the art & adventures of tracy durnell


January 24, 2013


Flash Fiction: An Impossible Place

A piece of flash fiction prompted by Chuck Wendig's terribleminds challenge to write 1000 words inspired by an "impossible place" from this photo gallery. I chose "Mare Island Naval Shipyard – Vallejo, California", envisioning an inventor's ruined lab and masterpiece, twenty-years after a terrible flood...

As the boat passed through a long row of steel white and green columns, Lattimore looked at everything except the video camera focused on him. A perfect reflection mirrored the columns before them; Lattimore almost felt they were flying, not floating. The tide was slack, and what remained of the entry wall blocked the waves from the building.

He remembered choosing the green color. He’d sprung for pricier paint to match the splashy Kelly green velvet of his favorite vest, which he planned to wear for the unveiling. This morning he’d pulled the vest down from the attic, rubbing the faded fabric between his fingers for a minute before putting on a plain, modern sportscoat. He didn’t need any help in looking like a man whose time had passed.

The paint was flaking now. Lit by the boat’s single floodlight, the greens were like deep lake water – lifeless.

He dangled his hand in the water. Cold salt water slipped along his skin like time over his body.
Mary tried to engage him. “You really haven’t been back since the flood? Twenty-seven years?”

Lattimore wasn’t sure whether to bless or curse the young journalist for this journey. Her phone call last week had exhumed dreams long buried. Six months earlier, he wouldn’t have considered her proposal. Now that Genevieve was gone… He turned to the camera and nodded once in confirmation.

“Yet you were so close to completion,” Mary prompted. “Months away from revealing a project that would change the world, or so the papers said.”

Lattimore reminded himself of his bank account. Three hundred nineteen dollars and sixty-three cents. He needed the money that the publicity would hopefully bring. The hospital bill was overdue. Bills, rather.

“I couldn’t bear to see my invention destroyed,” he said. “Carlisle – my assistant – checked the lab for me, just in case… but the waters had broken through the door.”

Mary’s voice was gentle. “Why didn’t you start over? It’s been more than a quarter of a century, you could have recreated your plans.”

 “My investors had given me all they were willing. I’d spent all my own money. I had to support my wife and daughters. I needed reliable employment,” he told the camera. Mary’s eyes and lips drooped in sympathy.

Lattimore couldn’t stand sympathy. The same look flashed across the face of every new coworker he’d been introduced to over the past twenty-seven years. Some coworkers still wore it when they saw him. He ignored the whispers of genius lost. He was satisfied that the work he performed was technically excellent, if empty.

“My soul was drowned along with my plans,” he murmured.

He turned away and gestured for the captain to turn left. They entered a narrow hallway that led to Lattimore’s lab. His throat turned dry and his stomach roiled. His hands clenched the gunwhale of the boat.

Lattimore shone his light into the water. Rusted gears, pipes, and rivets created a mosaic on the floor.
All five people in the boat were silent as they passed through the smashed double door frame into Lattimore’s lab. The floodlight followed his gaze towards the center of the room, where his destroyed masterpiece rested, half-submerged.

“Allow me to introduce The Civilizer,” he said with a flourish.

Lattimore felt numb as he detailed the damage. Barnacles coated the machine up to the high tide line. Corrosion scarred the casing. A missing panel on the left side revealed the machine’s gears and pipes. The solar panels and antenna had been ripped from the top.

“The Civilizer was intended to provide all the comforts of a modern home with a single self-contained, self-powered device,” Lattimore said, turning to the camera. He ticked off its features on his fingers. “It would cleanse graywater and desalinate saltwater. It would generate electricity. It would heat water. It would wash and dry laundry. It would sterilize nightsoil for use as fertilizer. It would transmit and receive messages.”

Mary’s mouth was frozen agape as she groped for a reply.

“You don’t believe me. I can’t blame you.” Lattimore turned back to The Civilizer, remembering the gleam of the fresh-polished brass panels. “She would have brought the villages of Africa and Asia the blessings of modern life. Helped equalize the world.”

“A beautiful dream,” Mary murmured. “Why did you give up on those people?”

Lattimore sighed. “I had my chance to help the world. I failed.”

The boat bumped up against the edge of The Civilizer. Lattimore reached out and touched its shell through thick leather gloves. Emotion surged through him like the first time brushing fingers with a new love.

He gestured at the central pipe, visible where the casing was gone. “Dirty water flowed through this,” he said, tracing its flow, then moved his hand down to a smaller pipe. “Clean water flowed back through this.”

He stood, rocking the boat a little, and stroked the top of the machine. An elegant curve, like the arc of a waterfall’s origin. Even in his dreams had he shunned her these long years. “Solar cells here gathered enough energy to pump the water to the physical filter, where gravity pulled it through.”

A hand touched his back and he turned, surprised. Mary stood beside him. He harrumphed. “Of course, technology has changed so much since then that The Civilizer is practically laughable.”

Mary’s lips hinted at a smile. “If you were making it today, what would you change?”

Lattimore made a decision. He allowed his conscious mind to recognize the past twenty-seven years of epiphanies in the shower and insights on his daily walks. He took a breath to speak, but the ideas surged through the breach in the dam in an unguided torrent. There was no patching this dike, he knew.

Instead of answering, he just half-smiled. She must have known what The Civilizer was. How? No matter. “Thank you.”

“No one has only one chance to change the world,” she whispered back.