R is for Robin

For twenty minutes every other day, John and Paloma Palumbo would lie down on her bed next to each other without quite touching. Sometimes she would scratch his back, although he had to balance the pleasure of this against the distaste he had for reciprocating. It wasn’t the broadness of her back or the smell of her embroidered sweatshirts; mostly it was just the boredom that set in after thirty seconds of being the scratcher not the scratchee.

Because after a while you either have to keep saying, “Over here? There? That good? Yeah? Like that?” or you have to trace out different shapes or patterns with your hands to keep things interesting. With Paloma John usually avoided the former technique for being overly sexual, so he often found himself broadly tracing out the letters of the alphabet on her back, which was in fact the same method behind his cunnilingus technique, learned from some movie or something.

Speaking of cunnilingus, which is Latin for “vulva lick,” in case you were wondering, John was reminded, on this gray day of Thanksgiving, several months into his Paloma sanctuary with the lead in his toes having crept up to his mid-calves, of a time when he was sorry.

“I should have told Noah,” he said to himself, though he spoke it aloud as he no longer heard the distinction anymore, “of the time my freshman year of college when I went over to that girl’s room with my roommate’s VHS copy of Cruel Intentions. And she gave me a really truly great blow job, top three all time top one at the time, and when she crept back up all I could say was, ‘I’d love to return the favor, but I have no idea how to do that.'”

“That sounds less about being sorry and more about being scared, at the time, and embarrassed, now.”

John leapt up from the bed. “You know WHAT Palumbo? I have had it up to HERE with your linguistic DISTINCTIONS!”

The only other one Paloma could think of was the time she’d made John some ziti and he had said thank you for the penne and she had corrected him and he had snapped her plastic fork in half, but by now she was well-versed in his occasional need to reclaim some sense of masculinity and she smiled and said, “Okay,” but he was already out the door, the weight in his legs no obstacle to his current determination.

She looked at the clock. He had shorted her three minutes of back-scratching. Some people just aren’t givers, she thought, and reached around to finish herself off.

It took John six hours to get the VHS and another eight to find himself in front of a strange door. He knocked. It opened. A young woman. John squinted, then held up a picture for comparison. Satisfied, he explained: “I’m John Lake.”

She squinted. “You’re fatter in the face than you used to be.”

“Yeah, yep, thank you. Anyway. Eight years ago you gave me a blow job – ”

“Top three all time,” she said.

“How did you know that? I mean, most of them hadn’t happened yet.”

“I could feel it.”

“Okay, well. Yes.” He cleared his throat. “So, as you also know, I never, well, you know what I never did.”

“Uh huh.”

He held up the VHS. “So I thought we could fix this real quick.”

“Is this some sort of My Name is Earl thing?”

“I don’t know what that means. I can assure you I’ve done this like three or four times now so I have a much better sense of it and am a little less afraid of it, but if you want give instructions, or call me Earl, that’s cool.”

“Honey? Who is it?” A man called from behind.

“John Lake,” she called back.

The man came to the door. Wedding rings. “You’re John Lake,” he said.

“Hi.”

“My wife gave you a top three all time and you never paid her back.”

“How nice we all know the story.”

“You’ve sure made it hell on us mister, these last eight years.”

“…Really?”

“Oh sure. It’s like her ability to trust men with erections was the city of Atlanta, and you were General Sherman.”

“Luckily he stepped in with his johnson, who we named President Johnson.”

“Because it led the delicate and sometimes racially divisive process of Reconstruction.”

JG2 39

“And now I have a huge airport and CNN and great tax incentives but what price glory, John? What price glory?”

“I have no answer to that.”

A pause.

She shifted. “You know what they started calling me, in college, thanks to you?”

John figured this was rhetorical, and waited.

“The Giving Tree.”

Pause.

“They, they called you The Giving Tree?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow.” John nodded, made little lip-pursing movements of empathy.

“But it’s okay,” her husband said. “Because I’m the old man who sits on her stump.”

Pause.

“You know, like in the book. The old man comes and sits on the stump because he’s tired, John. He’s tired of dicks.”

“Yes. Well. This has been very enlightening for me.”

“Look, he’s doing it again.”

“Taking what he needs from us and leaving.”

“No no, no. I…offer’s still good here, but uh…even if that doesn’t…tickle your, you know. I guess I want to say, obviously…I’m sorry.”

Thunder, ominous, but in the distance. Finally, she spoke. “We don’t have a VHS player.”

“That’s okay,” her husband said. “I know it by heart.”

Cut to John leadenly walk home, sucking on Altoids. “It is finished,” he said aloud, surprising himself. He looked up at the clouds. He felt lighter with that sorriness gone from him. He looked at his house. It seemed flat and two-dimensional to him. So did the trees, like they were cut out of black paper for some shadow puppetry. So did his hands. He began to wonder, too late, if it was being sorry which kept him alive. This made him particularly susceptible to what was about to happen.

First he saw the can of trash perched on top of his car. Again.

“Seriously?! COME ON!”

He knocked on the door of the steely-haired man who had done this before.

The door opened, and a hand grabbed John by his collar, jerked him inside.

“What?”

The door closed. Darkness, but John could see himself in the man’s wide wild eyes.

“Shh,” he said. “The ceremony’s starting.”

Some chanting began.

“Cause you know I know baby. I don’t wanna go.”
“Cause you know I know baby. I don’t wanna go.”
“Cause you know I know baby. I don’t wanna go.”
“Cause you know I know baby. I don’t wanna go.”

The wild man spoke. “From the seventeenth chapter of the book of Genesis, as written by Saint Phil of Collins. Throwing it all away, children. Throwing it all Away.”

Flashlights turned on. John saw that everyone was wearing clothes made out of trash. Elaborate headdresses with shoebox bases, pants made out of pizza boxes. And they each had a garbage bag with them.

“Communion,” the man said. Each person blindly put a hand in their bag and pulled something out. Whatever it was, they ate it.

“Don’t eat that,” John said to a man chewing a K-cup.

“He must, John. He must. It is how we remind ourselves of our connection to the great Away.”

“Uh huh.”

The wild man put a plastic bag over John’s head.

“What are you doing?!”

“You are still full of confusion, my son. We must sweat the false thoughts out of you.”

He held the bag over John’s head and others held John’s arms down until he became light-headed. As things went black, he saw Gladys, holding a baby.

The wild man removed the bag. John sucked air.

“John Lake. Ask yourself something. Where is Away?”

“What?”

“When you throw something Away, where does it go?”

John looked at the other trash people. They looked back at him expectantly.

“The trash.”

“And where does the trash go?”

“The…trash place. The landfill?”

This brought excited whispers. “The son, the son, the son.”

The wild man slapped a tattered piece of paper into John’s hand. “The son,” he said. “Freshkills. Formerly the largest landfill on the planet. Now, they’re making it a park.”

The paper was a pamphlet on the new park. Which is real PS.

“But the son will rise!”

“We have faith, John, that someday the trash will come back, the son will rise up out of the earth, the body triumphant, to join the other members of the trinity, the Father – ”

Here he gave John another piece of paper, with information about all the trash floating around in space. Also real.

“And the Spirit.”

A third piece, about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

JG2 40
(Real.)

“This trash is eaten by birds and fish, and birds and fish is eaten by us. The Spirit is already inside us, John. It is inside you. It is strong in you. You have thrown Away so much already. This is why I have given you the mark, three times, with the trash. Now you are prepared to answer.”

Two trash people began walking ceremoniously toward John, carefully holding something in their outstretched hands. The wild man took this thing from them, and wrapped it around John’s neck.

“This is an infinity scarf, John.”

“World without end,” the others whispered.

“I found it one day, in some trash. In a way, I found it in Away. It was a sign. You see, John, the infinity scarf has no end.”

The wild man fiddled with the scarf. “I still have no fucking idea how they made this thing.”

He snapped back to prophet mode. “This was the burning bush. No end. Just as trash has no end. And if trash has no end, nothing has no end. It goes Away, and Away is never nowhere. To you it may be out of sight, but to the poor people getting asthma from living next to your waste, or the poor people breaking their backs picking through your trash for rags and scraps, it’s as present as can be. Away, John, is always somewhere.”

He wrapped the scarf tighter around John’s neck.

“You are the one. Lead us out of our fear that this is all there is. Find life everlasting. Reduce, reuse, recycle yourself. Throw it all Away, John. Lives are thrown away every day what does it matter? She went Away, didn’t she? Maybe you’ll meet her again there.”

The others chanted, “Throw it Away, throw it Away” over and over as the Wild Man pushed John back through the house and out the door. Which he then slammed, leaving John in the cold, with the scarf.

Suddenly the door opened again. “Wait,” said the wild man. “Have you already apologized for the top three blowjob?”

“Yes.”

“Okay just making sure. You don’t want that on your soul in case God is real and he judges you and sends you to hell. Thumbs up, Ace. Now go Away.”

Door slammed.

Back at the house, John could smell Paloma upstairs making her microwaveable Thanksgiving. The whole thing came in a box, including relatives.

“John is that you?” she called through the floor. “Uncle Albert’s asking for you.”

“Fuck Uncle Albert,” John muttered.

“What was that John??”

“I said, tell him SORRY! Sorry if I caused him any PAIN!”

He listened. Uncle Albert didn’t say a word. Which was so like him. John went to the fridge where he had a piece of pie he’d gotten from the diner special for today.

“Dessert first and last. No one can stop me.”

He ate the pie, remembering what it was like to eat one of his grandmother’s pies. “Johnny,” she called him, “likes my pies.”

In point of fact, he didn’t. But he ate the pies, one time two in a single weekend, because she made them for him.

“I’ve eaten a lot of things I didn’t want to eat,” he said aloud. He used to have to stay at the dinner table for endless stretches, cold food in front of him. But that was so far Away it seemed like a movie.

John walked to his closet. He opened the door. He pulled open the little folded step stool. Stood on it. Slipped one end of the infinity scarf over the hook at the top of the door. Then he kicked the stool away.

This time things didn’t go black. They went white. And a man stepped out of that whiteness.

“Hello,” he said, very calmly.

“Robin Williams!”

The man cocked his head. “Yes.” He smiled. “That is what they used to call me.” He started to float.

“Are you leading me Away?”

“No. I’m a figment of your oxygen-deprived brain, John. It’ll all be over in two shakes. Unless you think about why your brain might have summoned me, of all possible figments, in this your last moment of existence.”

Robin slowly began to fly, all over the house. “Look, John! I can fly! I forgot I could do that.”

John spoke weakly. “You remembered to fly when you remembered how to never grow up.”

Robin was backstroking through the air. “That’s right. I remember that. Do you remember how I did it, John?”

It came out in a whisper. “Happy…thought.” John’s eyes closed.

“But what was it? What was my happy thought?”

John’s eyes opened. He remembered Robin’s happy thought. Robin looked in his eyes; then he did too.

“That’s right. That’s what it was.”

Robin flew right up to John’s face. “John. My happy thought didn’t save me. But it can still save you. Don’t be afraid, John. Love is simple.”

John saw Gladys and the baby again. And then he saw the baby in his arms. And then he wished he had never kicked that stool away. And then John died.

Outside the rain started.

P and Q is for Peas and Queues

JG2 36

Gladys and the other Saints set off to go dancing at Fist City, the only Ubanian nightclub still in existence. The place was named after an infamous Loretta Lynn song. In it, the speaker challenges an unnamed other woman to “lay off” her man if she doesn’t want to take a one-way trip to “Fist City.” So to get into the club, you had to fist the bouncer.

And by that we mean punch the bouncer in the face. It was a more innocent time when Loretta penned her ballads.

Regardless, Gladys balked at pretty much any kind of fisting.

“I tell you, he is grateful,” said Ubanian Lisa, acting as their local chaperone for the evening. “It keeps him from blowing himself up.”

“How?”

“Because it fills him full of blind rage, mostly toward foreigners, who are the only people to come here. And so he has something to live for, which is to tell everyone how he is going to exact revenge one day.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“But he will never do this.”

“Why?”

“Because he has been punched in the face too many times.”

Jude threw a surprisingly strong left for such an old man, walked into the joint, hopped on a stool which was actually a short Ubanian, and ordered the only cocktail offered, the Ubanian Teardrop. The bartender nodded and went to the bathroom to slap himself in the face a few times.

The rest of the Saints more or less reluctantly followed suit, except for Alex, who was too weak from malnutrition to punch anyone and asked Gladys if she wouldn’t mind double dipping. Naturally Gladys hesitated, but Alex had been so excited about dancing and now looked so nervous about missing out that some maternal thing kicked in and Gladys delivered a quick 1-2 combination that knocked one of the bouncer’s dogteeth loose.

“Thank you,” he said, quite sincerely. “One day I am going to put your head on a spike.” This sent him into a smiley slumber.

Inside the club the Saints sat at the bar while Alex popped wheelies. “Gladys, come dance!” But after slamming her third Teardrop, Gladys did more than that. She sang.

“I want to thank the people of Ubania for having us,” Gladys said as she put on the requisite cowgirl hat. “We did eight shows this week, and they tell us that there were two fewer self-explosions than last week. So even though that may just be because there are getting to be fewer and fewer people here, I’d like to follow the philosophy of Loretta Lynn, who once said, ‘If you don’t pat yourself on the back every now and then, your hand might fall off.'”

This was a misquotation, since as any fan knows the only time Loretta specifically referenced limbs falling off was in relation to her husband Doo’s diabetes. But Gladys had done two performances that day and was a bit befuzzled so we’ll allow it.

She took another shot, for luck. “And speaking of things falling off.” She punched F-2 into the Ubanian karaoke machine, which was a guy named Ubanian Eugene who hummed the tune as best he could for you while his wife wrote the lyrics on his belly. In this case, he started humming “I Wanna Be Free,” and Gladys waved the wife away.

Anyone who’d been to Ubania long knew all the words to this song because in Ubanian bathrooms, which were ditches, there was always an attendant paid by the government to stand there and sing it in an effort to liberate your bowels of whatever choleroidal muck might be trapped in there. These were highly sought after positions in Ubania, to the extent that anything was sought, which as extents go is pretty modest.

When Loretta got the part about taking the chain from off your finger, Gladys dramatically held up her left hand. Her wedding ring sparkled. The next line was about taking the chain from your finger and throwing it as far as you can “sling ‘er,” so Gladys made to take off her ring and fling. Only it wouldn’t come off, so she had to tug and twist all through the part about the bluebird singing and restoring the speaker’s faith in life, and when she finally got it off with a final jerk she was so frustrated she threw it harder than she meant and knocked out another of the bouncer’s dog teeth. To be fair they were pretty loose already, from the rickets.

The Ubanian secret policeman who had been trailing her waited politely until the song was over and the smattering of applause died out before getting off his stool (coincidentally his cousin) and producing his handcuffs.

“Gladys Lake,” he said, “I am a secret policeman. I didn’t know that until just now. Before then, it was a secret. But now I know. And so you’re coming with me.”

“Michikagazeroonancyreagan?” Ubanian Lisa asked the man, which roughly translated means “why are you hassling this sad white lady?”

“She has to appear before the grand jury,” he said. “The grand jury has to decide whether or not to charge her with a crime.”

“But I didn’t do anything!” Gladys said.

“You fell on a Ubanian and crushed him.”

“Oh I did do that.”

“But she already got her slap on the wrist,” Ubanian Lisa said.

“Yes, well, this case has now drawn the attention of the Secretorney General of the United Notions.”

The United Notions was a group of people from around the world who debated for a long time and then issued Notions about what was right and wrong. No one really felt the need to follow the Notions, because all the UN could do to enforce them was send out a group called the Peaskeepers. The Peaskeepers would come to your country with exactly one hundred peas. If something bad happened and they lost some of the peas, they reported back to the Notions, and the Notions wrote down in a big book just how many peas had been lost. And then the book was put in a big warehouse and sometimes people came to look at it.

“Why would the Secretorney General care about one little Ubanian?”

“There are a number of members of the Notions who care about Ubanian lives because their countries sell arms to the Ubanians.”

“Yes, arms we’re blowing ourselves up with!”

“Yes, well they also send us arms to replace the arms people lose when they stand too close to someone blowing up. And we need those. But they can’t afford to send those arms unless we prop up their economy by buying the other arms.” The secret policeman cuffed Gladys.

“I knew I should have studied economics.”

“Don’t worry, Gladys. This is just for show.” Lisa patted her shoulder. “Lolajazeezeegeorgemichael. That means, chin up, and don’t drop the soap.”

They brought Gladys to the secret courtroom, which until half an hour ago everyone thought was just an enormous broom closet. The grand jury members tittered – literally – when they saw her. Out of the blue, Jean appeared and took her bound hand. He kissed it.

“My dear, this is an outrage.”

“No, it’s probably justice. I did kill a guy.”

“Well you do not have to worry about that. It took some pulling of string, but I found a very special special prosecutor.”

A woman with a terrible perm stepped forward to shake hands.

JG2 37

“I’m Marcia Clark,” she said. “I lost the O.J. Simpson trial. So don’t worry. I’ve got this. And by that I mean you’ve got this. I’ll lose this thing faster than you can say wifebeater.”

“Why?”

“Because it hurts less, for me, to try to lose and be good at it, than to try to win and fail. For the last twenty years I’ve been losing every case I possibly can. You know what it’s like. When you’re a woman, and a loser, you have to do it twice as well as a man to be taken half as seriously.”

“I think we’re conflating a couple of different issues here.”

“Hey don’t act like I’m the first prosecutor to throw a case. I mean look at that black kid who got shot by that cop.”

“Which one?”

“Oh I like you. Yep.”

Marcia Clark took her place at the podium. “Ladies and gentlemen of the grand jury, I think you know what this is.” She held up a piece of white paper with this on it:

JG2 38

A hush fell over the room. Marcia Clark then walked slowly to the jury box, and placed the paper on the floor in front of them. Everyone gasped.

“What just happened?” Gladys whispered to Jean.

“She has just played the race card.”

“This case is about race. Yes. Here we have a hare,” she gestured to Gladys. “Look at her. She’s the product of a culture that has instilled in her a sense of entitlement so strong, she believes she can do anything. And so, she can! She can hail a cab, and go somewhere and buy something. She can get a loan, and start a business. She can go to college, and spend four years studying William Blake if she wants to. You sir,” she pointed to one of the grand jury members, “do you know who William Blake is?”

He shook his head.

“Exactly! Thank God we have this woman to tell us who William Blake is. She is a real hare.”

Marcia Clark presented a picture of the man Gladys crushed when she fell to earth. The picture was taken with a Ubanian camera, which means they hired someone who looked kind of like the guy and put a frame around his face. “Here we have a tortoise. I have real sympathy for his family. I do. He too, in time, might have managed to walk the eighteen miles in the sun to make it to Ubania’s only cabstand, and if he didn’t faint, he too might have endured the three and a half day wait to make it to the front of the line. And then he might have climbed on the shoulders of whoever was the cab that day, and the two of them, with the aid of a miracle or two, might have made it to the border without getting shot.

“And he too might have eventually been chosen by a microfinance group to get a loan of ten cents to go door to door selling nickels for a two percent mark-up. And if he did that for about forty years, he might have had enough to buy a small wagon he could use to sell potato chips. And if his son and grandson had carried on that work, they might eventually have had enough to buy a larger wagon to sell shampoo, too, or seasonal stickers. And if they had – you see where this is going here. This main was a tortoise among tortoises.”

She stood behind Gladys. “Don’t slow the hare down, ladies and gentlemen. Let her go on and win the race. The human race.”

The jury applauded. “You can go,” Marcia Clark said to the picture. The picture held out his hand for a nickel. She shook her head. “Teach a man to fish,” she said.

Gladys gave the picture a nickel. Then she stood up. “The tortoise wins the race,” she said.

Marcia Clark’s eyes widened. “What are you doing?”

“Well it’s true. The tortoise wins the race. Because the hare is too sure of himself.”

“They don’t know that! They don’t have books!”

“Look,” she addressed the grand jury. “Maybe I know who William Blake is, and actually I don’t, though he sounds nice enough, but who’s to say that’s better than shitting yourself to death in a ditch in a slum?”

Six jury members raised their hands, signifying that they believed it was better to know William Blake than to shit to death, but Gladys was looking down at her bare ring finger and could not see them.

“Last night I followed the advice of Loretta Lynn, and freed myself. But of course her lyrics, balanced against her life, are full of a delicious, if painful irony. See, I went to college so I make up sentences like that. Sorry. Okay. My point is Loretta wrote song after song about leaving her man, but she never found a way to leave the actual SOB. I think she didn’t want to be free. I think freedom was too scary for her. Sort of like it’s scary to know how a tortoise can beat a hare. Or scary like asking ourselves how will we measure a race if the key factor isn’t speed? Or scary like how will we measure a race if there isn’t even, can’t even, be a winner. Or scary like having a seven pound screaming phlegm-covered junior human kick its way out of your ladyhole, I don’t know.”

She picked the race card up. Everyone gasped, again. She handed it to Marcia Clarke. “I want to be held responsible for the things I’ve done. My kid needs an example of that, and God knows it won’t be his father. Although to be fair I punched holes in his condoms and went off birth control without telling anyone including myself. But I had to.”

“Why?” The jury asked this as one.

“I don’t know. I didn’t know I felt that way until just now. But I had to. I had to have this child. I mean not in a hormonal way. I mean there’s a reason for him. Maybe…maybe it’s that – ”

The foreman of the jury stood up. “We indict her for murder!” he cried. The rest of the jury cheered. They’d never indicted anyone before and found it very exciting. “Take her to the UTI!”

Two secret bailiffs were told they were bailiffs and started dragging Gladys away.

“Gladys! What have you done?” Jean cried. Then he sneezed.

“It’s alright, Jean. I’ve had a UTI before. Painful, sure, and a little shameful, but if treated properly – ”

“No, no, sacre bleu! The UTI is the Ubanian Terror Institute!”

“Oh, well. That’s different. That sounds worse.”

Marcia stopped the bailiffs. She looked Gladys in the eye. “Kid, I like the cut of your jib.” She tore the race card in half.

“Go win another one,” Gladys said.

“Hmm yeah the social conscience thing is tempting but I think I’ll just get a lot of plastic surgery and write mystery books instead. There’s only one life. Hey, just so you know, in the Ubanian justice system, an indictment is the equivalent of a conviction, and the punishment for all crimes is exactly the same.”

“What is it?”

“Death by explosion. I’ll see you around.”

They took Gladys away.

O is for O No

Something terrible had happened.

There is John and Gladys, and there is Ur-John and Ur-Gladys. Just as the play Hamlet is believed by some to be preceded by another play involving a man with the same name (which scholars call Ur-Hamlet), so these two fictional characters – yes, this is a fiction – are or were or are preceded (and succeeded? depends on how well the book endures) by two real people, whom we will call Ur-John and Ur-Gladys, but you may as well know that Ur-John is me.

Ur-John started writing this chronicle at the dawn of a New Year. He was unsure about a number of things, like how he really felt about being estranged from Ur-Gladys. This was going to be a book with 26 entries, one for every two weeks of the year. He wouldn’t plan it very much beforehand, but he had a sense that it was going to be called John and Gladys and The Year the World Started, and that it would be about John growing up and deciding that having a child was something he could handle.

A small part, perhaps, of why the Urs split had to do with one of them being militantly against having children. You might guess which.

Something happened as the winter finally thawed, which is that Ur-John and Ur-Gladys got back in touch with each other, and started wondering if maybe this thing could work out after all.

But it didn’t.

There were some very romantic moments – at one point one of them ran after the other one on the street – and those moments should have culminated in a beach trip the two took together, but they didn’t. They fizzled.

Ur-John found himself at the beach house with a woman, the kind of woman who would text you even after you’d grumpily gone to your (separate) bed to try and get you to come out and look at the stars. But Ur-John could not find it in himself to get out of bed. In fact the more she described their beauty the more he didn’t want to see the stars, maybe ever. Spite. He thought it might be similar to the way they say God hardened Pharaoh’s heart when Moses and Co. wanted out of that raw deal. It was like someone had pushed through his chest and put the kung fu grip on a heart which just two months ago during hours-long phone calls had been beating, softly, again.

Unfortunately, the truth is God does not have to do that. The truth is that for some reason Ur-John, and he is not alone in this, hardens his own heart. Maybe it is for the best, and maybe it is not. There’s no way of knowing except feeling, and his feelings change so often because of the hardening and unhardening that he goes through, seemingly at all the wrong times. He was hard when he was around her and he was unhard when he was in bed listening to the cars whir by thinking, Now would be a good time to die. Yes normally it’s a good thing to be hard when you’re with the woman but this is a different category so that joke does not apply.

In his hardness he pushed her away, again, and then a depression sank into Ur-John, and while he went through the motions of smiling at people and picking up tabs and asking “So which shows do YOU binge watch?”, really he could not imagine having the energy to go through all of that again when he knew that at any moment his heart might and probably would go kung fu and then he would have to deal with the pain of causing someone pain, again.

Ur-John was pretty sure something was wrong with him. He began simultaneously to find little pleasure in life and also obsess about his health. He found this ironic, as in the old joke: “the food here is terrible; and such small portions!” Mostly he obsessed over his weight. He felt like the years of his life were bringing him no wisdom but just accumulating like rings around his midsection, and before too long they would congeal into a squishy inner tube of life, growing bigger and bigger around his tummy, that would keep him from really getting too close to anyone anymore.

Most of all, and most relevant to our current writer/reader relationship, Ur-John did not have it in him to continue this particular saga of John and Gladys. Something about it felt dead.

Because he had ended up planning, though he said he wouldn’t. He had these notes, these wonderful – he thought – romantic notes about how the story was going to evolve. It was going to be epic, and it was going to be life-affirming, since that tends to be more marketable than the opposite. But Ur-John no longer felt qualified to affirm life.

Plus, he had a lot of work to do. John works at shrinking nuts, but Ur-John, post-beach house, was given a job offer by some crazy people who actually want to make nuts bigger. They actually want to give more value, more protein, more calories to go out and live life. It’s a really nice idea, and sometimes seeing the little nuts grow made Ur-John click his heels with pleasure. But sometimes his heart wasn’t in it. You have to believe there’s a good reason for nuts to be bigger; if you can’t think of one, you just look at the little nuts and think about adolescent nuts and nuts in their twenties and you get exhausted thinking about how much there is for those nuts to go through, and for what?

Sometimes Ur-John daydreamed at his desk about creating a Giant Nut. A Nut so big that Everyone would Take Notice. A nut so huge that it would be written about As Long As People Write. And Ur-John’s name would be underneath the photo, Forever.

But he had a feeling this was unlikely. Probably if anyone in his lab made The Big One it would be Jerry, who always got up at 5:30 and went to spin class before work because he really is a go-getter. Most likely no one would make The Big One, or it would be someone in Taiwan, and then a year later there would be another big nut to erase the last and eventually Ur-John would be dead.

No one ever eats one nut, by the way. We always eat like a handful of nuts and don’t think twice about it. But that nut was the center of its own universe in its day.

Ur-John knew he should be satisfied making small nuts slightly bigger, even if the changes couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. He knew he should be content to be an ordinary person living an ordinary life. He knew he ought to be able to settle down with one person and explore the special work that brings. But there was too much Ur-John the Conqueror in him, this sweaty swarthy Spanish fellow with a giant helmeted hard-on.

One night Ur-John came home from work, thinking as he often did about the big beer he was going to drink while watching an Arnold Schwarzeneggar movie. But on this particular night Bill Cosby was outside the door of his apartment.

“Hey!” Bill Cosby said. “Can I use your apartment for like, sixteen minutes?”

John blinked.

“Maybe seventeen. Maybe eighteen minutes.”

Ur-John didn’t have much of a reason to say no. Bill Cosby looked a little shifty, but then Ur-John realized it was just him rolling his eyes like he rolls his eyes when he’s got a big hoagie or something he’s about to eat and he’s so excited, and Ur-John giggled, and Bill Cosby acted like he was a robot “beep boop boop Jell-o pud-ding”, and Bill Cosby acted like he was a popsicle “oh dear I am so GRAPE beep boop boop,” and Bill Cosby acted like he couldn’t say the letters T or D “how are you oing o-ay beep boop boop,” and Ur-John giggled and gave him the key.

Eighteen minutes later, Ur-John knocked on the door. Bill Cosby opened it.

“You need some more bread,” Cosby said. “I just ate the shit out of some hoagies. I ate the shit out of fifteen or sixteen hoagies, so you need more bread.”

He handed Ur-John the key. Ur-John smelled the oil and vinegar on the man’s breath and said to him, “I wish you had died, and Robin Williams had lived.”

Cosby patted him on the shoulder and left, wiping his mouth.

Ur-John realized that wasn’t it, really. What he really wanted was for Robin Williams to have died, because the grieving felt good, in its own way, and then be resurrected, Robin the White, free of shitty movies and tired jokes.

He went inside his apartment and opened the beer and turned on Arnold. And then he put down the beer and left Arnold on and ran out the door down the stairs out the door to the street where’d he go where’s Bill I miss Bill I miss Bill Cosby come back I’m sorry let’s have a hoagie together.

Bill Cosby was gone.

The Arnold movie, which Ur-John watched alone as beer went into the top of his heart and out the bottom of it, was Total Recall. Without spoiling too much – like how Sharon Stone takes a bullet to the forehead, finally – he can tell you that the movie involves a man who believes he is a good man finding out that he is, in fact, a bad one – that the good man was a fiction created by brainwashing. Well, Arnold being Arnold, he refuses to accept this, and uses his muscles to actually beCOME the good man by force. He just decides his own narrative. Ur-John didn’t realize the spiritual dimension of this until the next morning, brushing his teeth looking into the mirror.

So Ur-John set about the first day of the rest of his life, and because he was open to enlightenment he received it, in traffic listening to a podcast. The podcast told the story of the kilogram. There is one kilogram in France which is the ur-kilogram, the kilogram from which all others are measured. It is made mostly of platinum. It is kept in a secure place and cleaned periodically.

Then, in 1989, the ur-kilo was weighed against a copy of itself, and they did not match. The ur-kilo was shrinking. Technically it still weighed a kilogram, since it is THE kilogram, but untechnically it no longer weighed a kilogram.

Panic ensued. Ur-John could see why. A world without a sure kilogram was a world of people walking around with unequal loaves of bread, with potato chip bags more and more full of air, shells and no nuts at all.

Then there would naturally be an emotional factor. Without a kilogram there would be no pound of flesh, without a pound of flesh we could not weigh out our debts, without weighing our debts we could not weigh our love, and without weighing our love we could not take the measure of our lives. At least not uniformly.

Which meant that there would be some people walking around normally, grounded in themselves, smiling and frowning at regular intervals, breeding and dying; and there would be others walking around two feet off the ground, certain of nothing. Ur-John stepped out of his car after listening to this podcast and bounced up eight inches in the air. He tried to jump down but he could no sooner do this than he could have plunged into the earth the day before.

He floated into his office.

“There’s an international crisis going on,” he informed Jerry. “Someone snuck into the French place where they keep all the measurements, and they filled the kilogram with sawdust. This happened in 1989, when I was four, which makes sense because that’s when I had to start going to school all day long and I cried because I wanted to stay home and have lunch with my mother. Things were never right after that, and it’s just taken time for us to get to this point – ”

He noticed with no little chagrin that Jerry was standing on the ground.

“I have to go.”

Ur-John tried to drive home but his feet would not rest on the pedals. So he floated. At his building, he closed his eyes and thought of Ur-Gladys, and this lifted him up to his bedroom window on the second floor. He always left this window open in case succubi were real, so he went in and drifted to the fridge and drank a beer, but this just got him higher to the point where his head kept bumping into the ceiling.

He used the walls to propel himself back to the bedroom, and found that with a good push-off he could flip and hang upside down in front of his laptop like Tom Cruise in the first (best) Mission: Impossible movie. So he did this and turned the thing on and pulled up the notes he had for the John and Gladys book, and looked through them, and decided some he might keep, and some he might not, and that the story could go wherever he wanted to now, actually, and that was kind of exciting, so he started to type.

They tell me I am not who I am. They tell me that was just something they put in my brain. But I get to decide who I am, just like I decide how much a thing will weigh, on my mind and my soul, or if the hole in my heart is to let things in or drip them out. I choose. Right now. And always.

And if they don’t recognize me, or tell me this is not who I am, I will shoot them in the forehead like I did Sharon Stone. And then I will turn on this reactor left here by the aliens. It might explode. It might not. There’s a chance it will do its work so that all God’s children on Mars will finally have enough air to fill their lungs.

At least until the Colin Farrell reboot and the whole mess starts over. After all, nothing lasts forever.