Episode #29: Learned People by Chelsea Eckert

November 1, 2016

LEARNED PEOPLE is a GLITTERSHIP ORIGINAL


Learned People

by Chelsea Eckert

She's on her bed, on her knees, leaning against the window so that her face is pressed against it. Her fingers are interlinked across her gut, and she's dead. Absolutely. Paleness clings to her like dust on a moth's wing.

For a while I lean against the wall. The paint is a lumpy, intestine pink, which is/was Tess's favorite color. Hard whimpers push their way out of me. I am, for a moment, blind and deaf. A wolf pup at the tit. When I feel more awake I push myself steady and climb onto the bed. Tess doesn't blink. Her eyes are on the sky. One lid twitches.

No, not dead.



Full transcript after the cut.





Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 29 for November 1, 2016. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you.

Our story this week is a GlitterShip original: "Learned People" by Chelsea Eckert.

Chelsea Eckert is currently attending UNC Greensboro for her MFA in creative writing. Her fiction and poetry have appeared (or will appear) in over twenty-five venues. Stalk her like a hungry catamount at http://chelseaeckert.me.



Learned People

by Chelsea Eckert

She's on her bed, on her knees, leaning against the window so that her face is pressed against it. Her fingers are interlinked across her gut, and she's dead. Absolutely. Paleness clings to her like dust on a moth's wing.

For a while I lean against the wall. The paint is a lumpy, intestine pink, which is/was Tess's favorite color. Hard whimpers push their way out of me. I am, for a moment, blind and deaf. A wolf pup at the tit. When I feel more awake I push myself steady and climb onto the bed. Tess doesn't blink. Her eyes are on the sky. One lid twitches.

No, not dead.

I'm thinking: Has she eaten? When did I sell her the Drops? What day did she have one?

"Come on," I tell her. Panic twinkles under my lungs. "It's Eve. Wake up. It's time for—school. For pre-calc. Mr. Arvo. Mr. Arvo loves us. Loved."

I haven't been to Mr. Arvo's house, but he's likely in the same position as Tess. In the same stupor. Everyone at school, far as I know, dropped out a couple weeks after I started selling the CosmiDrops to them. Administrators, teachers, the kids. The kids first. I didn't really mourn anybody until more than just the bottom-feeding pipe-bomber types stopped attending.

"Tess," I whisper. A name is a kind of, you know, power. A Czech man, I read in Reader's Digest or somewhere, once brought his wife out of a five-year coma just by saying her name a hundred times every day. I try to do the same right now and I lose track somewhere in the forties. Wouldn't have mattered.

So I shake her. It's like throwing rocks into a pond. Stillness is the natural way of things. A body at rest, and such. But—maybe—

I press my face between her shoulder blades, gripping the sides of her arms. My dad Pe and myself—both of us to blame for this, squarely.

But—no. It's not our fault.

I kiss Tess on the back of the head. Her curls lay on my lips, and she smells, just oh-so, of her flavored cigars, her contraband. My mind spins, drifts. Becomes a wave, swarming. Yet it never really touches down on any shore, any subject, least of all fate.

People should have helped Pe and me.

Human beings can do that easy.

Hunger. Okay.

Real, multiple-day hunger, pick-at-the-dirty-plates hunger, because you can't afford the food—that was me and Pe, after my mother died. Not too many folks in America know any kind of shit about that, I don't think.

You ask: how do you suddenly go hungry, nice-family-nice-house?

Follow me here.

Your monthly rent for the two-bed-two-bath with the expansive yard might be $1500 a month, and your father, alone, only makes maybe $1700 a month from various patent royalties. And it goes to the rent and it goes to the water bill and it goes to keep up the appearance of comfort.

And you yourself can't find a job, especially because you can't drive, because you can't focus on the tests, because of those hot fists in your gut. And your father is afraid to drive you anywhere unnecessary because the car might get all fucked up, which you can't afford and—etcetera.

Your mother never had life insurance or any kind of contingency plan. No one did, no one does. Tragedy collapses on other folks.

So: your technically-unemployed-but-not-really super-inventive father gets to brainstorming. A million-dollar idea, he believes, lies deep within him and has since birth, like—eggs, inside infant ovaries.

At dawn and dusk me and Pe passed each other on the stairs and that was all. Fatigue really drilled into us, broke up our minds, so that little bits of ourselves floated around in our veins, our bodies, never really congealing. I usually walked to school, and tried to let myself go into the wind, but exhaustion, like muscles to bones, sticks.

Then one evening Pe called me up to the attic, which was his office-slash-lab-slash-mancave-slash-library. To put all the bumbling professor and/or frazzled inventor tropes to rest, maybe, my dad kept it sterile and dignified, dustless though expansive, his books arranged alphabetically by author-then-title, the caged mice and rats chattering along with something like peace, the miniature kitchen wiped down.

Pe turned to me with a tray of upturned lollipops in his hands. The pops looked like little bits of topaz, black and blue and silver, and at first I didn't grasp that they were really edible. They were, it seemed, spheres containing the universe and all its stars, gorgeous in their detailed smallness.

"They're called CosmiDrops," Pe said. He is, I think, a bit disarming, because you can't tell his seriousness from his cheeriness, his jokes from his demands.

"Okay."

"When they're ready—a week or two at most, Evie—you're going to go selling them door-to-door."

"I don't have to try them, do I?" I asked, because—something about their shape, their size, murdered my appetite. Couldn't tell you why at the time. I guess—you wouldn't eat a flower, would you? Out of a crack in the road? Even if you were starved—how brutal would that be? They were that nice, that frighteningly nice to look at. But I trusted Pe more than myself.

"No, Evie. You're just going to be the salesperson." Pe's eyes fluttered. "Remember when you got that one Girl Scout patch, for the cookies? Wonderful times. And wonderful you. You were born under winning stars and you have what your mother, God rest her soul, would have called 'a mouth full of coins. '"

I realized then I hadn't lately been thinking anything like, What would Mom do right about now? And definitely nothing like, What did she think before the semi hit her sedan? It was just me there, physical and on the earth, alone-but-never-lonely like a river good for fishing.

"You could peddle these to everyone," Pe continued. "Successfully. Twenty-five per tray." He leaned in and put a hand on my bicep. "But you are not, under any circumstances, to eat one. They are expensive to make."

When I pried a CosmiDrop out of the tray and held it up to the window, it shined silver pinpricks onto Pe's cheeks.

"Pe, no one's gonna buy these," I said. But he had already tucked his chin in, his eyes overcast with something lukewarm.

At Tess's house I spend three, four hours trying to get her to eat. In health class we'd watched a movie about child abuse for some godawful reason and I remember that, when little kids came in starved, hospitals would smear peanut butter in their mouths. They'd stop refusing food after that. So I do that for Tess—there's only Nutella and that seems like it would do just as well.

I hold the back of her head, prying her mouth open like I would for a petulant elderly cat. In goes the spoon. She gags. I pull it out, but a bit of the hazelnut stuff is on her tongue. It has to do for now.

Tess turns back to the window, her eyes beautifully wide. I don't know where the rest of the Thorsbys are, her parents and older brother. Maybe one was a Zero and got out of town. But then—I sold six boxes of CosmiDrops to them. Six. They wanted to help. So much. Still—if they had helped Pe and me the right way—

Not our fault. If we'd had help—

At the edge of Tess's bed I sit and eat the Nutella out of the jar for a while with all the weariness of a drunk.

"I'll figure this out for you," I say to Tess. The backs of my eyes hurt. "I'll figure it out for your fam, because they're good people. The five of us. We'll—I don't know."

Only after I head into the darkening street do I realize I left out my father.

Pe had mice up there in the attic. The ones with the little blood-colored eyes that are, like, two dollars each at the pet store. Test subjects. They died a few days after Pe revealed the Drops to me. I poked them in their enclosures one morning and they were as thin and light and yellow as old paper. They'd also made no waste at all, no shit, nothing. Not in a whole week.

"High fructose corn syrup," Pe said, "has that effect on small mammals, don't you worry, Evie. If they didn't die, I'd be concerned, ha ha."

Later, on the phone, Tess said: "It's happened. Your papa's gone bubbly. You should call somebody. I don't know who, but like—"

"I'm hungry," I said.

"Come over for dinner, honey. When was the last time you ate? Tell me." I heard the flick of a lighter at the other end. Tess always did this, lit up hidden in her garden shed among all those earth-smells and dead bulbs and rust, and she was, in my head, like a sole skyscraper peering over the thickest forest imaginable. Something natural and something not, fused together and shiny. She had—made sense, from the day I met her, knee-to-knee on the bleachers at a homecoming game.

"This morning? I had, uh. The saltines in the back in the cupboard. And then your burrito at school. I'll be okay—"

"We should adopt you."

"I know. But then we'd be sisters."

Ha ha ha. Laughter. Good times. Then I said, "Everything'll be okay when the welfare starts a-rolling in. When we get approved."

"If. You can't depend on that. Come over for dinner, now."

"When," I said.

After my mother died Tess kept saying to me shit like, "Pe should use his hands for more than picking his ass." She thought Pe was—eccentric. Like the dad from Beauty and the Beast or something. How could you even think that about a real human being? Then once or twice she threatened to call the cops on him and I pleaded with her, promised her a thousand things I don't even remember now.

But I guess my girl had her reasons.

Look. Before school even started, before the Drops, Tess came over one day. She made a big fuss over me as usual, made me eat all this chalky protein shit her brother gulped down for football like a horse at the trough. Then we went and lay on my bed for a while.

Twilight fell down in no time. I was in a sweaty haze—that sort-of foggy, oatmeal-thick place you get into when you're content. My head was tucked between Tess's shoulder blades, but all her belly muscles under my arms were tense.

"Hear that?" Tess asked.

I resurfaced from unconsciousness. Low vibrations seemed to be rocking the bed and the two of us and in fact the whole house. When I say low I mean super low; it tickled my insides and pricked my guts like the deepest bass drop possible. It was inside me, uncomfortably.

She got up and pulled me up, too. We both looked to the ceiling, which seemed to be the source of the vibration. Someplace upstairs.

Tess said, "Your pops is dicking around up there."

That wasn't fair. Half that shit you see on late-night television, advertised—half that shit is Pe. He just made some bad deals. Few to no royalties, which would have meant we had a lot more money forever. All lump sums, and I don't know where that bit went, but it wasn't with us, and it hadn't been with my mom either. Still: not his fault.

I wanted to go back to bed but Tess left the room and approached the attic stairs. By the time she got to the trapdoor the vibration had stopped. I yelled for Pe, and he yelled back that he was sorry for all the noise, and that he'd stopped now, for the night.

"I don't like this," Tess said, hands on her hips.

"What? What's there not to like?"

"You didn't hear it. The tone. When the house was shaking."

I rubbed my brow.

"The tone," Tess said, clutching my elbows, and I recoiled a bit. She was not a person who touched much except with total passion. "The tone, that's all I can think to describe—it's like an out-of-tune guitar, if the strings—were made of pipes. Thick lead pipes."

"A house shakes, it makes fucked up noises," I said, and wrapped my fingers in her curls. "Back to bed, okay?"

"Thick lead pipes like the kind they used in the Roman Empire," she replied. A long breath flapped out of her, and she laughed. Spell broken. "God, honey. Whatever your dad's doing, it's got me crazy. I need to light soon, I think."

She never did fall back asleep that evening, though.

Next morning before school I worked on the crossword in the paper. I couldn't really concentrate—hunger had neatly squatted in my stomach again. It was always a trespasser. But I liked to distract myself. I'd found a lot of ways to do it.

I said, "Four letters, starts with Q. 'Never winning.'"

Pe sat across from me with a glass of cloudy water, looking overall like an old war machine decommissioned. He'd always been boyishly scrawny—I got comments about it from enamored classmates—but now I saw his age, the way the grief had whittled him. He said, "Yesterday I tried to go to the food bank behind Saint Mary's, but—I couldn't, Evie. I couldn't."

"I know."

"They'll approve us for food stamps. I know. When they do we'll make a bunch of pizzas, how's that."

"Four letters, starts with—oh, quitters. Quit. Uh-huh," I said, scribbling it down. It was the first Tuesday of the month. Beef taco day at school. God. My mom used to say none of the meat they used was real, that it was all soy bits, the stuff not given to prison inmates; my friends, minus Tess, joked it was llama parts, bear parts, gator parts. Into the trash it would go, untouched. So much assumption in that motion. It felt evil.

"Did you put all the trays in the car?" Pe asked. When I nodded, he said, "Odd, that the Drops didn't attract you. But then, you didn't hear the People talking last night, either. Did Tess?"

"Did Tess what?"

"Hear them talking."

For a good forty-five seconds I tried to ken Pe's meaning. He said, "The Learned People. Did she hear them?"

"She heard—the rumbling, whatever it was. It sounded like pipes or something, she said. I don't know. I don't really remember, but she seemed all, like, concerned."

"You must be a Zero, then."

I laid the paper down flat, and I could feel my face wad up like tissue.

"No," Pe said, "no, not a zero, Tess, a Zero. You are not sensitive to the Learned People. They told me some humans aren't." Finally, Pe turned to me. Forty-two and already moon-eyed, water-eyed. "They'll like to meet you."

"Pe."

"I'm telling you this because I see no sense in lying to you, Evie. I never have and I never will."

By the time I got to pre-calc Pe and his words were dead lightbulbs at the back of my memory. I could barely recall the morning. I figured that was what growing up was like.

The CosmiDrops sold gorgeously. I laid a few on teachers and friends and people saw them and were drawn to them. Kind-of like how dachshunds, nose to the ground, circle a single spot to dig at. Our garage housed about a hundred packages—I got rid of all of them.

How I did this: I was fast and I worked all day, in school or out. Because—pity loosens wallets and pockets and checkbooks. I couldn't stand it. Couldn't. Made myself dead tired, just so I could go home and sleep away everyone's shit consciences. So that's how, though this town is, maybe, four thousand folks give or take, probably everyone got a Drop.

Far as I can see, not a single person resisted, except myself. If another Zero lived here—they probably went a-running a while ago.

I wouldn't have had to do this if people had just helped us the normal way.

Cars still zoom down the road in front of the Thorsbys' house. They're from surrounding towns. The noise of the engines crushes me every time—that suddenly expanding thunder, rising up, crushing the krrup of bird and the solemn rf rf rf of everyone's dogs locked up inside and dwindling. I don't try to flag anyone down for help. I close my eyes, instead. Start to walk. Try to find pain in my body. You can assign some meaning to hurt. But nothing's there.

Well: animals don't seem to like the Drops. There's a miracle.

I decide this is an apocalypse. I'm pretty sure it's just our town on its knees like the Lord Himself meant to saunter to earth at any given minute. But apocalypse, you see, means uncovering. And I don't think I knew much about myself or my dad until this started happening. We are practically naked now.

Blocks pass, dead. On the street behind Main, I see a little kid, maybe seven, on her knees outside of a ramshackle apartment complex, her gaze at the sky. She has the same sharp little eyes Tess does. Because it gets really cold at night now I pick her up. Grocery-bag-type dead weight. The door to the second apartment is unlocked and I slip her inside, but don't dawdle. An utterly sacrilegious smell clings to the complex and I realize it's slithering up from the whole town, has been for days now.

Then Main shifts by me, with its uncomfortably adorable Ma-and-Pa shops. I can't handle looking into the windows. Instead I put my hands in my pockets and continue on, head down like a bull or a goat, stubbornly, horns out.

The lights are on at my house, even in the attic. And I think: doesn't the electric company keep graphs or measures or something of all this? The water people? Hasn't anyone noticed our total ejection from society? It's been four days or so since—I mean, is it like in movies, where some fat man writes all the weird stats off as an error?

Well: I know who could answer that.

Upstairs I go. The house is quiet. I know Pe's still home because I can't imagine he'd scamper off like a dog from—this, whatever this is, the Drops situation. It passes through my mind that maybe he's some kind of serial killer, having faked his way through life in human costume. But—no, it's nothing that simple. Nothing that—cinematic.

As I get to the trapdoor the vibrations begin—the ones I felt when Tess was over. The ones that seemed to thrive inside me and multiply, like bugs, like—something nasty. I remember what Tess said: little poison pipes. The house is still silent, though, dead silent, and I rush up into the attic, through the door, calling for Pe.

An awful shadow subsumes me, made of—not darkness. Not the right word. Not even shadow really covers it. If a prism could show us a spectrum made of various kinds of nothing, shades invisible to the eyes of natural things—that. That's curled up in the attic. Nothing around me has form, not even Pe (whom I sensed was nearby, like you sense things with your neck-hair), not his desk, not his books.

Pinpricks of light trail along my fingertips, and against the void they're delicious, warm. Then I sense a sudden and loving heat against my belly and lungs, exactly where the vibrations lived just moments earlier, and I'm—not comforted, but—it all feels normal. As if this show of darkness was organic and natural, like the growth of corn in the fields or a dog running away to die.

It's alright, all of it, and so, good, in its own way. Everything going as planned, as it would, forever.

I can't see any faces. Just their consciousness, on my fingers—yes, I sense lives. Lives and a great collection of knowledge, truths, facts, uncovered bits of the universe, stretching on inside a well-kept castle of infinite capacity. The Learned People. Something is feminine about them, something like the presence of a mother, a wife, even.

Then—something—and the attic returns.

Pe sits on the floor near his desk, his knees curled under his chin like a kid who hates the world. He slips a Drop between his lips and breathes out. But I dive at him. He can't leave me here, no, wouldn't, couldn't, because we're human, we butt against nature, we're nobody's experiment, never, never. When I push on his cheeks the Drop pops onto the floor with a click.

"They were going to come for us," Pe says, and he's weeping. "Everyone's looking up and waiting for the ships, do you see, Evie? We'd have been like rockets escaping gravity."

I shake him, because that's what you do in the movies. Crying, crying—what do you do when your dad cries? I slap him. He meets my eyes with a betrayed look.

"I'm going to call the cops," I say. "It's over. This shit is over. Pe. Pe. Pe. Daddy. Dad."

"They can't do anything, Evie!"

"Daddy."

I lay my head in his lap. He lays his nose on my shoulder. And it may be inappropriate or whatever but that's what we do, sitting there. Two, three hours, maybe, ruined, the two of us. Then a great rumble storms through the street, the house, Pe and me, mingling with his sobs, and I know what has happened, I know it like I know that all things get older and waste away.

When it's dark I pull out my phone.

"If we'd taken the Drops," Pe moans. "We'd have. I. I. Evie. Evie."

Sirens. I come out with my hands up, because that seems like the right thing to do. Cars everywhere, noise. A few cops dart around. Securing the perimeter, I guess. Took long enough, didn't they? They don't even know why everyone's disappeared and I'm not going to tell them. They'll look in houses and find not a soul, except my father and me. A modern Roanoke. Or the last man on earth and his daughter of doubt and pettiness.

One of the burlier cops rolls up to me as an ambulance slides into the street.

"I'm hungry," I say.

"Jesus Christ. What's happened? No, actually, no—don't say anything—hey, Lieutenant—"

"Do you think the Learned People will be good to them?"

"Ma'am," says the cop. He makes a settle down gesture. Some time passes. I stand there. They pull my dad out of the house on a stretcher, and his body is slack.

A blanket falls on my shoulders. I am directed to a police car. More and more official types are showing up. Men in dark suits like I've never seen before. The word bioterrorism bounces through the air. So does the phrase bureaucratic mess and trauma.

The seat is very hard. The window goes up, trapping a hard smell inside the car. Someone's smoked in here, and the thought of it makes me cry. I decide that we're all fuck-ups and what mighty fuck-ups we are. In my head I make a list of people who won't be alright: myself, Pe, maybe the first few folks who ate the Drops. I decide that the rest of the town has been saved. I decide that Tess has been saved.

END

“Learned People” is copyright Chelsea Eckert, 2016.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

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Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back soon with a reprint of "City of Chimeras" by Richard Bowes.

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