Friday, July 16, 2010

A Midsummer Night's Cigar


I used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day.  True story.   Nowadays, I smoke something like three cigars a year.  A few months ago, I felt the stirrings of desire for a smoke.  I let a few weeks go by.  Then a month.  I mentioned to Marianne that I was thinking of having a cigar.  Fine, she said.  A few more weeks passed.  I'm going to have that cigar soon, I said.  Okay, Marianne said.  More weeks went by and . . . well, to cut a long story short, I smoked it the other night.

Tobacco used to jerk me around.  Nowadays I tease it in order to return the favor.

So now, three or four times a year, I go into the backyard late at night with a good cigar and a glass of scotch.  I sit down in the dark on the bench under the pergola and take stock of where I am and where I want to go.

This time, I brought my notebook and jotted down all the writing projects I've been meaning to get around to:  Half-finished stories, essays and mini-essays, the podcast series, the series of short videos, the YA novel (a long way away, I'm afraid) and something like five adult novels.  The list ran over fifty items.

Fifty!  Oh, man.  I'm never going to get to the end of that one.  Particularly since I come up with new ideas almost every day.

Andrew Lang once wrote an essay called "Magic Cigarettes," describing all the stories he'd realized that he was never going to get around to writing.  I should work up my list into an essay titled "Magic Cigars" and . . .

Oh, damn.

And I'm still writing tuckerizations . . .

It occurred to me, rather late in the game, that I should be labeling these stories with the names of the tuckerizees.  Apparently that makes 'em easier to find on the web.  So I've started doing so.

Here's today's story:

One in Eighteen Thousand 
Michael Swanwick

When Doug Ronning first began seeing ghosts, he reacted as anyone might, by doing a study and then writing a grad school paper exploring how ghostly visitations affect the perceiver’s  sense of spirituality.  At the time, he thought such events – fleeting, distant, and resistant to analysis – were extremely rare. 

And so they were.  At first.

Then they became commonplace.  The ghosts grew bolder and more vocal.  He began seeing them daily.  They walked up to him and jovially punched his shoulder with fists less substantial than air.  They scowled and slammed the door shut when he walked in to find them on the can.  When he gazed at his reflection in shop windows, they stopped alongside him to adjust their hair.  Until finally Doug was forced to acknowledge the strange truth:  They all had exactly the same face and features.

His own.

He was not seeing dead people at all.  These visitations were clearly variant versions of himself, leaking into reality through some unsuspected weakness in whatever it was that kept alternate worlds apart.

An alternate self from a universe where he’d become a physicist tried to explain it to him.  “How much math do you have?” alt-Ronning asked.

“Not much.  I still remember a little bit of algebra..”

Alt-Ronning sighed.  “Okay, I’m going to have to wildly oversimplify here.  To begin, by the nature of the universe there are not an infinite number of parallel worlds.   Each world is expressed in a bundle of five dimensions –”
“Width, breadth, height, time, and plynth.  So you take the first four primes expressed as hypersolids:  one to the first power, two to the fourth, three to the second, and five to the third, multiply them, and you come up with 18,000 parallel worlds.”
“Why to those particular powers?”
“Take eight years of calculus and I’ll explain, okay?”  The physicist looked at his finger-watch.  “Look, I’ve got to go.  Say hello to AnnaMiriam for me, willya?”

“I don’t know anyone named –”

Later that same day, another self who worked as an alternate lives counselor, offered him some free advice.  “The essence of alternate worlds is otherness, potential, the working out of possibilities that just don’t exist in your life as you currently live it.  It will drive you mad if you begin worrying about it.  The best possible thing for you to do is to just go home to your three or four clone-wives and accept the world as the drab place that it is.

“Wait,” Doug said, alarmed.  “I don’t know what you’re –”

Which is when the Reality Police showed up.  They were led by a guy who looked exactly like Doug, and they showed no patience with him at all.  “We’ll have the rupture fixed in ten nanoznorks.”  The alt-Ronning was a real bruiser.  He looked like nobody to trifle with.  “Why don’t you just go home to your line-marriage and forget that anything ever happened, okay?”

“But –”

Move it!”
When Doug got home, Charles greeted him at the door with a kiss.  “How was your day?” he asked.

“Confusing.”  Doug tried to explain, but it all came out in a muddle.  “So apparently there are eighteen thousand of me,” he finished weakly.

“Shush,” his husband said.  “You’ll always be one in a million to me.”


Above:  There it is, the distinguished thing.


Weston Renoud said...

Scotch and cigar (or pipe in my case) is the best kind of evening.

David Stone said...

That was a fun story. I'm glad Doug didn't arrive home to find himself married to another one of his selves. Although I don't think that situation would be unthinkable in your fiction, however. :)

Lars said...

When I was in Cuba, I used to take a plastic chair and a cigar down to the tideline around midnight and sit with my feet in the last dwindling rush of the ocean, smoking my cigar and looking out over the dark waters. It was the only part of my stay there that I really enjoyed.