Archive for April, 2023
The Siege of Acre
The city of Acre, besieged by the forces of Richard the Lion-Hearted, slouched in terror of invincible armor, of horses mythical in size and steadfastness, of a human frenzy that had deserted the Moslem world two centuries earlier. To hold against this menace meant slow but certain annihilation and growing depravity. To capitulate meant… what? Blood ankle deep in the streets, rape, torture, death beyond all conceivable deaths, the sundering of reason from body. Those who already quaked with the fever of pestilence shook like wind chimes at the mention of surrender.
Sulieman Hareim, vendor of needlework excerpts from the Koran, had shivered enough in times of peace, hounded throughout his life by something never far behind that refused to make itself manifest. Now, at last, that something had a name. It lurked beyond the walls, though still unseen by those who, like Sulieman, were not chosen to battle it.
The tales of the invaders were five times truth, perhaps ten, but to those who knew the truth, it was enough: fanatics under the banner of a military zealot, more cunning that a religious one, huge in the saddle, with the strength of kings of legend, merciless in pursuit of.. not the True Cross, not the Holy Land, but of competition which knew no limit. Such a force had been long absent in that part of the world, the desire to be and to do, to win without ultimate object, so that each victory must be succeeded by another, greater, until the world, believed flat by the ignorant, should be rendered so in fact.
Sulieman knew the stories of this Avenger who dared Allah Himself and seemingly fought the Only One to a standstill. The merchant’s belief in the forces of destiny grew stronger, even as his acceptance of the limitless might of Allah lay shaken. A wrath greater than the wrath of God had reached through a rent in the fabric of the world. Yet if Sulieman was powerless before this scourge, might it not rightly be also his personal scourge, brought to afflict the city of Acre only as a portal to his spirit?
His one-room dwelling was piled high with the product of his wife’s deft fingers. She it was who transformed the flowing testament of Allah from the pages of the Holy Book to simple cotton cloth. Nor did the siege restrict her output. Day after day she added to the heaps of coarsely embroidered sayings which she knew to recite by heart, but which she could no more read than could her husband.
“What are we to do with these?” he asked. “We cannot put them for sale in such times. The infidels would desecrate them when they conquer. That would be a sin.”
“It is a sin to oppose the will of Allah.”
“The will of Allah has gone elsewhere.”
His wife did not reply, nor did her fingers slow.
At night a hypnogogic form assailed Sulieman, ten feet tall, mounted on a horse with breath of fire, its hooves bearing down upon him, sometimes in the street, other times here in his bed. The stained yellow background held no contrasting feature, only horse, rider, and the sharp-edged, brilliant colors of their motion. A great iron bucket encased the rider’s head, featureless but for eyeholes and the sinuously delineated outlines of ears. He bore a shield nearly his own height, embossed with a cross of fire, a mouth writhing at the cross’s intersection, speaking in an unknown language words too vile to be comprehended in any tongue. The twisted lips spat molten saliva that hissed and steamed where it struck the horse’s flanks. The steed’s head, uncovered, shone with flesh so lean, skin so tight over the bones, it appeared to be clothed in an impenetrable substance.
The rider rose in his saddle by aid of strange boot-holders strapped across the animal’s middle, and he lifted a lance that stretched backward to the edge of thought. Its tip speared a beating heart, pulsing with the desire to incorporate, to master. At its touch, a gout of red fell across Sulieman, sucking greedily at this flesh. Then the image died, vanished of its own accord, and the shaking spasms left his body. An unexplained blessing filled his head and he slipped into true asleep.
Richard had taken sick before the walls, no less human in the face of pestilence than his adversaries or his supposed invincible cohorts, who fell like flies and boiled inside their cushioned chain mail, until relieved of it by those with sufficient strength remaining to lift more than their own weight. Food was short, patience and tempers shorter. Close to half the horses were dead, the rest put out of their misery, one by one, to serve as provisions, strips of flank and belly drying over smoky fires. Saladin threatened, at a distance, to descend upon their encircled position. Richard raved for half a day, believing himself back in England, berating John for the black-hearted whimsy of his regency.
Close to sunset, the great king blinked, sat upright, and demanded a flagon of water. The fever did not leave him, but his will returned, and with it his hope, which outstripped even his ambition. He called together his lieutenants, a wretched lot dripping sweat, hacking phlegm onto the already putrid ground. Great sores enveloped their bodies from the chafing of the armor they felt constrained to don each day as a sign that right, wielded by the arm of might, would triumph.
Without Richard, nothing had triumphed but disease.
“We must undermine the tower,” the revitalized king said, “bring the whole damned mass of masonry down on their heads. Can you not envision it? Bloody heathens up on their wall while we scurry about like moles under the earth, chomp, chomp, chomp, chewing away on the foundations, then we haul back on the supports, heave ho, and their grand stupid walls vanish into a chasm.”
“We built those grand stupid walls,” observed the Duke of Gascony, wiping a bony arm across his nose.
“And we’ll bloody well tear ’em down again. Who better for it? Eh? Got to get out of this confounded litter.”
Richard rose from the litter, stood tall, and fell into a faint.
Sulieman rose from the rank straw pallet where he had been avoiding the afternoon. Feet slapped past his doorway, a few at first, then many, racing from the walls. Cries ran with them, cries without words, or with words so shrill they became both more and less than words. As the feet and cries dwindled, other sounds replaced them, thumpings and bangings and clankings at the walls. What could they mean, he asked himself, knowing that they could mean only the end, the triumph of that madness beyond the reach of Allah.
After a time, even these sounds diminished, replaced by a silence louder than battle. Had for forces of Allah, armed only with spears, lacking metal armor, held the God of Chaos at bay? The thought of victory called to his faith, but what answered was not his faith. Something deep within him wept that the destiny which had searched him out across seas and deserts had been defeated.
Runnels of sweat streaking his filthed flanks under his burnous, he ran, against the resistance of terror, toward the walls. The odor of blood rose as sweet as the blossoms of a carrion plant. The tower steps were piled with bodies, three deep in places, taking on rigor in the heat. With muscles now unyielding, they turned like logs beneath his feel, throwing him off balance.
Atop the tower, wounded defenders, gore encrusting their bodies and pasting their arms to their sides, slumped against the walls. A single crusader lay arched across the stone of a crenel. His sword was a broken stump, the jagged ending bloody, suspended from his forearm as though by magic, some small nick or snag in the metal caught on his chain mail. His helmet, a battered piece of iron crossing his head from brow to nape, was pressed hard against his crown. Sulieman knelt to see his face, but it was covered by a veil of chain, struck with sufficient force to drive it through eyes and sockets both, to hidden places within. Sulieman’s stomach attempted to erupt, but is contents were too meagre to respond.
He stood so he could inspect the body from above. It seemed little larger than his own, and the armor, though efficient, did not obliterate the underlying human form as his mind had pictured. Here was a man who had fought for a cause which, though unjust, had led him to assail a great heigh with but a broken sward. Sulieman pulled at the leather ties behind the infidel’s shoulders and found that he could lift the body. With a cry of what could have been taken for rage he pitched it over the wall.
A short laugh sounded behind him.
“Well done. You fight the dead with valor.”
“Allah be praised,” mouthed Sulieman, his lips moving from instinct
“Allah,” said the soldier, “Allah.” He laughed again.
Something spoke to Sulieman’s feet as he sidled to the stairway, as though a loquacious bug had crawled beneath his step. He stopped. The stone sang to him through his soles, the grating voice of eternity from the throat of the inanimate. He shook and his teeth chattered. He placed his hand against the wall, and the voice was there also, a snicker at first, then laughter harder than the soldier’s.
Sulieman hurdled down the stairway, setting off avalanches of stiffened flesh. The odor of decay hand increased tenfold, the flies a hundredfold. He fought through black swarms that he inhaled in his panic, causing him to cough and retch again. At the doorway to his hovel, he raised his hands above his head and feigned a dance of celebration.
“Allah be praised,” he shrilled, “Allah be praised.” His wife looked up only briefly from her needlework, never ceasing her careful stitches. Sulieman lowered his hands.
The infidels launched no concerted attack during the following week. Though sorties rode to the base of the walls, they turned back as the defenders massed above them. They made no feints toward the tower. The city’s inhabitants, straining for normality, drifted back to their homes close under the walls. The Crusaders’ naval blockade prevented supplies from reaching them, and brother eyed the shrunken shanks of brother as the corpses in the streets threatened to equal the number of the living.
Sulieman made trips to the tower daily. Some of the bodies of the defenders had been claimed; far more, with regret, had been carried to the wall and let fall. The soldiers did not question him. He was a fact of life that came, looked on the Christian camp with strange intensity, then departed.
One mid-day a small party of horsemen approached the wall but stopped beyond bowshot. Something hung between two of the horses, something rich in colors, assertive yet vulnerable in the barren, ruined land of siege.
“That is he,” said a soldier at Sulieman’s side.
Sulieman leaned into the crenel and swung his head left to right. “Where? Which is he?”
The soldier pointed to the isolated group “There, in the litter. He has been ill, they say.”
The great Avenger from beyond time… an injured man in foppish colors tied between horses. From the stones beneath Sulieman’s feet the song sang again; as before, the singer did not identify itself.
His nighttime vision returned, but stripped of its majesty. The armored rider slumped in the saddle, his shield hacked and dented, the cross upon it little more than two sticks crudely fastened. The mouth at their intersection slobbered idiot drool over blistered lips. No heart adorned the lance, though the broken tip pumped gore like a bellows, issuing a stream of red that, for all its liquid flow, spoke of an unslakable thirst. The horse broke into a brief canter, then stumbled to its knees. The dissolution of the image brought nothing of its former peace.
Rumors of impending surrender circulated both within the walls and without. Saladin continued to promise resistance, but his armies remained in place. One day a massive sound erupted throughout the walls, the bellow of the earth itself. The tower wavered like a harem dancer before the Sultan, shifted forward and settled downward, shorter by the height of three men. Its stairway clogged with fallen stone and a renewed supply or corpses, yet the tower wall stood solid in what had been intended as its breach.
“Blast,” said Richard, swinging his weakened legs over the side of the litter. “What sort of mole-work is that? Never give a job to Frenchmen, they do everything half-assed.”
Conrad of Montferrat, no friend to Richard at the best of times, blinked from smoldering eyes. “At least there are fewer of them. The mining collapsed prematurely. The moles, all, were killed.”
Richard wavered slightly on his feet. “In that case, they died nobly, none I’d rather have make the attempt. Where’s my armor? The delegation is due today. Find something regal for me to sit on, deuced upsetting if I fell over in the middle of things.” He looked toward the tower. “We know how to build ‘em. Just as well, might come in handy once we enter. Acre will be ours by nightfall.”
And so it was. Saladin’s rebuff of the defenders’ terms of surrender arrived too late. The garrison of Acre had already staggered through the gates, prisoners of the Lion-Heart. Yet no massacre followed – not then. After thirty months of siege, the infidels entered the city in relative quiet, their minimal rape and pillage little more than a pro-forma exercise by wasted, weary men.
They sacked Sulieman’s dwelling in an almost cursory way, the words of Allah taken, strewn in the street and beaten into the dust. An infidel knight ripped the veil from his wife but found the fact beneath less than the promise unseen. He cuffed the woman, bloodying her face, but left her otherwise in peace. The colored embroidery threads he appropriated for his own spouse, should he ever return from this accursed land of Christ.
Sulieman fled, attempted to scale the tumbled tower stairs without success, then took up with a contingent of soldiers who recognized him from his wanderings atop the wall. Together, they were rounded up by the conquerers, sent from the city, and confined with a thousand others on a small stretch of open ground, one tiny stream serving for both drink and the removal of wastes.
Sulieman felt no resentment. Allah, in His unknowable wisdom, had found the Faithful expendable. Less comprehensible to the merchant was the behavior of the infidels, who lived, by choice, little better than he. True, they ate well, now that food flowed freely into the camp, but food itself, the basic process of life, seemed to make them crazed. Bowmen, surrounded by their own refuse, squatted and tore at their provisions. Nobles, devouring gobbets of half-raw flesh, spattered their gilded finery with grease and used the ruffled sleeves as depositories for the excesses of mouth and nose. The horses, trained for nothing but stolidity in battle, dropped their waste before the tents, soiling the cloth, leaving it crawling with flies.
At first, Sulieman fixed his gaze on the central tent, waiting for a view of the Lion-Heart, who did not emerge. At night he grappled with the remnants of his vision, reduced to a muddle of disconnected figures and tumbled geometry. Once these too had fled, he fell into mindless stupor. Before the second week had passed, he no longer kept watch on the fly-specked pavilion of the Avenger.
So the situation remained, static, for five weeks. Saladin sent Richard repeated offers of exchange, but none pleased the victor. Rid of his fever and eager again to win momentous battles, to capture Jerusalem, to return to his realm and uproot the certain mischief of John, he found it degrading to haggle over the worthless bodies of his enemy.
On the final morning, the prisoners awoke to a mad din, the gnashing of demon teeth and the torment of the damned. As the upper limb of the sun cleared the horizon, the infidels beat swords and shields, warbled and whistled and bellowed like bulls. Sulieman blundered from his deep stupor to a lighter one, then burst fully awake, his weeks of numbness torn away. In their exaltation, the infidels had raised a pall of dust through which the sun shone as golden as the streets of paradise. It was the color of his former vision, rich yet terrifying.
“Allah, Allah,” he prayed, but questioningly.
Leaping and whirling through the golden mists, the knights at last took on the aspect of their legend. Their movements were quick, huge, exalted, as they swung their swords in arcs before them, fwuuuh, fwuuuh, fwuuuh, the sound of rooks alighting to claim the eyes of the dead. Slowly, the massed figures parted, forming a lane to the great tent. Down this lane strode the Lion-Heart, a true colossus, a head taller than any man else in the assemblage, angular from illness but firm of tread. Larger than life, his motions signaled the immortality of the present.
He strode the soldiered highway to an open area between his warriors and the cowed prisoners, and boomed barbaric sounds, the song the stones had sung to Sulieman. At the Lion-Heart’s last grating note, a cheer arose from the knights, rooks taken flight once more. Each man took a step forward, as if pulled by an unseen cord. Richard drew his sword, raised it high, then swept downward.
The infidels surged forward and the slaughter began. The prisoners shrieked and fled, but Sulieman stood unmoved until the giant form became lost in the swirl of maddened men armed with any implement of death that came to hand – sword or crude wooden truncheon, morningstar or sharpened segment of broken harness.
The captives still standing were cut down, the fallen skewered where they lay. Swordsmen hewed arms as a butcher cleaves chickens, slit abdomens and tossed the tangled entrails high, sundered heads, scattered brains until a grayish red mixed into the golden light, darkening it toward orange.
Bowmen and squires lashed right and left without care, catching at each other and striking sparks from knights’ armor as their bloodlust increased with each kill. A youth of perhaps eighteen, clad in green tatters, thew up an eyeball, still trailing its optic nerve, and made as if to catch it with open mouth. At the last, he stepped back so that it fell before him, then ground it into the squelch of gore, giggling all the while. Everywhere, the siege plain echoed with cries and laughter, screams of death and howls of belated vengeance.
Sulieman, loosed from stasis, tumbled into the reddened, viscous mud. Above him a sword cut the air with the note of a wind-touched lyre. A man, still standing, had been sliced diagonally from right shoulder to left flank. His upper section levered away on a hinge of flesh, leaving legs supporting one arm and a scant triangle of body. The exposed organs squirmed and pulsated, unaware of their end, then the knees curtsied to the attacker, who staggered off, giddy, in search of the center of mayhem.
Sulieman rose slowly. After the soft drop of the halved body, a local silence pushed outward, driving the clamor of carnage before it, until a single sound remained, a repetitive liquid sibilance, as of stones dropped into a shallow pond. Twenty yards distant, a gigantic rider approached astride a still more gigantic horse, a beast with legs of stone, a third taller than the tallest Arabian.
Richard reined in the Percheron, a workhorse commandeered from the supply ships. Its massive feet sank through the mire to find firm purchase beneath. The Lion-Heart wore neither the shield or helmet of Sulieman’s vision. Instead, a slowly browning crust of others’ blood covered horse and rider alike in an armor more terrible than steel. The Avenger’s eyes shone brilliant as the orange-yellow light. Of a sudden he bellowed laughter and lowered his lance to the ready. A spume of spittle, mixed with the blood on his lips, arched from him in a reddish spray.
Sulieman threw his arms wide, his body forming a living cross. The Lion-Heart held still, tossing back his head to shake loose his stiffening hair. He laughed again, almost soundlessly, then wheeled the horse. With his heels he coaxed it into a reluctant canter as it carried him away. The heavy splashes turned to lighter splashes, to drips of sound, to nothing.
Sulieman lowered his arms in the grief of abandonment, surrounded by the bodies of the dead, the silence of death, and a dead, empty light.
Living in the ’60s, as seen from the ’70s
[I’ve already described some of the apartments I lived in after returning from a half-year at Stanford grad in 1962, but below is what I first wrote about them, around 1970, with a different slant from later. It’s interesting to me to see the difference. If it means nothing to you, you can trash it easily, one of the delights of email.
[I transcribed it as best as I could from a lousy scan of paper that had turned deep tan with age; I’ve indicated missing or unreadable words with question marks (within brackets, if following a single questionable word.)
[This and other barely rescued snippets were typed on Telex paper swiped from the Penn student newspaper’s office, sitting untended and useless years after the paper – and most of the rest of the world – had stopped using Telex. The paper came in a cardboard box, 18” long, about 6” across, maybe 4-5” high. The paper was accordion-folded so that the whole stack could be fed through the Telex machine in a steady stream. There was probably a half-mile of paper when I first inserted it into my 1937 IBM Selectric, one of the first-ever electric desk typewriters. I probably picked it up from a junk store. You could adjust the response of the keys with almost infinite variation. I’d guess that at the lightest setting you could have breathed on the keys to start them typing. I wish I still had that beast, loved it.]
[23 S. 34th St. was and will always remain The House for me. Much more written about it elsewhere. I lived there summer 1962 to spring 64.]
Eight years (nine years, I do not know) back, it was the House, already described, communal in that middle-ground that campus housing has, close-knit yet uncontrolled. At this remove I can add nothing that would make the House seem anything more than what I have said. It was bought by a thin, nasty, crass soul of contemporary age. It is reported that his parents died in an auto crash, leaving him fifty thousand, in thanks for which providence he went on a five-day tear. Under him the House was caught, slaughtered and butchered into six ratty[?] apartments, all cut against the grain. The shed into which I threw the chairs I ritually broke at each drunken party was ripped off as though by a giant hand and cast from him. The walls I had painted and ??, the witty, filthy sayings we had scrawled upon the walls were scraped and shattered. My room was defiled by a pullman kitchen. I spit in his eye. I urinate upon his business holdings. I defecate in the doorway of his French restaurant which ?? from rowhouse to rowhouse along the last remaining backstreet of the campus, [half line too mangled to read] around a pole and, as his eyes roll detached across the road, watch the glee unfold across his parents long-strained faces.
In succession after the House:
[Summer 1964, 3700 block of Spruce St.]
A three-room apartment, pleasant enough, of no significance other than a wide gutter outside the third-floor window, where I could place my feet and survey the street, pleasant, tree-lined. Two floors down lived a guitar-picker, looking like a snaggle-toothed Missouri hick, but from Haddonfield, N.J. He drank continually, or appeared to without being immoderate, studied math and surrounded himself with small, intelligent, giggly, deformed-looking people. He also treated his wife, whose chin and personality receded like ?? stars at infinity, as though her main function were to provide the shortest distance between himself and their refrigerator. They were together possessed of a liberated, swinging two year old (the occasion of their marriage) who danced sporadically on a footstool to obscure delta blues. He (the picker, not the kid) was given to moodiness and would every month or so lock his door and mutter nastiness if someone knocked. I heard later than the receding[?] wife was adept at two-day marathon fucks, which helps clear up many of the ambiguities. The middle floor was unoccupied during the first two months and since a roommate and the picker had been satellites of the House during its second (lesser) year, the place provided a scaled-down, pastel transition from the room where I first began to compose all this and the almost-exile of my first experience at living alone.
[Fall 1964 to… ?1966. SE corner of 37th and Chestnut Sts.. Julie moved in near the end. What’s written here is much too negative a view of one of the most absurdly delightful places I’ve ever lived. The negativity comes, really, from what followed, when the two of us knew way too much difficulty.]
A two-roomer this time, again the third floor, but in contrast completely cut off from the rest of the building. The house itself could best be described as a brownstone shanty, a disgustingly ugly pile of featureless rock with rancid plywood attachments on the second floor and the third floor porch (mine) entirely enclosed by chicken wire, as thought a cage for or defense against some great predatory bird that fed on entrails. I ripped down the chicken wire, cleaned and painted the porch, removed the checkerboard grey linoleum that covered every inch of the floors, sand the floors, whited the walls, tacked curtains over the immense closet doors and, in the one act of distinctive brilliance, closed, locked and draped-over the one official entrance. My new entrance was an immense outward-thrusting fire escape, an act of aggression perpetuated by some mad ironworker who had decided to make his offense a blatant feature of the landscape. It was old, ?? and scaled, possessed of a particular[?] sort of grime and grit which did not settle on it but somehow regenerated within hours after I had swept its cleated steps. It hunkered like a scabrous dinosaur above the daily mounds of garbage which issued from the food store on the first floor. I also shook and creaked whenever walked upon, giving my guests a cheap taste of the abyss. On the strange green lattice of the porch gate I hung Durer’s self portrait, grimacing[?] like a Christ gone sour, shedding[?] its mental masturbation down to the street by means of a spotlight I put on it all evening. The door into the main room took the place of the central window in a bay and was opened by a skeleton key which I left in the drawer of a table on the porch. I ignored the building and it ignored me. The view (a corner building tic[?]) was down upon a Presbyterian church which had a small, functionless yet beautiful cloister on our side. We left (the girl I lived with — now my wife – and I [first wife, Julie]) when the loneliness of the sun setting slowly, slowly – shadows creating [most of line lost on fold] monkish view, threatened to turn my mind to dung. It was place of ?? happy summer afternoons and horrid autumn evenings. It distilled my fear of night approaching.
[1966-April ’67, 500 block of Delancey St. The one great wonder of our stay was the birth of Morgan, my eldest, far more important than the minutia of shit listed here. Again, the sour outlook is a back-reflection from later sorrows.]
The next, three rooms again, though four by nature, and with it came this night I feared, the Dark Night of the Soul. Oh, this is an exaggeration of course. 2 men can know primal misery only if his condition is truly primal and there is no hope, or if his condition is so much his own that it does not matter what the facts are. We lived comfortably enough without statistical want, so the latter case pertains, and there can be no social justification of the misery we felt, the grinding horror we lived under. Most of it had little to do with surroundings anyway, and so belongs elsewhere. Even if ?? were otherwise, ?? it all here would be too much of distortion this early in the game, too much a cry for pity when presentation is the only aim. Enough though to catalog the semi-objective points of this side-show trap.
Above us a slim[?] divorcee fucked morning noon and evening, or as soon as they returned from anywhere, with her lover, a personification of slow wittedness and five-o’clock shadow. They climaxed in maddening crescendo, like mammoth rodents and, so nearly as the listening world could gather, always simultaneously. Either they were perfectly attuned, or one of them was a hypocrite. This was not as madly annoying as amazing, especially as their bed was directly over ours. We laughed in fact, mentally timing them from their mad dash up the stairs to the last shriek. She had a five year old son who was either conveniently absent at the right time or, for him, strangely quiet – awed no doubt. The rest of his waking life was spent leaping off whatever article of furniture was nearest him, landing heels first and tearing across whichever room he was in until he encountered an obstacle, at which point the process was repeated. The front door was guarded by a fat, arthritic red dog, part chow its owner would tell you daily, who snapped at your heels as you stepped or leapt over him, sprawled at the foot of the stairs. The dog, though, was preferable to the owner, a widower overbrimming with a cowardly nastiness[?] which he inflicted on his sons through hours of verbal harassment, mostly threatening them with imminent dismemberment which, unfortunately – at least in the case of the elder son – never ?? place. He was something of a low-degree electrician by trade, enough of one at least to be tapping half the power to his apartment off our line.
Down in the Valley
Aunt Edith tapped the steering wheel.
“Jeremy, would you roll down the window?”
Five minutes later
“Jeremy, would you roll up the window?”
Would Jeremy roll the entire car down the mountainside? Why would he not?
They stopped at a convenience store, a tidy faux-brick structure from the ’70s, and bought bags of grease and salt, bottles of colored sugar water. Maeve and Lucy inhaled the “food” and “drink” and belched, their midriffs oozing over miniskirts that barely covered their overabundant rumps. Humans should be fully clothed or nude, thought Jeremy.
“Jeremy, would you please get me those batteries from the top shelf?” Aunt Edith pointed pointedly, something in her stance indicating that Jeremy could not recognize a battery on his own. How minuscule did she see herself that she could not grasp an item no more than five feet from the floor?
The van had waited patiently in the five-car mini lot. It had not zoomed off and left them like any halfway self-respecting vehicle would.
Jeremy, would you –
And Jeremy always would, without comment or visible reaction, because Jeremy had always been that sort.
Would always be?
Lucy and Maeve, slouching in the back seat, resented the countryside and the absence of their electronic games, which they had uncharacteristically left on the living room table. Their cell phones found no consistent reception in the undulating, wooded hills. There was nothing for them to do but look and think. They could not accomplish both at once and the second only on occasion.
Jeremy loved the woods and the wild, the wilder the better. Sharing it with Aunt Edith and her grand nieces was as enjoyable as being poked in the eye with a stick. Though separated by two generations, the three women shared an insular self-indulgence that excluded the natural world.
On occasion, Jeremy could admit to himself that he was as nasty, bitter and solipsistic as the girls, and more virulent than Aunt Edith, who simply settled into herself and ventured out only to seek inconsequential assistance.
As they exited the spectacular beauty of one of the last remaining old-growth stands in the Northeast, Jeremy carefully plotted the murder of his three companions, rejecting any detail that veered from the narrow path leading to the perfect crime.
Guns were out. They could usually be traced and seldom disposed of effectively, and he had never held, much less fired, a gun.
A knife would hardly be effective against three people, even sleeping; at least one was sure to awaken and make a hideous racket.
Driving the car over a precipice would involve first incapacitating the three occupants, then somehow contriving to shoo the car forward under its own volition – he had no desire to commit suicide. And a plunge down the mountainside might not obliterate them all. The news daily carried stories of “miraculous” escapes.
The best he could do, at the moment, in a tiny soupcon of revolt, was turn the radio to the classical music station which, with occasional drifts and sputters, reached the heart of the woodland.
One, two, three….
“Jeremy, would you mind turning that down just a tad?”
Jeremy flicked the volume control full clockwise, filling the van with St. Seans’ organ symphony to the point of threatening the windows, then quickly revolved the knob in the opposite direction.
“Sorry, wrong way.” The wondrous thrum of organist E. Power Biggs (was ever a human more sublimely christened for his occupation?) barely grunted from the speakers.
“Where are we?” asked Lucy.
In the heart of darkest Africa, where lions devour indolent teens with lip-smacking delight.
“Thirty miles from Morgantown.”
“That where we’re goin’?”
“No, we are simply driving along to enjoy the scenery.”
“Jeez,” said Maeve.
“Now, children,” oozed Aunt Edith in mild remonstration, “the scenery holds endless possibilities.”
It did indeed. In his scheming mind, Jeremy poked beneath the mold of his internal forest floor, spread the venereal openings of its hollow trees, nibbled at the numerous fungi that infested his musings. For this lonely, sequestered man was happiest in his internal wilds that others could never reach.
Yet, if they were to reach them…?
Once the St. Seans had rumbled to its conclusion, Jeremy played idly with the radio dial, which brought him an unending cascade of shrieking commercials, one leaping onto the back of another. At last he stumbled across a nostalgia station, piping doo-wop and mellow R&B from the ’50s.
“What’s that?” wheeped Lucy, her spine tortured into the lower reaches of the back seat.
“Music, my dear. The human voice in harmonic and melodic variety.” He turned the volume up slightly.
“Where do you propose we eat your lunch?” Aunt Edith placed only the mildest emphasis on “your,” to register her suspicion of the picnic that Jeremy had packed. Sitting on the lap of Mother Earth for repast might impart stains to both her clothing and her assumptions.
“I had thought a mossy stream bank,” he suggested.
Maeve made the sound of a cat under pressure.
Jeremy glanced in the rear view mirror. “Or a large outcropping of volcanic lava.”
“You mustn’t tease, dear,” admonished Aunt Edith.
“I recall a spot,” he mused, only half aloud, “a somewhat unusual spot…” A surge of recollection, a glowing light, a sunrise of the mind, spread across his internal horizon. He maneuvered the radio dial to a rock station that blared even at low decibels and turned the volume to an ear-splitting blast.
“Hey!” said Maeve.
“Awright!” said Lucy.
Jeremy laughed aloud and began to jive and shimmy in his seat. “Oh yes,” he shouted above the shattering sound, “this is definitely the enjoyable life, the very epitome of cool.” Almost imperceptibly, he pressed his foot with increasing firmness against the accelerator. The van took the snaking curves at 45, 50, 55 mph.
At 60, Aunt Edith queried, “Jeremy, would you mind slowing down?”
“What?” he bellowed as he increased the volume. “I can’t hear you over this marvelous music.”
“I said – “
Without warning, he swerved the van to the side of the road and jolted to a stop that slammed the unseatbelted girls against the front seats.
“Here we are!” he whooped.
“Jeremy, really –”
He switched off the engine.
“Oh frabjous day! Come along, everyone out, come, come, come, time to evacuate, so to speak, ha ha.”
“Where are we?” ventured Maeve, spilling out the right-hand door like a dessert gone bad.
“Who is your favorite rock ‘n’ roll star?” asked Jeremy, bouncing on his toes.
“We like hip-hop the most,” said Lucy.
“Hip-hop paddy-wop, give your dog a bone.” Jeremy swiveled from side to side, alternating feet. “Which hip-hop artist would you most, most just love to meet?”
“50 Cent,” said Maeve, with something close to attention.
“50 Cent! Just as I thought! Right there at the airport I looked upon the two of you, and I said to myself, ‘These two must surely be aficionados of Mr. 50 Cent.'”
“What’s an aficionado?” asked Lucy.
“Ha ha! Silly little geese. Such a sense of humor.”
Aunt Edith touched Jeremy’s arm, a moth-like contact. “Are you perfectly all right, Jeremy?”
“Perfectly! Without defect! A complete and utterly unblemished adherent to the world of 40 Cent.”
“It’s 50 Cent,” said Maeve, working up almost enough effort to sneer.
“Of course! Even this dreadful economy could not devalue such a stellar artist of hippity hop. Now pay close attention! We are the beneficiaries, so to speak, of exquisite fate, for Mr. Cent has a cabin below, in this very valley. Come along, we must truly join him.”
Aunt Edith glanced back at the van. “Should we take the picnic?”
“Oh, pshaw, we will dine on our return.” He squatted twice at the roadside, hands on knees, then pumped his arms. “First, we must work up an appetite.”
The girls looked down the steep incline that slashed and skewed to accommodate the concrete and blacktop rubble of a recent road repair.
“Why’d 50 Cent wanna be out here? He doesn’t rhyme about trees.”
“Oh, but he does. He rhymes ‘oak’ with ‘broke,’ and ‘hemlock’ with ‘ham hock.’ He once rhymed ‘maple’ with ‘staple’ – or it may have been ‘may pole.’ No one dared do that before 60 Cent.”
“Let us not quibble over differential denominations, ha ha.” Jeremy strode forward, over the lip of the raw hillside, and lurched down the scree, holding Aunt Edith’s hand, pulling her across roots and boulderettes that tripped her. Behind them, Maeve and Lucy levered hand over pudgy hand from sapling to ruined sapling.
“Down in the val-ley, the val-ley so lo-o-w,” warbled Jeremy, “hang your head o-ver, hear the wind blow-wo-wo-wo.”
“I don’t like this,” said Maeve as she picked herself up from a spill that scraped her knees and abraded her $60 designer miniskirt, dyed black as the dark matter behind stars.
“But you like Mr. Cent, don’t you?” yawped Jeremy over his shoulder, “you want to meet Mr. Cent, don’t you?”
“I don’t think he’s down there,” wailed Lucy as she slammed into a scarred hemlock that ripped her face. “We oughta go back.”
“Go back, and miss the chance of a lifetime? Mr. Cent is up to 70 now, he’ll be 80 before you can say ‘Shazam.'”
Aunt Edith had slipped from Jeremy’s grasp and dropped behind as they plummeted through ferns, undergrowth and spindly saplings. They had passed beyond the roadway rubble and into farmland reverting to its ancestral woods. Who could ever have farmed these precipitous hillsides? Yet someone had.
The soft, sensual trickle of a stream on the valley floor would have exhilarated travelers less untested than Lucy and Maeve. Jeremy felt reborn, bursting with possibility. “Gather to me, children – you too, Aunt Edith,” he megaphoned up the hill to the laboring lady. “This is the” – he leaned forward and whispered behind his hand – “Garden of Eden.”
“That’s not real, it’s a story,” said Lucy.
“Jeez,” said Maeve. “Where’s 50 Cent?”
“I’m sorry. I’d totally forgotten. Mr. Cent had a previous engagement.”
“But you said—”
“Perhaps I lied.” Jeremy whooped with laughter. “Perhaps your uncle lied. You know, I have no idea of my true kinship to you. Are we cross cousins, uncrossed cousins, mildly exasperated second cousins forcibly removed? I may be a grandsire of exceptional insight and fortitude. Or – I may be completely mistaken.”
Maeve leaned against a paper birch, which she could not have identified if her life depended on it. “You’re a nut case.”
“I am a case of nuts! And here is your great aunt, stranded against a tree root and wondrously confused. What do you suppose exalts an aunt enough to make her ‘great’? Might you be a great niece instead of a grand niece? Do you feel great or the least bit grand? Aunt Edith, it’s so good to see you here.”
“Of course you are. Have some tea.”
Aunt Edith swiveled her head, though her body barely moved. “I don’t see any tea.”
“Exactly! So we must forge ahead until the tea presents itself.”
As they forged, the spindly growth became more robust, the landscape more solemn, the creek more assertive. No one had spoken for five minutes when Lucy suddenly plopped on the ground like a sack tossed from a peddler’s shoulder.
“I’m not going any more.”
“I see that,” said Jeremy. “Your locomotion has gone loco. You may have snapped a tie-rod. Or whatever those things are. Well, that puts us in a fix.” He turned to Aunt Edith, who puffed to a stop. “We can go no farther. We must pull up here and, I suppose – rot.”
“Jeremy, I’m concerned.”
“As am I! Rot is very bad for one’s bearings. We wouldn’t want to lose our bearings, would we?”
“I don’t think 50 Cent was ever down in this dirty place,” said Lucy from her own segment of dirt.
“50 – if I may be so familiar – is actually much attracted to loam and forest detritus. You might not expect it, no, but he is a man of the woods, like the orangutan.”
“50 Cent’s not a monkey.”
“Nor is the orangutan.”
“What are we doing here?” asked Aunt Edith.
“Very little,” admitted Jeremy, “so I would suggest – strongly suggest – that we all arise and DO SOMETHING.” The sudden explosion of his voice staggered Maeve against a fungally diseased beech, tipped Lucy into a bed of moss, and inflated Aunt Edith’s face as though she were attached to a cylinder of helium. Jeremy’s own face had taken on a frightening tincture of decayed animation. The three lined up behind him to follow without further complaint.
The valley trail branched. The left fork rose away from the creek bank in a gentle, unassuming incline. Jeremy took this, and the group’s continuing silence seemed to expand into the outer world. Their feet made little sound on the hard-packed earth. The canopy of trees grew increasingly dense, absorbing the sunlight high in the branches of majestic oak, ash, and occasional hemlock. The land held a serenity edged with unease.
“I don’t want to be here,” whined Lucy.
“Good fortune awaits,” said Jeremy, pointing to a small clearing where a tiny plank house, a cabin at best, sagged and wept at the lost history of its youth. “Mr. Cent’s hideaway,” he exclaimed.
“You said he wasn’t around,” growled Maeve.
“At the moment, no, but his great-grand-friend, his thrice-removed and twice-worthy mentor, Johnny Dollar, should certainly be at home.”
Jeremy led the troop along a worn stretch, no longer quite a path. He rapped a neat rat-a-tat on the plank door, its skewed Z of cross-supports lifting away from what they were meant to tie together. For a moment there was no sound, then a vague shuffling and the padding of animal feet.
The door was opened by a tall, scrawny, mustached man in a battered city Stetson and the remnants of a pinstripe suit. His face sported a half-week’s growth of sad whiskers. In his right hand he held a chipped glass of dirty brown liquid. Two forgettable mutts framed him.
“My dear Johnny,” enthused Jeremy.
“Jeremy,” sighed the disheveled figure.
“I have brought some friends. Relatives, actually.”
“Everything’s relative,” mumbled Dollar, stepping aside. Jeremy bounded through the doorway, followed by the sullen footfalls of the two girls and Aunt Edith’s reticence.
“I’m thirsty,” hazarded Maeve.
“To be sure,” said Jeremy. “All this long, long walk without a sip of bottled water! Johnny, dear friend, might you have something to ease the dryness of these shy young things? And Aunt Edith – oh my, I have not introduced you all. Johnny Dollar, please meet Maeve, Lucy and, as I just exclaimed, Aunt Edith, who has along the way expressed the desire for a cup of – no? – a glass of ice tea.”
“Yeah.” Dollar drifted behind a scarred, chrome-edged mini-bar and leaned down to rummage. “Cokes?” He held up a small glass bottle with an inflated bust and slimmed waist. “Nah, no tea.”
“A Coke would serve admirably,” admitted Aunt Edith. The girls reached out like organ-grinder’s monkeys, standing well away from the mini-bar. Dollar church-keyed the caps from three bottles and walked around to hand them out. Lucy looked at hers as though it were an archaeological find. “We wanted to see 50 Cent,” she whined.
Dollar made a dismissive gesture. “He went off to fish.”
“What’s he doin’ with fish?” asked Maeve, her petulance threatening to dismember her face. One of the mutts sniffed her abraded knee and she kicked at it, feebly.
“For dinner,” explained Dollar.
“Fish,” snarked Lucy.
“50 Cent loves fish,” he added.
“Trout!” exclaimed Jeremy. “Mackerel! Pike! Sturgeon! Albacore!”
“Have a seat, ladies.” Dollar waved a long-boned hand toward a wall of caned furniture half lost against the cabin’s water-stained planking. Aunt Edith sank into the nearest chair, which complained and then split, wedging her posterior between the cross members. The girls walked aimlessly and attempted to peer out the filth-encrusted window.
“A fish fry,” continued Jeremy, “with french fries and tartar sauce and vinegar and perhaps macaroni and cheese. Yams? Not likely. But pickles? Definitely.”
Dollar scratched one of the dogs behind its ears. The claws of the animal’s right hind leg clattered on the floor in response. “Me, I’m sick of fish,” he grumped. “Used to be I could wolf a T-bone every couple weeks. Now….” He shrugged at the memory, ambled to the battered round table in the center of the room, and fell into the wreckage of a bentwood chair. His elbows rested momentarily on the tabletop, then slid back until he transferred his slim weight to his forearms.
Jeremy eyed the cobwebs that hung deep as thoughts of despair in the corners, and at the aged, cracked floorboards. Someone had carved “SCREW BATMAN” into the unfinished wood of the table. “Business bad, eh?” he queried Johnny.
“It stinks. The big outfits get the real grab. Met Life, AIG. I’m just a two-bit insurance dick. Who needs ’em these days? All I get’s half-assed divorce cases, and two out of three, they don’t fork over when I bring ’em the goods. Everybody’s a chiseler.”
Johnny pushed upright, then retraced the few feet to the mini-bar, where he rattled and clanked in the back and drew out a tall, smeared bottle. He filled his glass, shot a third of the liquid down his throat, then studied the contents and grimaced.
Jeremy pointed to the bottle. “Could you spare me a bit of the same?”
Dollar rummaged for another glass, filled it half way and handed it over. Jeremy sipped, delicately. “I have a proposition.”
Dollar shrugged. “So did Loeb. Ended his sentence with a proposition.” He started to laugh but choked on his recent intake of liquor. He swiveled his shoulders against the internal grating of a rusted hinge.
“Not that sort of proposition. I have a case to offer you, a business transaction with a strictly monetary recompense.”
Across the room, the girls, trim in knee-length dresses, studied a small floral tatting framed near the misted window. Aunt Edith smiled in her padded rocker, fingers tapping its arms to an unheard rhythm.
Dollar brushed cracker crumbs from the smooth surface of the table and held his hand out to the Doberman by his side. The dog’s long tongue scoured the crumbs from his palm. Johnny smiled broadly. “Now, that’s the kind of transaction I go for. Shoot.” He propelled the remaining liquid from his glass and sucked it down with head thrown back.
“Oh, no shooting. Not a bit of it. I have,” Jeremy announced in conspiratorial tones, “uncovered a case of fraud at least, I would think, fifteen years in the making.”
Johnny’s hawk-like face showed interest. “Goes a back a ways, hmm?”
“It does. And” – Jeremy blasted a similar quantity of the smooth liquid down his own throat – “without your help, I fear it could continue into the indefinite future.”
Maeve and Lucy, side by side on the horsehair love seat, released a seeping sadness. Their hands rested in their laps and their knit shawls hung in limp folds. Behind Jeremy, Aunt Edith asked, quietly, “Jeremy, would you –”
“I would not!” His venomous blast pulsed the corners of the cabin.
“I was only going to ask for another… drink. Is that so awful, Mr. J?”
Jeremy turned in his chair. A simmering smile spread across Edith’s face, a suggestion of…
“But of course. Please excuse my inattention.” Jeremy signaled to Johnny, who whipped a fresh Coke from under the gleaming counter. He strode across the room and held it out it to Edith, then, bowing, offered her his hand. She arose from her brocade armchair with fluid grace to join them at the table, where she tipped a small measure of whiskey into a glass and added a splash of Coke.
Dollar leaned toward Jeremy. “So OK, what’s the scuff?”
“I have two, umm, packages, that I would like you to take under your watch.”
“Are they hot?”
Jeremy choked on a chortle. “Some might think so, but you must judge for yourself.”
“How’s this mesh with your fraud?”
“The fraud is inherent. It happened long ago, but it continues, personified. Only you can prevent it from proliferating.”
One elbow resting on the lustrous tabletop, Edith released a light spurt of laughter. She tapped her high heels on the floor and pointed a questioning finger at Dollar’s half-full bottle. Johnny stood and poured her an ample measure.
“Mind if I ask for a retainer?” he addressed Jeremy. The relaxed grin fit well with the knife-edge crease of his trousers.
“Naturally.” Jeremy withdrew his wallet, bulging with bills. He fingered half a dozen from the wad and handed them across to Dollar, who folded them into his pocket without counting.
“Looks like we’re yakking the same lingo. OK, these packages, where do I pick them up?”
“I have them with me, by Jehovah.” Jeremy waved an exuberant hand toward the two almost matronly figures standing in the sunlight streaming through the unobscured window. Their skin lay lax; their expressions, though vacant, held a suggestion of experience that might, perhaps, have earned the vacancy.
“Huh,” grunted Dollar. “How long you need me to hold onto ’em?”
“‘At’s a long time.”
“And a day.”
Dollar stood and considered, his hand fondling the bills in his pocket. “I dunno.”
“What would the Fat Man do in such a case, or Barry Craig, or the Falcon?”
Dollar looked at the dowdy maidens, at the fresh saw cuts in the wall planking , at the table’s bent-iron chairs. “Why not? A job’s a job.”
Edith rose and smoothed the taffeta covering her slim hips.
“What’s happening?” asked Maeve in a flickering whisper.
“Oh , dear me,” tsked Jeremy, “I didn’t properly explain. Mea culpa. You see, my dear, Mr. Dollar will be taking care of you and your sister from now on.”
Maeve’s eyes spread open like a map unfolding. Tears rolled down Lucy’s flaccid face, but her hands gripped each other in tight embrace, a mating of garter snakes.
“With Mr. Cent’s help, of course,” Jeremy amended.
“Unless,” snapped Johnny Dollar, his snap-brim angled above his sharp-boned face, “he doesn’t make it back for a bit. Sometimes he just kind of… meanders off.” He drew his hand across his mustache and smoothly downed the remainder of his drink.
Jeremy raised his own glass high. “To Mr. Dollar, who can be trusted, believe you me, to make your stay not only comfortable, but I dare say, extraordinary.”
“But we were going to…” began Lucy, her hands twisting in the ghost-gray dress that reached halfway to her ankles. She could not say quite what it was that they were going to.
Edith sidled up to Dollar and held out her now-empty glass. Dollar reached behind the polished bar to fetch a narrow-necked bottle and three aluminum tumblers, snugged into nappy cloth holders. Into each tumbler he splashed an ample dollop of the amber liquid. Jeremy joined Edith and Johnny in a celebration of Four Roses, as they once grew in the vivid neon of Times Square. The merry-makers clunked tumblers and smiled like three old friends.
Jeremy spread his arms wide and twirled, a dancer. He stopped to face the two girls who huddled in resignation. “My dears, my dear dears.” He reached, as if to swoop them into his arms, but they backed away, unblinking deer in a headlight.
By the bright blue front door, Jeremy and Edith bid adieu to handsome Johnny and his frisking Weimaraner, then stepped across the welcome mat with its jolly family of bears. They retraced the trail from the ancient wood into the regeneration of the once-ruined valley. Jeremy whistled “Canadian Sunset” while Edith slapped her hand against a succession of saplings.
Back in the car, after their rugged but exhilarating ascent of the embankment, Edith placed her arms behind her head, a Cheshire Cat smile enveloping her face. “I can’t believe I’d forgotten what a pain in the ass those two could be.” She closed one eye and squinted at Jeremy. “You think they’ll be OK?”
Jeremy stretched his arms and flexed his fingers, relaxing the often-frozen contours of his mouth. “Have no fear. Johnny Dollar is a renowned – an exquisitely renowned – investigator and righter of all conceivable wrongs. He knows the ropes, as they say. All will be for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.”
Edith slid closer in the seat and nudged him with her elbow. “You’re OK. Sorry I gave you all that grief. You know, I’m not exactly sure I’m your aunt. Maybe… I might be a… somewhat closer relative.”
“Everything is relative,” said Jeremy. As he turned the key in the ignition, he found Edith’s hand on his.
On the day of their return to the valley, Jeremy’s step had lost something of its old spring. He slithered and slid down the incline, now slicked smooth, the road debris absorbed by moss- and weed-encrusted earth. Edith skipped nimbly, finding easy footing on the occasional tree root or snag of rocky outcropping.
At the bottom, they turned slightly left, toward the cabin, marching along what remained of the trail, stopping short before the abandoned shack, its sides bowed and leaning, its roof gone ignorant of its function. The door hung, precarious, by one hinge. It threatened to complete its dissolution as Jeremy carefully shifted it open.
The inside reeked of mold and darker possibilities. Most of the scant furniture was gone or lying in shards. When had anyone last inhabited this repellant space?
Jeremy shuffled through the clutter and splinters without clear intention. Edith scanned the walls.
“Look,” she said, pointing.
Two mid-calf dresses drooped from rusted hangers resting on nails. Both had incipient flower patterns that would never bloom. When Edith reached out to the one on the right, the fabric pulled apart at her touch, as though it had been an illusion.
“Where can they be?” She asked, waving her hand at the emptiness. “You said he could be trusted.”
“They must have moved. Maybe he got his business back together.”
“He really had a detective business?”
“I told you. Yeah, he can be trusted if anyone can.”
“And he never called you about them?”
“He never called me before or after. We weren’t that way with each other.”
He peered into the space beneath what remained of the bar. Inside, a bottle, half full, of Johnny Walker Red. “Here we go.”
A piece of lined notebook paper hung from a nail on the wall across from the dresses. Edith reached for it but held back. It could well crumble to dust. The handwriting was ill-formed, so elementary that she could make nothing of it, except the closing salutation, “Yours Truly,” and below that… a dollar sign?
She shook her hand in consternation, then shook her head. “I think we should leave.”
“Guess so. Not much to do. Here. For sure.”
Turning, Jeremy spied something on the floor where the table had stood. It must have been there when they entered; why hadn’t he noticed it then? He picked up the fedora, caressed its gentle brim and smart top fold, both dust-free. He placed it on his head at what he took to be a rakish angle and beckoned to Edith.
They did not reset the failing door as they left. The elements had claimed the rest of the structure, let them have this last, barely resistant bit. Had the same elements, or some elementals, also claimed the inhabitants? No way to know, so why question?
As they traversed the half-erased path to their climb, Edith took Jeremy’s hand. Jeremy, in his found fedora, pictured himself a gallant figure.
He was not. It takes a fluid grace, an expansive sense of self, to earn the promise of command offered by a fedora.
Words and such
How and why do particular words come to epitomize certain conditions or situations? Words like:
“regular” to describe healthy bowel movements or standard physical appearance
“challenged” used to replace “retarded,” which was itself adopted to replace “feeble-minded” (until teens started shouting “retard” to hobblers in the streets)
“fighting” in relation to disease or injury; hell, we don’t “fight” diseases, they fight us – and too often win
Why do we say “sorry for your loss” as almost every response to calamity? It may be sincere, but it sounds simply empty of thought.
Calling a statement a “lie” or a person a “liar” almost always reflects that the one making the accusation is him or her self a liar who recognizes a lie precisely because it’s exactly what they would say in the same situation.
Why is it that the origin of the word “cocktail” has not been definitively tracked down?
Why are meaningless, inane phrases printed on condiment containers – “quality guaranteed” on a shaker of grated cheese, “natural mild & mellow” on a bottle of rice vinegar?
Did the now-commonplace phrase “alrighty then” explode directly from Jim Carrey’s toss-off in Ace VenturaI (as I suspect)? I can’t think of a similar example of a movie birthing a universal phrase, except maybe “Here’s looking at you, kid,” from Casablanca. (The phrase existed before, but Casablanca cemented it.)
In general, what determines how new expressions arise, expand to become ingrained and universal? How and when do they replace the argo that came before – and if that doesn’t happen, what determines the effective balance between the new and the old?
Luck? Ideal conditions? Or just one of those things we aren’t meant to know.
Some words/expressions that drive me nuts:
miraculous—used to describe any somewhat unlikely rescue or failure to die when expected
wellness—where and why did this mealy-mouthed replacement for “health” take hold? (It’s weird that reading the term makes me feel…sick.)
transparency—applied as a claim by any corporate or government body when lying about its failure to take action in a dangerous or desperate situation
inappropriate and unacceptable—generic condemnations applied to anything done that the officials in charge don’t approve of, reflecting a vocabulary as thick as a sunbeam or as the intelligence of the speaker
our first priority—used to describe the prime importance of a situation that those in charge never once thought about
* * * *
Off topic: Why do those who believe in the reality of extraterrestrial visitors view them as stupid? I mean, they’re invariably pictured as doing such dumb shit as wasting their time on space travel that would take several generations, simply to come here and make silly marks in grain fields or harass Earthling children in schoolyards – while simultaneously trying to elude detection.
Would we really want to meet up with these goofs if they do exist,?
In his 26th year atop a precarious pillar at desert’s edge, the anchorite Simeon Stylites was overcome by almost immobilizing fear. Fifteen meters above the looming ground, confined to a narrow platform, he braced his back against the center pole and wept his terror.
He wished fervently that he were tied fast to the upright, for the slightest inclination of his body brought him in view of the earth below, bringing dizziness and an upwelling of his innards. Each morning, when the faithful boys of the village came to bury his refuse, they found the contents of his stomach spewn upon the ground.
His dread was not of impact with the earth, but the act of falling, of being loosed from firm support, whirling like a leaf, untethered, unsupported.
It had been said by his acolytes and by those throughout the reaches of the Empire who had absorbed the wonder of his isolation, that he had ascended his pillar to move farther from earth and thus closer to God. In truth, his endeavor had been to face what most terrified him, and to offer that terror to the Lord. What greater act of sacrifice had he to offer?
Yet that offering had yet to be completed to his satisfaction. Over the slow evolution of time, his initial terrors had ebbed, and he relaxed into an unvarying existence close to contentment, without change but for the rare occasion of a storm. His would-be offering had transformed into a voiceless world constrained to contemplation and praise of the Lord, his diet restricted to the unmitigated taste of gruel and a hard paste formed from he knew not what, prepared by the women of the village. To another devotee, this removal of all impediment might have proved the devotional ideal; to Simeon it seemed a cheat that lessened the worth of his intention.
But of late his unvarying routine had shivered and fractured. Why, he could not comprehend, had all surety fled, the continuing certainty that tomorrow would align undiminished with today? When he stood to perform his twice-daily exercises, he bent his head almost to his toes above the abyss in blinding fright. During each fierce repetition of approach to the abyss, he determined to keep his eyes open as he swung downward, that he might absorb in full measure his overarching fear. Yet as the possibility of unrestrained tumbling swept through him, his eyes closed reflexively. Tears coursed his face as he whimpered apologies to the Almighty, awash in grief that he could not tame the reflexive mechanism of his mind.
One day, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and offered solace. “Your fear reflects your sense of unworthiness, as though you gazed into a mirror of condemnation. You see yourself not equal to serving God in exalted capacity, and the answering terror only expands your certainty of smallness.
“I say to you, reject this misplaced lack of worth, then the fear too may vanish. Once both are conquered, you will experience celebration and know, rightly, that God rejoices in your supreme devotion.”
“The Lord… He has sent you to tell me so?”
“He has appointed me your advisor, but has granted me the reserve to choose the method and substance of such advice that best fits your need.”
A wave of relief swept through the ascetic, as quickly tempered by the realization that he did not know how to uncover his true worth and so celebrate it. And truly, what worth in himself or another could rank higher than offering his fear directly to God, as he had vowed to do? Was not the paralyzing terror of these days what he had prayed for in early times, that the wrenching misery of his elevated situation might be his gift to the Lord? Would it not be more proper, therefore, to willingly abandon the cheat of unchanging days and accept instead today’s dread as his culmination, long delayed? No, nothing he might attempt to escape his terror could match the glory of its very strength and power, its magnificent affirmation!
So spoke Simeon to the Lord’s angel, who then enfolded him in gentle wings and sang praise of the ascetic for his acceptance of a glory bestowed by God that would but increase throughout eternity, that endlessness that measures no time yet holds everlasting reward. “For the Lord wants not your fear, nor requires your love,” the angle said, “He desires only your everlasting completion.”
The angel, now released from his charge, revealed to Simeon the eternal sadness of all the multitudes of the angelic hosts, that having been created already full and perfect, found no improvement to strive for, could experience no reward beyond the knowledge of an unwavering continuance. Yet this angel alone, he said further, through his mission to Simeon had been allowed the employment of choice, and thus experienced the delicious burden of reward.
Simeon, he concluded, was now free to invoke imminent death, or otherwise to continue life, without guarantee of respite, to its unforeseen end.
The anchorite weighed this balance for but an instant. He could accept with joy the shunning his constraining life, that he might see the face of God and thank Him for His gifts of pain and mercy. By contrast, he could remain earthbound, continuing to offer praise through unimaginable levels of suffering.
The path of immediate cessation, he told the angel, offered the sight of God, but the path of painful commitment led to the higher realm of praise and glory. To abandon the second path would be a sin, a direct offense against the Lord.
The angel acknowledged Simeon’s choice and left his presence. And so the anchorite continued for yet another decade in fearful isolation, his terror and its withdrawal alternating in unpredictable succession. He was finally granted entry into eternity in the 459th year following Christ’s arrival on Earth. The close-by city of Antioch accepted his body for burial, and Simeon was there celebrated as saint, in that town whose inhabitants were the first in the wide world to call themselves “Christians,” the inheritors by name of the Sacrifice of God’s Only Son.