Clarence, Before Spill.
The break room microwave is dead, to begin with. There is no doubt
whatever about that. It has been in the process of dying for a
great many years; for the psychopharmaceutical factory employees,
the chunky box has always acted as an orangy-brown reminder of
Through the years, the appliance's failure to shuffle off this
mortal coil (never mind the management's refusal to replace the
thing) slowly changed from seeming absurd to downright
inspirational. As a result, people have been using it less and
less, and recently the brave factory workers who have attempted to
cook food in it have done so surreptitiously, lest they be
identified as the one whose ultra-lite popcorn finally did in their
Saiushi EZ Wave 2000.
So, now, with the break room empty and the hallways clear, one of
the secretaries turns the primeval knobs to the appropriate
settings, then scurries out the door. Thus, nobody is in the room
to hear the prophetic crackle crackle pop as the magnetron tube
bursts, or to notice the smoke rising, or to see sparks come out of
the thick black umbilical cord. The microwave sighs its last sigh
and the break room quickly transforms into a funeral pyre.
The fire alarm shrieks and wails, and as workers begin to proceed
in a calm and orderly fashion out the door, the sprinklers activate
throughout the Harris Jones psychopharmaceuticals factory. It does
not take long for the old old sprinkler system to short out the old
old electrical wiring. Just as the plant safety engineer takes the
massive Emergency Procedures binder off the shelf, a red light on
his operations panel begins to flash, foretelling the demise of the
refrigeration system. As he skims the index of the manual, the blue
light that monitors the super cooled chemical tanks begins to blink
frantically. As he flips to page 34, the molecules of the liquid
chemicals in the refrigerated tanks begin to excite and expand,
ready to transform into a new state of matter and reach a higher
plane. The safety engineer finds the appropriate code, and as the
tanks swell, he turns to his old old computer and punches in Code
121: Fire in the Factory. Likely Airborne Dispersal.
Then he calls his wife and tells her to get out of Clarence,
pronto. And take the cats.
It will be a few more minutes before the sound of the civil defense
sirens startles the customers flipping through books and sipping
lattes in the town of Clarence's new Davis and Dean superstore. For
now, though, it is commerce that is airborne. Through the currency
of bright smiles and swooshes of credit cards and
thank-you-for-shopping-have-a-nice-days, capitalism foams and
bubbles over like frothed milk. Booksellers beam at book buyers,
cash registers pop open, receipts churn and coil, bags blouse,
doors revolve -- the people of Clarence enter and leave
inexorably, accompanied by noncontroversial jazz and humming air
conditioning. It is a perfect sixty-eight degrees in the store, and
Clarence wants to buy.
Bennie and Sophie Singer sit in the bookstore's cafe today, as they
have every Friday since the Davis and Dean was built. Friday has
been Bookstore Day for the two of them ever since Sophie learned to
read. Lizzie, actually, started the tradition, back before there
was a Sophie. Bookstores with cafes were a rare and wondrous
phenomenon back then, and the newly wedded Ben and Elizabeth
McCourt Singer would sit at a table every Friday afternoon reading
the magazines they couldn't afford to subscribe to. Lizzie would
pore over women's magazines -- her secret obsession -- gleefully
searching for tropes, discourse, and dogma, and Bennie would read
news weeklies searching for nothing in particular. One Friday, he
reading The New Yorker, she studying advertisements in Elle, he
picked up her hand, almost knocking over her coffee.
When we have a child, we will take her to the bookstore every
Lizzie looked up from her magazine and beamed.
Bennie blinks the memory away.
Bennie and Sophie Singer sit in the cafe today, as they do every
Friday. Bennie will schedule no students, attend no meetings, allow
no exceptions. I have a standing date, he explains to the
sputtering cognitive behaviorist as he shuts his office door and
scurries out of the psych building to pick Sophie up from school.
We'll do it on Monday. I'm here late on Mondays.
It's not as if the department could like him any less.
Bennie is the token Personality professor at Mansfield University,
and is thus looked upon with some derision by those who think an
understanding of the human psyche is best achieved through close
interaction with rodents and computer simulations. Bennie, in turn,
despises the notion that human behavior can be explained through
the interplay of impulses and neurons, chemicals and electricity,
mice and mazes. If humanity is really so base, what is the point of
living? What is the point of experience? What is the point of the
mind? At Mansfield, psychology students dissect and experiment.
They will be excellent researchers, yes, but who will treat the
Sophie can buy one book a week. She always knows what she will buy
as they enter the store; she spends her time amongst the stacks
categorizing and prioritizing for weeks to come. Then, after Sophie
has crawled through the kids section, the two retire to the cafe.
Sophie has an Italian soda. The first Friday of the month she has
cherry, the second orange, the third raspberry, and the fourth
lime. If there are five Fridays in a month, then she has strawberry
kiwi, which is her favorite. Bennie has the coffee of the day with
three to four packets of artificial sweetener.
Now, Sophie sips her raspberry soda and flips through books from
children's reference while Bennie wishes thoughts away. Sophie eats
these books up every week, washing facts down with neon soda. She
will remember them all. Sophie remembers everything. She knows
countries and capitals, states and dates. She knows wars and
treaties, tribes and tributaries. She knows Greek gods and Roman
hills. She knows Tippecanoe and Tyler too; she can list First Pets,
First Ladies, and even some of the mistresses.
It awes Bennie. Did he ever know this much? Could he reel off the
posts of the cabinet and the ranks of the British peerage system
fueled only by childhood alacrity and a sugar high?
I don't know, sweetie, he smiles as she quizzes him. You tell me.
I'm getting old, sweetie. Bennie gave up on history long ago, but
when did it give up on him? When did all the facts leave him? Where
did they go? Sure, there are remnants. Mnemonic devices still
linger. Every good boy deserves favor. Please excuse my dear Aunt
Sally. My very earnest mother judiciously served us nine potatoes.
King Peter came over from Germany seeking fortune. The phrases
rattle in his head, but Bennie can't remember what they are for --
random keys cluttering a drawer and he has no idea what doors they
unlock. Stripped of their meaning they become surrealist mantras.
His own Dada manifesto. Art for Art's sake. Meaning is dead. Facts
are a lie. His little girl can list off Great Lakes, types of rock,
and geological eras, while he struggles every night to recall the
smell of his wife's hair.
He would have killed himself if it hadn't been for Sophie. There's
no doubt about that.
Sacred Fridays with Sophie give respite from real life days of blue
books and department meetings and nights of clammy sheets and
irrevocable dreams. He has given his life to his daughter, and now
there is no going back. The agreement is unspoken, unconfirmed, but
six years ago when Bennie chose Sophie's nascent life over his much
desired death, he made a bargain with his toddler daughter: I,
Benjamin, will live for you. In turn, you, Sophia Madeline, must
never leave me.
It is absurd, impossible, he knows, but why not? Couldn't the world
freeze, and he always be sitting here with Sophie as bright as her
soda, eyes full of Lizzie?
"Hey Soph . . ."
"Do you remember that story I used to read to you? About the magic
She sighs and looks up from her encyclopedia. "Which story?''
"You know, the watch that controlled time. There were trolls and
they had this watch and they would speed time up, stop it, send it
back, stop the world.''
"Dad, they weren't trolls, they were elves. The girl elf made a
wish. The genie heard. She got this watch.''
"Elves. Yes, that was it. That was one of my favorites.''
Sophie tosses her thin blond hair. "Yeah, it was okay.''
Bennie leans in. "Wouldn't it be nice if it were true? If we could
wish a genie down here, if he could give us a magic watch. We could
just sit here and you could read your books and drink your sodas as
long as you wanted.''
Sophie sighs again in the way she sees on TV and closes her book.
"Dad, you should know better than that.''
"Oh, Soph, it's just pretend.''
"Yeah, but didn't you learn anything from the story? Don't you
remember what happened to that girl elf? That's the way it always
happens in stories -- wishes seem like a really good idea but then
you get your wish and things get all messed up. That's what wishes
do. That's the way stories go. That's the whole point.''
Sophie smiles at her father compassionately and opens her big white
book back to "Flags of the World.''
The civil defense sirens will go off in another two minutes. For
now, Bennie Singer sits in the cafe and stares at the wall and
wonders at how still the world has become.
The Davis and Dean superstore sits equidistant from the psycho
pharmaceuticals factory and Mansfield University. Walk outside the
bookstore's revolving doors. Stand on the sidewalk. Turn your head
to the right, and you'll see the three smokestacks on the horizon.
Turn to the left and you see photo-perfect towers and spires. The
effect is off-putting; the dissonance dizzying. Look again. And
again. And again. The factory and the university face each other
warily, and you, caught in the middle, do not know which way to
Harris Jones Psychopharmaceuticals is owned by HJ Medical Systems
down in the cities. The company's particular specialty, and the
Clarence factory's niche, is the mind. Harris Jones dedicates
itself essentially to treating the modern condition; their
medications attack such ailments as anxiety, distraction,
depression. Their stock is on its way up, and you might consider
making a small investment.
Occasionally there is some grumbling among the factory workers of
Clarence about the nature of the drugs made at their plant. After
all, the economy of the town is based on the factory, but anxiety,
sleep, fear, depression, and despair are not the town's problems.
(At lunch, a worker points at the photo-perfect towers and spires
to indicate just whose problems these are.) The people of Clarence
make drugs for outsiders to take. They work day and night making
drugs for rich people. What kind of medications are these anyway?
Medications are for sickness. For life and death. Not for mood.
What kind of people have the need and resources to medicate their
Shouldn't their livelihoods be based on something they can use?
Harris Jones worries about insurance, losses, reputation. Who will
take care of Clarence? What if something should happen? All those
chemicals . . .
If there were any poetry at all in Clarence, there would be a great
river running through the town. The river would bisect Clarence
perfectly; factory on one side, college on the other. Time card
punchers on one side, dentists on the other; American cars on one
side, European on the other. If there were any poetry in Clarence,
the river would divide the town's two worlds with a deft blue
stroke manifesting the bifurcation in perpetual motion. If Clarence
had poetry, there would at least be some good old railroad tracks
to give the town its proverbial right and wrong side (which is
which would be depending on your point of view, of course.)
Clarence has no poetry, though. Clarence has Bargain Barrels, Krazy
Savers, Dollar Hutz, and Pizza Domes. The division, then, must
remain invisible. Theoretical. Philosophical. Literary. Like the
international date line or the boundaries of good taste.
The best anyone can do is invite you to take a tour. Visit some
restaurants and compare -- say Vinnie's, then Tandoori Jewel. Bob's
Bar, then Strange Brew Cafe. Susie's Second hands and The Closet.
Contrast the crowds, the clothes, the conversation. Hairstyles.
Accents and accessories. Study. Use what you have learned. Go to
the common grounds -- gas stations, grocery stores, fast food
restaurants. Guess who is from which world. There. You are able to
begin drawing the line yourself. A deft stroke in perpetual
The Davis and Dean superstore has tried valiantly to bridge the
gap. The Clarence store is an experiment after all, and harmony is
essential to the experiment's success.
A few years ago, the Davis and Dean muckety-mucks met to discuss
the next phase of the war between D&D and its nemesis, Vanguard
Books. The combatants had already consumed and exhausted the cities
and suburbs and exurbs; there needed to be a new battleground. Thus
was born Operation Hinterland. D&D would strike in the less
populated areas. Where men wear flannel shirts and smell like a
hard day's work. Real People. America's heartland. Mom, Pop, Apple
Pie, Bait and Tackle, and the Good Lord. Research teams and focus
groups led Davis and Dean straight to Clarence -- home of Mom and
Pop, and of Mansfield University. Thus, there would be deportees
from the city -- with their proven able brand recognition -- to
lead the way through the store's doors.
Clarence's mayor has a strong sense of capitalistic duty, and the
experiment, to be sure, would be talked about in all the trades and
business weeklies. People would be watching closely. Other
progressively minded nationally sanctioned companies might come.
The economy would soar. Clarence would soar. So when Davis and Dean
officials came to the mayor carrying proposals and compensations
and all kinds of charts with towering majestic columns and bright
happy graphs with arrows going up, up, up, the mayor in turn said,
Yes. Please. Come. What shall we knock down for you?
There were a few protests of course. A Chamber of Commerce splinter
group called Stop National Chains in Clarence (SNCC) held a
Breaking the Chain rally on the front lawn of the city hall steps
with folksingers and a bad sound system. The rally was small;
Many of the Clarence elders thought that they could not possibly
support anything that involved folksingers. Those who did march on
the town hall spoke passionately of a desire to keep Clarence
Clarence without those nasty big city chain influences coming in to
homogenize and desensitize. What would separate Clarence from any
other city, now? What good are these corporations? Who will watch
out for Clarence?
But in a few weeks everyone stopped caring, as is the general way
of things. Hands were shook, documents signed, announcements made,
ground broken, espresso imported, and Bingo! Clarence joined the
Davis and Dean empire well before Vanguard could move their troops
into the hinterlands.
And the experiment is working. D&D has become a community
center. A piazza. The factory worker and the college professor sip
coffee side by side. And since the store was built, no aimless
Mansfield humanities graduate has ever been in want of a job. You
know this place. You may be there now. And we have a good place to
begin our story.
As bennie finishes the last gulp of his coffee, the safety
engineer's wife and her two cats get on the freeway leading
straight out of Dodge. Police sirens sound quietly in the distance.
Add fire trucks. Ambulances. One screech after another joins the
chorus and the sirens crescendo, grow more immediate. The emergency
is close. And getting closer. One after another, people in the
store look up, look out the windows, joke nervously and laugh like
Is the store on fire? Heh heh. Heh. Heh . . . Heh.
Then the cacophony passes by and fades off into the distance.
Someone else's emergency. The bookstore exhales and the air returns
to normal --
-- and then the emergency alert sirens go off.
There is silence in the bookstore. Customers and employees look at
each other. Nobody moves.
Is it a test?
It's not the right time of the month.
A tornado this late in the year?
A man peeks out of the window. The sky is smoky and yellow. "Look
at that!'' he yells. Everyone looks.
The stillness grows. The sirens blare on. Everyone watches each
other watch everyone else. Bennie is frozen. His mind flashes to
his yearly freshman psych lecture on the bystander effect: after
Kitty Genovese was killed on the streets of New York while an
entire neighborhood watched and did nothing, a group of
psychiatrists ran an experiment: in a room where students are
taking a test, smoke pours through the vents. If a person is by
himself, he will pull an alarm, call someone, leave the room. If
the person is in a group, smoke will fill the room and the students
will glance around, cough, wait for someone else to act.
Bennie has always given this lecture with a degree of arrogance, of
reassurance. I am a psychologist. I know the urges. I understand
the nature. I will be better than this.
But in the face of all this stillness he finds himself frozen. His
lungs constrict. The sirens burst in his ear.
It is not until Sophie looks at him, big eyed, her body shrinking
into the chair. "Daddy?''
"It's okay, sweetheart,'' he whispers, and smiles, then announces
to everyone, "Perhaps we should turn on the radio?''
The black-haired girl behind the cafe counter emerges from the back
room with a small radio. Sophie smiles at her father worshipfully.
The sirens continue to wail and with a twist and click, the radio
begins to harmonize.
This is the emergency broadcast system. This is not a test. All
residents of Clarence are asked to stay where they are. Repeat,
stay where you are. This is not a test. All residents of Clarence,
stay inside. Stay tuned to this station for further
Davis and Dean employees begin to bring other customers to the
cafe. A man in a cartoon bird tie introduces himself as the
manager. "We'd like to ask everyone to stay in the store. We're
bringing down more radios.''
He smiles non threateningly, and the relief among the customers is
palpable: It is all right. Someone is in charge here. We have a
manager. He will tell us what to do.
Outside of the window of the store, creatures covered in yellow
billowy plastic begin to appear, carting road blocks.
The customers in the bookstore start.
What the --
Yellow guys do not just happen. Yellow guys are not in my life.
Yellow guys do not just emerge out of thin air. Yellow guys are in
the movies. Yellow guys are not real. Yellow guys are for
Chernobyl, not Clarence. Why don't I have a yellow suit? I do not
have a yellow suit. Where the hell is my yellow suit? I quite
clearly need a yellow suit.
People begin to stare at each other more frankly. They appraise
obviously, guiltlessly. Their eyes ask, Who are these people? Is
one of them responsible? Are they all bystanders too, hostages in a
movie, trapped in an elevator, on a bus with a bomb? Will we be
huddled here, days later, on the floor, dirty and thin? One person
always dies. One is always afraid. One is brave and sneaks through
the vents and frees us all. The rest are extras, with muddy,
panicked faces, providing occasional squeals and moans.
And through the room, the thought passes: I am an extra. The time
has come, and I am just an extra.
This is the emergency broadcast system. This is not a test. All
residents of Clarence are asked to stay where they are. Chemical
accident. Possible toxic exposure. Stay inside. If you are in your
car, park, close the vents, and stay where you are. Stay tuned to
this station for further instructions.
"It's the factory.''
People nod their heads.
"What's going to happen to us?''
The room is as close and shrill as the sirens.
Bennie turns and glares. Be quiet. Everyone. Can't you see there's
a little girl here. Can't you see my daughter is young. Can't you
see my Sophie is scared. Take a deep breath, everyone. Remain calm.
Panicking is human instinct but we can overcome it. Mind over
Bennie cares about three people in Clarence. There is his
accidental friend, Phil, Contemporary Studies professor. Phil will
be at the university, working. Phil will be all right. There is his
mother, Madeline, in Sunny Shadows, Clarence's retirement
community. She will be there, in her apartment. They will have
procedures for this sort of thing. They have people in charge. Fire
exits, tornado cellars, bottled water and canned food. Mother will
be all right. There is Sophie, shrinking, withering, here. Sophie
has only him.
The manager fingers his tie nervously. He whispers to the cafe
worker, Lilith, who begins to cut up scones and muffins from the
cafe. The radio blares on.
There has been a fire at the Harris Jones pharmaceutical factory.
Barrels of chemicals have exploded. There has been a deletrium
leak, repeat, deletrium leak. Possible harmful exposure. Chemical
spill. Stay inside and await further instructions.
"What the bloody fuck is deletrium?'' a bookseller mutters. The
manager glares at her. But nobody minds. Everyone shares the
Sophie says in a small voice, "My dad will know. He's a professor.
Don't you know, Dad?''
Heads turn. Bennie blushes and shakes his head. Sophie looks down
at the table. Bennie grabs her hand.
Susannah Korbet sits in the cafe tugging at her brown ringlets,
absorbing other people's panic, and thinking about her
fiancée, Todd. Todd will be working at the school lab. Todd
wouldn't leave anyway. Todd may not even hear the sirens. But Todd
would know what deletrium is. Todd would know exactly what this
does. Todd would look it up on his computer, print out fact sheets,
conduct his own experiments. Todd would have multicolored
easy-to-read charts printed up. Todd would stand in the center of
the room humbly stating his graduate student credentials and would
make a presentation that would both soothe and edify. Half the
girls in the room would develop a crush on him. The men would cede
the title of alpha male without complaint.
There was a time when Susannah would think about this with pride.
Now she feels nothing but blame. If something happens, it is
because Todd brought her here. If something happens, he will
probably be immune.
Before the sirens, Susannah Korbet sat in the bookstore cafe
twirling her masses of curls in her fingers, trying to discern any
differences between the mural on the wall here and the one in the
D&D cafe by her home one thousand miles away. She thought she
could almost be there. If you added diversity, urbanity, and
fashion sense to this small-town bookstore crowd, Susannah could
have pretended she was back home.
Now, sirens blaring, things become more urgent for her. If she
closes her eyes and concentrates on the mural, she could be
transported back to that D&D. Holes in the stores could open
up, and she should be able to move through them effortlessly, one
to another in a blink and a click of the heels. Away from sirens
and away from Clarence.
The radio continues to proclaim, the manager continues to smile,
and everyone's thoughts continue to run on the same current: Is
this the moment when everything changes? Will my life thus far be
thought of as Before the Spill? Ah yes, that was Clarence, Before
Spill. You're referring to Clarence, B.S.? Will we be those people,
those people on the news and on mini-series who lose all of life as
they know it? Will our children have six heads and bad
dispositions? Are we living a disaster movie? Where is the ominous
music? Where are the heartfelt declarations? There must be more
than the radio, pieces of currant scones, and these billowy yellow
A dozen lives flash before a dozen pairs of eyes, and the reckoning
begins: Nothing. I've done nothing. I am nothing. I am a waste. It
has all been wasted. I could have done so much. I would have done
it all differently. Now I become a cancerous blob with a tail and
too many toes, a living hideous monument to failure and
But our heroes do not reckon. Reckoning is for people whose lives
have motion. Susannah Korbet and Bennie Singer look at their lives
at the same moment and find that they feel nothing.
Of course, they look at the present. They stalwartly refuse to
awaken what lies in memory.
Excerpted from SPILLING CLARENCE © Copyright 2002 by Anne
Ursu. Reprinted with permisison from Hyperion. All rights
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Hyperion
- ISBN-10: 0786886625
- ISBN-13: 9780786886623