Short Story Of the Day (flash fiction), Life at the Baker by Bill Chance

“He thinks money spent on a home is money wasted. He’s lived too much in hotels. Never the best hotels, of course. Second-rate hotels. He doesn’t understand a home. He doesn’t feel at home in it. And yet, he wants a home. He’s even proud of having this shabby place. He loves it here.”
― Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night

 

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 (#33 – One third of the way 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.

 


A handful of miles west of the DFW Metroplex is a smallish town of 15,000 called Mineral Wells, Texas. The town has a surprisingly interesting and colorful past. I especially like that one claim was that the well water could help “crazy” people. Modern analysis reportedly shows a significant amount of lithium in it.

One remnant from history is the Baker Hotel. It’s a huge fourteen story rambling luxurious ruin completely out of place in that sleepy Texas town. Closed for generations and tumbling into decay. There have been several attempts bring it back to glory. Let’s hope the latest one is successful.

I go to Mineral Wells every now and then to go camping at the State Park or ride my mountain bike. Whenever I do I go by the Baker, look it over, and think about what it once was and what it is now. If they do manage to renovate it (and I wonder about how likely this is – from the article: “make sense of a $65 million redo of a building that’s projected to be worth only $40 million once the renovation is complete”) we need to go some weekend and have a big party.

At any rate – the hotel inspired me to write this dystopian story.

 


Life at the Baker

The Generators woke Benny as they passed on their way to work through the corridor outside his room. Young, boisterous, and pumped up, they were always loud before they spent the night pedaling the generators in the Baker Hotel’s gym, providing what feeble electric light they could.

Benny crawled from bed and raised the one untaped corner of the thick aluminum reflective paper that covered his window, peering out to make sure the last sliver of the burning sun had dipped below the horizon. The night was going to be hot but the day was unbearable. It was still two days from his allotted bath – he dipped the corner of a towel in the stagnating basin of water and rubbed his face as best he could. There was a rustle as Benny’s TODO list slid under the door. Picking it up, he sighed as he saw the length of it. He lifted the heavy canvas bag of tools to his shoulder and shuffled out to go to work.

At the end of the long corridor, Benny pulled the string that rang the bell for the elevator. Soon after he heard the wheezing of the Operator as he worked the crank that raised the wire cage up to Benny’s floor.

“Evening, Operator,” Benny said. “Hot one today.”

“Hot one every day, Fixer,” the Operator replied in the standard greeting at the Baker.

At the bottom, Benny left, carrying his bag off into the maze of pipes that crisscrossed the subbasement.

Grumbling as he looked down the list, he thought about which task to tackle first.

“Room 713 has no water,” he said to himself, “and the toilet in 456 is stopped up… forget that one, haha!… Oh, and the kitchen needs more steam.”

Benny could get steam going to the kitchen without climbing from the subbasement, so he decided on that. He pulled a big wrench from the bag, then walked over to his locker and opened it up. The shelves were sagging from the weight of hundreds of manuals, stuffed in tight.

Soon after arriving at the Baker, Benny had found the manuals in a forgotten closet deep under what used to be the boiler room. He had been squatting there, hungry, and avoiding being found when he stumbled across the manuals, which he realized could help him repair almost everything the Baker.

That gave him a job and a legitimate place in the Baker’s society. He was the Fixer. The job was life. Without it he would be back in the Wilderness and nobody survived long there. He thumbed through the manuals until he found a diagram of the steam system.

In the dim flickering light coming from the Generators pedaling away high above he began to climb through the labyrinth of pipes until he found what he believed was the steam pipe that fed the kitchen. All the hot water and steam came from a wood-powered boiler set up outside on what used to be Baker’s tennis court. Benny knew the Scavengers were having trouble finding fuel because certain areas of the hotel were rapidly losing their wooden furniture.

Still, though, it was working at least a little, gauging from the wisps of vapor that left the rusting pipes at the loose joints. Benny used his wrench to twist the steam valves that fed the rest of the hotel, squeezing off their supply – just a little – and opening fully the one that fed the kitchen. That should help – and nobody else would notice, hopefully – the steam pressure had been failing for a long time and a little less wouldn’t raise a concern. Nobody needed heat anyway though a few other things did still run on steam.

He decided to walk up to the kitchen and see if Cook would give him anything for his work… plus he could check out what the Scavengers had brought in after their daylight expedition. He didn’t understand how they could stand being outside all day – but he knew their survival depended on it.

He found the Cook and asked about the steam.

“Hey! I think I fixed the steam, how is it?”

The Cook laconically turned a tap, and watched a small cloud of vapor sneak out. Benny thought that was wasteful, but he didn’t dare say anything. If the Cook didn’t like you, you went hungry.

“Well,” the Cook said after a long pause, “It looks like it’s a bit stronger now.”

“Good!” Benny said. “I fixed it didn’t I… Did the scavengers bring anything in?” He raised his voice in anticipation and excitement.

The Cook grumbled and started rummaging around in a bag he had stashed under the counter.

“I suppose you did, Fixer. I guess this is yours then,” the Cook said in a resigned tone. He rolled something cylindrical across the metal counter and Benny caught it as it fell off on his side. He raised it up to get a good look.

The label on the can was torn, only about half of it was left – but Benny was able to make out the large black letters “GHETT” and under that a bit of a photo of round pasty circles floating in faded sauce.

“Spaghetti O’s, Thanks, Cook! I remember these from when I was a little kid. My mom used to make ‘em up – she’d dump them in a bowl and heat them in the microwave. Beep! Beep! Hot food! Every day! Jeez, those were the days.”

The Cook stared at Benny with sad and bored eyes. Benny thought he had better get out of there before The Cook changed his mind, so with a wave of the precious can, he skipped out through the hinged double doors into the dining room.

When he saw that there were hungry folks huddled in small groups in the big room he quickly shoved the can into a pocket. No reason to make people jealous.

 

Borne

“Once, it was different. Once, people had homes and parents and went to schools. Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders. Travel could be for adventure or recreation, not survival. But by the time I was grown up, the wider context was a sick joke. Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world.”
Jeff VanderMeer, Borne

Chihuly Glass (click to enlarge)

 

I have now read all the Borne series of books and stories by Jeff VanderMeer, pretty much – as far as I know… but the thing is I read them out of order. And I think that was a good thing.

   First of all was the newest Borne book – The Dead Astronauts, which I read on behest of the Wild Detectives Book Club (back in the day when you would actually go to a book club). The book was incredibly weird – so difficult to read that I thought that would be the end of the Borne Dystopia for me.

    But before I finished The Dead Astronauts I stumbled across and online short story/novela written about the same world – quite a bit earlier as it turns out – The Situation. This detailed a very strange world but told the story in a familiar way – the destruction of everything told as a story of corporate back-stabbing. I really enjoyed The Situation and that led me to check out The Strange Bird from the library and devour that short novel. It too told a strange tale but was written in a familiar style – that of a quest or journey. It was set in the same world and had a few characters in common with the other two works – enough to continue to increase my interest.

    So, I bought a copy of the central novel in the series Borne – and finished it late last night. It was really good, a crackerjack of a novel. The most complete of the books, it explains a lot of what what mysterious and curious in the others… explains some, maybe not a lot, really, … and definitely not everything.

    At the book club discussion of The Dead Astronauts someone describe Borne as a love story.  And it is the typical girl finds odd plant in fur of giant bear, girl falls in love with plant, plant turns out not to be a plant but a ruthless killer, girl loses plant/killer, and finally girl discovers her love is something else entirely type of story. Yeah, it is a love story.

    Having read it last it was inevitable that I would read it trying to ferret out the connections with the other works. The three Dead Astronauts from their own epynomous novel made an appearance in Borne but they didn’t do much probably because they were dead. The story of The Strange Bird and Borne are dovetailed – the identical tale told from two different points of view and in very different styles – the same characters populate both.

   The Situation is a prequel to all the others. It contains the origin of the Giant Bear, Mord, along with other clues. In Borne, it is strongly hinted that Wick is the narrator of The Situation but I wasn’t absolutely sure. In researching this, I came across a graphic version of The Situation  from Tor books – where Wick is named explicitly. Now I wonder if Scarskirt is the Magician from Borne and The Strange Bird. She is described as someone who “stared at reflective surfaces all day” which is a connection. I don’t know – but it’s fun to speculate. At any rate, click that link and look at the drawings – they are very good.

  So now I’m done with Borne and I can get back to reading Zola. Except… now I’m thinking about VanderMeer’s Annihilation (I liked the movie) and the rest of its Southern Reach trilogy. We’ll see. So many books, so little time.

    By the way, I’ve been reading rumors that AMC has optioned Borne for a miniseries. Wow, I have no idea how this goes onto the screen. It would be like a science fiction version of Game of Thrones… except on acid.