Short Story: “Riffing the Life Fantastic”

“Riffing the Life Fantastic”
(Part 1 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack

I scowled at the fresh skid-mark that led from a break in the pavement I’d dreamt about for years to the half-buried boulder I was standing on at the edge of the shoulder. The State Trooper kneeling beside my front wheel would rather I was more concerned about the risk I’d taken with that nearly bald tire, but replacing it would have been pointless. So I continued to balance one-footedly on the rock, my back to the shattered remains of my motorcycle in the roadside ditch. “Thanks, officer.”

“Next time,” he said, “you won’t be so lucky.”

Lucky. Right. Miraculously surviving that sideswipe had been a foregone conclusion. I’d seen it coming with the same detached déjà vu that had guided my life ever since college. What I didn’t see was what happened next, or rather, what was supposed to have: a dark green Passat stopping to see if I was okay, and it’s driver, a fortyish executive on the run from creditors, being the key to my third fortune.

I felt numb. Not so much from the physical aftereffects of downing my ride on the highway, as from the depressing prospect of having to move on without a comforting jolt of precog to leaven the experience.

The interstate bus that the trooper had flagged down was idling a dozen car-lengths on, its driver standing by the open door talking to what I suspected was his dispatcher on cell. Judging by his body language, the unplanned delay was not going over well. As I approached, he holstered the phone and fixed me with a stern expression. My insurance may have covered the fare, but there was clearly something else that money could not remedy.

Once aboard, I scanned the seats and headed for an empty a few rows up from the back. The passengers were acting out a split judgment. About half were giving me the once-over; the rest were gawking at the burnt circle of scrub surrounding the debris field. The middle-aged nebbish in the window-seat beside my empty was doing neither. Instead, he was smiling contentedly to himself, which I guessed meant either that he was a happy drunk or that he was terminally amused by other people’s misfortunes.

Lucky me. He was neither. But I’ll get to that later.

Window-seat seemed a bit apprehensive when I sat down. I swear he chuckled to himself, and then tried to stifle the reaction when we made eye contact. I wasn’t really in a mood to deal with it, so I stared down several other passengers before closing my eyes and building a cross-armed defensive shield to wait out the ride.

“That was quite an accident,” he said lightly. “Anyone who wasn’t expecting it would have been far too in-the-moment to relax as much as you must have had to in order to avoid injury.”

I angled my nose towards him a bit but kept my eyes shut. “Are you accusing me of something? Because if you are, I assure you the legal costs will not be in your budget.”

“Accusing you? Hardly. But you’ve got to admit, walking away from a crash like that does look a mite suspicious.”

That was a crack worth opening my eyes for. “You think I’d engage in insurance fraud?”

“Hardly. But I do think you were expecting it to happen.”

I looked him over. “And if I was?”

He didn’t answer immediately. In fact, he didn’t answer for several miles. Instead, he fell into a meditative funk. When he finally roused, he fixed me with an odd look. “If you were,” he said very calmly, “I’d have to wonder how you knew.” Then, after a pause, he added, “…and what else you knew.”

What, indeed? It might have been idle curiosity for him, but to me the question triggered a cascade of memories. Hell, it brought me back to that day in Kindergarten when I hid my jacket so I wouldn’t have to play outside during recess. I don’t even remember the name of the kid who was on the swing when it broke, but I knew it would have been me if I’d gone outside to play. I trusted those vagrant memories after that, even if I didn’t understand where they came from until college. That’s when I started to use them to my benefit. And it worked, too. Well, until that Passat drove by, anyway.

By the time I emerged from the quicksand of self-doubt, my seatmate had lost interest, and was staring out the window again. It was a bus I wasn’t supposed to have been on, and I didn’t know the guy from Adam, so I figured it was safe to feel him out. “Tell me something. Do you remember the future?”

Now, usually when I try to bring this sort of stuff up, people either run for the hills, or make like they’re playing along with my delusion. He took a different tack. “The future?”

I laughed. “I’m not surprised. You’re really not supposed to. That’s part of the deal, after all. But humor me for a bit. If you’re breathing, you went through the same rigmarole that I did.”

“I don’t follow.”

“You can’t get away from lawyers, even when you’re dead. Well, between lives, anyway. ’If you want to incarnate and run around in flesh for a few score years,’ they told me, ‘you’ll have to forget everything about what you’ll be doing once you get there.’”

“Lawyers. When you’re dead.”

Maybe he was one.

The kid in the seat in front grabbed a handful of headrest and glared back at me. I raised an accusatory finger, and he slid out of sight.

“I’m serious. You research the entire history of Creation so you can pick a time and a place to spend your next lifetime. You coordinate with people you want to share the experience with, pick roles, set up ‘coincidences’ and relationships to make it all work. And then you’re expected to forget all that as part of the price of admission. No wonder so many people ditch out at the last minute and never make it out of the womb.”

My seatmate turned to look at me briefly, but then he went back to studying the scenery. Not that there was anything along this stretch of Kansas interstate worth looking at. But still.

I played back that last crack, and realized my chance of getting anywhere was heading over a cliff, so I backed up and tried a different tack.

“Look, it’s not like we’re all geniuses at roughing out the ‘key-frames’ in our impending lives, either. Just having an intentional incarnation is enough excitement for most people. They don’t bother pinning down much more than their bawling entrance, the oh-so-predictable meet-up with their life-mate, and maybe what kind of career they’ll have. Beyond that, they just let reality play out however it wants. Idiots…”

My mind was wandering again, but at least this time I recognized it. I’m far too easily distracted. Lesson learned. That’s probably what did my first career in, but I’d gotten too caught up in the excitement of starting another to learn from it. More’s the pity, that. Else the second one might have survived my boneheaded screw-ups.

There’s time. There’s time. Don’t rush it. Long, slow breaths. That’s it.

Silence is way overrated. Not that it really ever gets that quiet, unless you’re in the Badlands or somewhere equally deserted. There’s usually some small sound to break your reverie, though. Wind maybe. Or rain. Water’s good for that, especially if there’s a stream. Well, unless you’re the kind that’s lulled to sleep by such things. But purge your surroundings of anything alive big enough to matter, make it as still as an abandoned tomb, and you can pretty much guarantee it’ll be quiet. This bus, on the other hand… Well, at least the trip is boring, now that the damn screaming kid in 2C fell asleep. Still. What with the engine misfiring, and the creaks and scraping of whatever’s jammed into that storage bin over there, it’s about as quiet as this rig’s ever going to get.

Where was I? Oh, right.

“Now don’t get me wrong,” I said, leaning toward the guy briefly. “I didn’t go all anal and try to specify every little piddling thing that’d happen to me from cradle to grave. Talk about a straightjacket. I’ve heard stories about people who’ve tried that sort of thing, and believe me, it ain’t pretty. But I did pick up a certain appreciation for the work of Rube Goldberg, at least as far as finding novel ways to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ goes. Novelists and screenwriters need to supply some structure to their narratives; else they’d lose eyeballs. Life, at least the way I wanted to plan it, ought to owe more to the pinball storytelling of James Burke. But where he stitched a narrative onto the existing tapestry of history, I was more interested in channeling Forrest Gump.”

“Anyway, if this makes any sense at all to you, maybe you can understand how I felt when that car didn’t stop and pick me up. Yeah. It just blew past, ignored the pretzel of twisted steel on the shoulder that used to be my ride. Hell, I didn’t so much as get a whiff of brake pad from the guy.”

Something off in the distance must have caught window-seat’s attention, because he pushed back against the footrest for a few seconds, and then slowly turned his head. Once the bus drew up even to whatever-it-was, he grabbed the edge of the seat in front and twisted around so he could watch it disappear behind a string of dated billboards. I took his momentary glance at me after straightening out as encouragement, and got to the point.

“It wasn’t supposed to go down that way. Wrecking that bike was the flipper that was supposed to have twitched the silver ball of my life into overdrive, all on account of what should have happened after the driver pulled over to see if I was okay. Only he didn’t. And because of that, I didn’t end up overhearing the phone call that was supposed to have turned the shards of my first two careers into the nest for my own private golden-egg-laying goose. Damn. All that planning wasted.”

“So tell me,” window-seat said, his nose gently bumping against the glass as the bus rocked, “what makes you so sure that all that life-prep stuff you’ve been on about was a real memory, and not some fever-dream rationalization for your repeated failures?” He cocked his head a bit. “Hmmm?”

“I just know. It was real.”

He shifted in his seat for a few beats, and then fixed me with the strangest look I think I’ve ever been subjected to. It wasn’t so much his studied lack of expression, though, as the intensity of it. I don’t think he blinked for over a minute, and it made me itch.

“All right, all right,” I said finally. “Chill. I didn’t believe it at first myself. Well, not until I had a spooky run of déjà vu co-incidences that were just too bizarre to even make up. It was like I was careening over a life-size pinball field, and I somehow knew where the ball was going to end up, again and again and again. I made good friends with a bottle after that, but once the hangover wore off, I started to realize that the whole episode was planned out – that I had planned it out – to convince myself to trust… hell I didn’t know what.”

He nodded, and I think I caught the barest flicker of a satisfied smile before he clamped it down again. “And after that?”

“Two careers. Both of which launched effortlessly, shifted into a sustainable cruise, and then flamed out spectacularly.”

The bus slowed, and veered up the exit ramp. There was a scheduled pit stop and lunch break at the truck stop.

“I tell you what,” he said amiably. “We’ve got thirty-five minutes to kill. Let me buy you a burger. No strings.”

“Sure. Why?”

“There’s something I need to ask you. And I’d rather not do it here.”

Cryptic is okay, so I agreed. The truck stop was busy, but the help were on top of it, and it didn’t take long to get our lunch. Window-seat, who’d introduced himself as Bob while we were finding a table, said he was between jobs, too. Only I don’t think his definition of job was anything like mine. I had the sense that he meant something more like a calling than a bout of employment. In any case, the food arrived before I had a chance to ask what he meant.

“I said I wanted to ask you something.”

Grunting through a mouthful of burger was the closest I could come to an answer.

“In a way,” he said, cradling his coffee in both hands, “I’ve come to see the world much as you have.”

That stopped me cold. Usually, people figure I’m nuts and run the other way.

“The thing is, I came to this view purely from observation, study and deduction. I make no claim to memories, dreams or visions from any other point of view than the one gained from walking in these shoes for a lot of years.”

My hand felt wet, and I looked down. Barbeque sauce was streaming from the bun. I quickly put the sandwich down and grabbed some napkins from the next table to mop up the mess. “No dreams,” I asked, puzzled. “No visions? Memories? Nothing?”

Bob shook his head. “As I said, I came to a similar conclusion, but in a dramatically different way.”

“And your question? What did you want to ask me?”

“Well,” he said, and bit at his tongue nervously. “I told you I was between jobs. That wasn’t entirely true. What I’m actually between is projects.”

“What sort of projects?”

“Self-defeating ones, as it turned out. I’d been trying to change the world in small ways, because I’d convinced myself that we plan out our lives before jumping into them. It’s a more sophisticated form of pre-determination, but just as stifling. I mean, how the hell are you supposed to change the course of anyone’s life, regardless of how self-destructive it is, if that was what they’d set out to do before they were even born? So I limited myself to instigating small changes that turned out to be non-starters anyway. If someone’s addicted to drugs, is it really an improvement to change their addiction to god? Well, I’ve been down that road one too many times, and decided to get away from it all. But now… I don’t know any more.”

Our pit stop was running out, so I finished the burger and wiped my hands. “Listen, Bob, if that’s really your name. If you wanted to ask me something before the bus leaves, you’d better get to it already.”

He nodded. “Sure. Well, here’s the thing. If what you’ve said is true, then something or someone has sideswiped the life-path you say you’d laid out for yourself before getting born. So, either something happened that you didn’t count on when you set up those key-frames, or there’s a flaw in your model of reality.”

“Roger that.”

“What if you only remember one session of that planning? What if it takes place, along with the lives we’re leading, interactively? What if planning out your life is more like a jazz improvisation than a symphony?”

“Why? What would that get you?”

“Well, for one thing, you wouldn’t be doomed to play out whatever half-baked scheme you’d cooked up for yourself in the excitement of an upcoming incarnation. I mean, you wouldn’t put much faith in anything you planned out while you were drunk, would you, any more than if you were threatened with a gun, weapons of mass destruction, or the collapse of the world economy?”

Whoa. Who is this guy? “I guess not.”

The group from the bus had all started to leave, and I still didn’t know if I was supposed to hang with him or work the room for an alternate ride. But then, if what he’d suggested was true, I didn’t have to wait for my next vagrant memory to play out, as long as that part of me who was riffing the life fantastic still had my best interests at heart, which wasn’t precisely a sure thing, given the Passat and all.

Bob finished his coffee and slid his chair back. “I really want to thank you for helping me out here.”

I reached towards him. “Helping you? All I did was mooch a meal on your dime. I didn’t even answer your question.”

“Sure you did.”


He grinned sheepishly. “By agreeing to my terms for this meal, even though you didn’t know what it might cost you.”

“Cost me? I didn’t cost me anything. You bought my lunch.”

“Sure, but you bought my view of reality. That cost you all the time and energy you’d invested in living out a fixed life-plan that you knew nothing about. You’re no longer bound to that stream of memories, are you?”

“If you mean I’m not going to ride Passat-guy’s booster stage, you’re right. But that already didn’t happen. I can’t do much about that any more anyway.”

“No, but you could have gone back there and camped out until either he did show up, or you starved to death. And you’re not even considering that, if I’m reading you right.”

I had to admit he was right. Something had changed. “And what did you get out of our deal?”

Bob turned to look at the waiting bus out in the parking lot. “What did I get? Proof.”

“Of what?”

“Proof that reframing someone’s entire life won’t break their grip on reality. And that means I don’t have to limit my hopes to small changes. Empowering people with the thought that their lives can be as fluid as a freewheeling improv lets them dream things they’d have thought were impossible. And that means we can end this nightmare future we’ve been sucked into.”

“I don’t really know where you’re going with that, Bob, but I’d like to join you on the journey. Where are you headed for, anyway?”

He took a deep breath. “D.C.”


The story continues in “Divine Intervention“.

Copyright 2010 by P. Orin Zack


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