Something in the Air
by Seth Endo
The evening air was warm and salty along the So Cal coast, even in late September. The tanker, carrying compounds used in developing film stock, cut through the autumn night. Unusually, there were no other vehicles on the highway. For no apparent reason, save the convenience of fiction, the driver lost control.
The container ruptured, releasing its chemical child. Toxins dispersed through the atmosphere, carbon dioxide interacting strangely with the pollutants.
A California Highway Patrol officer -- who, to his constant annoyance, looked a lot like Erik Estrada -- was the first to reach the accident scene. The concentrated fumes threatened to overwhelm him. Back in the relative safety of his car, he called in an alert.
On every television station in the valley, newscasters recommended staying indoors. The natives of Los Angeles, accustomed to such warnings, went about their daily lives.
It was a few days before people appreciated how drastically the crash had changed their world.
Language suddenly, literally, was colorful. The phonemes must have conspired, as words appeared annoyingly clichéd. Roses were red. Profanity was blue.
Once the denizens of southern California understood the chemicals had made themselves at home and had no intention of leaving, they accepted the situation with their customary grace. After all, this was the place where Kato Kailin couch-surfed his way into fame. Within two months, most people were reasonably fluent in the new optical patois. For newcomers and those less adept at picking up languages, UCLA began offering classes in Spectra-linguistics.
The rest of the country was spared the effects of the accident. Whether it was due to the local geography or the divine joke of a prankster god, the peculiar interactions were contained within the 4,000 square miles of Los Angeles County. Sanctimonious environmentalists and social conservatives from forty-nine and three-fourths states found common cause in denouncing the city of angels. The city thumbed its collective nose right back, claiming the rest of the country didn't know what they were missing and wouldn't have the artistic sensibility to appreciate the phenomena in any case.
Peter Givin suspected he was the only person in Hollywood unhappy with talking in color. A week before Christmas and his life had turned into a country-western song.
The firing was a surprise. Givin was called into his boss's office. His boss said, "Peter, I'm afraid your losing touch with the audience. In your draft, not one person is speaking Spectra."
"Well, uh, see, um . . . "
Givin's boss looked down his nose at his fidgeting employee. He continued, "I'm sorry. Look, the short version is I'm going to have to let you go. But let me give you some friendly advice. I've noticed that you are still using a lot of volume when you talk. Get with it! Spectra is the new sound of the entertainment industry. Instead of crudely vocalizing old-fashioned words, try to modulate your breathing to create color, beauty, the art and essence of communication."
A puff of blue, a wisp of yellow, and a cloud of ecru later, Givin was dismissed.
Too distraught to speak, Givin allowed himself to be walked off the lot. Once in his car, driving home, Givin screamed and shouted. How could his idiot boss fire him for not speaking some crazy nascent language, which is only used in one little corner of the world? And the absurdity of calling it the "new sound"! And what was with that goodbye? "Cyan-saffron-beige?" Couldn't his boss go one conversation without flaunting his command of Spectra?
Other commuters trapped in rush hour traffic on the freeway merely glanced at Givin, barely visible in the fog of his ire, to confirm his lack of weaponry.
Perhaps, taking a cue from his owner, Givin's dog, Jeff, became depressed. For years, Jeff had been plagued with a gastroenterology problem that resulted in constant farting. Not realizing that doggy-farts have a distinctive odor, which cannot be replicated by other species, even in the most modern laboratories, Jeff had kept a modicum of pride by pretending the foul scent came from Givin. After releasing a particularly odious stink, Jeff would sniff the air and cast a disappointed look at his master, as though to ask, "My word, what did you have for dinner?"
Jeff's gaseous discharges interacted with the new ambient elements, creating a noxious green cloud that trailed the Jack Russell terrier. Although Givin gave it his best shot, it was impossible to pretend that the odor was emanating anywhere other than Jeff's rear. Rather than face this indignity, Jeff committed the canine equivalent of hara-kiri, running under the wheels of a mail truck.
By now, Givin anticipated the loss of his girlfriend, Kim. He thought, life must like to keep the tradition of life imitating art -- and he used this term rather loosely, as when applied to the craft of Billy Ray Cyrus -- alive and well.
He came home early one day from another fruitless job search to find Kim fooling around with some himbo. Givin lacked the requisite spirit to cause a scene. Somehow angry with him for not being jealous, Kim packed her bags and left. She spectraed, "Blue-yellow-ecru, my darling."
Givin wondered, was it love or abuse when Kim kissed him as she walked out of his life?
Other concerns vied for his attention. Buying a condo had stretched his finances to the breaking point. Without a job and the little rent Kim had contributed, he was not going to be able to maintain the mortgage. Givin hated living with strangers. However, loathsome times called for loathsome measures. He called the Los Angeles Times and placed a classified:
One room in two-bedroom condo, near ocean in beautiful Santa Monica. Big living room, EIK. Share with anti-Spectra owner. Dogs ok. Rent $1,222. Call 310-KL5-8416, from 5 - 10pm.
- - -
Asher Grub's world became darker. He was attempting to sleep, curled up on his old college roommate's living room couch with his eyes closed and a blanket pulled over his head. Despite the many insulating layers, he could tell that something new was covering his head and blocking out the afternoon sun. Nothing was bruised or otherwise made uncomfortable. Consequently, Asher was reluctant to respond to the disturbance (as a fetus, he had struggled to remain inside his mother's nurturing cavity, resulting in the longest human gestation period ever recorded in Stamford, Connecticut).
"Dude, get up. I know you're awake, you lazy dog."
Asher groaned inwardly. Roger had always been able to tell when he was faking sleep in order to avoid unpleasant business, which, for Asher, was a fairly broad category that included cleaning, cooking, paying rent, working, pretty much anything to the right of consciousness.
It sounded like Roger's tolerance had worn thin. On the plus side, with his head safely ensconced under the cover of the pashmina throw, Asher was immune from getting a dose of angry Spectra, which hurt both the eyes and the ears.
Bowing to the inevitable, Asher tossed the blanket off his head. "Good morning, sunshine."
"The phone bill came today."
Asher admired Roger's ability to state matters of fact, but willfully failed to understand the implications of such declarations. "Anything for breakfast?"
"There was a total of $714.79 worth of calls to the Psychic Friends Hotline."
With a sigh that created a little swirl of pink and white, Roger continued, "Asher, I'm kicking your worthless hide out. I'd give you a week or two to find a place, but we both know that you wouldn't bother looking until the last day anyway."
"So, what? No breakfast?"
"No breakfast." Roger spectraed heavily, "Gray, ochre."
"Rog, you know I haven't learned Spectra yet."
"Maybe that should be your New Year's resolution."
"That's a damn good idea. When is it?"
"The American New Year tends to fall on January 1."
"Even this one?"
"Especially this one. Stop beating around the bush. Admit you have no idea what day it is."
"Of unspeakable atrocities, I'm sure. You've got a week until next year."
"That's awesome. Usually it takes me 365 days to reach next year. And then, just when I think I'm there, some damn fool moves it back another twelve months."
"Asher, why do say such dumb shit? Are you worried that somebody is going to challenge your moron title?
"Ok, listen. Before next year, I'm going to get an apartment and learn to Spectra with the best of them."
"I'll hold my breath."
Humor, sarcasm in particular, was not one of Roger's strengths. Asher thought, in many ways, Roger and I were perfect roommates: I handled the comedy and girls while he took care of the timely payment of bills, cleaning, and breakfast.
Roger handed Asher the newspaper that had been tossed aside with the blanket when Asher sat up. It was turned to the real estate section. Roger said, "Loosely translated, I spectraed, 'Get out of here.'"
Asher picked up pillow and wedged it into the duffle bag that contained all of his worldly possessions. At the door, Asher gave Roger a hug. "Hey man, thanks for all. I'll call when I've found an apartment."
- - -
At exactly five in the morning, the phone rang. Givin fumbled for the receiver on his nightstand. "Hello?"
A voice thundered, "It's your new roommate!"
"Beg your pardon?"
Asher momentarily paused, considering the downside of living with somebody who lacked the mental capacity to grasp statements of fact. Patiently, he explained, "I saw your ad in yesterday's paper. It said to call after five. I am calling. I am your new roommate."
Of course. Upon reflection, it was obvious. "Oh, ok. That's good."
"Where do we live?"
Givin gave Asher the address. Asher hung up. Givin rolled over and fell back asleep, erasing all memory of the conversation.
Minutes later, the doorbell jarred Givin from a very pleasant dream involving his ex-girlfriend and an inordinate quantity of hot fudge. With poor grace, Givin reached the front door and threw it open, ready to confront the maniac ringing his doorbell.
Asher put on his most pleasant expression. Little did he realize that the grin was far from charming. Years before, his facial structure, lips, and teeth had formed a humanitarian alliance to alert outsiders of the brewing mischief that Asher thought his grin was obscuring. Oblivious, Asher grinned again. He swept past a confused and nervous Givin. Once safely inside the apartment, past the danger area where a door could be slammed in his face, Asher patted Givin on the back and said, "Good morning, sunshine. What's for breakfast?"
An hour, two pots of coffee, and a hearty breakfast later, Givin got around to asking the burning question. "Who, exactly, are you?"
"I told you on the phone. I'm your new roommate."
Givin glanced at the duffle bag, which indicated Asher's immediate need for housing, and detected a slight coloration in the surrounding air. Only things that smelled really bad, generally due to some sort of decomposition, exhibited the Spectra effect. Givin found this slightly discouraging, but pushed ahead. "Oh, right. So, the rent is $1,222 per month, due on the first. Since it is only a few days until January, I'll throw in this week for free, if you want to move in sooner than that."
"Actually, I can't pay that much."
"How much can you pay?"
Givin groaned. He should have known. This guy was a jerk. Asher kept flashing his unnerving grin, a virtual alarm system blaring, "If you thought when he disturbed your sleep and conned you into making him breakfast was bad, prepare yourself for this!"
"Before you throw me out, let me make my pitch. In exchange for rent, I'll give you a 50% stake in my new business venture."
"I'm a little skeptical."
"No worries, man. I've already patented and distributed one invention. Maybe you've heard of the Sin-Free Urination Kit?"
Givin had not heard of the product.
Asher feigned surprise. "Really? It's advertised in all the finest religious periodicals. Pays off to this day, but I need the royalties from that little baby to pay for my new prototype."
One day at the train station, Asher noticed this guy in the restroom with huge piss stains on his pants. Turned out that Mr. Piss-pants thought it was a sin to touch his genitals. Always quick to capitalize on the eccentricities of others, Asher developed an expandable plastic tube with a handle so when one of these repressed freaks needed to use a urinal, he could slide his thing into the tube and then angle it appropriately. Sinless and spotless.
"What's the next big invention?"
"You can't understand Spectra, can you?
"How did you know?"
"Your ad. The only people who are anti-Spectra are the moral majority and the bunny huggers. Not Yuppies. Also, you're emphasizing the audible, rather than visual, aspects of speech. I've drawn up the schematics for a machine that analyzes the air and decodes Spectra. You need this, in more ways than one. You're in."
"Uh, um . . ."
"The lesson of America is the lesson of Hearts. When life deals you a crappy hand, shoot the moon."
Despite the best attempt of Asher's facial muscles to dissuade him, Givin was convinced. He reasoned, what else do I have to lose? "Ok, let's do it. However, just to warn you, the bank is likely to foreclose on the condo if your idea doesn't pan out by March."
"We've got nine weeks? No worries."
- - -
Two months passed. Once Givin dropped his resistance, he rapidly became a decent translator and was able to produce a suitable Spectra-English dictionary. And, to the great surprise of virtually everyone, Asher was happy to spend all day in the garage modifying an old spectrometer, as long as Givin made him breakfast.
The last day of February, Asher took Givin to the Third Street Promenade. Asher especially enjoyed hearing hapless tourists yell, "Tell me a price, not a color, goddamn you!
Asher commented, "Within a month, that will be a satisfied owner of a G & G Spectralator, my man."
Givin replied, "We're getting evicted tomorrow."
"I know. No worries."
"Stop saying that."
Asher winced as Givin punched him in the arm.
"I don't want to lose my place."
Asher's grin returned. A two-month hiatus had not made it any more innocent. It must have been visiting Loki in Las Vegas, snorting coke off naked hookers and roping schmucks into fixed card games. Although Givin appreciated the warning, he would have preferred not seeing that damn expression at all.
"Let's rob a bank."
Givin decided the best course of action was to pretend Asher hadn't mentioned committing a serious felony.
"Believe me, I can get us some pieces in like five minutes."
Givin scanned the crowd. Tourists lacking taste and discernible ankles? Check.
"C'mon. It'll be easy. We won't even need real guns."
That's reassuring, Givin thought.
"We just need something that looks like a real gun."
Givin returned to people-watching. Locals inline skating (even in his innermost thoughts, Givin respected trademarked names) up and down the boardwalk? Check.
"I promise nobody will get hurt."
Spectra-artists filling the air with misty, ephemeral caricatures of previously mentioned tourists (Givin was not surprised to learn Asher thought these street performances a perfect illustration of the phrase, "blowing smoke up your ass") while bystanders gawked? Check. Ex-girlfriend making out in public with one of the Spectra-artists? Ch- what the fudge?
"Hey, I was just fooling about the guns."
Givin walked away. Asher ran after him, grabbing his arm. "You ok?"
Givin shook free and continued walking. "My life is tremendously bad. I lost my job, my dog, and my girl. Tomorrow, I lose my house. All I ever do is stammer and walk away. Fuck it. Get the guns."
Asher's grin booked the next flight to Vegas. While it typically meant trouble, it was kind at heart and wanted to avoid witnessing any unpleasantness (hence its function as a warning). "No, seriously, I was fooling. We don't need guns."
"I need to make a stand. I need to keep that condo. To keep the condo, we need money. Banks contain tellers. Tellers will give us money. If we have guns."
"True. Banks are notoriously strict about not giving out other people's money without the threat of violence. Unless . . . "
Asher's grin decided to stick around after all.
Givin bit. "Unless what?"
"Unless your good friend, who also happens to be your business partner, filed a small business loan application based on projected sales of the Spectralator, which was approved yesterday."
"You're kidding, right?"
"You ever play a country record backwards?"
Givin shook his head, no.
The grin was back in the saddle. It raised its customary alarm, a smaller siren than before, but still a warning. "You regain title to your home, your girlfriend comes back, your dog is resurrected, and you find a job."
About the author:
Seth Endo's fiction has appeared in Shout NY, Eye Shot, and Hubris Magazine. In the spring of 2001, he won The University of Chicago Alumni Magazine's essay contest.