This one time it was raining down fire and brimstone from the sky and ash plumes ascended to the heavens like the pointless prayers of the damned — but that’s nothing new. This place we call home has a double-armload of erupting volcanoes on any given day. If that’s all it takes for us to decide that God thinks we’re worthless, then it’s long past time for us to curl up, curse God, and die.
A wise man once said that the last thing in the world that we need is honest perspective, a true understanding of our worth to the universe and our place in it. So let’s be fools for a moment. Let’s be damn fools. Let’s take a good long look.
At any given time, there are around five hundred active volcanoes, with about forty of them actually erupting. Lightning strikes the surface of the earth eleven times per second. The United States alone gets around 1200 tornadoes per year, more than any other nation of earth — a special sign of God’s blessing. The world gets fifty tropical storms and cyclones and hurricanes worthy of note every year, with attendant flooding and destruction. Earthquakes have been particularly spectacular lately. And then there was that solar flare-up thing the scientists haven’t agreed on a name for yet.
Where was I? Perspective. Right. Well, here’s our problem. If the earth was the size of a basketball, the earth’s crust, the barely solidified part we insist on living on and calling solid ground, would be about half the thickness of a hair, like the skin of a balloon. This “solid ground” is constantly in motion, like leaves floating on a stream, bumping into one another, overlapping, climbing over or sinking under one another, wrinkling up, fracturing as it cools down and dries up. It expands as the sun heats it up and contracts when it cools down. And that’s just the rock part. On top of that is sand and dust and mud and a few dozen feet of organic slurry, and that’s what we burrow into to feel safe. We put up the tallest buildings we can, with the bases nailed into this muck, and then we cry like babies when the earth moves or the wind blows and they fall down with all our friends and families in them.
And then there’s the oceans, and I’m not saying much about them because we know more about the surface of the moon, 250,000 miles away, than we know about the surface of the ocean floor or anything that lives farther down than a few hundred feet. We’ve never tried to live there — at least not in recent memory — but it’s funny for me to think that maybe life left the ocean to give the land a try because it was pretty scary in there, and dry land, as shaky as it is, was worth a shot.
Meanwhile, back up in the sky, there’s all the pretty stars and stuff. Let’s look at the moon. I said we know a lot about it, but the most interesting thing to me is where it came from. You know what our best guess is? The earth itself gave birth to it — when we got hit by a rock the size of Mars about four and a half billion years ago. And our oceans? Possibly hand-delivered by a steady rain of icy comets over a billion years or so. Face it. We’re a little metal duck in a cosmic shooting gallery. It really is just a matter of time until another rock whips in out of nowhere and busts things up real good. It won’t take one the size of Mars to wreck our day. Remember how and where we live? A rock about the size of Manhattan ought to do it. We’ll die to the last man, woman, and child.
We’ve got a good eye out for rocks these days, but we know we haven’t spotted them all. And also there’s out interstellar neighbors. Most of them seem pretty quiet, but not all of them. A supernova or a gamma ray burst or a larger version of that tiny belch thing our own sun just went through would bake us to the core. And there’s stuff we don’t even know about out there, because the only things we can see are the ones carrying around their own light, or cold stuff that just happens to be close enough to one of the light sources. If you were on the moon, looking at earth at night through a telescope, you’d know absolutely nothing about anything farther than ten feet away from a streetlight. That’s us looking up at the stars.
But lets think smaller. There aren’t even ten billion of us here. We’re massively wasteful and territorial and do a great job at squabbling and keeping our own numbers down, but really, that seems pretty senseless once we look at all the other creatures we share this thin skin of floating rock with that are also trying to kill us. Plagues, pestilence … we’re outnumbered in our own bodies ten billion to one. We’re dependent on our crops of microbes, internal and external, to help us digest our food, to keep track of the seasons, to do God alone knows what, but the more we try to kill them all, the sicker we get. We count on them to kill one another, to keep the bad ones down, to limit the number that climb into our cells and paste themselves into our very genes for us to pass along to our children. Our new hybrid human-microbe children. And keep in mind, while they need us to live, they don’t need us to be civilized. Just numerous, to give themselves a fighting chance to survive should global disaster strike. They need us to fight with one another so we can be strong enough to carry them everywhere we can go.
We could all seven billion of us fit in a square a hundred miles on a side, standing flat on the ground, with more than enough room each to swing a cat. If we scrunched up a bit, we could do it in a forty mile square. That’s everybody on the planet. We are the greediest, most arrogant creatures in existence to think we amount to anything for any kind of God to take note of, even for him to squash us like bugs.
Every achievement we’ve made that we think of as worthwhile was made in the past five thousand years. In the history of life on earth, in the history of humanity even, that’s us scrambling to turn in a few paragraphs of an essay in the thirty seconds before the final exam is due to be handed in. And when you consider how many of those wonders were built on the back of slaves or in lieu of feeding starving children, then there’s nothing left to do but hang our heads in shame.
But what are we gonna do? For all of that, we’re the last, best hope for the survival of anything down here on earth. For each other. For every last tiny ant and worm and parasite and case of the sniffles.
You know what? And remember I’m saying this as a man of God, but forget God. Forget heaven. Forget hell. We have to straighten our selves up, and fast, right now, if we’re going to survive the next few ticks of the cosmic clock. We can’t afford to keep squabbling, to fight among our selves, to lose perspective. Perspective is the only thing that’s going to save us. God save us.
Ellen’s going to play the piano for a few minutes now, and if any of you feel like singing, Charles is going to lead us in a hymn. Four or five men we think we can trust with a hat full of cash are going to pass around some baskets. Do what you can, and we’ll do our best to put what you give us to good use.
God save us all.
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This one time I was in the room with the trunk of everything, the one that took you strange places every time you opened and closed the lid, and I was at the workbench I had installed with all of my little bottles on it. I was relearning the perfumer’s art of my grandfather, who originally owned the aforementioned trunk full of cracked and leaky bottles, though not in any formal way. This was a deliberate hobby. I wasn’t going to spoil it with too much formal education. When I got stuck I would look up hints, but the joy was in finding my own way.
And I was expanding my way past just scent — as if you put a “just” in front of the most powerful, visceral force of human memory and emotional impact. In my view, more is better. So I would find a way to do more. I would find a way to bottle sunlight, to distill pain, both sharp and dull, to filter out the basic essences of boredom and moonlight and time itself, viscous and fleeting. With so many people blinded, partially or fully, by the sunburn, this would be important technology. I realized this while the burn was ongoing.
In the midnight twilight, I climbed out of my cellar and went out into the yard, into the scorched woods, into the roads of the neighborhood, and I gathered debris. Scraps of a t-shirt that had blown off someone’s clothesline. Jars of burned grass and leaves, sorted by kind. A dessicated newspaper. Singed bugs and woodlice. Tree bark. Chips of flaking paint. Fragments of sunburned wood from the mailbox post. Feathers and fur. Discarded candy. I pried up tar that had bubbled up in the asphalt. Abraded away some of the concrete from the sidewalk, even. I ran a compressor to collect the mists and dews, collecting the condensation into jars. I even put out old pairs of shoes for the sun to scorch leather and rubber. Clippings of nails and hair. I sacrificed some potted marigolds and a fresh cigar. I poured beer and wine and scotch and milk and chocolate into ceramic bowls to collect the scrapings the next evening. I put out brass tacks and iron nails and silver spoons for the sun to lick. I collected and sorted and stored many, many pounds of samples and substances and sealed them up for long-term storage. Including some things that possibly the less said about the better.
Later, maybe much later, people would want to remember. And people who had no direct experience would want to know.
I’m not sure how many laws I was breaking to make my own solvents for drawing out the important volatiles. I’m sure there were a few. Nonsensical things mostly — some to make sure that dangerous pressures and flammables were handled correctly, sure, but mostly to make sure that taxes could be collected to assist the government in the prosecution of sin. Maybe when I geared up for full production I would pay for the licenses and inspections and do it all legally and correctly, but, for now… How else could I say it? Time was of the essence.
In the meanwhile I stacked a few new trunks in the corner for storing the unprocessed materials. Spirits being what they are, my workroom was starting to feel a little crowded. I don’t know whether it was just the way we use the word in English (and a number of related languages, it seems), but I was beginning to sense the traces of escaped volatiles as actual presences in the room. And sometimes walking into the room to pick up where I left off from a previous day was beginning to feel like it did when I opened my grandfather’s trunk. I took that as a good sign, except it was getting harder to concentrate on any particular project. I could get lost coming into the room. Once I found myself again, I could get lost in the four steps it took to get to my desk.
I knew I would be done when I could no longer find my way out. Here’s to hoping it will take several more years.
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This one time I was on the subway, zoned out and occasionally napping, headed home from working the overnight shift at my weird job that I really don’t feel like explaining at the moment. It keeps my sleep schedule all screwed up, and that means that sometimes I don’t sleep at all, and sometimes I can’t keep my damn eyes open. And that’s really bad, because if I fall asleep at work I can get fired. Will get fired.
So I was on the train, dozing off and on, and that’s okay because I get off at the last stop. And nobody much gets hassled since it’s the morning rush. It’s less that the cars don’t get empty and more about who’s got what it takes to be a predator before the coffee kicks in. And apparently I can keep a death-grip on my purse and my bag even while I’m asleep.
If you are the sort that can doze off on the subway, you can usually wake up when something unusual happens. Trains break down. Trains stand in the stations waiting for another train ahead of them to get out of the way. People get drunk and fall off the platforms or even deliberately jump in front of the trains — though really, if they’re looking for a quick death, all they really have to do is say that they want to die and will jump. The platform will be full of volunteers to kill them by hand to keep them from screwing up the commute.
Maybe that goes against what I said before about violence before coffee, but I guess it’s all about breaking the routine before coffee. I’d expect a mugging or an assault to be something you’d have to be ready to improvise for, every one of them different. Maybe it’s more accurate to say nobody is much willing to screw with their routine before coffee.
The reason I snapped awake is that we’d been stopped for a while, and it wasn’t at a station, much less at the end of the line. There are places in the tunnels where the trains will stop, right before a switch, basically so they can wait for someone to throw the switch for them. Sometimes the signals will be screwed-up and all the trains on the line will stop, wherever they are, until someone sorts them out. So it’s not really uncommon to just be parked underground for a while. My personal record was around 45 minutes, and that was in a hot tunnel in a car with a busted air conditioner. Kind of memorable.
We were stopped in a place where there were a lot of parallel tracks, like an underground railyard. There was some very dim lighting, so I could see other trains out there, a way ahead, a long way behind. This place was enormous, and it was no place I knew about.
There were really only about ten people in the car, maybe fewer, and I could see out most of the windows. I turned around to look out the window behind me and nearly jumped out of my skin. There was a train parked on the track right next to mine on that side. All the lights had been out in the other train, but they snapped on as I was looking, and I could see a bunch of people in the car next to mine. And the more I looked, the more I saw that the same people were in that car as in this one — or at least it really looked like it. It was at least as close as it would be if there were doubles, like for movie stunts. I didn’t get a chance to look for as long as I needed to work it out. But it certainly wasn’t just a mirror. People were in different places in the car. And there was the thing with the lights. Our lights hadn’t gone out or flickered once I was awake.
I scanned as quickly as I could to try to find my double, and there she was, slumped over in a corner, eyes closed. Her eyes snapped open the instant I was looking at her, and then she sat bolt upright.
And then I remembered being her, and being stuck in this underground railyard, and seeing myself in another train car looking out at her. At me.
Then the lights snapped off in the other train, and in the yard itself, leaving me staring at my stunned reflection in the window against the blackness. Then the lights in my car went out too. And when it was completely black, the train started rolling again. Outside I could make out the occasional distant green or red or blue light that the signals used, but that was it. Then the lights came back on in the car. Across the car from me, there was an old man with a newspaper folded in his lap, patiently waiting for the lights to come back on so he could read. He acted like nothing had happened.
And maybe nothing had. But I sure as hell couldn’t get to sleep when I got home.
This one time I was sitting around in the studio, talking to some old dude whose name you’ve probably have heard but who would really rather me not mention it here. Just like he would probably rather me not call him old, seeing as he’s not yet retirement age, but he’s a musical brother from a previous litter, and not enough people in music live to get old, so to me it’s a term of respect.
He heard about my incident with the bone flute and wrote me a letter congratulating me on re-deriving the pipe organ, but, you know, the soprano, hand-held model. He was genuinely impressed, but I thought he was yanking my chain, and I let him have it with both barrels, letting him know my flute had at lot more capacity for subtlety, for off-pitch discordant flavor, for organic pitch-bending. He agreed, apologized for giving me the wrong idea, and called me down for spending all my time on the internet where every comment was a jab from an ignoramus. He also asked if he could come by, because a face-to-face would minimize further misunderstanding. And then I recognized the code name he was using.
How the hell could I say no? He was world-famous for his work on synthesizers and constructed waveforms. His name came up a thousand times when I was working on my projects. Also I’d never heard anything but that he was a great guy.
We started off with the huge debate everybody has of analog versus digital. He was on both sides, which was a bit unfair, but then came down hard on the side of digital with the fact that the whole of creation is digital, thanks to quantum physics. He argued that you can use actual physical objects to produce any number that is the sum or the difference of any configuration of tiny, tiny numbers, but there are some that are just impossible to achieve. He went on to tell me that sound waves were also quantum phenomena, introducing me to the concept of the phonon (again, I thought he was yanking my chain until I looked it up) and that every lump of matter has an associated wavelength or frequency. I thought he was talking about resonant frequencies, but he said it went beyond that. Then I accused him of unmitigated New Age-ism, and he laughed and mentioned a name, and after he spelled it I went back to the internet and introduced myself to the works of a man named de Broglie.
Then we covered digital information transmission, carrier waves, modulation, bandwidth, and all that. How the shape of the ear gives us more location data than on which side of our head a noise is made, how we can tell if it was above us or below us or behind us, and how if you just attached huge rubber ears to studio microphones and turn them, you could save yourself tons of money on expensive electronics to get the same effects.
Okay, giant rubber ears are nothing but silliness, for all that they would actually work. And I knew some of that. But for all of the deadly serious physics crap flying around, I felt it was important to balance some of that out with the giant rubber ears.
But then we went back to the phonons and discussed how, given how electrical and magnetic superconductivity works, it should be possible to create pools of superconductive phonons in materials one hundred percent superconductive with respect to sound, or at least sounds of specific frequencies, and what kind of materials those could be, and whether you could make musical instruments out of those, and what would happen when you play them.
I could almost feel my skull cracking again. There’s how music affects the head and the heart — and then there’s how music affects the world. Literally, physically, affects the world. Like some kind of sorcery. It didn’t seem right that the world could be like this, but it is. Provably. Undeniably.
When the final trumpet blows to end the world, maybe there’s a quiet flute that will start it back up again.
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This one time I was up at Dogtown North with the recording equipment, listening to the stories the prairie dogs were telling. I’d adopted a lunar cycle for my visits, something I felt it was at least possible they could use to develop a sense of pattern. I’d saved up for my own blind — basically a pop-up tent I could stand up in and set up my gear in and still keep cool — and built some of my own equipment to replace what I kept having to borrow from Earl, since he was turning into a bit of a prick. The novelty of the project wore off for him, though his name is still on the credits for my first Dogtown Recital EP. Now it was back to being a language and culture project, so Earl was back to being a stoner grab-ass.
I’d built a computer interface to build prairie dog composite words that let me tap out a series of adjectival modifiers and then hit a button for the noun and then it would play the dog-word either directly out of the database if I had a rendition from the recordings. Otherwise it would alter the noun-form in more or less standard ways to produce a good guess at how the dogs would say it. When I was stuck for a noun, if I could I would just show them an object and record what they had to say about it. I tried to show them pictures, but they didn’t get them. They were literalists. A picture of a hawk was a picture of a hawk to them. I couldn’t get them to talk about the hawk.
When I showed them a movie clip of a hawk on the computer, however, they got the picture. It took some convincing to get them to come back. I had to show them that it was trapped and that it couldn’t see them. I tried to tell them it was trapped the way I trapped and replayed their words, but that didn’t help at all. In their opinion, their trapped words got out just fine. I took movies of them and showed them, and that was almost as disturbing. They wailed if they couldn’t get the attention of the dog on the screen, who, of course, ignored them — even if the dog was present that I’d filmed. I nearly wore out my “all clear” buttons telling them it was okay.
At full moon and the dark of the moon I’d show up and start around dusk by telling two stories I’d composed, one straight tale and one poem-song, full of repetition and different approaches to rhyme — words with similar sounds, words with similar modifiers, regular uses of the same base-nouns with different modifiers. I could tell when things fell flat. I kept things short, at least on a human scale, and kept the complexity pretty close to Sesame Street. I’d repeat my stories a couple of times, and then I’d set up the recording equipment to see if they’d brought any stories.
Sometimes I’d hear snippets of the stories I told and repeated phrases that I chose to interpret as requests for me to retell stories from previous visits. The original stories I heard back were usually pretty short, five to ten words, and basically what amounted to news. Someone ran away from a snake. Someone ate a scorpion. Someone got snatched by a hawk but was dropped and is laid up in the burrow nursing a big bruise and her name now includes the modifier for “cranky”. When I finally worked out that story, I spent a few minutes turning it into a poem-song about her flight and fall, with a stanza afterward with her going about her day normally after a long rest, so as to give it a hopeful ending.
Before I give you the wrong impression about their communicative skills, all of this was like talking to toddlers. Not only are there issues about limited grammar and vocabulary and verb tenses and such, but you really can’t just pick them up and make them talk. Establishing a routine “open mic nite” was pretty much the only thing I could think of to help them open up, as it were. Sometimes it took days on my part to sort through the recordings and tease out the words and their subtle shades of modifiers. And sometimes it just seemed like babble.
It took me weeks before I even partially deciphered the repeated story, sometimes told in fragments, of the dead coyote that sang to them on moonless nights about digging a deep hole to fill with grasses and roots for the coming time of the hawk-sun that snatches away anyone the light touches. And of course it only really made sense a week or two later, when the sunburn started up.
Dogtown North came through it a little dehydrated, and had some rough times with the alternating dustbowl and rough storm conditions afterward, but they were basically okay. They’d been warned a month in advance, after all. I wish I’d been able to understand it in time to pass the warning along, but who would have believed me?
This one time I was lurching through these underground catacombs, wrapped in shredded rags, and apparently scaring the bejeezus out of everyone I met. The catacombs were pretty crowded with living people, or so I was thinking. Either that or I was rough enough to scare ghosts. I couldn’t exactly rule that out. I was pretty rough.
It wasn’t so long ago that I could get my leg to bear weight. I’d have loved an x-ray to prove to myself it was only a greenstick fracture and not something a teeny bit more complicated. Also, I’d have loved something to eat other than wriggly grub sashimi and I was pretty dehydrated. Also also I wanted to shave something awful. My beard was growing in and itching like hell, and I’d been scratching it with my muddy fingers. I’m sure everyone would have agreed that a bath would have been nice. If I’d turned up like this at my mother’s house, she would’ve turned the hose on my ass for a good fifteen minutes before letting me in the house.
I couldn’t really make out the language that the people I was running across were muttering. I had the poor judgment to sit very still in a corner until one pair of people got pretty close so I could hear what they were saying and try to work out where I was. My leg was pretty angry about how I was crouched down and the grunt I let out when I had to shift it ruined my “playing dead hidden in the shadows in the corner” routine.
The woman was screeching something I’m sure only dogs could work out, while the guy was shouting something and shoving me up against the wall hard enough my ribs were creaking. I could almost make out what he was saying, though. He stopped thumping at me when he heard me croaking out, “English? English?”
He let go and backed up. “By preference,” he answered.
Apparently that blew my cover as a revenant. Over his shoulder, almost down among the octaves humans could routinely hear, I heard a quavery, “Stai bene?” Italian. Italian didn’t bring back good memories for me, but lately memories were rare creatures and I was happy to see any at all.
“Where am I?” I asked. New York, Chicago… Where else had strong Italian neighborhoods?
“Milan,” she answered. I guessed they had Italian neighborhoods there too.
The guy asked, “Where did you think you might be?”
I scratched my head. “Not too long ago I was pretty sure I was in underground caves beneath pyramids in Central America. I could barf up some of the grubs I’ve been eating and we could ask them if they’re native to the area.” What the hell was I saying? I’d just met these people. Did I want them to run away?
The guy seemed unfazed. “We have wine and cheese.”
“Okay, you’ve convinced me it’s Europe. If you’re of a mind to share, I’ll take a nibble of anything that doesn’t wriggle. And God I’m thirsty.”
“They also give us water at the cathedral. We can go back up after dark.” She was apparently completely done freaking out, turning me gently and patting me down to help look for injuries. It really was pretty dark down there.
“So I didn’t dream the sun thing?”
“Nope. You didn’t dream the sun thing.” He was keeping a hand firmly on his woman. Even in this light I could tell it was less of a proprietary thing and more to reassure himself that she was real, that this was all real. He had a beard about like mine, but less muddy.
“Cathedral, you said.” He nodded. “Damn. If they were Baptists, I could get a bath.” She looked confused, but he laughed like it had been a while since his last laugh.
“So. A dead jaguar god made me cut a hole in the air to the sun. Before I fell down a hole in, I dunno, Guatemala. Did I dream that?”
The woman drew back a little. The man opened his bag and started going through it. “I’m a man of science, but causality’s been on holiday for weeks. If our math is right, things ought to start going back to normal in a few days. It’s symmetrical.” He brought out a lump of something wrapped in waxed paper. “This isn’t wriggling yet, but it’s cheese. Give it time.”
“Should I take any kind of glee from the fact that you sound crazier than I do?”
“Cheese,” he said, holding out a broken-off lump. “Have some. And here’s the rest of our water. I have a feeling we’re switching back to wine until sunset.”
“You smell like a dead jaguar,” she said. I could hear the smile in her voice.
“So does this cheese,” I answered. And then I put it in my mouth.
This one time I was in the catacombs under some old, old buildings in an Italian metropolis, half-blind and hallucinating. I was exhausted and thirsty and, though a complete stranger here, being relied upon to find our way to help. The half-blind problem didn’t matter too much when there was so little light to work with anyway, but the rest didn’t make sense to me either. I was so far out of my element I was no more useful than a little child.
The woman I had in tow had completely collapsed, or maybe she was actually worse off than I thought she was in the same way I was — blind and hallucinating, clinging tightly to someone she knew would never hurt her. I knew for a fact she was smarter than I was and at least in theory more familiar with where we were and what we were likely to find. I couldn’t deny it was possible that she was incapacitated by phobic reactions to our scenario, unable to see, wandering underground, lost in places where people stored the dead.
In our recent experience it was also where people stored wine and old furniture. That last was just a matter of convenience, but I’ve always wondered if people recruited those buried down here to defend their booze caches from children or others with overactive imaginations. I liked to think of myself as someone who wouldn’t lie to children and propagate myths, but I could see it was an easy, tempting solution to a difficult problem.
A house full of children is a house full of curious primates of a species famous for problem-solving. Conventional locks wouldn’t hold for long. Lies and emotional manipulations and sheer silverback dominance were just different kinds of locks to some people.
It was time to take a break. There was a stack of cardboard boxes that was only partially collapsed and lightly dusted with mold. I shooed the intangible dead away with a free hand and took a seat, pulling my companion into my lap. Her grasp of English had been brutalized by her emotional state, but I was able to ask her some gentle questions and understand enough answers to determine that we had likely left the university grounds and were probably on the property of the nearby cathedral, of which the university had originally been an outgrowth.
She buried her face in my neck and asked, in Italian, if I didn’t see the dead people. “I see them, but I don’t know why. The why of it bothers me more than the fact, but that’s just another thing I don’t know.” I wrapped both arms around her. “Even so, I don’t see how dead people can hurt me. They can only hurt you through memories, and I don’t have any memories of these people.”
“They are jealous of our life. They want for us to be dead,” she said.
“I’m touched. They seem like nice people, but they will have to wait.” She seemed a little shocked by what I said, but I wasn’t on top of my game enough to work out why.
“I am sometimes worried that you are dead and that I am letting you lead me away from the living world. I am worried that I am dead, and that’s why I can see them.”
“I don’t feel any different. I feel warm. You feel warm. I don’t think it would feel as sweet to hold a dead woman as it does to hold you,” I replied. She shook a couple of times, coughing into my neck.
“Are you laughing or crying?” I asked.
“I can’t tell,” she answered. “Both, maybe.”
“I’m thirsty. Let’s have some wine. Maybe it will be be safe to come up when the sun sets tonight. If it is, then we may as well try to come up in the cathedral. In the meanwhile, there is no point in being miserable.”
As I struggled with one of the bottles we had stolen a couple of hours back, she snuggled closer. “What about the dead people?”
“There’s more wine in the cellars we came through. They can find their own.” This time she supplied an audible laugh.
This one time I was having one of those days when it seemed that no decision I made was the right one — and things were snowballing. Like the wrong answer to “Is this my turn onto the highway?” not only puts you on the wrong segment of the highway. It puts you going the wrong way on the wrong highway — head-on toward a funeral procession. No, no, make that a presidential convoy.
Don’t listen to anyone when they say that everyone has days like that. It’s just not true. Nine times out of ten you wouldn’t get to hear the story of a day like that because the protagonist didn’t live all the way to the end of the story. Some of us just might be better at survival — or have that mean and brutal kind of luck that wants us to experience our misery to the fullest.
It started off with putting off getting ready to go out until the last minute, then choosing poorly which pair of pants to wear, compounded by choosing a pair of high-top sneakers to go with them.
So here’s the cascade. The pants I chose had a hole in the bottom of the right front pocket. I knew about it, but I’d forgotten because the hole was pretty recent. I threw some change in my pocket anyway, but nothing I really cared about would have fit through the hole, so I didn’t think too much more about it. It did bug me, though, but I was in enough of a hurry to that I couldn’t take the time to change. Well, maybe I could have except that I’d already put on and tied up the shoes.
Before I hit the door I’d noticed that a nickel had snuck out of my pocket through the hole. So far not a big deal. I didn’t see the nickel around, so I moved the rest of my change to another pocket and headed out. I may not be wealthy, but I can afford to let a nickel escape every now and then.
I hopped in the car and leadfooted it downtownish to where I was meeting a couple of the guys from work, one with his wife, the other with his girlfriend, and we were going to meet one of the girlfriend’s coworkers (with whom I was certain she was going to try to set me up, and I was kinda okay with that) at a bar before heading to a movie. So far so good. Except, right as she was coming through the door, not that I knew who she was yet, I felt something moving around in my shoe.
When I was a kid I lived down in Florida. The entire state is infested with these things the locals call waterbugs. They’re actually cockroaches, but most people’s nasty-ass cockroaches are maybe a whole inch long and just kind of scurry around. In Florida, waterbugs are about as long as one of your fingers. Also, they fly. But, more annoyingly, sometimes they climb into your shoes at night and you don’t notice one’s in there until you’ve been wearing it for two hours, walking down the hall to your second period class. “Waterbug” sounds like a less disgusting euphemism for “cockroach”, but if you just call them cockroaches, people don’t get enough warning about what they’re up against. There are ordinary roaches, and then there are these Jurassic-sized flying samurai-ninja cockroaches that laugh it off when you stomp on them. It takes sorcery to kill them.
So I guess we’ll call the discovery of the nickel moving around in my shoe a kind of a Vietnam-style flashback. Two tables got knocked over and around three hundred bucks of beer and liquor dumped and/or generally flung about before my friends could drag me to the floor and help me get my shoe off to retrieve my missing nickel.
At some point during my conniption, some helpful individual called 911. While the bartender and my friends were trying to survey the extent of the damage and make sure I was okay, the police arrived and cleared a path for a gurney and the paramedics from a firetruck. For some reason no one could bring themselves to say what had actually happened. Before I could catch my breath and set things straight, I was wearing a blood pressure cuff and was being given a sedative. Someone had handed me my beer-soaked shoe and a paramedic was prodding my foot with something sharp and asking me if I felt it. And then I was in an ambulance and headed to the hospital.
That was the hospital that the presidential motorcade got routed to just after the sunburst started. You can imagine what a zoo that turned into. It started just after I got unloaded, but the motorcade didn’t show up until after dark. Phones already didn’t work, power was already on backup, and … the Secret Service was everywhere. I got shuffled down to the psych wing and bounced right the hell back out, but, in the end, just settled down in a hallway, forever reeking of beer, just me and a blanket and a couple of weeks to kill trying to stay out from under everybody’s feet.
It wasn’t the worst place on earth to end up, but I saw a lot of things I really wish I hadn’t. And if I’d put on the right pair of pants, I’d have ridden this out with friends, maybe even made it back home when sunset fell.
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This one time I was standing on the pier watching the sunlight wash in as the tide limped away. I’d been out of work for a month or so, so work for me was dropping a couple of lines in the water at the end of this pier, seeing as the last thing I saw to before I got laid off was that my fees were paid up.
Normal fishing was a bit screwed up. A lot of the plankton and krill got badly sunburned and the schools hadn’t quite recovered from the loss of food. There were blooms of strange things feeding off all the dead fish in the water and, well, sometimes the best bet was just to drop a line in the water and see what you got. Most often it was nothing, but it was fresh air and sunshine and some days you brought in something that would feed somebody somehow.
It took a bit of nerve to sit out there a quarter-mile from sunscreen any more serious than a big ol’ beach umbrella, but the ones along the pier had been opaqued. That probably wouldn’t help, but it made people feel better. It made me feel better. I still pretty much got the pier to myself. Me and a couple of lines in the water and a big cooler on wheels and a bait bucket and a couple of rigs I could try random things with until I found the thing that worked today.
The old man I bought the bait from was raising grasshoppers and crickets for people to eat too, now. Apparently if you roasted them and picked the legs off, they were pretty tasty, like roasted nuts, and a decent source of protein. He still kept plenty I could send to a watery doom on a daily basis. His minnows didn’t really make it through the sunburst, but the fish were also starving. Apparently anything would eat a grasshopper these days.
That old man’s a regular George Washington Carver for crickets. Sacks of roasted cricket kernels, jars and tubs of cricketbutter…. I wasn’t in a position to turn my nose up at anything, so I tried all of his recipes. I swear to the good Lord above he’s onto something. The most disturbing recipe he has is something he calls cricket-jerky. It reminds me of this sesame-seed candy my aunt used to bring me when she came to visit, planks of honey-sweet, crumbly stuff that she made herself. I used to pretend that I liked it until I really couldn’t anymore, and then two years after I hurt her feelings about it, I discovered I loved it, and — well, cricket-jerky shouldn’t come with all that baggage. It has enough trouble being what it is.
When he gets his cricket-gin working to get all those spiky legs off (so they can be pulverized and used separately, I imagine) without having to go through them by hand, he’ll be in business. Big time. The legs on those damn things are worse than popcorn hulls for getting stuck between teeth and caught in your gums. And he says there ought to be an enzyme that breaks their little chitin exoskeletons down into simpler starches and sugar, but I don’t know anything about stuff like that.
I’m equally ignorant about fish, but I understand how hooks work and the guys in the parks office at the other end of the pier help identify what I catch (and catalog it all to see what’s still out there and what’s biting) and tell me if it’s fit to eat. These days that’s just about everything, but some fish takes a bit more work to clean and doesn’t much taste like it was worth the effort.
This one morning, though, after setting out the cooler and heading back from the bike-trailer with the rods and the rest of the gear, I saw a bigger-than-normal wave building out around where the surf usually broke. It wasn’t really too weird until one end of it came free of the water and started curling in the air. I’ve never really had enough imagination to see something as anything other than what it was, and that was a big damn tentacle, like the arm of an octopus or a squid. And since I was seeing it from maybe an eighth of a mile away, I’d have to say it was at least half the length of a football field, and that was just the part of it I could see above the water, with the sun behind it. It twisted for a moment and then just kind of came down, like a cable holding it up had been cut.
About then I nearly jumped out of my skin because the beach was crawling with anything God had ever issued more than the usual number of legs to, and they were high-tailing it onshore with all due speed to get away from whatever the hell that thing out in the surf was. I blew the whistle around my neck that the parks officers had given me to let them know if I saw anything, because this sure as heck was something. Errol came running, got close enough to see what was going on, then skidded to a stop in the sand and turned right around and headed back indoors. I thought I understood, seeing as I was edging for higher ground myself, but then he and a shop owner came back with a huge galvanized can and started sorting through the crabs and such to find the ones that people recognized as good enough and large enough to eat.
A few minutes later, the beach was lined with other people with buckets and coolers doing the same thing, heedless of the little ones nipping here and there and climbing up pantslegs or what have you. I left them all to it. I’ll eat a crab, or a cricket, or damn near anything when its lying still. And I’m okay with a flopping fish trying to rip me open with a spiked fin. But all those little legs…. I retreated back to the end of the pier where my own cooler was and looked over the edge. The water was boiling with fish. I hooked some bait and threw in a line.
About fifty feet away a bulbous, blubbery thing pushed up through the water and it was pretty obvious to me that it was an eye, about the size of a beach ball, maybe, shrouded in what looked like gray skin. I just stood there while it looked around and then submerged.
Then suddenly I had something on one of my two lines and some work to do.
This one time we were all sitting around the boardroom table, enjoying a catered breakfast of coffee from a cardboard box poured into cardboard cups accompanied by another cardboard box full of cardboard donuts. To be honest, none of us flinched at the contrast between this and previous levels of fare, even given consultations for the retinue of minor royalty in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi that rose above five-star service and bounced repeatedly off the ceiling of debauchery. And when I say we were enjoying the coffee and donuts, that wasn’t any exaggeration. One or two of us hadn’t eaten in at least twenty-four hours or seen coffee in a week. The sugar was real. The caffeine was real. What else did we need?
We’d taken a break on usual operations while we were waiting for our market to recover. To saner men, maybe that should have meant that we should stop trying to be parasites on the wealthy and buy a fishing boat or something and learn to be useful — learn to be people who actually produced something people needed rather than simply sucking money away from those who would hardly miss it and let it trickle down to the masses through our grubby fingers, pretending it was a public service. Our numbers had shrunk a little over the last year anyway, presumably as some of us decided to retire on the wads we’d already collected and/or pursue our own goals with more restrained stakes. Maybe at least one of us was already doing something useful. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
One or two ducked out when it was apparent we were working against our mission and caught ourselves sucking money away from the masses and trickling it into the pockets of the already wealthy. The world already has too many victims for us to be among them. That sort of thing is exceptionally hard to take when you know that it’s the poorest that suffer the most when there’s any kind of unforeseeable crisis. And then you have one.
We had money for something better than cardboard service, but there wasn’t anything better to be had. While money wasn’t exactly worthless, having buckets full of it wasn’t going to make you better off.
So we were having a meeting about whether to shelve the project, either for a period of time or indefinitely. Everybody else on our scale was pretty much in bunkers right now and, depending on the variable of foresight, living on some equivalent to cans of beans and drinking recycled urine. Wall Street had burned for more than a week straight. In this case, our foresight was to keep our main offices in Brooklyn. Next to a factory that makes marshmallows. Our street stayed pretty clear.
The current suggestion on the table was that we convert our undistributed holdings to a straight-up hedge fund geared for a bear market and divert any profits into a philanthropic fund that we’d take turns finding beneficiaries for until we were broke or our karmas were clean. Or, you know, until we were broke. At the end of any quarter, any of us who remain could fold our hand, take our share out of the fund, and head for the hills. But no “general consulting” until the general air of desperation was down below the critical threshold of knifing your old buddies in the back for a can of tuna, or maybe never, to be voted on annually at our Spring Retreat.
We hadn’t taken a formal vote, but it was obvious everyone was in favor. We all looked over at Smiley, who hadn’t actually said a word to anyone in two months, but went through the motions of being an actual living breathing eating and drinking human being with the best of us. He stood up and balanced himself with his knuckles on the table like he did at the conclusion of every get-together now and belched his combined approval and benediction.
Then, as the smell of recycled burned coffee wafted around the room, he shocked us all by croaking the phrase, “…and let that serve as a warning to the rest of you.” And gave us all a big, genuine smile.
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This One Time, 39
This one time I looked up and saw the Earth hanging in the sky, right above the horizon, backlit by the sun, which had set a week or more ago. It was a rare opportunity to get out the telescope and see what I could of earth’s night-side lights, the aurora australis, the light-shows above […]
- This One Time, 39
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