When the next great historian writes of the decline and fall of our Empire, I will have no difficulty in pinpointing its zenith.
Few mourn their passage. Few know what has been lost. Perhaps the Truth swims too deep and fast to be caught in the flimsy nets of most men. What ennobled this period in history was neither our knowledge nor the opulence some enjoyed.
What merits striving? What should be sought? Fame, a function of herd contingencies, is obviously worth less than nothing. A mate can bring joy, but they are plentiful like stars and as different from each other as Tuesdays from Wednesdays. The best that can be said for the pursuit of riches is that it distracts from the grievous uncertainties of Existence, assuming, as you should, that most would crumble if confronted with the ultimate puzzle.
Posthumous glory, dependent on the beliefs of those yet to be born, is the most senseless of all. If the imbecilic estimations of the mob currently wandering the earth are to be ignored, how much more so the ravings of the brutes who will follow? Indeed, a wise man will shun renown like death itself. In this world of flux and woe, does anything warrant pursuit? Is anything intrinsically good?
Quietude, of course: a state of mind tranquil and serene, yet confident and affirmative of life despite its precarious nature. The courtship of Truth is long and austere, but it spares one from countless delusional allurements. Despite a paucity of honorable men, the pursuit of honor may seem a fool’s errand, but aren’t ideals unattainable by definition? Are they not the stairway from the swamp of our beastly nature? Dignity and heroism certainly merit striving, but intertwined with them, inseparable from them, is a man’s car. But not any car will suffice.
If a wise man were called upon to demarcate the epoch when the automobiles were most magnificent, he would, without hesitation, name the Golden Age between the decession of Johnson and the inauguration of Carter. The cars were colossal and solid, forged from the purest sheet metal. Powered by the blast furnaces of the gods — the grandest V-8 engines — they had no peers in strength. In homage to Euclid, all the great four-doored ones exemplified rectangularity: the Cadillac Fleetwood and Sedan DeVille, the Lincoln Continental Town Car, the Pontiac Bonneville and Catalina, the Buick Electra and Chrysler New Yorker. And, of course, the Caddillac Talisman. These glorious bricks blessed the concrete seas with their majestic bearing. And by 1980, darkness fell. The Great Ones were desecrated (“downsized” was the coarse euphemism) with puny bodies and feeble engines. What is there for a man to do but cover his eyes and weep as he beholds the degradation of what was once mighty and proud?
The elegant lane shifts, the Renaissance curls of their turns, even the smooth course down a straightaway, are these not calligraphy flowing across the pages of the road. Or syllogisms necessitating every coordinate on this perfect line. Though hurling through space at 120 miles-per-hour, one experiences it not as motion but the exaltation of surfing a tsunami in a luxury liner. Brush your toe across the landmine gas-pedal. The ravenous hood devours the road and the distinction between you blurs. “You” become the rational faculty of a mythic being: half car, half man.
As if mocking the distinction between transcendence and immanence, the soul of this latter-day satyr neither exists apart from you nor is it pantheistic. Though the product of a synergy, it cannot not be equated with any sum. When the dichotomy between you and your car collapses, when you attain oneness, the coalescence becomes irreducible — not like an elementary particle in the dusty attic of Physics, but a Necessary Unity in the basement of Ontology. Something infinitely greater than man’s powers of reckoning absorbs you. More cannot be said. Some experiences cannot be contained in the cheap Tupperware of language. You cannot take a shining star from the heavens and place it in a meatloaf dish.
Appropriated* from the Adventures of a Hero
Zelda’s confrontation with the mirror reveals that her collarbone is diminishing like a treasure abandoned to sandstorms. She has one stick of celery instead of three and pops two Provigil. In her room an army of PEZ dispensers overlooks piles of clothes discarded like shed snakeskin. On two framed pictures she stands beside the stone altar at Monte Albán with her father. His Summerfest shirt and her gap-toothed grin neutralize the morbid ambience. Would those butchered there have found comfort or despair from knowing it became a tourist spot? She sits on the floor and powers up an old laptop. On a site filled with pictures of stick-figure models and celebrities she checks her latest entry:
they say u hav a disees. Maybe its cuz THERE AFRADE OF UR POWER AND WANT 2 CONTROL U!! ur ability 2 eat how much u want gives u TOTAL POWER and they hate u 4 it. they want 2 keep u trappd in a JAIL of FAT! Are u sik or R THEY JELLUS? stay strong thru Ana!
Covered with shingles instead of vinyl siding, her house would not have appeared out of place in an ancient time. She locks the door and runs to avoid intermittent downpours. Thunder growls like some deity provoked and silver veins pump life to the gray hide wrapping the world. Under a bus stop canopy she savors a head-rush complete with tingly feet from the first Newport of the day. Then it’s all downhill. She runs through alleys and across a field and with the precision of an insect climbs a fence where a section of barbwire is missing. Through puddles reflecting the bright garages of a U-haul storage facility she splashes like some urchin traversing a blood-soaked battlefield. She pokes her head around a corner and looks both ways and pounds on a door.
“Agent Alpizar, you’re late,” says Rolando. If his greasy pompadour isn’t the result of a genetic snafu, surely the faculty that chose it is. “Don’t wait for it to open all the way. Dive under.”
“Maybe tomorrow. Tell me again why I have to get up this early. Those slobs don’t get up before noon.”
“What happened to your eye? Who did that?”
“Who do you think? One of the fat fucks.”
Illuminating walls where the main event, Rust vs. Metal, was decided long ago, portable lights dangle from plastic shelves crammed with files held in place by cement blocks and cans of soup. From the roof water drips into three buckets, a coffee can, and two Tupperware bowls. A beanbag-shaped woman with gray and auburn hair pecks at a word processor. The motion sends waves rolling across the subcutaneous seas covering her arms. Zelda stares at the tidal pattern and rubs her triceps as though dispelling goose bumps.
“It’s not because they suspect you, is it honey?” the typist says. “You can’t stay there if they suspect you.”
A sheen of rain and sweat glistens on Zelda’s face. “They don’t suspect nothing. I kinda kneed one in the balls.”
Rolando straddles a folding chair and rests his hands on the back and his chin on his thumbs.
“It was an accident,” says Zelda.
He waits for her to look at him. She doesn’t. “What kind of recruits do they have?” he says, picking at a mole that bisects his thin mustache like a cow blocking a railroad track.
“I said they were losers. When do I get paid?”
He wraps his knuckles on the chair. “Are they third shift guards?”
She lights a cigarette and inhales deeply, chasing the dragon of the first. “Look, they’re gonna show them to me, okay? I only know what I hear.”
“Why is it always watchmen? Why couldn’t a delivery man be a secret container, or a retired senior citizen?”
“They need someone with special mental conditioning, like in a trance or something. Most of these dipshits are half- asleep. And they’re the easiest to sneak up on. And you can always find them again.”
Wild with yearning, Rolando’s eyes harvest light from the halogen lanterns. “Is that your theory or is that what they say?”
“What they say? You wanna know what they say?” She drops an octave and talks out the side of her mouth. “Kid, Omega gyros ain’t half as good as Aristotle’s gyros. Kid, let’s score some doses. Kid, smell this fart. Kid, kid, kid, all day long. They’re total fucktards.”
“Do not underestimate them. And you’re not there to judge. You’re there to observe and report.”
“Judging from the shit they say that isn’t about food or acid, the secrecy of who’s a container is important. The containers don’t even know they’re containers.”
“I, too, read their pamphlet.”
“Then why do you keep asking me?”
“What about the man in charge, the Kangaroo?” whispers Rolando, as if saying it too loud would cast a spell or summon forces he dare not provoke.
“He did something for the government. They fired him for being an arsonist.”
“You mean isolationist?”
“Something like that.”
With the reservation of a man inquiring about his wife’s fidelity, Rolando says, “And the big guys, the terrible twins, Remus and Romulus?”
“I’m working on it.”
“Are they mantises?”
“More like mana-tees.”
“Agent Alpizar, you need to learn everything about the hierarchies within their agency. What is the significance of a mantis? According to the Greeks it resembles someone who is praying.”
“This one should be praying for a clue. He’s so out there. A mantis hunts guards. That’s what they’re training me for.”
“What technique is used?”
“He goes from building to building and looks in the window. If anyone in a uniform is passed out in the lobby he’s found his man. Then Remus and Romulus make a note of it.”
“They haven’t made any uploads yet, have they? It’s essential that you’re there when they do them.”
“We still have to get profiles of the containers. It ain’t easy. We can’t just walk up and do a survey.”
“The most important thing is to get the key to the containers. It should be a phrase or a sentence.” Rolando stands and scratches his chin and watches crystal drops fall from the ceiling. “It could be a single word. I suppose a number would work, or a tune they hum. It could even be a noise they make.”
“Thanks for narrowing it down. Is there anything it couldn’t be?”
“You need to turn your memory into a magnet. Ask lots of questions. Tell them you want to be the best mantis you can be.”
“Don’t whatever me. Why can’t you be nicer? It’s easier to infiltrate if you’re friendly. They probably wouldn’t have hit you if you weren’t sulking all the time.”
“Are you saying I deserved this, you bumblefuck.”
“Shhh, there’s families living in some of these garages. You were smarting off again, weren’t you?”
Her glare emits waves of sullen hostility that threaten to melt the feeble metal structure. “Following cheating husbands was easier.”
“There’s too much competition.”
“Why don’t you start your own agency? Why are you copying these dorks?”
The typist chuckles. Her pointer finger circles before landing on the letter G. “Honey, if I had a nickel for every time I told him that.”
“I don’t pay either of you to tell me how to run things. I know nothing about uploads or scrambling. They make it look easy. Don’t be fooled. And how do I get their clients? Those are some of the most dangerous men on earth. Agent Alpizar, you need to remember what you learned from your training films. Always ask WWPGD.”
“I know,” she groans. “What would Pussy Galore do?”
“Also study the example of Anya Amasova.”
“I’ve watched all those stupid movies. The guys after Sean Connery are wussies.”
“James Bond is not your role model. After you observe an upload and get the key to the containers we’ll run them out of business. But it’s all up to you.”
Zelda practices letting smoke float out of her mouth and into her nose. She feels her eyebrows for signs of asymmetry. She examines her chest for signs of its appearance.
“I heard you. Get the key to the containers.”
“And you need to keep sabotaging the Mantis. Once he’s gone you’ll be the only replacement. Then you can divert their clients to us. What is his current status?”
“I gave him the secret message that the only way to protect his thoughts from being intercepted is to stay drunk all the time.”
“Good work, agent Alpizar.”
Excerpted from Schrodinger’s Dachshund
Most Art by Jacek Yerka
*Who else could write about Zelda and her heroic (if Pyrrhic victory) over the Sentinels of the Chandelier? If only one writer was there only he can tell the tale. ‘Cultural appropriation’? Bullshit! The only freedom of speech we don’t have is cursing G-d.
An Artist’s perception of his work can resemble Bizarro World. Consider The Boss. Some of his best songs were never commercially released. A perfectionist is his own worst critic, sometimes misconceiving the quality of his finest work. As will be demonstrated, the picture below is no “stranger” than whatever mad criteria rejected the musical selections discussed here. Proceed with caution. This could divide your mind, generating dual personae: your conception of Springsteen prior to seeing the kitten and manatee (BKM); and whatever remains (AKM). In one fascinating respect, Bruce is more “eccentric” than Warhol, Dali, and Pynchon combined.
This catchy gem had Top 40 potential in the way Pearl Jam’s biggest hit was Last Kiss. They share a vibe, yet it missed the final cut. This is why some of us endured Indiana Jones-like odysseys to acquire Springsteen bootlegs back in ye Olden Tymes, before everything was released in box-sets of outtakes. You kids don’t know how good you have it!
Rendezvous, never included on a studio album. Badlands-tier. Seriously, Bruce?
Thundercrack, primal, wacky, MIA.
Once you process that Santa Ana was a mere demo you’ll be ready to entertain conspiracy theories or Freudian hooey as explanations. Wait. You’re still at base camp. The next two songs can change your life.
This outtake of Stolen Car is arguably Springteen’s greatest moment in the studio. (AKA Son You May Kiss the Bride.) Art. Life-changing. “No matter what I do or where I drive nobody ever sees me when I ride by” captures a chilling sense of life’s transitory, ghostly quality like James Dean stopping at A Clean, Well Lighted Place. Yet the version that landed on The River could most charitably be described as filler. What. Was. He. Thinking.
In what fallen, twisted world is Stray Bullet an “outtake”?! This is Stolen Car-tier. This is one of his best songs. By the second verse you’re in Cormac McCarthy territory. (How’s that for synesthesia.) Allegedly it sounded too much like Point Blank. To the contrary, Point Blank is reminiscent of Stray Bullet. It’s simply stunning that The River could have been a better album, which seems impossible in principle.
Unsatisfied Heart, rough as rough drafts come. Haunting story: “Once I had a home here. My salvation was at hand. I lived in a house of gold, on a far hillside. I had two beautiful children, and a kind and loving wife … One day a man came to town, with nothing and nowhere to go. He came to me and he mentioned something I’d done a long time ago.” Achingly beautiful chorus. What could this have become? Why would you abandon this?
The “official version” of Racing in the Street isn’t even a shadow of this … masterpiece. (Clearly some of the lyrics hadn’t jelled.) There’s an urgency, a fury, a desperation, a magnificence never surpassed by anything on Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Johnny Bye Bye, b-side with a stone-cold groove few tunes attain. 112 seconds of Satori.
The studio version of Incident on 57th Street contained, only in embryonic form, The Beast it became live.
Jablonski met Springsteen after a solo acoustic show. He paid a few weeks’ wages for a seat in the orchestra pit. Paul Molitor, in the front row behind him, was teased by Jablonski for having a crappy seat. Jablonski told Bruce, “You know how you just made a concept album based on The Grapes of Wrath? Consider a reggae album inspired by Duck Soup.” Bruce laughed. He’s always laughing.
The plot thickens. What became of these:
Did Springsteen consider turkeys like Hungry Heart & Born in the USA better than the ones cited in this post? Maybe Shakespeare preferred Titus Andronicus. Freddie Mercury’s favorite Queen song was Crazy Little Thing. If there’s no accounting for taste there’s no accounting for most of what individuates us. There’s no accounting for taste.
In candor, what would possibly constitute an “explanation” of the Eccentric Genius Archetype, a pattern documented before Hippocrates. Recognizing the vast divide between mere descriptions and true explanations, marveling at the sui generis nature of our subject, the only conclusion is to redouble our gratitude to all those who made sacrifices to circulate Springsteen bootlegs back in ye Olden Tymes.
Jablonski once possessed 2k+ hours of Grateful Dead, Springsteen, Allman Bros, Dire Straits, Stones, Hendrix, Phish, Doors, Pink Floyd and sundry boots. On cassette. Those were plastic thingies with two small spools of tape inside. The preferred ones held 90 minutes. The GD let you record their shows if you sat in a special section. Jablonski would trade all his tomorrows for another run at Alpine. Paging Sean Carroll …
The alien astronomer gazing into his telescope light-years away, someday he might see you. Pull over and jump on the hood and flail your arms and shake your fists, for you will leave no other trace.
The restless ghost of Lake Lahontan fills the desert. A primitive mind would accept no explanation short of smoke from the extinguished sun. An educated one might fear that again a great asteroid has struck.
“You can’t drive,” she says. “It’s a sandstorm.”
“I thought it was the gentle mist of a rainforest. I’m recharging the battery.”
“Do we have to listen to this?”
“It’s an antidote to the techno music. Dean Martin soothes me.”
“How bad is your sunburn?”
“Don’t look. I can feel the pressure from your eyes. Amputation might be necessary in one area. I hope we can still be friends.”
As though celebrating the celebration of a celebration whose meaning mutated across some great Chinese whisper, three gypsy women with pink hair and Hula Hoops lurch into existence. A plaid unicorn struggles to keep up then splits in two, amoeba-style. The posterior curses the anterior. You buzz the window down and call to them but they keep going, making their way back to the Martian Mardis Gras.
“Close it!” she says, covering her eyes. “The sand will ruin the stereo. Are you out of your mind?”
“I spent the day wandering around in a desert. If A then B.”
She laughs and takes a long drink of water and hands you the bottle. “You have to drink even if you’re not thirsty.”
“[E]mploys secrets and intrigue as a driving, page-turning force” Publishers Weekly
What will you say to your friends at work about this dustbowl Dada exhibit, this infomercial for Archetypes Gone Wild? Will you mention it after a discussion of the ballgame? Words, those crude nets sufficient for trolling shallow waters, how will they transport these fantastic creatures? The inability to describe something makes it your captive. And vice versa.
“How long do sandstorms last?”
“This is no biggy,” she says.
“What about Ozymandias?”
“That statue was ruined, not buried. Let’s try again. This is romantic.”
“It hurts too much. That stretches the skin. Think of a balloon inflating.”
“Why did you have to walk around nude?”
“Because I never did before and this is the place to do it. I can’t believe we saw your friends.”
“That was so weird.”
“You didn’t have to yell to them.”
“They won’t remember.”
A man in red, white, and blue greasepaint walks at an angle against the wind as though approaching an angry god not by faith but through sheer force of will. Fantasizing about a motel with soft sheets and a pool, you watch a yellow submarine materialize out of a receding brume. Brontosaurs of black rock slumber in the distance.
“It’s clearing up,” she says. “Let’s go.”
Enter a world where Nature endowed her children with bioluminescence. They dance and roll and galumph across the playa. Held by an indecisive stagehand, the moon can’t decide which circus ring deserves attention. If an alien astronomer 12,000 light-years away peers into a telescope it will see the campfires of those who once lived here, see them fishing cutthroat trout, nursing babies, dying. How long until a band of nomads are burning effigies on the floor of Lake Michigan?
You climb the spiral staircase of a dragon’s neck and stand in line for two Martinis. “We shouldn’t be boozing,” she says. “Alcohol is a diuretic.”
“I read the all the survival crap too. Think of it as medicinal. We don’t have to worry about snakebite. Is this Burning Man bigger than last year?”
“Probably. It’s hard to tell.”
Enchanted by throbbing bursts of sound, a gathering of gyrators proceeds as if dancing in the moonlight is no less natural than flying south for the winter. Maybe they’re right.
“Let’s find the Abstininthe bar,” she says. “Keep your eyes peeled for Sigmund the sea monster.”
“There are 30,000 people here and we’re going to hang out with your ex. We saw his lame costume at Halloween.”
“At least he has one.”
“In case anyone asks, what are we?”
“You’re Angry Sunburned Guy. I’m your longsuffering girlfriend who’s really an android.”
“Why am I angry?”
“You thought I was conscious but it’s only a simulation.”
“All this time you’ve been faking. That’s a crusher.”
Outside a tent lit from within by a strobe light, two men in pink suits sip piña coladas. They’re wearing stools on their heads. You gawk. Perhaps the absolute absence of meaning creates a black hole from which not even thoughts can escape.
“Think about it,” says one. “You can figure it out,” says the other.
No you can’t. Like the sound of one hand clapping, this koan withholds its satori.
“We’re pieces of gum.”
Standing beside you and taking judicious inhalations from a balloon, Moses Jr. says, “I don’t get it. Why would gum wear a suit?” He offers you a hit. It’s a simulacrum of dessert, matter-free whip cream. The sounds of things stretch and convulse on their way to your ears, slithering on the ground where they receive an electric charge. Everything you’ve heard heretofore has been acoustic. Now it’s plugged in and distorted by a wah-wah pedal.
You look to the stars for mooring, the only constants in this carnival of flux, but you’re forgetting something. They are no more eternal than breadcrumbs tossed across a dark pond. Permanence is relative; oblivion, patient. That even they must die, these cherubs who shone for billions of years in a wondrous way, should their mortality bring you comfort, a familial affinity, or despair? Are ceremonies underway on any of their adjacent planets or have they all blown themselves up?
She takes your hand and leads you away. You catch the vapor trail of her thoughts until the magic gas releases you from its spell. Why couldn’t our atmosphere be composed of nitrous oxide? Would that not ensure utopia?
A statue of Medusa dwarfs you. Glow Stick serpents flap in the gritty breeze. Zealously she withholds her raison d’être or denies its necessity. What were the surrealists rebelling against? you wonder, clinging to the absurd idea that all this makes sense in some Big Perspective if you step back far enough. Careful. You could fall off the edge of the world before figuring it out.
“I wish you wouldn’t huff that shit,” she says. “There’s no way of knowing if it’s pharmaceutical grade or the stuff they use in cars.”
“If it’s good enough for A.J. Foyt it’s good enough for me.”
A man draped in green rags calls to her. They hug. Reluctantly you bump knuckles with her ex. “A tossed salad? That’s hysterical.”
“I’m Sigmund the sea monster.”
“No one remembers that stupid show. You could say you’re low tide, or a pile of leaves, or the Green Reaper after he’s fallen on hard times.”
“I’m Sigmund the damn sea monster, alright?”
She scowls at you. “This is awesome, hey?”
“Yeah,” he says, which marks the high water mark of their conversation. The tedium of what follows, how it hobbles the frenzied majesty of the night, serving to demonstrate the banal essence of language, proving that whereof one cannot speak he should remain silent. (But could a romantic poet do any better? Dante, maybe.)
“You ready for the burn?” she asks him.
“Why do they burn it?” you say. “Per Frasier’s Golden Bough why not have a corn man everybody eats? Or, to symbolize the transitory nature of things, they could have Dissolving Man, who’s made of dry-ice and fades away to nothing. Burning is too medieval, too inquisition-like. Don’t they want something more in tune with paganism?”
They regard you with brute stupefaction. “Have you seen Steve?” he asks her, not deigning to engage your inquiry.
“Hey Squidward, is there a port-a-potty around here?”
“Sigmund! Yeah, keep walking that way. You can’t miss them.”
Your not-so-distant male ancestors would have bathed in his entrails. You’re not fit to kiss their feet. You hear her apologize for you being “like that.” How wonderful it must be to have risen so far above our nature. How did she do it? And why hasn’t she shed temper tantrums and her belief in astrology, or do those increase with enlightenment?
Harpo and Groucho ride unicycles while juggling bowling pins. Chico sits on his haunches yelling some eastern European dialect into his cell. “I loved Animal Crackers,” you tell them. “It was your best one.”
Groucho smiles but shakes his head. “Night at the Opera,” he says, his voice an accidental property of his accent.
The splendor of five-foot cupcakes cruising past is negated by the painful need to defecate and knowledge of the horrors it will entail. Why must the earthly trump the transcendent? How can Flesh prevail over Spirit, not content to conquer it but insistent on derision? When you raise your eyes to heaven you get kicked in the groin.
“Did you find one?” she says.
“No, but there was a signed urinal out in the open.”
“That was an exhibit,” says her ex.
“Relax, Spongebob. I’m joking. Let’s get going.”
The space you travel cannot be measured in meters or minutes. It’s more like the distance between Alice in Wonderland and Zod Wallop. A wave of sand deposits Ye Olde Nutmeg Tent. Subsequent waves threaten to take it back.
“Hot chocolate drinks aren’t going to be too popular,” she says.
“Nutmeg? No way.”
You smile at a girl who’s wearing a Daniel Boon hat, furry boots, and nothing else. Below her pierced naval, four tattoos depict an animated sequence of dancing bears. The narrow entrance to heaven is not obscured by any dark medium. “Nutmeg is like a six-hour panic attack during a hangover. It makes you feel –” The first bear, red, stands with feet planted. The second bear, green, has one leg lifted. The third —
“Why don’t you take a picture. If you wanted to drool at naked women you could have spent the week on a stool at Heartbreakers.”
“I wasn’t looking at her tits.”
“I’ll give you that.”
Clouds at dawn exhibit more evidence of design than anything below. Chariots of mutant divinities scramble for parking. And that hovering molten ball, what is it?
“I can feel something,” she says. “It’s kicking in.”
Should you mention the neon paisley swirling on her skin? Hopefully the realization that this was not an ideal time for spelunking inner space will be as fleeting as most sensations. If it bothers you, subdue the monstrous blazing ball with the cure-all potion of familiarity. Compose a dossier. It’s 31,000,000 times as far away as your apartment is from Heartbreakers. Its age spots are cancerous and malignant. We revolve around it and it revolves around something else and what if it starts leaking? One drop will burn everything to cinders. Grab her hand and run!
“What’s wrong?” she says, the two worst word-thingies to hear at this time.
“Nothing. Just trying to block the glare.”
“Here. We need to keep drinking water even if we’re not thirsty.”
An unspoken rejoinder seeps into your mind. Or we’ll die. But what is death? Stranger still, what is life?
Four chessmen skip past holding hands. Maybe they’re refugees fleeing the genocide of pawns in the Old World. Will their communist experiment result in an egalitarian paradise or even worse horrors? You know the answer. Stop them before it’s too late.
“It’s getting hot,” she says. “We should look for shade.”
Or we’ll die. Killing time on acid was precarious enough in an air-conditioned hotel room after a Grateful Dead concert. This is of a different order of magnitude. What were you thinking? Her brainless ideas — foolish in theory, disastrous in practice, unyielding to the stern professor of experience, subjected to the analytic rigor of a child at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor — why don’t you act as the break of sanity? “If you think about it, Burning Man isn’t any stranger than the sun,” you tell her, longing for companionship on the lonely frontier of obvious but neglected musings, the stock-in-trade of your rueful choice for breakfast.
“How’s your sunburn?” she says. A malevolent gleam in her eyes suggests the interior is being leased to demons.
“Would you like to see my tan?” And in an instant you’re observing the redundant ritual decreed by the one tyrant against whom there can be no uprising. It commands your return to the oneness whence man emerged, its titles as silly and insufficient as the strings of letters and numbers used to name distant galaxies. Those crude and diminutive monikers, make love, coitus, fuck, are they not the flimsy shields of cavemen cowering before an unfathomable force?
Aggregate of life’s bliss and purpose, beauty and filth compounded, joyous mocker of our spiritual yearnings, derider of the conviction that our lives are necessary and not the by-product of hapless rutting brutes, why must it come with the disconsolate reminder that the best thing about existence is the means of its perpetuation?
While an earthquake crumbles the crust of your mind, pulverizing the shanties that make you different from other animals, the misery of being human abates. Sweet misery. Focus on the counterpoint between the squeaking seat and the rhythmic squish until the little geyser aimed toward the future departs the present.
“Sometimes nasty, brutish, and short is even better than nasty, brutish, and long,” she says.
“Your perception of time is all goofed up. That was at least three hours.” You supplement the post-coital euphoria with one of her cigarettes. “An ultra lite? Why don’t you just read about having a smoke? That would be more intense.”
“Let’s walk around. It’s too hot to stay in the car.”
A Stonehenge of wiry sculptures stands on the dusty plane, skeletal extraterrestrials reaching toward the sky as though forsaken by their mother ship. You feel their pain. The artist walks beneath a purple parasol, beaming. A motley assemblage of admirers compliments him. His pride is misplaced. Look at his hands. They did not create. They transported items from the warehouse of the Possible to the garden of the Actual. But who guards that warehouse? Who laid its foundation?
Under plastic palm trees, dreadlocked drummers beat out Morse code in many languages, each competing for aural supremacy. As always, the sum absorbs the parts, nullifies them. Remember that. A green-haired fairy with nipples like drawer-pulls performs a rain dance, waving a magic wand. One of her wings flaps in the breeze; the other dangles from her back as though swatted by a surly ogre. Correlated to her supplications or caused by them, gray and white intestines ooze from a mortal gash in the sky. The lake that once resided here, perhaps it’s only vacationing.
At the main camp sits a throng of laptop jockeys. What on earth are they blogging about (other than the all-important fact that they’re blogging)? The one in the mink shawl and aviator goggles, maybe he’s updating his Facebook profile to reveal that asparagus is his favorite vegetable.
“The dust is going to mess with their computers,” she says, dancing to a jazz trio composed of obstinate soloists. Beside her a girl rolls a crystal ball from arm to arm and over her shoulders as though privy to its orbital irregularities.
“What do you get when you cross the cantina from Star Wars with the Mall of America?”
“Base camp isn’t like anything,” she laughs. “Your dumb metaphors don’t apply.”
“Similes. And everything is like something. It’s a matter of figuring it out.”
“Why are they cheering?”
“The man is burning,” she says.
“Why is that a good thing instead of a reason for mourning? If the ceremony doesn’t have a fixed meaning it could be interpreted as some purgative tragic festival.”
“So cry if you want. Maybe some over-arching theme will be created retrospectively. None of the big religions started all at once. The stories snowballed. What if the man keeps coming back, like a phoenix?”
“They can do better than that contrived mess. How did a bird set itself on fire? Did it rub two rocks together? Weren’t the Egyptians aware they lack opposable thumbs?”
“I don’t think it was meant literally.”
“It’s the curse of the Pharaohs. No one can go within fifty feet of a keyboard without making a reference to it.”
The man implodes. Like the anointing of a holy spirit, the pyre bathes the crowd in light and embers.
“Let’s do a theme next year,” she says.
Good news: she plans on being with you in a year’s time. Bad news: she plans on being with you in a year’s time. “I heard Epcot is having a Burning Man exhibit. Let’s go there instead.”
“That’s not even funny.”
A sandstorm absorbs the cars and tents, dissolving them like solids in a clear plastic blender. You feel like a tranquilized animal on a nature program. Sweet blessed exhaustion. You can enter the kingdom of sleep as an honest man. No need to storm the gates with her little white pills. Hobbling across the bridge to Nod, your last thoughts resemble a prayer. Grateful for this gift, you bless the arbitrary and deranged source that doles it out, the way prisoners freed from the Gulag thanked Stalin. A tenebrous dream about marionettes riding a train with no conductor infests your sleep.
Conspiring in an empire’s decline they disassemble the carnival. What analogue does this willful, ordered, peaceful fall of a civilization have? Monks smearing away a Mandela? A video of ants building a colony played in reverse? The obscure theory that Time ends in neither a quiet diminishment nor a wrathful judgment but a yank back through every instant of history to that first moment when the Great Watchmaker finished winding?
“It’s a long ride home,” she says.
“Seventeen-hundred miles will go by in a snap. I can’t wait for Nebraska. Remember to pinch me so I don’t think I’m in heaven and go off the road.”
Driving down I-80 you feel like you’ve seen a ghost. Something maddeningly more than the sum of your senses yearns to escape but cannot be freed. Is that not a form of possession? How will you describe it? As it slips through your verbal nets you’ll wonder if it happened at all. You sneak glimpses in the mirror but there’s nothing to see. The celebrants at Burning Man, shamans replete with rituals and sacraments but no creed, shadows cast by spurious deities, paintings by Louis Wain on the canvas of the desert, their beauty and mystique is a function of their impermanence. Leaving neither fossils nor temples they vanish, created ex nihilo and parting with equal abruptness.
“Someone should at least plant a flag,” you say. “Archaeologists won’t even find footprints.”
“That’s one of the main principles.”
Take solace. The alien astronomer gazing into his telescope light-years away, someday he might see you. Pull over and jump on the hood and flail your arms and shake your fists, for you will leave no other trace.
Happy, if made so by its garish eye.
O’er earth’s wide surface take thy vagrant way.
They love not thee: of them then little seek,
And wish for readers triflers like thyself.
Of ludeful matron watchful catch the beck,
Or gorgeous countess full of pride and pelf.
They may say “pish!” and frown, and yet read on:
Cry odd, and silly, coarse, and yet amusing.
When a skirmish of practical jokes escalates, three men learn the boundary separating pranks from vengeance is drawn in dust. An eye for an eye becomes a worthless guide once they’re lashing out blindly. Caught in the crossfire of their reprisals, Vicki, a sarcastic hairstylist, must decide whether to take sides in a war or play Gandhi to madmen.
The bullied becomes the bully when Nelson pays Duncan and Tyler back for childhood torments. Such scores never stay settled. Duncan, an obsessive bobblehead collector, sees practical jokes as art. To Tyler it’s all about honor. After they retaliate, the sleep of forgiveness brings forth monsters: a blitzkrieg where suspicion dissolves alliances, mutually assured destruction is no deterrent, and unintended consequences mock all battle plans.
With war comes collateral damage. Hypnotized by a bobble-wielding Duncan, Vicki perpetrates a cruel prank against Tyler. Upon realizing she’s being used as a human IED, the enemy of her enemy becomes her boyfriend. Unknown is whether she’s chosen the right side, or if there is one.
Fantasies of Revenge are indigenous to a shadowy land where nightmares, archetypes, and bestial yearnings vie for dominion. The Sweetness of Honey charts this territory, offering the forbidden fruit of schadenfreude. “Revenge is sweeter far than flowing honey,” said Homer. Bears aren’t the only species willing to endure hardship for a taste.
Sweeter Than Anything
If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that. I’ll live my life or I’ll end my life with this project. Herzog
Someday, life will be sweet like a rhapsody. When I paint my masterpiece. Dylan
To what shall I liken the creative process, birth or death? Yes! Luigi Zeripaldi
Chapter Three: The Sorrows of Nelson
An ancient sage said no man should own more than he can carry. Clutching a Hefty bag and watching the dawn rain brimstone on Milwaukee, Nelson makes a virtue of necessity. One of his boots has no laces, forcing him to favor the other leg, signaling a weakness he doesn’t have. If consciousness is a stream, compassion is a rivulet that appeared yesterday and could dry up this afternoon. Don’t count on it during droughts. Don’t count on it ever.
He walks behind a drugstore and leans against a dumpster and searches through his bag and pulls out a pair of jeans. Is the split in the seat too big to be worn in public? Once upon a time. Not now. Amazing how standards change, like a yardstick warped by humidity. The ragged cuffs don’t reach his ankles, but they’re less awful than what he was wearing. He folds those sour shreds and places them in his bag, a tomb of Bethany from which they will one day arise with new life, when the jeans by comparison are worse.
Sunlight oozes over walls painted with cryptic symbols and spreads an orange growth in the alley, irresistible to a one-eyed cat. It makes a pact with gravity and plunges from a windowsill. On its back it stretches and writhes, in the throes of a feline vision quest, perhaps napping with a pride of elders. Contrary to popular belief, pleasure is the absence of pain. Blink and it’s gone. Don’t blink and it’s gone too.
Back on the street Nelson limps with great resolution. In lieu of rage or bewilderment or resignation, the remains of dignity smolder in his eyes. Avoid the inference. If it can happen to him …
He stands across from a bank and studies the digital clock, outraged by its testimony as if arriving from a place where Time’s obscene striptease is prohibited, the wanton display not tolerated.
Drivers watch him. Disgust hops from one host to another like some condemnation from a Universal Mind using individuals as vessels. It inflames a young man driving a pickup, possesses a woman in a Camry, then fills the faces in one shiny vehicle after another until Nelson yearns for the paradise of invisibility or at least the stupefied indifference of his fellow homeless travelers. With what talisman do they deter this demon or aren’t they superstitious?
Funny how you care what others think even when critical issues vie for precedence. A wise man said consciousness is an illness. Then being concerned with the consciousness of others is a fever in a funhouse.
A yellow Mustang detonates hip-hop tremors across the pavement. The passenger inspects Nelson and looks away as if recanting belief in his existence. A hybrid runs the light to avoid idling next to him. For this they’re saving the planet? Should have bought a Hummer. It requires no psychic to detect thoughts piercing as screams: sentences of exile commanded by dozens of petty dictators each day. Maybe his cohorts who argue with unseen tormentors are practicing soliloquies of innocence. But their energy nourishes the scrutinizers, transforming lowly magistrates in the court of social norms into executive editors deleting names from the Book of Life.
He spits in the gutter and crosses the street. His reflection in the bank window flinches. If only some telescope could have seen this apparition approaching from the distance of ten years. He could have taken another direction. Or were other future incarnations worse? Maybe there was only one. Cold comfort until you think about it. Something made this happen. This. Hard not to take it personally.
The people inside tend an abstraction that grew from the exchange of beads for food, the way sacrificing goats to stop thunder morphed into Mozart’s Requiem. Small changes accrue, leaving few fossils. Remember that. The rest is trivial.
“We don’t have public restrooms,” says the security guard, followed by a disastrous attempt at a smile. Any juries deliberating whether pity is worse than cruelty are dismissed.
“That’s alright,” says Nelson. “I piss and shit outside. Like an animal. There’s something wrong with your clock.”
“It tells the time, temperature, and date. You can watch it for free. Outside.”
“Are you sure my eyes won’t wear it out? I’d be happy to pay for the depreciation. I have some underwear in my bag I could trade.”
On his first day the guard must have thought he’d be foiling robbers, negotiating with kidnappers, and seducing tellers who instead act as vessels of the same harsh judgments haunting Nelson. Some of the patrons turn away from the confrontation, declaring neutrality or at least indifference. Those who watch find succor from the pain that living brings, mollified by the ultimate antidepressant: Schadenfreude XR, time release, a natural tonic used by all people at all times.
“I want to call your attention to the fact that it’s not showing the same temperature as the credit union,” says Nelson.
“I’ll be sure to mention this to the president.” The guard hands him a pen. “I’d like to thank you for your support.”
“You don’t have to be an ass. I’m trying to help. You need to check and see if anything’s wrong with it.”
“Nothing’s wrong with it. Ours is the correct one.”
“How do you know? Prove it. What if they’re both wrong?”
“Maybe you could keep an eye on our clock. Outside. If you do I’ll give you another pen tomorrow.”
“Can I fill out an application for your job? I promise I won’t mention the grade school diploma that makes me overqualified.” Nelson unzips his parka. A ghastly stench seeps out like some malevolent genie escaping a cracked bottle.
The guard steps closer until his face contorts. He remains a few feet away as though blocked by a force field. Revulsion is an instinct. And judging. He can’t help blaming Nelson for stinking and dressing this way. Everyone naturally believes we choose our traits. Some thoughts are as essential to survival as lust and thirst. Most are lies.
“There’s a restaurant three blocks up the street with a bigger sign,” says the guard.
“It has the same temperature as the credit union. This isn’t a matter of consensus. If it were, your bank would have some explaining to do.”
“Maybe the temperature is different from place to place. Why does it have to be the same everywhere?”
Nelson covers his ears and screams. Two of the guard’s neckless comrades approach, chomping gum. A teller with shooting stars tattooed on her neck and a swarm of earrings grimaces and looks away. Some tribal chieftains killed subjects who walked in their footprints or made eye contact. Talk about privilege. Bank tellers have no such rights.
“The thermometer here is wrong,” Nelson yells to the patrons. “They’re lying to you, you stupid sheep. Don’t you care?” He retreats through the revolving door. This one doesn’t lock when he’s halfway through, trapping him like an insect in a Tic Tac container. Distorted by the tinted glass, the guards watch him like mad scientists performing a biopsy of his soul. He doesn’t wait for the diagnosis. Far above, all those chemicals failing to clot in the silent and beautiful reaches of space have no idea how good they have it.
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. Camus
The archetypal resemblance between the Grim Reaper’s scythe and your lawnmower, surely it’s no coincidence the Big D carries a yard tool rather than a metal-detector, .357, or pool cue. To explain the particular, start with the general. Take a step back with Gus Sanders, founder of Segmentarianism. During a Peak Experience (aka Satori) he realized the gods made Sisyphus push a boulder because their mower was in the shop. Based on a true story.
Gus Sanders rested his hands on bulbous knees jutting above black socks and gulped for air. With desperate eyes he sized up his abhorrent foe, his Goliath. Its silence, a snide boast of invulnerability, mocked him more than howls of laughter. Unknown muscles in his shoulder and back twitched. He spat and probed for weaknesses. Then the fifty-sixth attack met the same ignominious fate as its predecessors.
He sought sustenance in Hate, which is not a fickle flame contingent on the fuel of man’s misfortunes but a great wind impelling warriors in all ages. His Aussie slouch hat provided scant protection from the jaundiced eye in the heavens. How many conflicts has it beheld, delighted or appalled but never indifferent. That would be intolerable. If it doesn’t care, who does?
Impervious, the start chord awaited, an Excalibur only the salesman could effectively extract from the LawnMaster Easy-Start Deluxe Mulching Mower. Gus shielded his eyes and looked to the horizon for strength, for perspective. The earth, is it not a vast coliseum?
Rivulets of sweat added a shimmering gloss to what he saw, but they didn’t create it. Certainly an electrolyte deficiency played a role, but not as a sufficient cause. When he attempted to stretch, the crackle from his back was disturbing but extraneous to what followed. Not all enigmatic visions can be dismissed as pathologies. The smug little skeptics who deify first principles forget that philosophic fundamentalism is as inbred and ill-kempt as its bucktoothed religious cousin.
Above a Bucky Badger weather-vane on the garage, cumulus clouds morphed into a ghostly figure pushing a mower across a lawn punctured by iridescent dandelions. He dissolved but the grass remained, as if to ridicule and defile the purpose of his fleeting existence. Gus collapsed. “How many hours of my life have I spent cutting the lawn?” he cried, recoiling from the leprous growth surrounding him.
Mentholated smoke wafted through the den where his wife played Mah Jong on the computer amid the sonorous thunder of “Song Sung Blue.” “Why don’t you wait until the sun goes down?”
“Because it will be dark then. We’d need to add a guide dog to the other five.” He tottered to the kitchen and poured a gin-and-tonic sans tonic and found a scratch-pad. “Must have started when I was twelve. That’s an hour each week walking behind a deafening machine, choking on exhaust in the scalding sun. Have to do it at least twenty times a year. Forty years times twenty equals … sweet Jesus. That’s over a month of cutting the lawn non-stop. Look at that segment of my life. Stolen. And I never would have known.”
“Gussy, what are you shouting about? Why don’t we pay one of the neighbor kids to do it?”
“Because cutting the grass isn’t a video game, and we can’t afford the special helmets they need.” He stared at the numbers like a scientist examining a lethal virus through a microscope. “All the evidence is right here. Anyone could have found it. Unless they’re afraid or brainwashed, why haven’t they? Maybe it’s like people stuck in a communist country who have no idea how restricted their lives are.”
He poured another gin-and-tonic sans tonic and looked out the window at the insidious LawnMaster Easy-Start Deluxe Mulching Mower. Its chrome handle extruded from an orange plastic shell: a monstrous, rapacious crustacean waiting to attack him and devour more of his life. “You’ve been sucking up my time. What sane man would consent to being born if he knew his life would involve an entire month of cutting the grass?”
Propelled by the mysterious dynamism animating all beings, the analysis took on a life of its own. During his weekend shifts, Gus ignored college football, Cops, and even the adventures of Mary Weatherworth to begin a Segmentarian Critique. The calculations were simple to perform, but contemplating the sums proved no less daunting than the observation of crime scene photos. Worse than the outrage was the lack of a culprit.
“Shaving averages out to five minutes a day since I was fifteen. If I live to be eighty that’s … Who would consent to being born if he knew he’d have to spend three months shaving?”
“Tossing and turning in bed is at least four hours a week, which comes to … another twelve months. After all these segments are chopped off, what’s left? And if the government isn’t behind this, who is? It’s too organized and systematic to be a coincidence. Has anyone else calculated it? Maybe this is what pushed John Nash over the edge.”
With the weariness of all lonely soldiers of fortune fighting a war of ideas, Gus wishes his LawnMaster Easy-Start Deluxe Mulching Mower had started on the fifty-sixth try that afternoon. Once you start exposing life to the terrifying clarity of Segmentarianism there is no turning back. Amazing how a happenstance brush with an idea can change a man.
“Some day all the grass will look like this. When there’s no one round to cut it, it’ll just grow and grow, all long and messy.”
To remedy the Lawnmower Blues, contemplate things less ephemeral than your absurd chore. You, shadow’s dream, changing the length of your lawn each week, devoting your fleeting days to glorifications of futility while the cluster of gasses recently nicknamed Jupiter remain chaotic as they were in the Permian. Oblivion is patient; permanence, relative. That even it shall die, this cherub who shone in a wondrous way for billenium, should its mortality bring you comfort, a sense of familial affinity, or despair? If nothing be permanent, then only Nothing is permanent. And ultimately triumphant. There is no Ontological anchor in Heraclitus’ rapids.