This one time was actually thousands of times, tens of thousands of times, simultaneous only when seen through a perspective granted by one eye ninety degrees out of joint. A historian’s perspective. A futurist’s perspective. But simultaneous nonetheless.

A pebble tossed into a pond makes a splash. The splash makes a ring. The ring makes a series of concentric ripples. The ripples repeat and spread out, weakening, away from the center of impact.

Time is goofy and asymmetrical when we unspool it the way we do. Play it backwards and the ripples zoom inwards, strengthening, building to form a ring of spikes and a crown and then … and then forces conspire to eject the pebble. At that instant the water instantly smooths over on top, a placid mirror. A perfect mirror.

That never happens.

Imagine an apple made of water, with the impact sparking in the core, dead center. A confusion of cavitation occurs, a shock throughout, and then spherical ripples radiate outwards, core to rind, weakening, randomizing.

Now imagine only being able to see those ripples in slices a millimeter thick, one slice at a time. One tiny slice by the rind, barely as large around as it is thick. What happens there is discontinuous, weak, barely noticeable. The next slice is larger, but not thicker. The ripples are weak, but make a detectable pattern. But what is missing is the cause, the sense of the direction from which the disturbance came.

In the next series of slices, we see more ripples, more patterns, but nothing to resolve the mystery. Until you get to the center slice. There is the shock that changes the past and the future in spreading, echoing, and because of our habit of viewing time in thin little sequential slices, retroactive and proactive ripples that stack and cancel and reinforce and, as we continue into future slices, re-weaken and re-randomize.

Understand that the spherical apple of water, viewed in slices, is missing at least one dimension to be a useful metaphor for what has happened, is happening, will happen. Also keep in mind nothing is perfectly spherical, of a uniform material and density, except an approximation in a physicist’s equations to keep him or her from having to do more complicated math. The earth is involved, with all of its mud and rock and water and air and liquid core and twisting magnetic fields, plus the shadow in spacetime that the sun casts with its own gravity well and constant blowing storms. And more.

But the earth takes a direct hit. And it does it some time from now, maybe months, maybe a year, maybe a bit more than a year, and this impact causes — sorry, will have caused and will continue to cause disturbances radiating backward and forward into time that change and unchange and rechange events at the quantum level in ways I doubt we’ll be able to appropriately comprehend for a hundred years.

As this hit hasn’t happened yet from our point of view, I can’t at all predict whether we survive it. Or whether we all get completely, retroactively unwritten. Or if human history simply reappears, retroactively rewritten to have had a consistent existence throughout the duration of the trauma, like the surface of the pool after the pebble has settled to the bottom and lain there for hours, decades after the discontinuity, whenever and wherever that actually occurs.

I have the early part of the graph, which is, I hope, symmetrical with the late half — if not perfectly symmetrical, then possibly at least consistent with some sort of frame-dragging hysteresis that eventually resolves to smooth water. But I don’t know how high or traumatic the central peak is. Or more disturbingly, whether we are a child, causally speaking, of the impact itself that will resolve away with the decay of the ripples or whether we are part of the smooth surface that once was, and eventually shall return and remain.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the conclusion of the past three years of my research. I have made available not just bound paper copies of my team’s paper as is customary, but also made available for download the gigabytes of raw data and huge amounts of intermediary analyses and even copies of the software we wrote to help compile and run our tests on the data. I beg, we beg, each and every one of you to try to find the flaws in our processes and artifacts in our analyses that would show that the phenomenon we’ve detected doesn’t really exist, and that there is no impending crisis, and that I have scared myself silly over nothing.

In advance I tender my resignation from any and all positions of authority and advisory boards and academic responsibilities the moment it turns out I have caused undue concern and embarrassed myself, my team, and my institution with a specter born of my imagination and unfounded fears. Please, I beg you again, prove me wrong. Disgrace is, personally, the best case scenario. And I have a lot of fishing to catch up on.

Thank you for your time and attention.


February 19, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I noticed that whatever it was I was noticing I started noticing more of. Oh, c’mon,  you’ve noticed it too.

Remember when you got your first car? There you are, terrified of getting smushed or running over babies or whatever, and the first thing that distracts you is you see your own car a lane over and three car-lengths up about to make a turn. And then you narrowly avoid smushing a baby and you forget all about it, until you finally make it out onto the highway, and there it is again! And eventually you make a game of it, keeping a tally of how many duplicates of your car you see every time you go out.

That didn’t happen to me for my first car, but that’s only because it was a rusted-out Corvair as old as I was. Happened for my second car, though, and for every car I got afterward.

Buy new shoes, something unusual, and there’s someone else wearing them. New purse? There it is! New hairstyle? Ditto.

When I noticed that it happened for everything, it was because I found a new mole on my shoulder. New moles are scary, but some of them are harmless, and this one turned out to be harmless too when I had it checked out. But it was sleeveless weather, and I started looking at exposed shoulders whenever I could, looking to see who else was copying my new style.

And I saw at least a couple every day. Sometimes a lot more than that. It’s like, even in an infinite universe, there just wasn’t enough details to go around. What clinched it was eventually seeing my rusted out old heap of a 60s Corvair again, and I knew mine had fallen to dust decades ago. It was like it hadn’t been carted off to the junkyard after all. It had gone to the Props department so it could be mothballed until it was needed again.

An old boyfriend showed me this weird math thing once, and I mostly didn’t pay any attention to it because it was the sort of thing pot-heads carried home from the head shops to hang on their walls under a blacklight. But he could make his computer draw the thing, painting it in all kinds of different colors depending on how he set it up. Sometimes it was all round shapes, sometimes it was all stringy and thorny. It wasn’t until I saw my Corvair again that I thought about it, because the one thing I remembered past the tacky colors and the blacklight posterishness of it was that he would point to some detail on the complicated thing and zoom in, and then you could see not only the big detail you zoomed in on, but a bunch of tinier versions of that detail all around it, and then you could zoom in on  one of those, and do it again, and again, and then eventually you’d just be lost swimming in a sea of whatever it was you zeroed in on in the first place.

He said you could zoom in forever because the picture wasn’t exactly two-dimensional. It was, like, two-and-a-half dimensional. And that when you pushed into it like that, you were wandering off into one of its infinite protuberances. It didn’t make any sense at the time, but the way that details kept cropping up again and again, I thought maybe I could use it.

I started with looking for a nose, like I had looked for my mole, a nose that was pretty familiar to me, until I started noticing it at least a couple of times a day. Then a chin. Then that nose in combination with that chin. Then what I imagined his hairline would look like today. And then ears.

It took nearly six months, but that’s how I found my brother again who had run away when he was sixteen.


February 18, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was sitting in the jury box for a simple civil case — a suit to recoup damages from some fist-fight that had gotten out of hand when someone’s brother came over to beat the crap out of his sister’s abusive boyfriend. Medical bills, wrecked furniture, therapy for traumatized children that had been in the room, pain and suffering … and it was all bullshit.

This was my fifth time in eight years having to waste days — hopefully just days, in this case — or weeks, or even a full month for that murder trial six years back, watching two groups of people pick up different ends of the law to try to beat money or what passes for justice out of each other like dueling pinatas. I’d gotten coaching from friends and coworkers on how not to be selected for juries so they’d quit wasting my time and giving me nightmares, but I always played the strategies backwards.

So what if it put me so far behind at work I could never catch up? This needed doing.

The law is a child’s sketch of justice, with big fat shaky black lines trying to draw the boundaries around what’s right and what’s wrong, and the sketch never fits the picture when it’s overlaid. Never. And then there’s the fact that it’s pulling teeth to get the law to show up and help you. And then you nearly need a trial to decide which laws will be made to try to apply, and the decision-making process has nothing to do with justice. It’s all about what can be made to stick. What could convince a judge or the twelve assorted pudding cups that make up the typical jury.

In this situation with the brother showing up to beat his sister’s boyfriend, I had plenty of sympathy. Involving the legal system is a last resort. It’s unchaining a lazy lion in a room you’re both trapped in and trying to fling enough steak sauce on the other guy. It’s expensive to get access to the lion, and it’s messy, and someone always has to pay for cleanup. And try as they might to make the courts accessible to poor people, rich people can always afford tastier steak sauce and more powerful squirt guns. And that’s the best-case scenario.

The law is just a thing. A club, a crowbar, a chainsaw, a scalpel. Justice comes from the hands of people trying to wield it. It can’t cross any of the big fat lines, and you wouldn’t believe the number of hands on the handle, the vast majority of which weren’t even present when whatever crisis occurred to invoke it.

And lately, the courts themselves are too worried about the costs of trials to be willing to hand them out as often as they might be necessary. It’s sick. It’s a trainwreck. And I can’t help but to come running with a stack of blankets and bottles of water and try to do my best to make sure actual justice happens.

Justice here was clear to me. The criminal parts had already been handled — the abuser sent to jail for three months plus some probation for beating on his girlfriend, who had since moved out, taking her kid and leaving his. The brother got a year’s probation and a $1500 fine for delivering a beat-down that, theoretically, should have been replaced by calling the police beforehand and waiting for them to decide to show up and arrest someone and turn over evidence to a district attorney who may or may not decide to seek prosecution, all of the above as time and manpower permits.

Again, justice has nothing to do with the laws involved. It’s illegal to just hit someone, but if the brother had been less brutal and/or had shown a bit more concern for the child audience and/or the general level of peace in the neighborhood, he would have gone unpunished. Maybe a month of probation with a “no contest” plea at worst. He was essentially preventing a future felony and everyone knew it.

And here he was, convicted domestic abuser, trying to screw money out of the not-quite-hero who delivered his beat-down. In actuality, maybe $2000 of ratty furniture and some home electronics of possibly suspicious origin, maybe twenty visits at $200 a pop to a therapist for his kid who he personally should have sent out of the room instead of trying to hide behind him. And what was this new thing? Twenty-five grand for the care and feeding of some lasting shoulder injury that could have come from anywhere, from any number of fights or overdoing it exercising or a bad hit playing pick-up football.

Frankly, I suspected a gambling debt that needed paying before he got another beat-down. I was sick to the teeth of the whole thing. Suing poor people is an act of desperation at best, because even if you get an award, the lawyers will eat most of the money that comes in and people with no money will never pay ever anyway.

And there is no justice in this. Just complicated, painful, and tedious legal dickery. Leveled by a monster against a man who had already paid too much for taking justice into his own hands. If there was any justice in the world….

That was what I was thinking when I looked over at the prosecution’s table and saw our convicted abuser guy with his head down on his arms on the tabletop, and it had been a few minutes since he moved. Was he really asleep? I kept looking, noticing that his gut was up against the table edge. I really should be able to see it in his shoulders if he was breathing. And what I could see of his skin was ashy and pale. And he was perfectly still.

Nobody else was looking at him. His attorney was showing the judge, and then us, the details of a stack of medical bills, taking care to read out every line so we all could make notes and add up all the little numbers for ourselves. I don’t know how long he had been sitting there not breathing. If anyone was going to try to save his life, they’d have to start soon. And yet, I couldn’t find it in myself to say anything to draw attention to him.

And so we sat there for another fifteen minutes as his blood pooled in his legs and his brain asphyxiated while we all dutifully transcribed line items for medical supplies and services into our notebooks.

Was that just? Was it legal? I don’t know. But it was what I could get away with, letting him sit there until the sound and smell of his bowels and bladder letting loose made us all take notice. His life ended, taking his dignity with it, in front of his child, no less, because I didn’t stand up and say anything.

It’s been months, and I still don’t know what to think about that. Not that I’ve lost any sleep.


February 17, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was holding a baby that didn’t belong to me, looking up at a moon that would be full in a couple of days, and wondering how much time I had left.

It was a strange dream, but so was every day. My life had run off the rails a decade ago, and nothing mattered anymore, because nothing could possibly be real. I am sick. I’m damaged. Nothing that happens makes sense.

I can deal with life only as a series of moments that don’t necessarily have to be be connected. I live inside a dog’s head. Expectations are things of habit and training. Everything else is … jumping up to look out of a window of a moving train. I can hang on for maybe three seconds, make a coherent picture of what I see if I’m lucky, and then fall back. When I jump up and look again, the window might contain nothing from the previous time I looked. No connecting factors. So I kind of make the best guesses I can for how things got to be the way they are. I tell myself little stories I have to believe so I won’t feel crazy. I am the fastest mythmaker on earth, and the most prolific.

Many years ago I fell off the world of brightness and landed here in the world of shadows. It happened because something impossible happened, and it broke the world wide open like an earthquake will, and I fell through the crack. Sometimes when I jump up and look out through the window, I see the world of brightness behind the glass. The glass is cold against my hands, against my forehead, and I hear none of the joy and beauty through the sounds of the engine and wheels on metal.

The baby smelled like fresh bread, perhaps a hint underdone. Something told me that maybe it meant that the baby is sick — bad sick — but I’m sure that was just wishful thinking, something that would let me claim this stranger’s baby as my own. Its warm vapors were heady, but they hit stone. They hit the glass of the window separating me from the brightness I couldn’t reach.

The baby looked up at the moon, with blue-blue eyes that couldn’t possibly focus on something that bright and close and enormous. That was how I knew that the baby knew I was sick. I rolled him off my shoulder and made a cradle of my arms, holding him to the flannel of my shirt. I gave him one last cuddle and then held him out, and a stranger took him away. Probably the same one that handed him to me. I don’t know. It had been more than three seconds and this place was so full of people and things that I couldn’t be sure. I try not to worry about how much casual damage my disconnection can cause to this dreamworld, because what would be the point of that? In the real world, the mother would not have left, nor allowed me to hand the tiny boy to anyone else she didn’t trust.

Down here I know that sort of reasoning doesn’t hold. Down here I handed him to hyaenas that walk on their hind legs who will carry him back to their den, and they will be so grateful not to have to hunt or fight to feed their own babies. And I will have tamed one, just a tiny bit, with my tiny gift.

Down here the moon will be full in a couple of days and the disease in my blood will — not do anything special. The disease in my blood will kill me, but not today, not this month, not this year. It’s fun to think it’s like a werewolf virus or rabies, but the beast in me isn’t wolf. It’s just dog. I’m still a part of the human pack. I want to fetch slippers and bring the newspaper. I want to bark at danger and at strangers when I smell that they’re evil.

I want to sleep in their beds, or, failing that, on the floor somewhere nearby. I want them to see how happy I am with their scraps. I want to lick their hands and faces. I want to be beaten by them and know that they still love me.

It’s like licking the window, like trying to taste the brightness on the other side. When I close my eyes, I can taste the sun and the ghost of it fills my mouth like warm butter.

Has it been more than three seconds? What was I saying?


February 16, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was standing on that level that overlooks most of the action at what has to be the busiest train station in the world and, therefore, the absolute worst place on earth to try to meet someone. I’m sure you’ve seen a picture of the main lobby area, or more likely even shots of it in movies, though I can only imagine how much it must cost to block off foot traffic and shoot there. You’d have to do it in the small hours of the morning, through it would still have some traffic even then, and pay to import sunlight from the other side of the world.

It wasn’t too hard to find a place to stand where I wouldn’t be in the way so I could look out over the floor and watch. The people here know where the views are and, if they’re in a hurry, which paths to take to avoid lollygaggers. Sometimes its as simple as keeping to the center of the walkways, only slightly to the right to make way for oncoming traffic.

I find it fascinating, as a man of science, to watch the patterns emerge. I study what has to be the most boring science on earth. Fluid dynamics — plumbing, to be frank — with a specialty of materials on the edge of being fluid. Sand, mud, high-velocity airflow, superfluids … and other related phenomena.

Down below on the floor I saw my science in action. Clusters of particles, a largely Brownian distribution, calculating the best paths for the flows based on analogs to the forces that govern particles. Instead of the Pauli Exclusion Principle and electrostatic repulsion, you get the basics of elbow-room modified by the local culture’s idea of personal space. Instead of Van der Waals forces, you get people spotting and stepping into any available gap for the purposes of that extra little burst of speed and breathing room. You get laminar flow toward the centers of the main flow pathways and turbulence toward the edges.

Based on the performance characteristics, I could backfigure these patterns to find a mix of physical materials that would mimic these flows and help model buildings like these. The only tricky bit would be that invisible wall down the middle of the paths where the fastest people bump the elbows of people coming the other way. Duplex flow has always been a bit of a puzzle, especially with fluids made of small particles. You always get interference from those poor bastards trapped in the middle between the two high-velocity streams, spinning helplessly…

Like that poor guy.

After an uncomfortable moment, he sorted things out and was sucked along with the rest of the flow.

Meanwhile, out on the main floor, a million random, randomized faces. I couldn’t possibly calculate how difficult it would be to spot a man I hadn’t seen since high school in this humongous pool of noise, yet I knew I had a good chance. The problem was distraction. I didn’t know any of these people, most likely, but I kept seeing familiar features. A nose here, eyebrows there, a jawline flashing nearby, and a face that didn’t even exist on the floor would pop into my head. I was spotting people who wouldn’t be caught dead in this city. Or who were already dead.

I defocused my eyes a bit and just looked for familiar patterns of body movement. The man I was looking for only really had two different walks — one a head-down rush with his elbows slightly out, long strides that could eat up the ground if he was in the clear. Here that wouldn’t be much help to him, so I imagined what it would look like with him bumping up against slower, heavier particles in the flow, compression waves backing up behind him as he wasted energy trying to go faster. His other walk could be described as nothing other than a good-natured saunter, which would stand out here like a sore thumb.

It was strange to look down on all of this and see all huge numbers of people reduced to heterogeneous particles in patterns of flow. I tried to take a step back from all that, and that’s when there was a kind of snap in my head, and I did see it all differently. Biologically. Blood is a kind of heterogeneous fluid, certainly, and blood vessels are the typical containers and boundaries, but this looked a lot more like cytoplasmic actions interior to a cell, where theoretically randomized action powered the picking up and dropping off of bits of molecules and moving them around to where they were needed to the next stage of mitosis or for sodium or ATP transport or for the ejection of waste and surplus. If you’ve ever looked at a living cell under a large enough microscope, there’s no way on earth you could mistake the fact that it was alive and moving with some apparent will, random actions dissolving to reveal a purpose.

Out on the floor was an enormous organism made of my fellow creatures, transporting the ultimate resources from place to place: themselves. And even up here, even completely stationary, I was part of it.

And then my old friend from high school was behind me, slapping me on the shoulder.


February 15, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

I know it’s fairly easy for single people to be a bit bitter on Valentine’s Day. In fact, I lean in that direction myself, and I don’t mind admitting it. If you’ve ever been someone else’s special someone, this day throws the absence, either generally or specifically, into sharp relief. And that’s insensitive to nearly the point of being unforgivable.

And it’s ass-backwards.

If you go back to the story that’s rumored to be at the root of the day (well, as it is now, after all that bit about flogging all the young women of the town with bloody strips of raw goat hide), it’s not about being appreciated at all. It’s not about what love for someone else turns you into, what your own love, in your own head and your own heart, makes you do. The new thing that you become because of the love you have for someone else.

That really doesn’t require the involvement of anyone else. At least, not actively.

What *someone else’s* love makes you do is probably a lot closer to guilt. When you think about it. Guilt. Fear of disfavor, or rejection, or being thought of as inadequate, or of failing the test. And screw all of that. If that’s what someone else’s love does to you, then maybe they should keep it. Or maybe you should fix your own head so you can receive it in the right spirit. Or maybe your own love can overwhelm all of that so there isn’t any chance, much less fear, of failure.

Even so, it’s not about your special someone, or being someone else’s special someone. It’s all about you becoming the thing that your love turns you into, the heroics that you can perform that are usually just out of reach, which, lets face it, are just as likely to fail as succeed. It’s about love forcing you to make the attempt even though you’re unlikely to come through it unscathed. It’s about ignoring the consequences to yourself.

And maybe that sort of thing isn’t for everybody. At least maybe not every year. Maybe you need to have someone inspire that in you. But if *that’s* what’s missing, maybe that’s not such a tragedy. Love can make you do some really scary things.


February 14, 2011 · Posted in Everything Else  

This one time I decided to take a complete vacation from who I was and, you know, left the house. It wasn’t the first time I had done it. I certainly don’t do it often, because it usually ends miserably. But I work at work, and then I go home and work, and in those rare times I pick up hobbies those also kind of turn into work, and sometimes I think that I want that missing hobby to be another person, though, when I’ve done that, that definitely turns out to be work too.

It’s a good thing I don’t really mind work, but sometimes I’m sure there has to be something else to life. I keep hearing about it, and sometimes I catch a glimpse of it on television. But television isn’t real. Those people sitting at a bar by themselves on television are doing it because someone put a check in their hands and told them to look like they belonged there. When I see those people in real life, I see people that are out with friends, which I really don’t have too many of in this city except a couple that seem to be just as busy as me, and I see a couple of people who are desperate to not be home because there’s something at home that makes them so uncomfortable that they want to be elsewhere.

Maybe sometimes I go out just to remind myself that home is, you know, okay. And sometimes it seems as silly as holding your breath to remind yourself that oxygen is kind of cool. But  I do it anyway, every now and then, and I’m really not sure why, at the core. I don’t know what I’m looking for.

I’ve been told that bookstores are great places to meet people, because it helps to have a common interest, and when you go in, there is everyone, milling about but probably not too much, and if you look up at the ceiling or the top edges of the shelves or wherever the signs are, you can see everyone there is conveniently filed by topic of interest. I suppose it works best for people who read. But there are also music stores, or movie stores, or stores that do all three at once. Or hobby stores. Or…. I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of passion where my tastes in entertainment are concerned, and I’m not sure I’d have a lot of patience with someone who did.

Where I do have a lot of passion is in doing whatever I do competently. And I was making a hash of this. As I always do. I don’t like feeling like I’m out of my depth.

So I went to a bookstore. I milled around a bit, more than most people. I visited every section to see if anything would grab my interest. The thing that grabbed me most was a huge art book that was far outside my price range with pictures of a sculpture exhibition, but the pictures didn’t do it justice. Flat pictures of three-dimensional work hardly ever do, but it reminded me that I like to look at sculpture. And that made me wonder why I never visited the museums in this city when I felt I needed to get out of the house. Unfortunately it was too late in the day to go visit any of the museums, but I pulled out my idea notebook and wrote a note reminding myself that I should. And I went to the magazine section to find one that reviewed exhibits, including some of the ones here in the city, and I bought that.

And because I have trouble dealing with cafes of the sort that bookstores have in them, I left to go find one that was a bit more to my liking. And two blocks later, I was sitting down with a latte and my magazine.

The table I got actually had four legs, but it acted like maybe it had only three. I sloshed a bit of my latte into my saucer and onto the table, dousing the napkin I’d brought with me. As the coffee spread into the napkin, I idly tore off the damp part while I flipped through the magazine. The wadded dampness pretty quickly reverted to a pulpy mess in pretty much the way you hope most napkins won’t if you’re going to trust them to do their job, and while I read I found myself squeezing out the extra moisture and using the rest of the napkin to soak up the squeezings and to dry my fingertips between page-turns.

I was about half done with the magazine when I actually looked at the mess I was making. Without even looking, I had rolled it out, stood it on end and squashed it down. With my thumbnail I’d tugged some of the pulp away from the main body and formed two legs sticking out straight in front of it, even formed tiny upturned feet. Setting the magazine aside, I teased out two largely still-intact corners to make into arms that reached down to the table and twirled them until they were slender, spreading out the very ends to make tiny hands. With a little bit more work I made a reasonably realistic head.

Using a disk torn from the dry remnant, I made a wide-brimmed sun hat, and more scraps made a tiny pinafore that I wrapped around the little thing, dabbing a finger in more latte to tack it closed behind her back. And then it was pretty obviously done. And I sat there in shock.

But that was nothing compared to the shock of when I looked around to see if anyone had watched me do this thing, when I saw in a corner of the shop a small play area, with children’s books and loose toys, where sat a little girl, with latte-colored skin, in a white pinafore, sitting in much the same position. The only difference was the sun hat.

I wasn’t even sure this little cafe had a play area before now, and I usually only notice children when they’re being a nuisance, or, occasionally, a charming nuisance. And here I had created, in nearly complete ignorance, a tiny replica. Only because of the order in which I had noticed things, it seemed that I had created the real one by making the tiny model first. I knew that that was impossible, but I was dumbfounded regardless. I felt shattered, dislocated.

I got up and got a to-go box of the sort they give you when you take out pastries and cupcakes. I teased the little mannequin off the table, not too difficult as it was mostly dry now, and put her gently in the box, collecting also her fallen hat and the pinafore that had come open at the back. And I grabbed a small stack of the napkins, maybe ten or so, just in case it would be harder to replicate the trick with paper of higher quality.

And since then I have made little sculptures of maybe a hundred things that I would love to actually have exist. Just in case the magic ever happens again.


February 14, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I brought out all the house goblins and arrayed them on the table for review of the troops and a lecture. I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but I knew someone was falling down on the job.

I’m really not sure what good I expected it to do, but I was willing to try whatever. I mean, they were all just a pack of cheap plastic soldiers. My friend had painted all the helmets red with fingernail polish and declared them to be “red caps,” dedicated to keeping gremlins and all of the nastier of the Wee Folk in check by a declaration of martial law.

See, the aforementioned ersatz exorcist used to live in the apartment complex that had been on this piece of property before it was all ripped down and this new complex built. Rent there was quite a bit cheaper than here, as you can imagine, popular with college students and illegal immigrants who all paid the rent in cash or money orders at the beginning of the month. He said that it wasn’t as unpopular as it ought to have been for people to get beaten or even die here, and livestock too, I guess. There was a whorehouse being run out of the upper floors of the main building. I mentioned (kinda) the livestock pens with goats and chickens. Enterprising chemistry students built an impressive PCP production facility in the unit next to his, and, well, life there was about as interesting as you could imagine.

And it was all wrapped up in a hideously decaying Oriental theme. And I use the term Oriental instead of Asian to point out that it was faux-Asian decor and landscaping as imagined by people who had no experience of or respect for the culture(s) they were ripping off. Perhaps you get my drift.

He and some of his friends mysteriously obtained hardhats and, less mysteriously, a cooler full of beer and sandwiches to sit on the sidewalk and toast the start of the destruction when they tore down the first wall. They had all previously been residents, or perhaps just frequent visitors of residents, and were all extraordinarily happy to see some earthmover-driven gentrification. They had withstood break-ins, stray rounds through walls/windows/appliances/boxes of comics, lengthy unexplained interruptions in critical utilities, roof collapses, DEA busts — indeed, lights and sirens from every make and model of emergency vehicle — the sounds of animal slaughter, indecent solicitations at every hour of the day, choking clouds of chemical and/or sewage and/or offal smells, undocumented arrivals and departures of corpses and walking wounded, and cockroaches the size of bedroom slippers with aggressive streaks on a scale usually reserved for wolverines. And a neighbor that greeted the arrival of ten AM every weekend morning with the playing of, alternately, “Thriller” and “Hotel California” on vinyl, at a volume level measured in Richters instead of the usual decibels. That was a certain sign of demonic possession, he claimed.

He was a little worried that there might be a few psychic holdovers, possibly on the Civil War battleground or Indian graveyard scale. So he came over with a broom, a sage smudge, a cardboard package of kosher salt, and some Benedictine liquor he claimed was made and blessed by monks so it must count as holy water plus also we could drink it. And he also brought over the red caps, which he arrayed on the coffee table in much the way I had them now for the duration of the main ceremony, then deployed on windowsills and in cupboards and closets and various nooks and crannies throughout the place. “On patrol,” he said. And everyone who came to visit made a big joke of moving some of them around when I wasn’t looking. For verisimilitude.

I had plenty of guests. And a cat. I got used to seeing them in unexpected places while “patrolling” and never gave it a second thought.

Other than surreptitious troop movements I never caught the slightest whiff of any supernatural phenomena, and that surprised me not at all. Because I don’t believe in it. I do believe in humoring my friends and drinking whatever liquor they care to bring by, but that’s the end of my experience and expectations regarding the occult. Until this one time.

It was maybe the fourth morning running that I had woken up in the middle of the night with some sort of fading vision of a face outside my window — a window that was three floors up, I might add, seeing as I was on the second floor and my apartment was on the backside of the building where there was a cutaway slope exposing a basement wall. Well, call it three nights of a face outside my window and one night/early morning of that face hovering above me in my bedroom.

I checked all the angles to see what kinds of reflections were possible off the glass of the window and the mirror and a piece or two of framed art I had hanging. Nothing made sense on that front, except the usual stuff your brain gets up to in that hypnagogic state that you’re in right when you’re going to sleep or waking up.

Skeptic or not, known scientific explanations or not, it’s not a very pleasant experience to feel that someone is in the room with you and is perhaps not of a mood to shake your hand and drink your health, but perhaps actually willing to kinda vampirically drink your health, if I have to spell it out. I wanted it to stop, and I didn’t exactly want to invest in therapy or antipsychotic meds.

So I collected the troops and assembled them on the table. In an old 1970’s amoebic green ash tray, I lit a small charcoal disk propped up on thin rolls of aluminum foil so air could get underneath it and sprinkled on some rosemary and a crumpled bay leaf, because I was out of sage. And I prayed soulfully to invoke To Whom It May Concern, instructing the troops to echo in their tiny plastic minds everything I was saying aloud so it would carry a little more psychic weight. Sophia, always willing to help and stand in as my temporary familiar, over in the corner and thankfully on the stone-tiled hearth, horked up her best hairball as an offering.

And then I begged the Powers That May Or May Not Be to allow me to keep my grip on my precious sanity and let me get some damn sleep because, as a skeptic, I was busy doing my damn duty convincing myself and anyone else who was inclined to listen that they didn’t exist, thereby enabling them to get up to whatever shenanigans they were compelled to enact without people taking overt action to impede them, and didn’t they appreciate that?

And then the sky suddenly went dark and the building shook like there was an earthquake and a terrible screech rent the air and every last damn one of the red caps fell over. I’m sure the screech had been mine, or at least pretty sure, but that’s beside the fact. The fact is I didn’t sleep that night, but I did the next one, and every night since then, and since then I have never felt so rested as I do now when I wake up in the morning.

I sealed up all the red caps except one (that wouldn’t fit) in one of those zip-seal baggie things and I keep the lot of them in the toilet tank. The remaining one I gave over in a small pointless ceremony to Sophia, who, although she never took an interest in them previously, promptly ate his little head off and now plays hide-and-seek with his widdle plastic corpse.

And that, ever since, has been that.


February 13, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was in the park with my camera, trying to take pictures of the old shut-down museum across the street. It had closed for good maybe seven years prior, having finally slid off the radar of any organization willing to offer it any support. In its earliest days, which were less than a hundred years ago, it had been completely privately funded. As the owning family slid into financial decay, it was more and more funded by public money and grants from various private foundations. And as that money started to dry up, the hours the museum was open scaled back to two or three days per week, then only during the school year, then only during the summer, then just Tuesdays, then by appointment only.

It’s still open by appointment only, but now mostly to real estate agents and property investors.

My visit was ostensibly on behalf of the Historical Preservation Society, but the charter really only covered buildings and properties and other items of interest that were over 120 years old. This building was five years outside the charter and unlikely to survive those five years until it could officially be considered. Also, it was right on the park and in deadly danger of being turned into luxury residential. You know. If the market were to start recovering at all.

I was basically just here with my camera. If the building wasn’t here in five years, I’d have thorough documentation of its final state, and maybe the HPS would endorse a book deal for me and sell it through their website. Or maybe I could broker its use for movie sets or stuff like that, since I was still in good with the direction department at the university. Or maybe I’d just get some nifty atmospheric pictures of a dilapidated museum.

I started with copies of the building plans. It was a huge place, an old manor gone metastatic, with new wings and additions and outbuildings and extensive grounds, much of which had already been bought by the city and incorporated into the park. The way I was going to keep track of where the pictures were taken was simple. I numbered each room on the multifloor plans with its own number, and then, carrying the plans with me so I wouldn’t get confused, I would jot down in a little notepad what time I entered which room, using the built-in clock in the camera which would also be putting the timestamps on the filenames for every shot. Then, after dumping the files to my computer, I could just make a folder for each room and drag the files into the room/location folders by their timestamps.

You can probably guess by the amount of detail I just went into that there were some issues with that system. And you’re right. And I’ll get to it.

The reason it’s a big deal is that I’m really not a very organized person. Anytime I go out, I have to dump out any of five or six purses and go through the debris to make sure I have everything with me I think I’ll need for the day. And somehow I still screw that up. I meticulously put appointments into my phone’s calendar thing and then lose my phone for three days. But I thought of everything that could go wrong and armored myself against it.

I made copies of my labeled sets of the floor plans, making sure none of the numbers were duplicated — every room got a number based on the floor, and I never got confused which floor was which. I put the copies in a folder in my filing cabinet and carried the originals in my camera bag. Before I started shooting, I made sure the clocks on my camera and my watch and the one on my cell phone all agreed — just in case I screwed up and checked my watch or my phone instead of the camera to jot down the time. And I was proud of myself for coming up with all this and for being so careful.

And nothing went overtly wrong. I had spare memory cards and spare batteries and all of that stuff and didn’t need any of it.

The problem was that when I got home and downloaded the pictures — starting with keeping them in one huge bunch, just to flip through and spot check for lighting issues and such — maybe three quarters of them didn’t look very familiar at all.

I mean, there were five floors in total, including the basement. Many of the rooms were decorated in different themes, depending on the collection being displayed, and some of them were just different because that’s how the rooms were decorated when the manor was still in use and no one thought anything needed changing or updating when it was converted over. And there were still rooms set up to be lived in, by a curator or docent or security or whatever enticements the place could use to keep someone on site so it wouldn’t get broken into. And I documented everything, whether it was officially a part of the museum or not.

I can play the walkthrough back in my head, just looking at the plans. You know. Mostly. But I can’t help the evidence that was in front of me. The camera totally saw different things than what I had seen. I don’t know how else to put it.

I went ahead and dragged the shots into the folders they were supposed to go into according to their timestamps. And I used that to try to make sense of the shots. And it was no use. Some shots matched up, but some showed extra nooks and crannies. Inconsistencies in wallpapers, in paint, in theme of decor, in what was being displayed. Missing windows. Extra windows, even, with peeks of unfamiliar (if not downright impossible) scenery outside, beyond the draperies and window treatments. Not a lot of museums let sunlight inside to fade things or otherwise degrade materials on display, but even so, what little outside views I saw were strange and unfamiliar. Rooftops of buildings that were certainly too far away. Tree limbs visible through windows that were taller than the trees in the yard. And that wasn’t the worst of it.

I’ve been going over these pictures for weeks now, off and on, when I can stand it. And if anything it gets worse instead of better. Shots I thought I could place slip away from me. And every couple of days I get a call from the museum rep, asking for copies of the shots so they can forward them along to their insurance company in hopes of better documenting what they have and either improving coverage or cheapening premiums. And I keep stalling, just in case I can make sense of everything before I bundle it all up and send it over.

I’m terrified it will all just slip away from me.


February 12, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was repacking my meager bag under a bridge over some west-bound Interstate highway or other. Maybe. The problem was that I hadn’t seen a sign in a long while and had slept away a few hours before being dropped here. I was still half deaf from sleeping in the back of an open-bed pickup truck. Every car that drove past sounded like it was sneaking up on me.

Everything you want always settles to the bottom of the bag. That’s why it shocked me a little to find the energy bars on the top of the pile. I pulled out the little sack and set it aside while I rolled up three t-shirts and a pair of jeans to make it all pack tighter. Then I took out a bar and put the sack back in the bag.

I really wish I knew which way I was going. The sun had been up for maybe an hour, but it was off to one side, perpendicular to the highway. “East” and “West” on highways refers to a general direction averaged over a couple hundred miles. The Interstate system, much like the Romans, will claw a path right through a mountain, so there aren’t many chances for confusing switchbacks, but still. There were enough good ol’ boys around here to influence whose property got cut up when the roads came through that it’s still a bit of a mess. That and the road has to be built on ground that will support a flotilla of tanks zooming by. Eisenhower was big on the idea of getting infantry and cav from coast to coast, border to border, in a big damn hurry, and that’s what these highways are all about.

I just wanted to go south at some point. To cross the border. And then another border. And another. All of them, eventually. I’d started out in Alaska. Crossed Canada to Nova Scotia. South on the East Coast down to Florida. Now west, until I got to a place where I could turn south.

Marching had been all I was good for, they said. I was good at it. I could keep it up all day. And when I got back from being paid to march, my girlfriend was gone, my parents were gone, my job was gone. So I decided I was going to march around the world.

Maybe not march the whole way. But you know what I mean. I was headed by whatever means were necessary down to Tierra del Fuego, then visit a piece of Antarctica if I could, otherwise catch a ride to Cape Town and head, oh, northish.

I didn’t really want to revisit the corners of the world where I had already done a lot of marching, but I figured I could just go around.

Against my better judgment I kept the State Department in the loop about where I was and what I was doing so they could help me with the occasional border issue. I made a point of turning down any favors anyone there asked me to do, delivering messages or packages, but they seemed to be in favor, at least in theory, of the whole project. As long as I stayed out of trouble.

And here I was, in a pretty heavily traveled portion of the USA, not even miserable from the weather or anything, but still with no fundamental knowledge of where I was or where I was going, and by damn if that wasn’t the perfect metaphor for the twenty-five years of my life to date. Comfy. Happy. Lost. Confused. Hopeful that there was a lot more trip ahead of me than behind me. On an endless, pointless journey to nowhere specific.

Then the earthquake hit. I watched two cars bottom out and bounce a foot into the air, perfectly synchronized, while the bridge above me made a noise that nothing that weighs hundred of tons and is hovering over your head should ever make. I ran and dove out from under it, and it embarrassed me by not falling down or dropping anything more than a little dust.

Meanwhile back on the road, one of the cars tipped sideways and slid down the road on the passenger-side door. The other car pulled off the road up ahead, past the bridge. I trotted out into the roadway to see what I could do about the tipped car.

And it was empty. I ran around front to look through the windshield and I saw nobody. I couldn’t see anyone through the back window either. I looked into the floorboards as well as I could through the moon roof. Nothing. Nobody.

I looked back along the road to see if traffic was about to start stacking up. About a hundred yards back there was some kind of break or crack, and cars were, for the most part, stopping behind it. One had nosed over and its front bumper was on the ground. Must be a bit of a drop.

Eventually the guy up ahead came jogging back to see if he could help with the sideways car. We rocked it until it fell back on its wheels and then we both climbed in and looked around. We found a purse with a wallet and a spilled cup of coffee. We shoved it off the road and called the highway patrol from his cell. And when they got me, they were all about running me in for stealing the car, but the other guy swore up and down he saw me under the bridge, going through my bag, and the empty car had been behind him for miles.

I never did figure out what had happened — whether the missing woman had been thrown out of her car somehow and had dragged herself off, or whether she just got herself mysteriously vanished somehow or what any of it could have had to do with the earthquake.

Maybe my grandmother had been right about how the world was going to end, with all the Christians being yanked off the earth in times of earthquakes and volcanoes and whatever other end-of-the-world special effects would be required. Maybe this was just a test run, God checking his equipment before running the full scenario. One person snatched up, one moderate earthquake. Maybe somewhere around here someone’s pantry and refrigerator went mysteriously empty (by way of famine) and a nearby yard got triple the usual number of locusts. And elsewhere one puny fireball rained down from the heavens.

Though I hear that sort of thing happens all the time.


February 11, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

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