Chance Histories: Raw Setting ::

The horizontal landscape tilts, bringing the sun up to kiss the sky. A young teen wanders with a sure but sulky step along the spine of landscape, looking for a celebrity portal. A place to plug in. Dark-eyed and spitting from his pit, the former dictator asks to be let out of his chains. The steel wire cage made by minions whose agonies distorted their limbs with the same degree of twist that spirals each link against which he protests. He's come back from his hollow-eyed disheveled capture and onto the global stage. Their eyes meet: consumer girl and stalker man, mutually predatory, but according to different laws of behavior.

At the limit of human vision, the teen hears a train ran along its rails in this southern town. Old remnant of the iron age, it cuts a distant swath of action through the stillness separating the heavens and the earth. Violence has increased in recent years. At some obscure moment in history, by coincidence of geography, this small city became a cross roads between east-west and north-south route, tiny though it is. Now when the phlanged wheels turn red hot with friction, they pay homage to the memory of an earlier time by sticking to their story. The daily pattern of postal delivery and freight pick-up eases the pain of the day, making it slightly better to receive than to give. But the blood banks are overflowing, body bags are out of sight, and even the smallest, meekest creatures see our future in a grain of sand, sparkling with false promise, bright as De Beers, made in off-shore labs and available for a fraction of the price. Four easy installments, plus shipping and handling, amortize the gains. "Just for you!"A fraction of the retail price. Everybody hides their losses. Famine rages. Drought remains. A continent sinks.

Picking his way among the bloody platelets and errant leaflets, the leader of the free market tripped up the stairs in the midst of a simulated crowd. A woman once his mistress, now his wife, is draped on his arm in careful imitation of normalcy. They paid a heavy price for this event, and need to live it Right Now while the world is watching. Their personal lives are the stuff of daydreams, manufactured out of sight for easy listening. But they look good together, coiffed and brushed to within a micrometer of perfection. On the ruins of the square a false front set had been erected to promote redevelopment. They pause for the photographers.

Once urban, the scene was now indeterminate and vague. The soft streets had never having been fully reclaimed following the flood. Identity blurs, following the fate of bad collective memory. Slime deposits glistened with nacreous splendor, giving off the redolent scent of other lives.

Valiantly the returning pilgrims staked their claims, under the shadow cast by the fake flat faces of houses. Empty promises, still dank from dark middle-eastern walls, cast a wicked shadow on the scene. The streaming pots of waste water rush to renew their connection to the sea. The remnants of the FEMA-issued RV fleet circled their wagons for best reception. Satellite disks aim for a clear view of the southern sky. News crews pick their way with professional caution, and the tale of optimism they spin into the ether has all the appeal of veneer and all the credibility their music machines can muster, remixing top pick favorites into a steady stream of tuneful pablum.

A new start! the headlines proclaim with buoyed spirits. A thousand silver balloons are released all at once by the wife escort to the ruling puppet figure. The mirror globes catch the immoveable smile from their glazed faces and multiply it everywhere. As they rise through the sky the bright globes demonstrate the swarm behavior of collective thought, bright and vivid reflections of the world through which they stream. Live feed, always hungry. The wretched of the earth are troubled by the insatiable appetite of a frenzied crowd. A paid political announcement mobs the screens. Our teen appears like a pale blue planet arcing across the field of vision. What are the expectations we have for the news? Lipstick traces and a sense of entitlement, she warbles.

A moment later she is handed The Envelope. A shudder of excitement trembles her made for tv frame. Her stats had been replaced with somewhat better odds, like the quick-change swap in a voting machine, creating a happy outcome. Teen life requires these advantages, she reassures herself, waiting to be picked up by the social networking software and taken somewhere Really Special.

She can't see too far ahead through the noise of confusion. The belching moon shows suddenly in the heavens above, a little worse for wear. After seeming to be inert for centuries, it has let some gas go from its interior. Celestial gas? The tides turn the elections. The teen turns her well-made self on a dime, still looking. Money underfoot creates a curious kind of change.

"You jerk!" some guy screams, for no apparent reason. The teenager looks around and around as a mind storm crashes her synapses. She barely knows enough to keep going, and now this! The head of state rises out of the pit on a pike. Blaring sounds of celebration break the silence. Newly case in shining metal, the statue of a young Kazak warrior is being dragged into the public square. The cost of human life rises behind him on the Big Board. He's and ancient military figure, revived just beyond reach of the neon sighs of the badly lit crowd. Whose future is he meant to conjure? Or secure? His outstretched arm breaks the air in a graceful arc, sustained indefinitely.

The cruelly deposed dictator looks up with furtive anger, shaking his fist and still demanding to be set free. Nothing stays in its place, the teen thought. But then, what places were those?

Beaten raw they said they tried him by rumor and innuendo. We have tools, the official voice declares. The microphone is hidden in his hands. His lips are bruised but the words come like hard honey, thick and sticky. He had just spoken on the podium, reacting to the stink of sulphur left by the white devil. The reaction of the audience was mixed, but humor rippled through the august assembly with a rare frisson of appreciation. Irreverence trembled the hallowed halls. Now he sits apparently upright in the back seat of the squad car, daze all over his face.

Aftershocks wake them, even uptown, where the building across the street is burning up in the storm. All the electricity has been out for hours, lost in the measure of relief they expect any moment. Sparks fly, unruly and unclaimed. Another explosion follows as the car weaves through the crowded into the street. The body of Mussolini, composite image from the crowd, is a now poster hanging on the wall. Surfacing for a moment from her ennui, the teen sees the shreds of it striping the air in broad bright bands. A fire breaks out in front of her, spewing smoke over the body of the chief deputy. The mayor, it seems, is on vacation, stuck in the trunk of someone else's car, like any old grandfather no longer in use, his hair combed over the holes in his leaking head.

Our teen looks up for a about a nanosecond from her FaceBook tasking, pod blaring Rancid through her skull. An onscreen blog idol, almost eight feet tall, wears rhinestone clips in her white-bleached hair, skin coated with a thick cosmetic paste. She photographs extremely well, and has a dedicated industry outlook. She watches the blogosphere for profit - but with conscientiousness. A shrill peeper on the edge of the electronic pond. The teen plucks her face in imitation. Adulthood lies around the corner, always just out of sight.

A young man poet takes up arms against the deliberate act of disregard for news of genocide and the Rwandan massacre. Amusing ourselves to oblivion. He says the night-time sit coms took up the popular air space, became the common reference field. We all know the masturbation episode, he sighs, sticky fingers and the snow of tissues. Bodies shrunk and mutilated, laid out row on row. The images appear to speak directly. But visceral impact is not the same as understanding. Emotional pitch runs as high as a spring freshet, terms from older days encounter the new world. The teen says she thinks of the site as a utility, a way to find out what's happening and get what she needs. What she needs. A weekend at the beach. A trip to Cancun for the break. Another wedge between herself and common understanding. Or not. Perhaps her appetites are the shared knowledge base of the culture. Alternatives? Baby sitting the mall rats? They are the offspring of a pair of scientology freaks and she feels frightened by the idea of What Is Out There. This year's demons: terrorists and pedophiles. No defense against Them, she is told. Bring on the repressive response. Ideology 101. Gee, you think?

:: Johanna Drucker