Penny from Heaven (Part 2)

Thirty-two thousand feet above Earl, an 18-year old high school senior named Penny sat in an airplane and adjusted her tartan skirt. It would cover her legs almost to her knees if she pulled it taut and remained still. That was a small victory, but she was willing to take what she could get. If she was lucky, it might be enough to get Mr. Braden to stare at something else for a change.

Penny still did not regret sitting next to the faculty chaperone. At least he kept his hands to himself, which was more than could be said for any of the teenage boys on the trip. Still, it might be nice if he made eye contact with a girl without her snapping her fingers at him first and when he finally did, could he just once not have his eyes red from not blinking and also not be wearing a coat of saliva as lip-gloss?

She would have preferred sitting next to the choir teacher, Ms. Zurbuchen, despite the instructor’s near-constant disapproval of everything and everyone. Another female student would have been fine, but not perfect either. The ones who did not know Penny well would often gossip that she was a slut and a prude (and sometimes both). Penny’s supposed friends weren’t much better, often giving helpful advice like “People might like you better if you lost weight and learned to be interesting.”

No matter what, Penny would on the receiving end of unwanted attention. It was just the way things were and the way it had always been. Her parents were largely to blame for sending their daughter down this path. They meant well, as parents often do when making dreadful mistakes.

Mr. and Mrs. Nicholls chose her name because they thought it would make her popular with other children. As far as they were concerned, there was no way that anyone named “Penny Nicholls” could not be well liked. It just sounded adorable rolling off the tongue and besides, who doesn’t like money? To drive the point home, they often had Penny wear print dresses with pictures of coins on them.

Penny showed up to her first day of kindergarten in such attire. By the time her parents came to pick her up, she was crying. “There is no reason for tears,” they assured her while choosing to ignore the library paste on her dress, gum in her hair, and fingerpaint in her ears.

As the year wore on, the bullying leveled off and even dipped a bit, but never went away completely. Penny was clearly not happy, but her parents did not mention anything to her teacher. It probably would not matter if they had. The teacher had been on the job long enough to know that children were pint-sized psychopaths and every so often, there would be one kid in her class who was a lightning rod for abuse. The best she could do was keep the body count at zero until this group moved onto the first grade and became somebody else’s problem.

When Penny got older and she and her peer group hit puberty, many of the taunts became sexual in nature. In the seventh grade, they were more rudimentary. “Penny Nicholls sucks all the boys’ pickles,” kids would say.  Two years later, they had morphed into a comparatively sophisticated “Not getting any? Talk to Penny.”

None of these insinuations were accurate. Other than a perfunctory smooch during an awkward game of spin the bottle when she was 12, Penny had never even kissed a boy. She assumed she would eventually be sentenced to love, marriage, and a baby carriage, but was in no hurry for that to happen. Instead, she was content to have a series of crushes she dared not tell anybody about for fear of being mocked. Most of these only lasted a few weeks. The one exception was a boy named Terrence, whose nickname for her was “Penny Antichrist” and was the only ninth grader she knew who smoked. She was smitten for him for close to a year and felt heartbroken when he and his family moved away.

Penny was mostly a loner in high school. She was a good student, but not exceptional. She was not an athlete, but had the appetite of one and began to put on weight. As her figure became ample, boys would call her a fat pig while lustfully looking her up and down.

It was during her junior year that she discovered her one true talent. Penny was walking home from school with her earbuds in and singing along to a song playing on her smartphone. She wasn’t watching where she was going and almost collided with the choir instructor Mrs. Zurbuchen.

Ms. Zurbuchen told Penny she should audition for the school choir. Penny shook her head no.

“Look, kid. I need a good alto and I think you’d fit in well. Think it over.”

Penny did think it over. The prospect of trying out for anything frightened her,  but she liked the idea that she might fit in somewhere. She was sold. Her parents approved and she felt no need to talk it over with her close friends because she did not have any.

The audition went well and Penny made it into the school choir, but she soon found out that Ms. Zurbuchen was not always gentle in her criticisms. Penny’s singing wasn’t the issue. It was that she kept doing it with her eyes closed.

“What are you, Jim Morrison? Open your goddamn eyes!” the instructor often suggested.

Penny did not get the cultural reference, but did make an effort to comply. That worked for a while, but her eyes would close again as soon as she stopped actively trying to keep them open. Ms. Zurbuchen eventually gave up and remedied the situation by having Penny stand behind Nathan, a tall, gangly youth with an Adam’s apple the size of a man’s fist.

This suited Penny fine. She wanted to sing, not be seen. With the view of her blocked, she found she had less of an urge to close her eyes so it had nothing to do with her singing. In fact, she found herself wanting her eyes shut in most situations that made her uncomfortable, or in other words, most situations.

With the rest of the world comfortably on the other side of her eyelids, she often liked to imagine she was flying high in the air, away from everything and everyone. She would not fly like Superman because her arms would be out at her sides. It would not be like a bird either because there would be no flapping. Instead, they would be stationary like an airplane’s wings. She took care not to have her arms actually do this after that time someone said, “You’re too fat to be Jesus. You’d pull out the nails.”

Penny found the choir to her liking. She knew it was a tall order for her to fit in completely, but sang well and was reliable so no one tried to get her to quit.

By her senior year, her efforts really began to pay off. The choir won a number of local competitions and after securing the regional title, they were invited to Chicago for a big national sing-off just after Easter.

Money was of course an issue, public-school budgets being what they are. A GoFundMe campaign was launched in addition to more traditional ways students raised money such as a bake sale and a car wash. The choir even organized a small carnival and gave Penny the seat of honor in the dunking booth.

The fundraisers were a success. There was not only enough money to fly the choir to Chicago and put them up in junkie-free accommodations, there was enough left over to supply uniforms. Penny’s high school didn’t have much of a dress code, let alone a uniform requirement, but there was a push for the students to look sharp when representing the school. There was an additional push by Mr. Braden that girls should wear a traditional tartan skirt. Boys should wear navy slacks and a white shirt. Maybe a sweater and tie. Whatever.

The students, including Penny, were so excited about going to Chicago they didn’t care what they wore. Even for those who had traveled by air fairly regularly saw this as a special occasion because their parents were not coming with them. For Penny, who had only been on an airplane twice in her life, it felt like the trip of a lifetime.

She did not know how right she was.

About midway through the flight to Chicago, Penny got up to pee. It would give her a respite from the creepy gaze of Mr. Braden, but it also meant she would have to go through the gauntlet of walking back to the lavatory. She wished she could close her eyes and walk straight ahead, but that meant a risk she would trip and fall into the lap of a boy with an erection. Her best option was to keep her eyes forward and soldier through.

As she walked, girls made faces and rolled their eyes. Boys sitting in aisle seats grabbed at her legs. Nathan, the tall boy she stood behind in choir, sat in the back row. He had gotten the idea that Penny chose to stand behind him to check out his ass so when he saw her approach, he grinned at her with unbrushed teeth and thrust his hand down the front of his pants.

Penny wondered how the situation could get any worse and the inside engine on the left side of the plane provided an answer. Back at the airport, there had been some confusion over who was supposed to inspect this engine so no one did it at all. If someone had, they sure would have seen that it was likely to explode, which is what it did.

The explosion took the wing clean off and the plane spiraled toward earth. Centrifugal force threw Penny against the lavatory door. The rest of the passengers had their seat belts on, which was in accordance with FAA regulations but did not do any of them much good.

When the plane dropped 15,000 feet, the tail section came off. Penny was hurled from the passenger cabin into the open sky. She was cleanly jettisoned and did not have any part of her person in contact with the jagged edges of fuselage on the way out.

After an initial blast  of wind that stunned but did not injure her, Penny looked around and realized she was no longer inside of an airplane. She closed her eyes, put her arms straight out, and pretended to fly.

Penny from Heaven (Part 1)

Earl Burrell stood at the edge of a bare section of farmland and kicked at the dirt with what was left of his right foot. He was 36 years old and had spent the last 20 of them missing everything from his mid-arch forward. This was the result of a self-inflicted blast from a 12-gauge shotgun. The buckshot did not remove all of it, but it made enough of a mess that the doctor had to amputate much of what was left over.

Earl grew up as the only child in a farming family. He had little aptitude or affinity for working in the fields and was always coming up with excuses so he could escape the daily toil. It was therefore of little surprise that his parents suspected the partial amputation of one of his feet as just another dodge.

He might very well have blasted off a piece of his foot for an idle existence had he thought of it. Earl was not a fan of running, or even walking, so the pluses did outweigh the minuses. It was unintentional however, something Bob Ross might have called a “happy accident” if he had worked with firearms instead of paint. Intentional or not, Earl was OK with limping from one place to another as long as the destination was where he could do a whole lot of nothing.

His parents’ initial irritation morphed into acceptance when they realized that Earl was destined to be a layabout anyway so not much had really changed. In time, they even believed Earl’s claim that his injury was an accident though they took this to mean he was aiming at his other foot.

A hefty out-of-court settlement from the gun manufacturer set Mr. and Mrs. Burrell’s minds at ease. Telling Earl the money would be put in a “college fund” (he was a high-school dropout), they pocketed the cash except for a small allowance and a shed where he could masturbate in private.

In what was the closest Earl got to ambition, he vowed that his jack-off shed would one day become his love shack. He returned to his high school since this was where girls could be found. He did not start attending classes. He just staked out a spot and the hallway and waited for the moment when he would have the courage to ask one out.

That moment never came. A number of students complained and despite having never re-enrolled, Earl was expelled and told never to set foot on school grounds again.

Earl shrugged and found a new location at another school where he could continue to look at girls.  He was often able to borrow the family pickup truck so mobility was rarely an issue. In time, every secondary school in a 100-mile radius (with the exception of an all-boys military academy) became part of his ogling circuit.

Years passed. The girls would eventually graduate and get on with their lives, only to have a new set take their place. The one constant was Earl Burrell.

So here he was today doing what he did best. He took a bite from his pulled-pork sandwich and stared through his binoculars at the girls’ varsity lacrosse team. They were having their afternoon practice before the big game against the league champs. If they were victorious, they stood a good chance of winning the league themselves.

Earl did want the team to win, but he was mostly just happy that they were able to play at all. Most public high schools had their budgets slashed and few teams other than football and basketball. Fortunately, this was a private school so its athletic program was kept intact to attract enrollment. Fortunately for Earl, this was a Catholic school so tradition was important. The team uniform, including the tartan skirts, had not changed in decades.

Earl just loved those skirts.

He would have preferred to sit in the bleachers like a civilized human being instead of having to watch from the far end of an open field. He feared violence from the fathers (and some mothers) for what they thought was an unhealthy interest in the girls practicing.

This bothered Earl. If the parents wanted to fear for their daughters, it certainly should not be because of him. There were some real creeps out there like the ones who liked to watch the JV team. Earl wasn’t like them. He only watched the varsity team, which was largely made up of seniors with many of them having reached their 18th birthday. Some of the mentally slower players may have been held back a year or two and would even be older than that.

Earl placed a high value on consent so being of age was crucial. It was a non-negotiable first hurdle on the sexual-satisfaction roadmap, but not the only step. She of course would have to say yes. Persistent unwanted advances might enrage the objects of his desire and there were a few of the larger girls who looked like they could inflict serious bodily harm.

There were a lot of guys who would enjoy such punishment, but not Earl. He was no masochist and he preferred females who were pliant and demure, bordering on catatonic. Her yes was a must, but only a slut uttered it loudly and with unabashed enthusiasm. Instead, Earl wanted it delivered as a simple nod while looking away and tears in her eyes that showed that she was a lady.

The absence of a no would do in a pinch as well.

Although he didn’t want a woman much older than 18 (one’s better half should be half one’s age, he reasoned), a reverse “The Price Is Right” rule was in effect. She should be close to the age of consent without being under. For this reason, Earl put a lot of effort into being able to guess a young honey’s age.

So far, he had yet to be proven wrong. He had never been proven right either, but that did not erode his confidence. He scanned the lacrosse field, deciding who was 18 and who was not.

“I want a cheeseburger, not veal parmesan,” he said, when in fact he would not get either. All he’d get was pulled pork.

It looked like the day would end like countless others. He would retreat to his shed, have a tug, and convince himself that the next day was somehow going to be different. If he were a praying man, he might look to God and ask for a miracle.

What Earl did not know was that a miracle was about to happen. Whether divine intervention was involved was up for debate, but Earl’s miracle was unfolding where God was said to live, way up in the sky.

Privilegemobile 11: A Better Tomorrow

I don’t know much of anything about my bus driver’s personal life. I don’t know if he’s married, what books or movies he likes, or his preferred vacation spots. Everything I do know is expressed through how he drives the bus.

I know if another bus is ahead of him at the bus stop, he will wait patiently at the intersection rather than pull up right behind the other vehicle and block 26th Street. When he does pull up to the bus stop, it will be at the same spot day after day. If I see a deviation from either of these behaviors, I’ll know the regular driver is taking a sick day or is on PTO.

It’s the stopping at the same spot that I care about. With people boarding different shuttles for different companies, nobody cares about forming a single line. Instead, we just find an unoccupied spot along the sidewalk and play with our phones until our bus comes.

Whenever possible, I have a place staked out so I am right in front of the bus door when it opens. This almost ensures that I will get my preferred seat, all the way back and on the right. Sometimes it’ll be claimed by someone who boarded at an earlier stop, but that’s rare because of its proximity to the lavatory. My sense of smell is not great so I don’t much care. Blast away, party people. It’s all the same to me.

That’s what I do early in the a.m. Waiting for the bus is pretty innocuous as activities go, but not everyone sees it that way. This past Monday, a concerned San Franciscan decided to take action.

The woman was older, perhaps my age or even more than that. She carried a sign that said “Illegal Street Activity” to let us all know we were in violation of the law. No one paid much attention to her.

My bus arrived shortly after she did. I took my seat in the back and looked out the window. The woman was gone, but her sign was leaned against a trashcan, facing out toward the street.

I wondered what happened to the woman. Maybe she was eliminated by a tech-bro death squad. Maybe their throbbing cocks were in on the assault. None of that seemed likely. The privileged rarely have to resort to force to maintain their position in the social hierarchy when they have the system to do it for them.

She probably just planted the sign then left on her own volition. Her statement made, she was free to go back to her support group who would tell her how brave and proactive she was.

In some ways, I applaud what she did. Her methods were perfectly acceptable. She could have hopped the curb in her hybrid and mowed us all down, our dying screams drowned out by Joan Baez blaring from her car stereo. Instead, she chose to express her displeasure without violence. Good on her for that.

I’m not even completely against the reasons behind her action, if I’m right about what they were. I’m not talking about the explanation she’d give if asked why our presence was illegal. She would probably lie her ass off about that, citing traffic and loitering laws of her own creation.

Tech buses have already been barred from using municipal bus stops, and with good reason. However, there have been no laws passed barring them from the city in its entirety. As for loitering, perhaps she’d have a point if only because the definition is so arbitrary and enforcement so selective. Anybody standing still in a public place could be called a loiterer. Usually, it’s the grubby and impoverished who get busted for it instead of techie scum like me unless you have a serious ax to grind.

I’m guessing she does and I can’t say I blame her. San Francisco has changed a lot since I first moved here and not all for the better.  It used to be affordable as big cities go. If you wanted to pursue some passion that didn’t pay well like music or art,  it was doable with shared housing and a lame-ass job. If your passion was simply to stay up all night on drugs, that was doable as long as you made it to work in a semi-functional state. Sure, the streets were more dangerous back then, but I wasn’t exactly behaving like I wanted to live forever.

I used to walk down Valencia Street and see poor people pushing shopping carts down the sidewalk. Now I see rich people pushing strollers. “Faulty wiring” frequently causes fires that gut low-income apartment buildings and have luxury condos rise from the ashes. The transformation of SF wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for tech douches with a sense of entitlement as bloated as their bank accounts.

So yeah, lady, I get it. You don’t like what’s happening. You want to turn back time, like Cher, or put it in a bottle, like Jim Croce. I don’t like what’s happening either. The difference is that you want keep the ship from sinking after it has hit an iceberg. I’m just trying to make my way to a lifeboat.

That means working in tech and stashing enough money to cut and run before my luck runs out. And it will run out. I’ll eventually lose my job due to a layoff or quitting in a huff because my undiagnosed mental illness staged a coup. My rent-controlled apartment won’t last forever either. This is not a good town to grow old in.

Fortunately, I doubt I’ll have to. Becca and I plan to relocate to a city about 600 miles north of here. It’s called Portland, Oregon. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

We go up there whenever we can, feeling a little more at home each time. Some locals don’t much like people moving in and making everything more expensive. That no doubt sounds familiar to you. And while I can see where they’re coming from, Becca and I are still going to do what’s best for us.

I bet that sounds familiar as well.

Backup Plan

I awoke in the wee hours of Monday morning last week. I do that a lot. Often it’s because I have to pee, but sometimes it’s my waking from a nightmare. The week prior, I had a real doozy that had a werewolf that sprang in front of me and grew so large, it blocked out all traces of light. I woke up screaming. Becca, understandably concerned, asked if I was OK. I was fine because I was awake. That meant the monster was gone.

This past dream was not so bad. I had escaped my abductors in SF and was sneaking around some dream version of Oakland that’s a lot nicer than Oakland really is. I wasn’t sure about the people I escaped from. Maybe they wanted to own a hostage the same way one might want to own a dog. There was certainly nothing to indicate they wanted to vivisect me or use my fingers and toes as a pizza topping. I was happy to be rid of them, but never felt any real fear. I woke up relaxed.

I checked my phone and it was just after three in the morning. The VM where I host my blog had one job scheduled to run at two on Monday and another at three. The first job dumped the contents of the blog’s database into a file in a backup directory I had created. The second job uploaded that file to a remote storage account I recently set up.

For the briefest of moments, I felt like a grownup. I behaved prudently. Poison Spur is the only endeavor I’ve pursued with anything approaching a sustained effort and now it had a means of disaster recovery. Never mind giant werewolves and pizza chefs who wield bloody tin snips. Losing this blog would be a real fucking nightmare.

It happened once before. Roughly ten years ago, there was a disk crash and I had no recent backup. Sifting through both Google and disk cache, I was able to piece most of it back together. It was a painful experience and I should have learned my lesson right then. Instead, I pushed my luck for another decade.

So what changed? What motivated me to do something smart after all these years? The answer is what made my feeling of maturity so fleeting.

Back in January, I upgraded my DSL to a high-speed fiber-optic thingamabob. The new modem had a router built in, which meant I had to learn how to configure the thing. You know the five-second rule when food hits the floor. I have a five-minute one when it comes to figuring out a technical task. Of course, figuring out technical things is what I do for a living so I make an exception whenever money is involved. Otherwise, I say fuck it and either play a game or catch up on what’s happening in the world of porn.

The five minutes elapsed so I declared partial victory. There was Wi-Fi access for our phones and desktops, and my desktop computer could access the internet via an ethernet cable to the modem/router/whateveryoucallit. What I didn’t have was the means for a device to access the desktop through the Wi-Fi.

I bought my desktop in 2010, which makes it about as modern as a horse-drawn carriage in as far as computers go. Lately, it had pretty much been relegated to a backup device for my phone. I would launch my rsync app, tap a few buttons, and my pics and whatnot would get backed up. I didn’t even have to get out of bed.

Those days were gone and I realized it was all for the best. If my shit is worth anything at all (a debatable point, granted), shouldn’t it be recoverable even if there’s a burglary or a fire? I did a bit of googling and decided to go with IDrive (not an Apple product, note uppercase “I” #fuckthecult) because there’s no limit on number of devices and it works easily with Linux.

For my $69/year, I get 1 TB in cloud storage. I don’t process that figure well. It’s bigger than I can mentally size in anything but abstract terms, yet it’s too small to be infinite. That left me with the perplexing task of deciding what to back up.

My music collection was a no brainer. The same went for my writing projects. Conversely, there were some things I had no desire at all to back up: downloaded installer files, CPAN modules, and the like.

The jury is still out on porn. There are no legal reasons not to. Even if is law enforcement subpoenaed my encryption key from IDrive or the company gave it up just to be dicks, there is not much that can be done to me. Child porn ain’t my thing and the mere possession of other kind of obscene material is not prosecutable. I think snuff porn might be another criminal no-no, but I doubt I have any of that either. I’ll need to check my archives.

Legal issues aside, I don’t see much of a point. Most of that crap lives in folders that have been opened in years because I have no interest now. My old friend, the late great Ray McKelvey of the band Stevie Stiletto once said in a song, “I’m sitting on the toilet thinking about a girl I used to know. Like a pornographic movie, she was only good the first time.” There is a lot of wisdom in those words, largely because of the near-universal truth of their foundation. Porn serves a purpose and then we move on. There are exceptions of course. I have a friend who automated his Usenet porn downloads back in the 90s and lovingly catalogued them into burned CDs with titles like “Redheads Vol. 4,” but his level of devotion is a rare thing indeed. I’d say doubly so now that we live in an era when there is convenient access to live, streaming whatever the hell you’re into.

So porn, like anything, will have to be considered on a case-by-case basis and because storage devices will someday fail, I have the power to decide what ultimately lives or dies. I’ll be like God with my own personal rapture roster. I may make a few mistakes along the way, but there is one I do know: Most stuff, whether it is on a planet or a hard drive, is not worth saving.