Friday, September 30, 2011

"Exo-Skeleton Town" by Jeffrey Ford (Part 3 of 4)

Exo-Skeleton Town
by Jeffrey Ford

[Continued from Part 2]

The Lancaster house was a creaky old retro affair from the part of Earth's history when they used wood to build dwellings. I'd seen pictures of these things before. The style, as I had read in one of my many film books, was Victorian. These baroque shelters with lacelike woodwork and myriad rooms were always popping up in the flicks from the thirties and forties. Pointed rocket-ship-looking turrets on either side of a big three-story box with a railed platform that went all the way around it. As I made my way toward the steps that led to a door, I quickly, out of desperation, mind-wrote the script for the next scene.

I knocked once, twice, three times, and waited, hoping the lady of the house was home. There was no way I would ever make it to Exo-town on my own. Eventually the door pulled back and a young woman appeared behind an inner screen door.

"Can I help you?" she asked, almost in a whisper.

"I'm lost," I said. "I wandered away from town, hoping to see the luminous veldt, and although I've found it, I don't think I can return. Something has been chasing me through the tall grass. I'm scared and tired." Having said this, I had a feeling my words had come out too stiffly to be believed.

She opened the screen door and looked at me. "Joseph Cotten?" she said.

I nodded and looked as forlornly as possible.

"You poor man," she said, and motioned for me to enter.

As I crossed the threshold, it became clear to me that old Joe was on the job. If it had been only me, she most likely would have locked the door and called the Beetle Squad, but since it was Cotten, the consummate professional of ingratiating Third Man haplessness, she immediately felt my pain.

Inside the bowels of the old Victorian, standing on an elaborately designed rug, amidst the spiraled wooden furniture, in the face of an ancient stand-up clock, I took in the beauty of Gloriette Moss. Stootladdle knew his film, because here was obvious star quality in the supernova range—an exotic hybrid of the young Audrey Hepburn and the older Hayley Mills. She was this and more than this, with a mid-length blonde wave, a face so fresh and innocent, a smile that was straight grace until the corners curled into mischief. She wore a simple, cobalt-blue dress and no shoes. She was Jean Seberg with hair, Grace Kelly minus the affectation.

"I rarely have visitors now that my husband has passed away," she said, her hands clasped behind her back.

"Sorry to trouble you," I said. "I don't know what I was thinking, coming out here into the wilderness on my own."

"It's no trouble, really," she said. "I rather enjoy the idea of company."

"Well, just let me get my bearings and I'll be off," I said, and though I spoke this plainly, I could feel Cotten creating a look of half-hidden dejection.

"Nonsense," she said. "You've come all this way to see the veldt. You can't go back to town by yourself, you're lucky you made it here alive. There are things in the grass, you know. Things that would just as soon eat you."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I had come all the way from Earth to scout locations for a film about the bug planet. I'm thinking of reviving the art of cinema back on the home world, and I thought what better place to make a movie than the only place in the universe where movies are still appreciated for their art and not how much freasence they will bring."

"That's wonderful," she said, her face brightening more than ever. "Stay here with me for a while and I will show you the veldt. This house has so many empty rooms."

"Are you sure I won't be putting you out?" I asked.

"Please," she said. "I'll have my man show you upstairs and get you situated."

I began to speak, but she said, "I'll hear nothing to the contrary," and that ancient, elegant phrase, issuing from that smooth face made me weak.

"Vespatian," she called out, and a moment later a pale green grasshopper as tall as me, dressed in a black short-coat and trousers, appeared at the entrance to a hallway leading left.

"We have a visitor," she said. "Mr. Cotten will be staying for a time. See him to the large room on the third floor, the one with the view of the veldt."

"As you wish, madame," said the bug with the obsequious air of a David Niven. "This way, sir."

As I was delivered to the door of an upstairs room, Vespatian informed me that dinner would be at eight. I thanked him and he gave a pained sigh before deftly spinning and walking away.

The minute I was in my room, I became the Cotten of Shadow of a Doubt. I laid down on the bed, a view of the glowing waves of grass out beyond the floor-to-ceiling window making it feel as though I were on a ship sailing a sea of light, and began to scheme.

At dinner, we ate charbroiled centipede steaks and sipped at fermented roach mucous from fine crystal Earth goblets. I'd always thought if I had the money, I'd bring pizza to the bug planet, but that is something else again.

"Now, Joseph," said Gloriette. "I know you from your films, but I bet you have never heard of me before."

"But I have," I said, taking a chance of revealing too much. "I've never seen it, but anyone interested in film knows of The Rain Does Things Like That. After meeting you, I can now see why it is such a cult classic."

She laughed like a girl and then as suddenly a look of sorrow came over her. "My husband, the great Burt Lancaster, loved that movie," she said. "That is all that is important to me about it."

"Yes," I said. "I was sorry to hear about the ambassador when I arrived from Earth."

"He was a great man," she said, and the nano-technology produced delicate tears true to her obvious feelings.

We ate then in silence. I dared not speak and interrupt the memories clearly she was reliving. She sat motionless for some time, a piece of centipede on her fork, staring down at the table.

When I finished, I quietly got up and left the dining room. I went to bed and tried to sleep, but now that my situation was fixed and the nervous tension generated from an uncertain fate had worn off, my desire for the smoke began to scratch at my brain. I was so strung out I thought I smelled it wafting about my room. It became impossible to lay still any longer, and I got up and paced. There came a death scream of some prey from out on the veldt, punctuating the ambient drone of crickets. I let myself out of the room and quietly snuck downstairs.

I crept through the darkened house from room to room, wondering at all of the twentieth-century gewgaws that lined the shelves. The ambassador, it was evident, was a real fan of ancient Earth. Then, I truly did smell the smoke, and at the same time saw a light coming from a room at the end of a long hallway on the first floor. As I approached, I heard soft music—Ella Fitzgerald, I believe. At the entrance, I looked in and saw Gloriette sitting on a couch. Before her on a low table were a huge bottle of the concoction we had at dinner, a full glass, and a smoke pot, smoldering away, the orange mist hovering about the room. The long tube from the pot draped down and then up beneath her dress, between her open legs.

At that moment, she turned and saw me. Her half-opened eyes registered no alarm or embarrassment. She smiled, now much older than before, a smile devoid of mirth.

"Smoke?" she asked.

"If I may," I said twitching inside my exo-suit.

She patted the couch cushion next to her, and I went over and sat down.

Reaching beneath her dress, she unhooked the tube that led to the pot. The woosh sound of her spigot closing followed. She handed me the tube, and I pulled down my zipper, maneuvered myself into position and hooked up.

My God, what a relief. I still remember it even through the haze of all the intervening years of smoke. When I had finished, we sat in the orange cloud, listening to the heavenly music.

"Who are you, Joseph?" she asked in a whisper.

I knew what she meant, but it was too dangerous to speak of such things. On the bug planet, the charade of the exo-suits had not quite been figured out. Stootladdle and his minions really thought we were the stars we appeared to be. They were so enchanted by our personas, they had not bothered to apply the necessary logic to the situation. It was like the secret of Santa Claus, and I didn't want to be the one to blow it.

"A friend," I said, amazed at myself for having the wherewithal not to prattle under the influence of the smoke.

"Do you miss Earth?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "I miss the sunlight."

"I could go back any time I wished," she said. "But there is nothing for me there. When the ambassador died, in a way, so did I."

"A good man," I said.

"A very good man," she said. "He loved his work. No one could wrap Stootladdle around their finger like my husband. The freasence market owes him such a debt. And not only his work, he was so good to me too. We always talked and joked, and twice a year, using his own wealth, we would go to town and, I hope you don't mind me mentioning it, visit the box."

"The box?" I asked.

"Stootladdle has a pressurized chamber you can get into and remove your exo-skin. It costs a great deal to use, but my husband thought nothing of the expense."

"But didn't that give the secret away?" I asked.

"No, Joseph," she said, and laughed. "They think when we enter it, we are merely molting. They think of it in bug terms. A place for us to shed our outer skins and mate." She blushed and her giggling overtook her for a time.

"Imagine what their concept of humanity must be," I said, and laughed.

"A man from Earth invented the box and paid to have it brought here. It was popular for a time among the expatriates because he did not charge so much, but when Stootladdle saw that there was wealth to be made from it, he had the inventor meet with an accident and confiscated the box. Now he charges exorbitant rates for little more than an Earth half-hour."

"He is a bastard," I said.

"I shouldn't be telling you this, but I don't care now. In the box, we knew each other as the people that we truly are." Here, she set herself up for another toke, and after that the conversation died. The old phonograph finished the black platter and the music became a scratch, scratch, scratch that in its insistence blended with the crickets outside. I dozed and when I awoke, Gloriette was gone. I stumbled upstairs to bed.

The next day, which of course was always night, Vespatian brought the truck around. Gloriette and I sat on the open platform in the back on lounge chairs bolted to the metal deck. We had a pitcher of drinks and a picnic lunch.

"Into the veldt, Vespatian," she ordered.

"As you wish, madame," said the grasshopper from the cab.

She showed me the sights of that illuminated flatland, and I could tell she felt a vicarious wonder through my own astonishment at its beauty. In the afternoon, we came upon a dung ranch. Out in the tall grass, behemoth insects, called Zanderguls, elephant-sized water bugs, moved slowly through the veldt. Gloriette explained that these lumbering giants ate the grass, which was set aglow by tiny microbe-sized insects that carried their own luminescence. As the huge beasts dined, they excreted, in near equal proportion, globules of the freasence. A chemical reaction of the microbes mixing with the digestive juices of the Zanderguls gave freasence its special love qualities for earthlings. Behind each organic aphrodisiac machine followed a flea, one of Stootladdle's brethren, with a cart in which they would place the lumpen riches of the bug planet.

Just being out there near so much freasence turned my thoughts to sex. Gloriette, I noticed also had a certain flush about her, and I detected the presence of her nipples from beneath her demure pink party dress. When she saw me noticing, she called out to Vespatian, "That's enough for today."

The dutiful insect started the truck and took us back by way of a river path. Its waters were blacker than the night, but in its depths pinpoints of light darted about.

"There is Earth," said Gloriette, pointing out into space at a star that was smaller than one of the river mites.

"So it is," I said, but did not look.

That night, after dinner, after Vespatian had retired, Gloriette and I sat in the parlor staring through the orange fog at The Rain Does Things Like That. Earlier, when we had come in from the porch, an antique projector and a portable screen had already been set up. After a few good tokes, she turned off the lights and flipped the switch on the movie machine.

To be honest, the film was awful, the plot was what was known as a tearjerker, but Gloriette Moss was so radiant even in black and white, so honest, that the other lousy actors, the poor cinematography, the creaking scenario, didn't matter. It was about a young woman who, because she had been abused by her first husband, had become an alcoholic. We see her stumble out of a bar in the middle of a rainstorm and make her way along a city block. She is drenched when a young man approaches her with an umbrella and asks if she would like to share it with him. As it turns out, he too has a drinking problem. To make it short, they fall in love. Then they decide to help each other overcome their respective addictions. There is much overacting in relation to delirium tremors consisting of, among other things, swarms of insects, but finally love prevails. After the couple has succeeded, we see them married, living in an apartment building, modest but cozy. Life is wonderful, and then it starts to rain. The young husband tells her he is going across the street for a pack of cigarettes. From the window she watches him leave the building. As he crosses the street a car, driven by none other than the perpetually annoying Red Buttons, careens around the corner. The brakes are slammed, the car skids, and Gloriette's lover is killed. In the last scene of the movie, she is back at the bar. The bartender says that he hasn't seen her in some time and that she looks awful. She sips her drink, takes a puff of her cigarette and says, "The rain does things like that."

When the movie ended and the tail of the film slapped the projector with each spin of the spool, Gloriette turned to me and said, "You know, I have almost come to believe that this is an actual memory and that I am watching the real me when I was younger."

I told her she was fabulous in it, but she waved her hand in a manner that told me to leave the room. At the doorway, I turned back and told her she was beautiful. I don't think she even heard me, so intent was she rethreading the film as if intending to watch it again.

The days passed and I forgot completely about my assignment from Stootladdle. I had unwisely fallen in love with my mark. At every turn I had expected her to see through me, but each and every flaw in my design was masked and made charming by Cotten, so that I began to become aware, through the long hours we spent together, that she also had feelings for me. It was as if I were in a movie, some grade-B flick that, with its exotic backdrop of the veldt and the alchemy of its stars, transcended the need to aspire to "A" status and would live in the hearts of its viewers.

Or so I dreamed, until one day I passed Vespatian in the hall. He grabbed me by the arm, squeezing hard, and whispered, "Stootladdle sends a message. You have two days to deliver the film or on the third, if you do not, you will be hanging slack with Omar Sharif."

[Continue to Part 4]

"Exo-Skeleton Town" is © 2001 by Jeffrey Ford and is reprinted here by permission of the author. The story was originally published in the premiere issue of Black Gate magazine, Spring 2001, and will be included in anthology Alien Contact, edited by Marty Halpern and forthcoming from Night Shade Books in November.

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