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?”
“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.