JON STEINHAGEN

Shift Run

Creative Writing | Short Story


Shift Run

NOT EVERYONE has the foresight to leave behind something of their mind, and it is because of this that we came to be, former people (no angels we) who offer the Recently Transitioned the option of sneaking back a posthumous record of the many things that sat in their heads while Among the Living in hopes of inspiring those who have yet to Transition.

We have come to be called The Commonplacers secondary to the form of expression we use to transmit these post-passing tidbits: the commonplace book, a written repository of This and That.

We are professionals.

First, our dress: a variation of the Victorian ulster, typically colored in pigeon gray or keystone Century motorists wore when out in their runabouts. Mine is woven of herringbone, with soft gloves to match; likewise the cap (worn when making a Shift Run). Goggles are necessities. We have retained the cape feature of the ulster design (purely for practical reasons), but added a multitude of deep pockets throughout. We can carry a maximum of twenty-four books when we make a Shift Run.

As for the books, they are slight, as long and as wide as an engineer’s hand, and bound in a soft, pale yellow substance designed to be noticeable yet soft and friendly, the color chosen to remind a finder of a glass pitcher of midsummer lemonade seen in a late afternoon sun.

These commonplace books are meant to be filled with things – facts, trivia, hints, tips, formulae, et al. – that guided us through life. Things learned that defined our personalities and the way we approached Living. Shortcuts on how to remember the order of silverware at a formal dinner. A recipe for mulligatawny. A portion of a poem. How to figure out how much of a tip to leave your server. Baseball scores. Song lyrics. Cloud types. Names of nieces and nephews and their birthdays. Directions. Anniversaries. Jokes.

“We don’t do diaries,” I explain to my latest charge, a bewildered woman who used to be called Savannah, “nor journals or anything lengthy and detailed. You see, you can’t be expected to remember everything, and even if you could, we haven’t the time to get it all down, not if you want to have any effect on anyone.”

Savannah’s responses, like all from the Recently Transitioned, are slow. She sits next to me, unable to blink. Her delayed response lasts the typical six seconds (I count, just to ensure her transition hasn’t been faulty – a few seconds more and she must be on to Destiny immediately; a few seconds less and she has to be sent back to Holding). “I haven’t anyone,” she says.

“How do you mean?” I ask. …4, 5, 6… “Or anywhere,” she says.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” I say, and go and find FRP.

FRP is particularly adept at Cohesion (we all specialize in something – privately, of course, as a Commonplacer is not supposed to be unique but useful, and yet many of us have retained particular skills we enjoyed ages ago as humans). She is working with a man named Trevor who strikes me as young and sad. He is describing his bedroom to FRP. “A moment?” I ask FRP at the appropriate interval. I explain Savannah’s comments.

“Then how did she get to us?” FRP asks. “Perhaps a sudden Emotional Shift,” I say. “She had to have somebody at some point.” “Agreed.”

“And she had to have been somewhere.” “Logical.”
“Try to evince a better response.” “Better?”
“Clearer.”
“Suggestions?”
“Ask her to describe her last surroundings.”
“Ah.”

I return to Savannah. I ask her to tell me about the last room she remembers.
No room. Which I find hard to believe. I try again, asking her to describe what’s on the walls.

She tells me. A stream of water, when it rains a great deal. Opening to a pipe at the foot of the wall. Above, vents, mossed over and black with grime. A crack as long as the Mississippi River and nearly the same shape. A red pentagram, spray-painted; the word MOYESS near it in blue. A sign warning trucks of a sharp turn ahead.

She is not describing a room. To be sure, I ask her about the view from the windows.

No windows, but she can see cars and trucks (primarily) and, during rare, brief lulls, beyond them to a river and the buildings just across the river.

I return to FRP.

“She was homeless,” I tell her, and recount my exchange with Savannah. FRP has already begun to absorb Trevor, and finds it difficult to respond to me without also responding as him. “Figure it out,” they say, and continue writing.

When I say absorb I actually mean…well, I don’t know what I actually mean. It’s an unusual process, this first phase of the Commonplacing: since we strive for authenticity, the written books have to be in our clients’ hand, but since they are without volition after Transition, they can’t be expected to do their own writing. We “slip them on,” therefore, which is to say we invite them to treat us like chairs. We sit, and they sit upon us, or rather sit in us, and they kind that they can transition into us and wear us like robes.

I return to Savannah. As a Commonplacer, I can ask questions for which the answers will rest in facts, but I’m never required to ask questions of motive. It is a difficult proposition, as Motivation is a special skill not harbored by any one of us (although KTT comes close, as he specializes in Inspiration), and I’ve no one left to ask, as everyone is fully immersed in their clients, even RWB, whose specialty is Detail, and who takes his sweet time to recollect between clients.

Savannah’s responses haven’t wavered, fortunately; it’s still a full six seconds until she can answer my questions.

“You lived out in the open?”
“Mostly.”
“Then you were describing – what? Where you slept?”
“Rested.”
“Underground?”
“A lower drive. In a city.”

She tells me where. I blanch. If I make it to the Shift Run for her, it will be a dangerous proposition indeed. I press on with my questions. “And you said you have no one. No family?”

“None. None who would know or care.”
“Friends?”
“Not really a word we use.”
“Others, then?”
“None who would benefit.”

My next question makes me uneasy, because I know that if she is to answer it she might have to reach into a part of her Life that will cause her Pain, and therefore muddle her already compromised Post-Transition thinking.

“Then,” I say, “do you wish someone else to find it, someone…from your past? Someone you…regret?”
“I smoothed over the regrets long ago.” I am stumped.
“Then who should find this?” I ask. …4, 5, 6…
“Anyone,” she says.
“Someone,” she continues.
“The right person,” she finishes.
“One more moment, please,” I say.

I hunt down DSN, whose specialty is Clarity; she is stuffing a final book into her coat before making a Shift Run. I explain my situation with Savannah and her responses to my questions before asking “How am I supposed to find the Right Person?”

DSN puts on her cap.

“It depends on what she means by Right Person,” DSN says.
“She can’t be specific.”
“Then perhaps she means something else.”
“That’s no help.”
“You know how we work,” she says, pulling her goggles over her eyes. “We do not judge. We help them create the books, we deliver them to a specific person or place, we get the hell out as fast as we can, the books are found, our clients are remembered, possibly cherished, we move on to the next client while the client we helped moves on to wherever it is they’re meant to go. We don’t do vague. We don’t interpret.” She buttons her ulster, a well-worn but hardy tweed. “What’s your specialty?” she asks.

“I don’t have one.” I admit this without sadness or reticence.

“You’re fortunate,” she says. “On the other hand, you’re going to have a devil of a time figuring out what to do.”

“I could send her back.”

“Without fulfilling her request? No, she’s made the request, you have to follow through. It’s simply a matter of understanding her request.”

“Thanks,” I say, but DSN has blinked off on her Shift Run.

I return to Savannah. She looks at me, unblinking. What could be the minutiae of her Life, the background, the rules of thumb, the base layers of her former desperate existence? What does she want to share?

I recall DSN’s hurried words: “We do not judge.”

I explain the process to Savannah. She understands. I sit in my chair and she, in turn, sits down on me, into me, and I feel her arms sliding into mine.

We reach for the pen, and we are left-handed. We open a new commonplace book, we smooth the first page, we write our name, we turn the page.

We write down some of a song about a little teapot.
We write down two ways to write the letter S in cursive and practice both. We write down a specific shade of green that we love very much.
We write down where all the grandmothers and grandfathers are buried. We write down two names: KAPLAN and BRADY.
We write down a trick involving birds.
We write down a list of times: 1:20, 3:35; 5:50; 8:05; 10:20.
And then we take a break.
And then we really get down to writing.
We write down the best corners for coin or cash and at which hours.
We write down which bus stops have shelters; which are heated, which are safe, which are lighted.
We write down hiding places – not of ourselves, but of our money.
We write down faces.
The face that looks ahead. This face is not looking ahead at anything, it is really looking away without looking away.
The face that looks away. This face looks away at anything for too long.
The face that hides. This face sits behind sunglasses and looks ahead, unmoving, mouth pulled down tight at the corners.
The face that talks. This face talks to nobody, but talks to look involved in another situation, a false, instant situation, an easy distraction.
The face that forbids. This face dares you.
The face that grimaces. This face doesn’t like your situation because it doesn’t want to know your situation.
The face that falls. This face sympathizes and longs to solve your problems but cannot. The face that lingers. This face is grim, set, stony. The chin is forward, the jaw clenched, but the eyes slide back as they pass, held on you.

This goes on for some time. All of the faces, all of the gestures, all of the shoulders and hands and necks. We are filling up the book. We think, for a moment, that we might need a second book. This has never happened before.

But we stop at the last page, not finished, perhaps, but finished enough. Savannah’s arms leave mine, and she arises from me.

I don’t say anything for six seconds, and then I direct her to a waiting area. I need three more books to make a Shift Run. Fortunately, I’ve taken up so much time with her that the next three clients are on hand, eager and specific, and my quota is filled in record time.

On with the ulster, in go the commonplace books – Savannah’s in an uppermost pocket – and I begin my Shift Run.

Nine bedrooms, one garage, five desks, six basements, two safe deposit boxes later I’m at the spot Savannah specified. I see the crack in the cement wall, see the clotted, filthy vents, see the graffiti.

The sound is oppressive. Vehicles, back and forth, none slow. A comb of pillars separates the bank of shadows in which I stand from the onrush of machinery. Beyond this, glimpses of sunlight, captive waters. A boat, topped with people, pointing at buildings, things.

I have her book in my hand. There is no one around, only signs that people have been there and may or may not return: crates and boxes soggy with dirt and draped with ragged blankets and plastic long gone opaque, carts brimming with trash, squashed mattresses, pads, and sleeping bags heavy with mold. To my surprise, a doll, smiling and ponytailed.

The breeze in this place is powerful but comes in gusts rather than one continuous gale. I palm Savannah’s book, not knowing how to leave it.

I can’t throw it. There is no respect in that.
I can’t drop it. There is no love in that.
I don’t know the identity of the right person, so how can I be certain the right person will find it?
The wind knocks off my cap.

I need that cap.

I chase the cap. It tumbleweeds along and joins a rolling bottle, a plastic bag, and a small army of limp paper.

I catch up with the cap, put it on my head, and feel a sort of relief – if it had escaped from me, the person who would ultimately find it would be in for a surprise, because my cap is not of the immediate world and serves a unique purpose.

…4, 5, 6…

I open Savannah’s book. I rip out the first page; the breeze plucks it from my hand. It flutters away, dipping, lofting.

I rip out more pages, as fast as I can. The breeze takes each one, and each one follows its own flight pattern.

I watch the pages fly away from me, lazy, sightless birds. I pocket the lemon-colored binding and end my Shift Run.

When I return, I inform all of my waiting clients that everything will be fine. All of my clients except Savannah, who is gone. The line of twenty-three smile – their first genuine smiles since their Transition – and move along.

I ought to ask about Savannah, but it isn’t the sort of question a Commonplacer asks and, frankly, who would know?

We don’t make copies of books. It’s not that we’re not allowed to make copies, it’s just that, well, what would be the point?

I attend to my clients, absorb them, allow them to leave behind something or other, samples of where their minds were at any given point in their lives, a way for them to be remembered for a little bit longer than they were there.

Eventually, DSN asks me if I solved my problem. I tell her I don’t know. She asks if I at least did something about it. I tell her I did. She pulls on her ulster and adjusts her goggles and tells me she supposes that that is the best we can do, and she’s off, just like I will be, soon, when I have enough to carry, enough to give.

 

Photograph by Elise Matich