Useful Things: A Changeling Story
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Dedicated to my grandfather
Every time Santiago woke up, he had to try to figure out where he was - but just how often this happened, he no longer knew. With his hearing mostly gone and his vision a mix of nonsense blurs, he had to figure out the mystery in other ways. He knew he was old because of how his body felt: stiff, achy, and heavy, not really up to moving around anymore. He knew he was in a hospital bed because he had been in so many as a boy, and in all this time, those beds hadn’t changed much.
He wasn’t at home because it didn’t smell like the house, muted but pleasant and clean. He wasn’t at the house because his wife - his one and only wife, who had taken care of him for sixty years - had died a few years ago. Then he had gotten impatient with his adult children a few too many times (Two children? Three? How many had they had again?), so he had been moved to a nursing home. That place wasn’t bad. The Filipino family that ran it was cheerful. They cooked good food, too. His son had come to see him often, even if no one else did. Santiago couldn’t remember who else could have come, but he knew the rest lived far away.
But then something had happened. What was it? That’s right, he fell. Something in him broke but it was hard to tell what when the pain was everywhere. The surgery felt like it nearly killed him, not that he complained. Santiago didn’t say much of anything and never had, but after that, there wasn’t much point. What was left of his hearing had given out and then he was moved somewhere else entirely. A big hospital, by the smell of it. Sometimes he heard the very loud noises that happened, but there wasn’t much to listen for. Except for bathing and eating times, they pretty much left him alone.
What would he have said to them, even if he could have heard them? This had been the worst decade of his life by far, and if you had told him that the worst was yet to come when he was a younger man, he wouldn’t have believed you. Born to years of agonizing surgeries on his feet just to be able to walk, he then had to fight to find a job as a young man who couldn’t run and couldn’t join the service. Then the kids started to come from Heaven just to drive him crazy. And it had only gotten crazier from there, for a while.
Those had been crushing, grueling days, a world away from these silent, cool times, but they were nothing compared to remembering each time that he woke up that his wife was gone. Santiago had willed himself to join her in a thousand different ways, but he kept on breathing. The only event he looked forward to anymore was dreaming because while everything else had faded, his dreams had only grown more intense.
He could see there. He could walk and work and eat his wife’s cooking and tend the animals and feel the sun on his brow. He visited with people he knew were long since dead, but they were also close by. (That was nothing new or upsetting to him; the dead always stayed close in their family.) Sometimes they said they were waiting for him, but it wasn’t his turn yet. In the meantime, there was music, the tunes of his youth and his early manhood, and there were cars he owned and others he had just wanted with all of his soul.
One car kept showing up lately (whatever ‘lately’ was, since he could no longer remember the year or who was president), but it wasn’t like any automobile he had seen before. It reminded him of the cars they made just for shows, the ones that were supposed to be from the future but when the future had come, none of them had been good enough for the road. The long chassis had parts of cars that he recognized, and a wild paint job that shifted colors as the lights changed around it, but its strange lines weren’t from any decade he could recall.
He couldn’t have tried to draw it upon waking even if he had been able to see well enough to do it, but he knew the it immediately when he heard it approaching in his sleep. Each time he awoke he was sure he had seen it again, but he had no idea who the man in its back seat was visiting. But Santiago had kept quiet and away from the gleaming showpiece, watching its formal driver move around to let the dark suited passenger out and back in again.
Until now, that is. If all he could do was dream, and it was his dream, he might as well see if he could do something useful in it.
Santiago settled himself into the bed, breathing out in a sigh that made his lips thrum against each other, a mildly playful sound his family would have recognized. Not long later, he was strong again, upright, a cap on his head. Almost immediately he spied the palace of a car parked across the busy thoroughfare (itself a conglomeration of storefronts, cars, and people from the 1940s through the 1960s). He paused only long enough to make sure the suited man was still inside. In this dream, he had no limp (though in others he did, and in a few he was in the wheelchair or the hated hospital bed and couldn’t wait to wake up), so it was easier to march over and knock on the window, pulling his hat down respectfully.
He expected the window to be rolled down or to slide with the flick of a button, but instead it moved up and inside the car’s body somehow.
“Yes?” the smooth-faced man inquired brightly from within, his lips journeying upward in a smile that was fit for commercials.
“Hey,” Santiago began. “I was wondering if I could check your car. While you’re inside. Make sure everything’s good. I’ve worked on cars before.”
He shifted from one foot to the other, squinting even though there was a no direct sunlight. It was night and day at the same time around them so the neon stood out, but he knew he could view the inside of the car without needing a lamp. The squint was there in case the man said no; that way, Santiago could just nod and shuffle off, not showing how disappointed he was.
“Why sure!” the man replied with surprise that almost seemed exaggerated, but somehow wasn’t. “Please. You can use our tools. My man will show them to you. I’ll be inside a while, so there’s no need to hurry. If you do a fine job, and I’m sure you will, I might have other work for you.”
“That’s good,” Santiago answered simply and honestly, the way he usually did. When you’re a man of few words, you’re used to being ignored or overridden, so you don’t waste your breath.
“I’m glad you think so!” the man spouted back, motioning to emerge from his seat and leading Santiago to open the door for him. The man was as smooth and unrumpled as the car was undented, almost like he was covered in Teflon. He had a clipboard in hand with sheets of paper shaped likeinvoices but what they were for was none of Santiago’s business. He had a job to do.
Santiago was shown to the trunk, which was lined with velvet and foam and arranged with tools, assorted parts, and odd things that might have been meant for sale. The driver pretended not to watch him but he knew he was being observed as he hoisted up the hood. He scanned the interior - as polished and hypnotic a swirl as the inside of a clamshell - but could find no mechanism to prop the massive hunk of metal up. Rather than asking for help, though, he tested it to see if it could stay up on its own, and it could. A bright and polished coating in its innards outlined all of its breathtakingly shiny parts perfectly.
But there were some oil smudges that were definitely out of place in a car like this, so Santiago forgot about everything else and reached in with hands that already knew what to do, like they always had. By the time he closed the hood and pulled his handkerchief out of a pocket to wipe his forehead, he felt as satisfied as if he had just enjoyed a holiday meal. He wasn’t able to explain what he had fixed but he knew he had set the problem to rights.
“She should ride smooth now,” he informed the suited man upon his return.
“No doubt!” he said with impressed tones, as though he could see what Santiago had done through the odd metal. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to be Mr... Santiago, would you?” he asked, checking a few pages into his clipboard.
“Jimmie,” Santiago corrected him out of habit. Nobody called him by his birth name since his parents had died. Everybody, from his siblings to his wife to his friends, called him Jimmie. Except his granddaughter called him Grandpa. He had more than one grandchild, but there was one he remembered for sure. She had written a paper about him once a few years after she started to write at all and won a contest for it. It had been short and sweet, but you could win a contest with only a few lines if they were the right ones. Especially if you were just seven or eight. Not that she was seven or eight anymore…
Santiago shook his head to clear it, which felt weird to do in a dream. That wasn’t how dreams worked, was it?
“People call me Jimmie,” he explained.
“Jimmie,” the suited man repeated warmly, extending a hand and giving a firm, perfectly measured handshake. “Am I pleased to finally meet you!”
“Oh yeah?” Santiago said, his squint returning with no need of the light as an excuse.
“Yes,” the man answered with a breath of relief. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you, but they’ve kept moving you out of your room. And there are no name tags anywhere. Very disorderly.”
“What do you want with me?” Santiago asked.
“I wanted to ask what you do. I’m looking for some solid workers and might be able to offer you a golden opportunity, once I know what you’re suited for,” the man insisted in the cadence of a sales pitch.
“I was a welder for a while,” Santiago recalled. That lasted while his arms were able to keep their strength. “I did janitorial work. Fixed some cars, but only so much. Not everything,” he specified with a shrug. He mostly did what he could with his own cars in a desperate attempt to save money, but anything big was beyond him. By the nod of the suited man, he seemed understand. “I can keep animals. Last time I kept rabbits and chickens, but I was older then. We used to have others. Grew food, too. Tomatoes, corn, chiles, grapes.”
He didn’t mention that he grew all of that and more in the desert. He was used to deserts. He’d spent so much of his life in them.
“As wonderful as your green thumb sounds, Mister - Jimmie,” the suited man corrected himself, “your technical skills and industrial know-how are more of what we’re looking for at Smiling Gray Man Productions. We have a variety of openings in design, fabrication, and so on down the line. I’m just one representative looking for the right men and women.”
Santiago allowed a glimmer of open skepticism to cross his gaze, as dry as the desert sky. “Why would you want me? I’m an old man. Maybe not here, but in the real world.”
“But we’re not hiring in the ‘real world,’ Jimmie,” the representative specified, a hint of mockery in his voice.
“You mean you’re hiring in dreams? Like this?” Santiago asked, gesturing to the scene around them, which had vivid colors and some sharp details but didn’t make complete sense.
“Not quite like this, no, Sir,” the man in the suit stated with care, moving up to Santiago’s side and putting a hand on his shoulder. “A good deal better than this, actually. Imagine a whole realm of dreams that never disappears and never stops, but continues on, producing the things people imagine could be real. Well, Sir, I tell you they are real, and we can make them for the right price and the right buyer. But that’s not our end of the business, yours or mine. I’m just a talent scout, looking for unappreciated men and women whose skills might otherwise go to waste. We’re an equal opportunity employer, looking for those with some know-how and pride in a job well done. We have a generous benefits package and flexible hours, if you think you might be interested.”
“But - I can’t even see anymore,” Santiago stuttered incredulously. “I can’t hear. What would I do?”
“What would you say if I told you that none of that has to be permanent?” the suited man ventured, stepping with Santiago toward the rear entrance of the vehicle. “All of that has to do with your terrestrial body and its limited functions within temporal space - “ he stopped, realizing he’d lost Santiago, and smiled with mild apology. “The company I represent is not on Earth and therefore is not subject to Earth’s rules. We have surgeons that can replace and repair body parts without needing to wait for things like donors. We create replacement organs in-house. Would you like to see, Mister Jimmie? If you step this way, I can take you on a tour of our facilities and give you some more to think about when you wake up.”
“Umm, sure,” Santiago murmured, allowing himself to be ushered into the back seat of the car.
The dream from that point was a crazy mix of images and spoken words, sounds which he could hear with no effort at all. He was shown through a series of factories like none he could have imagined, buildings yawning high and broad, the walls alive with colors and the floors lively with music, not just the songs of the workers but radio music from eras that were no longer broadcast and hadn’t been for fifty years. (That’s how you knew you were old for certain - when no public broadcast of your music lived.)
There were workers on the floor who weren’t smiling, but that was because they were concentrating, not even glancing up as a superior passed through their ranks. Santiago recognized their stances and motions instantly. Master craftsmen, dedicated journeymen, loving apprentices. Finally, a world he understood. A world that made sense.
As Santiago drifted back to consciousness, he heard his last exchange with the suited man.
“So if I go with you...what does that mean? You’re...not the devil, are you?”
“Oh, no!” the representative exclaimed, waving off the concern with a handkerchief of his own in hand (albeit a model with more silk per square inch and more embroidery). “We want to have an agreement in writing, of course, but we have no claim on the souls of our employees and would never try to bargain for such a thing. Far too much paperwork. You will last longer here than in the ‘real world’ by a decent margin but when your time is up, you will journey to whichever afterlife awaits you as per your faith and actions. We have nothing to do with that side of the business, you understand.”
“So you’re not the devil?” Santiago pressed. He wasn’t half as devout as his wife had been, but he was a God-fearing man and would not risk following a plan where she didn’t figure into the equation. She had gone first to make his introductions to God. He couldn’t leave her waiting forever.
“Of course not,” the suited man soothed. “I am simply a representative of Smiling Gray Man Productions, no more, no less. I leave it to you to think over what we’ve discussed and make your decision, with no pressure. You can say ‘no’ with no harm done. You can ask me to wait for a limited time. I must warn you that we cannot restore a mind beyond a certain point. Other parts in the body are open for replacement and improvement, but not the seat of the self. An iron will can go a long way. Without it...we can’t go very far at all.”
“...so what happens to me?” Santiago wondered aloud. “Do I...die?”
“You will seem to, yes,” the representative answered, “A copy of you will be left behind to take your place and die peacefully, so that your family will no longer have to worry about you. Of course, this will complicate things if you wish to return, since the people you know will believe that you have passed on, but if you truly wish to leave, we can arrange for relocation to a new city. Your old life will be just that. But isn’t it already?” the man asked gently. “Is this really how you want to end your days, alone and useless?”
Those were the words that followed Santiago back into what felt like dawn by the ache in his knees, that unique marker of early morning in the arthritic brotherhood of man. He suffered through the day, curled tightly like a flower in first bud until the hours melted his limbs and some foreign hands began to move his arms and legs in measured exercises, tending his bedsores, pushing nutrients into his mouth as though he had returned to infancy.
He did not resent it any more. He did not hate his family for leaving him here, where he was apparently deaf, dumb, and blind, taken with dementia beyond any ability to be reached. What would they have come for? To see his shriveled shape and retreat in horror? There was no poetry in this place of false life and eternal death. Not even his granddaughter could have made it sound better. He could not bear to have them here. He could not bear to stay, either.
That was why Santiago asked for the contract when the representative visited his next dream. He pored over every last word, sitting back, digesting every last syllable, asking questions as only a man with everything to lose can. And yet he had nothing much to lose anymore. A half-dead body that few would miss for long. A place in the world that had been taken from him, piece by piece, until all that was left were the things he had made with his hands and body. Welded pieces of furniture. A series of paintings he cut out of magazines as an old man and surrounded by small stones taken from his driveway, artfully arranged with hands that were nimble still and seeking praise. His family was left, too, even if the younger ones didn’t know his name.
All of that effort lost in the storms of time. But there was a place beyond age, beyond time, where useless things could be useful again. Where he could be a man again.
“We would like to offer you a memento,” the calmy smiling representative of the Smiling Gray Man offered. “It’s easy to forget about everything else when the work gets going, but there are things and people you may want to see. We can put them on your body for you to keep. You’re not opposed to tattoos, are you, Jimmy?”
“No,” Santiago answered. His sons had tattoos, mostly symbols that didn’t mean anything - why would he be unhappy about markers that meant everything? He would wear symbols for his boys. He had more than one, right? He would add his favorite pair of boots for his daughter. She had let him wear his brown boots to her formal white wedding even though they hadn’t matched his suit, because she knew how much he loved them. She was the one who had given him a granddaughter that always seemed to understand the know more than she should have. Poor child that she had been.
It wasn’t the child he put on his chest. No. He asked for his wife and his granddaughter to be there, above his heart, for however long it would continue to beat. He knew the representative could see them, all those faces in his memories. All dreams are memories, in one way or another.
“How long can I work?” Santiago inquired at last.
“As long as you like, Jimmie,” the representative answered. “As long as you like.”
Santiago signed on the line. He laid still when the representative came for him later that evening with a group of men. He didn’t make a sound when they lifted him onto a gurney, never mind how much it had hurt. When they smuggled him out of the endless hallways he didn’t even try to see what was passing.
Passing from the world was as quick and unthinking as falling to sleep. Waking to his new life was as torturous as waking to his first one had been, every limb afire, every nerve screaming. But when Santiago’s screams stopped he heard silence, true silence, for the first time in too many years. And then he heard voices, the deep tones of men probably like him, offering him clothes and food and a bed. He felt new purpose in his limbs, the sturdy certainty of steel and steam, even if it was impossible for aged body parts to renew themselves.
And on his chest was an image that reminded him of the Virgin he had revered in his Catholic youth. Half of the face had his wife’s features; the other half looked like his teenaged granddaughter when he had seen her last. They had looked so much alike that his granddaughter was practically his wife born again, but he had never been able to appreciate it so fully. When Santiago looked down at his chest, the magical image there looked back up and smiled, their eyes and lips acting in unison. Whatever else he might forget, he would not forget them.
However far from him they might be, they would never forget him. And until they could be together again somehow, he would work in the Smiling Gray Man’s factories, doing whatever needed to be done, whatever he could get his newly improved body to do. He no longer needed hearing aids. His vision was sharp, his heart keeping perfect time, his feet evenly matched in their tread for the first time in eight decades. He had no desire to flee or be anywhere else as his fingers obeyed his commands and the foremen admired his work.
He no longer cared where he was. He didn’t need to say a word.
He was Santiago, and he was home. For now.
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