Stepping Stone and The Love Machine (Excerpt)

Two excerpts for the price of one! Take a look at Walter Mosley’s Stepping Stone and The Love Machine, out in one volume on April 2:

New York Times bestselling author Walter Mosley delivers two speculative tales where truth forever changes the way life, death, good, and evil are understood. Walter Mosley’s talent knows no bounds. Stepping Stone and The Love Machine are complete short novels in which Mosley entertainingly explores life’s cosmic questions. From life’s meaning to the nature of good and evil, these tales take us on speculative journeys beyond the reality we have come to know. In each tale someone in our world today is given insight into these long pondered mysteries. But how would the world really receive the answers?

 

Stepping Stone

 

“Excuse me,” a young woman said from behind.

The elevator car was stopped at the nineteenth floor of the Westerly Building and my mail cart was blocking her exit. But the thing was I didn’t notice her standing there behind me and when I had gotten in the elevator car had been empty, I was sure of that.

I had worked for Higgenbothem, Brightend, and Hoad for twenty-one years with nothing out of the ordinary happening. I mean, there was the World Trade Center disaster down around Wall Street and some freakish weather now and again; we, the nation, were fighting a war against somebody, and preparing to fight against somebody else, in the Middle East, though no one seemed to be quite sure who the enemy actually was. There were economic reversals and the rent, for most New Yorkers, had gone through the upstairs neighbor’s roof but nothing unusual had happened within the confines of HBH proper.

My employer occupied floors sixteen to twenty-two in the Westerly Building on East Fifty-sixth Street. I worked in the mailroom, had done so since my first day on the job in 1986. I started out as a mail delivery clerk and had ended up the manager of the department. There were just three employees in my section. The only difference between me and my two, perpetually temporary, subordinates was a title and $4.65 an hour. Kala Daws and Pete Mulray were responsible for floors sixteen to twenty-one, whereas I only had to deliver mail on the top floor and do the managerial paperwork for our small section, that was once a hallway, on floor seventeen.

I never was sure exactly what HBH did. It had something to do with finance and there were executives from around the globe that spent as much as twenty-four hours a day studying graphs and documents in foreign languages on their huge plasma screens. I didn’t even know the names of most of the languages nor did I understand the significance of the charts. But that wasn’t unusual. I had, what they called at my uptown high school, a learning disability. Information made it into my mind but unless it had some direct relation to the way I saw the world I wasn’t normally capable of using it. And the way I saw things had very little in common with my teachers, at least most of them.

“That don’t sound like no disability to me,” my aunt Tiny used to say when my counselors called. “Sounds more like common sense.”

Earlier on I had problems with what my teachers termed as “communication skills.” I couldn’t speak clearly and often used words in the wrong order when under pressure or confused. I could write okay and I had been reading voraciously since the age of six. I didn’t have trouble putting words down on, or picking them up from, paper but people didn’t want to read the notes of a boy who had a perfectly good voice and most of my teachers didn’t believe I was really reading the books that I carried everywhere.

My fourth-grade teacher, Miss Boucher, used to keep me after school and worked to help me think about how I put my words together. We would sit for hours in the study room of the library and talk. Whenever I made a mistake she would look at me and touch my hand. I’d realize what I had done wrong and repeat the phrase correctly. By the sixth grade I rarely misspoke anymore.

Miss Boucher cured my disability but I was already tagged as a slow learner and mildly retarded so I was shunted down a particular path of learning that was inapplicable to my needs but still valid, in a way—because all my teachers, except Miss Boucher, believed that I couldn’t be taught.

I wasn’t bothered much by what people thought, however. School didn’t interest me very much and I spent most of the time considering simple things like ants and cloud formations; the way brides smile on their wedding days and all the possible patterns that water can make if you turn on the faucet quickly and then slam it shut. Sometimes I’d sit all day in my small eastside apartment watching the various arrangements of people as they walked down the street.

 

The year before that girl appeared behind me on the elevator I went back to my old elementary school and asked if Miss Boucher still taught there. It was a long shot but I remembered she was young when I was in her class and I had just that March reached the age of forty.

“And who’s asking?” the head of the office inquired.

“My name is Truman Pope,” I said. “I used to go to school here and Miss Boucher taught me to get my words right.”

The registrar, Nancy Bendheim, had a stern visage and a reluctant air about her. But when I explained how Boucher had impacted my life she smiled a real smile and nodded.

“Alana still teaches here,” the registrar told me. “She’s in class right now but she’ll be finished at eleven thirty. If you’d like to wait . . .”

Mrs. Bendheim let me sit in a parent-teacher conference room down the hall from her office. The room was quite small with a beat-up old class table for a desk and two chairs. It was a grim place with light green, stained walls and a pitted wooden floor. But there was a window that looked out into the branches of an oak tree. The lunch courtyard was on a lower level than the entrance of the school and so the room was one floor up. There were all kinds of activities going on among the branches. Spring leaves, that youthful kind of green, and insects, caterpillars, sparrows, starlings, and even one frisky gray squirrel. There were initials carved here and there by brave student climbers and a pair of tennis shoes that had the laces tied together hanging from a precarious branch that was, no doubt, too perilous a place for the custodial staff to reach.

Those shoes caught my attention. They were old and weathered, had probably been hanging there for a few years. I imagined the boy who, after having outgrown his old footwear, wanted to get one more bit of use out of them. I thought of how happy he must have been when the bolo he threw grabbed on to that skinny branch. Did he pass by below every day in the lunch court and look up to see his finest hour?

“Truman?” a gentle voice said.

Turning away from the window I saw her through a small boy’s eyes. She was still slender, still copper skinned with brown eyes. Her brown hair had become mostly gray but that was the only difference. Judging from her face she had not aged a day since the afternoon I had said, “I watch go him,” and she touched the back of my hand so lightly that it almost tickled.

“Is that really you?” she asked, a friendly smile brightening the dull room.

“Um,” I said, unable to keep from grinning myself. “I, uh, I came by because I had the day off and I was walking around the old neighborhood and remembered, I mean thought about you.”

Miss Boucher moved to the chair next to my station at the window and sat so gracefully that I experienced a sudden intake of breath as I used to when I had my schoolboy crush on her.

“How are you doing, Truman?”

“I was just walking around the old neighborhood . . .”

She touched my hand to get me beyond the skip in the scratched record of my mind.

“I wanted to see if you were still here to ask you something,” I said.

“What’s that?” she asked.

I remember looking into her eyes amazed that more than thirty years had elapsed.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean I guess it was just to say thank you. You know you were the only teacher I ever had who didn’t think I was an idiot. I mean . . . They always said that I had a learning disorder but, but . . .”

“But that’s just because they couldn’t understand you,” the older but still lovely teacher said, finishing my words now because there was no more I had to learn.

“Yeah, I guess.”

“So you just came by to say thank you?” she asked me.

“Didn’t you always used to say to me that if there was something then there was always something else?” I asked.

Miss Boucher smiled.

“Yeah, so,” I blundered on, “I guess I came here because I wanted to see you again and to thank you for helping me be okay with things.”

“What things?” she asked.

Answering that one question I must have rambled on for half an hour. I told her about how I had been labeled overactive by school officials and how I could never go to college. I couldn’t have gone anyway because my aunt Tiny got sick when I graduated high school and I had to work to help her until she was old enough for the state to foot the bill. I talked about my job and how much I liked moving from station to station delivering mail to people who rarely realized that I was even there.

“. . . and, anyway, I was, I just wanted to say thanks. You know most of my teachers never liked me. Or maybe not, I mean they didn’t not like me it’s just that they didn’t care and they didn’t understand. I mean I don’t think that it was because I’m black or anything. Tish Loman and Ronnie Dewar got along with some of the same teachers in different classes and they didn’t have any problems. But it was just that nobody would ever listen. I tried, I tried to do how you taught me but . . .

“Anyway. I’m not complaining, it’s just that I always think about how nice you were and how the reason I can do my job and make it to manager is because you showed me how to see things and say them too. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with me—”

“Certainly not,” Alana Boucher agreed.

There we were, in that ugly room sitting on the wrong side of the window, next to the branches of an ancient oak. Miss Boucher put her hand on mine as she had done so many years before.

“So you’re still here,” I said to fill in the silence.

“Where else would I be?” she said.

“If you taught all the classes in this school I wouldn’t have been called stupid by anybody and I could have gone to college,” I said.

“And what would you have done then?” she asked, smiling, holding my hand.

“I could have been one of those guys in suits making good money. My aunt Tiny wouldn’t be in a rest home but in a good place or in her own home with a nurse to make sure she takes her meds . . .” I wanted to say more but if I kept talking I would have started crying.

“I bet you visit your auntie every week,” Miss Boucher said.

I did see Aunt Tiny on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and most Saturdays. But nobody knew that. I remembered then that Miss Boucher seemed to know what I was thinking and what I was doing without me having to say. It was like she could see into my mind.

“And those people who work in those offices don’t know birdcalls and how clouds spin,” she continued. “They don’t know how to sit down and watch and listen so closely that the world seems to stop.”

She said more but I stopped listening to the words and went into a kind of trance. As I sat there and looked out I could see three hundred and sixty degrees around me, more, because I could see above and below too. The three dimensions of space flattened out in front of me and I could see it all as if it was on a movie screen. There was no up or down, front or back.

I remembered then why I had missed Miss Boucher so much. Often when I was with her as a child I had the experience of wide perception. I could see a spider crawling on the wall behind me and feel the wind against the window outside. The world became larger and more intricate.

In that ugly green room I could feel the grin on my lips and energy thrumming from the boiler room three floors below. I could feel the sky even and, when everything inside me went still, I perceived glimmers of life outside in the hallway and down in the lunch yard.

I knew that it was just an illusion but it felt good . . . like everything.

“But,” I said, coming out of the reverie, “but those guys at HBH are rich. Nobody wants to pay me to sit and watch bugs crawl.”

“Maybe you aren’t watching closely enough,” Alana Boucher suggested.

I don’t remember much after that. I sat forward in my chair to hear her better and she took my hand in both of hers. We talked, I’m sure of that, but I didn’t remember a word of what we said until the end when we were standing outside on the sidewalk in front of the school.

“You have to pay very close attention, Truman,” she was telling me. “The truth will reveal itself if you watch with intention.”

“Why were you always so nice to me?” I asked her. The answer to that question was the real reason I had come.

For a moment she just stood there looking at something above my head.

“I loved spending time with you,” she said at last. “The other teachers never understood how special you were. When we would sit in the remedial room and talk I began to feel elation and hope. You would show me things outside the window—birds and bulky little beetles trundling along. It was like you gave me a new pair of eyes.”

I came there to thank my teacher but our last words were her expression of gratitude. I left her feeling mildly confused but happy, still and all.

That evening I went to visit Aunt Tiny at Eastside Nursing Home for the Elderly. She was in the ward on the fourth floor near a window that looked down on Eighty-third Street. I had moved to the eastside in order to be close to her.

Tiny weighed well over three hundred pounds and she was shorter even than I am.

The hippopotamus and the spider monkey, she used to say when I was small and she held me in her arms looking into the full-length plastic dressing mirror she had in her bedroom.

The world and her moon, I would respond, remembering a phrase from a children’s book I’d once read.

“Hi, monkey,” she said when I pulled up a stool next to her chair by the window.

“Hi, Aunt Tiny.”

Tiny wasn’t small and she wasn’t old either. But at sixty-eight, with nearly twenty years of retirement already behind her, she had done forty years of hard labor and was, as she said, just tired—body and soul.

“What you do at work today, sugar?” she asked me.

The two things that Tiny and I had in common were our dark skin tones and the fact that we liked to sit and talk at the end of the day.

“I took the day off.”

“You played hooky from work?” she asked with a mischievous smile on her broad mouth.

“I took a personal day and went to my old school to see Miss Boucher.”

“She still walk there?”

“Uh-huh.”

“How is that nice lady?” Tiny asked. She lived in a rest home not for her mind but simply because she was too tired even to walk more than a few paces on her own.

I told Tiny about our talk and when I was finished she said, “Remember, Baby, anything Miss Boucher says is important. Even if you don’t understand, even if you don’t remember exactly what she said, you keep them words in your heart because that woman know sumpin’.”

And so a year had gone by and I watched everything that happened around me. I watched walls and floors, the ceilings and the people who never noticed me. I sat in my one-room apartment and looked out of the window at the brick buildings across the street.


Love Machine

ONE

 

“Sit down, Ms. Kim,” Dr. Marchant Lewis said.

Lois frowned slightly and then lowered herself into the chair he indicated.

Lewis was clad in a crisp white doctor’s smock that was at least two sizes too small for his great girth. Small plastic buttons strained to hold the garment across his belly. In the spaces between Lois could see the black T-shirt he wore.

When the big man looked down on Lois she shuddered inwardly.

Marchant smiled.

“Don’t be nervous,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt.”

With some effort, he walked around the table and took the seat across from her. As he wedged himself in a button popped off and struck Lois on the cheek.

“Oh,” she cried, half rising from her chair.

“Sit down, Lois,” he commanded in that rumbling low voice.

Lois regained self-control and sat back.

On the table between them sat a sleek, silvery box about the size of the multimedia player that Lois had bought just that week. In the center of the glittering box was a red rectangular button, that was half the size of a matchbook and lit from underneath. Marchant depressed the button with a thick finger and two square plates shot out from either side, one for Marchant and the other for Lois. Each plate had a shallow, hand-shaped depression covering the most part of its surface area.

Marchant smiled and placed a mitt on his template. He indicated with a glance and a hand gesture that she should do the same with hers.

“Am I supposed to put my hand here?” she asked, stalling.

Marchant nodded. The fat of his face, Lois thought, made him look more like a grotesque baby than a grown man.

“What’s supposed to happen?” she asked with hardly a tremor in her voice.

“Exactly what I proposed to InterCyb,” Lewis said. “Through a noninvasive electronic medium I will be able to map the complete neuronal system of your hand, gauging the flow of stimuli with absolute accuracy.”

Kim stared at the colossus opposite her. She was made nervous, she knew, merely because of his size. Marchant Lewis was nearly seven feet tall and weighed, she’d been told by her boss, Ryan Lippmann, over five hundred pounds.

Big men had always frightened Lois—ever since childhood. But she knew that her fears were unfounded superstitions based on her own size and the bedtime stories her grandmother had told her when Lois visited her in Korea Town. The stories always had ogres that were as big as houses with obscene genitals and fingernails like claws . . .

But those stories were for children.

Marchant Lewis was no ogre. He was the top neurophysicist in the nation; maybe in the entire world. The thesis for his Ph.D. from MIT was the complete mapping of the memory systems of pigeons, a revolutionary achievement for any biophysicist, comparable to the greatest scientific accomplishments in history. It was a coup for InterCybernetics International when Lois brokered the deal to hire him away from the government. She had to trust him; her future depended on the success of this man.

But still she hesitated.

“What will happen?” she asked. “Exactly.”

“Your hand will be drawn in and the Datascriber will begin its work.” Something about Lewis’s smile seemed threatening or maybe it was just that Lois could tell that he knew something that she did not.

“Will it hurt?”

“I sincerely doubt it.”

“I don’t really see why I have to do this,” Lois said, trying to keep the whine out of her voice.

“Somebody from management has to,” Marchant replied. “This technology is about tactile sensation. How can you justify the millions that you’ve put into my work if one of you doesn’t test it?”

Her hands clenched firmly together in her lap Lois Kim said, “That is precisely why I’m here, Dr. Lewis. Your method of farming out work to different unaffiliated labs makes it very difficult for us to judge your work—and its cost analysis.”

“You can’t judge without putting your hand on the template, Ms. Kim.”

There was nothing else for her to say. She’d put off this meeting for a month already and her boss was e-mailing her daily now wondering, forcefully, What is happening with the Lewis project? It was Labor Day Friday and she had plans with Grant, her boyfriend, to leave for Death Valley that afternoon.

Cautiously she laid her hand upon the template.

“Let the weight of your hand rest on it, dear,” the older man said.

The moment she let her forearm relax straps shot out from both sides of the plate looping and tightening over her hand, securing palm and fingers to the form made for them.

“What’s this?” Lois said, the hysteria fully formed in her words.

“Your hand has to be held completely motionless or the Datascriber won’t work. Relax, Ms. Kim. There’s absolutely nothing to worry about.”

While Marchant Lewis spoke Lois felt the insistent tug of the template pan as her hand was drawn into the silver box. She could feel her heart throbbing like that of a small, frightened animal. It was hard for her to catch her breath. A warm, viscous liquid oozed between her fingers.

Lois was ready to scream when she had the vision.

There was a long and very wide plain of green that spread out for what seemed to be many miles in front of her. This plain went on and on until it slammed into a slate-blue sky. A fluttering of red boomed above her head. She knew somewhere in a faraway place that this was just a redbird suddenly frightened and taken to wing. But in her heart this was an amazing event not unlike when the Lord spoke and life sprang from nothingness.

“Marky,” a woman’s voice called. “Marky.”

Lois cried for joy at the redbird and her mother’s call.

Mama never called me Marky, the distant thought chimed. But Lois didn’t care. She pressed her hands upon the green, green grass feeling every spiky blade against her tender palms. She heaved herself up making it to a wide-legged stance. A street appeared between the lawn and sky and a big maroon car zoomed past. Lois took in a deep breath hearing the growl of the car’s engine and her own breath simultaneously. She blew at the automobile’s red brake lights as it got smaller and quieter. She laughed—exultant at her own power.

Cars move due to the internal combustion engine, the faraway mind intoned.

“Marky,” Mother called from what seemed like very far away.

Lois spun around so quickly that she lost her balance and fell back onto the grass. The sudden motion of her body, the jumble of sky and green and street made for a joyous confusion that brought her to the edge of fear.

But then two huge black hands folded around her sides and Lois was suddenly like that redbird flapping her arms and legs in flight.

The broad brown-black face—Mama(?)—smiled, showing hungry teeth. Lois felt her bowels clench but she wasn’t embarrassed by the sensation.

“Marky,” the Woman said again.

“He’s a beautiful boy,” a deep voice boomed.

The Man standing next to the Woman scared and amazed Lois. This wasn’t Dada but still he kissed the Woman. He tried to do the same to Lois but she reared and slapped his big wet lips.

“Benny’s a friend, Marky,” the Woman said but Lois let fly a stream of curses that came out as one long unintelligible cry. Her bowels opened up and the redbird seemed to be flapping in her chest.

“Somebody needs changing,” Mama said and the world folded into flesh and the music of only the Woman’s voice and hands . . .

 

When Lois Kim opened her eyes she was still sitting across the table from Dr. Lewis. His smile was beatific and she realized, with some surprise, that he no longer frightened her. She had momentarily lost track of where she was and then, with a sudden fright, she remembered the lashes that had trapped her hand. She yanked her arm back only to see that she had already been released. She felt for the oil that had covered her fingers but her skin was completely dry.

An illusion?

As if in answer to her unasked question Marchant held up his hand showing that it was coated with thick, brightly glistening fluid.

“Did you feel the oil on my hand?” he asked in the tone of a much younger man.

“Y-y-y-yes,” she stammered. “How did you do that?”

Marchant’s smile turned quizzical.

“That’s hard to explain,” he said. “As you know when nerves are excited they send an electric pulse down a conductor. This pulse transmits data that becomes the semblance of information in the brain.”

“I do have a degree in bioneurology, Dr. Lewis,” Lois said. The anger she felt also elated her. She was glad to be irate. The emotion somehow anchored her inside her own feelings.

“Yes, of course. That’s why I wanted you to come and be the first to experience my little device. That . . . and other reasons too, I guess.”

“What other reasons?”

Marchant smiled. He paused for a moment before speaking again.

“My research has found that when any nerve fires a tiny fraction of energy comes free and travels out of the body. This pulse has a very specific, if weak, signature. What my Datascriber does is read this signature, magnify it tenthousand-fold, and transmit it to the waiting cells of another.”

Lois was astonished. She expected to be presented with a binary chart mapping certain human nerve pulses and associating those excitations with general realms of sensation. It was the overall opinion of the scientific community that actual sharing of sensate experience was at least thirty years away.

“That’s incredible, Doctor,” she said.

“Did you feel the warm oil on my hand?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, definitely.”

“Then it has gone from the incredible to the commonplace.”

For a time they sat there in silence. Lois was trying to absorb the ramifications for InterCyb. This was completely new technology like the steam engine or the lightbulb. The Datascriber would put them in the position to bring in billions of euros on the open market. Her employee stock in the company would double in value within hours of the public announcement. All she had to do was call her immediate superior, Orlando Mimer, and . . .

But if she did that Mimer would take all the credit. He’d go to Lippmann and together they would take the project from her. She’d be cut out of the loop after delivering the report. Lewis would be moved to the company’s labs in Mumbai and she would be transferred to some other project; a pat on the head and a ten-thousand-euro bonus would be the most that she could expect.

“Who else knows about the scope of your work, Doctor?” she asked.

“Only you, my dear Lois.”

She was taken slightly aback by his intimate tone but any eccentricities on Lewis’s part were negligible compared to the immensity of his discovery and her part in its development.

For a moment she was reminded of the vision she’d had, the child called Marky, but she dismissed this as an illusion brought on by unfounded fears.

“Maybe we should keep it to ourselves until . . . ,” she said, “until I’ve had a chance to work out a strategy to approach the board with.”

“And why is that, Lois?” Marchant asked, a knowing smile on his dark bulbous face.

“Well,” Lois said, “there’s the question of the allocation of funds. We’re in the middle of an acquisition—Neurotel Techtronix—and of course there’s your position on the project.”

“My position? Why I’d be the chief scientist in charge of everything, wouldn’t I?”

“Yes. But InterCyb always assigns a team manager when they move to an A-level project—”

“A-level?”

“Yes. This is a giant breakthrough. It’s so big that there’s no telling who they might assign. And the team manager has more say over the project than even the chief scientist.”

“No,” Marchant Lewis said. “How can someone with lesser knowledge have more control than the inventor himself?”

Days later, thinking back on their discussion Lois realized that Marchant was having fun with her. But at the time she was so amazed by the magnitude of the invention that she missed the subtle change in his voice and the twinkle in his eye.

“It’s because their major concern is profit not the advancement of knowledge, per se. They’ll put somebody in to make sure that they have some toy on the market rather than a truly advanced system that will facilitate the shared human sensation that your project portends.” Lois stopped a moment, pretending to be overwhelmed by the possibilities when really she was just holding herself back so as not to overstate her position. “But if I work with you privately for the next few weeks we can . . . um, position the project so that you maintain control of its direction.”

While she spoke Dr. Lewis smiled down on Lois. His responses seemed to be more about what she was thinking than to her words. She felt like a child lying to her mother. The smiles seemed to say that the doctor knew what she was trying to get away with but also that it was okay—he still loved her.

Love? Why would she think about love talking to this hulking middle-aged man, this misanthrope?

“I’m sure you’ll do what’s best, Ms. Kim,” Marchant said in his slow ponderous voice. He folded his hands over his large stomach and smiled.

“So you’ll wait until I call before filing your monthly progress report?” she asked.

“If that is your advice.”

“It certainly is. There’s no reason to blunder ahead if you can get a better situation by taking the time to consider your position.”

Lois got to her feet and waited while Marchant shifted his bulk from between the arms of the chair. They stood there for an awkward moment, the black behemoth and the Korean doll.

“I should be going,” she said.

“I’ll be awaiting your call.”

Another moment of silence passed. Lois felt that the doctor’s intense gaze was burrowing into her soul.

“Good-bye,” she said, taking a step backward.

He nodded gracelessly and she turned away walking quickly through the door of his small rented lab. Just before she was off down the hall she heard him say, “You take care, Gooseberry.”

 

Stepping Stone/The Love Machine © Walter Mosley 2013

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