The Cafe Irreal: International Imagination 

Issue Sixteen

Long November by Michael Farrell
Houses in Their Backs by Sean Ferrell
Warnings Accompanying Your Inflatable Universe by Justin Kahn
They Are Translucifying by Susan Lantz
Carolina in the Morning by M.E. McMullen
Broomsticks by Mari Ness
The Girl with Glass Skin & Combustion by Michael Obilade
At the Cafe by rovesciato
Cellular by Girija Tropp
Rose Red by Andrew Wille


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Carolina in the Morning
by M.E. McMullen


"And if you take one from three-
Hundred and sixty-five, what will remain?"
"Three-hundred and sixty-four, of course."
Humpty Dumpty looked doubtful.
"I'd rather see that done on paper," he said.

--Through the Looking Glass

Over there," Swifty said, raising a twisted finger, "is the area where the lake will be." Butterfinger followed the line of Swifty's finger, across a directionless expanse of red-yellow sand, receding to infinity — without depressions or rises, none of the rolling hills described in the brochure, with only mescadero bushes, heat waves and sand.

They'd driven for almost a half hour, mountains still in the distance — a road between parched acres stretching on either side as far as Butterfinger could see. Mrs. Butterfinger had chosen to sleep in.

"This is the most desolate, God-forsaken country I've ever seen. Nothing out there at all. It's hard to believe that such a place could even exist in this day and age," Butterfinger said.

"What?"

"Do you suppose I could try your field glasses?" Butterfinger said.

Swifty handed the glasses to him, pulled the car to the side of the road. Butterfinger pushed the automatic window button, searching the landscape with the field glasses. "The air is very hot," he said. "It appears corrugated." He handed the glasses back to Swifty. "I would have my doubts about anything being able to stay alive out there — except those bushes. What are they called?"

"Mescadero bushes" Swifty said. "I can assure you, Mr. Butterfinger, that the air is not corrugated. There is plenty alive out there — rabbits, birds, snakes, all sorts of crawling things..."

"It wouldn't seem so," Butterfinger said.

"The lake will be torched off as soon as the first occupants are in," Swifty said. "The flames will go almost a quarter of a mile into the air."

"It must be quite a sight," Butterfinger said without conviction.

"Quite a sight? I suppose so. A fire-lake is the most spectacular sight ever created by man. We have three going you know — the one here at Carolina will be the fourth."

"They must cost a great deal — to keep going," Butterfinger said.

"We manage to make a fair profit on our fire-lake projects, Mr. Butterfinger. The lakes are fed by natural-gas deposits. The one Carolina is sitting on will last to perpetuity," Swift said.

"Indeed?"

"They are very popular for home sites. The lake at Silver City Retirement Village has been running non-stop for three and a half years."

"Wouldn't it make more sense to...?"

"Sell off the natural gas? And dispense with the fire-lake as a focal point of our projects? Perhaps. If we were purely profit motivated, Mr. Butterfinger, that might make more sense. But we aren't profiteers. The president of our company has a small fire-lake on his estate, Mr. Butterfinger; I hope some day to have one myself. Nothing like the one you'll be seeing here at Carolina, of course — "

"Mrs. Butterfinger was wondering — we talked about it at dinner last night — Is there some special reason this... place is called Carolina?"

"Only that it's a nice name."

"Somehow it doesn't fit the desert," Butterfinger said. "For me it evokes images of pine trees, sun coming up through the dew of a deep green mountain while the magnolias bloom, where nothing could be finer..."

"Carolina represents an investment of almost forty million dollars an acre, Mr. Butterfinger — that's before one lot is ever sold. Everything is done by leverage. The lake, the promotion, the advertising, financing — all by leverage. The tracts are laid out, streets plotted, areas are selected for marketing, all by leverage. Such a nice plan should have a nice name. I'm going to show you a lake side lot that will..."

"Lake side?"

"Within a quarter mile of the flames."

"Doesn't that get kind of hot?"

"Hot? I wouldn't think so. These lake side units all have heavy-duty central air. The side facing the lake has special heat shielding material built in. It rarely gets over ninety degrees."

"I suppose."

"It's never dark near one of our projects, Mr. Butterfinger," Swifty said. "The senior citizens appreciate that. I'll tell you something else. Once the lake is lit, the property values plummet. Perfectly legitimate. Verifiable. You can anticipate a higher loss ratio as you get closer to the lake. People at other projects — Steam Geyser Lake, for example — claim that their property values dropped by half the first year they were in. Obviously, we can't guarantee results like that, but you get the idea. A man in your position could lose — I'm speaking conservatively now — twenty or thirty thousand the first year — playing your cards right, of course. What do you do for a living, Mr. Butterfinger? I hope you don't mind my asking."

"I write verses," Butterfinger said.

"Verses? What kind?" Swifty seemed mildly interested.

"The kind that sell — hopefully," Butterfinger said. He didn't like to talk about what he did.

"Say one for me," Swifty said. He was starting the car. He reached across for the case, and tucked the field glasses down inside before he pulled the car back on the road.

"None comes to mind — I — "

"Don't be modest, Mr. Butterfinger," Swifty said, looking at the road. "We have people who write verses for us — advertising, that sort of thing. They a great deal of money if they're good. One comes to mind — Earl Cobb — started as an advertising copywriter, leveraged himself right into a vice presidency. I know about verses, Mr. Butterfinger."

"One of my verses won an award two years ago," Butterfinger said, sure that he wasn't being patronized. "For my agency, I mean — the Levenhoffer Dairy account — "

"So let's hear it," Swifty said.

Butterfinger cleared his throat and closed his eyes — the car was bumping along over the rough terrain while clouds of dust flew up behind them — Swifty had taken out a big black cigar and lit it, humming a tune —

"Where are you going, my darling young Mary?" Butterfinger said. "Where are you going, my darling young one?"

"Fetching the milk, from Levenhoffer Dairy," Swifty said. "It's processed fresh daily, and sent with the sun."

Butterfinger was genuinely surprised. "You know it?"

"Know it? I switched to Levenhoffer Dairy because of that jingle, Mr. Butterfinger. Made that association — freshness of morning, Levenhoffer Dairy — I swear by their products."

Butterfinger smiled.

"In a minute," Swifty said, "the lake side will be coming up."

A cloud of loose mescadero weeds brushed by as Swifty turned the car down a lane marked "Lake Road." There were piles of sewer pipe and large signs proclaiming CAROLINA. The wind was whipping the dust behind them into a funnel, and the road had become two ruts in the rock-hard turf. At the edge of a small rise, Swifty stopped the car and got out, and Butterfinger followed behind him. They were peering across the vast ocean of heat waves, brown stubby bushes, cactus, and flat, parched earth. Swifty's hand skimmed the horizon. "Out there," he said, "is where the fire-lake will be."

Butterfinger thought he noticed Swifty's eyes go glassy as he told about the flames and how high into the air they would go.

"I spent a long time trying to sort out the patterns of life, Butterfinger," Swifty said. "If I were a slave of the social-pleasure ethic, I would undoubtedly be in another line of work, maybe writing verses myself. But I enjoy talking about things that cannot yet be seen, Butterfinger — abstracts — I can sell things nobody can see.

"That's the pattern for me. I tried working on projects where the lake was already fired up and homes were going in, things going up, people everywhere — I was a dismal failure, Butterfinger. I sold nothing. Here — where the lake is still an abstract, where there aren't any streets, or A-frames — this is where I function. Last month, the last three, in fact, I've led the office in sales. I expect to do it again this month. Take a look to the right down there, Butterfinger. Use my field glasses. Those lots down there are choice. The lake will be off to your left; out that way will be a series of gently rolling hills, homes sprinkled along the top of the ridges like raisins on your birthday cake. You'll be up in the air — above it — yet close. The flames will light your rooms — unless you decide to pull the color-coordinated drapes. You'll see the flames long before you get there — dance by the flickering firelight, and make love to Mrs. Butterfinger in the glow of blue, red, and green flames. Within a year after you've moved in, your property values will have dropped by fifteen thousand, maybe twenty. You'll list a high base, the company will buy back dirt low and your tax loss will leave you free to enjoy the income you've worked so hard to accumulate. The government doesn't need the money, Mr. Butterfinger. See what a fifteen- or twenty-thousand-dollar tax loss does for your high blood pressure and your sex life. That's what we're selling at CAROLINA, Mr. Butterfinger — we're selling you back your own money, and throwing in the most spectacular man-made event in the world — a fire-lake!"

"It seems like a terrible waste of..."

"Waste? There is enough energy in a single form 1040 to drive a battleship for nine years, if we only knew how to extract it. You'll be living in a place that the government practically bought for you, getting up in the morning, putting on an old pair of shoes, having your coffee on the patio while giant blue flames jump a quarter of a mile into the stratosphere, or whatever it is — I used to write a few verses myself, Butterfinger — nothing approaching yours, of course but I'm not paid for it," Swifty said. He was puffing on a cigar, looking off into the distance.

Butterfinger scanned the yellow earth, counting the stacks of sewer pipes, while Swifty stood silent and motionless for a long time. "Remember the old song?" he said. "Nothing could be finer...? I wrote my own jingle to it. Little thing I worked on for quite a while. Would you like to hear it?"

"Tell me again how much we could expect to lose the first year," Butterfinger said.




M.E. McMullen is a writer who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. "Carolina in the Morning" was originally published in Antioch Review, Vol 40, (1982), and the story "Louise Berchine" will appear in The New Renaissance #37, Fall 2005.


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