You say brilliant and excellent and cool and whatever. You say the words softly to yourself in bed, aloud at the breakfast table, on the telephone. You rub nylon bristles across your teeth at night with white paste that tastes like mint and stays with you as you lie on the soft bed, an imperfect idea of freshness. The shower is just a pipe in the wall and a head with holes in it that sprays hot water on you. It doesn’t help.
There is a lack of life in everyday objects that is hard to grasp. The buzz and chatter erased until it seems so quiet your ears hum and ring with the lack of noise. But it is not really quiet. There are fans and grumbling from the refrigerator and the furnace. Hot air blows from holes in the floor. The old bones of the house creak at night, sounds of expansion and contraction within the wood and drywall and metal conduits for the ferrying of air and electricity.
This is the hardest thing you have ever done. You say as much in your private time—so-called private time—since it includes the cameras and the unseen, but constant, presence of the viewers who will be out there once everything is wrapped up and edited and packaged and set to music.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” you say to the bathroom mirror. The woman who stares back at you wears a blemished copy of your face. There are small specks of organic material on the glass from the brushing of teeth and the flossing. This room won’t clean itself, your grandmother would sometimes say to you when she was babysitting. Even then you knew she was kidding.
But this room won’t clean itself. You wipe damp bathroom tissue across the mirror, leaving streaks and small fragments of paper that stay there for days and days.
The house was built in 1978 and is one of a group of three preserved houses from the same era, same developer, and same plan, on a road named for the trees cut down to make room for the development. The house has asphalt shingles and brick facing and hardwood floors in the living room and upstairs bedrooms. It has sliding glass doors to the rear deck overlooking an in-ground concrete pool. The entrance hall has a cathedral ceiling. There is a mud room on the main floor.
“Is that where they killed their animals, Mom?” Theodore held your hand on the first day you were there, intimidated by the size and strangeness of the house. On the wall is a photo of a model home from this development sitting on a plain of mud and tree roots, punctuated by fire hydrants and light standards and ribbons of road leading nowhere. The adults, you included, laughed at Theodore’s question but you suspect that none of them knew either.
The kitchen has an island, a double sink, an original, working General Electric stove and fridge and dishwasher combination in the same creamcolour. The floor is tiled in a different shade of cream. Sitting on the floor at night, five days into the three months you will live in the house, you shed tears that drip from your cheeks onto the tiles with tiny sounds. Behind you the refrigerator humsitself back to life. By now it’s starting to sound comforting. It is, at least, a machine.
But machines fail, or at least humans fail them—you don’t need this house to remind you of that. Something goes wrong inside the dishwasher. Suds ooze around the edges of the door and drip down onto the tiles. Foamy amoebae slink across the floor. You and Theodore and his sister, Edwina, and Patrick, the husband from the family next door, stand and look at it.
“We wanted to give the kids a taste of a simpler life,” Patrick says. The foam continues to bubble out. He tentatively presses a couple of buttons on the control panel of the dishwasher. The foam comes out faster. “Some time from the busyness and craziness of everything.”
“Me, too,” you say, hearing the bubbling edge to your voice that could just as easily be laughter as the opposite. “Me, too.”
Every few days there are activity nights with the other three adults from the other two houses. There’s a babysitter for the kids down in the basement with old board games and a movie and popcorn. The first night everyone is self-conscious. After the mandatory house tour and poking into the ways the other family has adjusted to its own situation, Vladimir, the show’s producer, makes an appearance and introduces everyone to the social setting they will find themselves in, a little of the history of such things.
There’s a pretense that everyone is actually resident in the houses, that they are interested in the Persian Gulf and in a woman’s work never being done, the greenhouse effect, and stock markets and in whatever anyone else can dredge up from their memories, and half the time, you suspect, from their imaginations. It feels strained and false to you, and you say little. Later evenings are better. There are things to talk about during and after the games you play, war stories from the life in and out of the houses.
On the third activity night, after a confusing trivia game, you tell your dishwasher story, Patrick interjecting now and again, his wife Gazelle smiling at his enthusiasm. With surprisingly little help from the show’s experts, he’s been working on an antique car, grease on his hands that he proudly displays. He’s thrown himself into the whole thing, repairs and yard work and spring planting for the summer to come. You see him outside some afternoons in shorts and a cable-knit sweater hacking at roots and digging holes in the flower beds around his yard. You wave once from the kitchen window through the fine grating of the insect screen and he waves back vigorously, soil smeared in a tribal decoration across his cheeks.
The meat in the house is something uncannily realistic from Bulgaria, as close as the producers could come to the real thing without breaking the law. You make a roast the first Sunday night, remembering your grandmother, and sure enough it comes out as gray and tough as a real roast would have if anyone had cooked it for as long as you have. Theodore looks the same colour as the roast after his first bite. “It tastes like an animal,” he says.
“This is what we do now,” you say. You take a bite of the roast from your own plate and chew and chew and force the gristly sodden chunk of protein down your throat. “This is what we all signed up for.”
He shakes his head. “This is what you signed us up for.” Pushes his plate away.
“For God’s sake, just have a carrot or two then.” You push it back. He shakes his head again, lips tight. His sister, Edwina, is chewing away gamely, but then she’s always been the opposite of her brother—quiet when he is demonstrative, content to play on her own or read in a corner while he tears up and down the halls of your apartment building, bottling everything up while he wears emotions on his face and body. Ed’s the one you should worry about, you know, but Theodore is so much there, has so much need now. In the end you make him some whole wheat macaroni and soy cheese, which you suspect will become his sole dinner choice from the selection of foods they have stocked your cupboards with.
“I was a ten percenter, too,” you say to Patrick. He’s in your garden trimming dead ends from the bushes. Green spears are pushing through the soil and he points to the plants, naming them. It’s such a male trait, putting a tag on everything. It reminds you of before, which is why you bring it up, your previous life. It is a mistake.
“Ten?” he says. He clips vigorously. It looks like he is slaughtering the shrubs but he has reassured you that they can take it, that what seems to be vicious is in fact beneficial. He’s not from the city, doesn’t know the local argot.
“You know,” you say. “Two adults, of opposite sex, in a household with children cohabiting therein. The vanishing ten percent.”
“Lifers, they call us on the West Coast. Like it’s some sort of prison.” He nods. “I know your history, if you don’t mind. I’m so sorry about your husband.”
But you do mind. Here in the city it is considered very bad form to talk this way. Not that people don’t look each other up—the world is awash in seas of information, after all, and it is trivial to dip into them—but you don’t admit this to the objects of your inquiry. You had thought it was universal, one of the polite fictions we all rely on to find our way through the minefields of human interaction. He has a look on his face and you understand that it is universal, that he’s waiting for your reaction.
“No,” you say. “No more tragedy-hounds.”
“That’s not it—” he says, as you turn, a little dramatically, and tramp back up to the house. You know this little scene is going to make the cut, be talked about by people unknown to you. So easy to forget that there are cameras floating in the air like insects, taking it all in. At the last social night, Gazelle had gone on and on about authenticity, the impetus for her and Patrick and kids to apply for the the show. Three months of unmediated life, she spouted, as if this was the way to achieve it, this artificial fragment of the past with eyes everywhere watching. You’re not going to be part of her and her husband’s futile quest.
Inside the house there is a quiet that you will later think was some sort of forewarning. In the kitchen Theodore is standing on a stool and is chopping vegetables, a task you had abandoned when you had seen Patrick in your garden. You start to say a line from a half-remembered old song, “Mother’s little helper,” and he turns and then there’s a flash-quick change in his expression. It turns out that you had been using a real knife, an antique knife, which should not have been in the kitchen, in the drawer, slotted beside the reproductions. Which is how it can cut actual living tissue, and it does, very well.
The blood on the countertop is authentic, as is the wailing of your son and the trauma calm which comes over you as you pull a kitchen towel from the drawer and wrap his hand in it and call out to the house’s mind, which you forget does not exist, “Emergency medical, please. Emergency medical.”
The cut looks worse than it is. Vladimir wants a doctor—a historical recreationist doctor—to come to the house and use his medieval methods on Theodore. “Not likely,” you say. But Theodore surprises you by agreeing, even insisting on it. Everyone comes over to watch the man with his authentic black bag and tweed jacket draw an actual needle through the skin around the cut, closing the edges together. He smears ointment on it and wraps Theodore’s hand with sterile gauze and tape. A camera bug buzzes past your ear. “You know, people used to watch public executions,” you say before going to vomit in the bathroom.
Theodore becomes a hero, showing his wound to everyone who will look. They share a familiar expression: fascination, disgust, some sort of mingling of desire and repulsion that strikes you as almost sexual. Sal, the mother in the other house, and her serial triplets (reminding you every time you see them of those nested Russian dolls) actually line up to touch the twists of black thread. And Theodore so proud of himself, he even wants to keep the scar when it’s all over. “The plasticity of the young,” Sal says. She looks at her three girls and you know she is wishing that something might happen to them, that she and they could show their own grit, these fragments of herself a reflection of her own virtues.
You want out. Vladimir takes you into his off-set office and patiently tries to change your mind. “Are we on camera?” you ask. “Are we?”
He shakes his head. “Just these,” tapping the frame of his eyeglasses.
“Paul had those,” you say. It is the first time in seven weeks you have said the name of your dead husband out loud. At home you have the consequence of Paul’s glasses: ten thousand high-resolution hours of his life on a small plastic wafer that you have considered destroying many times. “Don’t you think there’s a certain level of ego required to own them?”
To his credit Vladimir looks embarrassed. “It’s a legal thing in this business.”
His office is ethereal. Seven weeks in the house and you have become used to the clunky wooden furniture, the stony indifference of the walls and the appliances. Your chair is made of fog. His desk is a shifting canopy of leaves.
“I won’t bring up contracts,” he says. “This isn’t about contracts.”
You presume this is his way of saying that it is indeed about contracts. You don’t remember reading the fine print, but you know there would have been fine print. But he brings up Theodore, which is unfair. “He loves it now,” he says. “Were you aware?” He shows you your son in the school they’ve recreated down the street, working on geography, painting, taking part in elaborate games of the time with the other kids. Then there’s a clip of Edwina having imaginary tea with the smallest of the serial triplets. You know he will notice the gleam of excess liquid in your eyes when he reviews his footage of this meeting and will see that this was the turning point for you, the moment your resolution faltered and failed.
You make him work for it anyway, twenty minutes more while small vines curl and uncurl around his hands and your chair shifts beneath you, trying to comfort comfort comfort. He pats you on the shoulders in a fatherly way as you leave the office and walk down the sidewalk towards the houses. The numbers 1978 are stamped into the concrete on the corner by the now-familiar homes, and for the first time during this whole thing you actually wish you lived back then, dirtiness and disease and sharp knives and all.
After the initial weeks of complaint and struggle with cleanliness and the ugly clothing and the stark lack of comfort in the houses, everyone seems to be settling into their roles. There are experiments in commuting, shopping in the bewildering vast space of a warehouse store with its stacked rows on rows of cans and bottles. You all walk around the store in wonder, like tourists visiting some marvel of the natural world.
You go with Sal to the mall one afternoon. She turns the steering wheel of the reproduction Buick back and forth rapidly, peering ahead through the windshield. “I don’t think you need to move it that much,” you say.
“It’s not like it really matters,” she says. The car drives itself onwards, unperturbed by her efforts.
The mall is historic, a tourist attraction now. Students have summer jobs here as shopgirls, a sprinkling of fake acne on their cheeks, giggle when you try your slang on them. “Cool,” you say. “This blouse is excellent.”
Sal’s got it down too. “Whatever,” she says.
She leads you along an artificial streetscape decorated with indoor figs and tropical flowers, past a juggler juggling, string music playing, skylights, gleaming storefronts in polished marble and steel and glass. But also people, normal people in normal clothing, bound up in the translucent machinery of their lives, muttering softly to invisible listeners. At the intersection up ahead there is a small crowd.
“The girls adore this,” Sal says. “Every time we come here it’s the first thing they want to see.”
Something is moving behind the glass windows. You push closer until you are standing in front of the store. “They’re real,” Sal says, anticipating your question.
You see kittens, puppies, a cage with gerbils, a small cluster of tropical songbirds. The cats twist around each other playfully, the puppies press up against the glass. The people in the crowd smile and point, their faces showing fascination mixed with a sense of superiority toward the people who had once used this mall, this store. You know that if you had lived in your twentieth-century house when it was new there would be no crowd around the store windows. You might even have a caged bird to twitter to you, a cat on your lap to stroke as the television advertised itself in the living room each night.
Sal is looking at you. Whatever she had thought to inspire, some communion of feeling about who you both are, members of this crowd, she has misjudged you. “Let’s get one,” you say. You walk towards the entrance.
She looks stricken. “You can’t. Nobody can.”
“We’re in the twentieth-century houses; we’re special. I’m sure Vladimir could talk them out of a cat or two, just for the next few weeks.”
You can imagine it, the anarchic presence of this small life in the house, how much it would complement the electrical sockets and the plumbing and the rough bricks, the almost-meat in the refrigerator and the comfortable heft of the telephone. You remember Theodore as a baby, grunting and pawing at you, the pleasure you took in the extremely unfashionable task of raising him at home.
Sal’s looking very uncomfortable now. “I know you’re kidding. You are, aren’t you?”
You paint on a thoughtful expression. “It would be unmediated. It would be authentic.”
Sal laughs then, no doubt taking this as a stab at Patrick and Gazelle. “You did have me,” she says. “You did.”
The faint barking of the puppies can be heard through the glass. Woof, they say. Arf arf. “Whatever,” you say. “Why don’t you drive us home now, Sal?”
This is not actually the hardest thing you’ve ever done. You told this to the mirror because of something else. You confessed to the watching cameras because you knew the people who will view this show will want to feel blessed in their lives of comfort and slightly superior, for they would have been able to take it.
Surprisingly, the hardest thing was not even the video you watched from Paul’s glasses—the last segment. A lifetime of moving images has done something to your sense of reality.
You viewed the video and saw the light glint from the lake, his head turning and a glimpse of the glittering shards of the downtown towers, the green stain of their wall gardens. The rustle of paper, a billow of cloud in the blue sky, the blurred shape of the malfunctioning scooter he didn’t see as he ran after his sandwich wrapper that had blown onto the street.
You could not transcend the fact that this was only a dot of light projected into your retina at thirty frames per second; it was a consequence of the signals on nerve bundles leading deep into the back of your brain. It was not the end of something. It was badly shot video.
The hardest thing was when you came home from the hospital where they were so terribly apologetic you felt almost guilty—things like this don’t happen, they told you, not now, not in this part of the world. The doctors and technicians had shuffled around uncomfortably, lost without a script, almost afraid. When you stood at the door of the apartment where inside Theodore and Edwina were thumping around and making the noises they made every day and you reached for the handle and you opened the door you suddenly understood how the doctors had felt. This new and terrible power, unasked for and wholly unfamiliar.
You have always seen the twentieth century as a fable of war and pollution and illness and a sort of innocence despite, or maybe because, of all that. It is a place you thought you might escape to.
It is morning. Edwina brings you the corpse of a small bird. “I heard a thump on my window,” she says.
You touch the bird, which is still warm. The windows are made of glass, and there are no machines here to tidy up the small messy lessons in life and death that a house and garden present. This is a fragment of the past, this experience.
“How do you feel about this?” you ask Edwina. Then realize it is not a question you would have asked had you lived when the house was new. “No,” you say. “I’m sure this happened all the time back then and people were used to it. Let’s do something.”
Edwina’s eyes are large and dark. You wonder if she would cry if you were to act differently about the bird, but then crying is not Edwina.
You place the bird in a planter box out on the back deck near the sliding glass doors. You have not sown anything in it and weeds poke out of the bare soil. “It looks asleep,” Edwina says. She is hanging a little behind you, clearly fascinated. The two of you are conspirators together; her brother would have no stomach for this. It reminds you of other times you did things with her that Paul wouldn’t have approved of.
“We’ll watch it now,” you tell her. “You and I, we’ll see what happens to it. Nature doesn’t waste, you know. She’ll recycle this bird.”
“I do go to school,” she says.
“They tell you things, but telling isn’t knowing, my love. Telling is just the start.” You think it might be something you read on the back of a packet of tea, this pseudo-wisdom, but you can see her taking it in and putting the words away carefully. Vladimir’s clip of her tea ceremony with the triplet comes to you, the careful and serious way she poured from the empty pot, and you want to crush her against you, force your love into her through pure osmotic pressure.
Patrick comes by the garden, shakes his head at the disarray. “You have to keep at this,” he says. “A garden is a process, not a destination.”
“Or a Sisyphean labour,” you suggest. It is not disarray to you in any case—you are starting to like the rawness of the uncut lawn, the weeds proliferating among the ordered suburban landscape.
“I don’t know that. Another local expression?”
You nod, watching him turn over soil with an antique spade. He carefully edges the flower beds, cutting the turf as if he were serving cake.
In the kitchen you hand him coffee in a stoneware mug. There’s a mingling of dirt and sweat on his face. The kids are at school and you wonder if this is how you would have spent your days back in the late century, household duties and something illicit with a neighbour to give you a sense of life.
You contrive a bumping by the dishwasher, hold Patrick’s arm to steady yourself, longer than is necessary. He understands very quickly and backs away.
“This isn’t—” he begins. “Even without the cameras…”
A flush rises in your face.
“It would be physically impossible,” he says, almost apologetically. “They call us lifers because we’re bonded chemically to each other for life. You don’t do this, do you?”
You’ve heard of this practice, mocked it with Paul once as the refuge of those without faith in their own decency. Now you just feel sorry for Patrick. “No, it’s not what we do.”
He awkwardly puts his coffee down on the counter, looks towards the door. On an impulse you show him the bird in the planter. It has swelled since you and Edwina placed it there a few days before; swelled and slackened again. You poke it gently with your finger and it moves a little, then keeps moving. A small cluch of maggots writhe out from under the belly where you’ve touched it.
The smell of decay comes to you then—earthy and organic, not wholly unpleasant. “It’s a bit of a project for the kids,” you say. You feel surprisingly happy about the whole thing. “Watching movies and wearing old clothes really isn’t much of an immersion in the times, you know.”
The maggots are not as disgusting as you might have thought, just small white worms doing their part, living their lives like the rest of us, entwined with death. You pick one up and it curls around itself, a small frantic knot.
You look up. Patrick is backing away across the deck, face white.
“It’s perfectly natural,” you say. You hold the creature out towards him.
He smiles a ghastly smile and flees.
When the show runs that fall you see they’ve served you up as the eccentric, unhinged by tragedy, a woman who raised her kids at home, for God’s sake, the central character in a cautionary tale about how far we’ve all come. You don’t mind, don’t even mind that they’ve used footage of your meeting with Vladimir, the trace of a tear in your eye as the music swells. You knew this would be coming after the news of the bird spread through the other families and they started avoiding your gaze, throwing sympathetic glances at Theodore and Edwina. After wildlife officials removed the corpse and the planter from your rear deck, after you and the children had to go and chat with a counsellor, separately.
You don’t mind because you’ve moved from the city, found an old house in a gently decaying town two hours from anywhere most people want to be. You’ve removed some of the wiring and circuitry from the place, dialed its mind down to the dumbest setting, procured a black market tabby who brings small gifts of field mice and starlings to your door. Not a twentieth century house, but not entirely a twenty first century one either. Some evenings when the kids are working on their homework you like to sit on the porch and watch bats flicker around the streetlamp, feasting on the insects dim enough to be drawn to the light. Uw
Andrew Gray is the author of a collection of short fiction, Small Accidents, which was shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Award at the BC Book Prizes and an IPPY Independent Publisher’s award in the US. His speculative fiction has been published in magazines including Malahat Review and On Spec and online at The Tomorrow Project UK / Arc Magazine and is now available in e-book format. He is currently completing a speculative fiction novel and a screenplay. andrewneilgray.com