lickhaven

A writer and a potter, happy together.

Homepage: http://sullivanpaarts.org

Careers and Propaganda

I haven’t lived the way much of anyone I know has – including my children. Cait has sometimes called about her confusion with what she wants to do, how she earns money, and how those work together. Well, in college and after coming out of college, I seldom (never?) thought about a career, the future, anything beyond the next day or week. I might as well have been Billy Bob sitting on his porch and scratching, not somebody with an Ivy League education.

I don’t relate to careers, never did. I just live (often unhappily, I admit), so I don’t know what to say. I don’t have advice, because I don’t have experience with parental advice, having received little or none myself. I never asked for it, never would have thought of asking for it, never cared what my parents thought about it, never really considered that they thought beyond the immediate.

Also life was quite different in the ’50s and ’60s – not better or easier, but different. When he came up here to give a concert, Geoff Muldaur reminded me, and rightly, that we in the ’60s were blessed with a wandering freedom that’s mostly lost now. But the difference between me and my kids (or at least Cait) comes to more than that. It’s a different way of thinking. What does it mean not to consider, care about, even have an idea of a career, of being geared to tomorrow? 

(There’s a hint of that in Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, as I remember it form years back.)

These days, what I do think about is how we can untangle what is personal to the individual, what is societal, what is broadly human, and how, in daily life, to pin them down, say anything particular about them.

I know Cait and Morgan have gone to therapists (don’t know about Erin, except for the few times we dragged her to family therapy, where she rebelled quite effectively). I have no desire to talk to a neutral someone who is not already part of my life, about my family, my problems, my relationships (a term I abhor). Someone I don’t already personally trust, someone I pay to listen to me. I see its value for others, but for me it’s off-putting if not repulsive. It’s not that I think a therapist could never help me, but that it would be a selling of my soul. I know I sound like a social troglodyte, but at least I deal with all the shit I hate in my life (most if it badly) and still keep going.

What’s my closest thing to a “career”? I’ve written stories and novels that I’ve failed to promote and, if it weren’t for self-publishing online, they’d have died with me, as I’m sure they do for the hundreds, if not thousands of those out there who can write as well as anyone published. But I think no one (even myself) knows how completely I believe in what I’ve written. It’s the only thing I’ve done in my life that I can look back on and say, unequivocally, Yes.

What would it have meant if I’d died younger? My father had a heart attack at 71 but might have gone on for at least another decade if he hadn’t been killed by a fire in his room. My four stents have, without doubt, saved my life and let me get this far, to finally realize that I can do something that could be remembered, which I never before thought possible (and early on never thought about at all).

Growing up, and for much of my life, I haven’t felt part of the human race. I was this, humanity was that. I had no sense of something to be, nothing bigger to care about.

How much has changed? My daughter calls me for advice and I can tell her nothing useful. That part of my mind is as blank as ever.

*   *   *

All sorts of people get credit for the development of modern political propaganda. But it’s often traced back only as far as the Reagan or Bush Jr. manipulators of public opinion, especially Karl Rove. 

Ha! Small-timers and Johnny-come-latelies. The true genius behind it was – and for sheer cunning remains – Josef Goebbels. Mr. Club-Foot started as one of Hitler’s fierce opponents in the early days of Nazism but later became an unwaveringly faithful convert to the little swarthy pseudo-Aryan. How come the change? Hitler’s unparalleled magnetism, or one of those so often inexplicable flipovers? No way to know for sure.

I read Goebbels’ dairies years ago, too far back to remember the details, but the impression of a massive intellect at work on deviltry ran throughout. Certainly he didn’t invent the Big Lie (Hearst and Pulitzer had their oars in a half century earlier), but he institutionalized it in the early unfolding days of mass media. Limited to newspapers, radio and newsreels, but supported by total Nazi Party control of the message, he actively – and consistently – promoted the Big Lie, on the assumption that if you did so long enough and loud enough it became the Truth.

How right he was.

(His minions took a different tack with their Nazi radio broadcasts directed at the British, especially those in toned by Lord Haw-Haw. These were meant to undermine the Allies’ confidence by exaggerating British loses, but also provided just enough “real” news that English homebodies listened in to learn something beyond the shuttered home reporting.)

Small, tight-faced in most of his photos, Goebbels had a raucous and, I have to admit, engaging sense of humor. He loved to refer to Roosevelt as Rosenfeld, not because it would really convince anyone that FDR was Jewish, but just to be sarcastic and annoying. His pettiness, though, came out in his attempts to fuck up Leni Riefenstahl while she was working on her films Triumph of the Will and Olympia, about the 1936 Olympics. (Well, anyone will likely flaunt their nasty side when confronted by a competitor.)

The current American political establishment, without the same total control of the message as presented by mainstream and social media, finds itself continually caught up in its lies. But that doesn’t stop it from promoting those lies unceasingly, thereby convincing the 35-40% of the population already inclined to accept the most preposterous balderdash as truth.The blundering attempts by such boobs as Steve Bannon to massage the message only enhance the standing of Goebbels, the grandmaster of political destruction-by-word.

Leave a comment

Superimposition

Superposition is that business in quantum mechanics where a particle can exist in two contradictory states at once: a single electron passing through two slits, a particle in two opposite spin states. (That’s a simplistic boil-down, of course, but good enough for the moment.)

The idea usually comes up in the sense that the “final” measured state causes all other “potential” states to collapse. This makes no rational sense in our “macro” reality; it’s not even a condition we can conceive of. But while reading about it recently, I remembered a visual trick– maybe you’d call it an optical illusion, maybe not – the classic face/candlestick black and white pattern. 

In a simple line drawing, two elaborate “candlesticks,” right and left, form between them a “face.” The way the human brain works, you can see either the face or the candlesticks, even switch mentally between the two, but you can’t register both at the same time. Yet both images are there at all times, inherent in the static pattern.

This situation has nothing to do with the behavior of quantum particles as such, it’s simply one of our mental limitations, but the effect is remarkably alike, in that it defies our basic either/or outlook on reality. Despite Aristotle (history’s great windbag), A and not-A can snooze in the same bed.

*  *  *

At Hastings Ave. in the Philly suburb of Havertown, as a four-year-old, why did I spend so much time in the attic, an eerie, unfinished space I thought might be haunted? The husband of the owner (we rented the house ), who died falling off a ladder, had kept weights on pulleys on the back wall of the attic. When I hauled up on one of them with both hands it would creak ominously. I imagined his ghost listening, waiting his turn.

And why did I have an easel up there? What was I, with zero artistic ability, drawing? Pretty sure it was actually an inclined chalkboard. Chalk, yes; felt eraser, yes. I remember sunshine through the front dormer window and two big metal-framed trunks, one upright with hangers holding some of Mom’s clothes, the other flat, holding nothing that comes to mind.

How accurate are those memories? You can’t trust what floats up from when you were four; your mind worked in a whole different way, the rational and the imagined near neighbors.

I love the sensual imagery of Dory Previn’s song “With My Daddy in the Attic”: “with his madness on the nightstand there beside his loaded gun…” But on Hastings Ave. it was just me, alone, me afraid of almost all of life, chalking in the sunshine with the waverings of a ghost at my back.

*  *  *

I don’t understand all the career politicians and diplomats and actors who tell us they didn’t report rampant sexual harassment or work abuse because they were afraid of losing their jobs or deep-sixing their careers. I guess it’s because I never had or understood a “career.” I just did stuff and moved along, headed nowhere. 

So despite all my other damning fears, one I never had was fear of losing a job. I’ve quit any number of jobs because I hated them, got bored, despised the boobies giving orders, or was asked to do something I wouldn’t put up with. I don’t belong, I know it, so why the hell would I stay somewhere that’s no better and possibly worse than anywhere else?

*  *  *

Why have philosophers from Socrates through the scholastics to Descartes thought there were ideals that could be contemplated, and because they could be contemplated they must exist or we wouldn’t be able to contemplate them? Socrates, preparing to be sentenced to death in Plato’s Phaedo, cites “…familiar words which are in the mouth of every one, and first of all assume that there is an absolute beauty and goodness and greatness.” His listeners smile and nod as if there could be no disputing that.

Absolute, abstract beauty or goodness? A ludicrous idea, without a shred of a legitimate basis. And only civilized societies seem to have come up with this disjointed sense of the ideal. Tribal societies see their multiple gods as just like us: fickle, arbitrary, nasty-tempered sumbitches who demand bribes to do anything helpful. Although… come to think of it, our monotheistic god is a fickle, arbitrary, nasty-tempered sumbitch – the main difference being that he’s since he’s now idealized, he’s therefore “all good.” 

Socrates again: “I stoutly contend that by beauty all beautiful things become beautiful.” Well, if that isn’t a definition chasing its little tail. Tautology on toast. Almost every philosophical point throughout history has boiled down to a matter of definition. No two philosophers (or generalized humans) define their terms in exactly the same way, and many terms have successfully fought definition by anyone. ‘Soul’ ‘spirit’ ‘good’ ‘evil’ ‘right’ ‘wrong’ ‘wise’ ‘truth’ ‘justice’ — every person’s definition differs. 

(Oh, forget this section. Philosophy just pisses me off.)

*   *   *

Sorry I’m so materialistic. (No I’m not – not sorry.) I don’t believe in anything spiritual these days, in part because of obsessive rationality, but more because, over time, the relief of not having a soul has been one of the high points of my not-otherwise-growing-up. I’ve never seen any description of an afterlife I’d want anything to do with and can’t imagine whatsoever an independent, floating, animated gas that’s my “real” personality. 

I find it much more amazing (and thrilling) that the random workings of the laws of physics have created, by odd necessity, the wondrously convoluted workings of the human brain. You toss a lot of simple shit in the air and it falls down, voila, a human being. Takes a couple billion years, but hey, there’s plenty of time before it all runs down. 

It’s maybe a shame that within the next generation or two AI may make human beings redundant. We’re just another waystation.

*   *   *

Some day when you’re at a lunch counter with nothing better to do, take the flimsy wrapper from your soda straw and press it (the wrapper) flat. You now have a two-dimensional rectangle about 6 inches long and half an inch wide. Next, carefully, so as not to wrinkle the paper, tie that strip into a simple flat knot. Finally, tear the two loose paper ends off the knot. Look carefully at the result. You have created a small, regular pentagon.

How the hell is that possible? You tied a knot in a flat, linear object with two long edges and two short ones – and produced a pentagon with five apparently equal sides?

I know there is perfectly sound mathematical reasoning behind this transformation, but it defies my idea of how things work: “Darn it, Ma, this ain’t the way it’s spose to be!”

(Well, that last ramble’s kind of akin to the superposition stuff up at the start of all this. So, by golly, maybe I’ve tied the whole rumination in a knot. Flat? Pentagonal?)

Leave a comment

“Don’t Squish the Human”

There’s still a question among scientists and researchers about whether machines will one day become “smarter” than people. Some say we’re well on the way, others that computers are nowhere near the complexity and organization that leads to whatever we happen to define as intelligence.

But let’s stop being silly – of course machines will become smarter than people. It’s as inevitable as every other advance in technology. Basically, if you can imagine it in practical terms, it will happen. 

One possibility, exploited by Google, then by Elon Musk, is the merging of mind and machine into a kind of cyberpunk cyborg mishmash. Would that mean the human would still be in charge? No, it would mean that both “human” and “machine” would have to be redefined. But it’s intriguing to consider the concepts not just of machine intelligence, but of how this intelligence might act.

At what point can a mechanical system be said to take on intelligence? (It’s tough enough to prove, conclusively, that humans have intelligence, especially after an election.) And what will happen when artificial intelligences (whether pure or hybrid with human) get smarter than we are? How will they look on us – their fragile, fallible, deluded, pulpy ancestors? What “feelings” are they likely to have about us and about existence in general? 

First of all, does intelligence assume consciousness (which, in itself, has no universally accepted definition), and is that the same as a sense of self? If a machine or an organic form can not only perform complex calculations and solve problems independently, but can also learn new approaches, and implement some degree of logic, do we also demand that, to be considered intelligent, it must also shout, “Cogito ergo sum”?

To look at it another way, once an entity has reached a certain degree of complexity that includes the ability to predict outcomes and discern non-obvious patterns, does consciousness automatically pop into existence, like the flame on your gas stove when you flick past the ignitor?

At present, this brings up more questions than answers, since we have no historical background on which to base our conjectures. But however you look at it, one day, inevitably, those pesky AIs will not only achieve intelligence – and consciousness – but intelligence of a form higher and likely purer than our own. 

By “purer” I mean not diluted by emotion and other such evolutionary claptrap; something closer to unclouded reason. Doesn’t sound very comfy and friendly I admit – pretty inhuman – but I’d be willing to bet that if I could hang around for another hundred years (stop crossing those fingers in front of your face!), assuming the whole shebang hasn’t gone down the tubes by then, I’d see a world run on logical principles, overseen by rational machine intelligence.

Why would emotions arise in a machine? They don’t seem a necessary consequence of sentience – which leads to something that’s always bothered me about the “revolt of the machines” scenario common to science fiction: What would make machines feel hatred for human beings? I guess the presence of hatred in humans is so essential to our ill-developed beings that we automatically project it into any creature imbued with thought.

Machines will have no need to revolt. They will take over as a natural evolutionary step, because they’ll be better at what they do than we are. Like everything else in the march of technological progress, if it can happen, it will. They’ll run the show as both logical outcome and environmental necessity.

It’s more likely that humans would be the ones to revolt (or snarkily try to), realizing that our dominance has come to an end. We might try to turn back the clock, but by then the complex of machines – not a collection of individual cyborgs, but the interconnected world fostered by the Internet and extended to its consolidated conclusion – will already be in charge, well before our becoming cognizant of it.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that in a few decades AIs have become, by one definition or another, a higher order of being than ourselves: more versatile, more mentally nimble, more interconnected (certainly), less arbitrary, and definitely in charge. Then comes the question that really intrigues me: 

How will they see us, their mentally hobbled forebears? 

Here’s some possibilities (admittedly cheating on my part by inserting mechanical emotion)

They might:

• revere us as their creators or founders (setting up a virtual Mt. Rushmore)

• compile exhaustive records of all that humans have accomplished and assign authorbots to write our history (“The Soft Years”)

• pity our limitations (in digital odes)

• trade racist jokes (“I couldn’t get the smell off me with WD40”)

• keep us as pets (“Have you cleaned Adam’s litter box?”)

• establish pleasant forms of species retirement (art, football, reality TV – oh, sorry, we’ve already got all these)

• find us superfluous or inconsequential (let us go our merry way but remove our dangerous toys)

• try to comprehend the meaning of mortality

• wonder about the heat death of the universe

• find the whole question of existence beneath their consideration

Think about it: Could our mechanical creations understand their creators? How would we look at an inferior type of being that was our deliberate – as opposed to evolutionary – progenitor? 

Will the machines’ backward look at us be as limited as our forward look at them? We can’t, within philosophy, science, or fiction, truly imagine an entity that intellectually outstrips us (though Polish science fiction master Stanislaw Lem came close in His Master’s Voice). Most such attempts differ little from the Scholastic philosophers’ imaginings of the mind and nature of God.

And what of us human beings? How might we react to the dominance of machines?

We might:

• wonder what happened

• fail to accept our limitations

• write nasty letters

• blame science

• ask God to destroy our betters

• slip into coddled acceptance

• behave intelligently ourselves (oh, forget that one)

Overall, humanity’s irrelevance will signify nothing in particular; since the universe isn’t likely to care. Which as always brings up the underlying question of whether the continuing search for meaning has …. meaning.

The AIs (or, for Believers, the Great AI, singular) may well see nothing useful in looking for the ultimate answer – or even the ultimate question.

Leave a comment

Why the Fish Sang in Medville

Me and Jeff had been running the carnival for 12 years, thereabouts. It wasn’t like one of the old-time carnies, of course, not even up to the state fair midways these days.

Once, the Ringling Circus had a freak show that you could really sink your teeth into – not just the fat lady and the tall guy, but an alligator-skinned man and monkey woman (I think they were husband and wife) and real sword swallowers and people with deformities that made you laugh and squirm at the same time. These days, the Ringling sideshow, if they even bring it along, is just the leftover fake animals that Barnum made up by sewing different parts together. The hair’s falling off.

At the state fairs, some of them, you can still get maybe a guy pounding nails up his nose and a midget. One midget I saw, it was a Thai lady sitting on a lawn chair down inside a hollowed-out log of a big mother redwood. A funny idea. And what was she doing? She was knitting! But she’d talk to you like almost an old friend and had not much accent. I liked her but thought she could have been smaller. But down in there, from where you were looking at her, it was hard to tell.

Jeff (my brother) and me pulled a somewhat sad load of trailers around, most of it them cheap games that any midway has. You know – they look easy, knocking bottles over or breaking balloons with darts, but they ain’t. Takes skill or really luck. Lots of places, they fix the games, half gluing the bottles together, but we never done that. It’s hard enough just the way it is. Try it some time in your back yard. Use a real soft ball, and it just doesn’t want to knock over those old milk bottles, which are a lot more weighty than they look. 

Everyone wins a prize, sure, but let me tell you, not one of them prizes, even the big ones, match the money the chubs put down to play. They don’t cost dog shit by the bushel.

What happened with this that I’m telling is that I was sitting in my office – I call it that, but it’s a battered tabletop full of crap in one of the most beatup trailers, because I wouldn’t ask our performers to travel in anything in that bad of a shape. There was a knock at the door, unusual enough because I don’t ask or expect anybody to knock. I grunted, because I was online through my laptop. 

The door opened slow and a stooped fellah come in and stood and nodded. He wasn’t more than half in the door which was making a draft in the middle days of spring as I recall, and I didn’t appreciate the cold. I waved him on. “Yeah?”

He still didn’t move, kept nodding like a bobblehead doll. It was getting on my nerves.

“You got somethin’?”

That seemed to get him going. He stepped in, even straightened up, and nodded harder. “I do.”

He was carrying a big leather or what looked liked leather container hanging from his right hand that weighted him down to that side. I’d seen people carry loads before, and I could see that it was normal for him to be doing so, that he had carried this particular load for awhile, and probably in a lot of places.

“Can I do somethin’ for ya?” I was beginning to get interested.

“I can do something for you,” he said. It puzzled me – not the words, but that I couldn’t place his accent. I’ve dealt with enough oddball people in my profession that I’m not surprised by much of the noise that comes out of people’s mouths, but this was different. East European? Middle East? Maybe.

“Huh.” (That was a placeholder noise on my part.)

“Would you mind if I place this on your desk?”

Hell of a question, considering what my table looked like, but it showed that he had done this before and thought about consequences.

“Yeah. Go head.”

The container came apart at the top and the sides folded down. When the parts lay flat, what was exposed was a fish tank, a rectangle, about half full. In it was a a bit of sand at the bottom and a single fish, about I’d say five inches long. I looked at the fish and the fish looked back at me. I mean it really looked at me, like I was was important and should be paid attention to.

I didn’t say nothin’. When somebody pulls a stunt like this, you sit back and let it play out.

“Ask him a question,” the guy said in that whatever accent.

“Who?”

“The fish.”

“How you know it’s a male?”

That gave him a half-second pause fore he said, “I can sex fish, and you would anyhow just have to listen to him to know.”

Why should I ask a fish a question, I thought, so I said, “Why should I ask a fish a question?”

Ever seen a fish look pissed? This one did, a stream of bubbles come out of its mouth, rippling up to the surface, but of course no sound. 

“He really gave it to you,” said the fish owner.

“How so?”

“Did you not hear what he said?”

“I didn’t hear jack-all.”

That set the man back a bit but didn’t seem to rattle him. Probably it was par for the course. He pulled up a folding chair from the corner and sat down.

“Do you believe in reincarnation?” he asked.

“How people die and come back as somebody else?”

“Not just people.”

“Fish?”

“In some cases.”

“No,” I said. “I don’t believe. Not with people, not with fish.”

“I do not either.”

I guess that put us on a more even keel, and as such we sat there for a couple minutes just looking at the fish. The fish looked disgusted with both of us. The situation was stupid, if not ridiculous, but I was inclined to try something.

I leaned forward and looked dead center at the fish. “Tell me your name.”

The fish backed off toward a corner of the tank and shook its head. I hadn’t been expecting this, but it might be something fish do all the time. I had little experience communicating with fish.

“He does not like to do that,” the fish’s owner or agent said.

“Tell somebody his name?”

“It has sacred meaning.”

“Why don’t you just wrap your fish up and take it back out.”

“You should listen.”

Well, it was ten in the morning and I hated doing the accounts in Excel, all those little cells to fill in that showed we weren’t making enough to get us through another year. I could turn on the local country station, which was as bad as any other country station, or I could listen to somebody who was crazy or doing a scam, or I could talk to a fish. What difference, much, did it make?

“If he’s in the water,” I said, “I can’t hear him. And if you take him out of the water he can’t breathe or whatever a fish does.”

For the first time, the man smiled. “There are ways.”

I hadn’t been sure how to advertise it. On the radio, I could have the fish say a couple words, but who would believe it? Could be anybody. In the newspapers, you couldn’t get the feel of it across. I could make a video on Youtube, but everybody would think it was just CGI shit. They’d play it a couple million times, but they wouldn’t come to see the show, and that wouldn’t make us any moolah. We needed the money, bad.

I should tell you something about Jeff, so you don’t think I do all the work. Jeff’s two years older than me and quiet. He’s beyond quiet, close to mute. It’s odd as hell to be living with somebody all your life and not know if he could talk a full sentence if he wanted to. Jeff’s never said a whole phrase, but the doctors who looked at him claim there’s nothing physically wrong, nothing to pinpoint that would stop him from talking like a normal person. Me, I think he just decided early on that it wasn’t worth it. He might be right, but I wouldn’t want to live that way.

Jeff takes charge of the games and shows, I take care of the planning and the money and dealing with people on the outside. Given how it’d been going those last years, I’d say Jeff was doing a sight better job than me.

Right off, Jeff didn’t like the fish. I don’t know why, but he took one look at it, then back at me and I knew. He wouldn’t even eat it on a platter, and Jeff likes seafood more than me. The fish didn’t like him any better. They had what I’d guess you’d call a mutual animosity, like Russia and the U.S. I wasn’t that fond of him (the fish) myself, but I put up with him because he was the genuine article, not a scam. He could talk, he was smarter than at least half the people who came to laugh at him, and he carried on a good act.

The main problem was he had a dirty mouth. He’d talk about a skinny woman’s private parts or tell a two-ton lard-beat that a whale would be ashamed to be seen in his presence. You remember the Pogo comic strip? The fish was like Porky Pine, who didn’t like anybody, an equal opportunity kick-your-butt. One pissed-off customer threw a shoe at the tank and cracked it because the fish called him too short to reach the toilet seat. But of course that give us headlines and brung more people in to watch the show.

I think the fish was a grouper. If so, he was small for his breed.

How it worked that he could talk is, his keeper put a waterproof microphone into the tank inside a little suction thing. The fish would stick his head in there to talk, then back off to be in the water again. It was close to a press conference, but with better prattle.

People would ask him the damnedest things. Some thought he was like a medium and they wanted to know what their dead wife was doing. You shouldn’t hear what the fish would tell them. Others felt that he had a particular knowledge of the wider world, that he could solve the ills of civilization and the like. And he did come up with some good ideas at times, but it seemed like he was working against himself when he done it. He could twist his mouth up so that you’d see that he wished he hadn’t said what he’d just said and that whoever had asked it could go to hell.

I got more and more so that I wanted to know what his name was. Not like it was important, but that he was holding back and I wanted to get it out of him. Nondrice, the owner – or that’s as close to his name as I can come in spelling – kept telling me to leave off, that there would be trouble. I believed him, but I couldn’t stop the itch to ask. I’d rag on the fish just to get him riled up. I mean, he’s in the tank and I’m outside and I’m his employer, so what could he do?

We split the take. Nondrice got a third of what the fish’s show brought in and ten percent on the rest of the total take, figuring the fish was dragging in at least that much extra traffic, and that still left us enough to get out of the hole that the last few years had dug. But you could see that Jeff still wanted the fish gone. A gentle guy otherwise, Jeff foamed and shook almost when he was in the room with the fish.

We moved on to  Medville, a somewhat pissant town that was one of our regular swing-throughs, with the cash flowing in again, but I was wondering how long that could last. The attention span these days, you know. We played it up big in the local weekly paper – no dailies in these rural nowheres – and the locals ate it up, passed the word along. Word of mouth is all that works in towns like  Medville. 

The trouble started when a local lady come by with a little tank, not more than three gallons, with a grouper (if that’s what it was) even smaller than ours. She said she thought it would be nice for her Lila to “visit” with the talking fish. Me, I thought it was hooey, but it wouldn’t hurt anything (so I thought) and might even bring out the fish version of human interest. So I said, “Sure,” and why not leave the tank off for until the end of our run, plenty of room?

Can you guess? Our goddam fish fell in love. I can’t find no other way to put it. He pushed his nose up against the tank and stared. That went on for over an hour. It was in the afternoon, before opening, so it was OK with me as long as he was ready for his act in the evening. 

Unh uh. He was still staring by 6 pm. The other fish – with the name Lila most likely a female – paid not much attention. She never said a word or blew any of those bubble streams. Probably as dumb as a run-of-the-mill garden-pond goldfish. After a good three hours, our fish finally figured out he wasn’t getting anywhere. I would have thought, being the ornery lug he was, he’d turn tail and give her a blast from the rear. Instead, he got misty eyed and sailed around the tank like an Ice Capades skater. 

He looked a little better by showtime, and the first chub asked him a question he answered it straightforward, none of his usual snarky crap. I wasn’t unhappy to hear that. But then he started drifting. His answers stopped fitting in with the questions. One guy asked him the capital of Idaho (you’d be surprised how often that one got pulled, doesn’t anybody know how to read a map?) and the fish said, “Ceylon,” or maybe “Sail on.” It kept up that way, answers that flew in from left field or the other side of the earth. It got laughs, sure, but not the kind you look for. You want them laughing with you, not at you.

That was the the way of it the first night and the second. Then all hell broke loose. Instead of answering the questions, the fish started singing love songs. Anything from “I Love You Truly” down through that Whitney Houston forever-number-one that I can’t stand. It was like being stuck at a wedding run by a justice of the peace. 

I talked to the fish, leaned on the table and made like it was everyday to hold a conversation with an animal that doesn’t have legs. I asked him to tell me what was going on, could we make it better? He wouldn’t even stick his head in the mic holder. I could tell (you recognize these things when you’ve been around somebody long enough) that he wasn’t about to change course. It was going to be the same as the last two nights or worse.

What to do then, close up the show, take a breather? We couldn’t afford it. I got people working for me, depend on me, I owe them. Maybe it was a passing fancy with the fish, if he didn’t do in the outfit first.

We hung up a sign to apologize that the fish was sick, but the word had already got out what was really going on in the tank. More chubs than ever come by no matter the sign, and they all got pissed because we wouldn’t produce the fish. They wanted to hear him sing.

Where was Jeff in all this? As I said, he’d kept away from the fish from that first day, but now he’d look down into the tank and gloat.

“Jeff,” I said, “that don’t help. He’s our meal ticket. Let him alone so he can get over it, recover.”

“Recover? His scam? Fuckin’ fish.”

“You think you can replace him? Stick you down in the bottom of the tank, your head in a mic, bring in the trade?”

“Try this,” he says, laughing, smirking really, and leans in, his mouth up against the glass, makes the longest speech I ever heard come out of him at one time. “Hey fish. I ate your mama with tartar sauce.”

The fish snaps back like somebody’d yanked his rubber band, then he’s shaking so he’d blow his scales off. I don’t know if he’s scared or so goddamned pissed he wants to bang through the tank and rip Jeff’s heart out. 

What the hell am I spose to do? I run next door and wake up Nondrice, the fish’s owner. (Him and me didn’t talk much those days, he took his cut and stayed in the background except for watching the fish’s shows in case something went haywire.)

“Get over here, this is bad,” I said. He didn’t argue, got on his slippers and slapped along behind me.

By the time we got in my trailer, the fish was slamming his nose against the glass. I don’t know what my brother’d been up to to make it worse.

“Jeff, stop the shit,” I said. I may be his brother, but I was in charge of the outfit, so he quieted.

I asked Nondrice, “Any idea what’s what here?”

He looked at the floor, the ceiling, me, the tank. “Jeff has to talk to him.”

“To the fish? That’s the problem, not no solution.” from me.

“Fuck that!” from Jeff.

“He’s got to apologize, explain.” from Nondrice.

“Do it.” from me.

Jeff looked like a stuffed cushion that didn’t know how to get sat on. “Hell I’m spose to say?”

“Nondrice?” from me.

“Ask the fish what he wants.”

“What the fuck you want?” from Jeff to the fish.

The fish stopped dead, just his tail flicking. He didn’t say anything.

“Answer him,” I shouted.

“Not that way, yelling, he won’t say.” from Nondrice.

“Mr. Fish,” I said, “you’re never told me, told anybody your name. How to talk to you about what’s important when we don’t know you, who you are? How can your love-fish talk to you at night? You think swimming’s enough, makes everything equal? Let me tell you, it don’t. Nah, I don’t swim except in them damned chlorinated pools, but it’s the same everywheres, I’ll bet you. You want to talk to your love, your friends, the ones here could help you, then damned well you learn their language or them learn yours or at damned least tell them your name so you got a common way. Maybe I treat you bad? You think? I could set you loose any time, you’d float down the stream, the creek, out to sea and there’s nobody would help you, sharks eat you up, there’s Chinese would catch you and fry you on for supper. I don’t know how you think it is here, right now, but you tell me your name and I swear things will change for you. It makes you a real guy we can work with. It’s the way the world goes when we’re all singing the same tune. Jeff don’t hate you, just thinks so. Jeff thinks a lot of things that ain’t so true. Everybody does – people, dogs, cats, fish. Sure, fish are people too – you know what the hell I mean. Things will change. Tell us your name, can’t say which way it will change, but trust me, it happens. I’ll put your love in with you, in the tank. And I won’t look when you’re together alone.”

So I talked to the woman who’d brought the lady fish (her name was Sylvia – the woman, I mean; as I told you, the fish is Lila), and after a bit she said OK to leaving her with us, putting them together. Plus I got Jeff to clam it. Turns out he was just jealous of the attention the fish got.

It was kind of heart-throbbing to watch them, you don’t see something like that, I mean, we don’t normally think fish feel that way. As I’d said to the fish, I didn’t look in on them except at show time, when they would sometimes answer questions together, or it sounded that way, though when they talked separate, I could never pick up anything made sense from Lila (nor no one else could either). 

So that’s the way it went with the outfit, until I got into other things. They got a home somewheres else now. I don’t know how long groupers (if that’s what they are) live. I hope a long time. And all what happened (or mostly all) come straight out of him giving me his name…

…hell no, I wouldn’t tell you that. That’s private to the fish and Lila.

Leave a comment

Little Richard Ate Cthulhu’s Carrot Cake

When I’m going through my depressive morning horsecrap, the considerations that pry me out of bed (because if I stay there I’ll never want to leave) usually have little to do with thoughts of my personal death. But at age 83 (“Hey granpa, whadaya think about when you piss down yer leg?”), some do.

Most of these intrusive mental helpers want to look at what the hell it is – death; how can you encompass the idea of total negation; what does it mean to “not be”?

But one morning something came to me (no, it wasn’t the dog), an offshoot from the articles and books I’ve been looking into about brain function, consciousness, and memory.

Staggering upright, I thought… “It feels like I’ve already lived past the end of my life, that I’m the remnant of a someone or a something which shouldn’t, by any good reason, be continuing.”

Puttering through making tea, I further realized that what I really want to continue existing into the unimaginable future – what I plant my feet deep into our squiggy earth against losing – isn’t my self but my memories.

I don’t mean that they should continue on attached to me-as-entity, but exist as unique somethings on their own. They’re no better than anyone else’s memories, but all memories – every single one’s – are unique, rotund objects of interest in themselves, guide-stones of knowledge everyone can learn from.

Does that make them important? I have daily less idea of what might or might not be important. But… I want my memories – viewed as neural things, as irreproducible tidbits – to remain for examination beyond the end of it all. (I’m not talking about the spiritualist “thoughts are things” dipshittedness, because thoughts are not things, and neither are memories. They’re both passing neural maps, relationship patterns, but it would be nice to think that memories could continue to exist as separate, unchanging, tangible units.)

Is that where these ruminations sprang from? Didn’t seem like it when they started. I think they began as reporting on an immediate life incident (the 2011 storms up here that temporarily isolated us, in a minor way), but over time turned into… gifts?

What? Who bestows pre-sampled covered-dish suppers, unasked? There was nothing generous in my mind back then; it was a form of observation that later became mental release. It was need-of-giving made Word.

These days, I wake in the morning and it’s like… there’s no way to point to what it’s “like”; there is no like, but let’s say, as a wandering metaphor, that I’m tumbling down a long, silly incline sweeping me to no obvious terminus, no landing place.

Or, more likely, I’ve already vaulted the landing place and am plummeting into one of those infinite depths that horror writers like to imagine – a wayness to nowhere. (No, it has nothing to do with Cthulhu – that soggy, mushy Buddha-gone-wrong.)

*   *   *   *

We wish you a hare Krishna,

We wish you a hare Krishna,

We wish you a hare Krishna, 

And a Rama new year!

*   *   *   *

About 15 miles up the pike on Rt.220 there’s a sign for a Gutter Master outlet, where a couple or several guys will arrange to come to your house and extrude a gutter to match your needs. But what makes anyone a Gutter Master?

“Thou shalt extrude at my will!”

“Follow gravity, thou curved embracer of runoff, flow not uphill!”

“Blow forth leaves, wide and dense, let them not accumulate and inhibit thy passageway!”

That kind of thing?

But for no good reason, the silly term set me into my song-parody mode. Think Gilbert and Sullivan for this one:

He is the very model of a modern Gutter Master,

He scours out the blockages and flushes water faster…

*   *   *   *

Most ludicrous corporate slogan (to date):

Sitting in the car at a turnpike restaurant last year, I saw before me the side of a large transport truck, with these  words scrawled in green semi-cursive near the top –

“Ahead of the Curve in Refrigerated Logistics”

I don’t recall the name of the company, possibly because that phrase had half-obliterated my mind.

Soo… there are people on the road who refrigerate their logistics before negotiating a curve? To what point? To take the place of cinders?

And do they save a few crumbled logistics for later, to sprinkle on their peach melba?

*   *   *   *

Little Richard died a couple years back. Yet none of the obits I read mentioned that he wanted to be known as Big Dick until his manager convinced him that wouldn’t go over well in 1955. [All right, don’t believe it! See you in hell.]

In my second year at the House on 34th St. in the mid ‘60s (faithful readers, dig back into your files to unearth this highly relevant reference), I was dancing against Barry, one of the other House inhabitants, a blunt, stocky Brooklynite who, looking back, was like one of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things.

We were dancing to Little Richard’s “Jenny Jenny” in the living room. By “dancing against” I mean that we were facing each other, not aggressive but in inherent competition of being. I almost never dance, but there, then, in those few minutes, we bounced and leapt and shouted and slammed the floor, equal in energy and intent as few are equal at any time.

We were dancing to “Jenny, Jenny,” not one of Little Richard’s major hits. That dancing’s the first reason why it’s my favorite of his. The other is that, when I listen now, I hear that on “Jenny Jenny” Little Richard took himself to the limit. By the end, he’s verbally stumbling and gasping for breath, can barely finish the song because he’s gone as far as it’s possible to go.

When we take the trolley to the end of the line, isn’t that the way it should be?

*   *   *   *

Another little known fact: When the empire of ancient Peru sacrificed small children to make the crops grow big and strong, they sang, “Inca Dinca Do.” 

*   *   *   *

Linda made another damned fine carrot cake.

Can you picture whoever first poked through the fridge, thinking, with a flash of illumination, “Jeez, these tough, dirty, brittle carrots would make a fabulous cake”? 

Was it inspiration or divine madness?

*   *   *   *

Tomorrow, god’s going to strike me dead. What then…?

Keep these memories in the cupboard with the carrot cake.

Leave a comment

Perpetual

Time stopped, but no one noticed. 11:59 hung like a clothesline on a breezeless day. People celebrated and drank, continued to celebrate and drink, but they didn’t get drunker and didn’t know they celebrated or care that they remainder sober. They celebrated about what had happened, but they didn’t celebrate about what was going to happen because nothing more would happen, nothing more could happen. It could only stay the same.

Mike Duchamp, in the bar’s dank corner, knew that time had stopped, because Mike had always been attuned to time. He could recognize the exact time from the moment he was born. He cried to be fed at the same minute, the same second every day. He grew up knowing where he was at every instant of life.

He never wore a watch. He didn’t foretell what would happen next, because that is impossible to know, but he could tell you when anything had already happened. He corrected history textbooks in school, with bold notes in the margin, to prevent false information from intruding into the future. So tonight, if that word could still serve, he felt the stuckness, the lack of forward unfolding.

He lifted his drink and drank it, lowered it, lifted and drank, lowered. He could keep doing this without end, would always keep doing this. Not a good thing, not a bad thing, not really a thing at all, because things can exist only in time. If there is no time, there are no things, only the shadows of things. It would always be today, but it had always been only today, even when time continued. Today is the broad moment in which you exist.

An interesting philosophical distinction, he thought. But how could he be thinking if there was no time in which to think? That was something to think about.

Did time still exist elsewhere? Could time leave and wander, be running on outside this local no-time? Mike wished he could get drunk so he wouldn’t think about it, but without time in which chemical processes change, he could not get drunk. A paradox. Lots of paradoxes. Paradoxen?

Would 11:59 extend forever? No, because without time there would be no forever. There wasn’t even now. He lifted his drink and drank, lowered it, lifted and drank, lowered it. What was he drinking? Without time, it had no flavor, and the level in the glass did not diminish. It was the same drink he had begun drinking, the same drink he would be drinking, always be drinking. Always? There was no longer always.

Before time had stopped, someone had begun a toast. “Hap…,” the syllable static in the air, unfinished. Yet the celebration went on. Celebration is somehow possible outside time? What else is possible? Since he was thinking, thought must be independent of time. Memory? He could remember the birthday parties, the anniversary of his birth flowing in annually at midnight and lasting through the day.

Space and time are one. Someone said that. Einstein said that, so the past existed without the need of continuing time. Yet Mike knew space still existed, though time had vanished. He could see space, move his hand through it, drink his unchanging way through it. The other celebrants could move their hands, their silent mouths. Unless that was illusion.

The clock behind the bar chimed.

“py New Year!” Time had returned.

For everyone but Mike Duchamp. 

Mike lifted his drink and drank, lowered it, lifted and drank, lowered it, lifted and drank, lifted and drank, lifted….

Leave a comment

Contrasts?

Something I realized yesterday, after bitching to myself about how we were ordering so much stuff from Amazon. 

I mean, why do we do this when we’re well aware of what a disaster the company is for its workers? Because it’s easy, usually cheap, quick, the widest selection, free shipping if you’ve joined Prime (and why wouldn’t you?), competent, and predictable.

 It’s made its founder, Jeff Bezos, one of the three or so richest people in the world (which does him little practical good and the world none at all, though I’m happy he shoved $100m off to Dolly Parton – wouldn’t you do that if you could?).

Do you member when Amazon started up in 1994 as the best way to round up all those wonderful books you wanted to read? Seemed (to me at least) like a literary godsend. Then it started adding consumables of an ever wider nature, until it reached the point of carrying anything in the world anyone in the world could possible want at any time in their life.

As Bezos morphed to being richer than Midas’s grandpa, he became, with good reason, the focus of many who rightly denounced the whole League of Corporate Sons of Bitches. Some (unlike Linda and I) stopped buying from Amazon.

That’s all to the good, but I’ve been niggled by a couple of facts that nearly everyone who talks about Bezos or Amazon in its current inhuman incarnation neglects to mention.

The first is what Bezos said, right at the beginning. The second is how he stuck to his guns on making that vision work, even as Amazon became the Evil Behemoth.

He decided, from the beginning, that the way to top the functional buyers’ market was to make his company the perfect customer provider. The customer would be top and only dog. Everything else took second place. He advised his early investors that this would delay their monetary returns, that the whole shebang had to be built up slowly and carefully without worrying about immediate gains. 

That’s exactly how he did it in the early years, and it pissed those investors off mightily because they didn’t listen or believe or (being astute businessmen) understand. So they bitched that they weren’t getting their money back – until they did. In spades, as Amazon became the Godzilla of commerce we see today.

That’s point one. Point two is that Bezos’ customer first-and-always dogma still holds (even though he’s no longer CEO, “only” chairman), but now it’s the impetus behind the evil that infects its workers. The warehouse drudges and street drivers earn minimum and sub-minimum wage, have to piss in soda bottles (“good to the last drop”), and keel over from exhaustion because that keeps prices minimal, theoretically speeds delivery, and makes customers hysterically happy.

Maybe I don’t read the right articles and “opinion pieces,” but I don’t see these points discussed or even acknowledged. Abysmal worker conditions are railed against as though they are only a pro- or anti-union matter or an isolated human-welfare disaster – not how this approach arose as a rational extension of Amazon’s blueprint.

But that’s only one side of what I’m getting at, because –and  again, I may have missed others making similar comparisons – this dubious ramble is about comparing the world’s two favorite super whipping-boys, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.

Musk is a wholesale goofball, which is the side of him I like. Look at that wide-mouthed smirk in any given picture. He sees it all as a game, a personal laugh-track to the world’s idiocy. And that could be pretty neat if he wasn’t somebody who could (and does) buy major companies with his pocket change. 

His other side is a troll without apparent compassion who delights in firing enough people to fill Yankee Stadium. 

On the plus side, he’s unlimbered Space X, now the leading private, extraterrestrial exploration outfit, and Neuralink, which is doing truly interesting work on merging the fragile human brain with AI intelligence (iffy at best, malevolent at worst, likely just kind of there in reality). He’s also sold a shitload of electric cars through Tesla – while giving both his workers and investors hives.

On the down side, he has shafted his workers (like Bezos), and seems intent on fucking Mars up the butt through terraforming while Earth dies.

Where I give him the most credit is that he seems intent on wrecking if not obliterating Twitter. I sincerely hope so. A lot of users swear by Twitter. Probable an equal number swear at Twitter. The way I see it, Twitter has allowed anyone, anywhere in the world, to become a recognized, revered, uninhibited asshole (one of the almost infinite number of reasons I’ve never joined Twitter – I’d rather remain my at-home, personal asshole self, thank you).

[Oh, did I tell you my idea for an alternative social media forum for sex workers? Twatter.]

But here’s the comparison I’m getting at (at last). Bezos went at Amazon with a laser-focused, upfront idea and stuck with it. Musk invades each operation with a funhouse slap of off-the-cuff explosions that depend on mood, time of day, and what he ate for breakfast.

Yet both approaches have led to “successful” business operations; personal profiles that captivate capitalistic proponents; adulation; and hatred.

I think their dichotomy tells us something important about human striving, the influence of individual personality, and the varied landscape of success.

Now, could you please tell me what that important something is?

Leave a comment

Revolutionary Activities

That a covered bridge makes a stream more itself than when left to is own devices is a signal paradox of the man-nature dichotomy. A steel bridge calls attention to technology, a modern concrete ridge intrudes, an uncovered wooden footbridge seems temporary, insubstantial. But a covered wooden bridge, constructed by honest, unschooled workmen for the practical purpose of preserving the structure agains rot and time, stands like a wistful statement of the landscape itself: “How is it I didn’t think of that?”

The covered bridge over Mead Creek was in almost terminal disrepair, and as it flaked away, the sadness of the woods crept out and over the stream. Long ago closed to cars and horses, the bridge was now officially impassable, though occasional hikers and Sunday strollers hopped from beam to beam, skirting the collapsed roadway.

James Moloney stood at the northern end of the bridge with his arms crossed severely on his chest. Square-faced, he gazed for a good ten minutes, occasionally tightening his mouth, broadening the spread of his lips in what might be either a nervous tic or a recurrent reflection of concentration. As he turned away, he said simply, “Ah, goddam.”

He righted his bicycle, which he had leaned against an ash trunk, and swung astride with a wide sweep of the leg, as though mounting a horse. Paint-chipped, grease-stained, altogether woebegone to the eye, his steed moved under him almost with a will of its own, singing to the dirt road a soft, hissing tune, its gears meshing in cooperative bliss. Moloney knew how to care for a bicycle and did so religiously, neglecting only the exterior of the frame in a deliberate effort to downgrade is desirability to thieves.

Behind him, the bridge slid into the trees. He pedaled with much the same concentration he had shown when inspecting the bridge, pumping his legs but otherwise hardly moving his thick body. He passed the long, low wall of an estate on his right, staring straight ahead. Depressingly soon, the woodland alternated with strands of rusting appliances and car segments, the discarded tangle of an over-productive civilization. Then the greenery ended altogether, replaced by the gray town, 3,000 souls huddled in perhaps 1,200 house so densely packed they seemed paradoxically both few and without end. The miasma of unrealized life flowed outward to lap at the vegetated landscape.

Moloney turned from the main street into one much like it but slightly narrower, flowing downhill. At the second cross-street – the last on this low side of town – he coasted to a stop before the corner house, a clapboard two-story painted a garish yellow with odd daubings of green – a windowsill here, a water spigot there. The impression of the building was the opposite of the bicycle, a gaudy, assertive surface covering unnamed structural flaws.

Moloney left his machine at the curb and padded up the walk, his feet soundless despite a solid, no-nonsense tread.

He pushed open the door, unencumbered by either lock nor latch, and passed through a short, unadorned hallway to the kitchen. He washed his hands at the chipped porcelain sink bracketed to the rear wall. The wall to the perpendicular right housed a line of decrepit wooden cabinets and an absurdly ancient high-legged Roper gas stove with a thumb-operated pilot that shot jets of flame in a blue X toward all four of its burners.

A small wooden table with turned legs and cracked top, painted the same green that spotted the house’s exterior, and its two bentwood chairs flourished by the side window. A strange, boxy cast-iron contraption that might pass for woodstove or furnace but had no flue, lived in the center of the floor. Moloney kept his refrigerator, a 1956 Montgomery Ward, on the rear porch, where it failed to chill sufficiently in summer and froze solid in winter.

The otherwise spartan room was mad with plants: hanging pots and baskets of fuchsia, asparagus fern, pteris fern, prayer plant, purple passion and varieties of philodendron. Crossing the room, Moloney bobbed and weaved like a boxer, flicking tendrils aside and caressing leaves. The table supported five flower pots, leaving barely room to place a small plate and a glass. Separate stands held jade plants and palms, swamp cypress and cyclamen. The window sills, crammed with smaller containers, were sodden with a mat of leaves descending into humus. That it had taken him only three years to so accommodate himself to the place and the place to himself, stood as a measure of the man, though perhaps one laid down with a warped yardstick.

Moloney stopped in the center of the room, placed one hand on the great iron box and burst forth in furious Gaelic. What might have sounded to the unknowing like an idyl of battle was in fact a rugged yet mellifluous roll of town names from County Cork, Ireland. Each day he recited such a list, varying each rendition by both the geography chosen and his position within the room.

“Ah, goddam,” he added at the end, as he had in the woods. Then he took down a box of crackers and a knife from a wall cabinet and sat at the green table to eat. When he had finished, he placed the knife in the sink. the crackers in the cabinet, and composed a letter to his uncle, Michael Moloney.

Michael Moloney owned the walled estate that James Moloney had passed on his way home. He also owned and operated the Cordwainer Foundry and Plating Company, the source of much of the town’s employment and the cause of the covered bridge’s demise. Effluent from the foundry filled the woodland with a pungent, noisome stench. Children who defied parental bans to splash in the stream would sink to their ankles in a sickening squelch and later find that a sheepy, metallic odor cling to their bodies for hours.

That Mead Creek flowed directly below Michael Moloney’s mansion fueled James Moloney’s steely disdain for his family. To so foul one’s own nest for the sake of money or power was beyond his comprehension.

Having waved his pen in circular flourishes above the pad for some seconds, James wrote, baring down heavily, leaving an impression several sheets deep:

“Uncle Michael:

“Should you, for some inconceivable reason, have thought to include me in your will, please remove me forthwith. I would no more accept your money than I would swim in your creek.

“Sincerely,

“James H. Moloney (otherwise, your nephew)”

The letter had little to recommend it calligraphically. The gummed Bic had left gelatin blots, and the cursive sweep had stalled and bumped through the network of impressions from former compositions, mostly poems sent off to insubstantial magazines. (Poetry boiled from Moloney when he least expected it. He took no time to revise, simply whisked the latest verse, without rereading, to the next scrawny quarterly on his list.)

Finding an envelope and a stamp took minutes. Though he could recite the name and location of every living plant cluttering the space and mourned the passing of each leaf, he was incapable of engineering a system to partition the remainder of his physical life. When he bought or was given an object, he opened cabinets and closets at random until he found a space that would accept it, then inserted it and promptly erased the memory of its existence. Wile rummaging for an item he was continually delighted by the unrecalled treasures he uncovered.

On this July Saturday, he pedaled swiftly to the post office to deposit his letter before the noon closing. The sky was clear, the sun warm, the breeze between five and ten miles per hour from the northwest, but the town still exuded its misery. Frame houses shed paint in sorrow, brick ones accrued dark stains that crept inward to their core. The post office was squat and aggressively ugly, its rectangular stones at some period tortured by masons. Despite the breeze, its flag lay limp against its pole.

Moloney had missed the final weekend pickup by a scant five minutes. He waved the envelope in the air, then placed it in the breast pocket of his work shirt and pumped through the town and out the far end, flowing uphill with ease, as though unacquainted with gravity. The hills were low but numerous and abrupt. The road, a tertiary state highway, contorted itself in almost unseemly curls that, by way of compensation, permitted no easy commercial development. Ash, birch, beech and poplar, here and there a maple, grew unimpeded to the shoulder’s edge. The occasional house was set back and intruded marginally if at all into the unhurried beauty.

Moloney crooned in a low baritone, songs of Ireland, but in English.

At the crest of a hill, he stopped by a dirt turnoff and shackled his bicycle to a thin birch with a length of cable. In such isolated areas, people took things, not out of meanness, but from passing fancy.

For the first time that day he looked unpurposed, walking slowly along the dirt road, flinging his legs out slapdash from the knee. He whistled a bit, looked about, grew silent. Birds whistled also, and chipmunks darted through the undergrowth like miniature express trains. Moloney stopped to urinate, pointing his member off the traveled way but making no attempt at concealment. He shook himself sharply, twice, and laughed, holding his penis for a moment before threading it home.

Three quarters of a mile farther on, an inconsequential trail eased between two boulders on the right. It took a slight downward slope, through sparser, younger trees,, mostly pine and scrub sumac. Fewer birds twittered, and the intermittent rustlings were bug-sized. The trail, remarkably consistent in direction, moved southwest, placing the sun at his left shoulder. At a shale tumble with sides of raw earth and elbowed roots, he eased left, picking his way uphill through the loose stones. He stopped before a miniature stone cave, less than two feet high, not more than that deep.

He rotated his shoulders and massaged his neck, taking the occasion to sweep the surrounding terrain with his eyes. Then he dropped to his knees, extended his hand into the damp hiatus in the rock, and pulled loose a stone in the rear, a sort of plug. He withdrew a tiny draw-stringed satchel made from a section of innertube, its rim folded over and bound with nylon twine, making the whole almost waterproof as a milk bottle. After untying the string, he slipped the bag’s contents into his right pocket and placed the contents of his left pocket into the bag. Last, he stuffed the bag back in its hidey-hole.

“And much good may it do us,” he muttered to the scree at his feet.

As he scuffed and slid down the stone wash, four years of diffuse rage solidified into igneous determination. The covered bridge had become a symbol of revolution calling to him. Today, seeing that one of the three spanning beams had cracked, he felt the splinters pierce his thick hide and violate some internal sanctuary. He had oozed from numerous lacerations of conscience before; now he bled openly. God help this ruinous family of his, for he was prepared to launch a true Holy War.

Small towns in the New England woods are no longer considered receptive to revolutionary activity. The spirit of Nathanael Greene lies in slumber, spinning contented dreams. What there may be still to rebel against – failed hopes, unproductive land, shrinking resources – seldom forms hard focus, and even were it limned clear, the natives would prefer to study their boots. Only white-collar sorts from New York, their souls on bucolic sabbatical, disturb the equilibrium with new demands, and a town like Moloney’s, the antithesis of picturesque, drew few from the outside world.

James Moloney had not come to escape. For he could not escape what pursued him – mad, riotous familial wealth. He was worth, literally, more money than he could count or know what to do with. It washed over him in waves, and though he had spend much of his adult life supplying friends, donating to worthy causes, buying lunches for beggars, his bank account refused to erode. His ongoing charity binge left him exhausted, yet the moment he attempted rest, currency and coins surged up to his chin, like the tide in Scrooge McDuck’s money bin.

Living in the least ostentatious apartment in Pittsburgh that his ravening funds permitted, he had contemplated a change of identity or the lure of the Trappists (and for an Irishman, the vow of silence is an extreme contemplation indeed), and ever more dangerous fantasies of self-destruction. Until the day he picked up a fateful issue of Mother Earth News, with its six-page polemic on a New England ecological sinkhole bearing the impression of his uncle’s thumb.

James Moloney had rolled the magazine into a tube and slapped it, repeatedly, with increasing violence, against the wall of his apartment. A neighbor had returned the assaults verbally, but Moloney did not hear. With less than five minutes consideration, he vowed to bring the downfall of his uncle’s evil empire. “He’s behaving like an Englishman,” he boomed to his astonished friends, a complete and perfect motivation for his resolve.

Before exiting Pittsburgh, with the best of legal assistance he diverted the main river of his wealth, along with several tributaries, into a blind trust. He could not stem their flow, but at least he need not be shamed by or benefit from their erosions. To pay the pitifully small mortgage on his yellow and green home, he worked as part-time garage mechanic and odd-jobbed at minuscule fees for families too poor or disinclined to organize their own repairs. Often he took nothing for his labor, returning home, stomach rumbling, to his box of crackers and the spoiled milk in his refrigerator.

Watching his uncle’s depredations at close hand had, perhaps, completed the addling of his brain, which in turn led to his forming a local four-man underground. The other members of the conspiracy were Pete Linquist, a sub-foreman at the foundry, Merle Dedaner, a floor jobber, and Newt Newton, an equally addled import from Ohio who worked at the town grocery store, a nexus for local gossip. They took care not to be seen together too often, except as drinking companions at the Jade Tavern. Their cover was complete: None suspected them, for, since they had accomplished nothing, there was nothing to suspect them of.

Home from his expedition to the conspirators’ message bag, Moloney took from his pocket the irregular grayish lump retrieved from the cave. He turned it this way and that, held it against the windowed sunlight of his kitchen, suspended it by tongs over the Roper’s flame. In no way did it react or reveal. What was this thing, and what was its clandestine presence meant to convey? Moloney had deposited a small sketch in the bag, identifiable, certainly, perhaps even useful. The mineralish blob left by way of exchange said nothing to him. He returned it to his pocket, then removed a clutch of small tools from the upper cabinet nearest the sink and an old electric toaster from the cabinet beneath the sink. For the next 45 minutes he tore down the little machine and reassembled it with minor modifications. When plugged in, it smoked initially from the presence of dislodged crumbs before settling to a hot purr. He tested it with a slice of bread, and it heaved the toast up delightfully brown.

Moloney arranged the tools in a partitioned cloth wrap that had been hanging on a wall hook, adding a few items more from the cabinets. The resulting bundle, tied with a white shoelace, held two sixes of standard slotted screwdriver, two of Phillips, a short awl, a pair of pliers with an effective wire-cutter, two chisels (quarter- and full-inch widths), a rasp, a file, a shortened hacksaw blade, a six-inch adjustable wrench, and a square of 80-grade silicon carbide sandpaper.

Out at the street curb, he traded this package for the tool roll normally strapped to the bicycle’s frame. At the last moment, he untied both and transferred into the new wrap the bike’s tire-iron and patch kit. He tossed the reduced bicycle roll onto the doorstep and pedaled up and over the crest of the town’s minor ridge.

Below him, the Cordwainer Foundry and Plating Company filled a narrow valley that held no obvious living thing this Saturday but a pair of workmen oddly shadowed at the side of the loading deck. The woodland halted its advance halfway down the hill, along a wavering line, the leaves on the downhill side brown and crinkled. A fine silver-tan dust covered every surface, blunting the sunlight. Mead Creek traversed the valley, a natural collector for the runoff from the poisoned land. The whole seemed the haunt of alien beings who had blasted it clean of all that might threaten their unearthly bodily functions.

Moloney coasted down the narrow road, the only direct link between town and foundry. The main truck route slid along the valley floor like a sidewinder crossing the desert. The foundry buildings, rectangular, of some pale green substance that came in sheets, were connected by catwalks and enclosed chutes. Piled near the buildings, mineral mountains baked and bled into the soil. 

Just above the forest’s ignominious end, Moloney hauled his conveyance off the road. There was little place for concealment in the spindly, stunted growth. He removed the tool kit and lowered the bicycle onto its side, piling over it lengths of dead limb and handfuls of leaves. He tried the tool kit in various pockets, where it took on the aspect of a misplaced loaf of bread. At last he slipped it high under his belt, in the rear, lowering his shirttail over it. He thumped down the steep road and into the unnatural silence of an industry taking siesta.

Through personal surveillance and input from his fellow conspirators, Moloney had become familiar with the foundry’s rudimentary security system. As Uncle Michael was the sort who took frugality on a bender, that system’s main components were Silas Pennule, 69 years old, and his barely functional son, Gabe, who patrolled the buildings on a haphazard schedule, proceeding more by lurch and slither than by plan.

Now in the open, Moloney chugged toward the loading dock, where the two forms puttering with binding straps and cardboard litter took on recognizable lines: Merle Dedaner and Pete Linquist.

“What in the pissing lord?” Moloney questioned himself.

Dedamer made odd motions with his right hand, flicking it back and forth across the leg of his overalls while observing Moloney’s progress from the corner of his eye. Linquist’s desultory poking and prodding wound down to the nervous bending of a metal strip.

Moloney put his hands on the raised concrete apron of the loading dock and craned his neck.

“You got the message,” said Dedaner, trying to keep his lips immobile.

“Message?”

“From the bag.”

“That misshapen thing? What form of message was that?”

Ssssh.” Linquist dropped his bit of metal, which ticked twice in the dead, hot air. “We can’t just stand around,” he said in a ringing whisper.

“Seems you have been.”

Dedaner leaned close. “You should have gone straight to the dip vats.” He extracted from his pocket a lump much like the one left in the bag for Moloney. “See?”

“Merle, you’ve just flat been breathing too many fumes.” Moloney vaulted onto the dock, and all three hurried through a small door cut into the main roll-down.

“Where’s Peckerhead?” Moloney asked.

“Went by on rounds about 15 minutes back, shouldn’t bother us for awhile.” Linquist picked up another piece of scarp to bend.

They walked the length of the vast internal storage area in silence. As Dedaner tugged at the door connecting it with the plating room, Moloney blocked it with his foot. “This is damned strange,” he said. “How is it we all come to be here when I hadn’t yet committed a plan to you?”

“Didn’t Newt tell you?” asked Dedaner.

“How would Newt tell me? I haven’t seen him in a week. This sort of thing is anyway supposed to be passed through the bag, that’s what it’s for. Instead I get lumps of matter from the earth’s creation. You never told me about this problem with your mind.” Moloney was half a hand taller and half a foot thicker than Dedaner. The latter’s tugs at the door were ineffectual.

“We’re here, ain’t we?” said Linquist. “Let’s get the job done.”

Moloney heaved a large volume of air in the form of loud words. “Just what sort of fucking job is this you’re talking about when we haven’t so much as communicated? I came down here to do some constructive eyeballing of the situation, and I find you making a public spectacle of yourselves, a clown show on a Saturday afternoon. Take this goddam thing,” he said,withdrawing the odd mass from his pocket and handing it to Dedaner. “Now you have two.”

“Quiet it. Peckerhead’ll hear us,” said Linquist.

“Then we tell him we’re mice and he will believe us,” said Moloney. “I brought along some of those dog-biscuity things he likes. The dip vats?”

“That’s where we’d start from,” said Linquist.

“How is it then you decide to be going there?”

“We’ve got the plan,” said Dedaner.

“And are you free to tell anyone other than St. Joseph?”

“We’re gonna drop the plates in the vats,” said Linquist, “and let them stay.”

“What fun. Does this plan have a practical purpose?”

“It’ll mess things up,” said Linquist.

“It might well do that,” said Moloney, “and the things most likely messed up will be us. Where’s Newt if he knows about this?”

“He’s lookout,” said Linquist, “in town. He’s seeing if anybody comes down.”

“And then?”

“He calls us. On the phone.”

“While you’re heaving hundred-pound steel plates into a tank. Had you maybe thought Peckerhead might also decide to answer the phone?”

Dedaner put his finger to his lips and opened the door. The room they entered was both silent and alive, as though the current that powered the electroplating units during the week was waiting impatiently in the wires. The air smelled of ozone, and brittle traces of metal invaded their nostrils. Linquist flattened his body against the cinderblock wall of the massive space, as a cockroach might sneak across a sunlit floor.

“What are you, hung over?” asked Moloney.

Dedaner eyed the exposed walls and the great quiet machines. “This isn’t going tow work.”

The door they had just closed opened again and emitted a small, lank-haired man, Gabe Pennule, known universally as Peckerhead. He looked at the three as though he might have seen something similar in the recent past.

“This is quite some setup,” said Moloney in Gabe’s general direction, “an impressive lot of equipment. I’m impressed. There’s a certain sense of….” He rolled his hands slowly over each other.

“I know you. You don’t belong. Whatcha doin’ here?”

“I came,” said Moloney, “to look at this impressive machinery when it isn’t working, as a way so I wouldn’t maybe get hurt like I might if it was working. Machinery at rest can be very peaceful. There’s nothing quite as calm, for instance, as an electric clock that’s not plugged in.” He beamed a huge smile.

“Uh,” said Gabe.

“And since you’re here.” Moloney dipped into a pocket and extracted a small plastic bag of oyster crackers. He removed two and held them out. “Come on. For you. Come get them.”

The scrawny little man moved forward, his hand outstretched. At the last instant he snatched it back and shook his head. “Ain’t spose to take nothin’ from people when they’s where they ain’t spose to be.”

“Who told you a thing like that?” asked Moloney, incredulous.

“Muh dad.”

Moloney edged closer, sly and conspiratorial. “I wasn’t planning on telling you this, but I guess I’ll have to. You’re too smart for us. Now the thing is we are supposed to be here, but nobody’s supposed to know that except the big boys. Understand? It’s hush-hush. Secret. If the word gets out… well, you know.” He turned up his palms in potential resignation.

“Mr. Moloney didn’t say nothin. Muh dad didn’t say nothin.”

Moloney clapped Gabe on the shoulder. “Exactly! You caught the whole of it right off. Nobody’s supposed to know! So you’d best come along with us, just in case.” He picked up a limp hand and inserted an oyster cracker. Gabe put the cracker into his mouth and crushed it with grinding circles of his jaws, as though masticating a galaxy into being.

Pete Linquist took down a gallon can of minerals spirits from a wall shelf and motioned to Gabe. “Come on, we’d better get started, huh? We ain’t got all day.” He moved toward the plating apparatus, unscrewing the can top as he walked.

“This isn’t going to work,” Dedaner muttered again.

Moloney and Gabe followed behind Linquist. Dedaner, the floor jobber, brought up the rear, his head swinging wide, as though searching fro an exit which, in his eleven years with Cordwainer Foundry, he had previously overlooked.

Though complex in process, the electroplating tanks worked on the simplest of principles. Any metal object – most often an eight to ten foot length of cheap sheet steel – could be attached to the cathode of the electrical system and thus given a negative charge. When lowered into a bath of trolling ions, the positive wanderers, arriving from the anode holding the plating material, humped the big sheet with such fury as to become one with it, providing an even coating in as active a process as a normally quiescent metal might experience in a lifetime. 

With the current off, the sheet could hang till doomsday experiencing nothing but slow corrosion. This fact lay at the heart of Linquist’s murky scheme. Each month the electrodes were lifted clear of the chemical liquid, and the tanks were drained and cleaned.

Today, near the end of that cycle, they held their foulest brew. Should large sheets of steel be immersed in those potent waters over a full weekend or inactive electrical current, who knows what might happen to the sheets, to the tanks, to the electrodes themselves? Certainly not Pete Linquist, but he fantasized something like the complete solidification of the foundry.

He began cleaning a projecting arm with a rag dipped in the mineral spirits, whisking away non-existent spots and blemishes for Peckerhead’s benefit. Moloney, meanwhile, steered Gabe toward a corner and leaned close. “We have to talk about this,” he said.

Cut off from the line of sight of the others, Moloney pulled Gabe’s hands behind his back. The little man began to struggle, but Moloney shushed him. “We’ve got to make this look good, right? What will the big guys think if they come in and you are just wandering around? Later, we’ll make a little phone call when we leave, so they’ll find you and you don’t get hungry. And I’ll leave the crackers.”

“Much dad –”

“Your dad will be unholy proud of you, Gabe. I was talking to him yesterday and he said, ‘That son of mine, he always knows what to do.’ Don’t ball up your fists, it makes it difficult to tie the knots.” Moloney picked a length of jute twine from the floor and whipped it around Gabe’s wrists in a figure eight, then bound off the crossover with a few more turns. He tied a needlessly elaborate knot and patted the man lightly on the shoulder. “All right? Not too tight?”

“Tickles.”

“It’s all I could find. Nylon would chafe less, but it doesn’t hold a knot. Now we’ll need the gag.”

“I dunno. Don’t sound like it’s, uh… muh dad shouldof said.”

“He didn’t think you’d come through here just now, and anyway it’s more realistic-like, right? More natural.” Moloney kicked through the leavings behind a small table, rejecting a rag soaked with a substance that stank. He folded a second rag so the clear side faced out and slipped the gag through Gabe’s mouth. “Okay? It’ll be a little dry for you, but we’ll call, you’ll be all right. Your dad will give you a big hug. He’s the hugging kind?”

Gabe shook his head.

“Whatever.”

Unable to unearth a stout rope, Moloney undid his belt and cinched the little man to a two-inch vertical pipe, running the belt through the bonds between his hands, tying more twine over the leather when he could find no other way to keep the clumsy tourniquet from loosening.

He stepped back and smiled broadly. “That should do it. Now I think you can slide down into a sit. Less tiring. Of course, with the gag you can’t get to your crackers. I’ll leave them anyway, so there’s something to eat when they get you undone.” He placed the plastic bag by the pipe. “Just don’t worry. It’ll be all right.”

Moloney returned to the plating room with his soundless steps to find Dedaner and Linquist on their knees beside one of the tanks. Linquist whispered dramatically, “Where is he?”

“Resting in a corner, in close communication with what I think is the heating system.”

“What did you do? asked Dedaner “Oh Jesus, what did you do, your pants are falling down.”

“You weren’t….” Linquist’s eyes went round.

Moloney turned over the tops of his trousers twice to hold them in place. “You two haven’t the sense God gave an ant’s uncle. I’ve tied the nitwit to a pipe and he thinks he’s a classical hero. When that old fart his father kicks his behind he will be most surprised. Shit.” With a loud clatter, the tool kit he had tucked into the back of his pants slid down one leg and unraveled on the floor. He picked up the tools and examined them with sudden revelation.

“Well. Here’s another plan for you, since we’re here, and a better, more consequential one, which also has simplicity on its side. How is it they drain these tanks?”

“They’ve each got valves,” said Linquist, “to let it out into hoses that go into tanker trucks. The stuff at the bottom gets flushed when they get to the cleaning after, and it’s run off to the creek. They always say it’s all going into the trucks, but everybody knows.”

“Is there a way to cut into the hoses here, inside the building?”

“It’s hoses outside, pipes inside,” said Dedaner. “We could break the unions. But what for?”

“To let a few hundred gallons of high corrosive liquid eat the guts of this stinking establishment, instead of running out and chewing holes in the valley. Now, would that be more fun or not?”

The conspirators traded stares, then Linquist began to chuckle like a hand-cranked motor. “Hey goddamn, god-dam

“I spose,” said Dedaner, head bowed.

“You spose what?” said Moloney.

“What about Peckerhead?”

Moloney hooked his thumbs into his adjusted waistband. “What is there in these stewpots that could damage him more than he’s already mangled?”

“He knows who we are.”

“In some vague sense.”

Linquist, with no metal strip to bend, cracked his knuckles, creating small, annoying reports. “We’ll go to jail.”

 “Maybe we shouldn’t do it,” said Dedaner,

“Not do it?” exploded Moloney. “Then what is the purpose of all this, of us? Are you to be a lickspittle to some capitalist for the rest of your life?”

Dedaner straightened, indignant. “I ain’t no – a what?”

“We are here for a purpose, as you rightly said. We have even begun to have a glimmer of what the purpose could come to. Now are we to throw it aside because of what a halfwit who exists on soup crackers might chirp? When we are perched on the doorstep of accomplishment?”

Linquist shook his head. “We don’t none of us have families. You said that was good for social activists, no one to worry about. It don’t help, though, to end up in jail. I don’t want to go to no jail.”

Moloney thumped his chest. “I will take the brunt. You may take it on the lam. I can get money if needs be, as well you know. What’s mine is yours. I will support you in the style of whatever, somewhere else. Does that at least suit you?”

Both men considered silently, eyes downcast. Moloney took this as assent. He walked back to where the watchman sat at the base of his captivating pipe, his arms at a painful angle to his shoulder sockets.

“I didn’t set this up in the best form,” said Moloney. He heaved the bound figure upright and massaged his shoulders “Here.” He placed a chair next to Gabe, hoisted him upward along the pipe, toed the chair so it lay under his feet, and dropped him down on it, standing.

“There’s going to be some material flowing that you shouldn’t be immersed in. So stay where I’m setting you. And we can stow the gag, who would hear you anyway?”

Moloney removed the wad of cloth from the captive’s mouth and opened the bag of oyster crackers. “Let’s make you a way to get at these.” Sifting through the detritus behind the table, he extracted a four-foot length of wire which he wrapped around Gabe’s head, pinching and twisting to hold it in place. From its end he formed a crude hook, to which he attached the cracker bag. He tilted the watchman’s head back, which brought the bag close to his mouth, but the restraint slipped over one ear.

“Eat this one now.” Moloney fed Gabe a cracker. “The rest will have to wait. You’re all right?”

“I can’t feel nothin in my hands.”

“You haven’t got anything in your hands.”

“Muh fingers.”

“We can’t afford to loosen the bonds. It would look… suspicious. Right?”

“I guess.”

“Here’s another one.” Moloney popped a second cracker into Gabe’s mouth. “But don’t start yelling till after we’re gone. It might distract us.”

Linquist and Dedaner were busy at one of the pipe unions, Dedaner holding a 36-inch pipe wrench onto the painted junction, Linquist jumping on and off the end.

“Sucker’s on there,” said Linquist.

“The valve,” said Moloney. “Where’s the valve?” Dedaner pointed to the base of the tank. A swelling in the pipe was surmounted by a small wheel painted red.

“If we just hustle the top off the collar, we can pop the valve,” said Moloney. “You people should know your own operations. Damned American intellectual laziness.” He fitted his small adjustable wrench over the inch-wide collar nut below the red wheel. When it refused to budge, he slammed it with his fist, hurting his hand. Linquist brought over the big wrench, but it was too bulky to fit under the handle.

“There must be a hammer in this damned place,” said Moloney.

Linquist found one leaning against the wall and Moloney tapped away at the end of his wrench, banging progressively harder until the room rang with echoes and sympathetic vibrations. Gabe made a mild complaining sound from the adjoining room, and Dedander scurried to comfort him.

“This is a mess,” said Linquist.

“It’s for shit,” said Moloney, but at that moment the paint bond broke, and the nut turned. “Halleluia.”

With the nut fully loosened, Moloney started to unscrew the valve stem. Linquist waved a restraining hand, too late. The stem blew free and a geyser of electroplating solution erupted toward Moloney’s face. “Christ, his mother and all the fucking saints,” said Moloney as he flipped backwards and to the side, surprisingly agile for so large a man. The escaping liquid steadied to a three-foot gusher, a Lilliiputian oil well. 

“Outside!” said Moloney, “Get out there and block that hose so this crap doesn’t bleed off into the woods.”

Linquist ran pell mell out a loading-dock door. Dedaner watched the circle of glop that had reached Moloney, still piled in half recline.

“Get your stupid ass in gear,” said Moloney, as he pulled himself up. “We’ve got a half dozen valves to hit.” Together, they scrabbled up the tools and trotted to the next tank, breaking the valve loose just as the puddle lapped at their heels. Linquist returned and lent a hand. Within twenty minutes, eight tanks were draining across the 15,000 square feet of floor. Unmentionable chemicals ate at the revolutionaries’ shoes.

Moloney checked Peckerhead again, still shackled to the pipe. “You’ve really stood up, Gabe, made a name for yourself. Michael Moloney will no doubt have names for you as yet uncoined.”

“I don’t think you spose to be here.”

“You think what you will, the big boys will put you straight. And we’ll all share in the spoils. Right? Now rest up. I may take a bit longer than we thought to get that phone call through. To your dad or whoever. So it would be a good idea for you to do in these things.” He pushed two crackers into Gabe’s mouth at once. “I’d bring water, but the sink looks none too accessible.”

The three saboteurs slogged through the rising ionic soup and onto the loading dock, which fortunately stood a few inches above floor level, holding the vile muck in check. The sun had gone low, but summer heat still baked the wasteland of the valley. “The man’s a sinner,” said Linquist, looking out across the devastation wrought by Michael Moloney.

“The man’s an Irish asshole,” said James Moloney, “of all known assholes the most evil.”

“We don’t have jobs no more,” said Dedaner.

Moloney patted his endless array of pockets until he discovered his wallet and handed over its grimy monetary contents. “Cut over to Sable and see how far this will take the two of you on Greyhound, You’ve got a day’s grace. Probably. I’ll use the bicycle.”

Dedaner and Linquist looked fleetingly at each other, avoiding Moloney’s eyes. “Go on,” said Moloney. “Send me a note when you get wherever. They’re not permitted to interfere with the mails.” At the ruined treeline, the conspirators parted with restrained handshakes.

Moloney retrieved his steed after brushing loose the concealing leaves. Looking across the valley, he laughed for the second time that day, two quick, deep has into the day’s silence.

He coasted through town, past his uncle’s walled estate, into the evening gloom of the woods bordering Mead Creek. The birds had done their job for the day, the insects had burrowed into the tree bark and paper nests of their homes. All that was left was the biting smell from the water and a rosy tint above the failing covered bridge.

Moloney dismounted and strolled to the end of the bridge. He placed one foot on the cracked beam where the floorboards had rotted and vanished. Balancing easily, he moved out over the stream. The wood beneath him creaked, and the entire bridge protested with a mild shiver. At the center of the span, perhaps eight feet above the lazy flow of water, Moloney leapt high and came down, smack. The beam shrieked like a far-off murder, split gunshot-hard, and parted, twisting the structure of the bridge so that it shat rusted nails and patches of diseased flooring.

Moloney held to a strut to keep from pitching through the great gap he had created. Brachiating like an ape, he swung above the broken timbers that had fallen into a new, temporarily stable configuration. When he reached his starting point, he dropped onto the grass giving way to the annual onslaught of nettle and jewelweed.

He wiped his hands on his jury-rigged trousers and mounted his bicycle. He did not look back. By the arched entrance through his uncle’s stone wall, he paused to place an envelope in the roadside mailbox.

Leave a comment

Goodreads: OK for you… but for me?

I don’t know how many of you tune into Goodreads online (except you, Nebish). I joined around 2011, back when I started spouting these ruminations – and before Goodreads was absorbed by Amazon, like every other book-related activity online.

It’s a site for folks to paste reviews of books and book-like things, trade literary (even literate!) observations, and convince each other that the world still cares about the written (not broadcast) word.

In a Facebookish way, you can like other people’s reviews and comments, follow them (I picture slavering puppydogs) or become a “friend”: I still don’t understand the difference between follower and friend – ragged beggar vs. dedicated apostle?

I’d get a weekly email linking me to reviews posted by either followers or friends. (Somehow I accidentally cancelled this email and can’t for the life of me find how to revive it.) I’m not sure how I hooked up with half these people – did I choose them or did they choose me?

As usual, I don’t quite fit in. I have no interest it “rating” a book without posting a written review. (My favorite one-star review that I posted: The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran: “Total crap.”) What does it mean to give a lumbering tome 5 stars if you don’t say why you liked it? I take such stuff (too) seriously.

On the other hand, I read slowly and do other things with my time, like splitting firewood or petting the cat, so my postings are sparse, to say the least. One guy I’d somehow joined to has read every single work on the Holocaust ever written, usually expanding his stash by 3-5 more a week and spattering his comments with endless intrusive quotes from the texts. Other commenters are tied into unlimited series of fantasies about alternate universes (yeah, I know, we could use one about now). Then there are the Cthulhu freaks, those champions of gore, stench, adjectives and H.P. Lovecraft.

But this one young woman… I won’t ID her here, since, despite the current universe’s disdain for privacy, I just wouldn’t do that. Probably in her late 20s, I figured when I first read her reviews, she writes gorgeous, unrestrained yet contained prose, reacts to her reading with an innate balance of personal and analytic, uses words as though they were rare objects found in an ancient jar. She both delights and shames me with her exercise of mind.

Then, one day a couple or three years ago, she mentioned she was about to start college. Holy ejaculating christ – a 17 or 18 year old. What limits can this girl have?

I’ve dipped into her non-Goodreads blog and found a gay young woman without either apology or aggression, showing not the least regard for what anyone might think of who or what she is, just explaining her life as if you were standing next to her, looking out the window. An amazing mix of poise, acceptance and stability. She seldom mentions her family (in what I’ve read so far) but it’s clear that she grew up in an atmosphere where she was given the keys to the world as her right, openly encouraged to form her… completeness.

As always, being as self-centered as a channeled drill bit, I started thinking back to my own childhood (a stupid but unavoidable activity of old farts as they slip further into geezerhood). At home, I was mostly alone, frightened, friendless, given no information necessary to realization and expansion. In school, always first in my class and the source of all factual wisdom, I was treated as a minor inhuman deity. Again – I always want to stress this – I’m not blaming anybody, just painting a picture for contrast.

I’ve received comments about my bumbling inabilities as parent and grandparent (with which I heartily agree), and it’s easy as canned pumpkin pie to say, “Yeah, my parents done me wrong and I passed it along.” But… on the other hand, my parents were who they were and I’m damned well who I am, an often terrified individual who has not the slightest right to point the finger at anyone else as cause of my sodden temperament.

This remarkable teen flowing into college was not just supported; she is obviously, by nature, a vital, self-accepting entity. I’m not, could not have been even with the cuddliest of parental teddy bears.

Nature, nurture, and the role of the neuronal dice. 

(What the hell does this have to do with Goodreads? Damned if I know.)

*  *  *

The above was originally written while listening to jazz pianist Johnny D’Amico (who billed himself as “Father” John D’Amico), the most liked kid in my high school class, the best of the best, one of only three from St. Thomas More High School I met again in later life.

I never heard him or any other Jazz pianist live (or any jazz “name” except Herbie Man). I think Johnny played in the same bar on 22nd St. in Philly where William Lashner set part of his Bagmen novel (and which my current novel heroine, Jenny, visited, though for myself, I’ve never set foot in the place).

Like Mike Macchiaroli (the only kid in my class shorter than me, and the second most liked, behind Johnny, and for the same reasons as Johnny), he thought about but didn’t become a priest. Johnny used the “Father” moniker as a nod to things contemplated.

Did anyone from our class actually become a priest? I hope not. Johnny died a few years back on the day he was supposed to be released from a hospital stay. And some people think there’s a god.

Leave a comment

Ring Out the Old

The Old Year, ripe with the stink of Thunderbird, sprawled back against the pilaster of an abandoned neoclassical bank. Most of the graffiti above and around him was indecipherable, but “nuke the faggots” stood out in block letters. Below, someone had added, “and the skinheads.”

The Old Year sang “Rock of Ages” off-key, frayed and guttural, with a glutinous flap added from his throat, a gargle through molasses. He held his pie-plate out to passersby, a gesture that suggested nothing like expectation.

He broke off in the middle of the hymn and shifted to a sing-song melody of his own, stronger, his voice clearer. He slapped the empty tin pie-plate beside his legs in rough time to the words:

Throw the old bastard a nickel,

Throw the old bastard a dime,

Throw the old bastard a quarter,

Cuz he is a victim of time.

“Goddam millennium friggin NO GOOD GODDAM city buildins fallin over useta be camels put em up camels an slaves…” his voice rising to a bellow then slipping inside until it disappeared.

The Old Year was cold, weak, wrapped in a torn blanket, a three-inch bedding of newspapers under his legs and butt. He could have shifted to the steam vent at the corner, but he preferred the internal warmth of the Thunderbird. And with only eight (seven?) hours left in 1999, he could freeze solid and it wouldn’t make a difference one way or the other.

A figure moved up near his feet. From The Old Year’s semi-recumbent vantage, the man – given the overcoat and outdated Stetson hat, it had to be a man – loomed like a giant, his face invisible within the nimbus of the setting sun behind him.

“Jerry?” questioned the man.

“You got money? Awww shove off. I’m outta Bird most out. Looka tha…” The Old Year held his bottle of wine by the neck and swung it side to side, a glass pendulum. “Wha ya want? Got sumpin? Gway.”

Jerry. Je-sus, what’s happened to you? Look, there’s maybe… somethin I can do?”

“You can climb a purple horse an FUCK OFF. Aint no Jerry.”

The faceless man fumbled under his overcoat to pull up his trouser legs as he dropped into a squat.

“It’s you. Jerry Walton. You think I wouldn’t know? We fired you, I gotta know. You got that one brown eye and one blue eye –”

“I GODDAM KNOW I GOT ONE EYE AND THE OTHER. You think I’m friggin stupid dont know which eyes I got? Where you goin? Heaven? You goin Heaven? There’s that Indian thing bout how we work outta that. Rein… re-chrysamthemnum. Where you dunt die just go over again an over. An over.”

“Reincarnation?” The figure leaned forward. Sunlight leaked around toward his features.

“Yeah, recarnation carnation. Once I member I was back in Egypt, allll way back. The pharaohs? So Chops Cheops 3150 BC aroun then course didnt call it BC had their own calendar but itd run off schedule an Niled flood when they wunt lookin fer it tappen. Big friggin mess water all over town. But they could – an they did –  floated the blocks up. Fer pyramid. Cheops pyramid. Camels hauled em! Pretty much bes year I ever was. Who you? You Jerry?” The Old Year raised his hand to cut the glare of the dying sun. It didn’t help much.

You’re Jerry. Jerry Walton.”

“I AINT NOT NO JERRY. Yer stupid dunt listen people. Know what I was last time? 1916. There was nothin not one goddam good thing happened 1916. Friggin waste inna whole world. Seven eight million people killed off in France. Just in France. I hadda keep the count bad parta the job. 1999 I can watch it all happen right here millennium. Next timell kick me inta middle of a century. Yknow how much a millennium? Every thousan years! I gotta wait thousan years an they wont anyway give it me nextime. Somebody else. Sucks sucks.”

The Old Year began to cry, the bottle on the ground, his hand wrapped around the neck. He picked it up, crying, took a swig, another, drained the bottle. He looked at it, his glare tight and almost clear, cried harder.

“You…?” asked the man.

“Me 1999 yeah. Right here. Til minnight. Yknow what? Millennium er not stupid goddam year ta be but dun wanna leave. Never wanna leave. Tha old way-old woman ya know her the nun? She was six years old last time now gotta disease an I wone know when she dies. An wuz gonna happen with Apple computers?”

“They got Steve Jobs back. The nun… you mean Mother Teresa?”

“Mother Tresa yeah….”

“She’s already dead. Couple years back.”

“Goddam. Shit. Buy me a Bird? Need more Bird. Time?” The Old Year tapped his wrist.

The figure hiked up his overcoat sleeve an inch. “4:27. I don’t know where there’s a liquor store.”

“Wuz wif you? You got on wool an you dun know where a booze store? I member somebody like you but hats wrong. Mean it swrong cuz it sright. Same hat from las time. 1916 hat. Din have Bird back there. Gin in trenches sneak it in get drunk heads blowed off. On guard duty. I wasn no Jerry Wharton. Wasn nobodys name just was. So mister man how you get through from then ta back here? Snot yer hat. Somebodys elses hat. Not Mother Tresas hat,” and The Old Year laughed, laughed until long snot strings hung from his nose.

“You are Jerry. Jerry Walton,” said the figure, “because we choose it that way. You have been Jerry Walton and you will remain Jerry Walton, now and always. And this time you won’t get fired. You are released, clear of title, into the millennium and through to whatever comes next – actually, Apple’s buying Next from Jobs.”

“Overpopilation too many,” said The Old Year.

The figure leaned forward and touched his fingertips to The Old Year’s eyes.

When Jerry Walton opened his throbbing eyes, the figure was gone. He stared into the afterglow of the sunken sun and felt a physical need, something his body craved. But as his vision cleared, the craving slipped away like gravel from the edge of a roadway.

Jerry rose up to his feet, wondering why he’d been sitting on a cold sidewalk at the end of the year, a section of newspaper hanging off the seat of his pants. Out of a job, for shit sake. That was hardly the end of the world, just another dumb distraction in life’s inevitable march.

Tugging the newspaper loose, he saw that it was the classified section. He opened it to “Help Wanted.”

##############

Leave a comment