Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Laws of Disincorporation

Papers blow out of the windows above me like confetti, but I look around and there is no parade.
I crane my neck. Somewhere way up there is an executive sitting in a high-back chair behind a mahogany desk looking out the tinted windows who believes that he is a Peregrine Falcon with no enemies above him and only prey below. He stretches his arms out horizontally, stoops low, and slides around the office, whistling. Everything he sees is beneath him. He puts on his thick glasses and scans the short, squat office buildings and the sidewalks and streets swarming with toy cars and pot metal pedestrians dressed in colorful lead paint and thinks the cars would fit in the cigar box on his desk and a family of tiny people would fit in the palm of his hand. "I could hold them in there like flies, frogs, grasshoppers, mice." He leans back in his chair. "Falcon food, they look small enough for a falcon."
"Falcons don't eat people."
"Huh? What did you say?" I shook my head and rubbed my eyes. "I must have been daydreaming." 
The secretary looked up and said, "I didn't say anything." 
I am in the waiting room outside of that office at this very moment. I don't really remember how I got here. I can hear music coming from the white metal grillwork in the ceiling tiles, a plush, pillowy assortment of strings subtending a whining tenor who repeats the same verse every 23 seconds. I have been waiting to meet the president of the company to settle a dispute over payments. There is a man sitting next to me with black ink on his hands. He is eating his lunch. I look at him and nod and smile. "Great music occurs in 23-second cycles."
He frowned. "That is not funny. I have been counting that same 23 seconds for seventeen days. That's when I arrived in this office to shred important documents."
"Yeah, something about accounting. There is a mound of paper in front of me, it must be eight feet high."
"That's as big as my exaggerations."
"Funny, if I step back, it seems smaller and I feel disappointed."
"Why's that?"
"I hope the boss doesn't see it and threaten me with something cruel and unusual. I don't know why that is; you would think that if something has a certain mass, it would always display that mass regardless of circumstances and perspective, it would be understood to be that quantity of matter, and life would have a replicability, standardization, the orderliness of stiffly coreographed military parade. But just back away, and appearances take over and what once seemed comfortably large is terrifyingly small. 'Look how much my arms have shrunk, that is not my head anymore!'" He buzzed his hands like a housefly. 
"But that's - "
"They say that those pinholes of light in the night sky are actually monstrous balls of gas and flame larger than anything we could ever know but the problem of distance renders them harmless, mute, and unremarkable. And I am told that when a person shrinks to an atomic level, the mere atom is about the size and shape of the garden-variety, information-age, human being and thus, the child's balloon has enough atoms of helium to populate the entire African continent seven times over with magnetically charged people who speak in high-pitched voices. That is exactly what I am saying."
I nodded. "Sure." 
"But to try to shake hands with someone's electrons, and, woah, good luck. Neither of you would be very adept at that and it could easily be taken to be an insult and lead to, why, nuclear war. Of course, that depends upon what the cultural norms are in the particular country where these atoms reside. I suspect that this has been going on since the advent of the atomic-age, but now with chemistry on the loose, it's hard to tell where any given atom has originated. Oklahoma! Botswana! Perestroika! Maybe we all came from a common ancestor. We will call her Atomic Eve. 
"So, despite the fact that I have shredded to date, about 10,000 pages filled with names and dates and places and redactions, distance has a way of minimizing my accomplishments. The sad fact is, the law is, distance is inversely proportional to size. Don't show the boss until he stands so close he can feel the gravity of the mass and he finds his abdomen has tides. That leads to law number two: Distance is inversely proportional to importance."
Meanwhile, the secretary in the office is calling the boss on the intercom and asking him if he called. "Sir, did you need something?"
Just a whistling sound on the other end. I gave the fellow next to me a puzzled look. He had been licking the cookie in his hand, but instantly he stuffed it into his mouth. "I have to get back to work." Bits of cookie fell from his mouth.
The secretary shrugged. "That's been going on all day."
I thought, that's what the secretary said, but all day? My watch was in the pocket in my suit that is still at the dry cleaners. It's not really my suit, but I like to think so. I said to the fellow next to me, "What's the rush?"
"Documents, that's what. Mission plans. Strategic initiatives. Cooperative agreements. Personnel decisions. Letters from lawyers. Letters from politicians. Letters from stockholders. Sensitive. Confidential. Trade secrets. Do not copy. Destroy after reading. Cancelled checks. More cancelled checks. Plane tickets. Prescriptions. Subpeonas. Redactions. All of it disappearing, cycling back into insignificant, meaningless, wordless, raw cellulose, mere packing material, insulation, worm food. Everything here was written in disappearing ink. Like a contrail in the sky, the morning fog, that shadow that you cast at breakfast that becomes a sunny, white spot at lunch, hot to the touch. This is the business cycle, a corporate death pact followed by millions of paper offpsring, then an abrupt act of disincorporation, a commercial suicide, convincing proof that there is no life after Chapter 11. So as I watch as this business gets smaller by the minute, down to paper-thin slices, a third law comes into view: time is inversely proportional to size. Time shrinks objects too. Who knows the names of the cobbler, blacksmith, undertaker, and mercantiler from three centuries ago? They might be your great grandparents but how would you know anymore? How many flowers are on their tombstones?"
I leaned back in my chair and thought about what he said. The fact is, I have a science fiction novel, Don't Read This, that I have yet to open collecting dust on the bedstand in my asthetically disordered apartment. It's been there for weeks. It had great reviews, made a best-seller list, and I saw an extended interview with the author, D. R. Rellomhacs whose gracious elloquence captured my interest. However, as the days proceed, it looks less interesting. This is a trend. In time, it will cease to be interesting. In more time, it will become disinteresting. Even more time and it will become distasteful, gradually repellant, ultimately abhorrent, and should time exceed my life expectancy, the book would no longer exist. I might as well get used to it now and stop reading. OK, I won't read this.
I get up from the chair, the fellow has gone back to shredding by the copy machine. I stroll over to the window and survey the stout buildings that surround this skyscraper, named after some finanicer long deceased, remembered, I suppose, by historians, some students and instructors in architecture schools, and aging family members, but nobody else, certainly not by me, and what, I hear a whistling sound and look to my left and see a form pass by, a man in suit and tie, falling from this 83rd floor. 
"Mr. Swillage!" shrieks the secretary.
I watch the boss descending toward the streets below, flapping his arms, shrinking, shrinking, becoming a grey dot, a silent grey dot. I think, he doesn't look as big as he sounded and he certainly doesn't sound as big as I thought. And wait, where is he, I can't see him anymore. Just a big mushroom-shaped cloud of dust rising from the street below. Toy cars pull up, pot tin people gather around.
Law number four: Words shrink in the distance. Law number five: Words shrink over time.
The secretary turns toward me with red eyes. "Did you say something?"

Monday, May 1, 2017

No Immunization for This

Rain strips the color off of the leaves, raking the bark, steeping the branches like tea. The streets run with green, chlorophyll is the blood of trees. It's an acid rain, heavy with nickel from smelters to the north, pouring out change into the sky, buffalo stamped coins, Indian heads on little platters, a small token of appreciation for six million square miles of uncharted mineral and biological resources.  
Down the gutter it goes, filling the creeks with green, rivers run deep green, joining at confluences, doubling in size at every state line, surging onward toward the Gulf of Mexico, curving around goosenecks, carving outer banks, laying down sandbars, and spilling out onto the delta. There, it collapses at the shore, semi-conscious, a faint pulse, like a man shot and bled dry but with enough sense to die at home on his own doorstep in front of his family. There, at the shore, the Gulf lies dying.
Nothing lives out there anymore. Like playful seals, humorous balls of tar bob with the surf. A flock of plastic bottles mimics seagulls fishing for, well, edible bottle caps. Fishing nets might feel like the arm of a squid, and that garbage can lid that just passed beneath your boat is just a giant ray! Think of the opportunities we have created. I read that, actually, on a poster at the travel agency. There was a picture of a couple walking beneath the palm trees on a white sand beach with seagull-shaped bottles circling above their heads. "Make your own world!," it proclaimed, "Before it's too late!" 
The seagulls live on volatile organic compounds, mainly benzene; that's what makes them lighter than air. I saw a whole flock of seagulls evaporate one particularly hot afternoon in July while I was canoeing the Missouri River across Montana. The base of the clouds that afternoon was about 3000 feet and you could see the gulls condensing and reforming at the cloud base, that is, as the meteorologists like to say, the "lifted condensation level." The strong updrafts that day carried them into the jet stream and a fine anvilhead cloud formed, solid, frozen seagulls hovering miles above the open prairie that teemed with herds of grazing meteorologists. 
Make your own world, now.   
Speaking of which, someone said that life was first introduced to this stony planet from an asteroid that was infected with life. 
That's when a cosmetologist looked up from the peroxide-slickened sphere beneath her spinning hands and asked, "But how did that asteroid get life?" At that moment, a woman fell out of her chair and nearly busted her coiffure. 
Well, someone else piped up and said that life was introduced to that asteroid when it was hit by another asteroid that was infected with life. Fine. Then someone else said that life was introduced to that asteroid when it was hit by another asteroid that was infected with life. Then someone else said that life was introduced to that asteroid when it was hit by another asteroid that was infected with life. Then someone else said that life was introduced to that asteroid when it was hit by another asteroid that was infected with life. I heard a lot of people in that beauty parlor say the same thing over the course of an indefinitely long afternoon, and I believed that I was in a hall of mirrors with infected asteroids multiplying in every direction, but eventually, we ran out of hair, heads, and cosmetologists and life had been passed from one asteroid to another just like head lice in kindergarten at which point, the teacher would rightly ask, "Who started this?" And the wide-eyed children just shake their heads vigorously, scattering more lice across the room, and point to the child next to them. Nobody wants to be Patient Zero. "Do you want to be Patient Zero?" she asked the children. More lice shaken from one head to the next. Those tiny fingers might as well be loaded with biological weapons, mutant smallpox, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus; it's like a Mexican Standoff with 32 darling, diminutive drug smugglers pointing stolen handguns loaded with 45-caliber lice at each other, and everyone is afraid to say it again or everyone in the whole school, the whole county, the whole world will be infecting everyone at once. 
Ah, but it's too late, kids, it's way too late. Go ahead, point your finger and say, "Bang!" All of you. Nobody has the heart to tell them that just about everyone is infected with the head lice and chattering like feverish schoolchildren, shrieking, swooning, hysterical, passing the blame from one asteroid to the next, hoping that we never run out of asteroids to blame or that we run out of us or run out of interest, distracted by the thrilling, plastic seagulls thumping on the ground, piling up on the lawns outside of the classroom windows like hail. 
This was our big opportunity. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Life History of Garris in North America

I am being watched. Fifty blackbirds sitting on a frayed telegraph wire monitor my movements. The distance of one wing separates each bird. I have read that some birds can count, but it appears that these birds can read a tape measure. And they can perform. If I get up, they flap their wings, if I do nothing, they are motionless. If I move my hand, they move their heads. This reminds me of church, where the pastor makes a deft motion with his hand and the parishioners rise. He does it again, but in reverse, and the parishioners sit. I try it with these birds, but they only turn their heads. Get up, I say. Nothing. Confounded birds, they must be atheists.
So I flap my arms and they fly away, leaving the telegraph wire alone to sing in the strong breeze, the song of the prairie choir. I stand along an abandoned stretch of the Milwaukee Road. There are telegraph poles everywhere. A large portion follow the railroad grade, but others string across the prairie. I can see thousands of the poles have been cut off at the base, probably used as fuel by homesteaders. Much of this was used to make coke. Crumbling brick coke ovens, like yellow beehives, stand at the base of a sandstone cliff. The telegraph pole forests were cleared and the coal seams were emptied. The homesteaders fled. The only sound remaining was the telegraph line, singing a hymn of plenty:

I bless thee for the glad increase,
And for the waning joy,
And for the strange, this settled peace,
Which nothing can destroy.

With exception of the steam engine, crosscut saw, moldboard plow, and Winchester Yellow Boy. Early European explorers noted the abundance of telegraph poles in Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, describing some so large that it would take five men to span their girth. In 1802, the young French fur trapper Jacque LaMalheur noted the dense telegraph pole groves near modern-day Bad Handshake, Montana as he fled from Crow Indians:

I found refuge amidst the towering telegraph pole forests that clogged the valleys and crept up the north facing slopes. I climbed a particularly immense specimen that had been hollowed out by fire and had space within sufficient to fit several of the buffalowe and a war party or two. The Crow would call them baalaaxaachi balaxi balapaali or "crazy singing trees." And that they did. Their wiry tendrils would whistle in the wind and buzz like a beehive in spring during lighting storms, the sounds so persistent and unavoidable in that endless grove that any wandering man would be driven to disorientation and lunacy. Indeed, I discovered the bleached remains of several men along my escape and could only imagine the madness that filled their empty white skulls. Poor sods.    

Fortunately, LaMalheur was very hard of hearing, damage done by a childhood battle with rheumatic fever, and he passed through the telegraph forest without incident. Unfortunately, the tribal elders had a habit of speaking softly, in muffled tones. It was a skill they developed to mislead opposing tribes during councils. The lack of verbal clarity led to numerous unintended concessions by other tribes. During one conversation, LaMalheur misunderstood the words of an elder. His response was perceived as an insult and he was apprehended, disarmed, stripped naked, and told to run. Dozens, likely hundreds of young, sturdy braves pursued him across the ranges and valleys of central Montana for eleven months, eventually losing track of him in the sandstone bluffs in the Medicine Rocks. He wintered in a cave in the Black Hills and found refuge the following spring with friendly tribes in the central plains. He remained in the Platte River Valley for several years recuperating from his wounds. "My deepest wounds are psychic," he would write. "Sleepless months, death reaching out to me every night, a sudden fullisade of arrows out of the void, a knife sliding across my throat, another broken warrior hurled onto the campfire. I become rage. My mind has been hacked to pieces, it drains away like a prairie creek, thought by thought, a ribbon of red running down the gutter in the street below my barred window." That was in Montreal. He left the Platte River Valley and reached the Great Lakes. From Point Edward he took the steam engine to Montreal. He met a beautiful French seamstress in the business district, she tailored his shirts, and they were married. He opened a men's clothing store. His business flourished and it was said that every nobleman and politician was cut from LaMalheur cloth. That was until the Panic of 1857, at which point his business went into free-fall and he lost everything but one oversized yellow shirt. A year before his death in a tuberculosis sanitarium, he wrote his estranged daughter:

This is the first home I have known in years. I had been reduced to standing on street corners begging for food from the very men who took my money, home, and business. I suppose they would sell me stew from vegetables they stole from my own garden. At least the Crow allowed me to fight in my defense. An unclothed man with a war club is a heroic figure on the plains, but an unclothed man with a war club in the shadows of the financial district, it attracts swarms of police rattling nightsticks. I would rather be back on the prairie, running barefoot across cactus fields chased by Indian braves waving ball clubs than face one banker armed with a quill and an ink bottle. There is more death in his hand than an entire nation of plains warriors. The thugs stripped me beyond my clothing; they stole my identity and humanity. They have no souls, they are bloodless phantoms, stale fog driven away by the morning sun.

The early explorers remarked that it would take "one thousand years and one thousand regiments" to subdue the Great Plains. But they too, had not imagined the power of the plow, saw, and gun in the hands of thousands of settlers singing hymns of infinite bounty, infinite appetite, and infinite license. And the settlers could not imagine that the apparently flat expanse of the earth did not go on forever, that it was actually a curved surface, and that if they had continued westward for another 24,000 miles, the agitated figures they approached on the western horizon would be themselves in a heated dispute about who owns which of the four corners of the earth.
Well, imagine that. It was as if the flat earth theory still maintained its hold over the minds of men and women, that the forests, prairies, and wildlife would extend on to infinity like a straight line. Who knew that infinity ended right where you stood?
In niche theory, there is a location in an ecosystem with discreet parameters where a given species will thrive. When an individual vacates his niche, that opening may be filled by another of its kind or a different species that happens to thrive in the same niche.
It is like the taxi driver from central Africa who was taking my colleague and me back to our motel after a night at the opera, where we had endured the anarchist realism opera, So Turns the Virgin Soil of My Heart. It was late at night and we had been badly abused by the coloratura soprano. We had stopped at a restaurant that offered anonymous yet charming sausage objects and eventually slithered out the door and hailed a taxi. The taxi appeared alongside the curb, we opened the driver's side rear door and squeezed into the backseat. At the moment we entered the vehicle, the other rear door popped open and out tumbled another couple who were heading home from a sporting event. They were not expecting this. There was only room for two passengers in that back seat, no more. Being of superior size and strength, we displaced them. Also, my companion wore a particular perfume that had strong allelopathic properties that repelled rival females for a distance of 1.75 meters. Though it was objectively distasteful, I, being male, had a natural immunity to its effects and was largely unaffected. They couple was forced to search for a backseat in another taxi somewhere in that crowded urban maze. We cruised along the boulevard that night, successfully occupying our space, admiring the glitter and gold, the constellation of lights, rainbows of flashing colors that marked the commercial territorial boundaries. This was our niche that night.
That is, until we were evicted at an intersection by two escaped orangutans. We were at a great disadvantage.
Of interest is that allelopathic vapor. As long as my female companion was in my presence, I could not approach any other female, even my sister, mother, or able Aunt Gladys carrying seven hot apple pies, one on each ample arm. It kept all of the same gender at a specific distance, the aforementioned 1.75 meters. I believe that this was the same distance of one armspan of the female gender because none of the blows landed.
I mention niche because the telegraph poles (Garris nugas), once they were extirpated from the northern Great Plains, were supplanted by a hardier species native to the forests of coastal New England, the telephone pole (Garris taceas). They are from the same genus, and are superficially similar, an upright, rigid stalk reproducing vegetatively by tendrils and runners. Perching birds that had utilized the tendrils ("wires") of the telegraph poles seem to have accepted the tendrils of the telephone pole without any ill effect. But the potential for a devastating expansion of telephone pole range is high: Telephone poles have an unusually thick cuticle composed of a heavy, dark green oil impregnated with paraffin and a much deeper root system than any other species in its niche. These give it a greater ability to withstand the drought, high temperatures, and high winds characteristic of summers in the western plains and intermountain valleys. It has already been reported in the Palouse and Platte River valley. In view of the competitive advantages of telephone poles, it is doubtful that a successful reintroduction of telegraph poles is possible. I would have a better chance of evacuating a taxi full of orangutans.
Garris ructabunde
Sadly, another introduced species has taken hold on the Great Plains. The power pole (Garris ructabunde) is also native to the eastern seaboard. Introduced in the 1920's, it now occupies a much wider niche than other pole-and-tendril species, able to thrive in a broad spectrum of altitudes, climates, and soils. Ecologists fear that it has the potential to displace many other species across many trophic layers. Recognizing the hardiness and rapid growth of the species, scientists selectively bred and genetically modified it, producing a large, highly conductive variety called transmission tower (Garris ructabunde horribilis). It dominates the landscape, crowding out native and non-native pole species. Like its shorter-statured cousins, the transmission tower propagates vegetatively via tendrils. However, these tendrils double as a sophisticated defense mechanism against herbivores and pathogens. Deep within the parent plant, a complex electro-chemical process produces a voltage that is carried through the tendrils in specialized iron and aluminum-based fibers. While providing energy to the vegetative offspring, this creates an electromagnetic field that induces a fatal current in plants that reside anywhere within 50 meters of the tendrils. You have certainly seen this. Have you noticed the persistent lack of vegetation beneath transmission towers and their tendrils? Indeed, it is not uncommon to see scorched trees and shrubs beneath the towers and tendrils, victims of a recent voltage event, likely the current surge seen during intense heat or cold. Having cleared the landscape, transmission towers are free to propagate without competition.
Or predation. Scientists have labeled this "the world's first human-engineered carnivorous plant." While providing voltage, the tendrils also snare insects, bats, and birds, particularly those that fly at night and at high speeds, such as waterfowl and shorebirds. They even snare the occasional light plane! This has led scientists to warn that the species may be adapting to prey on higher life forms. Others have speculated that the gene splice inserted a hunger for mammalian flesh. Geneticists involved in the development of transmission towers insist this was not the intent of the scientists or the towers themselves. "An anomaly," stated one journal. Regardless, the creatures snared in the web of tendrils flutter to the earth where they decompose, providing nutrients essential to the growth and development of the wondrous transmission tower communities around the globe.
Well, a study conducted by Dr. Allan Holdsfroth of Groveland University showed that in one year, an estimated 1,550,000 birds, 750,000 bats, and 27 light planes were snared by transmission tower-and-tendril communities across North America. That was an increase of 57% from an identical survey conducted three years earlier.
Shortly after this data was released, politicians and regulators summoned the geneticists involved in the development of transmission towers to a hearing where they were to account for the suppression of native plant species, the degradation of habitat, the decline of associated wildlife, and the death of 45 humans in 27 light plane crashes. Of the twelve original geneticists, only nine were able to attend; three were injured when their twin-engine Cessna clipped a wind generator en route and plowed into a wildlife refuge, killing six trumpeter swans. The scientists were able to crawl out of the wreckage before the plane sank into the swamp, but the pilot was never found. Their injuries were not considered life-threatening.
When the remaining scientists took their seats, I noticed that each one positioned his chair exactly 1.5 meters away from the adjacent scientists, regardless of gender. That was a clear indicator that they could determine distances. I looked at the politicians and regulators, and they were doing the same, but I noticed that someone else had positioned the chairs for them. For a moment I thought it was a coincidence, or the seating was fixed, but when one scientist excused himself to tend to an urgent physiological matter, nobody moved their chairs to occupy the temporary expansion in vacant territory. However, upon his return, he moved his chair about a half meter toward the scientist on his left. Immediately the entire row of scientists adjusted their chairs accordingly, regaining the 1.5-meter separation. A collective sigh could be heard.
As the hearing stretched into the evening, and the questioning intensified, it became apparent that the separation was a survival strategy.
"So who approved the gene transfer?" asked the senator.
"He did," said one geneticist. "No he did," said another. "No she did," said another. Each scientist pointed at least one or more fingers at one or more scientists other than themselves.
"Does this mean that you all approved of the gene transfer?" asked another senator. This is when the 1.5-meter distance came into play.
"You lie!" shouted one geneticist, taking a swing at the person to his left. He missed.
"No, you lie!" shouted another geneticist, taking a swing at the person to her right. She too, missed. And so it went down the line through nine geneticists.
Thus, although each one shouted and took a swing with one or more hands at one or more scientists other than themselves, nobody was hurt. Thus, the separation was a survival mechanism, assuring that the species continued to thrive even as they competed for dominance.
Nevertheless, when it was time to adjourn the hearing, and the chairman motioned for the nine scientists to rise, they only turned their heads. When he said, "Get up" they did nothing. "Confounded scientists," he muttered, and threw his hands into the air. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Barbie Dolls Infect Thousands in China

Humanitarian Crisis Looms
Refugees Mass at Borders
Special Report to The Parallel Planet

Parents fled with children tucked under their arms as a wave of rabies-infected Barbie dolls swept across the Chinese countryside a week ago. Swarms of the popular children's toy cut through chain link fences at a manufacturing facility in Heshuan Province and poured into the surrounding neighborhood, ransacking homes and stores. Broken glass littered the streets in the business district of Tenteng where thousands of the dolls broke into upscale boutiques and carted off clothing, exciting hair care products, and designer perfumes.
"We thought that this was a publicity stunt, maybe showcasing an improvement in the product line," said stunned assembly line worker Chen Li Chi as she kicked a charred doll across the parking lot, "But when they flipped our car and kicked out the windows, I knew it was a fight for survival."
A Rapid Advance
Hundreds of unsuspecting girls in the village of Hungten were trampled to death by the dolls when they rushed to welcome the mob, believing it to be a token of good luck and happiness in the upcoming Chinese New Year, the year of the Pox.
"They have the advantage over us, the element of surprise," said a shopkeeper in Hungten, as he swept a jumble of broken glass and plastic limbs in front of his bakery. "Sweep away the monsters and demons. I thought that the schools were keeping us competitive."
To the north, reports emerged that the swarms had broken into a grade school and mauled hundreds of schoolchildren. Officials, fearing rumors that the dolls may have been carriers of the rabies virus, set up emergency vaccination clinics. Survivors streaming from one smoldering village claimed that the dolls were scavenging for carrion, road kill. "They are craving protein," announced a military official, a dust mask obscuring his identity. "Some villagers thought that they would be satisfied with ears of corn. They trampled it underfoot. Now we are guarding the sausage factories to the south as a precaution." Several men fleeing the carnage claimed that they saw three Barbies take down a deer and bury its carcass. "They came back two days later to gorge themselves on the bloated remains," shuddered resident Ho Chun. "It was horrible. And the prettiest dolls ate first."
Reports of the outbreak were slow to reach Texchi, to the south. By the time food, medicine, and military arrived, thousands of traumatized survivors were massed on the shores of the Hunam Reservoir. "Do not fear them," shouted a soldier through a megaphone. "Yes, they can float, but they fear the water. Stay near the water." Despite the warning, dozens lost their lives when they were ambushed in the hills surrounding the reservoir. "The Barbies work in packs of four or five," stated a visibly agitated firefighter. "One will play dead. You reach down to pick it up. Next thing, you are surrounded. You don't have a chance. Look what happened to the riot police."
He was referring to the Sechau Riot Brigade, sent in by helicopter to rescue a rural community in the path of the advancing Barbies. The firefighter looked toward the horizon. "They thought they had them cornered in the forest, but it was a trap. It was just a trap." The Barbies set fire to the forest and the prevailing northerly winds caught the flames and overran the brigade. "It was horrific." His hands trembled. "Then they hunted the survivors like tigers. We advance, they retreat. We camp, they harass. We tire, they attack. We retreat, they pursue. I am afraid."
Several communities report the burning of woodlands. "One spark sets a fire. We think they are setting fires not only to drive off the military, but to drive off competition," said Wo Chi, senior research scientist with the Seven Mangoes Institute. "They mineralize the soil. We think they can more readily colonize a sterile environment, a bare mineral soil free from rivals." He paused to wipe his forehead. "One bright spot: They may be averse to organic matter. It might be a key to winning this war." But he cautioned, "Even if that is true, time is running out. We believe that they may be reproducing asexually, probably through self-fertilization. No military can keep up with this."
Children at Risk
Husbands in some cities overrun by the dolls have renamed their wives "Barbie" and outfitted them with blond, polycarbonate wigs in an attempt to reclaim dominance. "This doesn't appear to be working," said spokesman Wei Ciatan. "Schoolgirls loyal to Barbie can tell the difference. Years of exposure to vinyl chloride has heightened their sensitivity to natural Barbies. They get a rash. They can't be fooled." He pointed at the smoke rising from a charred house. "See? Last night the schoolgirls joined forces with a phalanx of Barbies and attacked the rear of a regiment that had surrounded a safe house full of Barbies. The dolls escaped and fled to the caves above us. They are reorganizing. We have intercepted some of their messages and we think a large attack is imminent."
Down a narrow alley, soldiers wearing protective masks and latex gloves shoveled Barbies into piles and set them aflame. "This was the site of a fierce battle," said Ciatan. "I lost two members of my family and I don't have time to grieve." His voice cracked. "Yes, a daughter is equal to a vast sky. She was attacked by her own doll, right at suppertime, with those tiny, toothy hairbrushes. There was nothing we could do. It happened so fast." He turned and walked away, disappearing into the smoky, chlorinated haze.
Villages to the south are particularly at risk because of the regional custom of early assimilation of Barbies into the family unit. "We have girls all over in the province who are imprinted with the Barbie image from birth," said special forces commander Hi Wanton. "This neutralizes maternal authority. The girls don't respond to the parental voice, they actually show aggression when the biological parents enter their territory. They foam and hiss. They enlarge their throats. We think that they may be infected." He paused as an aerial strike hit the mountainside to the west. "This isn't easy. There is a pocket of resistance in those woods up there. We lost an entire battalion in hand-to-hand combat. We were outnumbered seven-to-one. We didn't expect the children to take sides with the dolls." He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a half-cigarette. "We told them to always be prepared. Now look at them. They are always prepared. They are always ready for us." Another explosion in the forest. "It's time - it's time to use our air superiority." Smoke seeped between his teeth. "Melt the ground beneath their pliable, four-toed feet."
Humanitarian Crisis
The smoke from the battles has become particularly dense in coastal industrial cities, the historic center of Barbie production in China. A thick amber haze has reduced visibility to less than a city block. This altered the appearance of traffic lights, resulting in a sharp increase in accidents. The army has been positioned at intersections, directing traffic and distributing charcoal canister respirators to millions of gasping residents. The mayor of one city appeared on television wearing a respirator while appealing for calm and order. His voice was muffled and his gestured exaggerated, and viewers misunderstood his appeal for calm and order for an order to evacuate the city and flee to the south. Millions of citizens obeyed, marching directly into the battle zone. "The Barbies cut them down at their ankles," said Wanton. "The devils. Who knew to look down?"
Other refugees fled an advancing army of Barbies that approached from the west. "They had to swim across the Yangtze River, navigating around dead cattle and sheep," sobbed a young mother. "Even the animals are running for their lives."
"This pulls history backwards," said Dr. Rog Drunning, the head of the international aid agency, Three Feelings. "We thought we were making progress, with childhood vaccinations, potable water systems, agrarian reform, literacy classes. But that's all gone up in flames. We have reports of packs of wild children biting adults, infecting them with rabies. Reservoirs are filled with plastic body parts. We suspect that the reservoir water, saturated with BPA, has began to affect the young boys." Clusters of boys have been spotted wandering aimlessly in outdoor markets, unable to find the exits. "They take random paths, often visiting the exits over and over again, but they just can't seem to commit to leaving," said Drunning, "and then they are buying so many shoes." He looked at his feet. Elsewhere, boys have found to be sheltering Barbies and still others have been mixing with the packs of young girls that are attacking the trains. Hours earlier, the railroad bridges in Shozone were burned down by mobs of Barbies, schoolgirls and several schoolboys. Two commuter trains tumbled into the ravine below. "It was horrific," said Drunning, wiping away a tear, "and they just let the passengers freeze to death in the icy river."
Struggle Between Herds
This behavior is alarming Barbie ecologists. "It's a new behavior," said reknowned Barbiologist, Professor Chi T. Weng. "All along, we had figured the Barbies were killing for essential amino acids that lacked in their industrial environments and for the first few days we tried to conduct this war accordingly, starving them of their food source, burning the protein." He grimaced. "We hoped to outlast the vermin. But we were wrong. We now believe they may be denying food sources for competing bands of Barbies. There is evidence that there are two herds, a southern and a northern herd. They are fighting us and their age-old enemies, a competing race of Barbies."
Ecologists suspect that geographic isolation may have resulted in unique characteristics in each herd. "There had always been two centers of Barbie production, the northern coastal industry and the southern highlands industry," said Weng. "Each had their own unique chemistry, polypropylene versus polyvinyl chloride. That's the point where they diverged."
This led to unique social structures and behavior. "The southern herd was more restrictive," said Weng. "It limited social behaviors, hindering movement of subordinate Barbies, and restricting access to communal activities such as grooming, nurturing, herd defense, mating rituals, and mentoring. We found that subordinates suffered high rates of malnutrition and starvation. Mass mortality events were common. As encouraging as that may have seemed to potential enemies, ecologists were shocked to see that this served only to strengthen the herd. A fitter Barbie emerged from the die-off episodes. This one had greater tolerance for stress, temperature extremes, dehydration, compression, and ultraviolet light. They even developed the ability to extract water from cellulose. They were devoid of self-awareness."
Although isolated from one another, the northern herd was developing in parallel to the southern herd. "Alpha Barbies in the northern pack allowed for more lateral movement of subordinate Barbies, permitting socialization on all levels," continued Weng. "But this was done at a cost to the subordinates. Alpha Barbies used mimicry to give the appearance of integration within the lower classes of Barbies, but did so to gain access to resources that they had built into the social constructs they themselves built for the worker Barbies. These resources lured the Barbies into concentrated population centers where they were dominated by their superiors and resources were siphoned by herd leaders. Occasionally these population centers were purged of radical elements, effectively selecting for a compliant and fiercely loyal Barbie."
The result was two herds of efficient, ruthless warrior Barbies, surging toward one another, crushing the humanity between.
Two fighter jets screamed overhead and several blasts erupted on the hillside to the north, sending flaming balls of polystyrene in the air. "Oh my, the way those Barbies ignite, sending waves of white fire through the forest," said Weng, "it reminds me of Khe Sanh."
Relief Efforts
Surrounding nations have closed entry points and evacuated border communities. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are streaming to temporary refugee camps set up at the border by international aid organizations. Spokesman Ralph Cramoden stated, "This isn't looking good. No, not good." He turned a tiny plastic hand between the fingers of his large meaty hand. "We have a deep fear that the Barbies have already infiltrated the camps. They are skilled mimics. We think they are imitating other doll species, native dolls, ones of wood or cloth. We are worried that they are imitating the children in the camp. I heard that they found some with skin that looked just like leather, with the skin grain and patterns of real leather. This is happening so fast, with all the toxins and UV light raining on them, it's just a matter of time that they look like cotton or wool or us." He shook his fist as a fighter jet dropped another gasoline bomb on a distant hill, igniting a dozen thatch and wood shacks. "Fools! Don't you know they left that hill hours ago? Fire isn't working anymore either! Stop!" He scowled. "Beasts. They just shed the burning skin and leave it behind them. They grow a new layer within hours. I heard there was a phalanx of them that marched through a wall of fire as if it was a gentle spring rain. A victory march, they held their heads high."
Cramoden's fears were echoed by a refugee camp administrator, Claude LaRouge. "We brought in rice for the refugees but the sacks disappeared from the warehouse overnight. So we exterminated four pests: the rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. Everybody pitched in. Swatters, nets, gongs." He pointed to the warehouse. "Still the rice disappeared! Nobody knew who took it. But then we found a mass grave outside of the camp with Barbies from the southern herd. Empty rice sacks, too. Bad news. And the Barbies had tattoos and body piercings, just like the real kids in the camp. And dyed hair. It looked like the work of the northern herd. Our forensics experts are onsite right now, and they are having a hard time telling the Barbies apart from the camp kids. Maybe it's not the southern herd. Maybe it's a new herd from the west. Maybe it's us. I don't know, I don't know. Does anybody know? The skin, clothes, hair, they're all the same." He closed his eyes and held his forehead, shaking his head slowly. "My family is in there. My kids. Maybe they look like my kids. How can I know? Their language changes every day. New gadgets. New slang. Coded words. Keep it from mom and dad. I wondered if they were really my kids and now maybe it's not so crazy to ask. Are they really my kids? Who is this invasion? Who is the enemy? They all look the same."
He looked over the dusty camp, choked with a hundred thousand ragged, hungry people waiting for food. Children played with sticks in muddy roads. He watched a high-altitude bomber overhead, the contrail crossing others in the sky like tic-tac-toe. Tiny silver dots fell from the fuselage. "What choice is there?" He clenched his teeth and ground the heel of his boot into the torso of a charred Barbie doll. A blue smoke hissed from its hollow arms. "We have no choice. We have to destroy this civilization to save it."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Lesson Number One

Glass breaks. Trembling, coffee-stained hands reach for a dry towel. A black pool spreads out from my bare feet, filling the cracks in my mind with dread. It is morning again. 
I thought.
It's hard to know anything when you are not awake and little more when you are awake. Staring at the ceiling, sweating from another dream about not sleeping. The ceiling is black, pulling away like a lid on a box and a swirl of stars fire up and move into place. It is impossible to sleep when looking at the night sky. The awful noise. Millions of hydrogen bombs, coils of wrath expelling iron planets, sending ionic fire that carpets the north pole. 
I wake up and the stars are fading in and out of view, dodging the focal point like like an electron, altered by the act of observation. I cannot see anything I want to see.
Something moves in the darkness. I think there is a lion in the night, just out of the firelight, hunting, his eyes glowing like the coals in the fire. A shimmering red dot appears on my forehead and moves down to my throat. How does a lion know how to kill?
For that matter, how does a human? The morning spreads too, out from the long cracks forming in the night sky and across my room, the shifting light defined by the dust in the air. It's a night sky backlit by the laboratory behind it all, cadres of scientists fiddling with the math, scribbling with technical pencils on graph paper, gesturing wildly before chalkboards. They have given birth to a hypothesis, a scaly, squirming, wailing hypothesis: If we raise the mass of an electron by one trillionths of a kilogram we just might be able to solve the problem of fear and insecurity. Theory: We believe that the effects of an added trillionth of a kilogram will be negligible and will not contribute to any measurable decline in the quality of life. Prediction: We haven't calculated where we will get the extra mass but we are confident that further study will provide a satisfying scientific basis for confidence in further study.
Experiment. So this light, this hot blue light that comes through the rip in the window curtain each morning, it is leaving a spot on my forehead. Like a welder's burn, a red spot, like the spot on Jupiter, slowly rotating at 384 mile per hour. I wake up dizzy. How far will they go? This light is not welcome, not after a night like this. I tossed and turned like a hog on the spit, a fish flipping in a skillet, a man rolling in his grave, all the while the white canvas curtains blew in the night framing a black ocean and a half of a moon on the horizon, tipping like a glass, pouring cold silver onto the tops of swelling clouds, clouds flashing with jolts of orange from within, firelight, camping in the clouds. Storms are out there, yes, pushing wooden ships filled with shivering, skeletal men toward this black sand shore. For a moment, I dreamed that I stood on the shore barefoot with food and blankets, waiting for the men clinging to timbers to appear in the breaking waves, watching the kegs, masts, and canvas washing up to my feet, but no men. Just their voices, carried on the breeze. Frail words piling up on the sand: don't, don't, don't. That's all I can hear. I can't stop hearing don't. 
know that voice. But I shrug. There are no more wooden ships. We have giant men in white lab coats passing behind the night sky, brilliant like angels. I can see them through the cracks, chalk dust on their hands, destroying exponents, creating fractions. Move one millionth of a kilogram, one billionth of a volt, one micrometer of distance they say and there is another jolt of electricity and the room lights up that bluish white again and I sit up and this time I can see everything in the night. The whole valley lights up, the cottonwoods and green ash meandering alongside the cream-and-coffee-brown creek that overflows its banks, chokecherry and prairie plum in bloom tossing white petals like confetti, powdery perfumed air. Birds burst from the trees, laughing like schoolchildren, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Bobolinks singing like children's toys. The shamrock green hillsides, swaths of purple locoweeds, dripping sandstone caprocks and red shale banks, tumbling cascades of muddy water pulling away stones and clumps of sod armed with cactus. Bison fill the valley, immense herds all the way to the horizon and beyond, mingling with elk, antelope, and mule deer, the herds tended by wolves. I do not think I exaggerate when I estimate the number of Buffaloe which could be comprehended at one view to amount to 3000. It took three days for the herd to pass. I did not sleep at all. Who could when it looked like this?   
I was always a night person and this is why.
Another billionth of a degree and another blue flash and by God, they did it, this time the cottonwoods and green ash ignite and the winds sweep them up, carry burning logs in the air, dropping them on villages downwind, 13 miles to the east at the next railroad town where the flames leap from paper house to paper house, cooking secure families in their sleep. This happened to 67 cities across the country. Only four cities escaped the fires. So the men in lab coats did what men in lab coats do and did some more math and split the seconds atomically and suddenly a horrific blue flash as bright as a blue star boils the river, explodes rocks, sucks the oxygen out of the air, and leaves shadows of human beings on the stone walls of buildings 70 miles distant. Family photos on granite, hot daguerreotypes, mom and dad sheltering the kids, burned into our memory.
The black sand at my feet turns to hot glass.
The blue flash turns to a faint red glow. Then nothing. Momentary darkness. The last towns are gone. The few survivors emerge from cellars to begin a short life begging for rice, filled with envy of the dead. Now I don't want to sleep. Get up, I must get up. 
It's morning again, but I don't want to face it. The light is pouring through the night sky now, my whole head is hot, throbbing, I can't think, I haven't slept in who knows how long because I think they moved something an hour ahead or I have been taking too many airplane flights or it's another dream about time. I see another giant man tampering with one nucleotide base, one out of 3 billion. Chalk on his hands too. Don't. Don't. Don't. I want to speak but I can't. I can't. I can't stop thinking don't. Just one word...I see another blue flash and this time the whole planet bursts into flames, hotter than the sun, roasting everything I ever knew. He reaches toward my smoldering head and removes the wires. 
If his hypothesis is correct, I will gain confidence, lose fear, and gain security. Results will be replicated through repeated testing proving I had no idea I was right. I can't remember what I was going to say and I no longer care. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Can't Get the Sound of Fish Out of My Head

Legend has it that fish will fall occasionally from the sky. Singapore 1861. Saskatchewan 1903. Louisiana 1947. 
Fish, fresh fallen fish. People stood on their steps holding skillets waiting for a meal from heaven. I saw this when I was young. I asked my mother, who was holding the black, cast-iron frying pan beneath the pregnant sky, why the fish were falling from the clouds. She maintained her focus on a spiraling northern pike and replied, "Gravity." I asked my father, who was cleaning a nice large-mouth bass, about six pounds, and he nodded, "Because they can't fly."
So, they gravitated toward the easy answers, that fish will fall once they are airborne, just like people. I saw a man shot out of a cannon at the circus. He fell just like those fish, flopping around on the straw in center ring, only the audience did not rush toward him with filet knives. I asked my father why we didn't eat the man in the cannon and he barked, "You can't filet a man!" They carried him off on a stretcher. The next night he did it again, with a cast on his leg. That was the hardest working fish I had ever seen.
Here 2014. Today, I am standing on the sidewalk below a seventy-story office building, watching a man running in circles yelling that the sky is falling. "The sky is falling," he says. He has long, matted grey hair, a nine-o'clock shadow, a thicket of eyebrows, sky-blue eyes, and a quilted flannel shirt. The buttons don't match up with the correct buttonholes, leaving one tail longer than the other. He holds a bottle in his hand and waves it at the sky. Sky pirate, I think. He fell overboard, floated down here, and he wants to swim back up there to be with his mates. 
I was up up there in that tower last night, on the 58th floor and I heard banging on the windows. Who in their right mind would want to come in through the window late at night? Of course, I didn't open the window, I just kept typing, typing, typing, typing this thing you are supposedly reading, typing, don't look up, I can't look up. Who would want to come in through the window late at night? I won't look. Maybe it was this guy. So he drifted back to earth in the dark and swims in circles on the sidewalk, talking about himself.   
I have read that thunderstorms breed when a mass of cold air meets a mass of warm moist air. At the boundary, water condenses, energy is released, winds and clouds build, and it begins to rain and hail. Storms. So in the course of a day, they start by raging toward the sun and they end in a free-fall back to earth, gassed, exhausted, paintbrushes of rain, a mist the color of salmon, so tired they evaporate before they reach the ground, inhaled by hungry clouds. The hard part it getting those fish up into the sky. It's not a problem getting them to fall. Look at this man, flopping on the sidewalk. 
The problem presented itself: How do fish get up into the sky? A few decades ago a study was conducted on the phenomenon of falling fish. A cadre of hardened scientists at the Groveland Institute of Physics were captivated by the notion. For years, they had been hearing stories about falling fish from one of the women on the staff. She was lame in her left arm, being so injured by a falling fish when she was a young child. She couldn't recall the event, being so young, but her parents retold the story every year on her birthday. She certainly despised fish. She wore a necklace with a Allenypterus skeleton. Extinction brought her deep joy; she would weep when reading that another fish species vanished. Ameca shiner, blackfin cisco, gravenche, New Zealand grayling, Parras pupfish, Utah Lake sculpin, thicktail chub, yellowfin cutthroat trout. Ah, the transcendent bliss! Tears like rivers, flowing into the deep, black, oxygen-starved sea.  
By the way, Groveland Institute is located in a sleepy, backwater town in east-central Minnesota, situated in a second story laboratory, above a plankton-based, high-protein, nutritious snack wafer processing plant. The employees take their lunch break at the plant. They get free wafers. 
So while I have been talking, the fellow on the sidewalk started gasping for air and someone called an ambulance and paramedics arrived, they pulled right up alongside of him and now they are attending to him. In distress. Combative. One of them is standing on his shirt tail to hold him still. The other is putting a metal device in his mouth and a couple of other guys are cutting away his flannel shirt. He should be loaded into the van soon enough. They brought out some bags of ice. Poor fella. I think I know him from somewhere. I wish they would turn off that siren. It makes me tense.   
Acting on reports, rumors, and anecdotes, the Groveland research team flew to Bangkok, Beijing, Mumbai, and Lagos to interview locals and to collect eyewitness testimony, photographs and fish specimens. They were out of the country for six months; they got hung up in Lagos for a month scraping together the money to pay the seventeen distinct, ineffectual, and redundant layers of bureaucracy their requisite bribes. On the return flight, at about 38,000 feet, they hit a line of strong thunderstorms in the southeastern United States. The the violent air pressure changes caused the cargo doors to burst open, right over the heart of Mobile, Alabama, sending tens of thousands of frozen Bonga Shad, Pla Sawai, Crucian Carp, and Pomfret slicing toward the earth.
Well, I was happening through the town that stormy afternoon, on my way to a gaudy theater production of Reap the Whirlwind. A musical. To the east, I could see the muskmelon-orange rain capture the sunset, the water on the streets and sidewalks reflecting the sky like fresh varnish. Everything was orange. The air was clear, cool. Distant thunder. Someone was whistling from an upstairs window, but I couldn't tell which house. What was that song? No, it wasn't a song, it was a tea kettle boiling. Big kettle, must be for a mob of relatives. Then it got so loud I wondered if it was an ambulance on the way. Where is that pirate? My grandfather used to talk about the terrifying whistling noise made by the Stuka dive bombers during WW2. That's what made me look up. At first, I thought it was a flock of Peregrine Falcons in a power dive chasing their prey. But Peregrines aren't starlings. This was no murmuration. It was the fish, tens of thousand of them, froze stiff as stones, shad, carp, sawai, pomfret, whistling toward the earth like the London Blitz. I barely had the time to cover my head with my arms. At once, the fish crashed through street lamps, car windows, punched holes in roofs, broke tree limbs. The screaming fish, the din of breaking glass, the shattering frozen fish clattering down the alley, street signs shredding, the clanging of garbage cans, crackling of tree limbs, and shrieks and prayers of terrified residents running for protection was so loud that I had to cover my ears. That's when a two-pound pomfret rocked me alongside my head, dropping me to the sidewalk, where, they say, I staggered about dazed like a prizefighter groping for the ropes.
At least I can still hear. Thousands of birds were killed, probably thousands of mammals. All told, about 200 people were hospitalized for head injuries and lacerations. They told me that an ambulance took me to the hospital. I guess I was a handful; they had to tie me to the stretcher. They say I wanted to get up there where the fish were coming from.
The nurses told me that at the height of the fish storm, as the sky was darkened by their mass, some of the aged residents hobbled out into the streets facing the volley with outstretched arms, frying pans in hand. One old timer crowed, "By golly, those are fish alright, just like Kansas 1922." That's what he said. Good thing it wasn't whales.
Here, in my room high up in the sky, the nurses are whistling. I can hear that banging on the windows again.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

I Brake For Mirages

A million years from now, it is 1000 degrees and the sun is larger than any you have seen before. You would not care. It’s less than eight minutes away. You have no warning. Light and plasma arrive simultaneously. You would be atomized, return to your basic elements. A million years hence, the seas boil and the crust erupts between the fingers of an angry fist that grips our hot iron sphere. Molten matter glows on the dark side of the earth, visible from the moon, where no one stands to look upon an earth where no one stands to look upon a moon. The red magma drips from the earth like blood. A red giant terrorizes us by day.
We wait one million years for that.
So, there sits a man at the table, wiping his forehead with his shirt sleeve. He puts down his iced tea and wipes his forehead again with a napkin. “It is not hot outside, it’s not hot outside.”
I was occupied watching the ghosts of heat rising from the highway in front of the dusty roadside diner. Trees and mountains contorted in the shimmering waves, cars disappeared in a silver lake, and the spirits of fallen dinosaurs rose from the midnight-blue asphalt and ascended into the sky. “Does heat go to heaven?” I asked.
Though he barely moved, the man was panting like a dog. He held the glass steady at his bottom lip. “It’s not hot.”
“I mean heaven.”
I didn’t want to move, but I had to turn my head to make eye contact. Instantly, felt sweat appear on my face. “Then I want to go to hell, where it’s cooler.”
The man sipped his tea. I was too tired to look away. His face was misting like a cloud forest, raining down onto the table, watering the hemp fibers of the place mat and the marvelous ecosystems within, last washed in 1932 by a waitress who lived in the apartment across the street and still lived there, perched like a grey dove at her windowsill, eying the saturated man on the verge of spontaneous combustion whose face, now shrouded in cumulonimbus clouds, was pelted by raindrops as big as the dinner plate in front of him, the one with the seven maligned French fries that he could no longer see. He wiped his brow with his shirt sleeve again and squinted at the steel-blue ozone and carbon haze that filled the valley. The salt hurt his eyes. He rubbed them with his napkin, which had the waitress’ name and phone number but it was too late. He glanced at the napkin falling apart in his hand. “No.” No use trying. The smeared numbers could be mistaken for the phone number of old Widow Hazletta who lived in the flat above the diner, a chronic drunk with a fear of water. The man’s eyes were pale blue, like the sky on a humid day, draped by puffy eyelids, sagging like full sails on a summer breeze, or like canvas canteens, full, lush, weeping cool water. His cheeks were spotted with red blemishes, irritated by the salts left behind as his sweat was stripped away by the southern winds. He sat rigid, like a statue, attempting to conserve energy, to lower his body temperature. Even when he spoke, he barely moved his lips and jaw. “Stop complaining. It’s normal.”
Another car drove into the silver lake. But it’s hot, I thought. Sure, a million years from now under the rotating, expanding ball of electrum, fires raging across its corona like hard red wheat fields in a fierce solar wind, my existence would be brief, so brief that I would cease to exist before I became conscious that I exist. A half-life of 0.43 second, a sparkle in the sky, a tracer bullet, a six-foot-tall aurora borealis, my marbled fat dripping onto charcoal and sending up a ball of flame into the heavens, where the dinosaurs hunt Catholic saints for sport. I, the Human Candle. This raining man and I were soon to become two sparklers, I thought, whizzling in the night, one of us confident that he is not on fire. At this point, even the rocks would be fuel: silica, iron, copper, and calcium. A rainbow of fire. Surrounded by an angry red giant, there would be no shade, there would be no dark side of the earth. But now.  
He opened his mouth again. “This is normal.” Those words brought on a new wave of sweat, cascading down his head and soaking into his shirt. Now he realized that any movement brought heat, so he let the water pour down his face. He put down the glass and sucked on the ice. “Look around you. The glass in front of me, what’s it got in it?”
Iced tea, I thought. “Iced tea.”
“Right. Cold, clear ice. What about that tall, white box behind the cash register, what is it?” The red blotches on his face were intensifying, a deeper red.
“Fridge.” Each syllable burned calories.
“Right. What’s back in the kitchen there, along the wall?” He started to raise his hand to point but his arm had adhered to the tablecloth, which was absorbing his sweat, and pulling the cloth, he upset the ketchup, salt shaker and salsa bottle.
“More refrigeration.” If only I could live in that thing. There was room. Move aside the jellied hams and strangled fish cakes and leafless beef. Make a little house in the corner out of Popsicle sticks and live off of the frost flakes and escaped vegetable midgettes.
He pulled up the corner of the tablecloth and wiped his face. “Now you’re getting it, stranger. OK?” The blotches on his face were raised, like acne, but thicker. “What’s – what’s that running in the office on the south end of the diner?” There was urgency in his voice. He needed to get to the point.
“AC.” There was a pool of water on the tile floor beneath the man. Water was dripping from his chair. I tried not to look.   
He took a big breath and blew air through his pursed lips. “It’s not hot.” Now his face was red from the neck to the crown, a thickening, tightening hide, so tight in spots along the folds that it was as white as iron ingots. “Add it up, what’s the average temperature in this stovepipe dinette? Do the math.” I could hear his skin squeak.
Math. Now he was speaking math. Yes. Machines lock up when they overheat. Sun-dried fish don’t swim. Magnetic storms stop phone conversations. High altitude pilots lose self-awareness. What else could I dream up in this sun-addled state? I was too bleached to think. Math might have been a vestige of medieval sorceries for all I cared. Maybe nine was four on weekdays. “Uh, less,” I said. I didn’t care. I couldn’t see the sun. It was midday, straight overhead, firing straight down at us. The clouds had fled, like women and children from a gunfight in the center of town. I could feel the heat coming through the roof tiles.
“Maybe 40 degrees less than you think.” His eyes were red, fat, pressurized, like sausages. Water was streaming from his chair, running down the legs, deepening the pool at his feet. “Here, it’s an average of a pleasant 65 degrees and I am enjoying every minute of it.” He picked up his glass and raised it into the air. “Yes!” Sweat poured down his arm and ran off of his elbow like a downspout during a monsoon and filled his shirt, which burst from his beltline and emptied onto his lap. The tablecloth was a lake. He pounded his glass onto the table and water sprayed in a circle around the room, spattering the waitress, the one with the dissolving phone number. “Yes.” Veins bulged from his forehead, his arms were thick and throbbing.
“Yes.” I wiped my face with the napkin. “I think I see.” Outside the silver lake was expanding, creeping toward the diner. At the base of the black rocky hills on the horizon, blurry cars continued to plunge into the lake, vanishing. Blurry cars. That’s right. “Right. I think I see. It’s like the probability of any cat being dead or alive – it is perfectly even. It may be considered alive and dead simultaneously, a blurry, semi-life.”
He lay his tongue out on his chin, huffing. “Zombie cats.”
“If that’s what you believe. But put out that dish of milk, and you reduce the possible states to one. It is either alive or dead. You acted upon the cat, forcing it to be in one state or another.”
“Semi-dead.” His eyes were fire red. “It’s still not hot.”
“So go get the dish.”
He was as red as the sun.
“Show me the data - this would mean something if you had a real dish and a real cat, but it’s no more than what I said a second ago, it’s an elegant story. A fable. Once upon a time. Who can prosecute Mother Goose? Excoriate Mr. Aesop? Yes, ‘I pronounce this Fairy Tale to be a mendacious, vicious gust of purulent breath! To the gallows!’ The reality is the probability is perfectly even until you see it.” I looked down the highway. The silver lake was at the doorstep. Water was running out of the diner onto the steps and pouring into the lake. Hundreds of cars were tumbling into the vast glimmering ocean that filled the entire valley now, from black mountain to black mountain. “There is only one thing to be said: This is empirical evidence that you do not own a cat.”
The man looked out the door and saw the water rushing over the threshold and out into the hot, shiny, silver lake. “Water!” He stood up. “I need water.” He jumped from his chair, pushed the waitress out of the way, lunged toward the open door and stumbled down the steps, collapsing onto the searing, silver lake, bursting as he hit the surface. The blast threw me back against the wall, flinging the waitress into the kitchen, overturning tables, and sending a great ball of steam high into the glaring, white sky, high into the arms of an angry, red giant.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lower Midnight

Tilting a chair on its back legs, I could see the sun passing through the clouds like a searchlight looking for fugitives. “We are all fugitives here,” I thought. “Trespassers.”
“I know what you are thinking,” said Carla, as she blew steam off of her coffee. “I’m not lost, I’m exploring.”
Just then, I overheard a young boy ask his mother if red caused redness. The mother looked at him and said, “That’s not red, it’s fire.” The boy began to cry. The mother said, “Those aren’t tears.” He started to laugh. “Do you know what I feel?” she said.  
What is red, I thought.
Carla looked at her coffee. “It’s cold.”
And then another woman walked by, holding a boy by his hand. Her friend said to her, “If fish in a dark cave lose their eyesight, why aren’t children born blind?”
The woman laughed and said, “But he’s bioluminescent.”
My coffee went suddenly cold. Like ice. It was such a sunny day. Who could say? They walked along. I scratched my head. Aha. I called out, “Maybe that’s why babies expand so quickly after they’re born. Like viperfish, you know, bathypelagic - ” They increased their pace and stared straight ahead. The boy turned around.
“Look what you’ve done,” said Carla. “The child found you.”
Eureka, I thought, and a wave of pleasure washed over me. The moment of discovery. It’s an unsung pleasure, dismissed by hedonists, derided by sensationalists, so highly underrated, but better than a king’s feast.
Carla pulled keys out of her purse. “Oh, that’s where…”
“Could have lost your hand in there and never got it back.” She darted a sharp look and slashed around her purse some more, like she was trying to catch a fish with her hand. I remembered that a tribe of one-handed women lived in the jungles along the Congo. Fierce women. Cheeks painted red, orange lines on their forehead, white gloss on their cheeks. Black circles around the eyes. Hair straight on end. It scared the wits out of every explorer who made it that far upriver. It’s sort of sad, because these women imagined themselves beautiful. They were puffed up in all their finery hoping to lure the expedition into mass matrimony. They all had the same story: Every one of them was fumbling around for face paint and oops, the hand disappeared. Just like that. So did the explorers.
So, I started to think. Never, I repeat, never offer to help. Put your hands in your pockets. Whistle and look away. I have to catch a train. Woah, look at those napkins. Something. More brave men have disappeared being gallant than sailors in the Bermuda Triangle. It’s like quicksand. No, it’s like an event horizon. You know what I mean, the point beyond which gravitational pull is so extreme that nothing can escape, even light. It sucks you in and you never come out. I swear, if she left a lit flashlight in there, the photons would just swirl around in the purse like a goldfish in a bowl, like a drunkard in a phone booth. “Let me out, where’s the door,” he shouts, or should I say we hypothesize he shouts, because the sound can’t escape either. And you can experience this only if you go over the horizon with him. It happens once you pass the threshold of two standard drinks in an hour. Then he becomes a cosmic drinking buddy. Yes. One with the universe! I raised my fist.
She said, “Can I have some of your coffee?” She took a sip. I could see the coffee turn over in the cup, the colder, darker, denser coffee at the bottom, starved of oxygen, swirl to the top. Bubbles rose and popped. I wondered what could live in coffee. Then she went back to frantic digging in the purse.
“Sure.” Which reminded me that once I had seen a tavern named The Event Horizon. It was on the outskirts of Gary, Indiana. You actually didn’t have to go that far to see the horizon, just stay in the city for a few minutes and you would see it as clear as day.
She looked up. “I can’t see a thing.”
Aha. And if you could see him, which is physically impossible but could be described mathematically, that is, of course, unless you fall over the same horizon again (this is what they call a binge), his lips would be moving, but the silence would be absolute. Like one hand clapping. You know. The same is true the other way around. You couldn’t see him even though he was shouting. A liquefied voice in the darkness, like a gurgling fountain at midnight, a waterfall in a cave. Rum mumbling. Drunks can do that very well, as I can testify with certainty, because there was one rolling from side to side in the alley the other night, tossing like he was on a bunk in a steamer in a storm. He sang:

I wish I could sing
Words to a song
That sound like this
And go on and on

That was the only stanza. Gravity, I thought. It’s got him on the ground, now if it could just hold down his voice. And over there, she was still digging in the purse. Her face was red, her hands were shaking, danger, danger. I remembered that an event horizon occurs around black holes. I told her once that if the insides of her purse got any darker the sun would go out. She didn’t talk to me for a week. Maybe she did but I couldn’t hear. Maybe she didn’t hear me either.   
She looked up. “Did you say something?”
“Don’t drink and phone.” She didn’t react, just more digging, almost up to her elbow and I was sure that any minute she was going to pull a live rabbit or a roaring lion’s head out of that purse. I braced myself for exciting happiness. Wait. Maybe on the other end there is a lion pulling a woman out of a purse. Or the hands of many Congolese women. Clapping.
“This isn’t a performance.”
It was starting to get dark out. Clouds. I had noticed an hour earlier that there was a bank of clouds on western horizon, dark underneath, with billowy tops, like a child’s dream sundae, a blueberry animal carrying a load of whipped cream on its back that expanded into the heavens. Now, the clouds were overhead and the sun was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she stuffed it in her purse when I wasn’t looking. That reminded me: at a minimum, it takes the mass of three suns to create a black hole. How many more did she have in that thing? Who could know? Great explorers shake their heads and wave their hands and back away, backing through the swinging doors into the saloon. No. No. Inside they sit down at the bar and drown their shame face-down in the shallows of a glass of bad whiskey.
I looked at the leathery handbag. It reminded me of a Byzantine monastery, daft with hemicycles, domes, narthex, galleries, fountains, and false panels. And trap doors. I felt sweat on my neck. Things from the depths were always cold and damp. And growing. A year earlier, she reached into the bottom and I thought I heard the anguished cries of tiny men. I asked her about it, but she said, “Where’s your faith?” and I said, “Huh?” That was the last time I brought it up.
She was up to her elbow again. I wondered what other fantastic things were hidden away in there. Billions in gold, jeweled treasures, artwork, caravans of Bedouin bearing spices from India, sultans riding high on painted elephants…elephants. I don’t need elephants.
She looked up. “You need something?” Her hand was out of the bag now. The sun poked through the clouds and shadows of leaves appeared on the table between us.  
“A surprise.”
“That you want.”
I tipped the chair back again and tried to explain. “Look. A friend of mine, Lenny, he used to tell me a story about his father. His father used tell him a story that his grandfather told him. Grandfather told a story about card games. ‘If a fellow wins a hundred thousand dollars at a card game, someday he will lose a hundred thousand dollars at a card game or one dollar at a hundred thousand card games. And vice versa.’ Grandpa was an investment broker. He saved and invested and speculated all that he could. He invested in livestock. He bought ranches. Then cargo ships. Big container ships to big ports pushing animal products around the globe. Leather, bone meal, cosmetics, paint, cleaners, polishers, glue, soap, ink. He became wealthy. Then his firm was bought out by gambling interests and they changed the mission statement and poured capital into bets on livestock futures. One day, a glitch in one of the orders gave one man a payoff of well over two hundred thousand feeder hogs and the firm had to file for bankruptcy. Bacon prices soared. Grandpa died without a penny in his pockets; he was buried in a pauper's cemetery downwind from a meat packing plant. So my neighbor’s father sued the firm for fraud and was awarded a hundred thousand dollars. A windfall.”
Carla paused. “They sow the wind and reap the windfall.”
“Do you know? I almost forgot to mention that his father was shot and killed one week later for cheating during a high-stakes poker game. He pulled a winning hand. Marked cards, stacked deck. They caught it. He had a hundred thousand dollars in the pot. Now that’s luck - in that last moment of life he found rarified pleasure in the sudden realization that his own hundred-thousand dollar card game had arrived. Life balances the books. His eyes widened. Eureka.”  
Her eyes closed. “I know the odds.” She’s got something down in her purse. Deep down there. 
“He could have gone to jail, too, so he should have been happy about that. That thought would have given him a big smile, if he had more time. Or he could have been in one-hundred-thousand consecutive losing card games, losing a dollar each game. At ten games per day, why that would take twenty-seven years. He would have died long before that. Wow. Now his death looked like winning the lottery. Tears of joy streamed down his cheeks. You can almost hear him singing the old hymn:

Joy comes from above,
Like dripping water in a cave,
Eating a hole through the ceiling,
Plugging a hole in the floor,
Letting in the bright light,
Pouring in from the midnight sky. 

“Old hymn. Mariners used to sing it at churches along the coast. It’s dark at the bottom of the sea. They are terrified. They call it ‘lower midnight.’”
She looked into her coffee. The sun went behind the clouds again. The shade came across her face. Her eyes were dark, like the coffee, and she asked, “What’s down there?”
“Billions in diamonds and gold.”
She looked up, wide-eyed. “Diamonds.”
“Yes, jewels. And spices and kings and ships filled with gold and treasures.”
She watched me. “Diamonds.” Her hands shook again. “How deep?”
“Midnight deep. My friend Lenny.”
“What about him.”
“Six years after his father died, scientists were doing deep sea surveys and found thousands of steel shipping containers on the seabed. They call them intermodal containers. Sea cans. Thousands, scattered along a main shipping route about four thousand feet down. Piled up like rocks. Containers filled with tires, fencing, shoes, bags of potato chips, telephones, arsenic, sulfur, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. They had fallen off of transport ships during storms and high seas. The men stack them as high as a city skyline and hold them down with third-world jute rope and go down to the berthing and pray. Well, the scientists tracked the serial numbers on the shipping containers and found that they originated with the company that Lenny’s grandfather owned.”
“They weren’t deep enough!” Her hand slowly moved toward her mouth.
“The state figured Lenny had inherited the settlement from his father’s lawsuit.”
“No.” She clutched her purse.
“They tracked Lenny down and hit him with millions of dollars of fines.”
“A week later, they found his yacht drifting at sea. Empty. Drifting.”
She looked at her purse. Her hands were shaking again. The sun was gone.
“I guess it’s never too deep. Never.”
Night came up from the shadows and lay on the table between us. She plunged her hand into her purse. “Not.” She pulled out a plastic bag with a white powder, like coarse sugar. “Going.” She poured some into her hand. “To.” She slapped it over her mouth and gulped. “Know.” Her arms slowly dropped to her sides. 
It was pitch black. Midnight. I felt myself falling, falling and Carla drifting away, in opposite directions, her white dangling fingers out of my reach. She didn’t move. She couldn’t hear my voice, my tiny, falling voice. She didn’t make a sound. Carla drifting slowly away, shrinking, until she became a silent, tiny point of light flickering on the horizon a million miles away.  

Monday, January 20, 2014

Between Nothingness and Eternity

Sixty years ago, pirates began washing up on beaches around the Caribbean Sea.
At first, it was one or two a year. Nobody paid much attention. Most people figured they died of natural causes. Children might gather around and poke at it with sticks. Maybe an item would appear on the back page of some local newspaper, the remains would be buried in a pauper’s cemetery, and the matter would be forgotten. For the next decade, the number of beached pirates would increase slightly each year, but only a few citizens expressed alarm, maybe one citizen for every pirate. In August of 1960, a few marine biologists in the Greater Antilles noticed the trend and their letter appeared in the journal Oceanography Revue under the heading, “Telling No Tales.” Another year passed. A few more state burials. Then came 1962, the year of the famed “Pirate Tide,” when thousands of them washed up on shores across the Caribbean Sea. Almost every nation in the region was affected. Pirates were reported as far north as Cape Cod and as far south as Guyana. Tourists cancelled vacations, fishermen retreated from the sea, and marine biologists groped for answers. Early theories suggested that the numbers were normal but improved observation, record-keeping, and communication had made the numbers evident. Tourism boards, businesses, and politicians seized upon this notion and published the theory in big city newspapers throughout North America. Public outcry diminished. Tourists returned to the beaches, fishermen returned to the sea. The occasional beached pirate was no more alarming than a dolphin or buoy or broken mast.
It was two weeks ago that I peered across the big lake, Cocibolca, and said, "I can't see the opposite shore." I wish I could take those words back.
"And you can't see any pirates either," said Kip, kicking the stratified, grey sand. "And no doubloons."
Kip turned with his mouth open. "What? You say ‘So’? There were pirates once. They attacked this city from that lake out there several times. Stand on the shore today and look across the lake and there are no pirates. Nothing. Nothing. Just fat, dirt-grey waves topped with a string of foam, a long yellow pier, a statue of Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, and a dozen fake concrete cannons there, to my left." 
I looked to his left, and sure enough, toy cannons, as big as life, played by children, full of silence and calm, firing nothing. Francisco had his back to the lake. "He had better watch what's going on behind him," I said. 
“It's an ambush waiting to happen. I don't think he would know if it hit him square between the eyes."
I shook my head. "I take it back. There are no conquistadors out there either."
"Everybody's gone."
Kip swept his foot across the foam. “That again. Something went wrong here. Something’s wrong.”
I looked at Kip. I hadn’t seen him in years. He stood as tall and straight as I had known, but he seemed to be falling away from a point at the top of his head, like strings were pulling him toward the earth against his will. He was thin, snacking on carrots and squash. His face was sunstained, like coffee, firebricks, a peasant’s foot, with blue eyes with an iris like periods at the end of a sentence. Lines crossed his face from forehead to neck, like a magpie nest from a distance, every cross marking some sort of sunken treasure. He had been down here for twenty years but he had aged seventy. By the looks of him, he should have been dead long ago. I turned and looked at the foam and wondered why it dried hard, like bread crust, piling up in loaves behind me. Why did it smell like an open air meat market? I thought, it’s nothing, nothing. `
Kip waved his fingers in the air. “For one thing, what would pirates be doing here, inland from the Caribbean? Their historic range was from the Greater Antilles in the north to the Lesser Antilles in the west, all the way to the Colombian coastline, and westward to the Yucatan Peninsula and the Mosquito Coast. Those waters provided prime habitat where pirates could feed on the abundant resources. The spoils! Preserved cod, cane rum, raw sugar, cocoa, black molasses, tobacco. Fresh and sunny days blooming with clouds, the clear and sparkling sea supported a thriving pirate population well into the nineteenth century. In mid-century, their numbers started to decline, and the last sighting of a live pirate was in the early twentieth century.”
“Extinct? They thought the coelacanth was extinct.”
Kip looked irritated. “But fishing trawlers, destroyers, tugboats, sunbathers, merchant marines, and wind surfers haven’t reported a live sighting in decades. Just a few old wrecks, some fables, some cannons in the surf.”
“Maybe they migrated.”
He moved his head from side to side, slowly. “Lucky guess, but no. The Indian Ocean subspecies met the same fate. Same with the few off the coast of China. Nothing.”
“I don’t see any molasses.”
Kip sighed. "You've been combing beaches ever since you had hair on your head and you would think you would know a thing or two about pirates, bud, but sometimes I feel like I am talking to Mr. Frank Cordoba there, with his soot-stained, smooth metal eyes, shining like lumps of anthracite coal, revealing nothing." He paused. "So, if you can, turn your tarnished, bronze eye out there and look again. What else don't you see?”
I shielded my eyes from the sun. "No broad cloth coats. No eye patches. No wooden legs."
"Right, no figure plus no shadow equals nothing." 
I wondered if that was true. The lake looked like wash water after several loads of laundry, scrubbing across the sand, each swipe brushing a new canvas. A gallery of fish skeletons, then liquor bottles, then candy wrappers, then cigarette lighters. A great-tailed grackle swallowed a red pen cap and choked. This is not art, I thought. I adjusted my hat. "You still have nothing."
"No, I do not have nothing. The circumstances are there. There is a line around the shape and the shade. History shows: This lake was a shipping route at one time. Steamboats used to work their way up the San Juan River, enter Cocibolca, paddle to the northwest corner, and unload their passengers and goods at the village. Then they would put it all in some rich American’s stagecoach line and carry it to the Pacific coast. This village was only a few miles from the Pacific but it was called an Atlantic port.” He sat on a log and kicked off one of his shoes. “Aaah.”
“What about the rapids?”
“Run them, my little fingerling. This isn’t the Colorado River.” He laughed. “There is guy I read about, Lesh Maniashis, one of the preeminent pirate ecologists, he now believes that the pirates followed the ships up the San Juan River right into Lake Cocibolca. The conditions were prime. The only hitch was the fresh water. They just had to adapt to it and they would colonize."
Now I laughed. I threw my hat on the ground. "Right. Freshwater Pirates. Inland Pirates. Reverse osmotic potential. Double eyelids. Cell turgor. You have nothing." I cleared my throat. At that moment, nothing sounded like an empty word.
“I have bull sharks.”
“Well, see a doctor.”
“No. They slice up more people than the great white.” He pointed at the lake. “They are out there. And tarpon and sawfish. They live in salt and fresh water. Like professional criminals, equally at home behind bars or running a Chicago tavern. They exit the Caribbean, swim up the San Juan, and troll around the lake.”
I was thinking about nothingness. A single candle flame. A few syllables repeated over and over again. I ignore. I forget. Thoughts disconnect. Synapses go dark. I become empty mind. The wind swirls around, flickering the candle, and it blows out and I become gone. Just some carbon ash caught in the wind and cast across the landscape. Universal. Irretrievable. What - then I thought about a solitary television set, glowing. On the screen was a man in an expensive suit standing in front of a bank of television sets and technicians in headsets, reading from a teleprompter in a rich, baritone voice. He was repeating the same few syllables over and over again. Something without form, shadow, or outline onward to infinity. The screen flickered and shrunk to a tiny green dot and then disappeared. Where, I am, I mean, where did I go? Oh man, do it again. It was like sweet wine, no, dark chocolate, ah, like pure, clear opium. My hands were shaking. I had to have it again. Didn't some fellow in a lotus position call it a state of universal existence? That’s something, isn't it? Aren't we all heading there?  
Kip picked up some sand. “Are you there?”
“Uh – “
“Uh, listen. What do you see?”
“Kip, ranting. That’s all.”
His face twisted. “Twenty years later and you come here to tell me you've been Rip Van Winkle?” He growled. “Look, this isn't sand. This is a science experiment, it’s a jailbreak, it’s an alien invasion, it’s another world a hundred feet thick, made of solid, drug-resistant, coliform bacteria poised to attack. There’s more life in a teaspoon of this than every human who has ever lived.” He threw it into the air. The westward winds sprayed the sand toward the park, onto the back of Francisco Cordoba. “Eat it up, Frank. Death from on high. Enough for us all.” He pointed to the beach. “Conquistadors.” 
“Nothing,” I said. “Don’t see a thing.”
He tipped his head back and took a deep breath. “That’s what you want to see. Look – “
“I know what I see and I see nothing – “
“Thirty-two tons of raw sewage each day. That's what you see. That’s what’s behind Frank’s back. That's what’s on this beach. No pirate could survive a day swimming in this swill, no matter how many rusty nails he had for breakfast.”
I looked at the beach. “This has always been here. We just see it now because we are looking. It’s nothing.”
“You – “
Just then, we looked down the beach and a crowd of children had gathered and were pointing at something offshore. They threw rocks and sticks at it. We walked toward them. Then we trotted. Kip ran ahead of me. He pushed through the crowd and waded into the surf, splashing towards the object. I caught up with the crowd. One of the children looked up at me and said, "He said it's his wife."