All posts by Richard Benton

Sewage

Robin Redding checked his watch and laid his copy of Hustler on his cluttered desk. Greased stained papers, several three ring binders and assorted paper piles of one depth or another littered it. It made the desk virtually unusable. Redding stretched and rose from the old swivel chair. A familiar squeak told him for the thousandth time that he’d better get out the oil can and lubricate the thing, but it could wait for tomorrow. There was always tomorrow.

He laughed to an empty room and wondered if he could be any happier. He had a job, an important one. Caring for the largely automated Herbert Stanton Sewage Plant required constant attention. After all, the place had been operating for thirty years and he couldn’t remember when the town had voted to update or upgrade anything at the facility.

The old records didn’t show any changes. He knew that pipes and equipment got old, especially from the acidic content of chemicals used to break down sewage. They constantly wore away at the innards of the hundreds of pipes and huge cement-lined tanks required by the engineer who built the station, Herbert Stanton.

Must be why they named it for him, he thought idly. When he came on the job, John Bright, the old fellow who’d had enough and decided to retire told him the smell would get him eventually. Robin pretended concern, but didn’t let on his secret. Bright told him the station had a fifty-year life and he’d have no troubles.

“I don’t guess yuh’re gonna work here forever, anyways,” he cackled.

Robin nodded politely, but said nothing.

When he was finally alone, he smiled at his real luck. First, he didn’t cotton to people nosing around. His magazines got him excited and often he did personal things the mayor and others would not like if they knew. Next, the place almost guaranteed his privacy, so no one would be the wiser. Most important, six years ago he’d lost his sense of smell. The car accident had broken his nose and did deeper damage. Hospital doctors worked over him for three hours and patched him up. He looked pretty much together, but smell; that disappeared completely.

It tickled him when his superiors, usually a bevy of newly elected officials of Benning who felt duty bound to “catch the flavor” of their territory-so to speak-came to look over part of what they now thought of as their responsibility. They’d wrinkle their noses and didn’t stay long.

On the outside, people looked at him strangely. Five-nine, dark complexioned and bulky, his repaired nose skewed slightly to the left. The paunch over which he often laced his hands together spoke of overeating.  He wore baggy pants with brown grease smears on them. His shirts were never ironed. That and bad breath and his appearance built a visual picture of his character. Who cared how he dressed? For that matter, who cared what he did? It was none of their stinking business.

He had no use for people. If they smelled some workplace residual on his clothes when he went to a mall as he rarely did, he got a kick out of it, watching them get a whiff and move away.

He glanced at the wall clock. Time for rounds. He grabbed his clipboard off the key hanger and headed out into the facility. First, inspect the holding tanks. He’d noted a crack in the cement liner last week on Tank #1. Didn’t look too bad and the paddles that kept the liquid effluent moving were operating as they should. No leaks, but he’d keep an eye on it. He checked the chemical tanks. They were all low, but would last the week. The chemical delivery on Friday would work. He scrawled a notation.

Robin’s weekly inspection of the piping found two flow valves stuck open. Since he’d never seen them shut off, he wondered why the engineer wanted shutoffs on them at all, but noted it diligently in his small scribble. No one asked him about anything. So long as it ran without problems, they were happy to stay away.

Returning to his office Robin grunted as he sat, put his feet up and picked up Hustler. He studied the centerfold in depth. As usual his thoughts about the voluptuous woman pictured there made him horny. He’d just unzipped when the alarm went off.

“Damn it!”

His feet hit the ground. He ran to the control center, checking all the dials in the aging facility and gave a hard rap to the three he knew stuck on occasion. Two came back but number three didn’t.

“Oh, Christ!”

It could only mean a breech on Tank #1. It could only mean high pressure input from the aerator impeller was now pushing all kinds of messy liquid through the breech. Robin could shut it down, but not before a lot of effluent surged into the common ways and saturated everything. Cleanup would be a bitch.

As a town owned the facility, a telltale connected to Town Hall. The phone started to ring off the hook. At least the night guy wasn’t sleeping. Robin began the shutdown process and then grabbed the phone.

“What?”

“This is the engineering department. What’s going on?”

“Number one, breech. Get your ass down here and bring a cleanup crew.”

“That bad?”

“I don’t have time to talk.”

“Wait…” but Robin had already hung up. He had his hands full. They could figure it out. He went back to shutdown, releasing valves on the one hand and closing others. Gradually the flow stopped and Robin could get a breath. His nose didn’t work, but his throat felt raw, so a lot of chemical had gone into his lungs and his eyes stung. He checked a last time. Auto shutdown was a joke, too slow, so he’d used emergency manual. His gauges and dials read the right numbers now. He needed to get the hell out and breathe some clean air.

He made his way to the outer doors and left the building. He gulped air for a while and soon felt better. Robin relaxed and lit a cigarette. In a few minutes flashing red lights made their way down the long slope to the plant next to Big River.

What a story he’d have to tell them, but he’d have to put some spin on it. After all, he had seen the crack and discounted the danger. If they found out he’d get fired. He turned abruptly and went back in. He’d have to scratch out his notation on the crack. Oh, maybe he’d better put away his magazines, and speaking of that, he reached down and zipped up. Wouldn’t it be a laugh if somebody saw that?

A Case for Writing

With this pen, I write words. I find it interesting that we use old and therefore inaccurate saws in writing what we do. The very first inaccuracy in this article is in the first sentence. I do not have a pen. I barely ever write. I type. Most of my words are little ones, but now and then I use a blockbuster or two, if only to convince myself that I know a few words of more than one syllable.

The computer is a wonderful thing. It allows one to talk without talking, write without writing and accomplish these things without amazing anyone.

My American Heritage dictionary of the English Language defines “to write” as, “to form letters, symbols or characters on a surface with a pen, pencil or other tool; to inscribe.” It is fortunate that “other tool” is a part of the definition, isn’t it? Still, I choose to think of it in the old way, the way I learned how to write as a boy.

Writing can be preserved on paper, but also in bits and bytes and sent electronically over landlines, beamed through the ether as microwaves or simply saved in some mysterious magnetic repository within a computer.

Some of the words I write are good words and some are superfluous. As hard as I try to write well, I know that some super fluidity will creep in. That is not altogether bad, because a writer must review his work and extra words, unclear expressions, mistakes, grammatical errors and the like are reason enough to jump back in and tighten any work. A writer needs to be clear as well as forthright.

If writing promotes frankness, then why is history so often rewritten to favor one group or another? Example: George Orwell classic, “1984.” In it the governing class has rewritten all of history in order to appear its own brightest star, making it the only believable aspect of a horribly cruel world. In the process, the Ministry of Truth concocts artificial tension and conflict so to make enemies out of the remainder of the world. Orwell’s theory promoted a well-known human truth that people who normally attend to their own self-interest will band together against an external enemy. In this way, the power of government pervades all human society and can control it absolutely.

Orwell created Newspeak. It sought to remove all words of more than two or more syllables, to bring the language down, to remove the beauty and essence of its many multiple meanings, to become a simple functional tool. Finally, Orwell created a mechanism by which all party members, those who ran society for the ruling class, when they strayed were “adjusted” by whatever cruelty Big Brother deemed necessary. Once back in the fold, they “loved” Big Brother and could be eliminated at leisure. 1984 brooked no deviation from the party line. Orwell created a very scary future society.

The answer to the above is that writing does not promote frankness, anything but. What it does do is to convey a point of view centered in the author, whose words have been chosen carefully – we hope – to describe a thing as accurately as he/she can, or in the reverse, to persuade the reader to a belief that may not be true at all.

I have read 1984 twice, once in youth, with the resultant soul-searching amidst the brilliance of revelation. More recently, I read it again and this time, although I enjoyed it, the chill I felt years ago remain, because though the writing is dated, the message remains clear. It is especially upsetting because I see many similarities to 1984 in today’s America. Could it be that individuals learn, but masses of people don’t?

Writing styles change. We do not write today as people did in the 1930’s when Orwell produced his terrifying view of the future, nor for that matter the way people wrote in the forties, fifties and sixties when I went to school. In every era the accepted styles of writing are eventually overcome by changes in the flow of our words, changes in our vocabularies and the pressure to make our story line move more quickly or become more exciting. Words and phrases go out of vogue and new ones take their place. Ours is a living language.

Recently I reread the very famous science fiction novel, “The City and the Stars” by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke’s writing style is now tinged with cobwebs. For instance, the book is filled with the passive “was.” Even my computer’s spell-check wags its electronic finger at me when I accidentally use the passive over some other more active form of sentence structure. In the past I had been admonished repeatedly by Critter’s, an on-line critique group, for sneaking up on my subject instead of boldly going where this writer has never gone before.

That is the problem of many writers, especially those of us with vintage in our years. We have learned it the old way. To become a writer who would be appreciated in the new millennium, we must retrain ourselves to think in 21st century English.

This, then, is why I write a new short story every week and advocate that serious writers do also. It is an exercise. It is practice, and practice makes perfect. Should I not become perfect in this lifetime, I shall certainly improve, because to edit and rewrite myself is to become better at my craft and that is my bottom line.

Space Alien

When I got into my car I saw this thing sitting on my dash. It looked like one of those new cell phones I’d seen teenagers holding to an ear as they walked with their fellows. I noticed that the other walkers also had phones. Oddly, they ignored each other while they spoke into the air. They didn’t speak to each other. But I digress. This one, strangely, had legs.

I couldn’t figure it. Thought it should have fallen off, somehow it held onto the smooth vinyl. I reached to touch it, but drew my hand back as an electric tingle coursed through my hand and up my arm. The sensation, though peculiar, did not hurt, but I didn’t try it again. I took it as a warning. Instead, with a fearful glance, I inserted my key and turned it to start the car.

As I did, the small, reflective screen lit up and a strange, flat sounding womanly voice spoke to me. The light formed an enormous eye. It looked at me. A shiver ran up and down my spine. A dream, maybe last night’s pizza. I pinched my arm.

Ouch!

I had someplace to go. It’s why I got into my car. I couldn’t remember. Where? With no compunction, the voice told me and I felt compelled to follow its directions. The voice preempted me, held me spellbound. I pulled out.

“Turn left and follow the road for sixteen miles.”

“What are you? Who are you? What do I do then?” I asked it, but silence greeted my question. The voice would talk when it wanted. I could not make it respond to my questions. Apparently, I had no choice in the matter.

Resigned, I drove on. Dusk faded to night. Sixteen miles later it told me to get off the highway at the next exit. I passed by a sign that pointed to something, but I couldn’t read it. The countryside made me uneasy. I saw nothing but my ribbon of road and wooded lands. Many trees were bare and many were misshapen. Many looked sick. The rest wore somber fall colors that reminded me of a faded rug. I didn’t like what I saw, but the eye took my will away and now full darkness added one more element to my misgivings. Face it, I was scared.

The eye directed me onto a narrow and winding blacktop road. It began to climb and the road got narrower, the trees closer. They made peculiar shadow shapes in my headlights. They danced and seemed alive, and I thought they beckoned to me.

Now rain began. The road became slick and hard to see. I climbed and climbed. The eye directed me onto a dirt road. My car weed and wawed on the muddy road. I drove a long time, clutching the wheel with a death grip.

Then, directly in front of me, a house. Not any house, this one loomed. It glowed softly, like it was alive. Gables rose and shutters banged and the house surely needed paint to hold it together. As I approached, the door opened and…did I see the flash of teeth?
I didn’t want to be there. I ripped my eyes from the glowing specter. I looked at the eye and overcame my fear.

Resolve bubbled and I got control again. I whipped my car around in a circle right there on the muddy road. I had to get away. I stepped on the accelerator. The eye blinked and as I beat feet out of this nightmare, the flat voice called, “Recalculating, recalculating.”