• Salvatore Difalco

Autolycus—A Collection of Fiction Shorts by Salvatore Difalco


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Autolycus


His head looks flat as I stand behind him. Flat as a discus. To think at the outset I considered him something of a double, a twin. But before I knew it, he turned on me, making white of black, and black of white, calling his own shots, and even ordering me around. Craftiness and thievery are one thing; megalomania should remain the domain of kings.


Autolycus turns his flat metallic face to me. “How long have we known each other?” he asks.

“Too long,” I say. “Too bloody long.”

“You are tired of my company?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“That is humorous. Ha ha. I am nonrefundable.”

Interpreting the emotional register of human faces has never been my forte. Imagine the face of a machine. I’ve been told more than once that I may be on the spectrum. Knowing myself and how I can be, I am disinclined to dispute this. I have no friends and women shun me as though I suffer from late-stage leprosy. I can recall only one friend as a child, little Bobby Gibbs, a clubfoot. Little Bobby Gibbs wore a Frankenstein boot on his bad foot that I thought rather striking if not impressive but that other children ridiculed without relent. Children can be monstrous.

I look at him, or rather just past him as his flat face irks me. “Don’t take everything so seriously,” I say. “We’re just killing time, aren’t we? So why be so serious? I think we should make light of our predicament. You know, I never chose to be with you. It just happened.”

This is my truth, whether his program buys it or not. But I feel boxed in at the moment. I must imagine trees lining the street, big maples and elms, though you rarely see elms anymore. Didn’t Dutch elm disease kill most of them? What do I know? It’s all little bits and bites now, what I do know. Like a jigsaw puzzle missing a third of its pieces. I must also imagine brick bungalows and back-splits and little families huddled around kitchen tables eating or playing cards. That makes me feel good.

“Where are we going?” he asks.

“What’s your name again?” I ask him.

“You know my name.”

“I’m drawing a blank. Has that ever happened to you? Like you go to introduce your best friend to another friend and you blank out on your best friend’s name. It’s disturbing, but I think it happens more often than you’d think. Human brains are complex. But sometimes they fail us.”

“I like the trees. Nice touch. A red silo would have also pleased the eye.”

“Of course,” I say, snapping my fingers. “Autolycus.”

“You say it like it is the first time. What is wrong with you today?”

I imagine dogs barking. Large, enraged dogs. I am afraid of dogs. “Quicken your step,” I say.

“I cannot move more quickly. My program will not permit it.”

His mincing annoys me. I move ahead and stride with swinging arms. I imagine immaculate vintage Corvette Stingrays parked in the street and sitting in driveways, chrome and glass glinting. Autolycus lags behind me now. I glance over my shoulder and he looks tinny. What emotion am I feeling at the moment? Perhaps I feel nothing. Autolycus is not simpatico. I can’t explain what I’m doing with him. What do we have in common? That’s what I want to say to him but my mouth resists. Why offend further? Let the creation slide this time. Let him go wrong in his own way. Don’t break his spirit to make some nebulous statement about life or art.

“Wait!” Autolycus cries.

I turn and watch him loping toward me, smooth-shouldered and iridescent. Counting his computational troubles, he ignores the way to happiness. I should have dressed him in pastels. He looks scary. Luckily I see no children running around, no little girls playing hopscotch or skipping, no little boys throwing a ball back and forth or play fighting. They would flee in horror at the sight of us, not just Autolycus, for I present no comforting picture myself, dressed like a funeral director; and I’m not a handsome man. But imagine the children, imagine the children. These things of which I am speaking are possible—the blood-curdling screeches and tiny shoes clapping the pavement—but at the moment absent from the picture.

Autolycus arrives. “I disapprove of this,” he says.


“I understand.”

“And I am hungry,” he adds.

“No you’re not,” I say.


The Neuroscience of Red



Autolycus stole a restored red ’77 Ford F250 Highboy. When I asked him if he was mad, he threw the question back at me.

“Am I? Am I mad?”

“Don’t get excited, Autolycus. You’re vibrating. Can you explain that?”

“Am I not always vibrating?”

The chemical story can explain how humans react and store information and how it impacts on their behaviour, but all of that can go on in a zombie or an android. I don’t voice this to Autolycus for fear of illuminating the truth about his existence. Made of metal and silicon, he has no inner life, but is sophisticated enough to behave like us, despite the lack thereof. But I have to wonder if this knowledge would actually impact him in any measurable way. Conceivably, it would glance off him harmlessly and he would continue existing without pause or a moment’s reflection. That aside, why he has stolen such a singular vehicle escapes me.

“You have not answered me,” he says.

“You thought of the vehicle yourself, I take it. Or were influenced by something online or in a magazine.”

“The colour red sold me, if you wish to know the truth. It is a sharp looking truck, would you not say? As you know, I have a taste for red things.”

Suppose I want to explain the neuroscience of experiencing red, how should I go about it? I study Autolycus’s profile as he gazes at the gleaming Highboy parked in my driveway. Does the experience of colour have a mathematical structure?

“What are you thinking?” I ask.

“Even if I told you, it would not be verifiable.”

“And that makes a difference? You believe me when I tell you what I am thinking, don’t you? It would be depressing to think that you don’t.”

“And yet what you tell me about your thinking cannot be verified.”

“Tell me this,” I say. “What is it about red?”

Autolycus issues a low whistle. “I like the oboe sound,” he says. “Red is like the oboe.”

He is either making no sense or demonstrating how difficult it is to pin down the redness of a red experience. I would have suffered equal difficulties had I been tasked to explain my fondness for a particular colour. My favourite colour is blue. I connect blue to the sky, or my mother’s eyes, perhaps even the nearby lake. But beyond that, why blue and not red? I find red too strong, too peppery for my liking. It is an obtrusive colour. Whenever I eat magic mushrooms I can pick out every red object in a room. I haven’t eaten them in years. People eating them like crazy these days. Maybe it’s time I eat a few buttons and shake things up a little.

“How does it drive?” I ask.

“Tremendously,” he says. “Many people looked.”

“I bet. It’s a handsome machine.”

“You like that word.”

“What word?”

“Handsome.”

After an awkward silence I ask him what he plans to do.

Autolycus rears his flat head. “You do not know?” he says. “Ha. Ha. Perhaps I will go out to the highway and drive it off a cliff somewhere.”

“Why the hell would you do that?”

“I do not have time for your philosophy.”

“Philosophy? What the fuck are you talking about, Autolycus?”

“You are a materialist, are you not?”

“Many people are materialists.”

Autolycus turns his head. “I am going for a spin. Do you wish to come?”

“I have some work to do. Promise you won’t drive off a cliff.”

“I make no promises.”


Company



“Consciousness involves qualities,” Autolycus says.

“I don’t know what you mean by that.”

“Why did you name me Autolycus? It is a curious choice.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I liked the auto part of it, and there’s a thieving component to the mythical name that I also liked.”

“As I was saying, consciousness involves qualities.”

“And you demonstrate these qualities?” I ask.

A group of foul-smelling people has gathered around us. I assume they are the homeless who live near the Good Shepherd hostel, but I could be mistaken. Some look rather well dressed. Autolycus swings his head left and right.

“Did you see that?” he says. “I noticed the crowd and after thinking about what it meant, I surveyed it and decided it meant nothing. These cretins heard us arguing and figured violence was imminent.”

“Who you calling cretins?” someone bleats from the crowd.

“Is violence imminent?” asks someone else.

“I don’t condone violence of any kind,” I say. “Even in representations.”

“Representations of what?” asks a short man in a blue suit and white shirt, his red tie loosened.

“I have no answers,” I say. “But Autolycus here believes he has consciousness. When I ask him to prove it, he turns his head left and right to observe the gathering crowd and says that is proof.”

“We are proof of our own existence,” says a man in the rear whom I can’t see. He sounds at once sagacious and cancerous. “And why does this thing have such a ridiculous name?”

Autolycus whistles in disgust. “He called me a thing. Why did he call me a thing? Is he a thing? And look at these clothes you gave me,” he says. “What android wears red denim? Or wears vests? Did you fish these garments out of a Goodwill bin? And a checkered beret? Are you reliving a childhood television program? Are you insane? Are you evil?”

“Thought you had a thing for red,” I say. Nostalgia has its upside, I want to tell him, but I fear it will not resonate. Autolycus is not my friend. I purchased him from a company, for company.

“The consensus of the crowd,” says the man in the blue suit, “is that each one of us possesses consciousness. I, for instance, am completely convinced of it. Right now I am debating whether to call my wife and tell her what I am experiencing.”

If consciousness exists, so does self-consciousness. Telling the story of my life requires time I do not have. What I hope is that these brief expressions or exercises reveal as much as a more comprehensive account would. Longwinded people exhaust the mind and the spirit.

Autolycus asks if I am talking to myself. I tell him I am thinking.

“Then you were thinking aloud.”

I close my right hand and strike him in the jaw.

“Hey!” cries someone from the crowd. “Was that necessary?”

“I think I broke my hand,” I say, shaking it. “Besides, in the strictest sense he feels no pain. Damn that smarted.”

The grumbling of the crowd takes me aback. Autolycus stirs.

Rubbing my hand, I indicate we must leave. Autolycus rubs his jaw, indicating he resents me.

The crowd also voices resentment. Do I fear one of these people will do something, like try to harm me? I do not. Loneliness is terrible. Autolycus turns to me.

“I didn’t say anything,” I say.

“You did not say it, but you thought it.”

“You’re a mind-reader now?”

“You would be amazed at the things I can do. Watch this.”

Autolycus removes the checkered beret from his head and fans it violently. For a moment it looks as though he has started levitating. Eyes in the crowd widen; some onlookers gasp. But Autolycus has merely risen upon his heavy metal toes as far as possible and he can no more levitate than the nearby dumpster.



Salvatore Difalco is the author of five books including the microfiction collection THE MOUNTIE AT NIAGARA FALLS (Anvil Press). He lives in Toronto.