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The Oddness of Being Human: A Group Writing Project

1Chris Blanchard, Florida, November 9, 2015

2Lillian Necakov, Ontario, November 16, 2015

3Randi Samuelson-Brown, Colorado, November 23, 2015

4Hillary Leftwich, Colorado, November 30, 2015

5Stefanie Molina, California, December 7, 2015

6Len Diamond, California, December 14, 2015

7Leah Scott, Colorado, December 21, 2015

About Dually Noted:
Dually Noted is TBL’s group writing project. New and established members of our community come together to form one ongoing story through weekly installments.
If you would like to add the next section, shoot us your 500 words. Our editor will choose the best submission and publish it at the beginning of each week (see Guidelines for details).

The Oddness of Being Human

by the TBL Writing Community


Wanna Smoke?

I find being human odd. We’re complex, hyper-intelligent, sentient. Mostly, though, we’re wrong. Wrong about the universe, about God, about cigarettes.

One minute I’m taking a shit, the next, I feel like I’m being yanked through a PVC pipe. Now, I’m lying in a white room, pants around my ankles. It’s cold and smells like charred bacon. Two gray piles of ash decorate the center of the room.

“H-Hello?” I stammer. “Where in the fu–”

A shrill pitch ignites the air. I shield my ears from the auditory onslaught. A light-blue humanoid lumbers into the room, head oblong, hands sporting only three fingers. It wears a white lab coat and carries a clipboard stamped IRED.

“Welcome, faggot.” Its voice is tinny, processed and cold. “My name is Zeb Zandor.” I feel sick. I slide fetal to the floor, rocking myself into sensible thought.

“Please…” I croak. “Water.” Ding. A canister pops up from the floor and a glass of ice water floats from below. I scramble to gulp it down.

“I have a few questions regarding your species,” Zandor says. “I’m with the Intergalactic Redundancy Elimination Department. It’s my duty to ensure all sentient beings provide entirely unique customs to our ever-growing universal community. What unique customs do humans possess, faggot?”

“Faggot?”

“Faggot,” Zandor says, “is the most common honorific used on your ‘Internet.’” “I don’t thi–”

ENOUGH.” Zandor yells. Metal straps launch from the floor and pin my feet down. “Answer the question! You are the third of three. Failure to comply will result in the destruction of your species.”

A mechanical arm drops and levels at my forehead. A hot light forms at the tip. Suddenly the bacon smell and piles of ash make sense.

“Please! Don’t!” I rack my brain for anything. A funny joke, a challenging game, a compelling ideology…

“Compassion!” I blurt.

“Compassion?” Zandor points the arm away from me. “That’s what the last two said.” Zandor gestures to the piles of ash before jotting something down. “Compassion,” it continues, “holds no value in the fight for survival.”

I’m fucked.

Zandor turns to leave, repositioning the death-ray over me. Fear-frozen and immobile, my brain kicks into survival hyper-drive. I pat myself down, desperate for a distraction.

“WAIT!”

Zandor whips around. “What?”

“I, uh… I have something in my pocket that might change your mind,” I lie. “Like?”

“This!” I whip out a crumpled cigarette and lighter. “You set it on fire and inhale,” I explain. Zandor tilts his head.

“What does it do?”

“It gives you cancer.” I light it.

“That’s quite–” Zandor disarms the laser. “Brilliant! Disenchanted with existence, you resign yourselves to death. How quintessentially human. It’s social etiquette to slowly commit suicide. What an absurd custom!” Zandor rushes to exit the room, laughing and scribbling notes. The door closes and the metal latches slink off. I feel the same sickening sensation of being compressed and pop out in my bathroom. I spit the cigarette in the toilet and flush.1


 

Telegram

I find being human odd
answering machines and copyright
dirty hair and fear of the devil
the periodic table
and the sound we make when singing
valentine’s day
canned fish
sherlock and Watson
haiku
kissing and ice skating
pyromania
churches and our names for the constellations
heartache and the fear of bugs
marriage
dreams of broken teeth
and the operator connecting us to deep silence.2


 

Something Only Humans Do

I find being human odd, and always have. Perhaps more so now that I have crossed over to the other side. Like some other humans, I once felt compelled to explore the realm beyond the physical. Searching for an assurance that couldn’t be given.

Which is something that only humans do.

Having had an uncanny sensation of impending death one night, I consulted a neighborhood fortune teller. Everyone in that tattered Denver neighborhood knew to enter through the back door. From the alley, for the love of god.

Money clenched in a sweating fist, I followed the local custom – having no idea that she would flaunt convention.

As the new beat cop, I slunk into Rose’s kitchen, claiming a seat at her chipped and battered table, feeling ashamed to be there.

“I have a bad feeling about tonight.” I announced, although if she were a true clairvoyant she would have known as much.

Rose’s children had the pinched look of hunger, and they eyed me with a wary regard. Everyone knew about Rose and her men. Likewise, the children knew that customers meant money for food. Sometimes the men stuck around, for good or ill.

“Leave them to their business,” an old woman scolded, herding them into the front room.

“Cross my palm with silver,” Rosie said, sizing me up as she struck out her hand. Flirting.

I pulled my hand out of my pocket and lined her palm with sweaty nickels and dimes. The year was 1930 and the investment was not inconsiderable. People were going hungry all around.

Rosie folded her fingers over the silver, jangling the coins in her palm, before setting them aside. “Now,” she held out her hand, “let me see your palm.”

I placed my hand in hers, palm up. A shadow crossed her face as she tried to suppress a shudder.

“I can’t get a reading.” She lied as she let go of my hand. She stopped flashing flirtatious looks. “Come back some other day.”

But I didn’t think I had another day. That was the problem. “What do you see?” I pleaded, shifting in my seat.

She pushed the coins back across the table at me. “I don’t see anything. Like I said, I can’t get a reading.”

The old woman hovered in the shadows, watching as I left.

Once outside, the old woman’s voice carried. “Since when have you become so particular? I could have read his fortune, or you could’ve made something up. Any chance of meat tonight just walked out the damn door.”

“I won’t take money from a dead man.” Rosie replied.

Later that night, a liquor store robbery went wrong. Rosie had seen it all along, because she could see the other side. She probably didn’t always like what she saw.

She had flaunted convention by returning my money. I flaunted convention by refusing to pass into the realm where dead people go.

She had seen a ghost, seated at her kitchen table.3


 

Gospel

I find being human odd. So let’s prepare to talk about the weather, the changing of the leaves. How beautiful the colors are. Pick out your favorite hue out of three choices: red, gold, orange. A hunter shoots a bull moose in front of a group of tourists at a national park. One minute they are pointing at the aspen leaves, the next they are covering their mouths in horror. Let’s prepare to talk about how unjust this is. The homework assignment you never turned in, how you pawned your guitar for rent money. Find the only shade of green left in the aspen trees and take a closer look: the leaves are black and curling at the edges. Regard this as a premonition. Lately you dream of things that are loud and unsteady: you can’t move your legs and your scream is a narrow whisper. It’s a failed opportunity to save yourself. Look at the unevenness of the tile squares in the bathroom, how they don’t line up. You never found the one missing puzzle piece to The Scream and it sits on your kitchen table, incomplete. After one month, even though the roots are alive, orchids will drop their petals. They collapse on your windowsill like discarded clothing. You can’t help but leave them there, wondering. Plan to hide your key under the mat outside your door. It’s alright, your neighborhood is safe. You should know: When I jerk as I fall asleep I am catching you as you fall. Prepare to let go.4


Clipped Wings

I find being human odd. I have ever since I can remember. When I was three, my mother caught me trying to climb up a tree into the starling nest in our backyard. I didn’t think the starling was my real mother—I was pretty sure she must be a hawk or an eagle or something of the sort—but I thought the starling was a good place to start. It was like me, brown with a little white sprinkled in.

My human mother startled me so badly with her shriek that I fell right out of the tree and broke my arm. I worried for a long time that I would never be able to fly, but the arm healed, and when I was ten I escaped my family at Yellowstone National Park and attempted to shimmy up a lordly pine tree to what I thought was a bald eagle nest.

That resulted in a week-long hospital stay and a grounding that, to me, lasted forever.

When I was thirteen, I began to make regular visits to the duck pond. There was a flock of geese there for at least part of the year. It wasn’t preferable (I considered them a step down even from the starling) but my human mother allowed it, and visiting a pond was considered a more normal pastime for a teenage girl than trying to climb into bird nests all the time.

It was during one of these visits, when I was sixteen, that I saw my mother for the first time. I was sitting on the ground with my face tilted up towards the sun, trying not to get duck poop on my hands (ducks are so much less clean than other birds), when I saw a flash of color through my slitted eyes.

The bird wasn’t enormous, but it was good-sized, and as it banked, I saw that it was its tail that had flashed: a warm, dark orange, like the setting sun. I watched it swoop and soar until it began to circle over the field beyond the pond, having found something in the tall grass.

I became aware that I was standing, my breath coming fast from my open mouth. I ran to the fence separating me from the bird and gripped it tightly, and suddenly she dived, quicker than anything I’d ever seen. There was a scuffle on the ground, and dust rose into the air. I held very still.

Then the bird—my mother—emerged victorious, flapping back up into the bright sky, a predator.

I saw the hawk many times, most often when I was alone. It was a red-tailed hawk, and I knew from that first time that it was watching over me. I visited the duck pond every day after that, spending hours there at a time, so that my human mother became worried. She tried to send me to therapy, but the therapist told her there wasn’t much he could help me with if all I would do was stand against the window, nose pressed against the glass, looking for my mother.

Then, when I was eighteen, I decided I was ready to fly. I thought I would start small—five floors, give or take a few. I walked downtown a few days after my birthday and came across the parking garage. At the top, I wasn’t really sure how to proceed. Mother had never really shown me.

I backed up a bit. Perhaps it was best to get a running start. I licked my lips nervously and looked around. What if I just fell? How embarrassing. But there was no one at the top of the garage but me.

I shifted nervously. Maybe I would wait. Maybe I should ask mother to show me… but there she was, soaring high above me, queen of the sky! She called out, and I felt sure she was saying, yes! It’s time for you to fly! A burst of courage filled my heart, and I ran as fast as I could towards the edge, and jumped.

For one glorious moment, I flew, straight out from the building. Then I fell, and as I tumbled towards the concrete, I let out an unearthly shriek. I sounded more like my mother then than I ever had.

Now, lying here in the dark, unable to wiggle my toes or even my fingers, I think perhaps I wasn’t ready to leave the nest after all.5


Countermeasures

 

“I find being human odd.”

Yeah, he actually says that. One eye, three arms, and olive green all over, and he finds being human odd. Says it with no mouth, by the way.

A setup for a snarky comeback, right? But you don’t hear one. We’re all being polite, because we’re scared. We don’t know where he came from, what he wants, what he’s capable of, whether he’s got buddies—

Sandra takes the initiative. More than I would do. “But how do you like the humans you’ve met?” she asks.

He—or should I be saying “it?”—seems to think about that. I assume that’s what’s happening, anyway; the middle arm has started stroking an area that might have been a chin if he’d been more like us. A lot more.

“They look like the right ones for our purpose,” he says.

Uh-oh! There’s more than just him, and they have a “purpose” for us. Bad news. Time to start thinking countermeasures.

You keep up the friendly front, but you start measuring him against what weapons you’ve got. And hope he’s not telepathic and can read what you’re really thinking behind the small talk.

First thing to find out is his vulnerabilities. I start it off small, with “Does your friends feel the same way?”

“Your subject and verb don’t agree in number,” he says, and a horrible possibility starts forming in my mind. Just to be sure, though, Stosh hits him with a subjunctive. The little guy almost seems to stumble for a moment, but comes through. The truth bursts on us. “That’s right,” he says, “we’re here to correct your grammar.”

You can see an almost physical wave break over our group. Bad enough for the fiction writers, although they can say it’s their characters talking. But you can see the reporters and columnists and tech writers start to search their memories for slang and invented words from years back. Are old typos going to rise up and bite us?

“Almost a hundred years we’ve been hearing your stuff streaming out through the ether,” greenie was going on. “It’s okay for you; the sitcom or political debate is over and you’re through with it. We get it twenty years later, and believe me, it doesn’t improve with age. We’ve had it.“

“What—what are you going to do?” Cal asks him.

“I’m not authorized to discuss that at this point in time,” greenie says. “I’m only a conduit.”

Cliché! They’re full of cliché! And jargon! That’s Watergate he’s talking. It’s the break we need.

When I get Stosh alone later I can hardly keep from shouting. “We’ve got ’em. They’re back in the 1970s.”

“So?”

“So? So they can’t possibly understand today. Look what we talk about on the Internet: Google, Smashwords, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ as nouns, ‘jumping the shark.’ Do you understand all that?”

“Of course not.”

“Well?”

You’ve got it. They can’t touch us.”6


 

Coping Mechanisms

I find being human—odd. This is the best word I can think of, considering the human body is both a miracle and a product of approximately six million years of evolution, which lots of people would never deem miraculous, which is also odd. Perhaps it’s an issue of semantics, but wow! The workings of the human body may be trackable by science or math or medicine, but to me, no logical frame of mind could possibly veil the sheer magic of this bony, fleshy machine.

According to the OED, for the body to truly be a machine, it must operate as “a complex device, consisting of a number of interrelated parts, each having a definite function, together applying, using, or generating power to perform a certain kind of work.” Arguably, each part of the body has a definite function. Although, you don’t really need your appendix. And you only really need one of your kidneys. Allergies? Perhaps one of the most counterintuitive functions of the body: if ever you break out in hives or your lips swell because you ate an avocado or or some kale, it’s because your body has convinced itself that these things are dangerous. Not because they actually are. Your body is ultimately attacking itself, rather than the avocado or the kale, and the avocado or kale has simply instigated this idiopathic, self-destructive violence.

When I met my boyfriend, he didn’t know that he was allergic to peanuts. “How can that be?” you might ask. “This is America! Peanuts are everywhere!” Well, Wheaton had convinced himself as a child that peanuts are gross in any form. He therefore never ate them and avoided them at all costs. I, on the other hand, love peanuts, particularly in the sensuous form of peanut butter. I eat a jar of Skippy Super Chunk Natural Peanut Butter Spread on a weekly basis. I spread it on sandwiches, I eat it by the spoon, I slop it on Honeycrisps. Peanut butter has dominated my palate since infancy, and I project that it will also dominate my withered crone-tongue, too.

Little else bestows upon me such unequivocal joy. Never would I have guessed that my reverence for peanut butter would ultimately generate the most profound pain imaginable to the human psyche—and wallet.

One evening, Wheaton met me outside the Flaxen Heights Cineplex, where I spent six-hour shifts shoveling popcorn into greasy paper bags and fat kids’ mouths. It was a particularly slow Tuesday night, and I was menstruating, so I packed myself an extra peanut butter sandwich for dinner. Fatefully, a customer had purchased a pack of peanut M&M’s and accidentally left it at the candy counter. I waited ten minutes for them to return, then ate the M&M’s with relish (generated by my brain’s pleasure-centers, not the condiment machine). I obviously also consumed both peanut butter sandwiches.

Wheaton came to pick me up like the chivalrous gentleman he was. I felt exhausted after a long shift of doing nothing but eating, and my hormonal body interpreted this fatigue as horniness. I immediately clasped Wheaton’s mouth with my own, licking his velvety lips and glassy teeth with (what else but) my peanut-encrusted tongue. As his face swelled beneath my face, I realized how hard I was kissing him: hard enough to make his face swell with lust! I felt encouraged to keep kissing his precious maw raw! I could hardly help myself! His pinchable cheeks, red as inflamed roses—his lips purple as an iris in June! So succulent: so sensuous. So dead.

My guess is that Wheaton was too into the make-out session to realize what was happening. He was a virgin—surely he thought the itchiness was a symptom of imminent sex. The autopsy revealed that he had, indeed, died of anaphylactic shock. Because Wheaton “wasn’t allergic to anything,” part of the process involved an allergy skin test to determine the culprit. The only thing that came up positive? Peanuts, obviously.

I can’t even express the grief I felt and still feel when I consider my accidental manslaughter. Of the man I loved, no less! Usually when I’m feeling down, I sit on my sofa with a jar of peanut butter and a large spoon, watching Friends or Gilmore Girls on my roommate’s giant TV. Now I can’t even touch the stuff. It makes me far too sad. Instead, I’ve developed a passion for almond butter, but dammit—that stuff is nine dollars a jar, and shit, man, a girl’s gotta eat.7