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Short Fiction: Black Hole

This is my flagship story. Black Hole was published under the pseudonym Kilawinguwak in the Philippine Graphic Magazine back in the early 2000s (I forget which date, exactly). The story begins after the jump.

galactic_black_hole

I hated garbage days.  The garbage cans always felt so lined with bugs and gooey things and other such scum of the earth that didn’t normally fit in the more mundane everydayness of routine.  And the garbage men never really did pick up all the trash.  They’d snatch the plastic garbage bags like inept jeepney drivers with large hands without noticing that the bags had torn at the sudden whiplash of gravity.  This left trails of muck and filth all over the sidewalk, and this was enough to crank my blood pressure up a notch or two. 

So I did what any other individual would do on situations like these.  I had my thirteen year-old son make a black hole.

The physics side was simple enough, if you understood the more technical aspect of creating vacuums that could simulate the gravitational pull of a star, then combining that “gravitational pull” with an artificially produced black hole using a dense liquid moving at a “very high speed” according to my son.  Whatever.  “I just want my black hole,” I told him, and left his room.

The day the black hole was perfected was one of those warm, sunny, and empty afternoons wherein you did absolutely nothing and didn’t feel guilty.   I lay the translucent orb – the size of Jaime Fabregas’ head – on the kitchen table to bask in the salient waves of an almost ridiculous gravity.  It gently sent goosepimples up my arms, making my skin hair wiggle like a pole dancer.  I settled back on the kitchen chair.  Ah yes, life was good.

The basic idea was to toss any and all garbage in the house into the black hole.  The gravity would then crush the object into microscopic particles which would then flow into the black hole.  There are many different theories, but I’m banking on one stating that the hole opens up into another dimension.  I’m hoping to aim for a planetary dumpsite for my garbage.  That way, I would never have to suffer the insufferable ordeals of garbage day ever again. 

During those days, I knew I didn’t have to worry too much about the garbage men and my blood pressure.  Watching the black hole work its way through the trash bags and odd knickknacks all the time relaxed me more than a stress ball or one of those vibrating lazy boys they were selling by the truckload in furniture stores.  Late nights, instead of watching the TV to sleep, I would sit at the kitchen table and watch the black hole.  Not that you could actually see it, black holes were neatly invisible.  But I enjoyed those midnight runs, with me smoking a stick or two of cigarettes and blowing the smoke straight into the hole’s mouth.  For a brief second, the smoke would hang on the edges of an invisible circumference, bending the light rays just right so that the black hole is outlined in the mist; then the fumes waxed to a full stop for a second or two, after which the gravity would pull them in like a chimney stack video running in reverse.

Not that I really expected to reap the joys of my brilliant idea indefinitely, but those extremely peaceful days were shortlived.  The garbage disposal people began to worry.  My trash bin had been standing there empty for nearly a month.  Where was all my trash going?  Trash was waste.  This country would be better off without trash.  Where were you hiding the trash?  If a way of conjuring energy from trash were to be discovered, you would be an obstacle to the community’s growth.  You were a philistine who hoarded trash.  I heard them mutter these and similar laments every morning when I read the newspaper on the front doorstep wearing a sando and flower-printed shorts comfortably arranged so that my belly button stuck out.

Of course this was all nonsense.  All my trash was conveniently being converted into multiple micro-particles and being shuttled off on the evening express bus to another dimension.  And even if that energy conversion scheme of theirs were to become a reality, what was it to me?  I worked everyday, paid my taxes, shaved regularly enough, and fed my cats on a daily basis.  If you think about it, society owed me.  Big-time.  I just hadn’t sent in the bill.

One of the garbage men, a gaunt man with loose-hanging skin from his arms, came up to my door and addressed me in my sando and shorts.  “It has come to our attention that you have not been disposing of your trash properly,” he said when I acknowledged his greeting.  “Do you have any idea what the fines are for litterbugs?”

“Litterbugs? No, I’m afraid I don’t.”

“Tch.  That would amount to unnecessary discomfort for you, sir.  The monetary fine itself is staggering, not to mention the additional fees, such as the travel expenses of the government employee who would be sent to bully you into payment.  Of course, everything will have tax implemented on it.  Your yearly income would be taken into consideration as well.  VAT and all that, you know.”

“But I’ve been disposing of my trash everyday, like every citizen should.”

“Au contraire.  It has been nearly two months and your garbage can has been spotless clean.  The only two things you could possibly have done with your waste would be to burn it in a pile, and / or bury it.  Both of these methods, you understand, are extremely toxic ways of waste disposal and could lead to an arrest on the charge of crimes against the planet.”

“Hmm; have you ever considered recycling?”

“That would be impossible.  Not everything is recyclable, you see.  Recyclable material is oftentimes inorganic, and a majority of the normal household wastes in this country is organic.  Which brings us back to burying, or burning, take your pick.  And those two are definitely out of the question and for two reasons.  You have no backyard, and the fire department two blocks away from your home forbids any form of open fire in the area.“

“So there you have it.  Might I suggest that you let up on whatever means of disposal you are using and to support your local garbage men.”

He had me with that last part.  “Well, what you have there is a pretty clear-cut picture of the situation,” I replied with a touch of chin-scratching.

“Yes it is sir.  Now if you would please tell me how you have been disposing of your garbage.”

It would have been useless to try and talk my way out, so I sighed and ushered him into the house.  “I’ve built a black hole to get rid of my garbage,” I told him as I led the way into the kitchen where the black orb was sitting, emitting a silent kind of hum as my son carefully fed it the following items:  a rotten apple core that had been sitting in his room for quite some time; a dirty rag we had been using to clean surfaces during the afternoon; a filthy sponge; and finally, a bunched up garbage bag that looked and smelled as if it had been fed with the wastes of human living for a month.  He looked up at me as we entered; glanced slightly at the garbage man, back to me.  “She almost seems to be begging for the trash,” he said. 

“That’s a good thing, then,” I replied.  He excused himself from the room. 

The garbage man went over to the orb on the table and looked it over with the bored, smug expression you’d expect to see in any government employee.  “What in the world is this?” he asked. 

“Well.  If you look closely, it would look like a.  A black hole, that is.”  Cough, cough.

“A black hole?” He leaned over and peered at the orb closely.  The black hole sat on the table, humming away not unlike a microwave oven’s hum.  You could see the spectrum of colors forming a corona around the hole’s mouth, light trying to escape the immense gravitational pull.  The colors soon acquiesced to the pull, however; deeper into the orb’s center was a black mist dotted with specks of debris, which I assumed was dust.  Interstellar garbage. 

“Hmm,” said the garbage man.

I was watching him watch the black hole chug the rest of the plastic garbage bag into its vacuum.  “So you’ve been feeding your trash to this – thing.” 

“In a nutshell,” I agreed.

The garbage man moved behind the orb to study it from table-height.  “This is a fine disposal unit you have here,” he said.

“Thanks.  My son’s work. Thirteen years old.”

“Is he now?” asked the garbage man.  “And how exactly does this thing work?”  He began tinkering around with the orb, rubbing his hand slowly down its back. 

“Let me show you.”  I picked up a lettuce leaf from the fresh foods storage of the refrigerator and carefully placed the plant just in front of the hole’s mouth.  A momentary pause; the two of us waiting for something to happen, the black hole taking its sweet time, Father Time doing his work.  Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, the leaf moved a half-inch.  The tips of the lettuce began to slowly crumble away, particle by particle being swept into the vastness of outer space.  Seconds skipped beats here and there while we watched the lettuce being chewed as if by a rabbit. 

The garbage man watched all this transfixed.  His jaw began rotating like a cow carefully munching on hay, or carabao grass.  Not much of a change in his expression, just that continuous chewing.  He ran a hand through his short cropped curly hair.

“How does it do that?” he asked, as the lettuce became half a lettuce leaf.

“Gravity,” I stated simply.  “The pull of the black hole is just like the pull of the earth on everything on it, except that the force is around a thousand times greater than what you know here on earth.  Ordinarily, a black hole in outer space could consume a whole planet, but since this little economy black hole we have right here is half the 1/1000000000000th size of a normal black hole, the gravitational force is cut in proportion.  That’s what’s keeping the black hole from sucking in my whole house; it’s strong, but without enough oomph to back up its power, it can only do so much.”

“Like slowly chew up trash,” he said.

“That is placed directly inside its mouth,” I agreed.

The black hole finally finished breaking up whatever there remained of the lettuce on the table.  Specks of white dust lingered in the air.

“Well,” he said, rubbing his chin.  “That was quite a show.  It’s not everyday you see a lettuce leaf devoured so quickly by something so inanimate.”

I nodded.  He scratched his chin, and lightly rubbed his canvas shoes on a table leg.  The specks of dust were slowly funneled into the black hole, one by one.  If this weren’t a tropical country, you’d mistake them for snowflakes.  “Well, I guess as long as you’re not throwing out your trash, everything’s fine.”  The garbage man nearly looked downcast as he straightened his cap.  “But don’t forget.  Once that thing runs out, you have to leave your trash at the trash can outside.”

Runs out?

Of course, I’ve never even heard of a black hole running out.  They were supposed to just float along occupying space and suck in everything in its path.  Sure, they might have some sort of life span, but I’m sure even that was pretty drawn out when compared to the average life of a human. 

Wasn’t it?

“Hey. It’s just a copy,” said the garbage man.  “We all know originals last longer than copies.”

To say that this had me worried would be like calling Mars a planet.  Was it possible?  Can an artificial black hole really run out?  Was my perfect solution for garbage really short-lived? 

Considering that it didn’t come from a real star, anything could happen.  I consulted my son.

“Well, it is possible,” he said.  “We don’t really know what black holes are made of.  We’re only working with theories here.  But then, you do that everyday with people.  The basic character makeup of a person is always theoretical.  Ideas are always changing, and so are moods and dispositions.  You can’t really be sure about anything, can you?”

I gave this some thought.  I could argue that dispositions don’t always have to change.  But then, I’d be on the losing end of the discussion.  I’d rather quit while I was ahead.  “Not really.”

“So why worry about the black hole?”

Why indeed?  There was always the trash can outside waiting to fill its bowels with the scrumptious decaying waste of living.  It may be a bit shabby compared to the black hole, but it worked.  Why should I knock a system that was only a little bit more inconvenient than shopping for groceries or taking a bath?

However, worry I did.  I would spend early mornings and late nights either pacing around in the kitchen or sitting on a stool and staring at the lightly shimmering, quiet orb.  It showed no signs of fading away.  I would feed it soiled paper bags every now and then just to keep myself satisfied that the thing would slowly gobble it up, and it always did.  Without fail.  The black hole was going strong.

One morning, I ventured into the kitchen and came upon my son with a small bag of bathroom trash.  He was half-lying on the kitchen table, peering closely at the black hole’s mouth, scowling in a manner that was definitely not gravity-inspired.  “I can see the mouth somewhat clearly,” he said after a few seconds.

“Hmm,” I said.  “That’s a bad thing?”

“Well, maybe.  You’re not really supposed to see a black hole.  We’ve got this atmosphere going here in this planet; stare at the horizon on top of buildings or in traffic jams and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  Because of this atmosphere, you can sort of see the black hole, since the light is filtered somewhat, along the course of being sucked into the hole.  But look at it.”

I could have sauntered into the kitchen, sat before the black hole for hours on end, and not have noticed a thing.  But thanks to my son’s heads-up, I hunched myself over the table and stared into what should be the center of the black hole.  The otherwise empty patch of translucent color dotted with specks of white and a shade of black somewhere in the middle had streaks of r-o-y-g-b-I-v running through it from all directions, like psychedelic lightning gone wild.  “What’s happening to it?” I asked.

“The materials I used can’t seem to contain the immense gravity,” he said simply.  “It’s falling apart.  Wear and tear.”  Your black hole is dying, said his eyes.  We’ve got stupid politicians, world hunger, war, nuclear sickness, and poverty.  To top it all off, your ingenious trash dispenser is going kaput.

A rather strong wave of nostalgia hit me.   It felt just like yesterday when I first held it and it was like having a newborn baby; at that moment, as I stared down the, the thing that writhed on the dinner table, it evolved to something a little bit more.  It wasn’t just a garbage disposal unit anymore, it was my garbage disposal unit.  There was a sense of ownership there.  I had bonded with it in the same manner as some people bonded with their dogs.

The black hole sizzled and sparkled on my kitchen table.  It was falling apart.  If this was a nuclear plant melting down, I couldn’t have been more mesmerized.  I was staring at the black hole, and inside was a reflection of me staring into the black hole, captured by the dying event horizon of whatever memory the object had.  Me and the black hole, immortalized for eternity.

“So what’s going to happen to it?” I asked.

My son shrugged as he fixed himself a bowl of cereal.  “I don’t know, really.  It could blow up and suck in our house and half the neighborhood into a vacuum.  Or destroy our house and half the neighborhood in an explosion.  Stars are strange objects, whatever form they’re in.  It’s a power plant with an output the size of our solar system, and nothing ever changes that.  Law of conservation of energy and all that. We know what a star becomes when it becomes old; neutron stars, novas, supernovas, and black holes.  But we have no idea what happens to the excess energy.  You could be holding an atomic bomb and you wouldn’t know it.”

I jerked my hand away from the back of the black hole.  “What if it does end up destroying half the neighborhood?” 

“What can we do?”  He shrugged again.  “You wouldn’t be around to care much, would you?”

“You’re asking me?”

My son went upstairs after that.  He had one of his various projects to take care of, and my day was just beginning.

“So you’re finally bringing out your trash again,” said the garbage man during his usual work route that morning.  I had gathered up the garbage bags in the house, bunched them together in an even bigger garbage bag, and stuffed the whole bunch of them into the trash can in front.  I could feel and hear the juice squishing out from underneath the bag as he snatched up the trash.  Some things don’t seem to change.

“Yes I am.”

He stopped dragging the garbage bag midway to the truck.  “Something happen to the black hole?”

“You could say that.”  I wasn’t reading my morning newspaper.  I had a pack of Winston lights in my back pocket, smoking stick after stick and staring out into the street.  I could hear children playing nearby, but there was hardly a soul in the vicinity.  The garbage truck kept people away from my house.  Or maybe it was the sight of a man in his sleeping clothes chain-smoking.

He shook his head.  “That’s a pity.  Some things just seem too good to be true.” The garbage man tilted his cap, shouldered the trash bag, and went on to his truck.  In a few moments, the truck was gone.

That night, I sat in the kitchen, watching the black hole.  The fumes from the cigarettes wafted softly to the kitchen table, drawn by the gentle gravitational pull.  The lighting-like discrepancies had spread all over the black hole’s surface, and now it looked like a blood-engorged eyeball, sans the blood.  And the eye.  The thing looked so wretched inhaling every ounce of second-hand smoke I exhaled that I wondered for a second exactly which one of us was becoming the nicotine junkie. 

Without thinking, I tossed my cigarette butts into the black hole.  The stubs floated in full gravity – or maybe that was just the illusion black holes created (I had heard that if you were to enter into a black hole, your image would be preserved for centuries for any casual observer to see).  Maybe the cigarettes had been crushed instantaneously, the event horizon preserving the image for the sake of portraying some antithesis to its destructive nature.

I wrapped the black hole in four layers of cellophane.  The portion where the mouth was began to collapse almost immediately. 

The black hole went into a small garbage bag, which I then stuffed with trash and knick-knack disposables that I had been planning to get rid of but hadn’t gotten around to.  This bag I dumped into the garbage can.

For weeks after that, I dutifully deposited my garbage at the receptacle.  Everyday without fail, I would see the garbage man, and exchange the usual hellos and trade small talk.  I still read the morning newspaper, but now I always had with me a pack or two of Winston lights.

Things sank back into a routine I had gotten used to before the days of the black hole.  I spent more and more time looking out at the window at the garbage stains on the sidewalk, after which I would just shake my head and head to the kitchen for coffee.

One day, my son came into the kitchen with a bit of news:  “The Internet is an astronomical dumping ground for out-of-this-world stories,” he said while cutting himself a slice of papaya.  “There was this short article in the People’s Tonight forum board about a huge explosion at the city dump.”

“What explosion?” I asked him.  I was on my second cup of coffee that day, and my fifth stick of Winston.

“I don’t know.  Just some big blast that wiped out half of the contents of a grid, I think.  Some of the dump’s machinery was destroyed too.  But there’s one other thing about the explosion.”

“What’s that?”

“There wasn’t anything left of the area.  No debris, no crater, nothing at all.”  He grabbed a plate, placed the papaya slice and a fork on it.  “Want a slice?” 

I declined.  “Fruits give me a headache.”

“Whatever happened to that black hole I made?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said in between sips.  “It just vanished.” 

And maybe it did.  I had my coffee, my early news and my cigarettes.  I worked my ass off, shaved regularly, fed my cats.  An explosion in the city dump?  What did I care?  I had enough on my hands to keep myself busy to worry about anything else.

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