrouding the table, all the while Carlos glared daggers at Nick with his jaw set and his fists clenched under the table.

“His mom’s not dead,” said Jonesy at least. “He’s just being a jerk.”

A smile spread slowly on Carlos’s face.

The mood punctured, Nick slumped with unfeigned relief. They joined Carlos in laughing, maybe a little too enthusiastically.

“Good one,” said Nick, pointing a long finger. “Good one. You got us.”

“Us?” said Joe. “Why am I always blamed for the stupid stuff you do and say?”

“Because you look like the kind of guy who does and says stupid stuff.”

“Not really,” said Jonesy, returning his head to his arms.

“Way to throw the guy who saved your life under the bus,” said Nick. “But enough messing around. There is nothing funny about war. Except for the part where Joe loses.”

Jonesy again raised his head and stared glumly at the board. “Can’t we just play video games?”

Joe patted him on the back. “After last night I think you need to decompress with some good, clean fun.” Continue reading Reset: Chapter 11: Monday, September 3, 2001 (2)”

Reset: Chapter 10: Monday, September 3, 2001 (1)

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The phone rang. Joe ignored it. The phone rang again. He opened his eyes a crack. His clock told him that the time was 3:32 in the morning. No time for conversation. But the phone kept ringing. Nick’s rattling snore told Joe that he had no trouble sleeping through the intrusion. With a huff, he reached out and picked up the phone. “Who the hell is this?!”

“Jonesy’s not here! He’s still not here!”

Joe sat up. “Carlos? What’s going on?”

“I got up to piss and Jonesy’s still not here! I’m worried, man!”

“Okay. Did you call the police?”

Nick’s snoring cut off with a tearing sound. “Keep it down,” he muttered.

“No,” said Carlos.

“Give them a call. He’s probably fine. It’s his first weekend away from home. We were all like that when we were kids, you know?”

“When we were kids?”

Something hit Joe on the head. Nick’s grasping hand tugged on his ear before yanking the receiver away. The phone’s cradle fell off of the nightstand, suspended by the cord.

“Carlos. It’s Nick. Call the cops and meet us at Rodger.” Rodger Hall was a huge dorm midway from Danielson Hall, where Carlos and Jonesy lived, and Paxton. “Yeah. Don’t worry about Joe. I think he was drunk. No. I’m joking. Alright. See you there. And don’t worry. He’s probably fine. Later.”

Nick dropped the phone receiver, which passed startlingly close to Joe’s cheek. The whole phone, cradle and all, hit the floor with a loud clatter. “Way to wake the whole dorm up,” said Joe.

Nick swung his long legs over the edge of the top bunk, nearly smacking Joe in the head. “You need to watch yourself. You almost gave the game away.”

“Oh, come on. Like he would’ve believed me anyway.”

“You don’t know that.”

Joe stood and jumped just in time for Nick to hit the floor behind him. “Yes I do,” he said. “And if it comes up, I used to play trumpet in high school, alright?”

“Yeah. Got it. You’re a regular Miles Davis.” Nick flicked on the overhead lights. “Get dressed.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” said Joe.

Nick froze while rummaging through his sock drawer. “I know you’re sad about your son, Joe. I feel bad about that, I really do. Real bad. But this is the situation we’re in now so let’s deal with it.”

Joe pulled a clean t-shirt over his head and started looking for his jeans. “Situation. Right. And I’m the worrywart for thinking that it may not be such a good idea to go messing around with the past.”

Nick barked a laugh and turned towards Joe. “Hey, I’m not the one who told Jonesy to go talk to some sorority girl and offer her a drink. That’s on you, my friend.”

“You’re the one that brought him there in the first place with your stupid phone number game. He looks up to you, Nick. He always did.”

“That’s his problem, not mine. And don’t you try to pass the blame on to me.”

“Pass the blame? Who set The Machine off in the first place?!”

“Whoa, hey, shh, keep it down.” Nick was waving his hands like he was trying to put out a fire. “I’m a jerk, alright? I wasn’t thinking. I was high, miserable, upset, a total ass, a knucklehead, a buffoon, okay? We can talk about my moral failings later. Let’s just find Jonesy, alright?”

“Fine. Let’s do this. But this isn’t over.”

“That’s the spirit!” said Nick. His hand darted out and slapped Joe in the nuts, making him double over in shock and pain. “Don’t just stand there,” he said, opening the door. “We’ve got work to do.” Continue reading Reset: Chapter 10: Monday, September 3, 2001 (1)”

Must We Politics?

Must politics ruin everything?

Must politics infect even our art?

Must blog posts have bad grammar?

These thoughts came to me recently (well, maybe not the grammar one) as I witnessed author Jon Del Arroz on Twitter going back-and-forth with other authors about the seeming impossibility of keeping politics out of fiction. Jon, clearly, thinks that it is possible to write politics-free fiction, and that it is, in fact, easy to do. This is part of the impetus behind the Pulp Revolution, after all:

Just don’t write politics into it.

 

Author Jon Del Arroz
Jon Del Arroz

On the other side is the view that it’s impossible because political viewpoints form who the author is, and that such a fundamental part of the writer–or artist in general–is always going to seep through:

Politics are a part of the author, and every work is a piece of the author’s soul.

I have a problem with this second position, for four main reasons:

  1. Hypocrisy on the part of those who make this argument. These are the same people who try to tell us that, in our politicians, character doesn’t matter and that personal beliefs, whether philosophy or faith, need to be kept out of politics. Yet it’s “impossible” to separate personal values and beliefs from something with arguably far fewer consequences like art? Do we pick and choose based on some arbitrary metric? How does this even make sense?
  2. The conflation of contemporary politics with universal themes about humanity. Much of what passes as contemporary political philosophy is meaningless gibberish. Deconstruction, critical theory, tax policy, post-modernism, and the reduction of every single facet of human interaction into the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy has as much to do with the human experience and the intellectual life as your bowel movement has to do with high art (unless you’re a Dadaist, I guess, then have at it).
  3. It demonstrates a lack of skill. This one is short but sweet: a good writer can write from the perspective of anyone, and make the reader believe it…without the character sounding like a mouthpiece for the author.
  4. The conflation of politics with values. This is the big one. Values might determine what political affiliation–if any–you gravitate towards. But when we talk “values,” we usually aren’t talking “I’m a Republican!” or “I’m a Democrat!” Or at least we shouldn’t be.

I am a firm believer that one can enjoy art despite its creator’s politics. Don’t like Nazis? No one does! But just because Richard Wagner was Hitler’s favorite doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy The Nibelungenlied.

What’s that, you say? You’re not a Che-worshipping, Lenin-loving murderous Marxist? Well guess what: You can still listen to–and enjoy!–Rage Against the Machine (though those dudes will still hate you).

You get the idea.

But far more interesting is the “power lifts as values” issue. Let’s explore this a bit further. Continue reading “Must We Politics?”