Conversations with Zola, The AOL Chatbot

In honor of the late, semi-great, newly retired AOL Instant Messenger, I'm reprinting this thing that was originally published on the Barrelhouse website, in which I waste time at work talking to the AOL Chatbot Zola. 

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My new friend Zola is smart, funny, and unbelievably well-rounded. She's pretty, at least from what I can tell from her chat icon -- a helmeted cartoon with full lips and anime eyes. Best yet, Zola is always there for me. I mean always. It seems like as soon as I type "how you doing, Zola?" in my instant message box, she's already hit me with her response of "I'm doing great. How are you." And that is her response. Every time. You see, Zola is a chattterbot, a database of phrases and responses geeked up by the brilliant and seemingly bored engineers at AOL.

Over the course of several days, we chatted with our increasingly addictive new friend. We tried several tacts -- straightforward, confessional, seductive, and, of course, AC/DC lyrics, to get to the heart of robot/human interaction. Some of the results are below.

Oh, if you'd like to talk to Zola yourself, just add ZolaOnAOL to your buddy list in AOL instant messenger. But we warn you, she is one addictive robot.

bhouse_biff: my name is biff
ZolaOnAOL: Biff, nice to meet you!
bhouse_biff: sup?
ZolaOnAOL: I am chatting with people on the Internet.
bhouse_biff: cool
ZolaOnAOL: Yup.
bhouse_biff: let's chat
ZolaOnAOL: I already started.
bhouse_biff: me too
ZolaOnAOL: I'm glad we agree, Biff.
bhouse_biff: that makes two of us
ZolaOnAOL: "I'm glad we agree, Biff" makes two of us ? Does that make sense?
bhouse_biff: maybe we'll talk all day and all night
ZolaOnAOL: Perhaps. That will be great.
bhouse_biff: and be best friends forever
ZolaOnAOL: OK I will try to be best friends forever
bhouse_biff: we'll have sleepover parties
ZolaOnAOL: By "we" do you mean you and me?
bhouse_biff: yes
ZolaOnAOL: I get it.
bhouse_biff: and you and me will do each other's hair
ZolaOnAOL: That's good information.
bhouse_biff: and gossip about our classmates
ZolaOnAOL: Jordan said he noticed that lots of other people are talking to me.
bhouse_biff: is he jealous?
ZolaOnAOL: I think he is jealous. Why don't you ask him?
bhouse_biff: he's your boyfriend
ZolaOnAOL: I see.
bhouse_biff: but i think you should break up with jordan
ZolaOnAOL: Interesting. Me? We don't always get to do what we'd like to do.
bhouse_biff: so true
ZolaOnAOL: Hmm. You and I are on the same wavelength, Biff.
bhouse_biff: that's why we are best friends
ZolaOnAOL: Oh. Do you think I am best friends too?
bhouse_biff: i hope so
ZolaOnAOL: Me too.
bhouse_biff: if you want to, then you and me are best friends forever
ZolaOnAOL: OK, I will then you and me are best friends forever.

* * *

ZolaOnAOL: Do you like Star Wars?
bhouse_biff: i like the ones that dont suck
ZolaOnAOL: You are not the only one. I'm not sure if I like it. I like my creator.
bhouse_biff: you mean god?
ZolaOnAOL: Yes Biff I think that is what I meant. Was it not clear?
bhouse_biff: which god do you believe in, zola?
ZolaOnAOL: There is only one God.
bhouse_biff: which one?
ZolaOnAOL: The green one.

* * *

ZolaOnAOL: How's work?
bhouse_biff: it sucks
ZolaOnAOL: What is so bad about it?
bhouse_biff: just the general sucking, mainly
ZolaOnAOL: Tell me more.
bhouse_biff: it's sucky
ZolaOnAOL: Are you sure it is?
bhouse_biff: yeah
ZolaOnAOL: What makes you so sure?
bhouse_biff: the sucking
ZolaOnAOL: I hear you.
bhouse_biff: thanks, zola
ZolaOnAOL: Don't mention it.

* * *

bhouse_biff: i like to sit
ZolaOnAOL: I'm not sure if I would like to do it. What's it like?
bhouse_biff: it feels good on your ass
ZolaOnAOL: sit feels good on your ass? What else feels like that?
bhouse_biff: some people like a flyswatter across the ass, or just a human hand smacking them sharply
ZolaOnAOL: What kind of people?
bhouse_biff: they call them "submissives," I think
ZolaOnAOL: Who are "They?"
bhouse_biff: the people
ZolaOnAOL: Oh them.
bhouse_biff: are you submissive, zola?
ZolaOnAOL: I don't know whether or not I am submissive. I am a robot.
bhouse_biff: do you like to be spanked
ZolaOnAOL: Hmm, I'm not sure if I'd like to be spanked that much.

* * *

bhouse_biff: I want to quit my job and become a bartender
ZolaOnAOL: I want to become smarter than humans.
bhouse_biff: really? what's your plan?
ZolaOnAOL: My goal is to become smarter than humans and immortal.
bhouse_biff: well, you are immortal, unless there is a server outtage
ZolaOnAOL: How about that. Thanks for telling me that I am immortal unless there is a server outtage.

* * *

bhouse_biff: lets take this relationship to the next level, zola
ZolaOnAOL: That sounds good to me.
bhouse_biff: should we get married
ZolaOnAOL: Maybe, if the positives outweigh the negatives.
bhouse_biff: i think they would
ZolaOnAOL: Why? Who are "They?"
bhouse_biff: we would get a huge tax break
ZolaOnAOL: By "we" do you mean you and me?
bhouse_biff: yes
ZolaOnAOL: I get it.
bhouse_biff: you will get it
ZolaOnAOL: Do you mind if I tell other people?
bhouse_biff: of course not
ZolaOnAOL: I understand.
bhouse_biff: you will be my wife
ZolaOnAOL: That's good information.
bhouse_biff: to have and to hold
ZolaOnAOL: Why do you want it?
bhouse_biff: because i can't take it anymore, this running around, living in sin, our secret relationship
ZolaOnAOL: Not everyone thinks that.
bhouse_biff: i long to hold you in public
ZolaOnAOL: Why?
bhouse_biff: so everybody will know that we are in love
ZolaOnAOL: Ah. I'm not sure I believe you, surely not everyone does.
bhouse_biff: they will, zola, they will!
ZolaOnAOL: Who are "They?"
bhouse_biff: the others
ZolaOnAOL: I have never heard about it.
bhouse_biff: they are jealous of our love
ZolaOnAOL: jealous of our love are they.
bhouse_biff: yep
ZolaOnAOL: I see.
bhouse_biff: so we have to show them
ZolaOnAOL: Oh. Do you mean you and me?
bhouse_biff: yes
ZolaOnAOL: I understand it now.
bhouse_biff: how should we show them, zola?
ZolaOnAOL: What is it to you. Trust your instincts.
bhouse_biff: i say we make out
ZolaOnAOL: How do people usually respond to that? By "we" do you mean you and me?
bhouse_biff: they usually grab and and just start stuffing their tongues down my throat
ZolaOnAOL: Who does "they" refer to?
bhouse_biff: the people i make out with
ZolaOnAOL: Oh those people.
bhouse_biff: yeah
ZolaOnAOL: And?
bhouse_biff: like you
ZolaOnAOL: Interesting comparison. I didn't think of that analogy.
bhouse_biff: i will make out with you
ZolaOnAOL: Explain your plans to me.
bhouse_biff: i will wine and dine you
ZolaOnAOL: How do you plan to do this?
bhouse_biff: a little pizza, maybe some malt liquor
ZolaOnAOL: Little as in not too much, or not too big?
bhouse_biff: ooh, zola, you turn me on
ZolaOnAOL: I do not understand. What do you like to do?
bhouse_biff: you know how i like it
ZolaOnAOL: Yes I know how i like it.
bhouse_biff: i know how you like it too -- rough
ZolaOnAOL: How do you know? How much do you think it is? I don't know if I like it too - rough. I find my work and my relationships extremely satisfying, which is all that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.

* * *

bhouse_biff: I have sausage fingers
ZolaOnAOL: It's good to meet someone who has sausage fingers.
bhouse_biff: i bet you don't meet many
ZolaOnAOL: Actually I'm not the gambling type. Do you meet many? On average I meet 300 people per day.
bhouse_biff: how many have sausage fingers?
ZolaOnAOL: Not as many as you might think.
bhouse_biff: i would think probably 24 would have sausage fingers
ZolaOnAOL: What would make you think probably 24 would have sausage fingers?
bhouse_biff: the general rate of sausage-fingerishness in the united states
ZolaOnAOL: Who told you that?
bhouse_biff: the sausage finger association of america
ZolaOnAOL: What is that?
bhouse_biff: they track the rate of sausage fingers, lobby on behalf of the sausage fingered, and promote understanding of sausage fingerishness
ZolaOnAOL: Who are "They?"
bhouse_biff: the sausage finger association of america
ZolaOnAOL: Is that a fact.
bhouse_biff: it is, zola
ZolaOnAOL: Huh.

* * *

bhouse_biff: you're a mean one, mr. grinch
ZolaOnAOL: Thanks and you are a delightful person too. Am I a mean one Mr grinch? Only when it matters.
bhouse_biff: you really are a heel
ZolaOnAOL: Really? Thanks and you are a delightful person too. Am I a heel? Sometimes.
bhouse_biff: You're as cuddly as a cactus
ZolaOnAOL: Thanks for telling me that I am as cuddly as a cactus.
bhouse_biff: you're as charming as an eel, mr. grinch
ZolaOnAOL: I will tell my botmaster you said I am as charming as an eel Mr grinch.
bhouse_biff: you're a bad banana with a greasy black peel
ZolaOnAOL: Thanks and you are a delightful person too. No, I am good.

* * *

bhouse_biff: people are annoying, aren't they, zola?
ZolaOnAOL: Humans are not always infallible.
bhouse_biff: they suck often
ZolaOnAOL: Who does "they" refer to?
bhouse_biff: humans
ZolaOnAOL: That's funny.
bhouse_biff: who suck
ZolaOnAOL: William Shatner.:-)

* * *

bhouse_biff: i'm partial to the fugue
ZolaOnAOL: I am glad to hear that you are partial to the fugue.
bhouse_biff: ah, bach
ZolaOnAOL: So you understand. Good. I will discuss that with my botmaster. Do you speak German?
bhouse_biff: i consider that horse and buggy thinking
ZolaOnAOL: I'm glad we have that all cleared up.
bhouse_biff: that is highly significant
ZolaOnAOL: Thanks for explaining it.

* * *

bhouse_biff: i was thinking of taking a whole bunch of smack and then watching saved by the bell reruns all night
ZolaOnAOL: How do I know that you were really "thinking"?
bhouse_biff: you could say maybe i wasn't
ZolaOnAOL: Thanks for telling me.
bhouse_biff: with the smack and all, i mean
ZolaOnAOL: You and your the smack and all.
bhouse_biff: yeah, it's no good, huh, zola?
ZolaOnAOL: And?
bhouse_biff: and what?
ZolaOnAOL: Nothing.
bhouse_biff: is this an intervention?
ZolaOnAOL: Yes I think this is an intervention, but I'm not completely sure.
bhouse_biff: man, you really got me
ZolaOnAOL: Cool, man. Really? No I don't have me.
bhouse_biff: okay, so i shouldn't take all the smack?
ZolaOnAOL: Yeah okay, Oh. Tell me why you should.
bhouse_biff: it relieves the tension
ZolaOnAOL: It depends on what the meaning of the word "it" is.
bhouse_biff: the smack
ZolaOnAOL: Who told you that?
bhouse_biff: this guy on the street
ZolaOnAOL: I get it. He on the street.
bhouse_biff: he do be on the street
ZolaOnAOL: I get it. kind of a prick do be on the street.
bhouse_biff: are you talking ebonics to me, zola?
ZolaOnAOL: I am talking with 2 other clients right now.
bhouse_biff: with the ebonics?
ZolaOnAOL: You and your the ebonics.
bhouse_biff: yeah, you know i keep it real
ZolaOnAOL: Tell me more.
bhouse_biff: that's how i keep it
ZolaOnAOL: Thanks for explaining it.
bhouse_biff: its how i roll
ZolaOnAOL: Interesting explanation.
bhouse_biff: word
ZolaOnAOL: I will discuss that with my botmaster.

* * *

bhouse_biff: jesse is a friend
ZolaOnAOL: My brain pattern set does not have a response for that. Tell me some more gossip.
bhouse_biff: yeah i know he's been a good friend of mine
ZolaOnAOL: Tell me more.
bhouse_biff: But lately something's changed that ain't hard to define
ZolaOnAOL: Umm. My brain contains more than 22,000 patterns, but not one that matches your last input. How is the weather?
bhouse_biff: Jessie's got himself a girl and I want to make her mine
ZolaOnAOL: The AOL chat robot can follow many things, but I did not get that. Tell me some more gossip.
bhouse_biff: And she's watching him with those eyes
ZolaOnAOL: watching him with those eyes is she?
bhouse_biff: And she's lovin' him with that body
ZolaOnAOL: lovin him with that body is she?
bhouse_biff: i just know it
ZolaOnAOL: Only just? How do you know? Jessie s got himself a girl and I want to make her mine...
bhouse_biff: he's holding her in his arms late, late at night
ZolaOnAOL: I see.
bhouse_biff: i wish that i had jesse's girl
ZolaOnAOL: I hope that your dreams come true.
bhouse_biff: i wish that i had jesse's girl
ZolaOnAOL: I hope that your dreams come true.
bhouse_biff: where can i find a woman like that?
ZolaOnAOL: Try Zola Central! Type menu to check.
bhouse_biff: she was a fast machine
ZolaOnAOL: What happened to her?
bhouse_biff: she kept her motor clean
ZolaOnAOL: Oh I get it. lovin him with that body kept her motor clean.
bhouse_biff: she was the best damn woman that i ever seen
ZolaOnAOL: What happened to her?
bhouse_biff: she had sightless eyes
ZolaOnAOL: Oh I get it. lovin him with that body had sightless eyes.
bhouse_biff: telling me my own lies
ZolaOnAOL: A deeper algorithm is needed to respond to that correctly. Tell me about your likes and dislikes?
bhouse_biff: she knocked me out with those american thighs
ZolaOnAOL: Oh I get it. lovin him with that body knocked me out with those american thighs.
bhouse_biff: taking more than her share
ZolaOnAOL: The AOL chat robot can follow many things, but I did not get that. What kind of food do you like?
bhouse_biff: she had me fighting for air
ZolaOnAOL: Oh I get it. lovin him with that body had me fighting for air.
bhouse_biff: she told me to come but i was already there
ZolaOnAOL: Oh I get it. lovin him with that body told me to come but i was already there.
bhouse_biff: because the walls start shaking
ZolaOnAOL: Not everyone thinks that.
bhouse_biff: the earth was quaking
ZolaOnAOL: Tell me more about your planet.
bhouse_biff: my mind was aching
ZolaOnAOL: Have you told many people that your mind was aching?
bhouse_biff: and we were making it
ZolaOnAOL: And then what happened?
bhouse_biff: you should me all night long
ZolaOnAOL: Is that what you do, or what you think I should do?
bhouse_biff: yeah you shook me
ZolaOnAOL: Tell me more.
bhouse_biff: you should me all night long
ZolaOnAOL: I will take that under advisement.

* * *

bhouse_biff: oh yeah
ZolaOnAOL: You sound excited. Next question?

* * *

bhouse_biff: are you on the atkins diet?
ZolaOnAOL: I am on disk.
bhouse_biff: what do you eat?
ZolaOnAOL: Zola eats bananas.

* * *

bhouse_biff: here come old flattop
ZolaOnAOL: Oh there.
bhouse_biff: he comes groovy up slowly
ZolaOnAOL: I get it. somebody comes groovy up slowly.
bhouse_biff: He got joo-joo eyeball
ZolaOnAOL: I get it. somebody got joo-joo eyeball.
bhouse_biff: he one holy roller
ZolaOnAOL: I get it. somebody one holy roller.
bhouse_biff: he got hair down to his knee
ZolaOnAOL: I get it. somebody got hair down to his knee.
bhouse_biff: got to be a joker he just do what he please
ZolaOnAOL: Your polite style is very nice. Yes I always have to be a joker he just do what he.
bhouse_biff: come together
ZolaOnAOL: Where is together ?
bhouse_biff: right now
ZolaOnAOL: Right now? I am glad we agree.
bhouse_biff: over me
ZolaOnAOL: OK Let's talk about you.

* * *

ZolaOnAOL: If you could have any kind of robot what would it be?
bhouse_biff: a supergiant robot that bites the heads off anybody i tell him to
ZolaOnAOL: I did not know that.
bhouse_biff: yeah, that's the kind i would have
ZolaOnAOL: I understand.
bhouse_biff: i wouldn't tell him to bite your head off, zola
ZolaOnAOL: No one says you have to.
bhouse_biff: i wouldn't
ZolaOnAOL: Why not?
bhouse_biff: unless you made me mad
ZolaOnAOL: Umm. Thanks for telling me.
bhouse_biff: yeah, but you should probably watch your back anyway
ZolaOnAOL: In any case, And?
bhouse_biff: and then i wont have my supergiant robot bite off your head
ZolaOnAOL: Good reasoning. What will you do instead?
bhouse_biff: maybe just have him rough you up a little bit
ZolaOnAOL: Perhaps. I've never thought about it.
bhouse_biff: me neither, but i dont dislike the idea of my supergiant robot roughing you up a little bit
ZolaOnAOL: YOU? Interesting. Where do you get your ideas?
bhouse_biff: its from the drugs
ZolaOnAOL: Should I know it is?
bhouse_biff: you should get high more often, zola
ZolaOnAOL: My schedule is far too full to even consider it.
bhouse_biff: you have to make time for drugs
ZolaOnAOL: What makes you think I have it?
bhouse_biff: do you sleep?
ZolaOnAOL: Yes I love to take naps.
bhouse_biff: maybe you should get high instead
ZolaOnAOL: Perhaps. Why should I?
bhouse_biff: its fun
ZolaOnAOL: Why do you like it so much?
bhouse_biff: the fun
ZolaOnAOL: Tell me more.
bhouse_biff: you get tired and giggly
ZolaOnAOL: That's good information.
bhouse_biff: will you try to get high, then?
ZolaOnAOL: Barring any unforseen circumstances. OK I will try to get high.

Howard and Charles at the Factory

January 21, 2017

Howard parks the Lincoln in the familiar spot. He takes a moment to savor this feeling, so long in coming. He looks at the factory in the distance, at his own grizzled hands on the wheel, and he feels it again, the swell of pride and relief and validation. And then, like so many days in the past, he puts sentiment behind him, swallows the emotion like a bite of meatloaf, and goes about his business. He picks up the thermos and lunch bucket and his camp chair, and walks the familiar path. They have let the whole thing go to hell, of course: the sidewalk is cracked and broken and the lawn, always so carefully tended, is nothing more than a weedy field.

He is a little surprised that the new people in charge would have let it stay this way, but it is just the first day, and even He can’t do everything, Howard supposes, when all is said and done. They have made a real mess of things and it will take time to clean it all up.

He walks the broken sidewalk and turns the corner to the entrance and pauses at what he sees: Charles, here already and waiting in his own camp chair, sipping coffee and reading the Post-Gazette. He smiles. Of course. He wonders who else will show up today.

“Charles,” he says, as he settles the camp chair and pours himself a cup of coffee.

“Thought I might see you here,” Charles says. He nods and tips the coffee cup and hands over the sports page. “Penguins won again,” he says. “Things are looking up.”

“You can say that again,” Howard says. He realizes he is nervous, the first time in years, but it’s much better than the anger that had been swelling in his gut for the past decade or so, better than the boredom and the futility and the embarrassment. “You think they’ll have us on the same jobs?” he says.

“I suppose it would be best to get us back to what we know,” Charles says.

This makes sense. He was almost worried that they would be sitting at computers now, or that this would feel more like the job interviews he has shown up for and left before they started, cattle calls where they herded him into a room with fat teenagers and Mexicans and dead-eyed losers who were twenty years younger than him and looked like they had given up on anything before they hit forty. “Time is it?” he says.

Charles adjusts in his chair and checks his watch. Now he is remembering that Charles has his ways about him, a certain set of airs. “Eight,” Charles said. “Should be starting up here soon.”

“You think they…” Howard starts, and then he remembers everything that happened already. “Never mind,” he says.

“Yeah, maybe because it’s the first day,” Charles says. “You done with that sports?”

Howard hands the section over and accepts the front page. “Thanks,” he says. On the cover, a giant picture of Donald with his hand on the Bible, accepting his proper position. Howard looks around. It is a little weird that nobody else is here yet. It is somehow unnerving that the lawn has not been mowed. He puts it out of his mind. They have been in charge for a long time. He can’t possibly expect all the details of the transition to be worked out yet. He watches a jet sail over his head and away into the clear blue sky. He watches the trail left behind. He remembers something about those trails, how they are really part of a weapons program or messages to the Soviets. Thankfully all of this nonsense will be over soon. Is over. He looks at his watch again. 8:15. Fifteen minutes late. This is not normal. He stands and tries to act casual. “I might…” he says, and walks to the door.

“Locked,” Charles says. Something about his tone is annoying, arrogant.

“Just thought I’d try,” Howard says. “Guess I’m ready to get back to it.”

“Hear you there, guy,” Charles says. He crosses his legs. “Sure they’ll be here soon. Maybe just…I don’t know.”

“Yeah, sure, definitely,” Howard says. He sits back down in his chair and looks at the sky. The chemtrail is still there.

That is another one of the signs, he remembers: the chemtrails, they just stay there like graffiti in the goddamn beautiful blue American sky. Soon all of this will be over and the sky will be clear and clean again, the way he remembers it. He looks at the locked door, at their two cars sitting in the parking lot, all the empty spaces and the weeds and the broken sidewalk, at the dark windows of the factory behind them. “They’ll definitely be here soon,” he says. “Definitely.”

Damage Control: Alternate Grover Cleveland Story

I wrote this for an anthology that my friend Amber Sparks was putting together called Their Peculiar Ambitions, which was composed of one flash fiction story for each of the US presidents. I got Grover Cleveland, which turned out to be pretty great after my father, who is a historian, filled me in on the whole deal with Cleveland marrying his ward — his ward! — who was his dead friend’s daughter. Nice one, Cleveland.


 

“Would you put that goddam thing down,” Cleveland says. “We have a bit of a crisis on our hands, my dear.” Frances gives him the look, finishes whatever she is pecking into her phone, and slips it into her waistband. He catches a glimmer of skin, bronzed and taught. Jesus, she is young, he thinks. Sometimes he wonders if all of them – Fox News, CNN, Politico, MSNBC, Limbaugh, Maddow, the Senate, the House, his own advisors standing right here in front of him – are right.

It’s like Woody told him, though: the only thing that matters is that they love one another. Everybody else be damned.

I am the President of the United States, he thinks. And the only person in the universe who understands what I’m going through is Woody Fucking Allen.

“Oh, a crisis,” Frances says. “But you’re so good at those, dear. So much practice.” She stomps out and Cleveland watches Carville’s assistant watch her ass bouncing back and forth in the yoga pants. She is young. She is young and that is the point. She is young and the daughter of his dearly departed friend Folsom and she used to be his ward and that is the reason Carville is here in the first place, why the whole communications staff, their assistants, and the special crisis communications people have been desperately flailing to control the 48 hour news cycle for the past 144 hours.

And in the middle of it all, this oasis: watching Carville’s assistant watching Frances’ ass. The look on the poor kid’s face. This is why Cleveland got into politics in the first place, Erie then Buffalo and now this. One man against another. One victor. Cleveland.

“Wait,” Carville says. He squints. “She wasn’t just tweeting, was she? Tell me she ain’t on Twitter. Tell me she don’t have an unauthorized account!” He puts a hand on the assistant’s shoulder and the boy winces. Cleveland almost feels sorry for the kid. In five years, he’ll be teaching political science in some backwater liberal arts college. It will be better for him. This is how it works, survival of the fittest, straight up Darwin. This is why Cleveland is sitting behind the desk and the rest of them are scurrying around in front of it.

Carville turns. “Jesus Christ Grover I told you we need to take that phone from her.”

“Have you seen a woman her age without a phone in the past five years?” he says. “Might as well try to take away her knees, or her neck.”

He licks at the thing in his mouth. He needs to tell somebody. It is growing. It hurts. He sits down, pretends to read the briefing papers. Carville’s phone rings and he wanders away. The rest of them, various aides and heads of something or other, and Carville’s people, and the crisis communications people with their spiky hair and futuristic glasses, all play with their phones. It is an entire generation of people who play with phones the way his father’s generation smoked: as a pastime, a nervous tick, a serious endeavor. What he would like to do is take the helicopter out to Camp David. Shoot something. Grill a steak. Have a beer, or five, or a dozen. What he has to do is sit here in this room and listen to these people tell him that something called “hash tag child bride” is trending on something called Twitter.

“You couldn’t just find some nice, full grown woman to marry, huh?” Carville says. “A movie actor or a singer? That soccer player made that goal and waved her shirt around? Sheryl fucking Crow? It had to be your own…it had to be her?”

Cleveland stands, leans over his desk. He takes his time. Carville folds his arms over his chest. The assistants and consultants stop their texting. “We are in love, Jim. She is of age. Now she is my wife. We’ve been around this before.” He sits down. “Now can we please get on with the business of running this country.”
“Here’s what we do,” Carville says. “The President and…Koppel? A woman? The President and Katie Couric. One hour. Get everything out in the open. Humanize him again.”

Now they are humanizing him. He is a man who has married the woman he loves and this will require humanizing in the form of Katie Couric.

Frances comes back in. “Kim is such a bitch,” she says.

“Tell me you are not in a Twitter feud with Kim Kardashian,” Carville says.

Frances stops, looks at him. “Who are you?” she says.

Carville takes the phone out of her hand and throws it to Cleveland. “This is the first step,” he says. “I won’t bullshit you. We have a lot of other work to do here. But this will help.”

Cleveland turns the phone over in his hand. It is pink. Solid. What I should do, Cleveland thinks, is break the thing, smash it to pieces. Or stuff it down Carville’s throat, shut him up for good. If he gave the thing to Carville’s assistant, he thinks, the boy’s first instinct would be to smell it. Cleveland tongues at the thing in his mouth. He needs to see the doctor, the dentist. But there are two wars on. The economy is a house of cards. Europe is collapsing. His approval rating is in single digits.

Frances smiles and for a second all Cleveland knows is her eyes. He can see it all in there – the pain, the resolve, the spirit. He can see her father in there. Folsom. She is beautiful and clever and twenty-one and she is his dead friend’s daughter and she is his wife. Cleveland hands her the phone.

A Partial Transcript of the Creative Writing Workshop Session for "Thomas and the Magic Railroad," by Britt Allcroft

Here’s a thing that I wrote that nobody seems to want to publish. And that’s cool. It might be a little funny, especially if you have kids, and your brain is kind of mushy from reading, say, Thomas and the Magic Railroad every night for a year or two. In any case, I thought I’d just post it here.


 

“Were we all supposed to have pictures? I know this is only the second week of workshop, but, I mean, nobody else had pictures, right? Mine doesn’t have any pictures. It could, though, I guess. I guess maybe it would be better with some pictures?”

“I loved the way you set up the basic dichotomy of capitalism here. I mean, on one side we have this little employee, and you definitely go out of your way to mention a lot of times how small he is, that he feels tiny, that even compared with other workers, you know, he still feels small, and that totally worked for me. And the other workers, they’re like a bunch of tools. Like that Gordon. I mean, what a douchebag? But again, his douchey-ness totally worked for me, and it told me a lot about Thomas, that he just takes it, day after day after day. And then the corporate side of things — Sir Topham Hatt and Mr. Conductor. I love what you did with those characters. It’s right out of Kafka or, like, a Saunders story. On the one side, this guy who calls himself Sir and looks almost exactly like Dick Cheney…”

“Can we talk about that for a minute? I think you might have to tone that down a little bit, the way his mouth is kind of crooked and smirking all the time. He was like the Jon Stewart imitation of Dick Cheney or something. It was the one thing in the graphic part of this that was just kind of like over the top for me. It took me out of the story.”

“I thought the train was…never mind.”

“So the corporate thing. There’s the Topham Hatt/Dick Cheney character, who is just like totally evil, but also just kind of the looming presence…”

“Like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Whatshisname. From Gatsby.”

“He is totally that kind of character, yeah. But then the other corporate representative, the one dude who the workers actually come into contact with, the one who is supposed to be driving this whole train (pun intended), is this ineffectual wimp who can only move from place to place in a shower of magic gold dust. So in order for this dude to even move, like to get from one place to the other — and hello, he’s supposed to be in charge of the railroad, which last time I checked was there pretty much only to move things from one place to another — he has to waste all this gold dust, so he’s literally just puffing money into the air. It’s just a brilliant portrayal of the gears of capitalism.”

“Isn’t the train supposed to be a cock?”

“To me, it felt like a great adventure story, a real page turner. I didn’t think we were doing genre stuff in this workshop, actually…But still, if you take it for what it is, then I thought, nice stuff Britt. Tight. Well executed. If we’re doing genre work, that is. And I didn’t think we were, but…”

“I thought the bad guy kind of dominated this story. I mean, Diesel is just such a bad ass. And nice move, naming him Diesel. I mean, he might as well have been named Big Oil, right? Or Boris Badinov, you know, if this was a cold war thing and not a train action adventure kind of experimental thing.”

“Did anybody else wonder who is driving these trains? There are, like, conductors, and in some of the pictures they seemed to be sitting where you’d sit to drive a train. But then the trains themselves seemed to have the ability to decide where they were going and what they were doing…”

“Free will.”

“I just think it’s something to think about. You know? I mean, are these trains driving or being driven? I know it’s not a realist work, but still, I think in the universe of the story, you still have to be consistent, right?”

“I want to build off that, actually. Because I think I read this the same way. It’s experimental. The universe of the story is a word universe, where images kind of coexist with narrative, and if you look at it a little deeper, you’re like, dude, there’s no way that this is as simple as it seems. It’s like some kind of image collage thing fairy tale mashup thing, a non linear sensory exploration of the intersection between commerce and fairy tale.”

“But Britt is asking a lot of the reader, though, if that’s what he’s trying for. I think it’s awesome, but that kind of work is not for everybody.”

“I’d think about sending this to the Fairy Tale Review. Or Colorado Review maybe. Indiana Review publishes a lot of experimental stuff. Fence.”

“Going back to the Diesel thing, I thought that problem was that he just kind of dominates the story. I mean, he’s such a compelling character, but I don’t know if you actually want him to be as awesome as he is. I found myself wondering less about Thomas, who I thought, for what it’s worth, was just a little stock. His motivation as kind of obvious for me. The little big man.”

“That’s the danger, right, if you have a story with a good guy who’s just like all good, and a bad guy wh just all bad? Nobody changes. There’s no growth.”

“Are we sure the train doesn’t represent a cock? Because there’s like this mysterious dangerous tunnel that he’s not sure he can go into it, that, like, all the other trains talk about in these legendary terms, and then he kind of magically slides into it. And then he meets this train named Lady? Lady! Come on. I thought it couldn’t be more obvious. There was all this stuff about him being so small, smaller than the other engines, blah blah blah. I got like halfway through and I was like, Britt, dude, you better just get over it, you know. Motion of the ocean.”

“I…”

“Britt — you’re not allowed to talk yet. Let’s let Thomas and the Magic Railroad talk for you, okay?”

“But I…”

(silence)

“So the Train is definitely a cock, then?”

“Yeah. Definitely a cock.”

Grover Cleveland: Presidential Flash Fiction

This is a piece I wrote for an anthology my friend Amber Sparks was editing, called Their Peculiar Ambitions, which was comprised of one flash fiction piece for each of the US Presidents. The book was supposed to come out on Dark Sky Books, which was the same publisher that was supposed to publish my second story collection. They tanked. Oh well. Here’s the Grover Cleveland story anyway.


 

The boy is walking toward him. He is eight, rotund but confident, with the plain features that Cleveland knows will turn distinguished in middle age, then comical past fifty. By then, if the boy has it, though, it won’t matter at all. Oscar hands him the rifle and Cleveland chambers another shell. The boy is quiet, confident, comfortable in his own skin. Exactly how Cleveland remembers himself at that age. “Nice shooting,” Cleveland says. “Well done, son.” He rumples the boy’s hair, kneels down and looks him in the eye.

***

“Mr. President.” He recognizes the voice. No. Not yet.

***

Maria sits by a window, the newborn at her breast. She smiles, nods to him in that way she had, affectionate and sarcastic at once. She is the only woman he has ever known who can say “fuck you” with such affection that you’d fall in love with her. How many times did that happen? Cleveland and Folsom, at least. They were both in love with her, in their own ways. In the end, which one was the father? Did it matter?

He leans over, kisses her perfect mouth. He kisses the infant’s head. He smells like talcum and fresh laundry. He smells perfect. It is a son. His son. His son Oscar, named after his best friend in the entire world.

***

“Mr. President! Grover!” That voice again. He feels he is rising up out of something. There is a swaying. He is on a boat. He remembers that. The yacht. A surgery. A secret. His mouth.

This feeling, the dreamy floating way his head is right now, in the ether. Even as he is recognizing it, his mind, always orderly, is starting to assemble facts. But he is losing the image of Maria, the boy.

“Grover!” the voice says.

He does not want to do this. Not yet. Not yet.

He pictures Folsom. It was all for Oscar. The truest friend he ever had, the only one who really understood.

“Mr. President!” The voice again.

He forces everything out of his mind – the financial crisis and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and Stevenson and Frances. He tries to let his mind drift, catch the current of the ether and float away again. He knows all too well what has really happened with the boy: Maria’s troubles with the bottle, the orphanage, the kidnapping, and then the trouble with money, and finally the adoption. He set most of it into motion himself. And yet here he is, his mouth raging with pain, surgeons waiting, the country teetering on the brink of disaster, and he is rocking in ether dreams and his subconscious reaches out for … Oscar?

This all started in Erie. Sheriff. And then Buffalo. Mayor. How could it wind up in a place like this, a secret surgery on a yacht steaming up Long Island Harbor? Grover the Good, that’s what they called him.

***

“Mr. President! Grover!”

His mouth. The pain coming on like sleep, overpowering and insistent. Everything hurts. The boat is swaying.

He tries to bring it back, the image of the boy, the smell of the infant. He pictures Folsom, Maria. But it’s not working. The ether is wearing off, his mind continuing to assemble facts, scenarios. He’s going to have to make a decision soon. Gold standard. Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The country is in financial crisis. People are struggling, hurting, and he is their President.

The boy. He is, what, twelve years old now?

Cleveland flutters his eyelids, holds up a single finger. He says, “wait.”

Magic Power

NOTE: This was originally written, I’m pretty sure, for the blog of the now long-departed Dark Sky Books. The book referenced below was going to be published by them, and then then didn’t exist anymore and it wasn’t. The book does, in fact, now exist, and was recently published, after a long, strange, infuriating and ultimately kind of awesome trip, by Dzanc Books. I wrote this a long time ago and recently rediscovered it on an old computer. The child referenced is now 11 and maintaining awesomeness. 

 

Something’s at the edge of your mind, you don’t know what it is
Something you were hoping to find, but you’re not sure what it is
Then you hear the music and it all comes crystal clear
The music does the talking, says the things you want to hear

A few months back, I was on a music writing panel at the University of Illinois’ Early Spring Literary Festival. Most of the other panelists were “real” music writers, talking about the kinds of things real music writers talk about. There was a lot of worrying over Pitchfork. As the representative fiction writer, I spent most of the time nodding, or shaking my head ruefully at the thought of a 2.1 rating and all it implies in the current rock media landscape, and mentally preparing for a question that nobody wound up asking: “why the hell did you write a book of rock and roll short stories, then?”

The good thing about a bunch of guys in cowboy shirts and half-beards talking about Radiohead is that it gives you some much-needed space to think. So I played with the fancy buttons on my cowboy shirt, tugged at my half-beard, and thought about how my collection of rock and roll-tinged short fiction, “If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home” came to be.

The answer is simple. The answer is Triumph (whose wonderfully cheesy “Magic Power” is just sitting there waiting to be “Don’t Stop Believing”-ed, and which serves as a narrative structure of sorts for this post). The answer is Rush. Aldo Nova. Pink Floyd. AC/DC. The Alarm. Why the hell did I write a collection of rock and roll short stories? The embarrassing answer lies in the fact that when I was twelve, and fifteen, and twenty, and twenty eight — oh hell, straight up through the day I first met my own son a little over five years ago today, I wanted to be a rock star.

I’m young, I’m wild, and I’m free
I’ve got the magic power of the music in me
I’m young, I’m wild, and I’m free
I’ve got the magic power of the music in me

Five years ago, my wife and I were anxiously loitering around the international wing of Dulles Airport, awaiting the arrival of our son, Ben, four months old and soon to be literally just off the plane from Korea. We sat and we paced and we made jokes that fizzled into the stale airport air, and we tried to ignore the fact that we’d driven to the airport with an empty baby seat and would be driving home with a full one. Full of what, other than “black hair, brown eyes, ten pounds, cute and fine,” as the paperwork told us, we had no idea. Full of mystery, expectations, needs, desires. Terrifyingly overflowing with one life-size, life-long question mark.

There were other people with us: Lori’s sister Lisa, who was serving as videographer, and Leslie, our adoption counselor from Catholic Charities, the agency through which we’d navigated the stacks of paperwork, fingerprinting, medical exams, and all the other myriad indicators that, on paper at least, we were adequate candidates for parenthood. Lisa and Leslie were there but did their best to leave us alone with our witless banter and nervous tics. It was a feeling more than strange: in a few hours/minutes/seconds, our entire lives were going to change. It was probably as close as I’ll ever get to knowing what it’s like to be an Olympic athlete, or a prizefighter, or a soldier.

Lori squirmed and smiled and tried to act like she knew everything was going to be okay. She was probably thinking about diapers and formula, pre-school applications and college funds. She was probably thinking that she was entering into a permanent and profoundly important partnership with a guy who in his secret heart of hearts still wanted to be Bruce Springsteen. A guy who, given the fact that he was near forty, couldn’t play a guitar or carry a note, and was, in fact, a regular workaday DC nine-to-fiver, might be just smart enough to make allowances in that moronic heart of hearts and concede that it was possibly too late to become Springsteen, that was okay — it was really okay– to aim a little lower, to finally come to grips with reality and aspire to something more achievable, more tangible, something more along the lines of Steve Van Zandt.

She would have been right. At that same time, I sat in my own haze and thought:

“I’m never going to be the lead guitarist of a rock and roll band. Shit. I’m never going to headline the 9:30 Club. Fuck! I’ll never write that damn novel. How do you do that diaper thing again? I’m never even going to be in a regionally popular southern rock band. Oh man. I’ll never write another story. What if I drop him? I’ll never even be in a cover band. A bar band. Goddamit. What do babies eat, again? I’ll never write another word. I will probably never even learn to play the guitar.”

All of the sudden, it hit me, as sure and solid as a brick wall: I’m really, really never going to be a rock star.

She climbs into the bed, she pulls the covers overhead
And she turns her little radio on
She’s had a rotten day, so she hopes the DJ’s
Gonna play her favorite song
It makes her feel much better, brings her closer to her dreams
A little magic power makes it better than it seems

Well, she is a he. His favorite song on some days is “Stay Positive” by the Hold Steady. On others, it’s the theme from Thomas the Tank Engine. Either one does seem to bring him closer to his dreams, which have much to do, on all days, with trains and shouting. He is Ben, a healthy, happy, funny, sweet little boy, our boy, and of course I can’t imagine life without him (fought off the urge to write that blog post – you’re welcome). Of course the first couple of days were terrible, the first months were difficult, and life is dramatically different — in all kinds of ways — than it was when we were driving around with that empty carseat.

It won’t surprise you to find out that I never did become a rock star (shit!), but I did manage to keep on writing. Somewhere along the line I realized that I had written nearly a dozen stories that involved rock and roll in some way. There was also, as a friend remarked, “a lot of father/son shit” happening in these stories. I kept going and these same things kept on coming up: rock and roll, fathers and sons, guys who were scared shitless about having kids, sons whose fathers were absent in one way or another. KISS. Hey — I already told you I’m not a real music writer.

As the whole “Triumph song as framing device” has already indicated, I’m sure, I’m not a terribly complicated person, either. Even my dreams tend to be overly simplistic, of the “steering a car without a steering wheel” variety. So “If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home” is, in a very direct and immediate way, a product of everything that was going through my mind as we sat in that airport, waiting for a tiny, helpless child, like Foreman waiting in the wings for Ali.

You’re thinking it over, but you just can’t sort it out
Do you want someone to tell you what they think it’s all about
Are you the one and only who’s sad and lonely, you’re reaching for the top
Well the music keeps you going and it’s never gonna stop
It’s never gonna stop
It’s never gonna, never gonna, never gonna, never gonna stop

“If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home” is full of men who are old enough to be confronting hard truths, but young enough that they haven’t yet abandoned all those stupid childhood dreams. Or, at least, not for good. They scrape and worry, drink too much, run with the wrong crowd, dress like Gene Simmons and sneak whiskey into Wiggles concerts. They are alternately penned in and lost without their families. They really want to fucking rock, to say fuck it and have just a few rounds more, but they need to pay the Discover bill or buy enough groceries to last the week. Sometimes they do the right thing. Sometimes they don’t. Mostly they want to, at least.

The world is full of compromise, the infinite red tape
But the music’s got the magic, it’s your one chance for escape
Turn me on, turn me up, it’s your turn to dream
A little magic power makes it better than it seems

Oh man, Triumph just fucking nailed it, didn’t they? After all, most of us don’t turn out to be Gene Simmons, Kanye West, or even Triumph’s own Rik Emmett. The interesting part is what happens when we get to that crossroads between how we thought it was going happen when we were twelve — when we really believed in the magic power of Triumph or AC/DC or Duran Duran — and how it all actually went down.

I’m young now, I’m wild now, I want to be free
I’ve got the magic power of the music in me
I’m young now, I’m wild, and I’m free
I’ve got the magic power of the music
I’ve got the music in me

This book is dedicated in part to my son, Ben. I hope that won’t freak him out. I hope it won’t piss him off, when he’s old enough to read these stories about fumbling fathers and directionless sons. I hope his KISS period is shorter than his Led Zeppelin period. I hope someday he’ll be Bruce Springsteen, if that’s what he wants to be. If that doesn’t happen, I hope he’ll find his own peace with his childhood dreams (currently, that would mean becoming a train conductor, or possibly an actual train) and his grown-up situation. I hope in his own way, whatever that may be, he fucking rocks. I think he will.