Friday, September 24, 2010

Memory Lane: Tiny Talkers

NOTE: Found a copy of a very, well, dumb story I wrote about twelve or thirteen years ago. This is another writerly trick: Find something you wrote a long time ago and hope against hope that your writing style has improved. Gratefully, I think I have. Anyway, here's the story: "Tiny Talkers." Has that Twilighty Zone feel a lot of my early stories had, for some reason.

"Don't forget to flush please. And sir - you're low on phosphates."

Being from the old school, Bernie wasn't used to having urinals talk at him. Frankly, he didn't like it. Not one bit. Bernie's the kind of guy who was still shocked to see diaper changing tables in the men's room, and he certainly avoided those out-of-the-way spots where restricted space called for unisex bathrooms. "Certain things are just meant to be silent," he said often to those around him who weren't plugged in to transistor symphonies or listening to their Twinkies tell the tale of just how their filling got to be where it was while they ate them.

Cigarettes. He stopped smoking three years ago, only two months after legislation required cigarette manufacturers to put Tiny Talkers in each cigarette, rattling off the surgeon general' s warning each time a smoker took a puff.

The pressure monitor on his right front tire wailed at him so loudly and so often he finally stopped on the expressway and smashed the control box - which whined pitifully under his blows - with a hatchet he stored under the seat. Even the belt on his wrinkled beige overcoat burbled at him in a sing-song voice, mainly telling him with each cinch his waist was growing.

Interactive, they called it. The latest rage. Some Vietnamese flunky for an Oregon computer firm developed a system so streamlined, so small and so cheap little talking bits of silicon were embedded in everything from apple blossoms (from which they called enticingly to bees with what they hoped were encouraging words) to those Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law tags on mattresses. Big Macs told you how slobberingly juicy they were as you chewed on the pickle and dabbed secret sauce from your chin with a napkin. Breakfast cereals gave you five minute countdowns to your preset Sog Quotient so never again would your morning be spoiled by eating soggy cereal. Minuscule weather stations planted in a stalk of scalp hair gave temperature, UV factor, relative humidity and dandruff count at the press of a button. Melons screamed their state of ripeness, books shouted blurbs from their back covers. The newest item, talking toilet paper, well, Bernie didn't even want to know.

You couldn't even count on a daily paper to be silent any more. Even when you'd succumbed to their siren calls from the newsstands, the blankety-blank things wouldn't shut up.

Bernie feared the crossword puzzles which with exasperation told you the words if you erased too often. Garfield, through some odd aberration of science and copyright law, had Bill Clinton's voice, and though the drawl was often amusing when Garfield told Jon why he refused to chase mice, he found it a bit disconcerting to hear a former president's voice coming from an orange cat who kicked that banana-shaped dog off tables.

"Did you hear this in the paper, dear?" Sheila, Bernie's wife, squeezed a spot on the front page and Bernie heard all about an anti-terrorist raid on a besieged embassy in Koala Lampur as he struggled to eat his morning grapefruit.

Bernie dropped his spoon. "Yes, dear, I listened to that story while you were in the shower talking to your soap. Pass the sugar."

"Whoa, fat stuff, that coffee's already got three scoops!"

"Why do I have the talking mug again? I thought I told you to get rid of it." Bernie poured his coffee down the sink and rinsed the mug, which cooed appreciatively at the cool water.

"I forgot, Bernie," Sheila said. "Besides, you heard your trench coat. You are getting a bit more portly."

"Hmnph." Bernie shoved his spoon into his grapefruit and sent juice flying.

"That grapefruit's not ripe."

Bernie slurped at his spoon. "Whaddaya mean, not ripe? Any more ripe and it'd be rotten."

"Are you talking to me, dear?"

"Who else is in the room, Sheila?"

"Well, there's Dolores. Looks like you got her right between the eyes."


"Dolores Castella. The paper's new home and food columnist. Here." Sheila handed Bernie the paper stained with grapefruit juice. One blob had indeed smacked the chubby Dolores right between the eyes.

"No, not ripe at all," said Dolores from the printed page. Bernie wasn't sure, but he thought he saw her blink. "But it's a California grapefruit, which of course means they can be eaten a little under-ripe."

"This woman," Bernie said, poking his finger through Dolores' soggy face, "is a twit."

"Come now, Bernie," Sheila cooed. "You just met her. Some people just leave a bad first impression."

"Just met her? I squirted grapefruit juice on her picture!"

"Well there you go, Bernie. It was you who got off on the wrong foot."

"Feh," Bernie said as his cereal gave the two minute warning. "Tell me one thing," he said, through mouthfuls of not-yet-soggy cereal, "why do these papers think this talking thing is such a great gimmick? I mean, if I wanna hear the news, I'll turn on the radio. And if! want health advice, I'd listen to my trench coat over some fat food columnist any day."

"Lulu the polar bear has fattened up nicely after her harrowing trip to the Tautphaus Park Zoo last month."

"What," Bernie asked, milk dripping down his chin, "does Lulu the polar bear have to do with what we're talking about?"

"Oh," Sheila said. "Sorry. I was hearing this article about the zoo."

Bernie ate more cereal.

"Bernie! You cheater! You're drinking two percent milk instead of the skim Dr. Bartlett told you to."

"That's enough." Bernie shoved a fork in his beard and ripped out the Fallen Food Detector Dr. Bartlett had installed. He tossed it on the table and continued eating. "You shouldn't have done that, Bernie. Health insurance won't pay to have that reinstalled."

Bernie's eyes bugged as Dr. Bartlett, whose picture he'd hit with his discarded medical device, lectured him from the front page of the newspaper.

"Give me that paper!" Bernie lunged form his seat, knocking the chair over and sending his grapefruit spoon sailing. With one swoop he gathered the paper from the table top, and snatched the comics from Sheila's hands. Tiny voices cried from within the mass of paper he crumpled in his hands as he stalked through the living room toward the fireplace.

"Seventeen people died when a train jumped the tracks near Jura in the French Alps..."

"Bronko Nagurski's genetic clone, drafted by the Green Bay Packers, promised fans he'd do for them what he'd done for them fifty years earlier: play good football."

"Lost, 6 month-old black lab puppy. Answers to name of Stinky."

Bernie wadded the paper into a tight ball and tossed it into the fireplace. The voices within screamed shrilly as the match took and the paper began to burn. "You should have recycled me! Recycle me! The forest creatures will thank you!"

Firelight danced in reflection on Bernie's glasses.

"The flue's closed, idiot."

Bernie jabbed the flue sensor with a poker and sat silent and watchful as the flames died down.

Kip, of course, would have a different reaction to Tiny Talkers entirely:

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