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Fire at the Ativan Factory
Douglas Coupland
Wyatt has worked overtime in the latex room, carefully sculpting the skin texture of an alien needed for shooting after the weekend. His hands, of which he is inordinately proud - long-fingered and hairless after years of chemical exposure are poxed with resins and paints, his fingernails irretrievably pitted and scratched. These are the scars of his unusual work as creative director in the prosthesis division of a local special effects production company named Flesh. This week, a quickie low-budget movie-of-the-week for a US cable network is being squeezed through the production mill like so much meat byproduct through a sausage maker. 'Grinding out the quickies,' as Wyatt had said just to the staff that afternoon which raised smiles among his Flesh coworkers, all of whom have become virtuoso moulders, flensers and painters of latex and fibreglass bodies over the past five years. Crime shoots are a specialty with Flesh - the creation of dozens of tortellinis and raviolis of fake blood embedded within torso moulds, all of which is electrically wired to explode in synch once the cameras roll. Lately Flesh has moved heavily into the production of aliens. Aliens, in their own way, are easier craft than humans because aliens, like the future, don’t really exist; any blank or difficult spots can be easily filled in with flights of fancy.
Wyatt glances at the window: the sun has already gone down. Through the walls Wyatt can hear the thrums and parps of vehicles rushing home, gleefully preparing to celebrate the passing of 1999 into 2000. Earlier in the afternoon when Wyatt had made an emergency epoxy run to London Drugs up on Lonsdale, he could sense the lifting of a large weight of concern off the shoulder's of North Vancouver's citizenry. It felt to Wyatt as though an enormous asteroid had been floating over the city for at least the past month, threatening to clomp down like a sack of potatoes at any minute. This sensation had made this year's Christmas an oddly dour event. 'The last Christmas of the century,' Wyatt's family members kept on saying - for whatever that was worth.
Wyatt's wife, Kathleen (no kids), had sat through an agonisingly long ritual gift-opening ceremony at his parents' house - nieces and nephews and in-laws squawking and cooing, sending subtle signals to Wyatt and Kathleen: Why no kids?
But now the impending asteroid has tumbled away. The city is popping upward like newly sprouting seeds twisting up to the sun and Wyatt feels slightly martyred for staying to work late while everybody else packed it in early to go home and prepare for midnight.
Wyatt thinks of the movie plot around which his current alien - now flopped across his left knee as he pokes it and texturises it - revolves. Honey-blond aliens, disguised as real-estate agents lure prospective human beings to houses secretly equipped for biological experimentation. The only Earth food the alien real-estate agents are able to eat is birth-control pills. At night they rampage the city's drug stores foraging and killing for their needs.
Needless to say, the hero and heroine link the pill thefts to the housing sales and arrive in the nick of time to prevent two adorable tots (in real life cell-toting vain-at-thirteen monsters) from being vivisected. The final scene involves a Pontiac Sunfire convertible full of starving alien agents which is surrounded by guns and flashing police cruisers. The trapped aliens pop out of their false human bodies and reveal themselves in full, gluey millipedal horror, and are then promptly shot by local police (whose bodies are embedded with bloody raviolis) but not before the neighbourhood lies in ruins.
The End.
The cable network is getting a true bargain. Aside from special effects, the whole film can be shot in under twelve working days with only a minimum of exterior shots and the Canadian dollar hasn't been worth less against the American in years. Fully a third of the budget is going into the final scene, and this is a testament, Wyatt feels, to the studio's high evaluation of his skills.
Wyatt has been quiet the past few days - and so has been, basically, everybody in the shop - cutting latex, mixing aniline dyes and testing glass eyeball sizes as they mulled over history's impending magnificent odometer turn. But Wyatt has more on his mind to be concerned with than mere numbers. Since September he and Kathleen have been seeing fertility specialists both down in Seattle and up in Vancouver and the results, now in, have been, after endless pap tests, forced ejaculations, pH checks, blood samples and endlessly rehashed personal histories .. . inconclusive.
What do you mean you don't know?' Wyatt had spat out at Dr Arkasian. 'You must know.' Through the windows Vancouver looked grey and overcast, as though the entire city had been manufactured rather than built.
'Sorry Wyatt, there's no real answer.'
'Is it my sperm? My fault?'
'Not particularly.'
'Kathleen then - no eggs? Bad eggs? Damaged eggs?'
Dr Arkasian tried to cool Wyatt down. There was no clear answer. In Wyatt's mind he saw his sperm rushing towards Kathleen's eggs only to slow down as they approach and then one-by-one fall asleep or die. Wyatt sees Kathleen's eggs as though they were chicken eggs, all yolk and no white - eggs that exude a spermisomnolent spray. Can eggs sleep? Can sperms sleep and dream? They're only half a creature, really - yet how can they be alive - how can they dream?
Kathleen has no brothers and sisters and wanted nothing more with her marriage to Wyatt than to have fifteen children. Wyatt's enormous family was to Kathleen, as it can so often be with single children, a great aphrodisiac. The two of them certainly give it every try they can but -
But what?
'There has to be a single cause,' Wyatt said, thinking aloud to Dr Arkasian back at the office just before Christmas, 'Something I ate, maybe. Something Kathleen once breathed. A medicine we took as children -'
'That could well be the case,' Dr Arkasian replied in a platitudinous way, visibly anxious to hustle the childless couple from his office in the absence of any clear explanation for their infertility.
And so now Wyatt has been mulling over his and Kathleen's position within the world. For the past week he's been rerunning memories in his head - memories of the things his body has ingested and absorbed since being born in 1964: vaccinations as a child; antibiotics, sulfa drugs and antifungals as a teenager; the car exhausts breathed the two years he worked as a mechanic; food additives, recreational cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines and recently (and just once, ecstasy) and . . . And what else? That strange smell that pervaded the outdoor café in Rome back in 1986. Spraying the house's yard with pesticides. Pesticides! Jesus - not even God knows what they put into those. And then there's Kathleen with her birth-control pills which, although Kathleen disclaims it, must surely have been sapping away at least a fraction of her reproductive capacity.
He puts down his alien and holds his body tightly around his chests and whoops in a gulp of air. Shit: the chemicals he uses for his models. He's using cleaner chemicals now but for years his days were rife with toluene, xylene, resins and -
Wyatt feels sick.
He wasn't always a body maker. He ended up there by way of building miniatures for television and films. It had been a hoot and he hadn't quite wanted to leave miniatures, but Kathleen and he had just married and they needed the extra money because they wanted to have a . . . kid.
Part of the reason for Wyatt's initial success model-building was that he could build alien space crafts that looked genuinely alien. Most other alien craft designers would glance through a book on insects, choose one that they liked and then just build a modified version of them in metal. Not Wyatt. Instead he went to the library and scanned the books on pharmaceutical and plastics molecules - forms that had no need to respond to the mundanities of gravity, light or biology.
'Honestly, Wyatt,' said Marv, his boss, years ago, 'where do you get these ideas from? They're so - new. Fresh.'
To Wyatt the real architecture of the Twentieth Century was at the microscopic level: cloned proteins, superconductors, branch-chained detergents, prescription medicines . . . Why, the molecular shape of the anti-depressant Venlafaxine (aka Wellbutrin) alone had paid for the house's down payment by way of its becoming the overall blueprint of an alien space cruiser in a B film that did lousy in theatrical release but which cleaned up on video and overseas. Now there was a molecule that looked like something that only the meanest and scariest aliens would design. Good for them. Good for Venlafaxine.
Wyatt would have actually liked to have tried Venlafaxine. Over the past two years his childlessness has given him an increasing whack of anxiety and depression - yet he balked at taking Venlafaxine for reasons of jinx. In the end he wound up with an unshakable addiction of Ativan, innocuous tiny white pills chemically related to all the other sedatives such as Xanax, Darvon, Valium. Miss one pill and Wyatt's brain felt as though it had been epoxied solid. Titred reductions proved doomed. His twice-daily dose was finite and loathed. He hated his addiction but saw no way around it. Wyatt was happy that nobody except Kathleen knew about it.
Kathleen, on the other hand, had tried a host of space-cruiser anti-depressants, finally settling for an old stand-by, Elavil, a drug once given to shell-shocked Second World War British pilots to get them back into their planes and back into the fight. She flowed through her days more peacefully now (if not a little spacey) and she endured the holiday season which was more than she had hoped for.
And now Kathleen was in Saskatchewan tending to her father, laid low with alcoholism and touting a liver as soft and puffy as a water balloon. Wyatt, back in Vancouver, had an invitation to attend Donny and Christine's New Year's Eve party but doubted he would attend. Donny and Christine's New Year's party was not the place where he had always envisioned himself at century's end. Since childhood he had pictured himself - where, on that special midnight? Eating champagne Jell-O cubes with Diana Ross at the top of the Empire State Building? Copulating in zero-G on a Space Shuttle? Swimming with bilingual dolphins in the Sea of Japan? No, Wyatt had never seen himself at 11.59:59, 31 December 1999 at Donny and Christine's place, 60 per cent drunk on a microbrew-of-the-week, remembering to take his meds shortly after the stroke of twelve, and ringing in the New Year with U2's 'New Year's Day', a song Christine chose each year with a numbing repetition she had successfully converted into a cherished personality quirk.
And then the idea hits him: it's not Kathleen and it's not himself that's to blame - it's the whole bloody century. A hundred years of extremeness. A hundred years of molecules never before seen in the universe. A century of action and progress and activity and destiny. A century that had slowly infiltrated Wyatt's system - the fat cells in his brain, the neurons of his spine; the flesh of his palm and eyeballs - his liver and kidneys and heart - a century now pulsing within him - a century with which he is unable to detach himsel. Or can he?
Wyatt reaches for a paper cup from the Dixie-cup dispenser, the cups used for mixing fibreglass resins, not for the drinking of water.
Wyatt fills the cup from the cafeteria tap and looks at its contents - clear and harmless. Or maybe not. Copper. Chlorine. Bacteria. Viruses. He leaves the cup on the counter and walks out of the back door, turning out the lights and alarming the building.
The traffic is quite heavy for that part of town for that time of day - five thirty, and everybody is excitedly preparing for the night. The rain is also heavy but the rain comes as no surprise at that time of year. There's a bit of a traffic slowdown on the highway near Lonsdale but minutes later, Wyatt arrives home to the small house up in Edgemont Village. In the house there are two messages on his machine. Kathleen calling to say she'll be phoning just before midnight and one from Donny asking if he can bring ice to the party. Wyatt erases both messages and stands in the front doorway area of the house: some bills, a throw rug with a kink in one corner, some boots and an unread newspaper.
I want every damn bit of that hellish century out my system. I want it clean. Whatever the Twenty-first Century brings me, that's fine, but I want the Twentieth Century out of my system now.
This idea takes him with a jolt. It is a real idea, not a confabulated whiff of impulse. It is instantly clear to Wyatt that he must cleanse his system.
Very well then.
From the bedroom he retrieves a pair of handcuffs, remnants of an earlier sexual era when he and Kathleen could have sex without sweet darkness. From there he goes to the front hall where he puts on three coats over the top of each other and then he walks through the sliding glass upper balcony door, into the dark and on to the wood balcony. There, he sits down on a $9.95 white plastic stool - a chintzy stackable drecky chair of a type that appeared one summer a few years ago, and erased all other patio chairs in the world. 'A category killer,' the salesman had called it.
He sits on this chair and handcuffs himself to the metal railing beside him. Before allowing himself time to reflect, he throws the key through the bushes and down into an adjoining creek running at a full alpine swoosh.
And it is then, while there is the noise of the creek and the rain, that there is also the silence. Great silence. Rain slopping down on to the yellow hat attached to the outermost jacket layer.
It's jarring at first, the clash between the cold wet outdoors and the warm dry indoors. But then his eyes adjust to the foggy wet dark, his skin to the dank, and his ears to the weather and the landscape.
This is how I want the Twentieth Century to end, he thinks. Personally - alone - in contemplation - during an act of purification.
He looks at his watch. The time is 10:45 - where did the hours go? And then he becomes aware that he has been looking at his watch. He removes it and throws it down into the creek along with the handcuff keys.
He shivers and then shivers some more. His fingers feel rubbery and chilled. His core temperature is falling. He can hear cars roaring around the suburb. He hears a few bangs - premature fireworks by the overeager.
Shortly Wyatt's teeth begin to chatter and he wonders if he's made a dreadful mistake. He stands up and tries to yank at the railing and in so doing slips and sends his chair flying towards the balcony's other end, banging his knee in the process, forcing him to sit on the wet planks. And it is at this point that his phone rings and he curses himself and the world. It rings ten times and dies. And half a minute later party-goers across the city bang and carouse and ignite, welcoming three fresh new zeroes into their world.
Goodbye, 1999.
And after an hour the kerfuffle ends. It is still the world. Not much has changed, or has it? Wyatt is unable to sleep - and won't be able to sleep for days; within his body the idea of sleep and Ativan are one and the same.
His core temperature lowers and he shouts for his neighbours to come and retrieve him from this stupid idea but the creek and the rain are too loud, drowning out his voice so that even to himself his words seem smothered before they can get away from his ever-chilling body. His efforts at uprooting the steel railing from the porch have merely sapped his energy. He is truly stuck.
Around 3 a.m. his brain begins to revolt against him. His eyes flutter and soon he will go into seizure. A bony hand clenches his scalp's top. His breathing shortens and becomes non-automatic. He is aware of every breath but increasingly removed from this awareness at the same time.
I am cold, he thinks. I am cold and this is how I'll be ending - cold. His three coats are soaked through. He thinks he hears the phone ring again, but can't tell if he's imagining it. All he wants is for the cold to end and as he wishes for this, he remembers the first time he tried Ativan and he remembers how much he loved it. And he remembers joking with his GP about possible addiction, 'What if I get hooked on this stuff?'
'You won't get hooked.'
'What if I do get hooked and what if the Ativan factory burns down - what would I do then?' They both had a forced laugh over that one.
And now, somewhere across the Pacific, somewhere west of Honolulu, the century ends absolutely. The International Dateline is crossed and as it does so, Wyatt pictures the burning factory and he imagines he is standing next to it, warming his hands, warming his body and warming his core as he leaves the Twentieth Century and the Twentieth Century leaves him.
© 1998 Douglas Coupland Author bio | Spanish & Catalan translation
This electronic version of "Fire at the Ativan Factory" is published by The Barcelona Review by arrangement with the author. It recently appeared in print in the UK in the anthology, Disco 2000, ed. by Sarah Champion, Sceptre 1998.  See BR review.    Book ordering available through Internet Bookshop, Amazon

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