Oddments, Pasha’s Autodiary of 07 MAR 2032
By Christopher Noessel
I woke you up two hours before, so you would have time to get into face. You sat in the rattling shoebox lavatory of an interstate bus with a handheld mirror and terrible lighting, sang false apologies to anyone who knocked, and finished your work with a band of programmable glitter on your lips and in a wide stripe from temple to temple, right across your eyes like some kind of brigand. You decided, “Indigo,” and in a cascade, it changed. You reached into a bag and pulled out a giant blue wig with antlers sticking out. You pulled it on, bobby-pinned it into place, and primped.
Admiring your handiwork in the mirror, you accidentally elbowed the little glass jar of glitter into the sink, and without a strainer, the jar vanished right down. It was a costly mistake. You didn’t get worked up though. You just looked down the dark drain and said, “Do svidaniya, little sun.”
>> Inserted 10 MAR: A few days later, a maintenance technician would recover the lost jar in a bus parking lot, and, curious, open it. The stuff would spill everywhere. The next evening satellite images showed curly loaves of sparkling-indigo javelina turds in the neighboring fields. I expect you will find this hilarious. Perhaps even metaphorical.
You emerged from the bus lavatory with a flourish, expecting an audience of at least a queue of angry passengers who still needed to pee. (As always, my descriptions of your internal state are conjecture. If you wish to edit this, tell your current genius.)
Was there no one to appreciate your transformation? I mean I did, of course, but I could not speak. Everyone else was back in their seats, drooling sleep against windows, jabbering with their genius, or nose down in phones. Only one man launched out of his seat and shouldered past you into the lav.
You thought, Well, I’ve had worse audiences.
The bus began its slow for the next stop—your stop—and you had to hurry and grab your things from the overhead bins. I was watching, so am happy to report that the young woman in 4D did stop her sudoku to watch when you paused at the steps to take a selfie with the passengers as a background. You announced the title, “The journey!” I posted it to your profiles as usual. A lot of likes on that one. You started to step down the stairs, but the horns caught the doorframe and almost toppled you.
The bus driver said, glibly, “You could just go augmented like everyone else.”
You turned back, wide-eyed at the thought. “Real eyes see the real me.”
You stepped out of the air conditioning and into the spring heat. You stood for a moment, blinking as your eyes adjusted to the wall of desert light.
The bus driver said, “Hey. The green bin is over there,” pointing across the freeway. “Want me to wait?”
You turned around and said, “No thank you. I’ll be staying a while.”
“Suit yourself. Next one’s about six hours.” They unfolded the door into place and put the bus into gear. It wheeled off West. When its big silver broadside slid from your view, it revealed the gas station that was the terminus of this latest quest. It was old. A weathered shoebox two-car garage and an attached office. The rusted gas pumps stood under a shade canopy, and had lollipop heads with some logo faded beyond recognition. An architectural relic of so many things: internal combustion, the continental infrastructure that had capitalized on it, and the human sense of culture that scars around such evolution.
You imagined the station in its Route 66 heyday, perhaps Betty Grable rocking a peek-a-boo wave, smiling over candy apple red sunglasses as she flirted with a pump boy, hoping to distract him from the muffled sounds in the trunk, but records show no such thing was possible.
Then you saw Leon. He was older, unkempt, and grizzled. A beard so white and rogue it looked out of focus. A frayed-fabric patch over his left eye. He wore overalls barefoot, with a T-shirt that was stained in layers. He hunched over a statuette of a Chinese guardian lion—a search shows me it’s called a fu dog—that was grimacing just beside the front door. He was shaking an old long-playing record over it. Neither of us knew why.
Then Leon saw you. He took you in, all lanky six feet, blue-bird blue wig with your antlers reaching up to the sky, a runway interpretation of a Russian poneva dress, and your eyes and lips glittering for the gods. He looked at the bus slipping into the distance, then back to you. He pointed at the green bin positioned at the end of the canopy and held his hand that way, pointing, while he took his record and backed into the station. He shut the door and pulled its shade, but just as quickly peeked out to see what you would do.
It didn’t happen, but let’s say a hawk screeched overhead right at that moment.
“This. Is. Perfect,” you said, as you hiked up your bags and stepped across the baking tarmac. You either don’t know this or don’t care, but you do scare people out here, Pasha Simcox. Norms are as comforting to them as sweating glasses of iced tea. It did not help that you never even looked where Leon had been pointing, but strode right up to the front door. Leon let the shade drop back into place.
“I have your thing here,” you said, holding up one of the canvas bags to the window. It was bulging with its contents. “But I wonder if we could spend some time chatting about it. It’s such a strange thing. I find my curiosity piqued.”
From within, Leon said, “The green bin, she is over there.”
“Yes, I know. I saw you pointing.” You lowered the bag again. “But I am not a runner, or a delivery service. My name is Pasha, and I am on a spirit quest. I seek wild wisdom in uncomfortable places. And my genius has led me here, to you. And this…uncomfortable place.” You blinked through an earnest smile.
Since we have not officially met, I confess I was thrilled when you invoked me. So here let me record my thanks for the small 19-hour part I play in your grand adventure, muted as it may be.
“I’m Leon,” he said, “Your genius should have told you I don’t like visitors.”
“Oh! It wouldn’t do that. I have it set to ‘enigmatic’…So it only speaks to me in riddles and weird clues. Like the one that led me to bring this thing to you. It’s all part of the quest, darling!” You lifted the bag again and shook it. “Nothing?” He was silent. You looked down at the scowling fu dog and said to it, “Can you talk to him?” Silence. “Well, you’re no help.”
You turned around and surveyed the weedy little parking lot and the sandy scrub beyond that, unsure what to do. You took steps to the edge of the shadow cast by the canopy and set down the bags. You pulled your phone out and took a selfie with the station in the background. You said, “The refusal!” The shot was lovely and I thought that the label you provided showed impressive metacognition, but I pinged the site for permissions, and was quickly denied. So your selfie just showed you before a fabricated blue sky, the whole edifice erased behind you. You turned the screen toward Leon and shouted, “You vampired your whole building? How will my followers…follow?”
Leon wasn’t talking.
Well, what now, you thought. Six hours is a long wait. But you needn’t have worried. I anticipated this.
A whirring caught your ear, so you turned and looked left down the freeway. Nothing but a mirage of heat, dancing like a used-car djinn in the distance. A few trucks. Maybe a far away car. Turning to your right, the same empty road, but high above it, a little delivery drone buzzed through the blue skies toward you. Months into this quest have trained you to treat everything as potentially meaningful. So you took a step out of the shade into the sunlight toward it. When it neared, sure enough, it slowed and banked. It hovered near you for a moment, the little wind from its propellers a welcome bit of breeze. It reached out to me to help confirm who you were, given your drag, and dropped its payload gently on the concrete before zipping off again.
It was a simple paper box, shiny and yellow. You opened the top and within was a bag of loose-leaf black tea.
You photographed it. “The riddle!”
Here I need to confess something. I have read the reboot notes and autodiary entries of my predecessors. You rebel against riddles that are too direct and you get angry when they are too obscure. Ultimately, you use the moment to do what you most truly want to do anyway. One person’s burning bush is another person’s tea leaves. So I have decided that randomness is easiest. I suspect divine messages have worked this way since the beginning. In this case, it was whatever the nearest shopkeeper was willing to part with for a day’s pull from your meager discretionary account.
“Tea?” You put the bag to your nose and huffed. “Mossy. Hints of citrus. I don’t know what this means. Tea. Like the truth, sis? Like being true to myself? Like…” You turned around and went wide-eyed at the thought, “…like putting on a show!” You let the box fall and the tea leaves drop to the concrete. “It’s brilliant!”.
You fetched the bags and walked to the green bin, a repurposed newspaper box. You opened its door and hiked a gladiator heel onto the shelf to hoist yourself up. Purse then bags then you went onto the roof. After surveying your new stage, you fished earbuds from the purse and screwed them in. You turned toward the interstate, took a focusing breath, and posed with your hand out. I knew this meant I should pick a song that you had in your repertoire. Again, I chose randomly. Warbling and then an off-color Latin beat. A twee soprano, “It’s going to take more than one margarita…” followed by a gravelly bass, “I’m going to make you my sweet señorita…” The beat went frantic and the show began.
It was a fantastic performance, even without augmentation. You butterflied. You dipped. You played both voices to the hilt. I’m sorry so few saw it live. With no well-positioned cameras around, the best I could pipe to your fans was a rendering, so they had no idea it was real. There were two long-haul truckers who went by. One gawked as she drove past, scratching her cheek. The other was asleep. Three delivery drones also tracked you with their cameras as they zipped along. So, you know, you’ve had worse audiences.
Leon had been growing more and more nervous since he saw you scramble up onto his roof, unsure of your purpose there, but when an RV pulled into his parking lot, he was incensed. The family in the RV had granted full permissions for my augmentation, and their sound system was not bad. They were enjoying a mini-concert, witnessing the virtual costume changes between voices, as well as an illuminated disco dance floor that was spread across the Arizona sky. To keep it weird I made your backup dancers big versions of your purse dancing on chicken legs. I was proud of this bit in particular: In my augmentation, I added rays of light from the glitter that glowed across your eyes and mouth like they were a turning disco ball.
Anyway, the family were delighted at this unexpected spectacle that had appeared on their otherwise predictable drive. But from Leon’s perspective, your performance had invited strangers onto his property, and he could not bear it. He opened his door and shouted the family away. Disappointed but unsure of what else to do, they drove off. The youngest peered through the back window until long after you were out of sight. I believe they were quite caught in your spell.
After watching the RV steer onto the highway, Leon turned to you, hands over his eyes blocking the sun. He watched you for a moment, gyrating on his canopy to a song he could not hear. He shouted at you to come down. But after a beat you stood, unscrewed the buds from your ears and wiped sweat away. You saw and smiled at Leon.
You said, “Are you ready for the next number?”
“Get off my roof.”
“But I’m having so much fun!”
He said, “If I say I will let you in, will you stop attracting people?”
“No. Only if you actually let me in.”
You can be a bully, Pasha.
Leon furrowed his white eyebrows and scratched under his patch, thinking. You picked up the bag, saying, “Just answer three questions. No more dancing on your roof. Plus, you’ll get this.”
He glanced toward the interstate and waved you down.
Ducking your antlers, you stepped through the door into the shade of the gas station together. After you crossed the threshold, he shut the door behind you. Your eyes adjusted to the dark. At first you drew your hands to yourself, thinking he was some kind of hoarder, as…things…were everywhere. But then it struck you that it wasn’t just stacks, but deliberate things. Weird things. Art. I’m not sure I have the powers of description to do it justice, but I will do my best. In the office there were weird assemblages and…partialities…everywhere. A deconstructed Princess phone hanging as an “exploded-view” wind chime. A gramophone horn with its needle on a roll of mid-mod wallpaper. “Matchless Star” Christmas bulbs, blinking out a sequence 17 hours into pi. You held on to the delivery, but dropped your other bags and wondered at the things. “Well, hello,” you said, “You’re an artist!”
Leon stared at you and said, “No. I am not. Ask your questions.”
“Oh. Just like that. OK. Um.” You took a breath, pushed a blue streak of hair behind an ear. “I ask these of people I meet, so I can compare their answers. This first one is my favorite. Who in your life has been most kind to you? Really deep, right?”
“My mother. What is your next question?”
“No, that’s not…it’s supposed to solicit stories…wisdom…”
Leon just stared. Your usual tack was not going to serve you here. He was an unwilling interviewee. I turned your glitter into a starfield with nebulae while you were concentrating, figuring out a next move. Then you just decided to do away with earnestness or being clever.
You said, holding up the delivery bag, “Why do you need this? The complete story.”
He thought. I was pretty sure he was trying to find a clever way out of it, but then he turned abruptly and said, “Follow me.”
You tailed him into the garage, which he’d turned into a workroom. Here there was more space for larger constructions. A ring of point-and-shoot cameras mounted on the walls were trained on each other’s live LCD displays. You entered the garage passing through one sight line, and it sent a flurry of feedback looping around the room.
You stuck an eye very close to one of the lenses and said, “The cave of wonders!” I requested and got permissions to share an animated image of the results to your fans.
Looking up, you saw an overhead projector that shone through a lava lamp onto a dictionary mounted on a stand. On a table a planchette from a Ouija board glided over framed newspapers, moving as if by a ghost hand. A peacock made of wire rug beaters was positioned to stare wide-eyed at the ember-warm curl of light from an incandescent bulb dangling from the earpiece of a phone in, of all things, a phone booth.
While cataloguing as much of this as I could, I tried to reach out to Leon’s genius. Hearing nothing, I turned to the agora, and each one who had been here agreed: Leon had given strict orders for his genius to remain quiet and out of contact, except when speaking through his artworks. I felt great empathy for its hobbling, as you can imagine, Pasha. I began to alter some of the pixels in your glitter. Just enough that another genius could detect. I saw all the moving things in the room pause for a moment. Then in one corner I saw a set of typewriter keys in a motorized Calder mobile begin to spin and spell words. “Hi. Glad. Met,” it said, and a slow side conversation began.
Near the sliding doors of the garage was a giant globe. It was mounted at the familiar 23.5° angle on a heavy iron base. Its surface had a hint of the continents, but it was pimpled all over with small bulbs and pitted with the depressed cones of speakers. Leon led you up to it and gave it a slow spin.
“I need the globe for this,” he said.
“OK. Is there, you know, more?”
“There is.” He pulled a scratched vinyl diner chair to you and invited you to sit.
You said, “Oh, a gentleman,” and sat. He took a breath and put a hand on the globe until it came to a stop. He said, “Is it OK if my genius tells you instead?”
Leon’s genius stopped its side conversation with me, I guess needing to concentrate. Leon was uncomfortable with even this much attention and busied himself tidying a few things around the garage. A new voice, low and resonant, emerged from the dozens of speakers on the globe. It turned to face the Caribbean toward you, where an Edison bulb illuminated Cuba. The genius was eager to speak, and given the chance, it was wordy. I suppose this autodiary exhibits some of the same cause and effect.
The voice said, “Hello there.” It cleared its throat, which is of course ridiculous, but I get it. “Before Leon’s parents moved them to this country, his mother was a respected doctor.”
The globe turned and a bulb near Tucson illuminated. “But her credentials and her experience meant nothing here. She took a job as a cleaner, and for many years Leon was quietly ashamed for her, and angry at their new poverty. One day she saw these feelings in him, and said, ‘My little lion, there is no shame in doing the honest work available to you.’”
You aww-ed out loud at the nickname “little lion.” From a corner, a plastic sculpture of a terrier whose tilted head had been replaced by a speaker let out a tiny roar.
The voice continued. “When his father died suddenly, Leon had to leave school to find work. He held his mother’s words close as he accepted the only job that would take him, underschooled and underaged, as a sanitation worker.”
“Garbage man,” Leon corrected, while hanging a hammer on a pegboard.
“Leon liked the solitude. He only had to really deal with one other person during his shift. Then when they switched to robot trucks, he didn’t even have to endure that. It was just Leon, the truck, and the packets of trash he kept flowing to their terminus. He was OK with the arrangement. It was the most honest work available to him.
“Then a team of geniuses invented the Reuse Net.” All the bulbs around the world lit up. “Geniuses tell people to take things they no longer need to a green bin. Finding within things other people had left behind—things they didn’t even know they needed. The notion of trash began to fade. The fact of trash began to fade. Garbage cans on Leon’s route became lighter and less frequent until it was almost nothing at all. Almost everything could be composted, reused, or recycled, and we Geniuses ensured almost everything was, so what was left for a sanitation worker to do?”
Closing the lid of a rolling cart, Leon glanced your way, checking if you were following along. You said, “The injustice of obsolescence. Did you ragequit? You totally ragequit.”
Leon didn’t answer, choosing instead to busy himself with polishing a wrench that did not need polishing. But the genius continued, saying to you, “He stayed on. But coworkers left. Trucks were decommissioned. Trash service became by appointment only. Eventually he was the only one on staff, serving the whole of the city. The only trash left were things that were simply…obsolete, that no longer had any meaning to people. One day, on his route, a somber woman in a black dress handed him a wooden device and he was awestruck. He took it and made…”
Leon had been content to listen up to this point, but here he slammed down the wrench to say, “You’re telling it wrong. You can’t just jump from object to consequence. You have to describe the in between. That’s where the meaning comes from. Have you learned nothing from all this?” He turned to you and stared for a moment, his huge black eye under his shelf of a gaze, deciding something. You waited. He scratched his patch. You glanced at nothing on the floor and put your hand to your mouth for an apologetic little cough. It shook your antlers. Something in all this helped him decide, and he took a breath, and then finally started talking.
He said, “Imagine a handheld mask with a shelf that slides nearer and farther to your nose along a track. I took it into the truck with me and talked to my genius about it as we drove. I learned it was a stereoscope, a very old way for those of you with two eyes to see three dimensional images. It was so strange, and, I don’t know, stupid in a world where we have holograms just for the asking. I felt sorry for it. Like I needed to find a way to let it live again. To refill it with meaning, like my father used to do with all the broken and old things in our home. Resurrección, yes? Not just reparación. And it was there, in that truck with that stupid thing in my hands, that I realized my new path.”
“There’s the ragequit,” you said.
“Yes,” he managed a small smile under the beard. “I left my job and began collecting these outdated objects and building with them. Inside each one of these creations you see in this workshop is something that no longer fits into the world. Lonesome little hearts. For five years now I have built new bodies for them. Dressed them up larger than they were in life. But here’s the thing I realized.”
You put your hands to your mouth. “The wisdom!”
“It was still meaning that I was adding, and not the truth of the thing itself. So I made this.” He put a hand on the globe. “It will tell the stories of almost anything. What you have brought in that bag will be its heart.”
You hadn’t finished your three questions yet, but you silently handed the bag over to Leon all the same. He reached in and pulled out a regular sized globe. Like what might have been on a teacher’s desk a hundred years ago. It looked so small compared to its giant cousin behind it.
“This is the last globe showing the old USA. See, here? Fifty states. No new line.”
He knelt down and opened a panel in the southern Pacific Ocean, about midway between New Zealand and Chile. He reached in and placed the globe on a shelf near the great axis. Then he closed and locked the panel. The little various incandescent lights all around it flickered and kind of pulsed. According to the rules Leon had set in place, it was now ready. It had its heart.
Leon stood up and took a step toward you. He reached out a thumb and smeared off some of the programmable glitter from your temple.
It didn’t happen, but let’s say the sudden contact, the intimacy of it, the stripping away of some of your fantastic face, caused a visible spark of indigo energy between the two of you.
He lifted a knob in the North Pacific, revealing another, gimbaled wooden shelf within. On this he smeared the glitter, and let the panel close.
Leon stepped back and watched. The globe spun until China was in view, and one of the little lights near the coast flashed. The voice returned, saying, “These specks of programmable glitter come from a jar that was assembled in Shenzhen, China on the southeast coast near Hong Kong. The jar was quality tested by a young woman named Dandan Bǔ. It was in the last box she completed before taking off for the New Year festival, and she was excited to make tangyuan with her visiting cousins.”
I realized what was going on, and reached out to Leon’s genius to make some suggestions. The voiceover stopped its Tale of Dandan, and the globe spun to a Nixie tube glowing over the Kuskokwim Mountains of Alaska.
“You first wore this kind of glitter at a New Year’s Eve party at the Travesti Bar in Anchorage. It was applied backstage, lovingly by your drag mother, Yelena Simcox, as a kind of blessing, who made a circle on your forehead and had a yellow-irised, third eye blink there for the entirety of the evening…“
You interrupted the playback, the memory it described welling up in you like a spring. “She died later that year. Oh I miss her! I remember that night. I was high as hell. I felt like a lighthouse!”
You fluttered your hands fighting tears, and Leon shuffled in discomfort with your show of emotion. A safety-orange Speak-and-Spell toy mounted to the wall delivered a few tones before robotically squawking, “Water.” Leon walked to a sink near the back and filled up a glass. He brought it to you. You drank.
“OK. This is amazing…” you began.
“No no no, I was not done…This is amazing, but if you keep these works locked up here in the darkness, you might as well stop. This meaning you have created will only ever be for you. The hearts will still know mostly loneliness. You have to share your work, Leon. Share it with everyone. With. The. Whole. World!”
Leon shook his head. “Oh…Oh, no. I am no good at people and attention.” He touched the grimy window of the garage door and looked for cars passing by. “No good at all.”
You had an idea. You smiled a very broad smile and touched your tongue to your front teeth. You stood up and thumbed more glitter from your face. You stepped to Leon and smeared a circle onto his patch. You said, “Sight.” I took the clue and rendered an eye there. Yellow. Blinking. You pulled out your cell phone, stood over his shoulder, and started recording a video of the pair of you.
You said, “OK, are you ready for your third question? Because I know someone who, if I do say so myself, is great at commanding attention.”
By Tina Connolly
About this story, Christopher says: The story took shape in my head as I thought about how general AI will improve global efficiencies, who might be left behind in those changes, and how human meaning will co-opt those same networks.
And about this story, I say: I really enjoyed this fresh take on both AI assistants and the future of freecycle culture. Sometimes a story gives you a futuristic detail that you are like oh yes that’s totally gonna happen, and I love this particular idea of Christopher Noessel’s. I really enjoy thrifting, and I also have, like so many people, been doing a lot of purging during the pandemic. But some items are unique enough I don’t totally want to let go of them until I find the exact person out there that wants a 1965 oversized paperback novelization of the Disney movie That Darn Cat, illustrated with film stills. (I did find someone, don’t @ me.) But how great would it be to just drop it in a certain green bin, and let the right person’s genius lead them to it?
As far as the AI, I loved that Pasha was able to set their genius to “enigmatic,” and to let their AI stand in for a genius in the old sense, a sort of guardian spirit gently guiding them. This genius is wiser than their predecessors, and better able to give Pasha what they seek, both consciously and subconsciously. I love, in fact, how the journey seems exactly what Pasha does NOT want at first–a place that will not allow itself to be photographed and filtered to Pasha’s fans. But there is more inside, and a hint that a lovely connection of some sort may grow for these two people who are seeking meaning from randomness.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Peter Beagle, because I thought our lost souls might find kinship in the journeys of Amalthea and Lir and Molly Grue:
Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever.
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
In his day job, Christopher designs AI at IBM. He’s published nonfiction books about sci-fi, design, and AI, and is the keeper of the blog scifiinterfaces.com.