Thursday, June 30, 2011

72/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Lettre Anonyme" by Etienne Charry

Mrs. Clifton turned off the lights and turned on the projector. The lightbulb shone through the film and she started to collect it on the second, empty reel, using the tip of a pencil. She attached the reel and started the projector. After some reference marks flashed by, the sound started in a warped warble. There was a little jingle, then the title:

"Today's Oil Industry"

The title wobbled on the screen in front of the classroom for twenty seconds or so, before there was an abrupt cut to a man in suit with a burning cigarette in his hand. There was assorted tittering in the class.

"How old is this?" whispered Josh, a tall boy with brown hair and glasses.

"I think it's older than our parents," said Kristen, a slight girl with an overbite. She was seated in the desk next to Josh. The two often collaborated on pranks on Mrs. Clifton.

"Shhhh!" hissed Mrs. Clifton. She left her post next to the project and stood in the aisle between Josh and Kristen. Her stale perfume emanated from her person and wafted over to Kristen, who put her head down on her desk, muffling her nose in her sleeve.

"Oil runs America," said the man in the film, before taking a long draw on the cigarette. "Let's now observe how," there was a skittering flutter in the film, "uses of oil." The man smiled, and the jingle started up again.

There were faded and scratched shots of cars on a freeway, curiously uncongested, plastic dinnerware, a closeup of a women putting on a thick layer of bright red lipstick, a wide shot of some sort of power plant, and fertilizer being spread on a field. The man droned on in his smokey-voiced warble, about the benefits and uses of fossil fuels. The words started to blur together.

"Listen. Observe. For example. A collaboration. Modern industry. Agriculture. Big city. The future. Today. New. Fun. The gravity of the situation."

The room filled with tawny reflected, flickering light. It weighed down on eyelids. Kirsten slumped in the lulling noise and light. She started snoring gently.

Then a hand pulled her up. Kirsten's body jerked awake.

"What?!" she exclaimed a little too loudly. There was laughter.

"Pay attention!" hissed Mrs. Clifton.

"Or what?" asked Kirsten. The laughter hushed, replaced by an expectant silence. Such defiance would be met either by the capitulation of Mrs. Clifton (in which case she would never regain control of classroom for the rest of the year), or by some meting out of discipline in public. Either outcome was a thrilling prospect to the rest of the students sitting in the dark.

"Or I'll start the film again," said Mrs. Clifton, "and make everyone write a three page report on its contents." A groan spread from student to student.

Kirsten stared into Mrs. Clifton's glasses. In the reflected light of the projector, they were white inscrutable discs. Kirsten nodded. She wanted to look over at Josh to mouth a sarcastic comment, but she was blocked by Mrs. Clifton's flower print dress.

The man in the film continued. Kirsten leaned back in her seat, and tried to watch. Her eyelids got heavy again.

"Naphtha. Bitumen. Fraction. Steam crackers."

Kirsten's ears pricked up at the last phrase. The screen showed some sort of metal equipment. Kirsten quickly lost interest again. Then she felt funny. Her legs felt heavy and the heaviness crept up into her body. She woke up fully. She tried to shift in her seat but felt glued there. Her whole body started to feel stiff. And her head turned forward, looking directly at the screen.

"Mrs. Clif--" Kirsten started, but could not complete her sentence. He tongue felt suddenly warm and prickly in her mouth. She tried screaming, but could only manage a muffled moan. She looked at the backs and heads of the students in front of her. they were all sitting ramrod straight and some of the were moaning too. Then the film cut back to the man with the cigarette.

"Now that I have your attention," said the man, looking right at the camera, "I want you to watch something."

The film ended there. The end of the film itself slapped against the projector. The light continued though, and the screen was white. Mrs. Clifton made no move to attend the projector. The frightened moans increased, and no one moved at all.

Kirsten started hyperventilating. She tried with all her strength to wrest her hands from her desk, but with the effort came a feeling of icy coldness. She tried to relax, and the iciness eased somewhat. She stared at the screen.

The screen started to change color. Tiny black dots formed on its surface. The dots expanded and started drooping down. The moans stopped as everyone tried to figure out what was happening. It was a fluid--crude oil. It ran down screen in stripes, then all of a sudden the screen went completely black, and then poured out. The moans started, more frantically. The pressure increased, and it started shooting out as if from a fire hose. It knocked over the students at the front of the classroom, and they sat motionless on the floor, at risk of drowning. The oil inched up, and soon there was a foot of oil in the classroom.

The fumes curled up into Kirsten's sensitive nose. The strong odor itched at her olfactory epithelium, and she sneezed. Her body immediately became unfrozen. She started scream, then leapt up. The oil was now shooting all the way back to the back of the room in a solid stream, where it had the projector pinned. Kirsten ran to the toppled over kids, and pulled them out of submersion. She tried to shake the students to get them to move, but none could. The oil was now waist deep. She ran to the door at the front of the classroom and pulled on the knob, but the weight of the oil against it held it closed. She pounded on the door, trying to attract help. The oil level reached the necks of most of the seated kids. She looked at the windows on the other side of the room, which were closed. Her path there was cut off by the stream of oil shooting from the screen.

"What the hell?!" she scream. "What the hell!!!!" She watched the oil creep up the faces of her classmates. It reached up to her own chest. She looked over at Josh. The oil was only at his chin. Tears were streaming down the sides of his face as he stared straight forward. She turned toward the wall next to the door, unable to watch. She brushed the light switch with her shoulder.

The sound of the rushing oil stopped.

"Thank you Kirsten," said Mrs. Clifton. Kirsten turned around slowly. The oil was gone. All the students were clean, if sleepy. All the desks were in their proper places. The screen was bright white. Mrs. Clifton turned off the projector.

"What the hell?!" Kirsten blurted. All faces turned towards her, many with surprised smiles.

"You missy, have detention! You can't use language like that in the classroom!" yelled Mrs. Clifton.

Kirsten ignored her. She walked to the projector, past Mrs. Clifton, and pulled off the reel with the film.

"What are you doing?!" exclaimed Mrs. Clifton. Kirsten did not answer. She went to the screen, ripped it down, and started examining it.

"Kirsten!" yelled Mrs. Clifton.

Kirsten scanned her hand over the polyester surface. There was a slight feeling of grease. Her heart started thumping. Then in a corner, she found a brownish black droplet. Her heart skipped. She smeared the droplet out with her finger. It was oil.

Kirsten looked at Mrs. Clifton, not sure if she should say anything. Mrs. Clifton was red in the face.

"I've had enough of your bad behavior this year young lady! I've really had enough!" Mrs. Clifton wagged a finger in Kirsten's direction.

Kirsten said nothing, then bolted for the door. She ran out into the hallway, her footfalls echoing off the paper-art covered walls. She burst into mid-afternoon sunlight, and ran around the building to find the school's bank of dumpsters. She threw in the screen, then started unspooling the film. She got halfway through before several teachers and a janitor came running for her. She tossed the film into the dumpster, with streamers of film flowing out over the side. Kirsten ran for the parking lot and the adults followed.

Five minutes later, the loops of film that were hanging outside the dumpster slowly started retracting into the dumpster. A few minutes later, a man stood up in the dumpster. He was dressed in a gray suit. He climbed out, and looked around. Then he lit a cigarette, and strode off across the school yard.

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