A SAMPLE OF ERIKA RUMMEL'S NEW NOVELLA, PLOT LINES.
Angela has two problems. She needs a job. And she needs to get rid of her internal critic, a niggling voice telling her: You are a total failure. She is on her way to an interview with the director of The Cryonic Institute, and the voice is like a hum in her ear: This is going to be another failure.
...The Institute turns out to be a converted warehouse. The windows on the first floor are boarded up and spray-painted in looping tags. My internal message board starts blinking: Loser! Right. Only a loser would apply for this job.
I hesitate. A plastic bag dances by, drags past the tattoo parlour, hangs up on a hydrant, and blows across Tilman Street. The place looks seedy, but what the hell, I’ve come this far. I might as well go through with the interview. It’s only a summer job. I push the button on the intercom.
A crackling noise comes at me, and the door buzzes open.
“Charles Otis?” I say to the man who meets me in the hall.
“That’s me,” he says and shows me into his office. He has a film noir look: white lab coat, body listing sideways, cheeks furrowed like bark. Jekyll turning into Hyde? The lab coat gives him a surface-clean look, but when I go past him, I catch a whiff of old man.
Otis lifts a piece of paper from his cluttered desk – I recognize the resume I sent him.
“Angela Kelly,” he says, reading the header. “Good Irish name.”
“My grandfather was Irish.”
Otis runs his finger down the printout. “BA. Double Major: English and Philosophy.” He looks at me for confirmation.
I nod. I shouldn’t have mentioned philosophy. It invites awkward follow-up questions. What kind of philosophy? Moral philosophy. “Like, religion?” someone asked me at a party. “Like, you want to be a nun or something?” Philosophy is a date-breaker and an interview spoiler. It doesn’t give out the right message. It projects the image of someone remote from the centre of things, someone without practical skills. A useless tit. That’s the other problem with studying philosophy. It tightens the mechanism for self-evaluation. Everything becomes a matter of conscience. An inquisition starts up in the brain, probing the moral fibre, looking for tender spots. Every thought, every decision comes under investigation: the items on my grocery list, mileage and gas consumption, choice of TV channel, choice of boyfriend, quality of seminar presentation, the new haircut, meeting parental expectations -- and the verdict is always: guilty as charged.
“I see you worked at the registry office for a year,” Otis says. “You quit, or they let you go?”
“I went back to graduate studies. Film History.”
Otis bobbles his head approvingly. “So you think you’ve got the right qualifications for this job?”
“The ad wasn’t specific. It only said: computer skills required.”
“You have computer skills?”
“Up to a point.”
“This is basic stuff,” Otis says and gives me a beagle-eyed look, almost as if he was begging me to take the job.
He is offering reasonably good money. Why is there no line-up of applicants? It’s the nature of the business, I speculate. The idea of freeze-dried corpses is disconcerting. Or maybe the slummy location is putting people off. New message: Only a loser would want to work here, Angela -- How do you change the internal setting and shut down the messenger in your brain?
“Let me explain what’s involved,” Otis says. He points to a bank of filing cabinets. “These,” he says, sweeping the tops with a proprietary hand, “--these contain the data and personal reminiscences of our clients. When they enrol, I encourage them to provide a detailed account of their life and to store keepsakes and photos with us to make it easier to energize their memories after reanimation.”
He pulls out a few files to show me. They contain typed accounts and hand-written memos, newspaper clippings, souvenir postcards, bookmarks, baby bracelets, snapshots. Otis wants them converted to electronic files.
I look around the office. There is no computer, no printer, no copier, just a battery of grey filing cabinets, a burled-wood desk right out of a 50s Sears Catalogue, and another relic from the distant past: a small portable TV sitting on top of a VCR. “I don’t see a computer,” I say.
“I thought you’d like to use your own,” Otis says.
“You mean you want me to work from home?” That would solve the problem of commuting. The area looks like the kind of ‘hood, where you can’t leave a car unattended without someone scraping a key across the door panel or punching out a window and rifling through your glove compartment.
“I guess you could take the files home -- as long as we make copies first,” Otis says. “That’s my worry, you see. That’s why I want them digitized, to protect them against loss or damage -- fire, break-in, vandalism, that sort of thing. I want them preserved in electronic form, arranged in a systematic manner, searchable – you can do that for me, right?”
“Are you saying I’m hired?”
“You look like the right person for the job. It’s yours if you want it.” Otis looks t me with a sniffling kind of eagerness.
“Thanks,” I say, but I feel no satisfaction. It’s a sell-out, Angela, and you know it is. You are swapping valuable creative time for a menial job. Well, yes, I don’t like the prospect of working for Otis, or working at anything other than my screenplay. It’s still in the gestating phase. It doesn’t have a story line as yet, but I have a theme, and it’s urgent to get on with it. I want to write the internal niggling voice out of my life, uproot it, wrench it from my gut and exile it to the printed page, get rid of the scruples plaguing me at every step and transfer them to a script. I need to put together a cast of characters who will take the load off my shoulders. I totally believe in the redemptive quality of creative writing. I was going to spend the summer working on the script, but that was before Spence maxed out my credit card and totalled my car...
“Those people awaiting reanimation,” I say, “where are they?"
“Right here.” Otis points to the floor, as if the corpses were tucked away underneath. “I’ll give you a tour of the Institute.”
We walk from his office, down the corridor, to a gray metal door which opens into a hall with quivering fluorescent ceiling lights. It looks like a machine shop. There’s an old assembly line running along one wall. On the other side are rows of tall, stainless steel cylinders. They give off the humming sound of refrigerators.
“You drain the bodily fluids and pump eight litres of ethylene glycol into the arteries,” Otis explains. “Then the bodies are stored upside down, suspended in liquid nitrogen at minus 320 F.” He points at the tanks. “Each of these holds six people.”
What! Strangers strung up together like pieces of meat? Without any privacy?
“You store them naked?” I blurt out.
“No, in sleeping bags. Microtex. From Walmart.”
“And those?” I point to the square chests that look like domestic freezers.
“Those are for pets. I draw the line at neuros – severed heads, you know. Some people argue that’s all you need to preserve -- the head, that’s where your personality resides. I see no merit in that argument. Severing the head is an indignity to the body of the departed. In a hundred years from now, when scientists reanimate you, they can provide brand new bodies if needed. Or else they’ll be able to cure the old body of senescence. They’ll take care of the wrinkles, the impotence, the damaged kidneys, the hair loss – the whole shebang of imperfections, when they reanimate you.”
Otis speaks with the fervour of a believer. The light of devotion shines in his eyes. I keep my mouth shut and bitterly despise myself for remaining silent and engaging in situation ethics for the sake of a job instead of challenging his assumptions. That’s so like you, Angela. You have no guts. I twitch my shoulders to shake off the psychic despotism of the inner voice.
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