Abyss & Apex : Third Quarter 2009: Section III

Section III

by Caren Gussoff


Some lives are like the punch line to a joke. Some are like a military campaign. Some seem spurred on by the same migratory restlessness driving birds south for the winters.

Some are as precisely crafted as the gears in an old watch, the rhyme scheme of a sonnet. Others are a piece of abstract expressionism, without recognizable pattern or form, studies in desire, suffering, solitude.

After five years as Client Services Manager at the Department of Providence, Alison is very good at describing the shapes of lives: their form, their structure. She’s served thousands, tens of thousands of clients, unsatisfied with their fate, displeased with their destiny.

Alison is very good at describing lives, summarizing their plot points, identifying patterns, theorizing significance.

She never really considered, however, her own life.



The coffeepot’s been sitting on the burner empty for a few hours. Alison scrubs out the tarry grounds and brews some more. She grabs the last glazed donut, sweating oil as if, Alison imagines, it could foresee its sacrifice.

Not every day went exactly like this. They all went something like this.

The three screens behind Alison’s desk broadcast the whole of humanity living their lives –– people talking, laughing, sneezing, snoring, humping. The room is dim to enhance the effect, but Alison finds it easy to ignore. Each individual idleness was subsumed by another movement, every fractional silence overlaid with a different noise, the result a dappled whole, a pleasant bubbling like an aquarium aerator.

Alison checks her email, voice mail, and her appointments. Alison fills time before her next client comparison shopping for air fares to destinations she’ll never visit.

The client bursts in, flanked by a battalion of shopping bags and dry cleaning, a small boy dragged along. “I am so sorry,” the client says, swinging gold earrings. “This is the very reason I wanted to file.”

Alison motions to the chair and the client sits, stacking the bags around her. The boy wipes his nose, and builds a fort from the packages. He peeks out, suddenly entranced by the screens. “What’s all that?” he asks.

“Tommy,” Gold Earrings says. “Behave.”

“He’s fine,” Alison says. She looks down at Tommy. “That is the whole of humanity, right this minute. If you look carefully, you might be able to find us here.” She watches his eyes get big and he withdraws back into the fort. Alison turns back to Gold Earrings. “What can I do for you?”

Gold Earrings begins to explain. Not every client says exactly what she says, but they all say something like it. Bad breaks, bad luck, hard times, hardships. Needing more, wanting less. Getting their due, their desserts.

Tommy peeks up through the fort at Alison’s donut.

Alison nods at Gold Earrings, hands her a clipboard with the forms. “Fill out sections I, II, and IV as completely as you can.”

“Pssst,” Tommy says.

“Tommy,” Gold Earrings says. “Behave.” She bends over the forms.

“He’s fine.” Alison looks down at Tommy. He waves at her and she walks around the desk, kneels beside the fort.

“Hey,” he whispers. “Can I have your donut?”

“I don’t know,” she whispers back. “I’ll have to ask your mommy.”

“Tommy,” Gold Earrings says. “Behave.”

“I’ll trade you Vinnie for it,” Tommy says. “I like donuts.”

“Who’s Vinnie?” Alison asks, then turns up to the client. “Can he have some donut? Is that OK?”

Gold Earrings shrugs, intent on the forms.

Alison grabs the donut and napkin off her desk, and hands it into the fort.

“Thank you,” he whispers. “I like donuts.” Alison hears chewing, then, through a mouthful, “Vinnie will like you.”

“Tommy,” Gold Earrings says. “Behave.”

“Who’s Vinnie?” Alison asks again.

“He’s my best friend,” Tommy says, sticking his head out at her.

“You don’t want to trade your best friend for a donut,” Alison tells him.

“He doesn’t like donuts,” he says. “He likes bugs.” Tommy disappears back into the fort. From inside he says, “He’ll be your best friend.”

Alison waits for Tommy to continue but he doesn’t. He whispers inside the fort and she goes back behind her desk.

“I think that’s it,” Gold Earrings says, passing the clipboard back across to Alison. “How will I know if I’ve gotten a hearing?” she asks.

“Ma’am,” Alison says, double–checking the forms. “You’ll know.”



Some lives are jigsaw puzzles, dependent on corner piece. Some lives are wells that never run dry.

Some lives are like antiques, solidly constructed but obscured by dust, discovered as treasures generations later. Others are like postmodern architecture, the structure emphasizing all the empty space.

Even after five years as Client Services Manager at the Department of Providence, Alison never even tried describing her own life.



Alison stands up to refill her coffee cup and discovers Vinnie.

A small terracotta planter decorated with crayon sits next to a crumpled napkin and donut crumbs. Alison picks it up –– one side is clumsily labeled VINNIE. “Hello, Vinnie,” she says.

Vinnie’s red, toothy leaves bow in, what Alison imagines, greeting.

Alison places Vinnie on her desk. She turns him around and around, tentatively poking him. Gummy sap lines his strange leaves, and one nips itself around Alison’s finger.

Alison fills time before her next client checking botany sites, gardening sites, nurseries, and greenhouses. She discovers Vinnie’s a particularly muscular specimen of Dionaea Muscipula, a Venus Flytrap. Alison reads about care and cultivation, trigger hairs and laminae.

“Well,” she says to Vinnie. “We’ve got to find you some bugs, my friend.”

The next client is so inflated with rage he can barely fit through the door. He bangs his fist on Alison’s desk and Vinnie’s pot jumps a bit.

“Who is in charge here?” the client demands. His white hair stands as if magnetized. “I demand to see who’s in charge here.”

“Sir,” Alison says, pointing at the chair. “Please sit down.”

He ignores her, rages on, back and forth. “I want to file a formal complaint, he says. “Don’t you know who I am? I reigned over empires.”

Alison lets his rage peter out. Not every client says exactly what he says, but they all say something like it. Prophesies fulfilled, fortunes revered. Pathos, pity, and pettiness. Trials, tribulations, and tragedy.

“I used to be sovereign ruler of all I could see,” he says, spent. He sits in the chair, clenching and unclenching his fist. He looks at Vinnie. “Is that a Venus Flytrap?” The Fallen King asks.

“Yes,” Alison says. “His name is Vinnie.”

“He’ll never do well in here,” The Fallen King says. “He needs direct sunlight, high humidity.” He looks at Alison. “I had such magnificent gardens. Every type of flora.”

Alison nods, hands him a clipboard with the forms. “Fill out sections I, II, and IV as completely as you can.”



Some lives are algebraic equations, perfectly balanced on either side. Some are roller coasters, reservoirs of potential energy gliding down, down, down.

Some lives are mirrors, reflecting only what is in front of them. Others are long shots, pulling out the lead just when everything seems lost.

After five years as Client Services Manager at the Department of Providence, Alison didn’t know she was unhappy with her own life until she got a little happier.



Alison dances her usual polonaise with the soda machine. She feeds it her dollar, pulls the change lever, and kicks it until it the motor inside whirs. Then it spits out her can, which bounces on the floor.

This is not exactly how the routine always goes, but it goes something like that.

Alison taps the top of the soda can to settle it down before cracking it open. She unwraps her sandwich and rearranges the high output grow she’d bought for Vinnie. She pulls a few dry leaves off of him, then puts a morsel of turkey from her sandwich and places it on one of his leaves. The trap pinches closed.

“Yeah,” she says. “I’m partial to turkey myself.” She imagines him to be pleased.

Her next appointment is a no–show, so Alison fills time checking the news, the weather, celebrity gossip. After awhile, she reads aloud to Vinnie. Then she turns on public radio and they listen to a report on the energy crisis and a piece on the history of synchronized swimming as an Olympic event. Alison is almost surprised to see her next client walk through the door.

The client is a young woman, not far from Alison’s age. She takes the offered chair and tucks her hair behind her ears, then examines her beautifully manicured nails before explaining her case.

Not every client says exactly what she says, but they all say something like it: the deck is stacked, the game is fixed. The odds are always with the house.

“I did everything right,” Beautiful Manicure says. “I went to bed early, I drank my milk. I didn’t lie, I didn’t cheat, I didn’t steal.” She looks at Alison, waiting for her to respond.

Alison silently readies the forms.

“I just need to know,” Beautiful Manicure says, leaning in. “If it’s my fault. Or someone else’s.”

Alison holds the clipboard across the desk.

“That’s all I want,” Beautiful Manicure repeats.

The clipboard bobbles in Alison’s hands.

“Do you understand?” Beautiful Manicure asks.

“I think I do,” Alison answers. She doesn’t know if she does. “Fill out sections I, II, and IV as completely as you can.”

Beautiful Manicure takes the clipboard from Alison and places it on her lap. “Section III: narrative assessment of requestor,” she reads. She taps the space with her pink nails. “Who fills that out?”

“I do,” Alison answers. “That’s my job.”

“What do you put down?” she asks.

“Well,” Alison says, distracted now by another dry–looking leaf on Vinnie’s. She plucks it off, then continues. “The shape of your life.”

“The shape?” Beautiful Manicure asks.

“Lives have forms, contours. Some are fashioned in, say, bold strokes and others are sketches, small moments of varying significance,” Alison explains. “They’re designed that way.”

Beautiful Manicure shakes her head.

“Section III is supposed to be an impartial description,” she continues.

Beautiful Manicure thinks about that. “Fate is not an objective process,” she says. “Is it?”

“Clients, like you, usually can’t see their own lives with any objectivity,” Alison says.

Beautiful Manicure ticks her hair behind her ears again. “So, what is my life like?” she asks. “And what’s yours?”



Some lives are like meteors, inevitably plummeting to their destruction, leaving beautiful, ephemeral streaks of light. Some are overexposed photographs, too bright to show anything at all.

Some play out like a high school mixer, inexpertly filled with expectation and spectacle. Other lives are like bad haircuts, in which the only solution is giving it time to grow.

After five years as Client Services Manager at the Department of Providence, Alison has filled out thousands of section IIIs. She is good at describing the shapes of lives, but she can’t seem to remember any individual section she’d written. They all blended together in her head.

Alison pets Vinnie absently as she chews her pen. She tries to remember one, just one specific life, and can’t.

Punch lines, sonnets, mirrors, black swans.

She turns her chair and watches the screens. She watches the whole of humanity living their lives –– people chewing, running, listening, singing, scratching. She scans the blown out stippled swirl of humanity, first trying to find a familiar face. Then she just searches for Vinnie and herself.



Vinnie appears to be dying. More of his leaves are dry and spindly, his traps blackening around the edges.

Alison tries a few things, first logically, then with increasing desperation. She readjusts his grow lamp, checks his water levels, prunes off the sickest looking traps. She tries reading to him then she tries singing. When those things don’t work, she tries crying.

Alison is still crying when her next client arrives.

The client looks around then sits in the chair across from her. “Are you OK?” he asks, reluctantly. He was expecting to tell his own story, not hear someone else’s.

Alison points down at Vinnie. She cries harder at the thought that not only is Vinnie dying, she is acting unprofessionally.

“Ah,” the client says. “I see.” He strokes one of Vinnie’s leaves. “Venus Flytrap.”

Alison wipes an eye. “Do you know anything about them?” she asks.

“Oh, no,” the client says, holding up his palms. “Not much. Just that they’re notoriously difficult to cultivate. They’re very finicky. They die easily.” He turns Vinnie’s pot around. “And,” he says, reading, “‘Vinnie’ here seems no different.”

This makes Alison begin crying again.

“Look,” the client says. “Maybe I should come back some other time.” He leans back, glances at the door.

“No,” Alison says, sniffing. “Please. I’m sorry.” She holds out a clipboard to the client. “Please fill out sections I, II, and IV…” she begins, but breaks into sobs.

The client takes the forms from her. This makes her begin crying anew.

The client pulls the forms out of the clipboard. “Look,” he says. “I’ll fill these out and bring them back sometime. OK?” He stands up and backs away.

“I just,” Alison says. “I don’t want him to die.”

“Maybe,” he says, as the door shuts. “Maybe you should fill out these forms too.”



Some lives are like. Some resemble.

Some lives approximate. Others are.

After five years as Client Services Manager at the Department of Providence, Alison throws her clipboard as hard as she can. It catches on the window blinds and cracks a slat, letting in a blade of light. Before she completely understands what she is doing, Alison rips down the blinds and cranks the windows open.

She can’t even remember the last time she was outside. She watches the street: people walking, laughing, talking, smoking, each one at a time, the tide of humanity, thousands upon thousands of individual waves.

Every sound vibrating, each mouth open.

The sunlight stretches Alison’s pupils wide; she has to fight to keep her eyes open.

She holds Vinnie up to the light, and he bows his leaves in, what looks to Alison, a parting.

Alison picks up the clipboard.

Section III.


Caren Gussoff graduated Clarion West in ’08 as an Octavia E. Butler scholar. In 2009, she co-founded Brain Harvest: an Almanac of Bad-Ass Speculative Fiction (www.brainharvestmag.com). She has new work in M-BRANE, Cabinet des Fees, Birkensnake, and Thaumatrope. You can find her online at spitkitten.com or IRL in Seattle with husband, SF artist Chris Sumption, their two cats, Molly Bloom and Paul Atreides, and the smallest organic garden ever.)



Story © 2009 Caren Gussoff. All other content copyright © 2009 Abyss & Apex Publishing. 

Above button is for PayPal. Donate any amount. All monies go to authors and web hosting.

Click here for Patreon to become a Patron for as little as $1 a month!


Art Director Steven Coker, Jr.