Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The World is Filled With Glittering Beetles

To a mind blinded by the bleak promises of science: we inhabit a realm of cold chance and bounded, explainable, probability. Each miracle of existence has behind it laws and rules correcting its presence in the world. Even the tiniest particles must adhere to strict traditions regarding their movements. To such a mind the following events will no doubt make a certain sort of sense, but such comprehension is false. There is a deeper layer of meaning that I myself have yet to find. 

Recently I received a letter. It was from an old friend who I hadn't seen or heard from in a long while. The friend was writing from a hotel in Avignon. On the envelope there was a drawing of a Golden Scarab. The drawing was clearly illustrated by a talented and loving hand. One could  easily note the care with which each line was drafted. 

The next morning, on my walk to work, I passed by seven posters advertising a particular brand of pipe tobacco. I don't smoke a pipe anymore, I haven't since the war. The central design of the posters was exactly similar to that of the Golden Scarab on the envelope. In great haste I contacted the friend who had written the letter. He denied any knowledge of the brand of pipe tobacco, or indeed performing any design work for any corporation. 

Then in my office, as I was interviewing a patient who had just confessed to having dreams about a Golden Scarab, I heard a noise tapping on my window. When I opened the window a beetle flew in. I grabbed it from the air, and noting the color I pocketed it. I calmed my patient, and returned to our therapy session. For the next few hours, as my patient complained about their parents and upbringing, I would pretend to check my pocket watch. Secretly I was examining the beetle. 

After the appointment I ventured over to the city university and presented the beetle to an entomologist. Professor Stapleton, although normally reserving himself for the study and collection of butterflies, confirmed my suspicions. The beetle was a member of the scarabaeidae family. Indeed the color of the beetle's shell was a bright gold that seemed to glow regardless of the lighting.

Several days later I was called into my study by my maid. She had just finished dusting the mantle above the fireplace when she noticed a glowing line forming on the paving stones before the fireplace. By the time I entered the room I found, burned into solid stone, a perfect representation of a golden scarab. In fact the light given off by the glowing stones distinctly matched the color of the beetle I had brought to the Professor. 

The following evening, as I walked home from work I noticed that every third woman seemed to be wearing a golden scarab broach. Aside from the broach, I could not sense any other similarity of dress in any of the women I encountered. I interviewed several women as to the origin of their broaches. No two gave the same answer. It seems that craftsmen from multiple points in history, and geography, decided to craft identical broaches resembling golden scarabs. 

How strange is it that our lives are full of unavoidable details. One man may find that doors seem to close in front of him. Another may open fortune cookies only to find the same fortune, reprinted time and time again. For myself, I have decided that the beetles are as unavoidable as the sun above us and the air around us. I can no more remove the golden scarabs from my presence than I could pull the moon down from the autumn sky. Instead I have decided to catalogue each incident. Perhaps some sort of satisfaction may be gained from this endeavor, perhaps not. Regardless, my world is filled with glittering beetles. 

Monday, April 27, 2009

When Baron La Croix Comes Calling, Open a Bottle of Wine

What you won't get for a while now, what neither you nor I will understand until it is our time to understand, is why Baron La Croix laughs when he comes to visit. Perhaps you've met the Baron in passing, seen him walk into your neighbors house, or even watched him sitting across from you on the bus. I'm certain I've shook his hand in the cemetary after a funeral, and I think he's punched my ticket on the train.

Last Saturday I was having coffee with a friend. We had just finished talking about all of the insincere details of our lives when I heard the Baron start laughing. He's got a very distinctive laugh that never sounds the same any time you hear it, but you always know its his. When I turned to see the source of the laughter I saw someone choking on their bread. My friend ran over and administered the Heimlich Manuever. When it was clear that everything was ok the cafe's patrons clapped and shook my friends hand, but behind all the noise, echoing off the buildings, I could hear the Baron laughing.

I've been told that, until he explains it to you, you'll think the Baron has a cruel sense of humor, but once you get the joke, well you might as well follow him out the door into the night because nothing else is funny anymore. That's why I like to be prepared. I know the Baron likes wine, an old Mamba told me once. So, I've started buying wine every week. I'm not sure what type the Baron prefers, but I know he's well versed in every style.

I know he's coming to visit me, but I don't know when. So I'm going to settle into things, keep buying wine. When the Baron comes dressed in his black tuxedo I'll ask him to sit down and tell me a joke... after we drink some wine.

A Conversation Between Friends

"As surely as my name is Al Jolsen, you are a crocodile." Said the zebra to the waiting predator.
The crocodile gazed up at the zebra and wondered if it was worth it. He knew that right now the zebra didn't know for certain that he was a crocodile, also there was no way that zebra could be Al Jolsen.

"Your half right" said the crocodile as he jumped up and bit the zebra in the neck.
Blood mixed gently with the murky, muddy, waters of the Serengeti watering hole.

Later a human drove by and shot the crocodile.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Tallymaker

Several decades ago a woman was born in Brooklyn. At the instant of her birth she had a sort of consciousness that is conventionally given only to philosophers and the French. She realized that her life was fleeing before her, and even as her heart beat she was dying from the effects of time.

In an effort to stop this, or perhaps to celebrate it, she began counting. It is not known how she came to possess knowledge of numbers at such an early age. Those who knew her, and knew of her obsession, would claim that it was simply an innate skill, or perhaps she invented her own numbering system that simply fell into accord with the generally accepted system of numbering the rest of us use.

As she aged she grew into a normal and beloved person. She married, birthed children, and even took care of a dog for many years. Aside from her obsession with counting each infinitesimally small moment of her life it could be said that she lived a rather mundane existence. As a result of her counting she could perfectly remember every moment of her life, even her dreams. If you asked her she could tell you the angle of the sun as her parents wished her a happy first birthday.

When she died the powers that be decided she had no use for an afterlife because she had already attached herself perfectly to each moment of her life. Her soul was allowed to rest until Time was instructed to flow backwards once again.

Her reverse life was, and is, fraught with despair as she was forced to perfectly divorce herself from her existence. In this way she spends eternity in perfect despair and perfect joy, the paragon of living.

I'll Eat the Core of the Earth

I made a promise to my mother. I would always be a good boy. She laughed and told me that sometimes you can't avoid it. I've always tried but sometimes I get away from myself.

When I drive the hearse I feel the bodies in the back pulling me into strange parking lots. Their fervent demands cause me to deviate from the route as we stop in all the places their foolish dead minds try to remember. I don't know why people don't cremate their loved ones. It really seems to be the most economical choice. When I die I'm going to leave instructions to my few remaining friends to have me cremated.

I don't want to leave anything behind. I don't want anyone to look at my body and wonder what might have happened if I had lived longer. I just want to accept what will happen, and I want everyone to accept what -by the time I die- has happened.

If you want to spread my ashes fine. I'll make do with the wind. I'd prefer it if you buried me though, because my carbon has always wanted to be as hard and unyielding as a diamond. I'm pretty sure my molecules can handle the heat and pressure of the earth, we've dealt fairly well with life so far. Surely one million degrees of heat and unknowable amounts of pressure can't be much harder. When I get down to the center I'm going to eat the core of the earth, then it will be a part of me, and I'll look up to the surface and watch life spin around me.

Twenty Thousand

Twenty thousand trumpets sounded, and in the background you could hear the syncopated marching steps of the infantry. As they passed us by we told each other that some day we would be wearing their bright uniforms, with the pressed creases and impressive badges. My father gave me his old war helmet and I laughed as it fell over my eyes.

Twenty thousand years from now they'll find our bones, fossilized in the ground, right next to the petroleum. A man in green pants will fill his automobile with the remains of our families and friends. You and I will dance the slow waltz of the earth. Our coffins will decay, but we'll still find each other beneath the soil.

Twenty thousand seconds have passed since I held you last, and the time drips slowly by. You might wonder at my famous impatience. I will never be satisfied. I am a man on the edge of reason, even at my most reasonable moments. You can calmly talk to me and stroke my hair all you want, but I will remain hot-headed and romantic, just like the stag that charges into the headlights of trucks on the highway. I will leave myself ruined and wasted on the side of the road.

Twenty thousand is an odd number to choose for your destiny, but an old gypsy whispered it to me in a tent at the state fair. In the darkness of that August afternoon I believed everything she had to say. The next week I watched in wonder as her predictions came true, one by one, and now I have no doubts about the future.

Twenty thousand, twenty thousand, twenty thousand, twenty thousand. I look into the Aleph, and watch my obsession with the Zahir, but everything blends together. I feel the universe pull me into a wider reality twenty thousand times, and everything spirals outward towards the center.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Molly Mclarey and the Cylinder

It was no surprise to Molly's mother when she admitted that she had started taking antidepressants. The doctor who wrote the prescription wrote it out in a huff. The pharmacist who filled her handed her the paper bag with instructions and warnings stapled to it looked down her blouse. It seemed to Molly that he sighed as if it wasn't worth the effort. 

The conversation with her mother went something like this: 

"Mom I've started taking antidepressants because I hate myself."

In an ironically sweet voice her mother replied "Well that's no surprise, you hate everyone, and your kind of a bitch. I've got to go now sweety, it's Wednesday and your father's already taken his e.d. pill." 

Then the line clicked off and Molly stared at the red tail lights in front of her all the way home. 

In the morning Molly brushed her teeth staring straight ahead at the small bottle in her medicine cabinet. She thought about how brilliant the inventor of the medicine cabinet was, because you didn't have to look at yourself when you swallowed the things that were supposed to make you whole. 

When she swallowed the pill she expected some sort of burst of sunshine. She wanted the clouds to part and a white beam of light to descend while a choir sang the "Ode to Joy". Of course that didn't happen. Instead she felt nothing. Her disappointment and bitterness started to fade, but nothing came into focus to replace them. She was not ecstatic, and she wasn't cured. She still hated herself, but that didn't really seem to matter as much.

After a month of mornings staring at the orange bottle she refused to refill the prescription. Molly told her doctor they didn't work. He agreed and then cancelled her future appointments. Molly left the office and walked out into the rain, content with her discontent. 

Monday, April 20, 2009

Diesel Engine Blues

Gregory the engineer piloted the Number 29 back and forth across the state. After working his way up to the position of engineer he said "Is this really all I do?" The railroad instructor nodded and turned to mark something on a clipboard. Gregory silently cursed to himself and pressed the button to engage the electronic horn, wishing that it sounded like a steam-whistle. Then he leaned his head out of the window and imagined great clouds of smoke puffing joyfully out of the nonexistent smokestack. Outside nobody waved to the anonymous train as it passed their identical homes and cars, they merely grumbled at the inconvenience. Despite their complaints Gregory delivered their mail, their coal, their steel, and the thousands of other items that make up our lives; all the while looking out of the window watching invisible clouds rise across the plains. 

A Love Letter to Jenny

Dear Jenny,
You're all I think about. I know it has only been a couple of days, but when I got your last letter, well I just had to write you back. I'm so glad that you finally relented! I can't wait for you to move in with me. I'm sure it was annoying, me constantly asking you, and at first I thought it was because I've turned into a wolf, but the rest of the pack assured me that it was something else. I know I can be difficult sometimes, but I really want you to know that I'm committed to this relationship. Yeah, I know it is a big step, and that scares you, but I can accept that. I mean after all, you're still human. I'm not gonna leave you like your asshole of an ex, Mark, what a douche. 

I will admit though, you had me worried for a while there. Like last week when I started yelling at the policeman who gave you a ticket. Those idiotic leash laws have ruined more than one of our dates and I was fed up. I really didn't mean to tear his trousers. The bill came in the mail yesterday. I never knew how expensive police uniforms were. I thought you were going to yell at me for days, but when you looked into my eyes and laughed, well that was worth all the fines and ugly stares from strangers. 

My favorite part of being a wolf is how I can smell you from far away. I know it is weird, and if I were still a human I'm sure it would be creepy as hell, but I can't help it. You smell like a freshly killed rabbit, in the best possible way. Hell I think you smell better than a sickly fawn. When I see you again I'm going to roll all over you. The other guys in the pack are going to complain, and I'm sure more than a few kills will get away from me. Whatever, it's worth it, just to have you with me all the time, even if it is only your scent. 

I know we're always going to have our troubles, and I don't think your parents will ever understand. My tail still goes between my legs when  I think about the first time I met them. Oh god, the thought of your dad with that shotgun. I don't know if you saw the rage in his eyes on the dim light of the porch. The only thing that kept me together was your hand on my paw. 

It feels really good to know that you've finally gotten over your commitment issues. If we could get married I'd propose to you right now, but I don't think they accept a paw print as a legal signature on marriage licenses. I can't wait to see you again, in a couple of days the moon will start to wane and I'll be able to get away from the pack for bit. Until then I'll think of you constantly. Oh, the pack killed three deer yesterday, so I'll bring you some venison steaks. 

All my love, 

P.s. Does your dad like venison? 

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Miracles of Harrison H. Hardigan's Beard.

The beard itself began as unremarkable stubble on the pale face of a pre-pubescent Harrison Hardigan. Perhaps it was in an effort to impress the young girls at school, or perhaps it was a misguided effort to save money on razor blades, but one day on the school's lawn Harrison H. Hardigan swore in front of the flag, with his hand over the Holy Bible, that he would never ever shave his beard. He swore that no razor would cut through the hairs on his face. Among his remaining family members it is whispered that Harrison vowed the uniquely binding oath to spite his father, who was a barber by trade.

By the time Harrison had reached high school he had become an impressive athlete. He was particularly well known for his talented take-downs on the wrestling mat. Among the more religious members of the community many joked that he was Samson come to take revenge on the philistines of Franklin Pierce High. The fans who watched young Harrison in his blue singlet would often chant "Smite 'em, Smite 'em, Smite 'em hip and thigh!" and Harrison H. Hardigan would oblige, with a shrug of his shoulders and a twist of his torso he would toss his opponents to the floor and pin them there until the unfortunate youth would scream or bleed too much for the referees to allow the match to continue. In the showers after wrestling meets Harrison could be found telling stories from the lives of those he had pinned .

When Harrison arrived at college his beard had grown past his waist. It seemed that there was some mysterious connection between the beard and the strength of his limbs. Doors came off their hinges in his grasp. Desks flew across classrooms when he tried to gently move them out of his path. Tables broke in half when he sat down to eat. When he was allowed to join the wrestling team his enormous strength led the coaches to believe that the innocent young man was taking steroids. They could find no other explanation.

When he reached his sophomore year young Harrison had lost all contact with those around him. He was ostracized. No one would listen as he told the life stories of those around him. Fellow students were afraid to socialize with him. Even the kindest professors turned him away from their classrooms. Society had begun its long judgment of Harrison.

Several times during these years he attempted to shave the beard off, and when that didn't work he would attempt to turn the scissors and razors on his wrists. However his oath to the flag and the Bible held so firmly that the scissors and razors dulled against his skin.

Then came the unfortunate day when Harrison attempted to catch a young red haired woman who had fallen out of a dormitory window. Her bones shattered as he caught her in his arms. He shouted for help and was immediately arrested for assault. The woman’s parents asked the judge to lock the young man away for life. They assured the court that their daughter, still unconscious in the hospital, wanted Harrison to be put in prison. During the proceedings Harrison sat meekly in front of the judge, and would not utter a single word in his own defense.

Harrison spent ten years in prison. Upon his release Harrison struck out to find gainful employment. He worked a series of low paying jobs and was fired from each one. Once, while working at a construction site he had rushed to the aid of a fellow worker trapped beneath a pile of rubble. Harrison threw the stones and boulders aside with ease. The man’s life was saved but the stones landed on the houses and buildings in the surrounding area. The construction company was forced into bankruptcy to pay off the damages. The man Harrison saved would later complain about the loss of his job.

So Harrison began the lonely life of a vagrant. He walked around the country and begged on street corners. In every town he found the need for his strength. In Atlanta he pulled children out of burning houses. In Seattle he pulled a sinking ship safely to the shore. In Omaha he saved workers from a stampede at the stockyards. He stopped runaway trains, and cleared wreckage. He once held a collapsing building up for three days as the residents calmly moved their possessions out on to the street. Instead of gratitude Harrison was met with anger and hate. More often than not he was blamed for the catastrophes he had saved people from, and the townspeople would run him out of town in a great mob. At the back of every mob was a red haired woman.

One day, while Harrison was silently begging for change on a street corner, a man in a suit approached Harrison. He was an advertising agent and was putting together a promotion for a razor company. The idea of the campaign was to film homeless men shaving their beards. The commercials showed before and after shots of the men, who were given suits to wear in the second photo. The man in the suit contracted Harrison for the promotion, despite Harrison’s silent warnings and promises that the beard would not submit to any mortal blade.

When the time for filming came the production crew found that all of Harrison’s predictions came true. They tried every razor the company produced. None of the razors could cut through mystical beard. The advertiser called the company, who quickly sent a man in a lab coat to examine Harrison’s facial hair. When the scientist could find no way to cut the beard he contacted his supervisor. After a brief conversation the man in the white coat asked Harrison to come back with him to the company’s headquarters.

For the next several decades the razor company employed Harrison as a consultant. His job consisted of sitting in a chair while men in white laboratory coats attempted to cut his beard. Several options were tried, pneumatic scissors, diamond blades, focused plasma beams, and microscopically sharpened edges. Nothing worked on the supernatural hairs. Despite the all of their failures the company advanced man's understanding of shaving technology by leaps and bounds. NASA sent inquiries into the project and soon the company had a government grant to cut Harrison's beard.

Over the years Harrison began to lose hope. He stopped talking to the technicians. He reached such a state of depression that he would not leave the laboratory and spent the long hours of the night sitting quietly in the chair where they attempted to cut his beard. Harrison grew so despondent that he blinded himself, not in the usual manner of fire or gouging. Harrison simply stopped using his eyes. He closed them and refused to open them. For years he lived in a darkened world of whispers and questions. Until one day a red haired woman appeared next to his chair in the laboratory. She calmly sat down next to him and began stroking his beard. Feeling a gentle pull on his chin Harrison opened his eyes.

When his vision cleared he was gripped with a sudden terror of words he began to speak without end. Narrating the events of his life he told her of the flag and the bible and the girl on the ground. He told her about the man trapped beneath the rubble and the long years on the road. He became lost in an endless stream of words until he was no longer narrating his life, but the events of every person’s life he had ever met. He told her childhood stories of the lab technicians. The histories of all of the towns and people he had saved poured from his mouth. In great detail he described the lives of people he had never met.

One evening, after talking for five years Harrison paused in the middle of a sentence. He closed his eyes, and fell out of his chair. Harrison didn’t notice when the red haired woman kneeled next to him. He didn’t protest when she pulled an old straight-edged razor from her pocket, and he didn’t raise a hand when she calmly began to cut away at his beard. Written on the strands of hair that the woman cut were the stories and histories Harrison had spoken.

In the morning a janitor found Harrison’s, clean shaven, smiling corpse. Nobody could identify the body without the beard. An article appeared in the newspapers declaring that an old man had broken into the building and died of unknown, but assuredly natural causes on the laboratory floor. The body was cremated and put into a cardboard box in the county health department’s storage area. Months later, no one noticed when the box mysteriously disappeared. In towns all across the country nobody noticed as a red haired woman was seen scattering ashes.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Golden Seas

Those who knew him before the sailing accident would often remark at what a waste it was. A man of only twenty-five years, and handsome at that, struck down in his prime. Well yes, Jeffery was at one time a rather handsome and robust youth. That was all before the sailing accident. Back then he was smart as a whip, he could calculate the ships position accurately in his head. He was never wrong. There were several times when the captain of the ship, who faithfully held onto his charts and tide tables like one holds onto the bible with a dying breath, doubted the miracle of Jeffery Mare. 

Young Jeffery was the finest sailor the sea ever knew. Some say he was found on a beach, in a basket wrapped in a ships sail. Their fellows would whisper of a dark past full of murdered lovers, betrayal, deceit and threats of capital punishment. The rarest version of Jeffery's history, and perhaps the one closest to the truth, was as boring as every man's story. In this tale he simply set out to see what lay beyond the horizon. The poorest of sailors, those who clung to their religions the fiercest, called him Jeffery Moses. They said he could, if he so wished, divide the seas with but a wave of his hand. He was modest, truthful, faithful, loyal, respectful, in short he was all of those things most people try to be, but actually aren't. Jeffery never faltered at the helm of his doubting captain's ship. When the storms blew and the gales came he would stay rooted to the ship's wheel. 

At sunset, no matter the season, no matter the sea, Jeffery would be found on the bow of the ship, looking into the west at the golden waters below the sun. If one approached Jeffery at such a time they would find an unresponsive statue of a man. When the sun would finally succumb to the waves Jeffery would let out a sigh of longing and regret, and then turn and address the mundane queries of those around him. Once Jeffery was out of earshot the sailors would huddle together and ask each other what they thought Jeffery was looking for.

His evening contemplations soon became a regular service of sorts, sailors would gather around Jeffery and sing hymns, and wait expectantly for Jeffery to give them some sort of sermon. Jeffery never did, but that did not stop the sailors gathering. There was even a time when the sailors would discuss what message they could divine from Jeffery's silence. Some claimed that each day brought with it a different sort of silence. Others said that the length of his silence was linked to the length of passages in the bible, and each day they would read aloud passages, trying to find the one that fit with Jeffery's silence. These men soon gave up though. Only the hymns became a lasting feature, and in the end those did little to hold back the fires.  

When the accident happened, well many sailors say some sunlight left the glittering seas. They say the sea wept, and still weeps. Several ballads and tear stained sonnets were written for "Bonny Jeff". Of course none of the poems ever got the story right. Most of them said that Jeffery Mare died in the calamity at sea. There are long passages written about the moment when the boilers exploded, and ninety-three men would've been lost if it weren't for "Bonny Jeff's" quick wits and strong hand. Several stories have been sent in to sailing publications falsely describing the innovative methods Jeffery used to rescue those men. Even more common is the type of long sad ballad that ends with Jeffery's supposed last words, "Tell the captain the ship is still on course". 

What very few people know, and even less admit to themselves, is that after a long night of drinking his secretly smuggled rum Jeffery overloaded boiler number three. The captain of the destroyed ship still swears there was no cause. But there must have been some, surely no man would change so swiftly from a gentle and popular soul to the possessed beast that destroyed the graceful Swanknight. In his unknowable rage Jeffery grabbed everything he could find, every crate, anything that would burn, he threw into the boiler. He locked the crew in their bunkrooms and burned everything he could lift. The cargo hold was soon emptied by Jeffery's quick and sturdy hands. The captains books of charts and tables of tides were burned along with the drawers from his desk and the goose down comforter from his bed. The ship's clock was thrown into the furnace along with several Gideon's Bibles. The things he couldn't lift he broke apart and threw piece by piece into the fiery mouth of the glowing-red metal furnace.   

When the great iron belly of the boiler finally gave way to the pressure, Jeffery was standing next to it. By some miracle, or curse, of the sea he survived. His face was immediately scarred and his left arm was torn off at the shoulder. He lost his legs below the knees to the infections that came with his untreated  wounds. He spent several days at sea floating in the wreckage from the ship, and when another boat pulled him from the water he asked to be thrown back overboard.  

If you can find him now, and you ask him his story, he will smile and gladly tell you. He will relate all of the events in the finest detail, he will describe the smells of the objects in the furnace, the sound of the cargo crackling in the boiler, and the yells of the his fellow sailors from the bunks. Jeffery Mare will tell you all of these things, he will even show you his scars. With a practiced hand he will point to his face where the metal and steam tore away his handsome features, and then he will lift his shirt and point to where a pipe pierced him clean through. All in all you will hear a tale of the greatest injuries a man has ever endured. The only thing Jeffery Mare will reserve for himself is his reasons for destroying the ship. If you ask him his motive: he will fall silent, then laugh and quickly turn his head to the west. What he sees with his steam-blinded eyes is beyond any sailor's guess. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sooner or Later We're All Higher or Lower

Of course you know the story of the great flying ace, Hans-Joachim Marseilles' death? The man who shot down seventeen allied aircraft over North Africa, you do know how he died, yes? He died falling out of his aircraft, he wasn't even flying over enemy lines. Apparently his last words over the radio were "I've got to get out now, I can't stand it any longer", then he turned his plane over, opened the canopy and jumped.

What you won't read in any text book or radio transcript is why this decorated Nazi pilot decided to leave his perfectly fine aircraft. His aircraft was marvelously decorated, the whole nose of the plane was covered in the small icons pilots once used to denote kills. There were bands of french flags, artistically arranged in a spiraling pattern branching out from the nose. In between the these were streaks of Union Jacks and Old Glories. What would drive a man to abandon his seat in the sky? Oh sure his squadron says that his aeroplane was on fire, and that he was referring to the smoke. Well, really, they're just lying nazi bastards.

The truth is that the pilot known as Hans-Joachim had just had eaten some bad shellfish earlier that day, striped muscles I believe. Anyway, the poor blighter suffered a case of Diarrheal Shellfish Poisoning, the symptoms include as you might expect, a large amount of diarrhea, over which you have less control than normal diarrhea. When the search party found the "Star of Africa's" body, the smell was too much for most of the men. What you might not realize is that these men regularly picked up putrid, desert-cooked, corpses. When a man who picks up rotten bodies for a living can't stand the smell, well, then you know it's bad.

Now, here comes the real shocker. Hans-Joachim Marseille did not die in the air over the desert that day. The thing you won't believe, the thing nobody believes, is that he switched places with a now anonymous corpse just before take off. Of course he took all the precautions and taught the dead man everything he knew about flying an aircraft, which let's be honest is quite a bit. The corpse certainly did not object to the switch. In fact, once in the cockpit, the dead man seemed as if he was trying to smile through the rigor mortis that held his face in a painful grimace. Can you blame him? Who wouldn't want to trade the dark certainty of the grave for the bright blazing uncertainty of the sky?

The night before the mission Hans, as usual was seen in the bohemian cafe that sprang up in Sidi Abdel Rahman. After downing quantities of liquor worth several hundreds of Deutschmarks, the flying ace stood upon his table and gave a speech about compassion for our fellow humans. His peers all toasted and cheered. They congratulated themselves on the excellent capacity they, as the aryan race, had for tolerance and compassion. On the way back to their lodgings that evening a group of combat pilots raped a young woman, all the while they thought about how truly compassionate they were for their fellow man.

So it came to pass that Hans-Joachim placed a corpse of a young german soldier in his cockpit. It had taken very little effort to find a suitable sample in the shallow graves of the northern Sahara, and the young dead soldier took very little convincing to walk back to the German base with Herr Marseille. After treating the man to an unusual breakfast at the only place in Sidi Abdel Rahman that served shellfish, Hans-Joachim took the corpse to the airfield. There he spent a few short hours guiding the dead hands of the anonymous corpse through the pre-flight checklist. After quickly explaining some theories about combat and marksmanship, the young flying ace closed the cockpit, wrapped his scarf around his head, and quietly made his way out of the German base. The dead man took off beautifully and joined Herr Marseille's squadron with supernatural ease. Their formation held tightly until the shellfish poisoning, or the fire, whichever version you prefer, forced the corpse to exit the aircraft and return dramatically to a shallow grave on the desert floor.

Meanwhile, Herr Marseille had arranged for passage to Morocco, and then perhaps to Paris. To be authentic the decorated officer had decided to make the journey by camel and in full beduin garb, turban and all. He imagined that he could pass the long hours in the dessert observing the sublime vastness of the landscape, and somehow come to a fuller understanding of his existence. After four days his guides turned their guns on the pilot. They took his bags, his forged documents, and his food. The bandits left him with only a half a canteen of water and the clothes on his back. The young man eager for a bohemian existence allowed all of this to happen with a pleasant smile on his face. It would only be seven hours before that smile faded into an unending stream of curses and oaths, only interrupted by desperate pants for breath.

If things had gone the way they were going Hans-Joachim would have made it to a small dessert oasis, and then perhaps on to Morocco, and then given some small luck on to Paris. However, fate has a way of landing squarely on our shoulders, and no matter which way we turn, what vast nameless dessert we choose to wander in, it will find us.

Hans-Joachim's last moments were spent trudging up the face of a great dune. He noticed that a shadow had begun to grow over his position. Then as he stood looking upward for the source a familiar sound reached his ears. If he could have seen the fuselage before it crushed him, perhaps that same smile and eagerness for a sublime understanding of the mad world around us would have returned to Herr Marseille. For the fuselage of the ruined flying machine was decorated with a spiral of French flags, in between the spiral arms were patterns of British and American flags, all delicately painted and artfully arranged.

Friday, April 10, 2009

C'Est Pas Grave

When it happened, I can assure you madam, I didn't know what to do. The moment I sneezed the first snail I clapped my hands three times. I couldn't ever tell you why, it is one of those things you do by reflex. When the doctor strikes your knee with that little rubber mallet you kick. The same rule applies to sneezing snails, when you do it, your hands vigorously force themselves together three times. After I sneezed and clapped you might have wondered why I immediately started singing the chorus to an old calypso, "c'est pas grave, c'est pas grave, c'est la guerre!", in french. I would like to give you an answer, I haven't been able to develop one properly though. I think the singing and the snails and the clapping are all connected somehow though.  

The other waiters at the restaurant won't even look me in the eye anymore. The maitre 'd has threatened to fire me because of the incident with your soup. In fact that's why I'm writing you this letter. I figured maybe if I could explain to you why the snail was in my nose, and then your soup bowl, well maybe you could ask the maitre 'd to not fire me. 

It all started a couple of weeks ago, when the new shipment of meat came in. As you know madam our restaurant is renowned for its premium steak selections, as well as our fine French cuisine. The meat that came in that shipment was of a particularly magnificent variety, it is a shame that you did not order a filet or sirloin. In the months I've spent working at the restaurant I've become friends with our butcher, a most superstitious man named Giorgio Fellini. Giorgio, despite what you'd expect is not italian. He was however adopted by italians. In fact Giorgio is haitian by birth. I'm almost certain that Giorgio absorbed some french while he was in the womb. Giorgio is a consummate butcher, classically trained. He is particularly well known for his abilities with pate, foie gras, and sausages. While he is busily working in his butchery he hums old french calypsos under his breath. In the corner of the butchery is a small statue of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary with a candle at its feet.  

The calypsos are important because that is how I met the old woman. I met the old woman just after smoking a cigarette by the dumpsters with Giorgio. Even though I had a cold, I had spent my lunch break with Giorgio. In that brief time he had endeavored to teach me his favorite calypso. I don't remember the name of the calypso, but it had a chorus in french. "c'est pas grave, c'est pas grave, c'est la guerre!" Giorgio had impressed upon me the proper pronunciation and pacing of these words, and I had to admit the phrases soon became caught in my mind as I attempted to emulate the grand exotic manner with which he pronounced the delicate lyrics. As I was singing, behind the dumpsters, an old woman came up to me. With a look of terror on her face she walked up to me, grabbed my cigarette, threw it to the ground and stamped it out. Holding her finger to her lips she grabbed my wrist. Somehow, with unnerving ease, she turned my hand over and opened up my palm. Then she reached into the pocket of her raggedy blue winter coat and pulled out a small blue snail shell. In french she said, "Au moment même vous venez comprendre la vie, vous cesserez d'exister comme avant." What that means I'm not sure, I don't speak french. The old lady then clapped her hands three times and walked around the other side of the dumpster, when I looked around the corner there was no sign of her.

I threw the snail into the dumpster, and went back to work. Later when I reached into my pocket for my pen I found the snail shell, and immediately the lyrics to Giorgio's calypso came into my mind. For several days I would empty my pockets of the snail shell, only to find it and the mysterious lyrics had returned to me. 
The situation reached its climax when I sneezed the snail into your soup bowl. 

It has been several days since the incident, and in the meantime I have sneezed thousands of snails. I suppose it is only natural that I cannot turn my thoughts away from the old lady and the snails. All of my friends and family have become worried about me, not so much about the sneezing or the singing, but mostly for the lack of concern I seem to have. No matter how hard I try I can't seem to attach any meaning to any of this. So, the thought occurs to me that none of this matters. The dumpster doesn't matter. The maitre 'd firing me doesn't really matter. I mean, it would be nice to eat for a while longer while I figure out how to stop sneezing snails. The more I think about it though, the less I care, in fact I've even come to enjoy the snails, and the singing, and the clapping. "c'est pas grave, c'est pas grave, c'est la guerre!"

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What The Coyote Said

$250. The Coyote wanted six hundred. Six months of scrimping and saving, and this was all he had to show for it. He’d eaten ramen every day, he bought day old bread, dented cans, and he walked to work. He’d asked for a raise, or some sort of change. However, the restaurant was strapped for cash, or at least that’s what his manager told him. Six months of hard work and Miguel was only $250 in the black.

He’d already paid rent, he’d already bought enough bland and outdated food to last him another two months. It was the Coyote that was his problem. He had said that there were unforeseen expenses relating to the transportation of his Maria. Last Tuesday, on his way home from the gas station where he bought his cigarettes, Miguel had called the Coyote from the usual pay phone. As Miguel tucked his change and an ill-fated state lottery ticket (it had come free with the purchase of two packs of cigarettes) into his wallet, he listened to the sound of traffic and the ringing on the other end of the line. In Miguel’s weary state the sounds merged into one soothing melody.

When an unpleasant voice suddenly spoke into his ear, Miguel was startled out of his momentary stupor. The Coyote began the conversation with his usual sinister politeness. Miguel listened as the faceless man told him of the many dangers the desert held for unwary travelers. He listed off the usual threats: vultures, cacti, snakes, scorpions, and -of course- Coyotes. Miguel knew what he meant.

After the conversation Miguel asked his manager for the raise again. He’d done dishes, he’d sliced so much celery it made him physically sick to smell it anymore. He had mopped, he had swept, and he had taken all of the garbage out. The young immigrant had performed every single mind-numbing task the manager could think of, and still there would be no raise.

 The neighborhood kids who worked in the kitchens in the afternoons and on weekends, tried to make small talk. Miguel replied in kind, made jokes, his English was decipherable, just not pleasant. Despite their mutual attempts it was beyond the abilities of either to connect with the other; they could not know his existence.

Every morning at four Miguel unlocked the restaurants back door. For the last six months he had been tasked with baking the restaurants bread. This morning was no different from the last six months. The monotony of the morning seemed to stretch into the future, giving Miguel visions of himself as a withered old man opening the restaurants doors hours before the sun rose, and locking them hours after it had set. Immediately upon entering he turned on the ovens. They took an hour to heat up, a hurried tortuous hour. While the ovens transformed the backroom from a cramped ugly workstation to a hellish one, Miguel had to unload the day’s shipment of fresh produce.

The days labor was long and monotonous. Celery was sliced. Soup stock was boiled. Bread was baked. Long lines of glistening produce passed under Miguel’s knife. With each slice of the knife another hungry, bloated, mouth was fed. At ten o’clock that evening the manager finally let Miguel clock out. After a short conversation about the impossibility of a raise Miguel began the trek home.

Halfway to his apartment Miguel stopped at the pay phone he used to contact the Coyote. He was going to ask for more time. But the words stopped in his throat when the Coyote greeted him on the other end of the line. The Coyote talked for several minutes, and then with a chuckle he bid Miguel farewell.

When the line clicked off, Miguel went numb. He went to the liquor store and overdrew his bank account several times. Then back to his apartment. His mind glazed over, and hours later, he realized that he had turned on the television and opened a now flat beer. Between Wheel of Fortune and the nightly news the lottery numbers were announced. Remembering the little scrap of paper in his wallet, Miguel checked the numbers, and began to sob.

It never happened. It couldn’t have happened. Even if it had happened it was too late. Miguel wandered the streets for a few days, with the ticket clutched in his hand. It didn’t matter how much money this insulting scrap of paper was worth. He had bought it because of the promotion; really he had wanted the pack of cigarettes that came with its purchase. He almost threw it away, but instead, he tucked it into his thin, worn down wallet, then the only piece of paper the faded leather held.

She was dead, and he was rich in America; the wrong half of the dream came true, and it was now a nightmare. He wandered the streets for days, clutching that filthy insignificant scrap of paper. Somewhere in a dessert far away a coyote howled at the moon as it ran across the sands. 

I Don't Care If It Rains Or Freezes

Brian was sitting in his car. The keys were in the ignition, but he hadn't turned his wrist to start the car. The problem was with his Plastic Jesus. Normally the cheerful figurine of the savior sat directly above the steering wheel. This morning it seemed Jesus had decided to venture over to the dashboard in front of the passenger seat.

Nothing else in the car was disturbed. The usual garbage in the wheel wells was in it's place. The fast food wrappers and cups all held their positions, like staunch soldiers in trench warfare. Only Jesus had taken it upon himself to move, to go over the trench into No-Man's Land.

The morning sun was warming the automobile. Soon Brian's armpits became damp with sweat. He was still staring over at that Plastic Jesus, who stood on his abalone shell. Finally, with a shrug, Brian turned his wrist and started the car.

His work was only ten miles away, but the drive took an hour. The cause was, of course, the esoteric manner in which the city had laid out the highways and surrounding streets. They had built an overpass directly above Brian's house. It really was a marvel of engineering. The tall elegant pillars that supported the road almost always glistened in the morning and evening sun. When the city builds an overpass directly over your house they never make it easy to get on the highway. They should install convenient on and off-ramps nearby, but they never do. The excuse the city council gave was simple, direct, and utilitarian. They didn't want to move anymore houses than was necessary.

As compensation for the overpass above his roof the city gave Brian ten thousand dollars. That was enough to take a couple of years off mortgage payments, but not enough to move. His house was now the least desirable dwelling in the county. All of his neighbors left. The neighborhood became a dark silent place.

The solitude was why Brian had purchased the Plastic Jesus, to keep him company on the long drive to work. When you pressed the button at Jesus' feet a recording spouted out various parables from the New Testament. After six months of constant pressing Jesus' voice had become demonic. Brian no longer pressed the button.

The drive to work took twice as long as usual, and instead of parking, Brian drove around the block. He only made sharp right turns, hoping that the force of the turn would move Jesus back over to his side of the dashboard. After an hour of turning right Jesus was still anchored to the passenger side. Brian stared across the sea of fast food wrappers and plastic bags. Finally he gave up.

When the police arrived at city hall they cordoned off the block. When news crews started arriving the police erected barricades. It took several hours for the hostage negotiations to come to an end, even though everything moved along at an eerily ordered pace. The council members were the most unusual hostages. Instead of crying and begging for their lives they laid out the reasons for their decisions. Everything came down to sound, logical, reasoning. There was no malice, only the cold apathy of Utilitarian zoning policies. There were no casualties, but Brian was still charged with several felonies. The sentencing was quick. The public defender had several other, more desperate, cases.

In an unfortunate turn of events, the Judge was very understanding of Brian's circumstances. Instead of time in prison Brian was sentenced with several thousands of hours of community service. He was allowed to return home, where everyday a van would pick him up, and make the long commute to the highway.

As he walked up and down the highway, carrying his pointed stick, Brian found thousands of Plastic Jesus figurines. The ditches along the highway were full of them. They were in their wrappers, fresh and new. A smile lit Brian's face as he gathered the figurines into the pockets of his orange jumpsuit. Suddenly the bridge, the dashboard, the wrappers, even the loneliness all made sense. Next to the ditches filled with Plastic Jesus figurines the city council's decisions and stoicism made perfect harmonious sense. In the light of his unknown discovery life became bearable, and the universe unfolded before him. He filled his allotted trash bags and returned to the van for more.

Years later the city decided to demolish the overpass. The city had shifted to the south, and a different more direct route was needed. The most striking aspect of the bridge was that its pillars still sparkled in the morning and evening sun. Truly it was a miracle that the decades of car exhaust hadn't dulled the shimmer of the white concrete. When the zoning inspectors came to vacate the old dilapidated house below the bridge they found the door unlocked. They found the house in perfect order, save the incredible layers of dust that covered every inch of the residence. In the center of the house they found the mummified remains of a man. The body was lying on the floor, arms outstretched. Surrounding the naked corpse were thousands of grimy Plastic Jesus figurines.

The Ballast of Professor Barnum's Balloon.

In Professor Barnum's balloon it is hard to hear anything other than the sound of the wind, seagulls, and of course that damned slide-guitar he carries everywhere with him. Last week I almost threw it over the side of the basket. But when the old coot pointed out that the guitar provided some of our precious ballast, well I had to acquiesce. The irritating thing is he never stopped playing the guitar. He kept finishing his arguments with a chorded strum of the slide guitar's strings. Even right now he's still playing that damn thing.
We haven't gone hungry yet. Thanks in large part to the seagulls. The butterfly net I brought has seen to that. We hang seagull guts over the side of the basket. Even though the smell is atrocious, the seagulls can't get enough of it. When we get down from here I am never, ever going to eat seagull again, unless of course I've got some of that spicy chinese mustard. My only concern is the similarity between Barnum's incessant slide guitar antics and those of an experienced Guqin player. Of course you and I know the difference between the elegant Chinese instrument and Barnum's backwater bastard of a banjo. 
Yesterday it rained, which was actually the best possible thing that could have happened. Well, rain or a sighting of land, a place to set the balloon down would have been nice. The Professor and I reckon we've got enough water to last us another four days, and if we keep steering into thunderheads I don't think we'll have a problem making it to the mainland. The Professor must be tired, I didn't see him lift his head once yesterday. Yet, the whole day he played that damn slide guitar. 
I'm only writing this note in case we do crash on the mainland. I'm tired of eating seagull, and I can't stand the sound of the slide guitar. If I threw everything over the side of the basket then I wouldn't have to listen to anyone blather on about the relation of balloons and twelfth century scottish folk dances, the relationship is negligible, tenuous at best. I think the Professor might suspect my plan though. If he wasn't dead I'm sure he would say something. Who knew someone could be allergic to seagull down? I might've angered him when I made fun of his hives, but it has been over a month, and he hasn't said a word. All he's done is driven me mad with that infernal slide guitar.  

Tin and Timely Logging Accidents

When I had asked you, "Is that it then?" Well your silence broke me. I couldn't tell you what part. It might've been the liver, but the pain didn't stop at my torso. My nerves might have shattered, of course I mean what's left of them might've shattered. Somewhere a steam gauge whistled as it released a pressure valve. When you slammed the door I crashed to the floor for a minute. 
Anyway I went out back and chopped off my left hand. It hurt that much. I threw the hand at the house. It hit the window with a bloody thwop. The doctors built me a new hand a week later to match the other one. Now I've got two new hands, and neither of them remember how your hair felt running through their fingers. 
When you left for your mother's again, well I lost control of my ax. Either way the doctors said I was better off with this new leg. I can barely tell the difference anymore. I think I run faster now. The trees seem to fall quicker too. What matters most to me is the fact that this leg will never remember the way you would run your foot up and down its calf as we lay in bed whispering our love to each other. 
It wasn't until those suspicious lumberjacks approached me and handed me those blue papers that I figured out was going on. Of course they startled me, just as I was making the final cuts in a large Douglas Fir. Well the ax hit me right in the sternum, and well, you know how strong I am. For a while I was glad to be dying, but then the doctors gave me my new organs. I got new kidneys, a new spleen, of course a whole new digestive tract. Best of all they made it so I didn't need a heart. 
So I guess you understand now why I didn't cry in court. Why I didn't cry when you took the kids away from me. I hope you even understand why I didn't cry when you went into great detail about your love for your new husband. That was really unnecessary, I sometimes think that the judge should have stopped you. I just wrote this so you would understand that I didn't cry because I couldn't. Otherwise I'd rust up.