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  • Writer's pictureLannie Neely III

Topaz Goggles

After a long night of sweat and blood and desperate tears, I created a technology that replaced life with words. Everything would become a novel.

I had been meaning to catch up on my reading. Between work and chores and general depression, I hadn’t found the time. My shelves grew dustier by the day. Untouched copies of classics and moderns alike, with unbroken spines and un-dog-eared pages. Unfinished university textbooks, mocking. This would be rectified.

My invention took the form of topaz lenses with plastic frames and a rubber strap. I figured, correctly, that if technology could convert voice to text, why not convert everything else to text? Life-to-Text Goggles, I would call them. Transcribe your existence! Novelize your life! Read the book of the world itself!

I turned the goggles on, electrical current caressing my brain with zig-zag feelers. My vision turned white. Then off-white. Then cream. The screen display calibrated and blurred and focused until everything was flat and clean, not too bright, not too dark, as if a piece of heavy-weight paper had attached itself to my retinas. Words appeared, letter by letter, in perfect Times New Roman typeface (size 12).

Desk. Pen. Paper. Hand (unmoving). Screwdriver. Duct tape. Body (umoving). Chair. Floor (wet, red). Bookshelf. Bed.

The world around me became words.

I admit, at first it was overwhelming. As my head swiveled from object to object, words would come and go with disorienting brevity. Previous writing scrolled upward as new information manifested. The longer I looked in any one direction, the more detail the goggles displayed until, presumably, nothing new could be written on the subject.

The chair, for example. Upon closer inspection, it was not just a chair. It was an office chair. It had blue-green cushions, one on the back and one on the seat. It had a lever to adjust the height by six inches, and another lever to adjust the angle of the back cushion by up to 42 degrees. The frame was black plastic and synthetic rubber polymer, the base a chrome-colored metal that spread into five legs, each with a plastic wheel that could orient in 360 degrees on its vertical axis. It contained a child-sized, ash-gray bundle of sheets.

This amount of detail, which, I admit, would have otherwise been too mind-numbingly monotonous and flavorless to enjoy, fascinated me when read through the life-to-text lenses. The mundane was enriched by objective, calm narration. I quickly learned the in-depth characteristics of my everyday surroundings.

My desk, for example, had a screw loose near the top frame, and could benefit from some tightening. My sheet had a smudge near the end of the bed where I had absent-mindedly set a dirty boot. There were crumbs near the skirting of the wall; motes of discounted chocolate-chip cookies, a generic brand, five days old, dust-adjacent.

Fascinating!

I had to remind myself that I couldn’t actually see any of this. My eyes saw digitized paper and ink—letters, words. But my imagination saw so much more. The vivid descriptions allowed me to picture the room in my mind as if I were actually there!

After a good long hour digesting my immediate setting, I made my way down to the ground floor of my apartment building, determined to find a more valuable interaction with which to test my tech.

Walking down the stairs proved difficult at first. The goggles immediately recognized the stairwell, and even the individual steps, but there was no three-dimensional space through which I could navigate. I took the steps one at a time. After the third-and-a-quarter step (I hurt my ankle, I’ll admit, with a slam through the phantom three-fourths of anticipation), the goggles adjusted to my intentions. Instead of pure description, it included instruction.

Two steps remained.

One step remained.

I made it to the ground floor safely. I was nauseous, however, and removed the goggles to prevent myself from exposing last night’s microwave dinner to the apartment entryway. My skin was clammy. I headed toward a nearby cafe, my invention nestled in my armpit like an egg in a nest. Seeing the real world again was a shock.

The streets were ugly and dirty in the pale morning light. Between the abundant litter, hobbling pigeons, overcast sky, and strangers in winter wear, every shade of gray was represented. The gray pulsed at me. I yearned to be back in the white-warm comfort of my goggles.

At the cafe, the barista and her manager almost turned me away. I get it, I was a mess. I told them I had spent all night finger-painting with my infant son. After a few whispers and a sad look, they took sympathy and gave me a free drink (I had forgotten my purse anyway). At a small red table in the corner, cappuccino in hand, I reinitiated the life-to-text goggles. A hum came upon my being. My drab world exploded with the light and color of explicit prose.

I was figuratively drooling all over my figurative chin. Every piece of detritus and human scum now appeared to me fully written. Lampposts had nuance and history. Shrubs had names and colorful descriptions. There was no end to the text. I chose to focus on a sock, abandoned on the sidewalk. The longer I read about the sock, the more the text experimented and grew. Simple sentences metamorphosed into compound, then complex, then compound-complex. The unspooling prose included detached details, such as: what brand the sock was; what colored the stains (mud, urine); how long it had been withering on the cement; who had worn it; how many dead rats could fit inside; where the other sock could be. It seemed that so long as I didn’t turn away, no aspect—no atom!—of this once-simple foot holster would be left without elucidation.

A pigeon flew by.

It... flew! That is to say, the text on my screen wrote: “A pigeon is flying by.” In present continuous! The text capabilities were becoming more powerful than I had imagined. Not only could it describe inert things, it could describe actions in the act of acting! The importance of this struck me in waves. 

Reflecting back, I had unknowingly resigned myself to enjoying my goggle life in encyclopedic form, like a woman perusing a wax museum; I would read the plaques beneath objets de vie, scratch my chin, ponder the deeper artistic significance. But no, the text-to-life goggles could understand verbs at the maximum velocity of their verbose verbality. This opened the lid of narrative substance like a treasure chest with yet more treasure chests matryoshka-ed inside.

In simple terms, life was being written in real time.

For my first true sip of drama, I had to look no further than the coffee table to the left of where I sat. There was a young couple, mid-20s, having a hushed argument. Their cranberry scones were half eaten. I angled myself in such a way that I could read them without being noticed.

Here’s their story.

The man had cheated on his fiance while visiting a provocative art display in a public museum. Twice. 

The first time was an accident of artistic pheromones, he claimed. The lude modernist display (a graphic orgy, each lifelike participant crafted from different raw materials, such as wax, stone, straw, gelatin, etc.) had aroused him greatly. He locked eyes with a young student from my former university. Without a word, he and the unknown fawn were driven, via the will of the artist, to the bathroom behind the souvenir shop. The next day he went again, re-seeking the thrill one only feels when submitting to base impulses of disgust while surrounded by high art. He lingered, for hours, near the nude displays. He favored a position conveniently between an acrylic hip and an oaken breast. Eventually, another young woman of his same sexual disposition took him for a quick ride. This time, however, security caught on.

The backstory went even deeper. According to the text, the cheater and the fiance had been arguing for weeks. She wanted to get married ASAP, which clashed with his personal motto of “why rush things?” This heated court case, in which the woman acted as prosecution, took quite the turn when she got a call from the museum about her husband’s public indecency.

“Please, let’s just get married,” the man whispered at the same moment I was reading it.

It had taken me a few minutes to get used to this new sort of pseudo-audiobook. The audio of my ears competed with the quotations river-dancing onto the page. The couple were my personal, impromptu script performers. I missed a few words here and there, but my own creativity continued filling the gaps. Soon enough, I was enraptured. Even if the whispers had gotten too low for my ears, the life-to-text device kept my imagination fueled.

Soon a new revelation came to light in the couple’s spat: the woman was, and always had been, sleeping with her coworker! (I was feasting on the proverbial popcorn.) This confused and infuriated the man, which confused and infuriated the woman. They ended up caught in such a tangle of their own misdeeds and secret amygdalas that neither could figure out who was the bad person.

“If you were sleeping with other people... why did you want to get married so badly!?”

After a pause, a sigh, the woman said, “I like the view from your apartment.” Her response gave me such a giggle that I blew my cover with a caffeinated snort.

Embarrassed, the man kicked himself free of the table and exited, chased by a fiance.

I held my stomach, chortling. My eyes were tearing up. The real drama of the human experience! This was all I had ever wanted. None of my failed university script-writing courses had modeled a dynamic relationship with such liveliness, such raw emotion. Such humor! No movie, no theater play could compare. I admit, I started clapping as they walked away. I stood, even!

I took a drink of my cappuccino.

Opal takes a drink of her cappuccino. She stops. Her hands are shaking.

I stopped. My hands were shaking. I set my cappuccino down and read the words again, slowly: “Opal takes a drink of her cappuccino.”

I slumped down in my seat (and read as much). This was a massive disappointment. The goggles could narrate my own actions into the text. Me, Opal, who, at this moment, was not shocked to realize that she—or rather, I— preferred to be neither author, nor narrator, nor character. I wanted to be left out of this. Unmentioned. My ennui was doubled by the tech’s use of present tense, which made me feel as if I were living the narrative. Ugh! Living the narrative? How was I supposed to escape into my escapism if I couldn’t even escape my own miserable life? Every guilt could be shown back in black lettering, a haunting of the self. I would live those moments again. I would feel wretched, and used, and useless. 

Her hands are shaking as she removes the t

I couldn’t bear it. My hands were shaking as I removed the topaz goggles.

But then, I eureka-ed! A-ha! It could be as easy as suspending belief! Suspending disbelief was easy enough, so why not the opposite? This isn’t me. I would simply pretend, through the power of a reader, that the person described in the text was some other Opal, a fictional Opal who, through some quirk of this particular narrative process, is the witness to it all. I would read her perspective. I would live through her just as readily as I would if my name were, by coincidence, Viktor Frankenstein, reading his first Mary Shelley. I would suspend that belief of self as much as needed and feel no control, no culpability, and no remorse. The novel could continue!

Goggles, activate!

I relaxed (and so did Opal). I finished my cappuccino and made my way down the street, ready for my next reading session.

Some of the verbs, I quickly learned, were too verb-y for my current reading speed. A passing truck, for example, built in 1988 and chock full of empty crates that once held fruit and tubers, nearly verbed right into me as I crossed the road. I determined that any object which, under normal circumstances, could be a threat to my well-being, should be thoroughly read from a distance until I could read the situation to its entirety. This caused many delays.

I crossed the street like a hop-scotch zombie, a slow-motion pinball gone rogue, bouncing off the shoulders of strangers. People complained. Some shouted. Some shoved. Cars honked. After three deadly crosswalks, I managed to find safety in a nearby bookshop.

Bookshops have always been havens for me. After I had to drop out of university, I spent a lot of time between shelves, breathing deeply the paper-and-glue air. It soothed me. I fantasized about shirking my duties and reading all day long.

And now, I was!

Some could call me the first True Reader. The barrier between read and unread was paper thin (heh!). I was a scientist recently born into the field of reading life, and as such, I felt the urge to experiment. I grabbed the first book in reach, from the first shelf. I didn’t even bother looking at the cover. I was too excited. It occurred to me that reading a book—an actual paper book in my grubby paws!—while wearing my life-to-text goggles might create something profound, something paradoxical.

It did not.

It did not.

Everything repeated. Everything repeated. Over and over. Over and over.

Reading text about reading text created a sort of orthographical feedback loop, the effect of which was ringing in my eyes. My head spun. I ripped the goggles off my face and took a seat just outside the bookshop entrance, my back against the building and my butt flattened against cold cement.

What was I doing? Why was I out here on the streets, 7:00 in the morning, still in my pajama pants and a blood-speckled night-shirt, stumbling around with goggles on my head like an alien assimilating into hoo-man society?

The thought disturbed me further... but, before I could think about it too much, I suspended belief and clamped the topaz lenses into place. The world was once again a soothing canvas of black text on cream. The world was once again objective and digestible.

The workday was in full swing, the city abuzz with life. Words flooded my view. Too much stimuli squawked for my attention. A police officer gave me a sharp look, as if I had killed someone. I ducked into a nearby alley. I had used it before and found it mostly safe, despite the unfair reputations alleys can get.

It was calmer here, pinched between the fingers of two buildings. I took a breath. I was able to read the glass shards on the ground fast enough to save a few deep cuts on my bare feet, although a couple of the more nefarious specks would need sucked out of my pinky toe when I got the chance. I leaned against a dumpster—ripe with the excess foo of a nearby restaurant’s egg foo young. The sounds of traffic were muffled, the shuffling of feet absent. I heard pigeons, but saw none. Neither did my goggles. There was a disparity between my ears and eyes. Except for the meowing.

A cat is meowing.

This was another new revelation. Or perhaps another new adaptation. When valuable, the life-to-text goggles could pick up and translate ambient sounds. The meowing of a nearby cat. A cat desperate for attention or food, but out of sight.

I listened more. It was hard to tell the direction. The text did not help. It had noted the meowing of the cat, and sometimes, would simply add that the cat continued to meow. But it could not provide much more detail. This limitation was infuriating.

More infuriating, however, was the lack of objectivity in the text. “A cat is meowing,” it said, as if that were the plain and simple truth. But no, the cat was incessantly meowing. Incessantly, as in, without ceasing. The adverb itself was important, because, as each whiny meow bounced off of my eardrum, I knew another would come, without fail, without ceasing. Where was this young cat? How could I get it to stop meowing in my ears? Apparently, my translation machine was not without gross fault. It could not understand the difference between meowing and incessantly meowing. It could not be objective to my liking. It could not articulate that this meow was a piercing meow—or a whine, perhaps—a piercing whine that was, without exaggeration, incessant.

I scrambled around the alley like an egg. I searched the dumpsters, reading their insides, calling out softly. I straddled an overturned cabinet to better read through first-floor windows. Overhead, the knife edge of gray daylight lit the alley, yet I could not see the cat anywhere. And it kept meowing. Incessantly.

I confess that I have not always been patient. As a child, my temper threw its own tantrums. In high school track, every 400m race ended as a false start. In university, my creative writing professor applauded my endings, but said I had no middles—that I was too quick to finish a story I had only just begun. He was right. The same was true with other, unrelated narratives, such as the disappointing story of a talented literature major who had her whole future in front of her and, before the shot of a starter pistol, ended up a single, unwilling mother in squalor and shame. Enough about Opal.

I threw an impatient handful of pebbles at a fire escape. This spooked some pigeons, which, to my great relief, caused a cat to erupt from nowhere at high velocity and shoot through the alley, dragging its incessant-ness into the distance. I couldn’t read quickly enough to know why it had been making so much noise, but I understood with abrupt punctuation that the frightened feline ran whiskers-first into the road and was promptly and effectively smooshed by another passing fruit truck, this one a 1992 Dodge. According to the text, the truck was rusty blue. It had dents along the fenders, a sticker that read “Big Mother Trucker,” and cat guts lacquering its front-right and back-right wheels.

I read about the broken state of the animal with a pseudo-alumnal dispassion. A terrible way to go, I measured. I was warmed with the idea that there was a counterpoint to this suffering; there were superior ways to die. Some children might be more blessed than this particular kitten. I mused allowed, without aid of goggles, that for every horrid smudge, there is a sweeter mummification.

As I thought these thoughts and, in turn, read these thoughts, I couldn’t help but wonder where the line between my mind and my lenses took distinction. Similar to how the dialogue of the broken couple was simultaneously text and audio, my actions, and the narration of my actions, were both casting light and shadowplay. It occurred to me, Opal, as well as the character, Opal, that what was being written and what was being read were aligning in a lunar eclipse formation.

There were other tests I must do, and so, much like King Lear, I did them with very little thought towards their outcome.

At a thrift store I managed to exchange my soiled clothes with a used red-and-white pinstripe dress, at a discount of four-plus fingers (remember, no purse). Shoes as well—ill-fitted, clompy. I looked, according to the reflection of a puddle reflecting upon the cream-and-black topaz lenses, much like a picnic lunch, sans children (thank goodness). I was skinny in the arms, weak in the legs, bloated in the stomach, but otherwise, if the narration is to be believed, quite a hotty. Long brown hair, tan-ish skin sucked white from a long winter, topaz eyes, and a mouth wry with the jovial sadness of a forty-year-old twenty-five-year-old.

I dumped Opal’s clothes in an alley (not that alley, a different one). I visited a mosque, then a cathedral, then a presidential monument, trying my hand at prayer, wondering if my new perspective might word-view the divine.

I watched people. I peeked at phones. I saw TV ads and listened to music. Everything I did, I did as if chewed gum sticking to the boots of the passerby. The flavorful scent of street hotdogs with ketchup and onions was almost as pleasant to read about as it was to smell.

As the afternoon heat of the city stuck to my skin, I yearned for the artificial breeze of an AC or a rotating fan. I knew Opal was putting off going home, but I didn’t ask myself why. Suspension of belief. Whatever Opal had done, I was incurious about it.

Opal contemplates Free Will.

(A moment of ambivalent peace with the death of the cat. Souls touched.)

What was Free Will in this new topaz perspective? The writer writing the character writing the writer, ouroboros-ing its own tail and, for extra flavor, its own sickly head? To simplify: if we are the writers of our own destiny, who are the readers?

As an honest woman, there are things I feel I should confess to the reader, for clarity. I had gotten drunk. 

Yes, I was wearing sophisticated, hi-tech topaz goggles, but those were not the only goggles invading my ogles during this adventure. Near the end of my expedition, I took to a local bar and donned a pair of beer goggles as well, of the vodka hue (thanks, chubby guy with cheese breath). It was with glass in hand that I started contemplating Opal’s quote-unquote Free Will. 

To me, the conundrum of Opal’s Free Will within the narrative of my text-to-life vision was becoming a sort of... complication? It was clear that her life was, like a leek, tepid at best (this humorous play on words drew from me a real-life chuckle). Worse, she had had so many ambitions, all of which were either the stone or toe in her tripping. She had fallen face-first upon her fate by method of cat and truck—skid marks and all. Since you don’t have the luxury of topaz goggles, I’ll paint the picture for you.

Opal was twenty-three when she learned that her fastlane lifestyle was going to slow to an infant’s crawl. She was pregnant. Her plan was to finish her liberal arts degree after a brief maternity hiatus. Her creative writing professor approved. He even smudged the numbers, inflating her grades as quickly as she, herself, inflated. But then, he changed his mind. Not only would he no longer help her pass her classes, he would no longer seek his rightful credit as the male author of her unborn woes. 

Even with the power of the topaz goggles it was impossible to truly know why he had done this, or why it was so common for a man to evaporate shortly after his own child was born. Did he ever feel the stab of guilt? (Another weepy chuckle escapes me, a private pun.) 

Opal had been, like so many other young women, left hanging, suspended in disbelief. Her apartment was paid for, at the very least. A stipend for food and care. Anonymous money wrapped in a ribbon of caveats. Yet, she had no patience for this new path. She was restless, hungry for activity and knowledge and adventure. Incessant motherhood defeated her. 

This is the person I was following now, through prose. It was my new drama. The previous drama of the couple from the cafe—coined Sex and Art, added to my neural save files—had only been a warm-up. Now that the magic of my technology was at full function, I could use it to hunt down and dismantle the life-soiled, delusional Opal, my next narrative prey.

However, despite the newfound capabilities, my experimental lenses were running low on battery, electrical motivation sputtering like a dying engine. Perhaps dwelling on Opal’s backstory had drained them. Still, I wanted to press their potential as far as I could. I opened the mouth of the device and, unsure, shot glass palmed, administered a few drops of alcohol. Then a few drops more. As a fuel, alcohol was notorious. As a creative influence, essential.

The lenses vibrated into fresh life, giving me goosebumps. I fastened them securely, the rubber strap glued to my head with a spiritual permanence. The white whitened to cream, the text emerging like coal icebergs in a sea of milk. It was only a matter of picking up Opal’s narrative thread and following it to its glowing end. 

Through some authorial contrivance, I happened to know where Opal lived. And, to further spit contrivances at the reader’s face, I also had a copy of her keys in my pajama pants. I suppose Opal had always been a bit too trusting.

I followed her into her apartment complex, up the stairs—one step remains, two steps remain—and watched as she keyed the lock of her door with a carpal tremor. We were both reluctant: me as a seasoned reader who could tell something was wrong, and her as the victim of her own crimes. I tried to stop her, but, alas, her hands were out of my hands. The nature of the written word strapped me in the passenger’s seat at best, and at worst stuffed me into the trunk. So I read on, frightened, yet unable to stop reading as she confronted what she had done.

Opal stood in the midst of blood and sheets, her face a porcelain glaze. She knew what she had done in simple, objective terms. She knew who was in the blue-green chair, unmoving, creatively written in red. She knew what was wrapped in the small, ash-gray bundle on his lap. She bit her lip. She had never been suited for motherhood, and the incessant whining had been too much. It was a disgusting moment, raw with immaturity, regret, desperation, the loss of human life. 

Yet I enjoyed the scene, ceiling to bloody floor; the journey, the characterization, the climactic pay-off; the purpling prose masterpiece of a beautiful madness that was between and beyond words.

I stood there in my topaz goggles, reading the best story of my life.




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