Short Story Of the Day – Cleveland Arcade by Bill Chance

“There is only one place to write and that is alone at a typewriter. The writer who has to go into the streets is a writer who does not know the streets. . . when you leave your typewriter you leave your machine gun and the rats come pouring through.”
Charles Bukowski, Notes of a Dirty Old Man
 

Cleveland Arcade


 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#74) More than two thirds there! What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


Cleveland Arcade

In Cleveland there is The Arcade… not an arcade, The Arcade. It is a downtown passage between two nine-story buildings – a five story Victorian wonder of steel and glass. It has four levels of balconies opening up into the surprising interstitial space. Built in 1890, it was a breathtaking wonder of its day. I looked it up – the skylight is three hundred feet long and arches one hundred feet up and has one thousand eight hundred panes of glass.

It has since been restored and cut up into hotel and retail space but I like to think of The Arcade as it was when we first saw it, forty years ago. At that time it was getting a little ragged and not all the storefronts were occupied. That only increased the feeling of age, history, and romanticism.

The Arcade was a space out of time. We never tired of turning from the bitter cold Cleveland sidewalk into this overheated ancient world. There were a few shops selling cheap food or caffeine, but we never otherwise found anything to buy… which was a good thing. We didn’t want to shop, we only wanted to be.

At lunch time the place was packed. We didn’t know where all those people came from or where they were going but they poured through The Arcade like water from a summer thunderstorm. In from the streets at both ends, up the stairs, across the floor, down the stairs, along the balconies… the crowd flowed. It was not a collection of individuals, it was a crowd in every sense, a sentient being of its own where all individual joys, worries, desires, fears, fashion, opinion, ideas, and prejudices melded together into a huge communal amoeba coursing through the space.

Except for the couple.

The two of them stood on the Euclid Avenue end on the platform that was at the same level as the street right at the top of the central stairs running down to the bottom floor. They were young, both impossibly handsome, and dressed in perfect fashion – he in a light gray Italian Business Suit and her in a trim jacket and plaid skirt. The both carried their warm coats perfectly folded across their arms.

They were the perfect couple. They were what everyone wants to be – what everyone dreams of becoming. They were so perfect that to see them was to ache with the disappointment that you will never walk in those expensive, perfectly fitting shoes. You will never be that beautiful, that fit, or that well-groomed. Next to these two you are a troll scraping in the mud beneath a crumbling stone bridge.

Their world is open and unlimited. Yours is a long, too long, dreary trudge upslope and into the wind to merciful death. Their world is colorful – shades of fashionable tan accented with that green-blue teal or turquoise color of a shallow tropical sea. All you have to look forward to is grimy gray and shit brown.

Their clothes fit, their feet don’t hurt, their mouths don’t have canker sores, their cuticles don’t bleed, their breath doesn’t smell bad, their joints don’t pop when they move.

They saw all the best movies and read all the best books and never watched television at all.

The perfect couple.

But they were having a tremendous fight. He was not holding his own – he was standing still and quiet with his head bent down and looking at his shoes. And she was really giving him hell. She had a real set of lungs on her and she was using all that breath and projection to pour her anger out and over him. She was yelling so loud that her voice could be heard roaring over the cacophony of the thousands of people at lunch time.

The crowd didn’t look at them but it parted as it approached and joined back together an appropriate distance beyond. The sound of her berating echoed through the overall din though nobody really could hear exactly what she was so angry about.

That was forty years ago and things have changed. If life is a parabola that was the moment at the peak where the trajectory began to curve inexorably down. I am no longer fit and no longer fashionable. I live in a dirty drafty old studio apartment carefully calculating to see if my meager savings will be enough to survive.

I stand in the mirror amazed at the ugliness in the world.

I live on black coffee and insulin.

And what about her? A series of wrong decisions, bad marriages and worse divorces. The decades of struggle took their toll. We haven’t spoken to each other in decades – though people still talk about us as if we were together, reveling in the reflections of the past.

I marvel that we were that couple… once, long ago, for a brief, shining moment. Maybe we flew too close to the sun and the wax melted. Maybe, for all we had, it wasn’t enough. Maybe we simply weren’t all that – even though we thought we were.

The arc… the rise is never as exhilarating as the descent is heartbreaking.

And there it is, you have everything in the palm of your hand… it slips away. You argue. You give in and don’t stand up. You make a mistake. Destiny and despair.

And here you are.

The Creature from Cleveland Depths

“Who’s kidding?”
“You are. Computers simply aren’t alive.”
“What’s alive? A word. I think computers are conscious, at least while they’re operating. They’ve got that inner glow of awareness. They sort of … well … meditate.”
“Gussy, computers haven’t got any circuits for meditating. They’re not programmed for mystical lucubrations. They’ve just got circuits for solving the problems they’re on.”
“Okay, you admit they’ve got problem-solving circuits—like a man has. I say if they’ve got the equipment for being conscious, they’re conscious. What has wings, flies.”
—–Fritz Leiber, The Creature from Cleveland Depths

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

For me, one of the pleasures of being my age is recalling literature, especially short stories, that I read long ago, when I was only a sprout. For the life of me, I can’t remember my bank PIN or my work password on Monday mornings, but short stories I read, only once, more than a half-century ago are epoxy-stuck in my rapidly petrifying cabeza neurons. The plots are there, sometimes a little hazy or changed, as are the characters – but the authors and titles have long dissolved into the mist. That makes it a challenge to find the darn things when the fancy strikes me to revisit the fiction of my youth.

The internet, of course, is a vast and mind-boggling resource for idiotic flights of nostalgia. It is a never-ending maze of rabbit holes and time sinks – even if you can sometimes find what you are looking for.

But you already know all that.

I have written before about a story I read once about giant killer snails. In the years since I wrote that blog entry, a number of folks have emailed me that they had read the same story back in the day, and had been searching for it. I wrote a sequel and am thinking about a sequel to my sequel.

But there was one story that I remembered clearly (though, again, not the author or the title) from long, long ago. It kept coming back to my mind because it had been so prescient. The story, written long, long, before its time, concerned the invention of the Personal Digital Assistant and the smart phone… and, I guess, SIRI. There was this inventor that was having trouble remembering his appointments. So he developed a device, attached to his shoulder that contained a magnetic wire on reels (I remembered the magnetic wire in particular) and as the wire unwound, it would give the wearer a reminder at the appropriate time through a voice in an earpiece.

Things spun out of control rather quickly, however. The company that designed these devices made them more and more sophisticated, adding bigger and better features, and then connecting them together in a sort of internet. But as they became more refined and ingrained into everybody’s daily life the machines became self-aware and began to take over the world. The human race were reduced to slaves to their own machines.

Obviously, this story, as I remembered it, has more than a little applicability to our lives today. I thought about the tale the other evening as I tried to maneuver my bicycle through the park next to my house (I have to go through the park to reach the trails that lead to the West – to my work and to the DART train lines). It was a Saturday evening and all the parking lots associated with the park and the associated elementary school were full – cars were filing up along our street and the other neighborhood feeder roads.

The trails themselves were packed with throngs of people wandering in seemingly random routes. They were all oblivious to the world around them, walking zombie-like, staring into their phones. I had to dismount and walk my bike through the park. It was simply too dangerous to ride as the human automatons would cross the path at unpredictable intervals and stride into my path without warning. I don’t understand how they managed to avoid hitting each other.

They were, of course all playing Pokemon Go. There must be some valuable virtual critters in the park next to my house, because at peak times there might be a thousand folks there (though it is already dying down, of course). I don’t want to sound critical – I love that these people are getting out and using the park. But I do wish they would look where they are going… at least a little.

And the sight of all these people lost in their virtual world couldn’t help but remind me of this ancient story… where the same thing happened, more or less, and then went horribly wrong.

So back to the internet, where I ran search after search (PDA, computer, shoulder, wire recorder, short story, science fiction, on and on) to no avail. I could not find any reference to the story.

Then, when I wasn’t thinking about it, a word popped into my head. The word was, “Tickler.” That was what they called the machines, the reminder units with the wire recorder, “ticklers.” It is amazing that that word was still hiding back there in the cobwebs of my head, and that it finaly came back out.

Adding “tickler” to my searches brought immediate success. The story was written by Fritz Leiber in 1962, and was called “The Creature from Cleveland Depths.” Not only did I find out the author and title, but I found that they had let the copyright expire, and the story (actually more of a novela) was available, free of charge, on Gutenberg.org.

So I downloaded the Mobi version and read it again on my Kindle. I had remembered the main plot points pretty well. I had forgotten the semi-humorous style and some of the sociological aspects (probably over my head) but the rest was spot-on.

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

I looked at the publication history and found the original version in the December, 1962 Galaxy Magazine (with cool illustrations from Wally Wood). I was only five in 1962 – which is a bit young – so I must have read it years later. It was in a 1966 Fritz Leiber collection called “The Night of the Wolf” and that cover looks familiar to me… that must be where I read it.

So, I’m sure you are asking… How did the hero inventor defeat the evil “tickler” that had taken over society and the world? You really want to know? You should, it’s a crackerjack ending.

I’m afraid I’m not going to tell. You’ll have to download the ebook, or read it here, or, listen to it here.

It is a bit dated, but extremely up to date too. Read it, you’ll like it. It’s amazing that the story, which foreshadows so much of today’s technology was written in 1962. This is what computers looked like in 1962.

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods