The assignment was to write 1,000 words with a delayed stream of information to the reader.
Who Is Like God?
There was a point Michelle liked on the ceiling. It looked like a grandmother’s face, creased with age and smiling. She pictured the old lady swathed in lace, like the doilies she crocheted. She imagined using those little treasures to dress fashion dolls: she’d pop their heads right off and twist the centre hole around the impossibly slender neck, then reattach the heads, and they’d be all fine and dressed in the best cotton lace. Nobody ever told her that lace was meant to be worn by queens and not fashion dolls, not that she’d have believed them.
Her room was too small for luxury: the whole place was all angles and utility. Lace was the most frivolous thing she could imagine. The foldaway bed was tucked away. The kitchen hid behind a sliding door in the wall. The shower doubled as a toilet with a pull-out seat and self-cleaning wall spouts. Ambient light coloured everything a soft grey.
Yesterday, a man came and pulled the tablet; something about a corrupted visual interface. She supposed it would be returned sometime in the next day or so; they usually worked pretty fast, those men. They all looked the same to her, and it wasn’t just that her eyesight was going.
If there were a window, she might have a better sense of time, but today, without the tablet and its clock, well. Today might as well last forever. Sometime soon she’d get hungry and get herself a bit of carb and protein.
After a while, staring at the ceiling got boring. A shower, maybe. Or some tea. She swung her legs over the arm of the couch. She counted her toes. Still ten; that was a relief. Tens. Ten steps from the couch to the desk, ten taps on the desk’s smooth surface, ten breaths before she could sit down, ten pieces of paper and ten taps of the pen across the top of the first sheet.
There was once a little house down the street from the college. It was always cluttered. Nobody could find anything. There were a lot of books, also a cat called Salem who came and went through an open ground floor window. He was black; that’s why we called him Salem. In the summer, it was so humid my eyeglasses would fog up if I ventured outside the one air-conditioned room. We played a lot of cards in those days; five or six of us round the beat-up kitchen table, spades or pinochle. We made hot buttered rum and wore hats and smoked, and we all had nicknames.
Beside the text, Michelle drew a picture of the house, with reckless pencil strokes and a brush of shadow where the cat would have sat beneath the table and waited for a handout or a lick of someone’s hand, wet with crawfish. Four people, all young, two men and two women, little more than stick figures but recognisable, passed cards back and forth across the table. A floppy hat, a fedora, a beret, a pointy wizard’s hat. Details of the kitchen arose behind the table: a pot boiling on the stove, wallpaper with flowers, a barely discernible window that doubled as a bookshelf.
Cooking seemed to take forever: we had to chop everything first of course, onions and carrots and peppers and celery, and a roux that had to be watched until it turned the colour of a flat latte. Everything smelled wonderful. There was a lot of drama. Somebody was always in love with somebody else; somebody else was always unattainable; we thought every little story was a big story, and every little story was a big story. The fellow next to the window was like Heathcliff, and the fellow across from him was like Robin Hood. The girl with the pointy hat was like Anne Sexton, and the girl with the curly hair was like Venus.
The second sheet of paper went to detailing the creation of a crawfish etouffe, with diagrams and arrows and imprecise measurements captioned a handful of celery and just about too much onion (as if!). Michelle detailed cooking temperatures by drawing short or long flames beneath the pot, step by step. For fun, she sketched the cat in the top right of the page, with a speech bubble: Save me some crawfish!
A shower, a meal, a sleep. Sometime before Michelle woke, they brought a replacement tablet: it was as new in the box when she woke and made herself a pot of coffee.
The tablet was smooth and black, and it made a chiming noise when she tapped her password (ten characters) to turn it on. It was exactly the size of the paper. Michelle placed each drawing over the tablet surface and tapped again to scan them into the tablet, then the text.
The first drawing rezzed in pixelated monochrome until she began applying colour, brush strokes, texture and perspective. With a little extra direction, the figures moved shakily, then more smoothly as she corrected aliasing and restepped the process. Voice came next: Michelle used her own voice, modulated through the tablet’s pitch corrector, to voice the characters. She chuckled as she gave the cat a squeaky little voice that sounded more like another, smaller animal, maybe something a cat might chase and eat, than a cat might sound if it had a voice.
By the time the scene was finished and ready for rendering, the tablet alarm reminded Michelle it was time for dinner. She’d worked for hours. Carb, protein, fibre. Briefly, she imagined what crawfish etouffe might taste like, just as she sometimes imagined a grandmother’s face, cotton lace, and fashion dolls when she had idle moments. Memories were too fleeting to draw.
Michelle left the process to render while she slept. It would take hours, she knew, to complete the scene. In the morning, she’d draw another.
‘Sabine, you’re drunk.’
‘Shitfaced. But I swear to God, that cat is talking to me!’
Laughter. Jeanne half-turns (just look at the angle of that elbow!). ‘OK, what did he say?’
‘He said, ‘Save me some crawfish!’’
‘Duh, Sabi. What else would a cat say at dinner time?’