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Short Story by
Chris Vaughan

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"Del Mundo De Tetris" by Chris Aitken
Art by Melissa Stern
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Brown I

1

The preteen memory banks abnormality - priming itself for the oncoming horrors of puberty. I recognised Raymond instantly at the bar. The inoperable thumb, severed forefinger, his left eye, with the motor reflex of a newborn adjusting to the world's spotlight, his lolling oblong head slewing on its corkscrew neck. The collection of oddities composing the face of Raymond DeSteel made up the mnemonic tower of my brain for over twenty years. As it had on the original advertisement for Human Tetris, his head seems on the brink of falling right off, the opening words, those words:

Art by Melissa SternBoys, girls, bright stars and bouncing chickadees, children without shape, youngsters without colour, poor, rich, clowns and poultry, all listen! Human Tetris is coming. Where do you fit in?

I approached him at the bar and asked for a light.

****

A fresh collapse of waves wakes Raymond. Water ascends further up the beach, his crimson feet within reach, works right up to the flame-grilled thighs and shins. It won't be long before he starts feeling the cool salt tonic against the sand-sautéed waist and sun braised chest. The moat formed round him starts to fill with seawater, enlivening trusses of seaweed and a dancing crisp packet, moving like the feral adoptee of the seaweed and sand. It mimics the balletic movements of the red and brown algae. The angry white scruff of that illimitable fluid body is closing in, closer, closer - two rivulets pinch his soles, a longer sidewinder of water probes his hips - closer.

Seawater passes along an intricate network of valleys, a colour rinsed mandala, dug with the butt of Raymond's stolen walking stick. Seawater runs along the canals, finding the mouth of the pool the kids had buried his feet in. The same kids washed his Rolex in fresh piss and seawater then lathered it with pebbles, splinters and shattered crustaceans all wrapped in a black-jelly-ball. The same kids dug the little canals to his cold and oily foot bath with the butt of the stick they stole. I watched the kids from the pier and laughed, even when they tapped the face of his watch with a rock until it cracked then shattered, the glass fragments anonymously joining the fraternity of compact crystals underneath. The ostium of his foot bath is dammed by filth, the denuded watch lying on the banks of its overflowing bowl like the relic of a short and forgettable empire.

****

Raymond bought the Rolex when Channel 6 purchased Human Tetris. I recall him twenty years ago, with weakening bravado, showing us that ideas like his got you things like that – waving his wrist at us gloatingly, flagging the oversized watch, ‘remember children, you are participating in something great, may it not be the last time,’ we were then led enthusiastically through the lobby and into the orientation rooms, where we would be fitted with test suits – the same grey colour and cylindrical shape. Some kids couldn’t carry the weight, as others failed later in the anti gravity chambers, but only those that passed knew later that these handful of sulking preteens baited at the premature side exits would most likely grow up to be the normal, sane, coherent - or at least ordinarily insecure ones. We queued hours for our T-cards, confirming our status as official L's and Z's and O's in the great game. My mate Dennis was a proud buffed L. I was a vertical brown rectangle, a blotting brown I, the least esteemed shape of all.

As he sat drinking the gin and tonic I'd bought him it occurred to me that he couldn’t see the shape fixed around me, like the permanent ghost of my blighted adolescence. All he saw were the hardened edges. To him I was not part of his game, just an invisible blimp on the worldwide grid of rouge shapes and running colours.

****

Eventually sub-licensing and legislature killed Human Tetris when the whole 80s Tetris affair erupted again in miniature, leaving the ownership of us Tetrominoes foggy. The whole concept was anybody’s to own and fuck about with, using stupid additives like neon shapes, translucent packages, stimulating electric waves when a row of ten was complete giving the participants an sharp electric pulse up the spine. Raymond left the company as International Retailer four years after it first launched on channel 6. He had distributed the show to over eighty countries. Then he stopped things balling along and vanished, wealthy and dissatisfied.

2
I remember Raymond saying, as we queued for the anti-gravity Tetris chamber, the T Room, perhaps our third or fifth prep talk along the course of orientation, training, dressing and mucking about in the mock grey chambers, ‘You’re swimming, remember you’re swimming for your life lads and ladies, don’t just let yourself drop. Life aint all about things just balling along, take a risk – be magenta S, purple T,’ he pointed to Dennis ‘brilliant blue J,’ then to me and away again to the cyan O – ‘you will become a cyan O and never forget the day you did.'

****

I returned to the bar the next day, Raymond still sat there, a creased crescent, sulking half moon. I offered another drink and opened the dated newspaper on the page about Cyrus the suicide. I tried to detect a reaction, even a minor tremor in the pupil of his conscience. There was nothing. He saw everything through the second glass, and saw nothing through the sixth, seventh, tenth. And by then I knew it was time.

****

As he wakes a cold wind smothers the settled sweat covering his body and he shivers, looking up at the sky as if to beg for its celestial assistance.

After a long spell of further lolling he comes to, the detachment of his head spreading down into his limbs so that he resembles more and more the banks of sand backed up against the pier and breakwaters, shifting and lifeless against the hyperactive ocean. I move further down the slope to meet him, kicking humps of sand as I go. I see the elements wearing him down like desert air whipping a naked fuselage. He is barely awake and doesn’t even notice the damage to the Rolex beside him or the missing stick. Sunstroke adds to the tonic I'd given him the night before. Apart from the kids earlier I’ve only seen Strada Plaza’s resident dogs Martin and Chet. Martin sniffed at his delirious head, nuzzling at the right ear caked in salt mush and dried to a pink husk. With an ear each they stayed about twenty minutes. Then they straggled back to the Plaza’s entrance where they huddled under the awning of the kiosk which fanned the orange, red and opal reflections sunnily over the littered car park as if through an elaborate stained glass window.

****

At the entrance pre-launch we were dissected into categories via the big lit-up diagram hanging from the passage leading directly to the T Room. It compartmentalised us into our shape line then our colour line, following the example of the plasma chart as we went. First on the list, first and forgotten, the brown I. Already quaking behind me in the queue was the last on the list, last and least, my dullest cousin the light grey rectangle. Seconds before I was on the threshold of the hydraulic door, that when the green light flashed above would open for you to drop, my neighbour – a proud red inverted L – asked me how the shapes were sorted. Raymond’s reply issued from a loudspeaker, ‘algorithms, we create theoretical algorithms to generate a chain reaction. This means basically,’ as he read the inverted L’s dead comprehension from the CCTV, ‘people don’t bump into each other and when one eager Tetrominoe touches base another chamber door opens. But now it’s your turn,’ and with idiot haste the kid fell into the three-levelled playing field, just missing a slot between magenta plank and piled up red green olive boxes and landed instead on the misplaced butt of a careless yellow Z called Uri.

I was a brown rectangle and Michael had lucked out with the blue T, slipping naturally as rainwater into Shelley’s easy magenta I. Below me a wrongly placed dogged cyan box was wetly shamed and still weeping while my neighbouring rectangle ribbed me with a tyre iron he’d smuggled into his Styrofoam suit. Once strapped into our assigned shapes it was suddenly impossible to manoeuvre the rectangle with its weight so central, it just jettisoned down into a sightless abyss of greens reds yellows blues magentas browns and cyan the box weeping inside, olive L is shrieking, slight human faces peering out of their tiny air holes– never fitting, always hot, perspiring, a ring of awkwardly assembled shapes searching for patterns in the chaos. All we Tetrominoes felt a little less human that day.

****

The slack and unbearable sun ricochets from the wet beach.

‘What do you want with me?’ Along the sand I see the cart rungs engraved by the kids with his stick spells 'fuk'.

‘I don’t expect you to remember me.’

‘The water is getting close...’ Talking partly to me and partly to the redeemer sun he whispers ‘I can't move.’ Then raising his voice, ‘I assume you’re something to do with this, why can't I remember passing out last night?’ As he turns to me the skin around his neck ages twenty years, imitating the compression of crystals into sand.

‘I am brown I.’ He draws the shape around my adult body, imagining the crook of the rectangular ribs and the uneven footing of metal spurs. There is a long, long pause as he felt-tips the outlines and airbrushes the brown onto my diminutive body.

‘Not again, my god, again and again – let me tell you what I told the last grey box:

Pseudoalgorithms weren’t made fit for equality. How many brown I’s and suicidal late teen grey O’s and insipid fickle orange T’s? My god it’s always the same, wherever I am in this big grid I’m always hounded from 1-20. What’s your main beef, improperly orientated, insufferably bored of life since your one good time you remember – no you were brown I, did it hurt?’ None of these conjectures are on the money. I formulate the sentence in my head five times before saying, ‘He was a hormone armoured blue J that fitted like a usb into her magenta I while I was stuck there next to tire-iron-bully smelling the piss from cyan box below in a dark corner.’ I feel myself nervously crushing the watch with the sole of my trainer.

‘There, that’s what I’m looking for. Something humanly tangible, a perfect example of the life-ties inherent in algorithms as developed in the original concept. It all fits, human anger, injustice as the inherent wonkiness of it all,’ he coughs. The watch has reached the shallowest point. I say nothing and take a seat next to him crossed legged, he is still coughing. 'But what have I got to do with all this, you chose to be a Brown I didn't you, you tacitly consented to humiliate yourself?' he says through a last phlegmatic whelp.

‘You’ve gone a little crazy, I guess you must have seen the darker corners of your design. I don’t think you’d be dowsing yourself in poison on this drowsy coastline if you really didn’t feel for us degenerate I’s.’

‘Jesus, how many times … Ever thought your pain may be for a worthy cause?’ I punch him in the ribs so hard he shifts out of the spot and I see the skin erupt instantly. I apologise. He notices the Rolex embedded centimetres from the sole of my trainer. His limbs have started to revitalise, energy discharges from the legs and arms. I finger the foil.

‘Thanks a lot. If that’s what it takes to ease your insignificant suffering I hope it was worth it, usually your lot don’t actually get physical or destructive – usually you just either anaesthetise yourselves to death or suck it up silently. Jesus Christ,’ his face takes on a wired expression, finding a recognisable shape for his frustration: bloated livid O, raging brainwaves making him move like a laid off puppet toyed with by the wind.

‘I didn’t do it,’ I feel in my hip pocket for the silver foil again and judge the third dose between two fingers.

‘Lying is another trait. Do me one thing - run and buy food, I feel like I jammed crustaceans in my throat every time I speak? If you're going to torture me then at least draw it out a little, I won’t last another thirty minutes in this condition,’ then rolls onto the good side and collapses into an extension of the rocks and sand, like the feral wrapper he seems to be further acquiring the habits of an adoptive, commonly inanimate, species. I go buy ice-cream from the Strada Plaza kiosk. Chet and Brian are being petted by one of the two kids. The smaller kid stretches to the kiosk opening and hands a few coins in exchange for six sachets of vinegar. I unscrew the top of the water and drop in a few pinches of K and then spread a few grams in the sandwich fanwise.

He retracts his paws from the foot-deep bath of piss and rejuvenated seawater, where he'd been trying to dig himself out of his easing paralysis, he sees me coming. ‘If you really want to make a difference,' he says 'if you want to learn something - then just suck it up, suffering in silence is a great talent. The modern stoic is a true saint. If you’re willing I have something to tell you, something that will change you. Tetris isn’t a product of the computer age, it's a relic of the Enlightenment: In 1801 a thesis was published, The Principles of the Tetrapped World – inferring, I believe proving, that the natural amalgam of the world can literally take the form of one giant shape. Each nodule of the natural and man-made globe slot together like your lusty blue J into frigid pink Miss T’, I stare, unmoved by his explanation of all the trauma and pain and maimed adolescents and accelerated pubescence, as if all these things were precursors to an ungraspable truth. I hand him the bottle and wrapped sandwich in silence.

In his good eye, in the incandescent script of moist light and grey shade, the knowledge that there is nothing of any value entombed in that heart becomes clear, can be read point blank in the pupil. The tide reaches his calves and gasps back again into the maelstrom of the surf.
I wait a few minutes. I wait until he might be dead. I concentrate on the slight rise of his back as he breathes, islands of moisture on his t-shirt emerging then drowning. I inspect each limb for movement, twitches and lively spasms. Finally he rolls over, 'what the fuck do you want Brown I? Why can't you forget like orange Z's or die like all the grey L's, asphyxiate yourself melodramatically in the food court of a shopping centre like that forgettable cyan O. They all had something to do at least, didn't just hang all over me like a dribbling mutt waiting for me to bark' - he looks at the canine duo accusingly over the embankment, feeling himself over for bite or hump marks, touching the numb earlobes as they crinkle delicately.

3
Cyan O was not so forgettable. It was the same wet box that hung by chicken wire from a lift shaft in Bluewater shopping centre years after our ordeal. I remember reliving our dark and silent companionship when his face became an unwilling tenant in my television for about a week, a picture of the twenty eight year old recluse in his garden tending the guinea pig, the CCTV footage before take-off and a still of his appearance on Human Tetris as the bright and vivacious preteen box. These images defined the narrow pathology of our star, these three images - animal carer, games player and participant in shopping mall dramas, the fleeting phantom of him crossing the food court, up the glass lift and then our imaginations repeat the partially sketched next scene from many angles, incapable of choosing either the humane close up or the more cinematic wide shot.

After his death I saw him more vividly, considered him outside the box. Repeated, after learning his name (Cyrus Wilkins 28 committed suicide today ...) Cyrus the Cyan O, Cyrus the Cyan O, Cyrus the Cyan O why, O why, O why?

Death gives you a sense of comedy and fraternity with strangers, as though trapped in cells only able to hear the voices of the bereaved and the consoling - which become familiar, haunting. I felt close to the dead, the dead in denial, corpse’s content to play living. I felt for them all. I saw them all with the aura of an ill-fitting shape and a clashing colour wrapped around them, defining their awkwardness in death as in life.

During that media interested week, before the event was stored in the mass archive of slightly abnormal suicides, during that week more and more banal but brutal details emerged. The wire used had been unwound from the immature middle aged man's guinea pig hutch (chicken wire a quick and sensational observation) which had stayed in his mother’s garden since he was a boy (the pet had a body double, triple, quadruple).

The health of his guinea pig is astonishingly good, he is well and the neighbours fixed the wire mesh so he can't escape.

Other things turned up for the novice sofa-motivated forensic investigator, a list of DVD titles (Labyrinth, Mall Rats, North by Northwest, and Night of the Hunter). The last was singled out by The Local, the former by The Express as an ambiguous indicator of what was to come. His participation in Human Tetris came late in the day. Only when they discovered the worn VHS crammed in the machine, as solidly part of that machine as if it had grown from the turmoil of its aged arthritic mechanics. When they viewed the video, reminiscing among themselves 'yes I remember that one kid went head first broke a collar bone,' 'the one that ripped his crotch on the magenta Z', 'the Chilean kid died I think,' 'that sour brown I with the kid jabbing him with a tire iron' some hawing, some harring - they chuckled absently and popped the video in a plastic pouch. They could not see the wet patch trickling down into the black felt, or hear the cry or consider the face behind the baggy costume. They would never see it for what it was.

Cyrus never took off the sweat embalmed T-suit and perhaps I never would either. He remained in the folds of the harness all his life, until the very end - but even then his death farcically resembled the basics of the game, but he had chosen to play without contestants and without an objective. He longed to live without an objective and knew that at whatever angle he fell there were no slots for him. He didn't fit anywhere - clumsily shoving himself where he did not belong; there was nobody to tell him that we didn't fit either, that nobody slotted in anywhere. Nobody told him that the whole game outside the T chamber was about making your own spaces however, wherever you could.

For a few nights I saw the bloated Styrofoam corpse lying in the street, a disfigured mannequin modelling a bizarre cyan summer outfit on my garden path, a hollow ghost still stricken with rigor mortis lying next to me in bed one morning. It was a wakeful imagination that placed him there. I rarely slept before and didn't sleep at all that week. People had stopped talking about it. I saw him propelled from the lift in anti-gravity motion; gracefully descend into the final drop which promised at the end a relaxed sphincter muscle and a bed of Spudnik and Pastizzeria leftovers. I see abstract patterns of yellow splurges, cyan fragments, red toppings and brown jackets.

My reverie then changed shape. I was the object compelled to voice my own disgust. I pictured myself dropping from multi-story car parks tethered to a network cable, hugging a human size guinea pig, I saw myself submerge into the civic swimming pool weighed down by the naked chrome innards of the original Styrofoam rectangle, strangled submissively by the creator of it all. The overseer of all us fractured puzzle pieces, Raymond DeSteel.

4
'Is it your real name?'

'To you yes.' Burgeoning heat and aridity weigh on his pupils, whites dribbling over their red precipice onto the rising tide and shingle.

'So this thing, The Tetrapped world, what is it?' I say disinterestedly, biding tide time.
'It's the real thing. It's were you finally fit in. There is a chance that you're not just an inadequate brown stick, somewhere in this universe you actually slot in somewhere - where you really do have a place with other beings not so full of hate and loathing and pity. The arcana of all our searching, it is the end of all our profane gimmicks to make us feel a part of an unseen whole, the answer to every misguided question of origin. There is a shape that we all belong to - even you Brown I.'

I summon the power not to believe him. The easiest ruse is to promote meaning in pain. There is nothing there. Our own spaces, that's what we make, our own spaces with elbow room and leg room aplenty - this is what it's about, and if I have a place to rest my head I've made it, a space to thrash my head, with walls to crack my skull into, plaster that only I can violently pound my body into - a slot to myself and each to our own a private arcana.

There are others. Self-harming Cathy the faded yellow I, John the T without hair who also strapped himself to a hiker’s rope and lunged from the third floor of a multi-story but failed. Uri the obese infant (regression is a strand symptom running through the case studies) who eats from a tray in an asylum near Luton but misses his mouth and wears a Barney bib. I want to gather all these together and bait Raymond in a day of reprieved lucidity. But most likely they will never know. Most likely they will all fall into the T-chamber via incomprehensible algorithms in their last moment, the eternal life of their mind picturing only shapes assemble and disassemble in the 10x20 purgatory. Forever they will live in the mutilated world Raymond created for them. This was for them all. I dropped three grams of ketamine each in his lager and brandy before thinking it would do. It worked quickly and I had to hold him under the arms until we were outside, where I veered his slack body onto the embankment then rolled him roughly onto the sand. It was dark and he was noiseless.

I leave him and spectate from the midsection of the embankment a few metres away. Without speaking to him, he now has the half-gaze of someone realising that the last few seconds before the ship had to appear on the horizon had come and gone, I walk over to the Strada Plaza kiosk to buy a hot dog and four burgers without buns. Using the burgers I usher Martin and Chet along with me for company. I lean back against the sand cushioned frame of a Cleanup you Dogshit sign. Chet quickly finishes both burgers and nestles into the bank of sand and dirt. I hug the other dog to my waist and recline as far as I can without losing the view.

Water laps his waist, the crisp wrapper swoons and orbits his gut, having left the nest of its adoptive seaweeds, his head taking on the agonising shapes of the surrounding surf as he rolls left then right fighting the flow as it grasps harder at his waist, arms, chest. On the banks near the beach huts the two kids stake their rods into the ground, annoyed they’d forgotten about the tide. They lower the rods and sit cross-legged in their khaki shorts sketching disappointment in puddles on the stone steps with their toes.

The soft woozy light has not waned, and I see him clearly. To the neck it roils up and tip-toes down to the feet, clowning a slow fluid death-throe. He gags at the oncoming burst. Martin stretches, rediscovers his treasured burger and wanders back to the Pentecostal penumbra of the kiosk with Chet following behind.

As though brought to life through the seas current he is propelled upward, his chest pinched up like an unsettled duvet.

An illimitable series of sidewinder Z's ease through the tiers of fluid I's - surfacing O's and floating T's - and there the spectral shadow of water sucks up Raymond’s limp body, a million small case s's yank the feet deeper. The legs and the pelvis are consumed in perfect slots of water, the waist the lower arms pulled into place and the chest teasingly played with then indistinguishable from the ocean wide abacus.

I am comfortable here on this pier where the sun rubs my nape. The last fingers find the flat surf, with a flourish that reminds me of the way he displayed that Rolex to us during orientation, and now and then the body surfaces, porpoised from the water then naturally sinking back into that unconquerable liquid chamber. Water sluices around his sides like infants competing for maternal warmth. The body floats like delicate scar tissue on the surface. It takes a few minutes, as the sea repeatedly rejects the foreign object then admits him reluctantly, his wrestling corpse conforming to the great green grid of the sea.

****

I finish reading all this to Uri. On his face I notice a smile. More than the reflex smirk he gave when they attached the bib and tucked him in, spoon fed him harvest chicken purée and rice pudding. It is a smile from deep within the T chamber, looking straight out through his numb chubby infant face and saying: It’s not much, but it makes me feel a little better.
That’s all I need to know.

 

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Chris VaughanChris Vaughan is a British writer currently living on the island of Malta with his young family. He graduated in English literature from the UKC, Kent, in England and studied American literature and anthropology at the UWN, Wisconsin. His fiction has previously appeared in Vanilla Press, Fictodium Magazine, Anemone Sidecare, Thieves Jargon, The Delinquent, 34th Parallel and the Drill Press. He is also the co-founder of the UK based ezine Ronin Press and its annual print edition, Phase 47.

 

Melissa SternMelissa Stern is a seminal figure in American letters. Emily Dickinson wrote of Stern, "Brothers and sisters, she has none, Melissa Stern's father is my father's son." She lives in New York City with her dog, Max. Stern is married but does not like to talk about it. Stern began her drawing career as a graffiti artist on the New York City subway system. Struck down by an F train running uptown on the downtown tracks, she now paints with one foot and her tongue. "I love poetry," she says. "Just not poetry in motion..." Visit her website for more information.

 

Chris AitkenEdinborough resident Chris Aitken is a professional musician with a bunch of credits he won't let us list. In his spare time, Chris likes lounging around, and does nothing but stare vacantly into space in hope of finding something inspiring one day. He knows hope is futile, because it doesn't exist, as Pandora left it in the box. He doesn't like things in boxes, and is always out of his box as a result. One day he hopes to snap out of it, and meet the real world. He is presently, and always has been a space case, despite his love for this planet. When he is really drunk, Chris has a habit of only being able to vaguely utter the words; "Live The Madness!" Chris likes this bio because it says very little about him. He also likes this third person persona because it reminds him of Julius Caesar.

 

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