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.

N is for Nexus

Paloma Palumbo made John some eggs while she prepared to tell the story of how her right leg became an anchor. She had an uncanny ability to get what she needed in the kitchen while hardly moving, as if somehow she curved the space around her, so that the skillet in the cupboard under the counter came to her hand without stooping.

“Practice,” she said, since John was staring a little. He returned to perusing the mail she had brought. There was a lot of it. Many catalogs offered many sales and many bills asked for many monies.

“One day, when it was raining very heavily, I took shelter under the Gateway Arch. I still got rained on, as the top of the arch was too far above me to do me much good, but at least I had the comfort of knowing I was being rained on under the world’s tallest arch, which isn’t nothing. While I was under there, a priest and a woodcutter came along.”

“A woodcutter?”

“They looked a little grim, even more than a priest and a woodcutter normally do, so I asked what was wrong. When you’re under an arch with someone, you can’t help but want the best for them. Well, they told me a terrible story:

“One morning Diane woke up and it was time to go home. They’d had a nice time at the campground but one of her nieces had rehearsal to get to and there were in general a lot of those little Sunday errands to tackle. So she and her son and her baby girl and her one two three nieces climbed into the SUV and headed for home. Her husband followed in the truck with the dog. Well, the clock struck twelve and hubby was home and doggy was home but there was no sign of Diane. And there wasn’t a sign of her until her SUV exploded in flames on the highway and sent up thick smoke like an offer to Zeus. She had driven the wrong way on the parkway at 70 miles an hour for 1.7 miles, you see, and crashed into a right-way-driving car filled with three men on their way to family funday. Everyone died, everyone died, except the little boy.”

She served him the eggs, without really moving.

“Her blood alcohol level, it turned out, was .18, ten drinks at least, and there was cannabis all up and down her airways. On a Sunday morning.”

Now Paloma sat down.

“When asked to testify, her husband told of a supermom, who rarely had a drink, who made six figures and volunteered and scrapbooked and had years’ worth of Christmas presents pre-wrapped in the attic in ascending sizes for the kids as they grew. He showed medical records of a tooth abscess, never properly treated, which must have caused a medical event, perhaps a stroke, to distort the levels in the blood.

“When asked to testify, her ex-BFF told of a supermom, damaged by the abandonment of her own mother at the age of eight, who struggled with weight and the need to be boss, who could carry a grudge and correct GPS – ‘that’s wrong, it’s a right turn’ – who could miss your first born’s christening and be out of your life forever.

“When asked to testify, her empty vodka bottle told of a supermom, who held her, and nuzzled her, and made her feel loved. Who whispered her dreams to her during commercial breaks. Who occasionally neglected her, cursed her, hated her cried over her. Who always came back. Who was so hard on herself. Who had such hope. Who could make you feel, just with her eyes, that you’re the only bottle in the world.

“When asked to testify, Diane’s spirit, channeled through Miss Cleo the estranged TV psychic, told of Superman, of a dream she had had the night before, where Johnny Manziel, her crush through all of tenth grade, held her hand under the blanket while they watched Christopher Reeve turn back time to save Lois Lane. Of the world spinning back and her head leaning back and Johnny’s tongue making the first penetration of her mouth that wasn’t food or a toothbrush or a dentist’s thumb. Of how nice it was until the ratmaggots started pouring out of the hole in her tooth. Of how they ran up Johnny’s tongue and into his mouth and his eyes went wide and she knew he was asking, ‘How did I get here?’ Of waking up and packing the car and seeing the sun and is that a bird or a plane and how did I get here the children in the back making their children song and Johnny Manziel, if he only knew she hadn’t meant to maggot him like that and the idea, the idea came to her clean and smooth like a little girl’s ponytail ribbon: if going West (like the pioneers my arch was made for) means you get back an hour, then two, then three (you can’t call Mimi and Pawpaw yet honey they live in Disneyland and it’s too early there), if Superman can spin the world back to yesterday then I can go fast enough into the past and tell Johnny the truth and close up this hole in my mouth that never fills up no matter what I pour in.”

She took John’s plate. She ran the water.

“The rain stopped and I saw the sun come out, only the steel of the arch reflected so that it burned but I couldn’t stop looking. The sun has all four testimonies inside it all the time, good evil sappy and strange, busting and combusting in and out of each other, and we can’t see them all at once, our eyes aren’t made for that. We have to pick and choose.”

She sat down.

“I had a hard time after hearing that story. I thought if I couldn’t see the sun, really see it, all four parts of it, that there wasn’t any point. Everything else is just a flashlight, or a lightbulb, or a firefly, by comparison. And let’s face it: you can’t really do shit with a firefly except pull off its thing and stick it on your nose until it fades or else catch and release it over and over and over. Both options lose their thrill over time.

“I entered a second infancy. I had to call grown-upsitters to come over and make sure I didn’t stick a penny in a socket to become part of the sun. Grown-upsitters are a strange crowd. I went through them pretty fast, until I met Ruth. Ruth was fat. Ruth was really fat. Ruth ate all the time. At first I was disgusted. Her chomping away, rustling candy wrappers. Then one day, while feeding her a banana and daydreaming about self-immolation, it suddenly dawned on me: Ruth isn’t dead. Ruth is alive, and Ruth doesn’t need anyone to watch her not kill herself.”

Paloma shrugged.

“So the eating – who cares? And all the foibles of all my grown-upsitters past – the little vanities, the bad jokes, the catchphrases and cliches, the fishing for compliments, the repeated stories, the maudlin social media posts, the Angry Birds, the Michael Bay movies, the hardened arteries of everyone’s constantly calcifying personality, all those things, disgusting as they may be, well, I couldn’t be disgusted anymore, not about any of them, because I realized they were all…”

She swung her anchor up on the table. It knocked the table over.

“Oh, shit.”

John reset the table and she gingerly rested her anchor on it this time. She pointed to it. For illustration purposes.

“They keep us here, so we don’t go to the sun or the past. And keeping us here is better than the alternative, because if we weren’t here, we couldn’t grown-upsit for each other and keep us here. Could we?”

“Okay, but…this still does not explain how your leg actually became an anchor.”

She shrugged. “I’ve always been a more literal person than my peers.”

She stood up. Clang. “By the way,” she said, “it’s better to choose one of these that can’t possibly put you in a state where you get so fucked up you accidentally kill your children. So you know, like whittling or something.”

Paloma went back upstairs. John went back to his catalogs and bills. It took a long time to figure out which polos he wanted to order, and what to write on all the different checks, and while you’re reading the catalogs more catalogs come, you know, same with bills, and before he knew it (and he didn’t really know it because he wasn’t paying attention) eighteen days had gone by. In fact the only thing that brought the passage of his time to his attention was one day when he was making the short trip to the kitchen to recycle a catalog he noticed a limp in his step. He tried to think back to any time he might have kicked a piece of furniture in the recent past and couldn’t remember any. So he looked down at his right leg and it looked in good order. So he took of his shoe and his foot seemed alright. So he took off his sock and nothing unusual there except for the fact that the tips of his toes had turned into iron.

And the iron was spreading.

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M is for Mission

This is what Gladys thought as she waited to do her act. (Her thoughts have been translated into standard sentence form in order to make them more comprehensible to non-Gladys entities.)

Life is so strange and I don’t know why we don’t say this more often instead of comments about the weather. Not that we have to be emotional about it; it can be casual. “Hey how are ya? Boy life is some weird shit.” “Weird enough for ya?” “It might get weirder tomorrow.” “Okay well I’ll be sure to bring an umbrella.” And then we’ll both make that laugh you make when you are speaking out of your own asshole through a smile.

I do a good job at it – living I mean, sometimes. Sometimes when I succeed at basic human interactions I feel the need to reward myself. I let myself eat two soft-baked oatmeal squares instead of one, compulsively, then maybe three: I can’t stop because I need something in my mouth to plug the awesome rush of pleasure I feel at having fooled the outside world once again. They think I’m normal. They think I’m – 

When I hand the DMV employee my license that proves I exist; when I say, “Thank you” when someone holds the door open for me; when I say “How much does a haircut cost at this establishment?” and weigh the number against what I know of the world and nod and accept the coming transaction and later press the right buttons on the card machine to take my invisible money. When I do these things without pulling my lips over my gums or asking strangers for reactions to the latest natural disaster or hopping up and down with this excess of passion I feel at unusual moments I’ve done it; I’m safe; I’ve kept up the ruse for just another day another dollar.

Some days I feel less tied to this body then others. Sometimes I feel like I might fly off, fly right into someone else or a window or a plastic chair. But they don’t know that. And they don’t know how long I stared at my shit this morning, with a kind of pride in its odor, before flushing it down the hole in the ground with a cup full of water. Ubania is different. But I guess I could get used to it because you can get used to anything – why do we even have running shoes, for example? In Apocalypto the Mayan people (were they Mayan?) did all the running without shoes on. I think.

But that was what they were used to because there wasn’t any asphalt back then, or it was still tucked under the ground somewhere, waiting to be invented by a man from Kansas. Waiting to be discovered. As if asphalt were under the earth all along; as if asphalt were the natural state of things and nowadays with the sprawl it is finally conquering the grass and soil and water that once ran rampant over it like whoever killed all the Mayans ran rampant on them. Or were the Mayans the ones who just left? They just left. They just got up and quit the game. Well, somebody did, anyway. People quit the game all the time. Just this second someone is.

Sometimes I catch myself making a face, a face that says, I am having a thought; I am having a feeling; I am utterly confused by how unlikely language is, or how impossibly plastic it is that there are people who know just how to start and operate a community college, for example, because it is a tradition that has been handed down. If you tried to start a community college from scratch it would be a disaster.

It might also be a miracle, going ahead without the instructions, but miracles are disasters; they disturb the order, like children do. And the fact that there is a handbook, that there are people who devote their lives to being specialists in starting community colleges is a testament, ultimately, to the great bee hive we have made of humanity, and a sign no less impressive than the great cathedrals, really.

Sometimes I catch myself making that face, is my point, and I have to snap out of it and put on one of the normal faces before someone asks me What’s going on in there partner?

We know how to start a community college much better than we know how to raise children, I mean universally, or on average, I’d say. 

Sometimes God gets into my throat and tries to come out through my eyes. Sometimes the baby inside me eats everything and wants more as it divides, doubles 1  2  4  8, dividing me and my self (now that I’ve reconciled with my self after the shadow Waldorf incident), and now I am 2 – not equal parts, not halves like with John, but 2 all the same, and she-he in the belly has and will always have more of my self than I will ever again, the self in me dwindles as the belly grows, and the child will carrying that part of my self, skin my self’s knees, lose my self’s teeth, drag my self in the dirt saying relax Mom only dorks wear helmets.

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I see motherhood in an instant. I mean that I will have to be prepared for all of it at once, and I cannot imagine how I will have the energy and strength and wisdom to be all things to a toddler and a teenager and a post-millennial twentysome who lives in my basement all NOW, at the same time. But that is the calling; that is all the apples in the seed. Because after all it only took a second to begin, it only took a touch, his hit mine and pow shazam off to the great babyrace.

In that second that is my impending maternity is all of my son’s life; yes, he will be a son, even I can feel that, I don’t need Jude to interpret my dream after all.

Oh I want a pickle.

Please God stay in my throat and let me hear you when I speak to my son. Please give me the right things to say when the tubes come out of his sickly little arms like they did in the dream when he asks me the hard questions about life like “Mommy, did you remember to close the garage door?”

The trouble is I’ve closed the garage door so many times, God, that when I drive away, in that moment of quotidian self-doubt two blocks from home, I try to remember if I closed it, try to visualize, but that day’s memory is crowded in on by so many other identical days’ memories – the garage door closing in snow in rain in sun in dark winter months when I go to the store before the light comes out that I don’t know. The door might be wide open and I personally don’t mind but John doesn’t want to have to buy a new TV, I know, if it happens again, not that he gets a vote anymore on whether I put the door up or down.

So the chemicals will be dripping into Albert’s blood to kill him, because his name is Albert and he will die, and all I will be able to say is “I don’t know honey. Memory’s not a real thing. Memory is just a thing Mommy made up one day when she was trying to explain to you what it means to think you must be the same person every time you wake up or breathe.”

There’s a bird in my throat now.

Or there will be, a bird, a hummingbird, without your stillness, God, without your patience of silence, who else could be wise enough to give us no answers never answers not a shred of a clue of an answer, and I will say instead these things to my child, to my poor motherless child who will grow up idealizing his in absentia father, bastard, this weirdness will flutter out of my mouth at 60 beats a second – no, it must be more than that – sweet sugar water my heart beats and so much for wisdom.

One time I went walking and the sky was two blues and there were trees with leaves but rain had made the summer cool for a stolen evening and I saw a cop car with its blues flashing. It came up behind a car far down the block where I was walking and the two cars stayed there, both partially eclipsing each other’s radical lights, and the blue with a white sticker center, the blue I thought I would die when I got there, I thought that was it. It had been a good day, a day to point up to the sky and wag your finger like a football player and this seemed the end, I was ready. But I passed the cars and saw the blue dancing seizure from behind me now sprayed onto the trunk of a tree and a metal street sign a riot and I heard in my head

Stay alive.

Stay alive.

Stay alive.

The children eat tin but their stomachs will be iron.

Here you can’t walk at night because someone might blow up too close to you before you can spot them and run in the other direction.

“Ladies and gentleman, may I present the woman who loves and hates at the same time!”

Gladys stepped onto the stage. A picture of John descended, dangled on some fishing line. The crowd hushed.

Gladys looked at John’s image. And she loved him.

Gladys looked at John’s image. And she hated him.

She didn’t chicken out; she didn’t alternate these two things. She performed them both deeply and with commitment, and she performed them at exactly the same time, at all times, because to her marriage too was only one instant, all of it at once, and she was in it, she was in it.

It was a big hit, the act.

L is for Lingering

There was a flight of stairs and he, whoever he was, was trying to get down it. But something was wrong. John wanted to look down at himself but his gaze was fixed on the door at the bottom of the stairs, which was white and so could be seen even in the semi-darkness. There was a thumping sound, and a lurch forward. And a thumping sound, and a lurch forward. And then John woke up.

Or was woken, rather, by Gladys’s six girlfriends invading his tent.

“Gladys doesn’t have girlfriends,” he said, but this was lost on them as they pinned him down with a Dutch wife while they heated the wax and sipped white sangria.

They asked him questions without a proper response, like “What did you do with your love?” and they waxed off a section of body hair for every dissatisfaction. He gnawed on the Dutch wife for comfort.

When his body was bald they told him tales of other men Gladys had sweated through dorm room love with, which was bad, and then when those ran out they told him tales of her love for himself, which was worse. Then they read him passages from The Golden Notebook. Then they performed scene studies from Girls.

He begged them to stop and they said, “Did you think you wouldn’t have to pay penance in order to get our girl back? Did you think there would be no heavy lifting involved?”

“But I don’t want to get your girl back,” he said. “At least I don’t know if I do and if I don’t know you can’t know.”

“Oh come on, John.”

“Don’t make us laugh.”

“You need her.”

“Your story doesn’t get told if it isn’t next to hers.”

“I don’t want her back,” he said, and it stopped them for a moment. It surprised him too. “I don’t. You don’t know. It’s not just me. You can’t know the truth between two people unless you’re one of them,” he said.

This stirred them back to anger.

“What kind of rationalization is that?”

“Yeah, who are you, Woody Allen?”

“No, I am.”

Woody Allen was now in the tent, and the sight of him so enraged the GladysBacchae that they shattered the sangria glasses and gnashed their teeth. They would have committed a felony then and there but after all tomorrow was Monday and they had work in the morning so instead they away from that mandead place, screaming about how now they could never watch Annie Hall again.

“Thanks,” said John.

“I didn’t intend to help you,” Woody said. “I was here for a sorry test and I heard the sounds of women and wax so naturally I was intrigued.” He shrugged.

John knew about the sorry tests. Noah, who was the true holder of the title Sorriest Man Alive, would sit quietly with a person for a moment, hold his or her hand, look into the eyes, and then smile and walk away. Based on his verdict, the person’s name was added either to the Sorry or Not Sorry list. These lists were going to be used, John wasn’t entirely sure how, when the end of days started.

“Did you pass the test?”

“He said my movies did. Which is about as good, in my book.”

There was nothing to say for a moment.

“The heart wants what it wants,” John said.

“Who said that?”

“You did.”

“Which movie?”

“In real life.”

“Oh.”

Woody then took out a scrap of paper and wrote the line down to remember for later.

“Do you still believe it?”

Woody was a little miffed by the question. “Kid,” he said, “I knew I wanted to be able to close the door when I wanted to close the door. With the crazy lady we shall not name, that eventually became too hard. So I started over with some fresh Play-Doh. The crazy lady said that my new Play-Doh is mentally challenged and afraid of men, but she is only bitter because I have been able to shape my new Play-Doh into a house with doors that close and lock when I choose. The worst of it, from the crazy perspective, is that the Play-Doh, and I, are happy. Play-Doh can be happy too you know.”

JG2 32

He pulled a handful of locks out of his pockets. “For your tent if you want,” he said, shrugged, and set them down. “I have to go. The Knicks are playing.”

“No they’re not.”

But Woody was gone. John had five more minutes before he had to get up. He looked at the Dutch wife with unexpected longing. The Dutch wife seemed ambivalent.

That day John joined Noah on his inspection of the grounds. Close to the wall that was to hold back the sea were a number of gated communities. The gated communities, full of inhabitants prescreened for their sorriness, were building their walls higher and higher out of bricks in case Noah’s wall didn’t hold out. Down the road a bit from those communities were much smaller gated communities, of only a few houses per unit, and they were also building higher walls, of sticks. Farther down from that were the smallest gated communities. These were each filled with just one person, building higher and higher walls of mud around themselves. It was here they found Linda Hunt, who was nearly finished with her wall, being as short as she is.

JG2 34

“But why?” John asked.

“It’s no picnic being Linda Hunt,” Linda Hunt said. “You know I won an Oscar. But did you know I had to play a Eurasian dwarf to do it? A MALE Eurasian dwarf. Opposite MEL GIBSON. And now I get some roles playing judges and other cretins but there are only so many Law and Orders in the world, and it’s hard to parlay them into a reason to keep facing the slings and arrows of female-male Eurasian dwarfdom. And don’t think I’m taking the easy way out, pinching myself off here like the mug you make at a ceramics class you had a Groupon for and wanted to take your boyfriend but you broke up first. Yes, I may get the benefits of being CEO of my own private Idaho so to speak; I may get to drink this entire cask of Amontillado by myself, but I also have to be my own policeman and fireman and garbage collector and meteorologist. I’m a whole village now. You’re looking at the Linda Hunt Village. It takes a village to raise a child, you know, but you have to be able to keep all the Mel Gibsons and rising sea levels out of the village and this is the only foolproof way. Not that I’m pregnant but what are you doing tonight?”

Noah gently steered John away.

All over their were little CEOs of little villages, and from the looks of some of the shifty-eyed rich folks peering out from behind their brick curtains, some of the big villages could splinter at any moment.

“John,” said Noah, “I’m sorry we’re having to keep you a little in the dark about operations for the moment. But this thing is sensitive and we’re still waiting for your test results to come back from the lab.”

“That’s fine.”

“Is it? Tell me something, John.”

… “What?”

“Just tell me something.”

“Oh. Well. One time I shaved, and something distracted me and I didn’t rinse all the hair down the sink. I mean I didn’t rinse any of it down.

JG2 33“I was living with, I was in college at the time, see, and well my roommate’s sister was coming to stay with us that day, and a few hours later she arrived, and went to the bathroom, and screamed, cause there were all my dark hairs plastered against the plaster. And she came out, and they had seen me – oh, that’s the other part – they had both seen me unshaved before, and shaved now. I mean it was clear what had happened. They looked at me, expectantly. And I just said, well…and I blamed it on our other roommate, who was kind of a loser. I wish I hadn’t done that.”

“That’s more regret than sorry.”

“I’m not sure I know what this sorry thing is then.”

“I know.” And that was all John saw of him for the day.

That night John had the second episode of the same dream. He was advancing down a flight of stairs, headed for the white door, shadowed by that thumping for some reason. Again he tried to look down at himself, and then he was woken up by Gladys’s six brothers. Undaunted by the locks on the tent, they had simply ripped the thing apart.

“Gladys doesn’t have brothers,” he said, but this was lost on them as they forced John to take keg stands of their nasty homebrew.

“Why did you marry our sister if you weren’t going to support her child? Why did you inSEMINATE our sister if you weren’t – ”

John tried to explain that no matter what he told them it wouldn’t be true, not completely; it couldn’t possibly be an accurate recreation of the reality of the past. He tried to say there was no truth in reconstructing the past, not even personal truth because no one could remember it long enough or write it down clear enough for it to actually be real. He tried to explain the truth was a wife and all we have is Dutch wives but they did not know what a Dutch wife was and would likely not have accepted the metaphor even if they had.

They got him so wasted on the vinegar swill that he was easily led to the Linda Hunt Village, and didn’t even protest as they packed him in mud not far from her door (now permanently closed). It wasn’t until they were gone that he began to realize he’d been buried alive.

This had happened to him before, and recently. On his New Year’s trip to Alaska he had visited the bus where Alexander Supertramp, aka Christopher McCandless, had ended his journey into the wild. Gladys was supposed to have gone with him. He had watched a number of E. M. Forster movies with her as a trade, but obviously that didn’t work out. So he went by himself and only took rice (when in Rome) and it snowed sure enough and he was stuck and starving when one morning – or night, since one was like the other – someone clawed through the snow.

A haggard-looking man, not unlike himself, with a sack of rice. “I watched both Bridget Jones movies to get here,” he told John, “but my wife ran off with a cardboard cutout of Colin Firth instead.”

So they stayed and it snowed and they starved until a sorrowed-looking young woman dug them out. “I listened to six Ani DiFranco live double albums,” she said. “Then she told me I wasn’t normcore enough. Or too normcore. I DON’T EVEN KNOW.”

They huddled together and agreed that John was the worst of all three of them and they sucked their hard rice pellets but there was no peace, as more and more poor unfortunate souls kept scrabbling through the snow before anyone could die or even get a good psychosis going.

So John set off on his own again and went up to the Grizzly Maze where Timothy Treadwell had died at the hands of the creatures he loved, and also let his ladyfriend be eaten in the process. Treadwell was a self-proclaimed user and loser before he met the grizzlies, the communion with whom gave him something to live for. John figured the choice between a life’s meaning and a quick death wasn’t one to sneeze at.

He had forgotten that bears hibernate, of course.

When he finally dug through into an actual grizzly den, Mr. Chocolate, a Treadwell favorite, raised his head sleepily. John thought, Here we go! Life!

But Mr. Chocolate just went back to sleep. In fact all the bears – Tabitha, Rowdy, Sargeant Brown, even the evil Bear 141 himself – smelled something on the Lake man that made them pity him, which made them ignore him, because grizzly bears ain’t got time for pity.

JG2 35

John ate some raw salmon, made a few cave paintings of Gladys, and went home.

Suddenly, the mud around John began to crumble as giggles filled the air around him. He found himself blinking into the flashlights of a group of rainbow children.

“Oh, sorry,” their Mom-ish ringleader said. “We’re looking for 276 schoolgirls, and you’re not any schoolgirls.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“No no, it’s better that you aren’t. For you I mean.”

The children pulled John out of his cocoon.

“You’re Mia Farrow,” he said.

She smiled. “I’m me.” She produced a bag of juice boxes for the kids. She let John have one too. Hawaiian Punch.

“These are your children. You just keep getting more and more.”

“Being able to take care of someone is a special blessing.”

“But. I’m sorry this may be the live burial that’s making me so uncharacteristically blunt: Don’t you think it might be a pathological need you have? You help others to help yourself? Or to avoid helping yourself?”

“Maybe,” Mia Farrow said, before taking a crayon out of the hand of a small girl. “We don’t eat that,” she reminded. “I don’t have a lot of time to sit and think about those things. If I wrote a screenplay a year they would probably all be the same. Moses,” she said to a boy, “we ask before touching, don’t we?”

“Can I touch you?” Moses asked. John somewhat reluctantly nodded. Moses touched his hand, too shy to hold it.

“They would all be about taking care, my screenplays, and that’s a story pleasantly exhausting to live and perfectly boring to tell. We should get going.”

Just then a bulldozer beeped its way over. From the looks of it the intention of the driver was to barricade John and/or anyone else into personal vaults. For their own good, of course.

“I think what you’re doing is wrong,” Mia Farrow said to the bulldozer and to the bulldozer’s driver. Bulldozers almost always don’t work without drivers.

“Man is not an island!” Mia said. The dozer wasn’t stopping. She turned to John. She held up a sign. It said, #itdoesn’ttakeavillage.

He said, “What does it take?”

She said, ” – ”

The bulldozer went right over her. John pushed the children out of the way and the children pushed John out of the way and somehow they all pushed each other out of the way except for Mia Farrow and the bulldozer went on.

John got down on his knees to try to dig her out, but Moses said, “Can I touch you?”

John, distracted, said, “Fine,” so Moses put his hand on John’s shoulder and said, “It is okay. This is how she wanted to go.”

“THIS is how she wanted to go?”

Moses smiled. The children left to take care of themselves.

“John!” Linda Hunt called to him from inside her village. “You need to get out of here!”

“Why? I mean other than the obvious reasons, like torture.” His body hair was growing back and it was itchy as SIN.

“Because you’re not sorry, and when Noah finds out – ”

“How do you know I’m not sorry?”

“I ran the tests. I tried to delay the results coming back as long as I could.”

“I don’t know, Linda Hunt, I feel pretty sorry.”

“You might feel sorry, but Noah’s talking about being sorry. I can feel like a firefighter whenever I’m confronted with a towering inferno or the impulse to save cats and babies, but if I don’t train and listen and practice the acts that go along, well, would you want me between you and a fire?”

“I’d want anyone between me and a fire.”

“HA HA old man!”

“Why does Noah get to decide? What makes him so sorry?”

“The flood of course. It was only his family saved, remember.”

“Aha! That’s survivor guilt! That’s not sorry.”

“I haven’t finished. Only his family was saved. Which means his descendants are responsible for everything that’s happened since then.”

“Huh.”

“And he figures it’s been a bit more bad than good.”

“Well, the Inquisition and stuff, balanced against the pyramids – ”

“Slaves built the pyramids.”

“Yeah okay. I can see how owning all of human history could make you sorry.”

“Yes. But you are not sorry, John. You are something else.”

“What am I?”

“Sad.”

“Oh well FINE. Thank you SO MUCH for that ENLIGHTENING diagnosis. I’m so glad I came to the edge of the WORLD or wherever the hell we are – listen just leave me out of your walls and villages and boats, alright? I don’t want to be in on or near them anyway.”

“Who said anything about a boat?” Linda Hunt said. John was gone. “He can’t possibly know about the boat,” she said to herself.

John walked home. It took a while.

The first thing he noticed, upon turning onto his street, was a trashcan on top of his car again. This was the straw that broke the even-toed ungulate’s back. John took the trashcan from the roof of his car and threw it into the window of the house opposite. The window shattered. A moment. A light switched on. A man stepped out of the broken window. He had large eyes, a bathrobe, and wild steely hair.

“Thank you!” he said.

“Why?”

“But of course, because if you throw something away, you can’t get it back unless someone gives it back to you. Them’s the rules.”

“But why did you throw this away if you wanted it back?”

The man cocked his head. “Oh,” he said. “Pity. I thought you understood.” And then he picked up his trash and walked back through his window.

John climbed into bed and fell into a quick sleep. He was coming down the steps to the white door, thumping, but the thumping was doubled this time, like a thump and its equally thumping echo. He woke up from a knock on his door. His white door. He opened it. A female form stood there, holding a cluster of envelopes and magazines. He looked down at the anchor where her right foot should be. He looked up at the stairs she had climbed down.

“You’re Paloma Palumbo,” he said, in almost a whisper, like a child caught making fun.

JK is for Just Kid-ing

Gladys was still creating her act and had not made her stage debut yet when the Ubanian Emperor arrived one day to take her to lunch. After serving two soggy Waldorf salads, his attendants were ordered away.

“Is that because you’re afraid of them exploding on the food?”

“No. It is because I want you alone.”

Gladys noticed something about the way he said no. It’s almost as if his no had an extra and unpronounced ‘n’ on the end.

“You have maybe guessed who I am?” he said, allowing his real fake accent to thicken over his fake fake one.

“Well, I guess you’re the Ubanian Emperor, but it’s not really a fair game since you told me.”

“There is not something familiar about me?”

Gladys did admit to herself, with whom she was getting along nicely these days, that there was something a little familiar about the eyes.

“I have to tell you. I am not really blue. This is paint.”

“Yes, I know that. All Ubanians are painted.”

“Yes, but I am painted painted. I mean I do not paint myself because I am Ubanian pretending to come from the sea. I paint myself pretending to be Ubanian pretending to come from the sea.”

“I have no idea what’s happening.”

“My name is Jean.”

“Jean?”

“Oui. I come a secret agent working on behalf of the King of France.”

“I thought France had a president.”

“It does. The king has been in exile for hundreds of years now. You see, madame, Louis Seize was never executed. He was spirited away at the last minute when, en route to his beheading, he sneezed.”

Here Jean paused, for effect.

“When you sneeze, of course, it is the body’s attempt to free itself of the soul. The soul is a disgusting thing which clouds the body. The body is naturally good. It expels waste. It fights infection. It does not shove several eskimo pies into its mouth in a fit of loneliness.”

“That’s true.”

“So the king sneezed and his trusty advisor sucked in all of the air and fluid coming out of his nose at exactly the right moment, thus gurgitating his soul.

JG2 28

“His advisor then had a son, who had a son, and so on. Meanwhile Napoleon and the other pretenders assumed rule of the land, but the one true royal line is quite intact, and we loyal subjects eager await the moment when the heir may emerge to the throne. But that day is not yet. You see, before he was not killed, the His Majesty Louis XVI became obsessed with life in the way that only a king may. The guillotine loomed and he began to dine seven times a day, with five enemas in between. He ordered in exotic birds and mimicked their melodies. He hired an army of perfumiers to present him with every scent known to the imagination. He slept only for two and two quarters hours a night. He used to invite giant fat women into his bedchamber simply to smother him with their enormous aliveness. He paid for royal expeditions to the ends of the earth in order to find the origin of life, which he thought might bring him some comfort in the face of the chaos that swirled around Paris. Perhaps if he knew where we came from and what we came for he could face the wicked truth of revolution. Well. Roughly one hundred and eighty years after his failed execution, we found it.”

He gestured to the air around him.

“This tiny democratic republic with a nice stretch of prime oceanfront real estate. It also has many mountains with very deep dark caves. It was here, on an expedition financed by the heir of Louis XVI, that evidence was discovered of the first human beings as we know them. Evidence much older than that found at the Ngorogoro Crater and other false origin points. Much celebration was had that day in the halls of the king. We prepared a great festival to honor the occasion, and to reveal that it was the exiled French monarchy which had made such a thing possible. To be the chairwoman of such a fete, we invited Miss Loretta Lynn. We thought the first lady of American country music would be a good fit since she crawled out of the dark mines of Kentucky and humans crawled out of the netherparts of Ubania. As you now know, this was a terrible mistake.”

He took Gladys’s hands across the table.

“The time is ripe again for monarchy. It is a dark age and the people are afraid. There is too much noise and gridlock in democracy for the safety and certainty that can only be provided by l’etat c’est moi. When there is peace in Ubania, the King of France will take the credit and use the positive PR to reclaim the throne.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I believe you have a unique role to play in restoring order.”

“Oh, my role! Yes, it’s coming along. I’m not sure it’s all that exciting, but Agatha says it’ll do.”

“I do not mean the circus.”

“Then what do you mean?”

“I mean your womb.”

“Oh. Well, my womb currently has no vacancies at the moment.”

“Yes, but it shows off wonderfully how full of life you are, in the literal and figurative sense.”

“I’m glad you think it’s wonderful.”

“The man who has been inside you does not agree?”

“Is it that obvious? I’m sorry. It’s hard to be somewhere where everything reminds me of him. Everything has a memory tied to it here.”

“Here? In Ubania? Like what?”

“That tree out there.”

“What about it?”

“John and I have a tree outside our window.”

“Like that one?”

“No, it’s a different kind of tree.” She smiled softly. “I hope his fingernails get pulled off one by one.” She laughed. “I’m sorry I’m going on and on about my husband and I hear when you’re having sexual tension with a stranger you’re not supposed to do that.”

“Ah, you hear this?”

“In books and films and the like. Songs. John believes there is only one perfectly executed love song, and that it’s ‘You’re the One,’ the version by The Vogues from 1965. I don’t understand it because the verses are about how sweet the love is, and it’s in present tense, but the chorus is about how much he longs for and misses her. Are they together or not? It’s a confusion that is never fully resolved and in fact ‘miss’ is the last word of the song. So. That says a lot about John I guess. And me since I’ve spent so much time thinking about it.”

“I’d hate to think we haven’t had a perfectly executed love song since nineteen hundred and sixty-five.”

“We have. The perfectly executed love song is growing inside me. Right now it’s just a line, a single line that gets stuck in your brain, but it’s going to be a full symphony so complex you’ll forget more of it than you remember no matter how hard you try.”

“Well, I do not mind that you speak so much of your husband. What is the alternative? You do not tell me what is on your heart? We speak of rain the park and other things?”

“The rain the park and other things! See, I think that’s a perfect love song.”

JG2 29

“I thought you might. The story of a girl who slips in through your eyes and infects your very brain. A girl who just has that je ne sais quoi. You cannot explain it. You need to be around her. You want to live a hundred lives and learn her a hundred times.”

“I think there must be as many perfect love songs as there are teenagers on the planet at any given moment.”

Jean reached down and plucked a blossom from one of the many bouquets gracing the table. He put the flower in her hair.

She blushed. “Look you’re a very nice Frenchman and I’m sure you saw this coming I certainly did but it might be better if I stay a pregnant woman etched on a Greek vase to you. What I mean is an idea in your head.”

“Do not be afraid of life.”

“Oh I’m not. I love life. I want life to continue forever.”

Just then, everything went dark.

“Whoa,” Gladys said. “Did I do that?”

“Ah, this is the Ubanian sunset. You must have missed it on the other days. There is no twilight here, due to our particular geographical location and the extremity of the mountaintops. The sun beats on until poof, gone. I think this must have contributed to early man’s sense of good and evil.”

He lit a candle.

“I shall have you taken back. And then, tomorrow, allow me to call on you. There is something I must show you.”

“Jean. You’re the King of France, aren’t you?”

And he did that French thing, where he answered and did not answer.

Back at Saints HQ, Ubanian Lisa was just wheeling in Alex.

“Look Gladys!” Alex called to her. “They painted me blue because I’m so skinny! They thought it was because I was a starving Ubanian and not because I’m blessed.”

“How, nice!”

“I think I’m really getting along with them. Lisa even taught me some Ubanian slang. Here. Tell me something that’s really obviously true.”

“Alright. Well, it sure is hot here.”

“No duh!”

Alex and Ubanian Lisa laughed and high-fived.

“It means like no kidding. All the cool kids are saying it.”

“Interesting!”

“Wow I laughed so hard today some of my teeth are loose.” She began to root in her mouth.

Agatha came close. “Have you had your communion wafer today, honey?”

“No, I divvied it up for some kids at the government school because their teacher blew himself up in front of them and I felt bad.” She pulled out a tooth. “Oo, that’s a big one. Wheel me to bed, Agatha!”

Agatha began to wheel her off.

“You think the tooth fairy comes if it fell out from malnutrition?” Alex asked.

“If she does she must be one busy bitch.”

And they were gone. Ubanian Lisa smiled shyly at Gladys. “Sorry about the slang.”

“Oh don’t be sorry. Kids will be kids.”

“I mean sorry it is so lame. The satellite signal has to bounce in and out of many caves to get to us here. So by the time we see the TV it is many years old.”

“I see.”

JG2 31“In the same way it takes years for the light of a star to get to you and many stars we see are already out but we don’t know yet.”

“That’s true.”

“You seem uneasy around me. Is it because you are afraid you will accidentally do something racist?”

“I guess it is. I’ve never had a Ubanian friend before.”

“That is fine. Please come and sit down with me and have a semi-long semi-important chat. Girl talk. If you are going to help us you must know us.”

“I’d love to do that.”

They sat side by side.

“My father did not paint a totally accurate picture for you,” Ubanian Lisa said, then looked around suspiciously. “Do not tell him this. I am secretly a Sissy.”

“Oh!”

“He has given you a twisted approximation of our faith. We believe in Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn because she is fake. We renounce Loretta Lynn as Loretta Lynn because she is real. How much better that Sissy Spacek could embody the feelings of someone who was not herself? This is empathy.”

“That’s what you believe in? Empathy?”

“Above all else.”

“You kill people in the name of empathy?”

Ubanian Lisa made the eekamakajagoogoo gesture.

“Oh. Ee-ka…”

“Eekamakajagoogoo. Half a bucket of yes – ”

“Fifty cents of no.”

“Yes. Sometimes it is hardest to empathize with those closest to us.”

“I know what you mean. I, my act in the, show is I. Well, I love my husband and hate him at the same time.”

“Ah. You are living eekamakajagoogoo.”

“I guess I am.”

“Very special. You and Loretta Lynn have this in common.”

“Oh really?”

“Oh yes! Do you not know of her difficult marriage to Doolittle Lynn, so nicknamed because of his special talent to avoid work? Ah my god! What a love story. But a hard love. Like yours must be. Does your husband beat you?”

“Oh, no.”

“Does he throw the food you make him to the dogs?”

“No, he’s allergic. To dogs, not food.”

“Has he slept with your brother’s wife?”

“No.”

“Your son’s girlfriend?”

“No.”

“Did he run off when you were pregnant and get syphilis from another women and make love to her in the house he was building for you?”

“That has not happened yet, no.”

“Doolittle did all of these things to Loretta and more.”

“Well, you know marriage troubles are really relative. You know what they say, every happy family is exactly the same, every unhappy one is its own Picasso of grief.”

“Yes, I have heard that.”

“Did Loretta and Doolittle ever sort of, level off?”

“Level off?”

“Did it ever get easier?”

“Oh no. Worse. Every time he pledged to not be bad and then was bad again, can you not see how it must have been the pain of all the times before combined, re-added, doubled onto her shoulders? He drank so much they had to cut little pieces of his body off one at a time because they were too full of poison. But Loretta Lynn stayed to the end and held his stumpy little body as he died.”

JG2 30“Why? I mean, has she, do you know why?”

“She herself only fully knew why after his death. She said that life with him was hard, but life without him was harder. Somehow her body knew this when her soul didn’t, and her body kept them together.”

“That’s nice.”

“I think it is because her body could not hear the difference in two sounds. Doolittle, for short they called him Doo. Doo she called him always. D-o with an extra o. And I think the ears heard Doo, and the brain thought both of his face and of doing. Do, do, do, and the extra O, for extra doing. Extra effort. Extra trying in the face of hardness. Over and over she heard it, it seeped into her skin, it was a part of her purest self.”

Gladys nodded. “Yeah. I should have married a man named Peace.”

“Yes, or Doubleorgasm.”

They laughed.

“I hope you will be good for us, Saint Gladys.”

“I’m not – ”

“We say we understand eekamakajagoogoo, but I think we have forgotten the real meaning. Which is what you do. You live life which is both love-hate, not too much one or the other. I think my people are like those stars I said. We are already burned out even though you can still see us. You can remind us. Show us the way back to balance of light and dark. Or else a new fire will spark in us and we will kill each other again.”

She touched Gladys’s hand. There was an explosion nearby. Ubanian Lisa checked herself, first, to see if it was her. No one really knew how sad you had to be to pop, so no one never knew it wasn’t them until they knew it wasn’t them.

Some of it had sprayed onto Gladys’s face.

“That one was close.”

“Yeah.” She wiped her eyes.

I is for Irradiate

This one begins in the middle not of the story but of John. In the middle of John was the loss of his parents. It was the center of his onion, the nougat of his Snickers. They weren’t dead, unless they were, but he had lost them one day without warning.

It happened like this. One day while courting John brought Gladys to meet the folks. You had to pass through several gates and go over a few moats and answer some culturally biased SAT questions about pocket squares and marmalade before you got clearance to the cul-de-sac, and once the lovebirds made it through, John saw the house was gone.

Gladys looked at John before she opened her door, thinking maybe he needed a moment or something. They had already listened to “At This Point In My Life” three times on the trip over, but.

“It’s gone,” John said.

Gladys looked at the house. “Well you know what they say: you can’t go home again. Come on, the apple dumplings are getting cold.”

“But the house is gone.” He pointed.

“That house?” She pointed.

They got out of the car. John said there was no house and Gladys said there was one. John threw a rock to prove his point and it went through his parents’ bay window.

Gladys rang the doorbell, even after John’s father had come out through the garage to see about the hooligans. She believed in making a good impression.

John didn’t see his father, or hear anything more than a slight hiss, as air out of a balloon. This left Gladys to her own devices, which she found rude but handled as she had handled the Tracy Chapman hat trick.

“I’m Gladys. I’m the woman for your son,” she said, “and these are apple dumplings. And the window was broken by a community college student who then ran away in glee.”

“Hellfire!” the old man said. “Was it one from the suburb campus or the inner city?”

“He looked inner city, but not in a race way.”

“No, race has nothing to do with it. Well, we’ll have to change the questions if it’s getting that easy. Maybe something about cufflinks.” He shook Gladys’s hand. “Where’s John?”

John was standing right next to him. They couldn’t even smell each other’s bay rum cologne.

“I think I know what’s going on here. But first you need to let me in so I can put these dumplings down they’re really very heavy.”

Gladys explained to John’s parents, as John sat on what looked to him like a pile of air but was really a loveseat, about how West Indies people couldn’t at first see Columbus’s ships because they were so far removed from their possible frames of reference.

JG2 24

“It’s called perceptual blindness,” Gladys said. “And it happens when the thing in front of you is so impossible your brain can’t even process it.”

“It’s also a load of hooey,” the old man said.

The old lady said, “Maybe we can find another word for hooey to use with this nice young woman we just met.”

“It probably is,” Gladys said, “more indicative of the ego of the Western invaders than the schemas of the noble savage, but I think today we’ve proven that its opposite is not a load of hooey.” Gladys served herself another apple dumpling. “You three,” she said, mouth full, pointing from John to his parents, “can’t see each other because you’re too UNimpossible.”

“So, too possible, is what you’re saying.”

“Yes, John, you could also call it too possible but I like mine better. You’ve seen each other so much, and heard each other so much, that now you’re blind to it.”

“Oh! Is that similar to the reason why so many car accidents happen within ten miles of the house?”

John turned to Gladys. “Did my mother just ask if this is similar to why so many car accidents happen within ten miles of the house?”

“She did! Did you hear her?”

“No, she just always brings that up if it’s in any way possibly relevant. She wants us to be careful.”

“Tell him that includes me too! I know I’m no ace driver like…like, oh, what’s that fellow’s name…the one in the movie with that girl from the soap I don’t watch…”

“Tell her she’s thinking of Keanu Reeves and making a reference to Speed but she always forgets that it’s Sandra Bullock who’s the one driving the bus.”

“Well I didn’t see it.”

John wasn’t like his sister, who had married that Arkansas magnate straight out of college, and who lived far away and called when she could. John had lived close, career-hopping before he landed on his nuts, even spending a tortured mid-twenties sojourn in the family basement. He’d gone on family vacations which were little more than the three of them huddled against tidal waves of silence, rehashing the same thoughts and reminiscences out of a long-instilled fear of the raised voice or the curt comment, as if family could, in the course of a dinner, break, irreparably, like a Hummel knocked from a coffee table. Actually, Hummels are pretty sturdy, so it was more like a glass Hummel, not that there is such a thing, knocked from a coffee table and then curb-stomped.

It had all come to be too much, which of course means it had all come to be too little.

So Gladys acted as a kind of conversational middleman for the Lakes, confirming for one party what the other had said, the joke the other had told, the NPR tidbit tossed out, the family memory undusted. Memories of a time when time moved like a train through stations, toward a destination, instead of what it did now.

They passed through a series of Sundays and holidays in this fashion, until one day while John reclined on an invisible armchair, settling in with a beer for a post-dinner discussion of nothing, and noticed that Gladys, helping his mother wash invisible dishes, was beginning to get a little fuzzy around the edges. Of his vision.

He got up. “We have to leave,” he said, and took his lady by the arm. She found it rude and terribly exciting. John drove her to his old high school’s parking lot and they fucked in the back.

“What’s come over you?” she asked when it was over and “Smoke and Ashes” played softly on.

He inspected her face. “You’re clear again,” he said. “You’re clear.”

He started the car. “It’s them or you,” he said, and they never went back to the Lake house again.

One morning Gladys woke up and found breakfast in bed. “Nothing’s too good for my green-eyed girl,” John said, through the rose in his teeth. Gladys knew she had blue eyes, or brown on a bad day, but she decided to let this horse find its own way to the barn. John babbled at the water cooler that day about what it’s like to make love to a greeney, which he said was the proper term for it, and he stopped at JCPenney’s on the way home to get a green scarf, “To bring out your eyes.”

This went on in various incarnations, until Gladys drew the line when John brought home a snake, “To bring out your eyes.”

At that point she pulled him close to her and let him gaze into her irises, which hadn’t a speck of the emerald city.

“There now,” she said.

“So blue,” he said. It was like seeing her for the first time all over, which of course was the point.

Gladys caught on to the game and created her own strangeifying exercises. At a restaurant one night:

“I’ll have the…” a little wrinkle appeared in the space between her eyes, “stee-ahk?”

“The which?” The waitress looked up from her pad.

“The stee-ahk?”

The waitress looked where Gladys pointed.

“The steak?”

“Steak.”

“That’s it!” John said. “I knew it wasn’t stee-ahk.”

Gladys objected. “It doesn’t count if you know what something isn’t, only if you know what it is.” She patted his hand.

“She’s always telling me that.”

“You want the steak.”

“Yes. And am I correct in assuming that ‘steak’ is…of the cow?”

The waitress looked at John. Then back at Gladys.

“Steak is beef.”JG2 25

“And beef is cow?”

“Beef is cow.”

“Why don’t they call beef cow, and steak cow, I wonder aloud,” Gladys said.

John knew. “Well you can’t order a cow, dear, they’d bring you the whole thing.”

“I guess that’s it. Cow is the one that moos?”

“How do you want the steak?”

“On a plate.”

This could go on for some time.

Shortly before Gladys left John, he took her to a special all-night dentist.

“We want the cyanide teeth,” he told the receptionist. “The fake teeth you bite down and release the cyanide with. In case there’s a revolution and we’re on the wrong side of it. We watched 12 Years a Slave last weekend, see.” The receptionist was black, but not in a race way.

“That poor Patsey. The soap scene? Forget it. Death first. That’s what we said. That’s what we both said.”

John looked at Gladys to keep up the act, but she had a faraway look in her muddy brown eyes.

“You don’t want the cyanide tooth, babe?”

“I’m pregnant.”

There was an all-night abortionist next door. John made the crucial mistake of letting his eyes flit to the left, the direction of the establishment, as his first reaction to the news.

JG2 26

Gladys left. She left the dentist, and two and a half months later she left John, who got the tooth anyway. Because that shit with Patsey really was ridiculous.

John went from being in the middle to being at the beginning, which is what we’ll do too.

Mr. Hetherington was dead and the snow was gone. It had happened gradually and then suddenly, like the Baltimore Colts’ bolt for Indy, and the only evidence now was some rubble in major parking lots: mountains of plowed snow dwindled to heaps of black ash, stubbornly asking that the genocide of warmth not be forgotten, but forgotten it was because people forget, even when they’re not trying as hard as John. It’s one of people’s finer qualities, in terms of how to get up in the morning.

Sara worked for the true Sorriest Man Alive, an entity she was now taking John to meet.

“We thought you might be a threat at first,” Sara said, “copyright infringement and all. The nature of our work, well, we need to chase down anyone who might be claiming the title, sort of like Susan G. Komen does, but with more harsh interrogation techniques. Then it turned out you were just, well, sorry.”

“Thank you.”

“Why don’t you want her to have the baby?”

“This is small talk? Is this small talk? Is this the Sorriest small talk ever or something?”

“It’s research.”

“What are you planning on doing with me?”

“Answer the question or I’ll have Linda Hunt zap you.”

Yes, it turns out that Sara’s rabbity companion, all this time, was actually Oscar-winner Linda Hunt, master of disguises, principal in Kindergarten Cop, and supporting star of NCIS: Los Angeles.

“Gee, I don’t know, do you want the different answers alphabetized or what? I mean have you read the latest report on climate change? The one that says we’re more fucked than we thought?”

“They all say that.”

“Exactly! EXACTLY.”

“She has read the report.”

The person who said those words was the Sorriest Man Alive. He was, perhaps not coincidentally, also the Oldest Man Alive. He had a staff and a beard and a cloak and all that. He spit into his palm and shook John’s hand. That’s just something he did.

“This is just something I do,” he said to John. “It’s a reminder. Memento diluvia.” He smiled. John fought the urge to wipe. “She’s read the report; all of us here have read the report. We read all the reports. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

“What are you doing?”

The old man took out an iPhone. “Siri, show John our work,” he said.

Siri displayed a picture:

JG2 27

“That’s our TURK, Siri, Jesus Fucking Christ every time.” The old man hit the phone in disgust. Sara took the phone away from him.

“What I would have shown you,” he looked darkly at the phone, “is a picture of the mighty wall we build.”

“A wall.”

“Yes.”

“To keep people out?”

“Not people.”

A pause.

“Okay, then what?”

A pause. He’s old, what are you gonna do.

“The sea.”

“The sea?”

“We’re building a wall to hold back the sea.”

John looked at Sara. She nodded. He looked at Linda Hunt. She farted. Then excused herself. He looked at the old man.

“Are you…?”

“My name is Noah.”