Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Prophet of Gloom

Charmaine Frost headshot by Charmaine Frost

Cyborg Angel Craft "They used to lynch weathermen; I know that." Bob snapped. "I've only heard that a thousand times." Bob watched as Will, his on-air partner, pressed the adhesive edges of his synthetic white beard against his jaw, adjusting each side for perfect symmetry before the glue cured; peering solemnly over wire-rimmed bifocals, in his new beard and wig made from iridescent microfilaments, Will resembled a snow-dusted sorcerer even in the patchily lit dressing room.

"Bob", Will declared sternly, "You perform well in front of the camera. But every time I see you back-stage, you're pacing, biting your nails, and moaning about something."

"Yeah. Sure. I know." As one of the station's two leading weathermen, Bob had to seem part wizard, part scientist, part seasoned outdoor explorer; his TV public expected him to brave the elements wielding a gilded barometer and squinting through jewel studded binoculars at omens scrawled in mist across the underbellies of clouds. After so many years on the job, he could don his costume, hunch his back, pull his brow into a concerned omniscient frown, and intone his lines automatically; recently, however, he'd spent too much time grumbling to Will, his weatherman partner.

"I know all about our history," Bob rubbed his palm repetitively up and down the armrest; underneath, the fabric shimmered, scuffed smooth, shiny and pale. Bunch of incompetents!, the public had shouted in protest against weathermen: All that fancy equipment, they'd do as well with divining rods and crystal balls! Where'd they get their science training? Sue them! No, shoot the frauds! If they're gonna pull a fast one on us, they should pay! "I know how they used to treat us. You're right. We have it good. I should just say my lines and forget. I should remember that these are good times, remember to forget."

Bob scratched spasmodically at his uncombed, slightly matted beard as stiff and gray as a brillo pad. Ever since his grandmother's death a month earlier, he'd felt more and more irritable; he remembered too much. Whenever he glanced at the regulation polyurethane container in which her ashes were sealed, his stomach twitched in rebellion; he felt like vomiting up everything he'd eaten and heard during the last twenty-five years. When he tried to sleep, his heart beat out thunderous warnings and the muscles in his legs writhed, trying to squeeze out invisible toxins; something primordial pounded at his skull and hammered in the dark emptiness behind his eyes. He told himself that he was merely grieving for his grandmother, the only person who'd excited his imagination in a world scrubbed clean of spontaneity. He reminded himself that his grandmother and her stories had come from an archaic time, best forgotten, before scientific regulation had freed the world from fear and inconvenient surprises.

Before scientists had learned to control the weather, people expected perfect predictions from their meteorologists. If the forecast read "blizzard", people stockpiled groceries and Aspirin for the backaches that followed shoveling; if the forecast read "sunny", people anticipated feeling happy. When drivers, surprised by an ice storm, crashed their cars, everyone blamed the weathermen. After an unforeseen tornado toppled the main street of a mid-western capitol, multi-million dollar settlements didn't calm the public outrage; the assassin of a meteorologist was pardoned on the grounds of justifiable homicide. After a hurricane veered abruptly off course, crashing historic landmarks and burying a coastal city under toxic silt, members of the underground organization Cloudsmart bombed hundreds of weather stations. The time had come for science to tame nature.

Now, rain fell only between midnight and 6 AM. No more than a half-inch of snow, guaranteed to melt in hours, ever fell. Occasionally, the government staged a midday thunderstorm or a blizzard "just like in the good ole days" to stimulate the citizens with a show of environmental novelty; the people were warned a week in advance. Children read about tornadoes and tidal waves in history books and marveled at the hardships endured by primitive society.

Bob had gleaned his own knowledge about the weather of ancient times from history books, reprinted photographs, old videos, and tales told by his grandmother, who'd lived through subzero chills and soil parching heat during childhood. As Bob dressed for his show, where he and Will would tell the nation what sort of weather the government had planned for its citizens, he thought of Grandmother's mementoes, a lifetime of accumulated photos, letters, e-mail print-outs and news clippings saved in musty boxes now stacked in Bob's apartment. Since her death, he'd spent hours daily examining the artifacts of her life, squinting at yellowed scrawl and faded type on paper dried to parchment brittleness and studying the figures in tea-stained photographs speckled with basement mold.

One photo, of his grandmother as a young woman with head thrown back, drinking rain through her open mouth while shimmering silver curtains poured from her outstretched arms, stood out; Bob had tacked it centrally above his bed.

"For a while, I wanted to be a storm-chaser, wanted to woo nature," Grandmother had told him. "I was a child of the elements."

In the hot, moist wind, I'd stand outside among the thrashing trees, abandoning myself to the power and willfulness of the air. Bob knew the story by heart, recounted and embellished in so many of Grandma's electronic letters. When I went storm-dancing, I wore a long wide skirt that whipped in the gusts until welts rose on my legs. I drank in the energy of the frantic electrified air, the rain surging down like an angry mob. I was the Storm Dervish, whirling wild and fast as a twister down the water-polished streets as the rain drummed, thunder clanged, and the wind sang soprano death-scene arias. Damned if I was going to carry a purse when I went storm dancing; I spent a night in the town jail when the cops found me, spinning down a deserted street while lightning lashed the sky, without ID and unable to prove that I wasn't high or crazy. That was my last storm dance - in 2002. I mourn that part of my life, but it's not something I could do anymore, even if the weather still was a beast calling to other beasts; one has to be young, free and fearless to surrender to the poetry of wildness.

Will slid into his usual seat next to Bob. "Yeah, I'm glad I didn't work in this field back then," He pulled a towel around his shoulders, ready for the technician to apply his make-up. "Nowadays, we don't have to worry about insane crowds. We don't have to predict anything."

Bob winced. "Back then, we would have been doomed prophets. Now we're just actors". His grandmother had known theatrical skies and operatic winds. "But I wonder how it feels to experience something more unexpected than a stubbed toe."

In this time when even nature had been cured of orneriness, news anchors reported global peace, family harmony, affluence throughout the nation, and empty prisons. According to one rumor, however, the long peace was a fiction, invented after the anti-war protests of 2032 had raged to near revolution; a few reportedly had glimpsed secret footage of American infantry charging into a charred jungle during an ongoing, decade-long African war. Some speculated that the president was a holographic image, and that a secret faceless group ruled the country; others argued that the president avoided public appearances, preferring videotaped speeches even during the campaign, due to a history of frequent assassination attempts. TV reporters merely read from teletype, never leaving the studio; journalists fleshed out computer data sent from the official news bureau. Most people clung to the hope that officials and experts wouldn't lie and that they could trust in the continuing calmness of the world.

"Huh? What's that about stubbed toes?"

"Nothing," Bob grunted, as Tina, the make-up technician with spiked fluorescent hair tugged his beard into place. Her Jingle-Band bracelet tinkled a melody from one of the day's top-ten hits whenever it slid up or down her arm. At Tina's squawked command, the chair hummed and angled Bob's face upward; Tina draped a protective white bib over Bob's costume, then muted her Jingle-Band bracelet so that they could all hear the big television that murmured, bleated and squealed above the make-up counter.

"Aren't you the lucky one!" Tina's fingers fluttered over cotton wads and jars of pigment; the stars etched into her long nails glowed, screaming yellow and shrieking orange against a shy pink background. "I can't think of a better show to watch while you're getting pampered. It's my daughter's favorite show, and mine, and my sister's, and even my husband's; we all try to sneak a look, even if that means telling the boss we're sick and have to spend extra long in the ladies' room. But you must know how it is, being a TV guy yourself. When something extra-exciting's calling to you, how can you say "'no'?"

The dressing room's large set played continuously, always showing the station's current broadcast. Most other performers envied the weathermen. The program airing just before their studio appearance ranked as television's most popular; many said that Bob and Will, watching the day's most exciting show from reclining chairs while nimble fingers massaged pigment into their cheeks, were the luckiest of men.

Trapped between the chair and Tina's roving hands, Bob stared at the big screen.

"Welcome to Psycho-Moms From Hell!" On screen, the show's host swaggered across the stage in his sequined jacket while horns blasted to a crescendo in the background. "Which psycho-Moms will make it into the pit? And which one will make it out, as a challenger for the fifty-million-dollar prize? Remember, only one of the chosen will survive to become the star. So, girls and boys, tell the audience why your Moms are nuts enough for the mega-million dollar Psycho-Mom of the Month award."

Bob gulped back the burning fluid that lurched up from his stomach and seared his throat.

"My Mom dresses like a tramp," the first teenage girl squealed. "She wears earrings that dangle all the way to her shoulder, eight on each ear; you can hear her coming from a block away, like she's wearing cow bells. She uses fluorescent orange eye shadow. And when she walks through the mall, she lets one tattooed breast hang out of her blouse, so all the passing guys stare at the snakes feeding from her nipple. From the way she dresses, you'd think she was my age"

Will snorted. "Hooters from Hell! All the tit men wanting to grab a feel and not paying any attention to the daugther - wanna bet the kid's just jealous?"

"My Mom won't let Robo-Maid in her room to clean," the second teenager batted large green eyes at the camera. "She says she doesn't want anyone invading her privacy, even a machine. So her clothes are all over the floor, stacked five feet high. She can't even find the remote control in all that mess".

In the dressing room, Tina's hand hovered over Bob's face, a moist tan sponge gripped between thumb and forefinger. "I sure hope my husband's watching this, him always calling me a slob" she tittered. "What they should do — what would be really exciting — they should sell tickets to see these Nut Cases up close and personal. Meet the belle of the bells, and listen to her tinkle as we chase her. Or visit this privacy-freak's nut house in Fruitcake City, and watch her try to keep Robo-Maid from doing its job. You couldn't stop my Robo-Maid from cleaning unless you took a hammer to her instrument panel; they're made to be persistent, isn't that a fact?" Bob nodded and shut his eyes, trying to recall his grandmother's words and photos from that other time.

"No, keep those eyes open, I need them big and wide to get the shading and wrinkles just right," Tina clucked. Bob cleared his throat, gulped, and stared obediently ahead. In front of him, on the glaring screen, the show's host strutted to another fidgety teenager.

"Purty crazy!" the announcer crooned. "And let's hear about Mom number three"

"My Mom keeps hundreds of pet roaches." The girl spat a wad of purple gum into a tissue and tossed back her blond hair. "She has them all in little cages. They all have their own names; she's even painted designs on some of their backs. The one called 'Sunflower', has a big acrylic sunflower painted on it; there's 'Lilac' and 'Violet' and 'Dandy Lion'; she swears they all have different personalities. She's trying to train them to roll over, and the meaner ones to do guard duty, attack a robber when she shouts 'Sic him, Rover Roachy, sic him!' It wouldn't be so bad if she didn't like to eat with her favorites; she coos to Sunflower and Violet over a bowl of spaghetti, then claps when they perch near her coffee cup and wave their antennae at her. I even wrote a poem about it, you wanna hear?"

"Do we want to hear it?" the host asked the audience.

"Yes!," the audience cheered.

"Are we sure we want to hear it?"

"Yes, yes, yes!" the audience screamed.

"O.K., it' s called 'Roachy'," the girl cleared her throat as she unfolded a piece of paper, "And goes:

Attach a leash to your roach,

Strut proudly in the lead.

When critics gawk and reproach,

Say "He's an exotic breed,

Sired specially and pedigreed",

Say "My roach is not an 'it' - a 'he',

And he's very cheap to feed.

So I pamper him with luxury -

A hotel where he and wife can breed."

"Purty crazy!" the host boomed. "So, audience, which will it be, Mom number one, Mom number two or Mom number three? Will it be the scamp of a tramp, the robo-phobe or wretched roachy?"

"Three! three! three!", the audience shouted.

"Who?", the host bellowed.

"Roachy! Roachy!" The audience chanted, clapped, and stomped its feet.

In the adjacent chair, Will coughed. "For my mother, a roach was Public Enemy Number One. She'd have shot them if she owned a gun, but she had to crush them; then she handed us kids paper towels and ordered us to wipe up the pieces of shell and the oozing bug juice. Didn't want to touch even the tip of a roach leg - but that's normal." Will snickered. "Those roaches must have crawled into this lady's brain. Watching her in the pit — you can't beat that for excitement, can you?"

Bob grunted. "Manufactured excitement," he sneered inwardly. When his grandmother was young, the world had seemed like a capricious and willful creature that frightened and exhilarated humans with the whims of its weather and its politicians; people sometimes trembled, but they knew that something unpredictable would jolt them awake after a period of too much calm. Adrenaline junkies, people needed a frequent adrenaline fix. Possibly, the need was coded in our genes; in a world of constant, predictable calm, people hungered for the unexpected; yesterday's surprise no longer shocked them awake and they needed the increasingly loud and putrid to arouse their sleeping senses. "Today, when the wind must call on schedule", he seethed, "We create artificial excitement".

As Tina rubbed fragrant, calming oils into Bob's neck, he squeezed his eyes shut against the roiling images on screen. The applause of the studio audience softened into the thrumming of ancient, wayward winds: The wind pranced up a roof and somersaulted down. The field was its trampoline and tree branches its jungle gym. It shook confetti leaves loose; they spun up, then tumbled to ground, scribbling the field with streaks of paintbox red and crayola yellow. Grandma, pictured as a little girl in another snap shot, pranced out in her little-girl shoes, to play tag with the cartwheeling wind; she dashed to the crabapple tree, her very own juggle-ball tree, with its thousand dangling round purple fruits that the wind might have hurled into the forever-blue sky if only it hadn't impulsively decided to play elsewhere. Bob recalled that photo of a five year old Grandma, her dress billowing and hair swirling, more vividly than he recalled any moments from his own life.

"Come on, be a dear and open those gorgeous eyes for me so I can do your face right," Tina cawed. As she pried open his lids with her raucously painted talons, Bob's gut writhed and his foot shook spasmodically.

"Roachy, Roachy!" The shouts stabbed Bob like surges of high voltage current.

"O.K., bring her out!" A squat, orange haired woman in a purple caftan waddled forth. Her name and story had been submitted to the networks months before; she'd already passed three screening auditions testing that her personality, as well as her psychosis, would excite viewers. She raised her plump fists victoriously over her head, shook them in time to the chanting, then sat grinning in the seat beside her daughter.

"O.K., Mizzz Ruthy Roachy, you're Psycho-Mom of the day; you've won a chance in the pit." The host's voice deepened to a growl. "But can you scratch, claw and beat your way out of the pit, to that five-million dollar prize in the sky? Let's look at your competition."

A gaunt face with lava hair and midnight-dark eyes scowled on screen. The audience hissed.

"That's last week's champion Psycho-Mama, Ms. Mean of Green, mass murderer of trees. She's got a vendetta against oaks, hacked down a yard of 200 year old trees with a rusty axe, even though her robo-gardener would take care of any pruning and raking; now her yard's full of knee-high stumps. And when the government staged that snowfall last winter, she tried to shovel it off her driveway with a kitchen spatula, even though everyone knew the white stuff would be melted in a day. She may look small but she's tough; so far, she's beaten four Psycho-Moms into dust. Ten-in-a-row and she's a megabucks, mucho moolah, millionaire Mama, even if she quits and doesn't go for higher stakes. So, Mizzz Ruthy Roachy, can you beat the Lean Meany of the Green to the prize?"

"Roachy! Roachy!", the audience hollered.

"Roachy! Roachy!", Tina and the other make-up technician cheered.

Bob clenched the armrests with his fists until the straining knuckles burned with the white of hot steel. "What kind of a world is this?" he spat into his beard, then clamped his lips shut.

On screen, spikes of neon-red hair stuck out from a crimson face; the wide eyes, hot as embers, burned furiously. The audience booed.

"That's Dame Dread of Red, who'll also meet you in the pit. Her favorite colors are fire-engine red and black. When she moved into her house, she bought a hundred gallons of paint; now the walls and stairs are hot red, while the ceiling, carpet and electrical outlets are black. She yanked out all the original plumbing, installed a red tub and black toilet. She drives a red car with black seats and only wears black dresses with red shoes. She sits under a sun lamp all day, to keep a fiery burned complexion; 'Better dead than not red', she tells dermatologists when they warn her about skin cancer. Can you beat Red and Ready in the psycho-pit?"

"Roachy! Roachy!", the audience screeched. "You can do it, go Roachy!"

"You can do it!" Will cheered. "Go Roachy!"

"Roachy! Roachy!", the make-up technicians chanted.

Bob wiped the sweat from his neck with jerky staccato rubs as an inner fire seared his skin. "What kind of a world is this?" he growled. "What kind of a world is so desperate for thrills?"

On television, the stocky woman rose from her chair, raised her fists and flung back her head.

"I can do it! I'll scratch them till they bleed, punch them till they drop, kick them when they're down and out till no more juice is in them. I can do it; I'm Psycho-queen!"

The losers would die in the pit, beaten to death by the other contestants; usually, the victorious Psycho-Mom emerged with broken bones, bruised organs and scars, but famous, five million dollars richer and a contender for the fifty-million dollar prize.

The audience roared.

"Roachy! Roachy!" In homes and offices across the nation, housewives and break-time employees cheered and booed. Tina hissed, then hurled a moist sponge at the screen; the other make-up specialist stomped her foot and chanted. Will bolted upright, shaking his fists. Every face purpled; bulging neck arteries throbbed, pulsing hot with anger or triumph as the championed Psycho-Mom, who seemed more real than the viewer's own biological mother, punched, kicked and clawed for blood in the celebrity arena.

Bob, the only one still seated, gaped at the screen and gasped for breath. Two women would die in the pit; one would emerge, battered, rich, today's celebrity cheered for the moments of excitement she'd given to a dulled audience. Was this what happened when everyday life became artificially predictable, routine and comfortable, sapped of any suspense?

"You're on in three minutes, " an intercom voice bleated over the buzzing commercials. Both weathermen reached for their floor length capes of gold and silver, studded with rhinestone stars and moons, and fastened these over cobalt blue shirts and trousers. Each lifted a pearly wand from the stand.

Bob rubbed his wand carefully, then leaned against the door. "I wish I could do something different tonight," he mumbled, staring at the floor. "Like forecast a blizzard for tomorrow."

"A what?" Will glared at his companion. "You know that they've planned sunshine for the next month. So why would you defy the script? People would panic if they thought the weather wasn't going according to plan. And what about tomorrow, when it's sunny all day? You'd probably lose your job. Everything would be in chaos. People wouldn't know whether or not to trust the weather bureau."

Bob frowned, then sighed loudly. "Don't you ever get bored just reading scripts the officials hand you? Don't you ever want a little excitement, something unpredictable?"

"Maybe," Will protested. "But this is a good job. All we have to do is wear these capes, read lines someone else writes, and look serious, the way people imagine sorcerers would look. If I want excitement, I can turn to Psycho Mom. But not in real life; I don't want surprises in my real life."

"Showtime in sixty seconds," the intercom rasped.

The weathermen ambled down the corridor, each stroking his beard to a point to resemble that worn by a fairy tale magician.

Suddenly, Bob stopped, beating his wand against the floor like a cane. "I do! I want surprises. And maybe I'm not the only one." He straightened his back until he seemed as tall and indestructible as a lightning rod; the glittering tip of his wizard's cap seemed ready to scratch the sky. "People know that the weather's government controlled. But, maybe, some of them still want to see us as forecasters in a universe full of mystery. They want to believe in the possibility of excitement. They want to anticipate, want to wake up to more than programmed days of comfortable monotony. Maybe they want to know that some can hear divine music in a way unexplained by genetics and evolution; they need prophets and the unpredictable."

"You were born centuries too late," Will chuckled.

"Computers are always right; they're programmed to be." Bob insisted. "If they're not, there's something wrong with the software. You know what distinguishes the prophet, or any human, from the machine?" Bob stared past his partner, at something encoded in the crystalline air. "He's sometimes wrong."

Will shook his head. "A medieval monastery, that's where you belong."

"Beauty and magic require randomness. And prophets have immense power." Bob's dark eyes burned, embers untouchably hot with passion, under his frosted false eyebrows.

"For evil, maybe," Will spat out.

"Could be, " Bob clutched his wand to his chest; his fist gleamed like a tiny moon against the swirling nebulae stitched in his cloak of flaming violet. "But I want to see what it's like to be a prophet of gloom. Tomorrow there will be a blizzard…."

ancient mouth city

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