Thursday, December 29, 2011

Big Three-Headed River

A single dusty lamp lights a long hallway in an old woman's mansion.
She sits in the living room by the firelight in the evening, knitting a sweater for someone with knobby fingers, but the neck doesn't look quite right. You wonder if it's poor lighting or maybe your eyesight or your mind, but you look closer and no, your mind has not slipped and it’s not the light or your eyes; the sweater has three holes for three heads. You want to put your hand on her delicate shoulder and reassure her, but you fear that whatever it is that she contracted is highly contagious and you pull your hand back and put it in your pocket. “Nice fire.”
Jack walked out of the living room and shook his head. He took off his bifocals and held them up to the lamp. "I swear I saw the fellow who wears that sweater in a temple in India. Had a cup of rice in front of him." He rolled up his sleeves. "Poor fella didn't touch it. Didn't move a muscle. People had to carry him around on poles."
I always liked listening to Jack. He was like an old leather suitcase with decals from faraway lands, a walking travel brochure, and he had an easy way of conversation. You could ignore him for a while as he exhumed tales of colonnades and big game and tribes and fever and then jump into the conversation for a while and then ignore him again as he described man-eating reptiles and jungle kings and he never seemed to notice or care. "I thought the sweater would have six arms."
"That's probably right. Maybe I saw the guy at the state fair. Or up front in a cathedral. That’s right." He held his glasses at arm’s length and swiped a lens with his right thumb. "It must be this. All I see is dust."
The flooring creaked beneath my feet. "Which state fair?"
"I can’t recall." He blew on his glasses. "Oops. That dust was the original owner of the house and there, away he goes, off into the air, maybe all the way to heaven. I must show proper respect." The old woman started to cough.
“I think the original owner is everywhere.”
He did a slight bow before his glasses. “That’s what you call omnipresence, my boy.” He looked at the firelight down the hall, "I'll go stoke the fire," and walked into the living room.
As he walked away, I thought about the forgotten state and wondered why it would be such a likely place for three-headed people. Jack always had the appearance of being hot on the trail of something, even if he wasn’t; sort of like a toothless old Labrador retriever barking up a tree full of abandoned squirrel nests. But if there were more triune people in that state why would they be considered such an oddity as to display to gawking mobs at the fair? Maybe there were fewer three-headed people there than the average; they were a vanishing species, a real rarity. I read about a gated community once where everyone had recessive genes dangling from their mortal shell in fantastic ways. So I wondered which states were surrounded by gates. I knew some city-states had moats. Out here they used levees. But they didn’t stop anything; just as soon as we built them, the river cut across a gooseneck upstream and changed course and ambled about the land behind the levee, filling up Main Street so many times we renamed the town Venice. I felt the urge to move wherever that state was and find out for myself. Maybe I would get a job as a freakish one-headed man housed behind glass in the front of a cathedral, chained next to the marble man with three heads and six arms, fed balls sweet rice on banana leaves by pilgrims bearing candles. This is when I began to wonder if there was such thing as a phantom head.
The noise of Jack rattling the fireplace utensils interrupted my deep thoughts. This was Jack's first time in this house in twenty years, since he was in college studying liquor. The old woman muttered something about the fireplace and Jack replied loudly, "Destroyer. The destroyer." He must have been talking about his days with the Merchant Marines off the Atlantic coast. I could see the fire reflecting off of the walls of the living room, bright enough to signal planes flying overhead. "Hey!” I shouted. "Save some light for tomorrow." A few hours later he fell asleep on the sofa in front of the fire, which had retired as well, reduced to a few shy embers, winking like red stars on a summer night.
The following morning crept into the sky slowly, no sudden, bright, sunny fanfare as one would hope, more gradual, like the way color fades from a fish washed up on a beach. Jack was standing in the back yard. "Where is the light? Is it cloudy here all the time? You forget to pay the electric bill?"
I shrugged. My shoulders felt heavy, both of them.
Rubbing his hands together, he surveyed the skies. "Man, it looks like a burial shroud, clouds from horizon to horizon. Nothing can see out and nothing can see in." He looked down at his feet, old deck shoes decorated with grass clippings, like parsley flakes on two cod filets. "As much as I want to see what might be up there, I can't imagine anyone wanting to see what was going on down here."
I thought about the old woman knitting. "Like the door to her basement."
"Yeah. We just think that there’s something valuable in there."
“I don’t want to know.” The old woman had lived in that house all her life, the daughter of the first owner, Mr. Shaunheunessey, who ran a lumber mill down by the river. She never married. I could see her sitting at her window knitting ever since I could remember. Sweaters and more sweaters and socks, hats, mittens, and scarves, I suppose. She must have made thousands of them over the decades, but nobody knew what she did with them. There were as many rumors as there were mouths. She gave them to charity, she sent them to orphanages, she clothed the monks at the monastery on the hill. She had relatives back in Europe. Maybe they were peasants and would have nothing but stiff, black rags to wrap around their feet and hands were it not for the package of woolens they received every fall. That wasn’t a house, it was a textile mill. The windows reflected the grey skies like cataracts.
The smoke rising from the chimney caught Jack’s attention. "Maybe the clouds are coming from us."
Something splashed in the river down below and we both turned. Nothing.
He put his hands in his pockets. "Or someone just closed the lid on us. How would I know?" We plodded across the front lawn toward the river.
He stopped. His face tightened. His open hand swept from right to left. "There!"
I followed the sweep of his hand and my eyes drifted to the river. Bleach bottles collected in an eddy. I started thinking about bleach bottles and I wondered what would happen if they were given enough time and given ideal conditions - an ammonia atmosphere with electrical discharges and some giant, strong, benevolent, philanthropic scientist hovering over the whole affair making sure that random events wouldn’t interfere with the rigorously controlled experiment and send it spinning out of control, destroying the atmosphere and engulfing the scientist in a superheated ball of ionized ammonia gas - I wondered if they would replicate. Bleach bottles laying eggs in the muck at the bottom of the river, laced with heavy metals. Prime habitat. The bleach bottle eggs would feed on the heavy metals and grow into nymph stage, then emerge from the primordial soap and shed their brittle, UV-degraded casing and float downstream. Adulthood is reached in two to three months and the males accumulate on the banks of the river in the stiff, phosphate foam, displaying for the females, expanding and contracting their cylindrical bodies, emitting hypochlorites, drawing the timid females out from the overhanging brush and tires and rusting cables and washing machines and -
Jack broke in. "Over here. The Lilliputian Forest, the industrial lawn, the engineered turf, managed for sustained yields, millions of dollhouse board feet, harvested every week by pale, flabby suburban farmers on toy tractors, a cheery, iridescent-green, like the felt on a pool table, an Irish festival, thatched with battle-hardened European and Asian strains, bathed in surplus chemicals produced in the last Great War." He pointed at the lawn.
Now I was looking at the lawn.
"This chemistry of war has a long history - in fact, you can quote me, it was conceived exactly twelve minutes after the discovery of fire, just enough time to finish the roast leg of auroch."
I squinted and for a second I thought I saw many small aurochs munching in the grass. "There!"
I don’t think he heard me, he was on the scent of something. "I suppose two men discovered fire but each one wanted the discovery for himself. Here, my friend, was the birth of the marketplace: First, a new and exciting product - Fire! But then, who would be the producer and who would be the consumer? Thus, the need for another product, one which determined market positions. And the market does not disappoint! The second new and exciting product - The Fire-throwing Device! After working out the glitches with a few trial runs, the market moves again! Now we have but one producer, and the consumer, well, he -he was, shall we say, consumed...but! The producer would have many, many children. And the marketplace grew and grew and lived on and on." Jack smiled broadly.
"Hey, Jack,” I asked, “Did you ever invent something?" We were at the river's edge.
Jack shook his head. "Nope. But I worked in a patent office in England once." He picked up a head-sized piece of concrete and heaved it into the river, sending up a fountain of greenish-grey.
"Maybe we can - "
"I think, if there was a patent office back when fire was introduced into the market, the proliferation of fire would have been prevented." Two fish surfaced near the splash, dark grey backbones rolling along like knobby tires. "I mean, I know that there was a day not too long ago when enemy assaults on castles and walled cities were repelled by dumping boiling oil from positions above the gates. Then naval battles were won by the feared Greek Fire; fountains of burning pine resin and sulfur vomiting from the mouths of brass lions on the prow of the ship. Terrifying. But consumer demands were strong, so naturally the markets produced new and improved terror: Jellied gasoline raining down from clear, blue skies, the Devil’s Thunderstorm, liquid fire that consumed palm-leaf villages and paper houses and their sleepy inhabitants. It's a growth market, this destruction business."
I looked out across the water, sudsy, like pureed avocado. "They always come up with something." I thought about a one-headed job opening in Indiana and traveling the byways in a circus caravan jammed with one-headed freaks, the eighth wonder of the world, arms dangling out the air holes, and then I thought about fishing from a boat that burns the surface of the water away leaving the fish on the hot lakebed roasted and ready to eat. We would have to use olive oil for the fuel, pressurize it and spray it across the glassy surface, light it with a torch, maybe before we spray it we mix it with some capers and salt and pepper, then heat it to about 450 degrees and sprinkle with crushed flat leaf parsley, and bake the lake for about 30 minutes until the skin is golden brown, but you could lay them on a banana leaf in which case you rub the fish in a mixture of lime juice and salt and then serve on a bed of rice and coconut milk. This is naval war on the low seas and it has no Geneva Convention rules, as far as I know, but it does require a license and the ability to keep a secret under torture because once your friends smell those fish they will twist you like a dishrag and bend you so hard you enter four dimensions in three pieces until you confess the name of the lake that you were burning away. I was getting hungry and I swallowed at the sight of the salad of lawn clippings, the loaves of firewood in the woodshed by the old woman’s gingerbread house, all the while rubbing the hams of my hand, prodding the sugar sand, my hands shaking at the sight of the beer-colored foam. I wondered if they had food detoxification centers; I was ready for a relapse.
"Here?" Jack laughed. "Are you kidding? Not 'till we burn everything in sight."
I frowned. "You did that last night."
“No, not there." As he scanned the skies, the deck shoes sank into the green mud. "If you could see far away, up there beyond the scattered, brilliant, blue light that lettered men tell me lies above the endless clouds in this dreary, stratus opacus gloomscape you call home, they say that large stars will burn through sequences of fuel, starting with hydrogen, then, in succession, helium, carbon, neon, and oxygen." Two fish surfaced again. Or was it three. "In the last, they will burn silicon."
"And?" I watched the low clouds slink across the treetops like a grey cat.
"Silicon is last," he continued. "It takes about a day and it is gone. Once that is burned up, nothing can be fused, and within a second” – snapping his finger - “the star collapses. Just like that. Sometimes it explodes - a supernova." He scanned the skies again. "Out there. It's pretty, bright, and short-lived."
Like a fight, I thought, when the fist hits your temple and the whole world turns bright white.
"There is where is next."
"You say where? There?" I pointed at the grass.
"Right. At our feet are tiny palm-leaf villages with paper thin homes and sleeping inhabitants, the sly nematodes, brave arachnids, honorable springtails, dutiful dung beetles, cheery sowbugs, and millipedes, centipedes, slugs, and snails - regiments of hardy exoskeletal creatures which, were we reduced to their scale, would exterminate the whole race of us – revenge killings - each and every soft, pliable man, woman and child, using our gelatinous remains to grow bales of fungi that they would feed to their fertile queens."
That was no auroch I saw in the grass; it might have been a giant scarab beetle. I stroked my throat with my fingers. "I want to fight back."
"Sure." Jack gave me a nod. "We all do. They go about their day unaware, oblivious to what positions itself above them. And then we ambush them, dropping out of thin air. We attack these things with the same ruthlessness that we attacked enemy infantries of old as they marched across pastures and farmlands beneath happy, blue skies. The heavens opened up and we rained down vats of hot chemicals like brimstone and boiling oil and napalm." He kicked the grass. "Today, innovation and efficiency have created yet another superior product: we open the bomb bay doors on the enemy and unload a witch’s brew of hydrodynamic fronts, electromagnetic pulse, ionizing radiation and thermal flash." He paused. "The sky is the limit, son. If you can't compete in this marketplace, you have no place to be and no place being." He folded his arms and glared at the lawn.
A splash. There were those two fish – no three fish - again. They were fighting over something. But back to the lawn. "The lawn?"
“All my life this world has been a playground, my backyard. But there are only so many things to burn. We have gone through pine tar, saltpeter, naptha, quicklime, sulfur, niter and now plutonium." He pokes a dead bird on the shore with his shoe. "It's not 'What's next?' It's 'What's left?' Something is out there that is the silicon of this cold, iron stone that we live on."
“Maybe we already burned it.”
Jack turned his head toward me, squinting. He studied my face. His mouth was open and he wanted to say ‘What?’ but no words were coming out.
We stood looking at each other. A minute passed. I didn’t know what to say, he didn’t say anything. A hundred fish could have walked out of that river and set up communal living with the dung beetles and flatworms but we wouldn’t have noticed. “Jack?” My neck felt hot. Still no words, but I knew what he was trying to say. “Jack, I mean, I don’t know, maybe we used it up already.” I thought about that Labrador retriever barking at an empty squirrel’s nest in a dead tree in the winter at night by himself in an atmosphere depleted of oxygen and a blackened sun unable to give warmth or light. I think the dog was blind and deaf and a seizure was coming on. And I thought about beaches, that the beaches are covered in silicon. There is no end to sand. I find it in my clothes and shoes and food. It blows and carves out rock sculptures and it stacks a thousand feet high in deserts and buries ancient cities. They say the number of stars exceeds the grains of sand on earth. Hourglasses are filled with sand and the glass is made of sand. If you burn sand it turns to glass. I didn’t know what to think. My eyes focused on Jack but he was gone, heading up toward the old woman’s house. “Jack. Hey. Hey, where you going?”
“The old woman.”
There was that splash again. A fish chomped onto a bleach bottle, shook it back and forth and pulled it underwater. A sound, like sloop and a few bubbles and it was gone. Two minutes later bits of plastic rose to the surface and then some large bubbles. Alligators do the same thing; they shake the victim, drag it underwater, dismember it and drown it. Or is it the other way around. That’s when I noticed that the sand at my feet was very big. It was mixed with millions of bits of broken plastic bottles, oxidized, irradiated, abraded, and I was standing on a semi-man-made beach, very colorful. Too much quartz to call it an unspoiled, anthropogenic man-scape, but give it a few more years, just a few more years of this synthetic saturation-bombing, this mad-chemistry, and imagine what it would look like. And two-hundred years in the future, why, with all the sand washed away - it was going to be pristine, pure, a breathtaking polymeric paradise. A thousand automatons in a laboratory somewhere turned their faces toward me and smiled.
Eons beyond, into the distant future, after a zillion floods and channel diversions, and tectonics elevated the landscape upstream an additional two-thousand feet above sea level, this old beach would be buried beneath a thousand feet of debris. Then, some sunbaked paleontologist would unearth the hardened strata and, wafting away the chlorinated outgasses with an old, cotton towel, find my fossilized footprints and declare me primitive man. I could see the vestigial fingers on my left hand fumbling with the vestigial fingers on my right and I could not bear to look. Rudimentary, degenerate, like fat, pink crayons. Stop it. I turned away. They might as well have been hooves. But I had to wonder just what they were doing. I had no ready answers. And yet, this thought did not stop them from doing whatever it was that they were doing over and over again and for a moment I considered tossing one of them away for simplicity. This is not where I wanted things to go and I quickly rubbed my footprint out with my left foot. Wilderness ethics, Leave no trace, right? Of course, the right foot quickly made a new footprint and I knew I could not control my feet either. I could see an automaton in the lab, smiling and I was hot with jealousy.
Upstream somewhere, tiny particles of quartz sloughed off in the raging battle between water and rock and drifted downstream. The sales pitch is that plastics are maintenance free, no thought or effort required, and soon I was going to fit right in just like -
A splash. The fish broke the surface, snagged a plastic bag out of the air and cut back into the river and I swore it had three heads.
At that moment, I heard Jack shout as he ran back from the house. “Hey! I had to ask the lady. I had to ask her what she did with all the sweaters.”
He beat me to it; I had always wanted to ask her that question. “And?”
“She said, ‘What sweaters?’ I thought she was being coy, so I said, ‘I know how you’ve helped so, so many unfortunate souls. What’ve you done with all the sweaters you’ve made over the years?’ She said, ‘I only make this one. Only this one.’ I said, ‘But what about the others?’”
Words jumped out of my mouth, “Charity, she must have given them to charity.” Come on, lady, I thought, Say you gave them to charity.
Jack took a breath. “Then she said it again, ‘I only make this one, only this one.’ I don’t get what she means. And so I looked closer, and I see that she was taking the sweater apart, unraveling it knit by purl, one knit by one purl, one knit by one purl. And then her hands, they are calloused like a sailor’s and full of Gordian knots and pock marks, like yellow golf balls melted together. And then she said - get this: ‘And when I am done, I only make this one again, only this one, and when I am done I only make this one again, only this one, and when I am done...’ She kept saying that over and over and over and I see she is going to make that sweater all over again and I had to get out of there so I jumped up and ran out the back door.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead. "I didn't see this. Did I really see this? This is uncharted territory.”
“I don’t know, I don’t know.” We stared the house. “What is she doing?”
His body leaned slightly, away from the house. “Let’s get out of here.”
I looked up. It was almost noon but it was still a dreary grey. I felt like we were being watched. Maybe it was the old woman, maybe someone else. I didn’t know. I looked at the river. Then the treetops. I could barely speak. “Jack. Look." I pointed. "Those aren’t clouds up there. It's smoke. All this time it’s been smoke.”

Friday, December 09, 2011

Bedtime Story

My first floor windows on the east side of my house had an excellent view of the first floor windows on the west side of my neighbor's house. The view was so complete that, while I sat in my living room in my reading chair by the east window, I could yawn and stretch my left arm and reach into his living room and trade books. If only for the window screens. The same was true on the west side but I did not care for her cheap romance novels.
One brilliant and wrathfully hot Wednesday morning, just shy of noon, I was sitting in the shade cheerfully swatting a breed of imported flies when Henry, my neighbor to the east, came down the sidewalk toward my patch of lawn carrying a box. Henry walked his way around town, having no car or license. He said that he couldn't drive because he was myopic, but his wife said that he was gloomy. He was whistling again. My ears stood straight up like a dog's. I rose in my chair. "Stop it, will you?" He glanced my way. He was in the third bar of some byzantine, baroque fugue in descending minor that was elevating my blood pressure. "I said stop it. Can't you find something else to do with that excess windage and fattened tongue besides misinterpret Vituperatio or Balooney or Paparazzi or whomever it is you mock?"
He stopped right in the arc of the lawn sprinkler. "I whistle when I am tense. I've got to shed some excess nerves." The sprinkler swept across his back. "Yow - cold!" He jumped aside.
"Well shed them in the fall so they can blow down to Alabama with the rest of the litter on my lawn." I nearly stood up to impress, but I was really hoping that he would pass along too quickly for me to rise. "Anyhow, what's the angst about now?" Never a day passed without his complaint about his nerves.
He looked at me sideways. "Job applications." He had been unemployed for about two years and was looking for work.
I relaxed in the chair. "Any leads?" I looked down at the ants crawling across the driveway that sizzled in the hot sun, tar oozing from the cracks like black summer sweat. The ants would make it about an arm's length into the driveway and then overheat and swell and turn on their backs and then die, legs outstretched. And many of the dead were rescue teams sent to recover the remains of the first casualties. Carcasses piled up. Maybe this was a plan; they would use the dead as bridges to the netherworld on the other side of the driveway where all wood was soggy with rot and the aphids were plump. I looked across the shimmering asphalt and saw ants on the other side working their way toward this side in the same fashion. I wondered what it must have felt like to be on a suicide mission to save another suicide mission that is on a mission to save you.
He shrugged again. "Well, I figure with all my experience applying for jobs, I could get a job looking at applications for job openings. They call it a Personnel Director."
I thought of Russian Nesting Dolls eating one another.
He saw my blank look. "I was interviewed for an opening in personnel at the airport today."
I raised my eyebrows. He looked away. "How did it go?"
He started whistling.
"Hey - "
"Sorry. I was relaxing." He looked at the box of papers. "They tested me today. They had me review applications for job openings for pilots." He paused and looked down and slowly shook his head. "I don't know. I don't get it."
"Get what?" I swatted at a fly that landed on my arm. It was about as big as a half dollar, glittering blue and green like a Vegas hotel with a rack of antennae that would have made a trophy elk run in fear.
He shook the box. "All the applicants were schoolchildren, from Mrs. William's second grade class. Some of the applications just had pictures drawn in crayon. Food stains. Ripped. Crumpled. I don't get it."
I smiled. "Were they qualified?"
His face curled slightly. "That's what I don't get. I was told that they were serious candidates." There he stood, sweating, dehydrating in the hot white sun, losing weight, height and volume, holding a box of crayon drawings of stick men created by the brightest leaders of tomorrow, and tomorrow would begin in precisely 12 hours, coincidentally, the very moment when our world would be at its darkest.
I began to whistle.
Henry tipped his head to the side. "You sound myopic."
I got up and went into the house.
At about ten at night - it must have been ten o'clock because the news was on television and panels of pale men with swollen necks and carnivorous women with dilated pupils dressed in business suits were championing in great detail personal versions of a future reality in ever increasing volume and cacophony. Like a cage full of parrots. About ten at night I sat down to watch the news.
Henry looked out his window into my window. He was watching the same program, or maybe he wasn't because the background colors were different. "I am watching an action movie."
"No you aren't. It's the news."
He looked at his television. "Nah, it's an action movie. You're wrong."
"No, you are wrong."
"It has to be. At the end of this there is always a loud explosion and bodies fly all over the place and the next day I go see the sequel and I see the same set of actors scrubbed and cleaned and powdered do it all over again."
I picked up a book on the end table and tried to read but I forgot that the pages went from left to right and besides, I read it several years earlier. It was a science fiction novel from the 1950's entitled The Eyestorm, about a future that is now long past, one where everyone drives a flying car, motivational music is omnipresent, the moon is cultivated, communities are arranged vertically, and the state wages war against every second thought. Well, I had misgivings about the book when I opened it, but I was afraid to put it down and finished it in a few hours. Afterward, I closed the blinds on the windows.
"See?" Henry pointed at the screen and there was chaos and shouting and the camera cut away to a commercial. "See?"
On the west side of the house I could hear the other neighbor reading a bedtime story to her daughter. I think she read it every Wednesday evening, a book called The Big Red Airplane. The heroine, a young girl named Darcy, takes the controls of a big red airplane when the pilot oversleeps and she flies it around the world so many times that they go forward in time and find a civilization where everyone is literate and animals have rights and houses talk to you and, sure enough, they have flying cars, and the President calls on Darcy to save the city from a family of angry asteroids by sending the asteroids back in time so they miss the earth. This reminds me why I sit on the east side of the house. I had half-a-mind to tell that daughter the real story, and I made sure I let her mother know that I had half-a-mind - and she agreed - and I was fully determined to tell her that the civilization that Darcy saved went on to revoke the rights of animals so that they could use them to fuel their flying cars and all the people could read alright, but became immersed in abject sloth and bliss and their ability to write and create atrophied - but this condition didn't last long because their immune systems were no match for the mutant bacteria that were out-gassing from the genetics laboratories. Besides, the President was the one that sent the asteroids so he could declare a State of Emergency and force a social contract whereby the citizens would give up their inalienable rights in exchange for virtual reality, libations, and the pursuit of pleasure. Darcy was just a pawn and died in prison with hundreds of other children held for their charming, little beliefs.
That was about three years ago. She only recently unlocked her first floor window and opened the drapes.
Henry was still watching the news. He looked over. "You know, these men and women on this show look like they are aware and sentient and lucid. One would imagine they had a conscience."
"So?" I looked at the newspaper. A headline read, "Scientists Discover Royal Family Is Genetically Identical to Sausage Links".
Henry continued. "Really, they all use abstract terms and assert their moral certitude. It's a good movie."
"Would you quit calling it a movie! It's not a show, it's a discussion, experts finding solutions."
"That's a good movie." Henry leaned back in his chair and took a swig of water. "I am cheering for the fat fellow on the left there. See him? He can really act. I am almost convinced he really believes he has solutions."
I looked past him at the television. It was a different channel, but they had the same position players, one aging wise man, a blonde woman with sharp eyebrows, a dark-eyed man with a cherubic face, smart haircut, dark hair clipped above the ears and parted on the side. Another puffy, arteriosclerotic man with thick jowls and bulging eyes who sweated and lost his temper first. Once he lost it, the others followed. That was the explosive climax. I think I saw a headline go across the screen about an asteroid.
Henry tapped on the window screen. "Hey. Lincoln said that the legitimate object of a government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do for themselves in their separate and individual capacities."
He said it too fast for me to catch it all. "What?"
He watched the experts shouting above each other. "I am saying that we need more than single-issue Messiahs. I mean, we have five-thousand and seventy-nine critical issues we need to solve simultaneously. One for every man, woman, and child on earth and all these folks can do is shout simultaneously."
I still had trouble hearing him over the din.
He placed his drink on the end table. Moths hit the screens between us. "Unfortunately, Lincoln had to bathe and eat and take naps and comfort his wife and retrieve the keys he misplaced in the icebox and hang out with his relatives when they brought 'possum from Illinois and then go sleep for eight or ten hours and then miss an appointment with the ambassador to Spain because he forgot about it and his teeth were aching oh-so-badly that he had to put down more corn whiskey than he was accustomed to and that was where the Vice President would step in, if only they could wake him up from his slumber after being up all night playing poker with the Speaker of the House and the Secretary of State. They say he lost his shirt and redistricting in Vermont."
The television switched to breaking news from somewhere. Headlines and war scenes appeared. "Peace Marchers Set Fire to Nursing Home."
Henry looked at me. "Are you listening, bud?" I gave a vague shrug. "Think about it: What was Gandhi's policy on health care? What did MLK have to say about child slavery? What did Cyrus the Great think about drug resistant pathogens? And Peter the Great, I wonder what his platform was on groundwater depletion? I suppose that man had the time to come up with something." He looked back at the television. "Yeah, great show."
"Maybe it is, but maybe they are lost in the character and really are what they appear to be."
"For enough money, anyone will be what they are not. These people make a living convincing people they are someone other than themselves." He leaned back and ran his fingers through his hair. "Nah. They will sort things out when they hand out the Emmy Awards." He pointed at the screen. "Well for the love of Pete..." A headline appeared: "Aurora Borealis More Active Around Pet Cemeteries."
Before I could think I blurted, "I believe that!" I backed into my chair. "I mean, I think I have seen that happen in Rosemont, along Highway 63." I looked at the end table. Seven dead flies were on the table. One was caught in the glass housing around the lamp and was burning alive.
"And the show goes on." Henry turned off the television. "I mean, this Machiavellian landscape is overpopulated with also-rans, thugs, megalomaniacs, sycophants, honyokers, and ruffians, many of which are engaged in such villainous acts of compulsive-destructive behavior that new problems at created at such a rate that they outstrip the ability of all the genetic laboratories in the earth to produce cloned Gandhi-like figures in numbers equal to the task."
I raised my hand. "But maybe they could appear to be up to the task. That would at least create security, right?"
I don't think he heard me or maybe he did. Moths swirled in the lamplight like snow. He continued, "Let's be fair. Maybe one of these leaders could multitask. So let's ask, What was Julius Caesar's policy on alternative fuels, nuclear waste, habitat destruction, species extinction, petroleum based farming, corporate greed, internet pornography, school violence, the drug trade, wetland loss, factory farms, consumerism, hyperinflation, quantitative easing, landfill seepage, racism, and the weapons trade? Oh, and I forgot, failing infrastructure. I want to see his mission statement too. By tomorrow at the end of the business day. Four copies please. And it had better make sense. No gimmicks. Consistent, integrated, no contradictions, comprehensive and fully funded. Leave it on my desk."
I laughed. "Don't bet on it. He probably has to take a powder and rehearse his lines."
He nodded. "Yeah, but I hear he has a great smile and a full head of hair."
I sighed and sunk back into my chair, relaxed. "Man, I am glad these folks aren't real. If they were we would be doomed." I looked at the clock. "Hey, it's already midnight."