There was a six month period during his first year of undergrad where Carlos communicated almost exclusively in lines from The Big Lebowski and The Life of Brian. He doesn’t say this because he’s proud of that fact—quite the opposite, in fact. Definitely the opposite. One hundred percent the opposite, and Carlos would appreciate if you never brought up that time in his life again. This fact does, however, illustrate his point: Carlos has a mind for quotes.
Forging his own words, no. There’s a reason he ran into the sweet arms of numbers and graphs and statistics. Science requires writing, yes, but it is of the same predictable, hard-worked trudge as the rest of scientific work. Learn the formula. Apply the formula. Publish your paper. That much, at least, Carlos can handle. But other people’s words, those stay with him usually for longer than the people who spoke them.
For example, he has a list—of the purely metaphorical variety, he’s not that sad yet—of the most important kind phrases tossed his way, the casual ones that mean so much more than the grand gestures. The little compliments, the quick praise, the tossed off nice job and good luck that mean almost nothing—he remembers them and pours over them when he forgets why anyone would offer them. Metaphorically pours over them, of course. Metaphorically bookmarks and highlights them. Metaphorically writes in the margins things like what a good friend and the only good thing that came out of that relationship.
The list may be a literal list. Carlos may, in fact, be that sad, though as Kate Turner told him on April 23, 2007, “Eh, you know, you’re at least the good kind of weird neurotic scientist. Trust me, this field is full of a lot of assholes, and let me tell you, Carlos, you’re pretty alright.”
It’s a lot more heartwarming in context. Carlos’s heart still clenches when he thinks about it.
(When he first came to Night Vale, when his only relationship with Cecil was furtively tuning in to the day’s news in the privacy of his car so his coworkers couldn’t see all the things Carlos’s face was doing as he listened, Carlos hadn’t added Cecil’s comments to the list. At first he’d assumed Cecil was mocking him, then he hadn’t known what Cecil was doing, and now there were just too many things to note. If Carlos wants to remember what Cecil thinks of him, all he has to do is tune into the news and, okay, Carlos’s heart is clenching again.)
Carlos has got a mind for the bad stuff too, of course, the words flung at him that still smart years later when something presses against the bruise. But that’s nothing special. That’s human nature, to remember the ways that you’ve been attacked in the past so as to minimize the danger in the future, and he doesn’t pay those words more mind than he can help, which through a perfected combination of redirection and repression is now just those late nights when the last cup of coffee’s wearing off and the next one hasn’t kicked in yet, and you can hear him muttering as he putters through the nearly silently lab, “Fuck you, Mike, you’re the one who doesn’t understand the basic tenets of the scientific method.”
But that’s, of course, normal. Science is very comforting in that respect. It teaches you the difference between the mode and the outlier, between the deviation and the norm. While normality itself is a concept that Carlos is rapidly losing faith in, the average still exists so after Carlos slams Cecil’s car door and bolts inside the safety of his lab, he doesn’t pretend that anything particularly special is happening when he spends a solid minute knocking his head against the door. “Oh, are you self-reliant, you dick?” he mutters, his forehead still pressed against the warm wood. “Is that the first thing you are? You fucking fuck.”
Carlos has a knack for words. His words. His worst words. Other words too, but in the strictly tiered hierarchy of his mind, everything that he wished he had not said and still couldn’t understand why he had occupies the rank of seraphim, all flaming wings and eighteen eyes and judgment rockabilly outfits.
After a year in Night Vale, Carlos’s metaphors have taken on an alarming specificity.
“Ooh, let’s experiment on the trees!” he simpers as he analyzes the particles of living shadow with more force than was strictly necessary, in what is objectively a fairly bad impersonation of himself but subjectively is right on the money because, yup, that’s how much of an ass he sounded like. “After all, that’s what people do on dates! Tree experiments. You stupid jackass, why the hell would you do that for twenty minutes? On your first date? On any date?”
It takes a long time to figure out how to reverse the town’s shadowification (a new addition to the list of words Carlos has had to invent since he arrived). The fact that he stops periodically so he can bury his face in his hands and moan, “Personal reasons, why,” doesn’t speed things up.
“I have been thinking?” Carlos says to himself as he releases the deshadowfication element in convenient powder form into the cool and semi-sentient winds that blow through Night Vale after dark. “I have been thinking?” he repeats as he watches the pensive winds carry the (don’t say magic dust, don’t say magic dust) neutralizing agent through the increasingly lightened, detailed streets.
I have been thinking that you have the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard was the way that sentence was supposed to have gone. Carlos had thought up on that morning, as he spent ten minutes in front of the mirror staring at his reflection and trying to look perfect. One good smooth line to start the date, Carlos had thought as he tousled and tousled and tousled his hair, and everything else will fall into place.
“That’s what scientists do!” is what had popped out instead. It was like that fairy tale where the rude girl belched frogs and bugs with every word, but that affliction seems marginally less embarrassing than most of the things that Carlos’s mouth produced tonight.
In the street, a formless blackened shape writhes to the ground and rises again as Karen Dawson, waitress at Big Rico’s. She pats her hair back into place and tugs the wrinkles out of her skirt before she gives Carlos a wave. “Thanks!” she says, skipping out of the street. “I thought I was going to be late for my shift. Or, well, I didn’t think anything except the shadows of the thoughts that I had once had, like the last grains of a desert that exists only in your dreams, but either way, I’d probably have been fired.”
“Glad to help,” Carlos says because that’s the only response he can think of to that. “I think being turned into a shadow counts as a sick day, though.”
Karen laughs. “Sick day. That’s cute. Hey, how’d your date with Cecil go?”
Carlos groans and makes a gesture that in the official Night Vale language of dance means, roughly, why does God let bad things happen to good people.
She beams at him as she turns towards Big Rico’s. “That’s great! Ugh, you two, so cute. Night Vale hasn’t had such a pair of lovers since Nick Hill at City Bank met that pile of sentient money. Listen, I got to get to work, but I can’t wait to hear about this on the radio! Thanks again!” She waves once more as she jogs to Big Rico’s. Carlos waves back before he lowers that hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. The radio. Oh good, his shame will be public. He’d almost forgotten.
He steps back inside and closes the door before he flings himself down onto the couch. Cecil could have been sitting on this couch right now. It’s hard to tell what’s more at fault for the fact that he’s not, the buzzing shadows or Carlos himself. Cecil could have been sitting here. Carlos could have been sitting beside him. They could have been doing things that didn’t require words, and maybe when that was done, the words wouldn’t have been nearly as hard. Cecil’s thigh had been so warm under Carlos’s hand that night. His lips had been so warm as well.
I have been thinking that you have the most beautiful voice that I’ve ever heard. Carlos could have murmured that against the soft skin of Cecil’s throat with the larynx buzzing under Carlos’s lips. Or maybe he wouldn’t have had to say it at all. Not if he’d had enough time alone with Cecil’s tongue and lips and jaw. He could have felt Cecil’s lungs swelling and cresting, sucking the air through the quivering larynx, and then spitting it back out again in little oh, oh, ohs like the little pop of air Cecil’s mouth released when Carlos had grabbed him and kissed him because he wanted to snuff out the little spark of disappointment that flared up in the voice of Night Vale’s eyes when Carlos—stupid, objectively not perfect Carlos—said, “No.”
Disappointment. Carlos’s head jerks up. “He was disappointed that I didn’t invite him in,” he says to the presumably empty room (this is Night Vale. You never can tell). “After that date, he still wanted to come in.”
The 1950s style phone on the wall that isn’t connected to any energy source and doesn’t seem to be made of entirely solid matter rings. When Carlos picks it up, after wrapping his hand in some aluminum foil to be on the safe side, he hears distant screaming and the crackle of flames. And then, “Oh my god, of course he wanted to come in, you idiot.”
“With all due respect and proper thankfulness for your due diligence,” Carlos says, leaning against the wall, “no one asked for your opinion.”
“Then flail about your date quieter. Except don’t because that would be very inconsiderate towards the law enforcement officers in charge of monitoring potential threats within your dating life,” the deputy of the Sheriff’s Secret Police replies. Carlos still doesn’t know her name, but she’s been personally monitoring him since he arrived in Night Vale and after almost nightly calls reminding that he’ll likely be dead by morning, they’ve formed something of a rapport. Carlos should be far more alarmed by this, but to be fair, Carlos should be far more alarmed about ninety percent of his life these days, and she’s the only other person in this town that he’s met who watches Enlightened so Carlos learned to cope.
Since the phone isn’t attached to anything, he carries it back over to the couch and falls back down on it. “I made him run experiments on trees with me.”
“Yeah, that was sweet,” the nameless deputy says. “I liked when he touched your face.”
“He touched my face?”
“Boy, how far were you into your science?”
“Up to my knees in science,” Carlos says. “Up to my shoulders in embarrassment. Over my head in my sheer disbelief that I was still continuing to experiment on trees. He touched my face?”
Only the fact that he’s currently being observed by at least one clandestine municipal force stops Carlos from squealing. Then he remembers that he’s always being observed by at least on clandestine municipal force and so goes ahead on the squealing. He is a grown man. He pitches his squealing a bit lower to compensate.
“You’re being too hard on yourself,” she says. In the background, something wails like the voices from the pit and falls silent. “It’s like Arthur Powers told you on October 25, 2001. You think too much about how much people like you when you should just accept that they all like you.”
“Don’t read my list of compliments,” Carlos says.
“If you didn’t want your local secret police to read every nice thing someone has ever said to you, then why would you write them down?” She sounds honestly baffled. It’s why Carlos just sighs and lets it go.
“So the date went well?” he asks.
“The date went well. Cecil is hugging a pillow on his bed just saying your name over and over again as we speak. He hasn’t even taken off his tunic and furry pants yet, and everyone knows that’s the quickest way to get them wrinkled and matted.”
“About those,” Carlos says. Was I—” He tries to figure out a way to ask if his outfit looked nice without sounding like a teenager. “Is that the standard date wear?”
“No,” the nameless deputy says dryly. “That’s just Cecil.”
He’s weirdly charmed. A little horrified. Mostly charmed. Carlos thanks the deputy for her diligence and promises that he’ll finally get around to watching Justified before he hangs up and let the slightly smoking phone fall to the floor. And then he stretches so far that his back pops and he just manages to wrap his fingers around the strap of his favorite backpack before he has to admit defeat and actually get off the couch. He pulls it over and dumps it out on the floor in front of him. About ten different notebooks fall out. Records of the town’s radiation levels, of the town’s death count, of the town’s resurrection count, of the town’s births in each of the major categories of birthing (live birth, egg, spawning, and other)—the usual data markers of his work nowadays. He slides those notebooks aside and picked up the battered leather one with the tattered pages and the faint smell of his mother’s favorite perfume.
“SECRET!! DO NOT OPEN!!!!” the front reads in the earnest and ill-formed handwriting of Carlos Menendez, age ten. When he rests it in his lap, it falls open to the first clean page. Carlos fishes a pen off the floor and jots today’s date in the upper corner. Then he crosses that out and writes instead June 15, 2012 to present.
Speaker: Cecil. Location: Night Vale Community Radio, broadcast. Occasion: Lots. Utterance:
And here Carlos pauses for a moment as he sifts through his options. Then he smiles.
It’s a lot more heartwarming in context.