Jack Skillingstead. Bean There.

‘Bean There’ originally appeared Asimovs April/May 2005, and is copyright Jack Skillingstead, and appears on Best SF with his kind permission.


I fell flat on my ass, stunned, jaw unhinged, gaping at the thing. Implications piled up fast. My gaze wandered briefly off the marble block, then I fell again. Inside, this time, as my interior order shifted–irrevocably, perhaps. It was a light bulb moment, and cravenly I wished I could pull a chain and turn it off. Thanks a lot, Aimee. Happy Anniversary. I sat on the floor and it sat on the wheeled mover’s cart, note still taped to the side facing me, a sheet of printer paper with red Sharpie lettering three inches high: THIS IS YOURS, BURT. MY MIGHTY MAN!


#


Go back two months. Pick a Tuesday in May. A nice spring morning. There might have been birds twittering happily, the way they do. I had the front door of Bean There propped open, plus all the windows on the sidewalk side. Seven a.m. of a twittering fine morning.


Aimee said, “Wow!”


“Wow what?” Slanting sunlight had discovered beaches of dust on the round table tops, and I was wiping them down ahead of the Clamoring Horde.


“A kid in Ashland levitated his bike,” Aimee said. “Can you believe it?”


“No.”


“Grouch.”


“I’m always grouchy before coffee.”


She snorted–but charmingly, not like a warthog or anything. “By my count you’ve already had a cappuccino and two Americanos. You ought to save some for the paying customers.”


It was my turn to snort. “Paying customers? Are you trying to be funny? Besides, I meant before I sell any coffee.”


She hmmm-ed, her attention riveted back on the laptop. She hunched over it, elbows planted on the counter, fingers pronged in her pixie hair, the pert little behind that had launched a thousand or so of my ships aimed in my direction on the black vinyl swivel stool.


“Come on,” I said. “Nobody’s levitated anything. Not even in Assland.”


“Ass-land?” She smirked over her shoulder.


“Ashland. Ashland. What are you reading, anyway. The Weekly World News?”


“Reuters.”


At which moment The Clamoring Horde entered Bean There. He was wearing a blue button-down shirt, crisp khaki’s and brown loafers, accessorized with a briefcase and gold earring.


“Double-tall-two-percent,” he said.


Aimee got behind the bar and pulled it. I took her place on the stool and scrolled through the Reuters story. In front of witnesses adorable Samuel Welch, aged 9, had purportedly swept his BMX bike into the high altitudes of a neighbor’s poplar. Nevermind that one of the witnesses was a off-duty state patrol officer, six months ago this story would have been relegated to the pseudo-news. But with the Harbingers among us anything, any damned thing at all, had seemed to become possible if not explicable.


Aimee kept glancing in my direction, so I tried not to look too interested in the story.


“It’s happening,” she said, sing-songy on her way to the freshly de-beached table where the C.H. had seated himself.


“Don’t get crazy on me,” I sing-songed back. I’d had crazy in my life, plenty of it. An alcoholic father and a bi-polar sister. Dad had been a maintenance drinker, and not a mean one. But even a happy drunk is still a drunk, and if you live with one, especially if he’s your parent, you’d better gird yourself for two levels of life. The level that occurs on the surface and that everyone sees, which is the presentation level. And the private level that occurs mostly behind closed doors and makes you feel like the world is a wobbly and uncertain place. I was fourteen when a stroke killed my Mom, and Dad tumbled over the line into a realm of sodden self-pity and violent outbursts. At this point toss in the bi-polar sister, the older sister who up till then had been your rock of stability, and see where that gets you. Lori began to see the world in a very different way, and was vocal about it, veering toward the occult and a perspective two shades to the left of sane.


Yeah, I knew crazy.


Guys like me grow up obsessed with “normalcy” and order. Or we grow up to be little chaos mavens ourselves. As a kid I watched TV obsessively. It was my escape hatch. I liked Disney, especially the old black and white footage they sometimes showed of the early days. That was a world in order, and Uncle Walt was like a cool Mr. Rogers. To me he was, anyway. When I grew up I found another safe obsession in my java joint, Bean There. Later, for balance, I found Aimee (though emotionally she wasn’t as safe as a coffee bar). Then the Harbingers arrived.


“You call it crazy,” Aimee said. “I call it Evolution.”


With a capital E. The famous newsclip seen around the world. The aliens arrived neither as an invading force nor as beneficent galactic pals. By their own description they were ‘Harbingers.’


Famous network interviewer: “Harbingers of what?”


Alien: “Evolution.”


Speaking of trees the aliens somewhat resembled gnarled and rootless specimens. Those viewers who had devoted their attention to the minute analysis of The Clip liked to assert that after uttering the word “Evolution” the alien had smiled an enigmatic and very zenish smile. Of course the Harbingers mostly communicated telepathically, and there was even debate as to whether they had mouths. I guess you could point to the wartish seam midway up the trunk that constantly oozed some kind of thick sap and call that a mouth.


Evolution. Capital E.


It had become a movement. Aimee even had one of the ubiquitous “E” T-shirts, not the Ralph Lauren version, though.


“Seriously,” she said, laying her arm across my shoulders. “There’re stories like that almost every day. You can’t deny it.”


“Look, I’m just a humble businessman in a business that’s gotten too humble.”


“Burt–


“Yes?”


“Oh, never mind.”


The C.H. finished his latte, folded his Wall Street Journal neatly and replaced it in his briefcase.


“The stories are all bunk,” he said, smartly snapping chrome latches and standing up. He was a little flushed around the hairline. “And If you ask me there aren’t any aliens, either. It’s just some kind of–”


“Some kind of. . . ?” Aimiee said.


“Mass hallucination, whatever.”


It was true that some people claimed they were unable to quite . . . see . . . the aliens. Most notably the senior senator from Ohio. Who could forget his famous ‘smoke and mirrors’ press conference? And everybody commented on the soap bubble quality of their ships.


“In my opinion,” the C.H. said, “Everybody has to get back to normal before it’s too late.”


And then he went out among the twittered, and it was almost an hour before the next customer wandered in.


#


“People are scared,” I said at the other end of the day, standing in boxers by the window of my apartment, only a couple of blocks from my rapidly drowning venture.


“Some people are,” Aimee said. “Are you?”


“It wouldn’t be manly to admit it,” I said. “Besides, I’m not really.”


She moved–a silky whisper of girlflesh and sheets. She didn’t say anything, and I felt compelled to fill in the gap. Somehow Aimee and I had lost the comfort of easy silences.


“The fear thing, that’s just my pet theory. Remember at first there was an uptick in business? People wanted to talk, gather, bond.”


“Have a cup a joe,” Aimee said.


“Right. But now they’re, I don’t know, hunkered down. You can only take so much weirdness before you have to shut it off.”


“Not everyone has to shut it off,” Aimee said. “Maybe some of those hunkering people are busy.”


I turned from the window. Aimee was looking at the ceiling, fingers laced behind her head, the sheet about her waist and her breasts so lovely.


“Busy doing what?” I said.


“Evolving.”


I had to ask.


#


We weren’t married but we had anniversaries. One arrived in the midst of the consummate weirdness. That pervasive sense of unreality plus the fact that I was furiously dog-paddling in a sea of red ink had conspired to short-circuit my memory.


“Happy anniversary,” Aimee said on the phone.


“Oh, shit.”


“Sweet-talker.”


“Aim, I’m really sorry.”


“You can make it up to me.”


“Anything.”


“Come over now.”


She had borrowed a friend’s little Toyota pickup. Aimee’s apartment building, which was old and consisted of only twelve units, provided each tenant with his or her own mini-garage so narrow and shallow they were really car boxes with barely enough room to open the driver’s door. Which didn’t matter to Aimee, since she didn’t own a vehicle and used her car box for storage.


The door was up and the interior space had been cleaned out. Presumably to make room for the thing in the back of the yellow Toyota.


A block of white marble. That pickup was riding so low on its springs that it was a wonder the rear wheels could turn.


“Isn’t it beautiful!” Aimee said.


“Very pretty. Paper-weight?”


“I’m going to sculpt it, silly.” She was beaming.


“Cool.”


“Your skepticism does not affect me.”


“I’m not being skeptical. But don’t you think it might be easier to start with something less intimidating, not to mention cheaper, like clay?”


“I am not in the least bit intimidated. And I got a great deal at The Quarry Werks. Kind of an installment plan. They didn’t seem to care. Everybody’s so spaced out.”


The block was three feet on a side and weighed approximately 27 million pounds. A couple of guys from Aimee’s building helped us muscle it around. Transferring the thing from the Toyota’s tailgate (dangerous skreek of hinges) to the mover’s cart threatened to give us all hernias. Even pushing it into the garage was not easy. Once it started rolling, okay. But getting it started was murder. We three he-men bent at the knees, put our shoulders into it, and made like Sisyphean triplets.


Aimee was like one of those dilettantes I imagine must inhabit old French novels. During our three year relationship she had “been” a painter, a writer, a juggler, and a chef. Brief enthusiasms that burned bright then dimmed to forgotten clinkers. When I met her she was waiting tables for a living. We hit it off and I hired her to help me with Bean There. After that, one thing led to the inevitable other and we became much more than partners in caffeine. At thirty-two this was the longest relationship I’d ever managed.


When the other guys left, I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and asked, “What put you onto sculpting, anyway?”


“It’s funny,” Aimee said. “I had a dream about it and when I woke up I thought, Why not? But that isn’t the funny part. The funny part is that I hadn’t been asleep, I just thought I was.”


She hugged me and kissed my mouth. “You’re my mighty man,” she said.


“Mighty Man could use a cold beer.”


“Come up to my lair, then.”


I did, but not for beer.


#


News clippings taped to the wall of Aimee’s garage/sculptor’s studio:


From the Associated Press, originally reported in the Memphis Herald Tribune, June 15, 2005. Tupelo Woman Teleports: Candace McCoy, a 46 year old housewife from Tupelo paid an unusual visit to Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion yesterday when she unaccountably materialized in the “Jungle Room” before an eye-witness, security guard Joseph Lytel. Says Lytel, “The air got kind of dark and ripply, then she sort of stepped through.” Mrs. McCoy, who appeared in a state of shock and was transported to Mercy Hospital, kept saying, “I just love Elvis…”


From Reuters, June 17, 2005. Astronaut Claims Moon Walk, Thirty Years Late: Former Apollo 13 Commander James Lovell today announced that he had at long last walked upon the surface of the moon. Lovell, 77, said he had not required any life-sustaining equipment and his mode of transport was “… nothing more complicated than the simple desire to be there.” As evidence, Commander Lovell offered his bedroom slippers, the bottoms of which were caked with a gray talc-like powder. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Houston, Texas confirmed that the powder is indeed moon dust, though there is no official word on that conclusion. Lovell, appearing on the front lawn of his Palm Springs home in a white T-shirt with a large black letter “E” on the front, described his journey as an “Evolutionary” experience, apparently referring to the enigmatic statement of the Harbingers. “The view from Fra Mauro was transcendental,” said Lovell.


From The Associated Press: Dead Man Singing. Jerry Garcia performed “live” for the first time since his death in 1994. Tom Petty, performing at Washington State’s Gorge amphitheater, announced a “special guest.” Garcia then ambled onto the stage wearing a tie-dyed “E” T-shirt and an acoustic guitar. There were cheers, but also some screams from those closest to the stage, and at least three concert goers fainted and required medical attention.


#


I was sleeping over at Aimee’s and woke up, terrified. It must have been a nightmare, I don’t know. The Madrona outside her bedroom window cast a pale shadow over the bed, and I thought of the Harbingers, the hideous physicality of them. It was two o’clock in the morning. Aim was not in the bed.


I pulled on a pair of jeans and didn’t bother tying my shoes. The door of the garage was raised about a quarter way for air. Bright light spilled out. I ducked under the partially raised door. Hot halogen lamps on tripod stands illuminated the marble block. Aim’s face glowed with a sheen of sweat.


“Burt!”


“I had a bad dream, or something.”


“Poor baby. Well I’ve had a breakthrough.”


“Good.”


“It’s the tools.”


“What about them?”


“I was using the wrong ones. Look at this.”


She meant the block. I looked. To my eye it appeared pretty much the same as it had the day we off-loaded it from the pickup truck, though I could tell she had hacked at it a little. A few fragments of marble lay scattered around the stool, and the face of the block had been scarred in a minor way.


“Look through it,” she said.


“I can’t look through it, for Christ’s sake, Aim.”


“But you can,” she said. “It’s like anything else. Really. I mean, it’s even like boxing.”


“What?”


“Sure. Same mental thing, in a way. Like you throw the punch through, as if the jaw wasn’t even there. And it’s not. Neither’s the marble. I mean it’s there, of course. But also it’s not there. And if it’s not, well, then you can throw your punches right on through. You can do anything. Anything.”


“Aimee, come on.”


“Don’t be afraid.”


“I’m not afraid.”


“Honey.” She got up and came to me and hugged me. “It’s all right.”


I fought it, but the mote around my heart filled with tears and I sobbed into Aimee’s hair, “I want everything to be normal again.”


“Darling, I know. It’s okay, it really is.”


But it wasn’t. The rational world tilted, threatening chaos, and my anchor was talking phantom punches.


“It’s accelerated evolution,” she said, excited. “You know, all the little grays, and the crop circles and UFO’s and synchronicity and dejavu, just all of it–those things are projections, the evolutionary psyche of human potential manifesting in consort with the conscious Universe. Do you see? Oh, I’m not saying it right. But listen. You didn’t think real aliens looked liked X-Files puppets, did you?” She laughed. “The Harbingers are real. All the stuff happening now is real. It’s to get us going before it’s too late, to get as many of us going as possible. Before we completely fuck over the planet and the whole human race.”


We were still holding each other, but now it was like we were two separate people and it didn’t matter that I had been inside of her countless times and we had spoken every living shred of our lives to each other. She was just somebody I was holding. In her excited voice I heard my sister’s delusional rantings while Dad hunted drunkenly for his car keys.


“Don’t, Burt,” Aimee said. “you’re going away. Please don’t do that. You could be so close, if you wanted to be.”


I continued holding her but the good between us was gone and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. I don’t think I was afraid. I don’t know that fear had anything to do with it.


“It’s like being shut up in a little room,” Aimee said. “A room with no windows and a closed door. And it’s fine because you don’t know you’re in a little room, you think you’re in the middle of the world. But what if you knew? What if all of a sudden there was a window and you could see there was a universe of marvels right outside, and all you had to do was open the door, because it’s not locked or anything. It’s just a door waiting for the person in the room to wake up enough to open it.”


All this while she looked earnestly into my face, her eyes shining.


I said, “Aim, I am so tired.”


#


Most people weren’t onboard for the Evolution, and things got pretty bad. The End Is Nigh contingent. Economic collapse. Suicides, lots of suicides. By July I had given up opening Bean There. I just wanted to sleep, perchance not to dream.


Then reality snapped back, and I woke one morning with some kind of hangover and–unknown to me–all my recent memory furniture drastically re-arranged. Harbingers? Never heard of ’em.


The natural response to hangover is aspirin and coffee. I dressed, grabbed my keys, and strolled down to Bean There to open the doors, only vaguely recalling that hard times and some kind of throbbing apathy had compelled me to close the place for a few days.


Open it and they will come. I guess I wasn’t the only one with a hangover. I worked my ass off that first day, riding a caffeine bullet train to stay focused. Aimee was not around, and I sorely missed her. What in hell had we been fighting about, anyway? I closed up at seven, after a nice relaxing twelve hour day. My CLOSED sign depicted a sad little coffee cup with wavy steam hair.


I got on my cell and called Aimee, because whatever we’d been fighting about wasn’t worth it. Dimly I seemed to recall some kind of tiff over her latest artistic indulgence. She picked up on the second ring.


“May I speak with Ms Rodin, please?”


“Funny guy.”


“Aim, I’m sorry.”


“For what?”


“I, ah, dunno.”


She laughed, sounding extra perky and normal and non-pissed-off.


“So how’s it going?” I said. “If I come over will you lure me upstairs with promises of showing me your erotic statues?”


“You’ve got the only erotic stonework I’m interested in, mister.”


“I am so there.”


#


And later, during a wine and underwear moment in her kitchenette, I said:


“I could really use you at Bean There, tomorrow.”


Teasing: “Like you used me today?”


“With variations, only not as slippery, and you’ll have to pull espressos, too. Aim, business is picking up in a major way. I can’t even believe I closed down for a while. I must have been nuts!”


She was quiet a while and easy within herself. I was the one with jitters all of a sudden. On the way over it had occurred to me that I wanted to marry Aimee, that I’d always wanted to. It was nothing other than fear that had kept us in separate apartments, that had allowed our lives to intersect in work and love-making, but not in the long sweet haul of committed love itself. My fear, not hers; Aimee was fearless in all things.


So I’d jacked myself up to ask her, but before I could get the words out she dropped a safe on my head.


“Burt, I think I’m going to do some traveling, see some things, maybe do a little good in the world.”


“You’re joining the Peace Corps?” I didn’t know what she was talking about, and I struggled to keep the irritation out of my voice.


“No, silly. More of a private thing.”


“I thought we were partners.” I couldn’t even mention the marriage thing. Suddenly it wasn’t irritation I felt. My throat tightened down with emotion.


“We could still be pards,” she said, taking my hand. “But you’d have to be unafraid to come with me, Burt.”


“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Where are you going, really?”


“Burt, what if there was no Time or Space, and if you wanted to be somewhere, wherever and whenever, you could just be there? What would you pick, what would make you feel safe and happy?”


It wasn’t what she said exactly, it was some upheaval within myself. I wanted to cry but didn’t.


“Does opening day at Disneyland count?” I said, thinking I was being sarcastic.


She laughed. “Sure.”


“Okay, I pick that. Now can we talk sense?”


“Won’t there be a lot of people?” she said.


“Yeah, but it’s the happiest place on Earth, so they’d all be happy, right? Aim, come on. Don’t go. Please.”


“I’m sorry, Burt.”


She hugged me, and I wanted to melt into her but that wasn’t happening.


“I finished my sculpture,” she said. “I want to give it to you.”


“Going away present? Thanks.”


“Shush. Nobody goes anywhere, not really. I love you. Let’s call it the anniversary present, okay?”


“Sure, okay.”


“Don’t be sad.”


She had to be kidding with that one.


#


I called the next day but she didn’t answer. After I hung the CLOSED sign out I walked over to her apartment. A white envelope with my name printed on it was taped to the outside of her door. I ripped the envelope open, but all the note said was “Don’t forget your present. Love, Aimee.”


That damn rock.


The garage was completely bare except for the marble block pushed into the corner on it’s rolling cart. The air smelled dry and the cement walls held the heat in. The last of the evening sunlight fell short of the block, which, in shadow at least, appeared as unworked and raw as the last time I’d seen it, its blunt face only slightly scarred by Aimee’s amateur chiseling.


A sheet of printer paper was taped to the block. The sheet had been written upon, but I couldn’t decipher it from where I stood. And I didn’t want to get any closer. I just didn’t.


The daylight terminator crept across the oil-stained floor, almost to the toes of my shoes before I imagined Aimee whispering Don’t be afraid.


But I was afraid.


Nevertheless I took a tentative shuffling step into the shadow, then another, and then I was close enough to read the paper. THIS IS YOURS, BURT: MY MIGHTY MAN! And something about Aim’s familiar jokey intimacy took the hex off and impelled me forward.


Close up, Aimee’s sculpture was as artless as any random hunk of stone you might happen to stumble upon. Wondering if there was something chiseled into the side facing the wall, I bent my back and braced my feet to pull it around–and instead fell flat on my ass.


Because the thing on that cart weighed no more than a basket of feathers. It kept rolling around after I fell, and stopped with the sheet of paper facing me again.


I sat stunned for a while, then turned my hands up and looked at them. White eggshell-like flakes clung to the sweat on my fingers. I crawled over to the block and reached out with the spread fingers of my right hand. The outer shell of the sculpture fell away with an airy crackle where I touched it.


I brushed my trembling hands over the block like a palsied conjuror, and it collapsed in an avalanche of rice paper-thin marble flakes, as if it had been held together by nothing more substantial than a hopeful thought.


What remained was something like a Christmas ornament. One fashioned from and held up by polished marble nets of filamentous intricacy, as if spider-spun. Aimee had created this wonder inside the block.
Which was impossible.


An impossible artifact from that newly forgotten world of teleporting housewives and stumpy, non-deciduous aliens, of Evolutionary human consciousness. Capital E. Bleh.


A worm uncoiled in my stomach. The room seemed to sway, and I had nothing to hold onto. Kneeling on the hard cement, my hands clenching, a singlet of sweat oozed out of my body. The object before me was a memory ornament, intended to remind me of the impossible world of E. And I wanted it to go away.


I sqeezed my eyes shut. Aim. But I was on my own. Memory ornament, invitation to the impossible–it was still my choice to accept or reject it. I knew amnesia was hovering in the foyer of my consciousness, waiting. The chaos of a world without rules–at least the rules I was used to–also hovered out there. I opened my eyes and moved incrementally towards chaos, because that’s were my girl was.


The light changed. Heat lay on my back like a wool blanket fresh out of the dryer. I didn’t have to turn around, I knew that. But maybe it wasn’t chaos out there. Maybe it was Freedom. Freedom from fear. Capital F.


I stood up and brushed the marble flakes off on my pants. Then I turned.


A vast and eerily silent crowd milled beyond the garage. Thousands of people, and an ersatz castle, and a high blue sky without clouds where a dozen or so giant soap bubbles drifted serenely, unnoticed by the multitude.


All was utterly quiet until I crossed out of the garage, and then it struck me like a Phil Spector Wall Of Sound, the surf roar of the crowd and brassy clamor of a New Orleans street band. It was hot and dazzlingly bright. A trombone bell flashed the sun at me. I shaded my eyes. Mickey Mouse was working the crowd. Then I saw Aimee, waving. I felt a big goofy grin on my face, which was appropriate. “I’m going to Disney Land,” I yelled and ran to her.