“Are you hungry?” said the gas station attendant.
Sandy poured a coffee while I examined a pack of Night Light glow-in-the-dark condoms for warnings or liability waivers.
“What do you think, Petronius? Let’s eat.”
The attendant gazed at the harsh fluorescent lights without blinking or squinting. “Friends, there’s a restaurant down the street. It’s wonderful. But you’ll have to walk to it. There is no other way.”
“Permit me to make a conjecture,” I said. “Your family owns it.”
“No, it’s not like that.”
“How do we get there?” said Sandy.
“There’s a road behind this station,” he said, his gentle voice tinged with enthusiasm. “It’s closed to traffic but you can walk on it. Keep going until you come to an intersection.”
“We cannot drive to it?” I said.
“No. You must take the road. There is no other way.” He smiled. “It has everything you need.”
“Should we?” said Sandy.
With a nod of my head I permitted my ever-scheming stomach to dethrone Reason.
“You can park your car on the side over there under the light,” he said, somehow sensing my reservations. “I’ll keep an eye on it.”
Had any other stranger suggested that I abandon my car for him to watch I would have laughed in his presumptuous face, but the attendant radiated sincerity and benevolence. The discovery of an altruist, a living counterexample to the truism that men are wolves with manicured claws, disarmed me no less than an encounter with a griffon would have.
Sandy thanked him and I moved my car. Walking past the station, we basked in the warmth of his eyes. At the bottom of a steep hill, a winding snake of flashing lights marked the closed road. The orange serpent slithered into the fog, its precise length unknown.
“He said nothing about a hill,” I said.
“He probably forgot. At least the road’s lit up. It’s probably a little bit past where the barricades come to an end. Let’s go. I’m starving.”
With arms outstretched for balance, we determined the topography of the ground lurking beneath the soggy grass before committing our feet. At the bottom we hopped over a drainage ditch and onto the freshly paved road, which was safe to walk on but not ready for traffic.
After passing each barricade we quickened our pace, awaiting the next throbbing splash of orange to appear in the static. In hazy increments they became distinct, joining reality as we approached.
We walked until our feet rebelled. I could not remember the attendant discussing a specific distance — indeed, his endorsement was altogether free of circumstantiates — but I did not recall him dispatching us on an odyssey. What manner of eatery would be on a road such as this? I wondered. Must all of its clientele abandon their cars and make a pilgrimage?
We peered through veils of gauze for our next beacon as the fog extinguished the last light behind us. We approached something big and dark.
“He said nothing about a tunnel,” I said.
“So he forgot. When you give someone directions you don’t mention every little thing they’ll see along the way. You just tell them as much as they’ll need to get there, the important stuff. That’s probably the light from the restaurant on the other side. C’mon.”
I often marveled at how her tiny stature could harbor such grandiose authority. Dissuading her, though not impossible, frequently represented the path of greatest resistance. My acquiescence to her in matters of irrelevance was therefore no sign of weakness but merely pragmatism.
“Perhaps we can walk around it,” I said, appalled at her immoderate indulgence of a stranger’s testimony. I wondered if he had been to the restaurant himself. Maybe he was parroting what his enthusiastic manager had said. Maybe both men were links in some rapturous Chinese whisper.
Far steeper than the one we descended earlier, the hill the tunnel bisected would have been impossible to safely traverse. In all likelihood it shielded traffic from falling rocks. “Their coffee better be good,” I muttered as Sandy pulled me in and darkness consumed us.
The tunnel’s length mocked my initial estimate. The light at the other end looked like a pinprick on a black sheet covering a window. I wondered why the air seemed unnaturally thin and odorless until the inability to inhale smothered my reflections and forced me to gasp for breath. “Let’s get out of here,” was on the tip of my tongue with nothing to discharge it.
Faced with an imminent collapse, I became cognizant of a structural problem. The tunnel’s circumference, initially generous, began to shrink. I could not see the walls, but I felt them constricting while the light at the other end darted away like a firefly. I tried to grab Sandy’s hand but nothing below my neck heeded my requests.
My bowels turned to ice as I realized that even if we could turn and run we would never make it out in time. With the tunnel’s increase in length proportionate to its decrease in width, we would need to run several times as far to leave. I envisioned the gruesome folly of an escape attempt: scrambling like monkeys, one behind the other with hands pressed against the encroaching sides, then crawling like moles until the concrete crushed our shoulders and the pipe stretched out into a thin tube.
Soon, my forehead will scrape the ceiling, I thought, accepting with noble indifference the asinine role Fate assigned me. Fate, that blue-haired dingbat running a crooked Bingo game. Is there greater outrage than the recognition that the world will continue in your absence just as it did before your birth?
Numb from a lack of oxygen, prepared for an encounter with those remorseful and incompetent creators who erase their work so soon after it is finished, I felt the walls recede until we were crossing a bridge above a black sea beneath a starless sky. The air became so rich that more than a tiny breath induced the delightful giddiness of nitrous oxide.
One might suspect that the terror of being buried alive would promptly be replaced by a new but contrary horror: agoraphobia from the sudden and complete exposure. Such was not the case. Soothing warmth surrounded me as though we were floating through dark water to the light above the surface. A clanking sound, faint at first, became pronounced as we approached.
Unlike the sun, it did not hurt to look upon this light. It felt good in a curious fashion: the way a man feels after reconciling differences with an old friend, or how he feels when he is lost and discovers a sign. Brighter than anything I had seen before, it was of a different genus of illumination. Bereft of adequate descriptions for this extraordinary phenomenon, I can only say it was white, almost clear, and I could feel it as much as I could see it.
Like a lucid dreamer discovering his powers, I clasped Sandy’s hand and marveled at the wonderful electricity conducted through her skin. With an understanding bypassing my senses, this simple union communicated more than we ever could with the primitive tools of language. The formidable barriers that make complete communication impossible melted away, dissolved in the purifying bath of the light.
I could not tell if we were running or flying and I did not care. The space in the tunnel rushed past us, increasing to a roar, and the clanking noise thumped like a heartbeat. Everything throbbed in unison and it pulsated through me, sustaining all existence from instant to instant, something I normally took for granted.
An almost lustful yearning to be with the light made even our breakneck speed too slow. It seemed we were no longer moving at all, that it was coming to us, accepting us. I felt consoled, as though returning to my home after a troublesome voyage. The heartbeat changed back to a clanking sound and the light absorbed us. The crude and arbitrary boundaries of words could not map its nature. And there was clanking, clanking, clanking …
The light went out.
Our eyes adjusted to the exiguous glow cast by a lantern in the middle of the road. A decrepit old spotlight stood before us, the kind commonly used for the grand openings of bowling alleys. A spiderweb crack filled the glass and rust grew over the frame like moss covering a trellis. Something stirred behind it. I dropped Sandy’s hand and we approached. The air felt cool against my sweaty palm.
A man hoary with age and wretched like some deposed king pounded on a little metal box with a wrench. Wires of many colors sprouted from it, some going into the base of the light, others remaining unattached. He mumbled profanities, completely engrossed in his toil. On the ground behind him stood a bottle of wine, its purple surface quivering with each furious pound. When he finally looked up, our presence took a few moments to register.
“You kids in the tunnel? See the light? Pretty bright, huh?” He smelled like stale milk and the curls in his gray main, sodden with grease, hung limply against his head. “Sellin’ it to the contractors fixin’ the road. Gotta fix it first. Damn thing goes on but she don’t stay on.”
He picked up his bottle and took a sip. The lines across his grizzled face looked like greasepaint but they persisted after he wiped the sweat from his forehead with the tattered sleeve of a flannel shirt. His glazed eyes staggered up and down Sandy. With considerable difficulty they found their way to me. He grinned. There were slimy almonds where his teeth should have been. “I know what you were doin’ in there. Can I sniff your finger?” He began wheezing and cackling. Sandy stepped back and stood behind me.
I would not normally have bestowed mercy upon such a scurrilous inquisitor, but given the infirmities of this hideous thing I decided to remove Sandy from its noxious presence rather than beat it senseless. As we walked away, an explosive hiccup interrupted the creature’s chortling. We listened as it shared its wine with the earth.
Instructed to be on the lookout for visions and to interpret them carefully, I scarcely expected something so crass, so shallow.
“What an awful man,” said Sandy.
“Just a mammal like us, ravaged by age and drink,” I told her, extending my Stoic tolerance to even the lowliest organism.
“Hmmm, ravaged by drink. Maybe there’s a lesson.”
Maybe you should shut your damn mouth, I thought. (This baffling, irksome phenomenon — the universal proclivity of the fair sex to deprive man of life’s simplest, most decent pleasure — will be enlarged upon and analyzed in Parts IV and V of my annals.)
“That light made me dizzy,” she said.
“It was disorienting.”
We approached a distant streetlight and I begged the restaurant to be nearby. A barricade blocked the road at an intersection. Nothing loomed from every direction.
“It’s not here,” she said. “This is where he said it would be and there’s nothing. He lied to us.”
“I think he was sincere but mistaken,” I said, recalling his demeanor.
“Perhaps that is a species of lying,” said Reason. “Is there no little dishonesty involved when giving directions to a place you have never been?”
I sat on the immaculate concrete and sighed. “All this way for nothing. It is enough to make you sick.”
Part III: an Appurtenance
When assessing a portion of a text, even the finest student, entranced with the wondrous realms his reading transports him to, can drop his compass and forget that the best questions are not always the obvious ones. And (depending how “obvious” is defined) that the obvious questions are not always obvious.
How should the Reader excavate practical gems from the theoretical diamond mine in the prior paragraph? Before making an inquiry, digest what you have read. This process does not occur of its own dynamism. One needs to be actively involved. To aid the digestion of great writing one must, in addition to reflection and repeated readings, turn to the time-proven methods that facilitate the digestion of great cuisine: fermented beverages and fine tobacco, fugues by Bach, a brisk walk with a hearty dog, an aimless drive in a rectangular sedan. The birth of a penetrating question requires the services of a midwife.
Once the Reader has fortified himself he must ask: What is it I most need to know? Do I need any additional information, or is what I have read so complete unto itself, so self-contained that no further details are required? Was my reading a sumptuous feast, more than sufficient to nourish the tendons and muscles of my mind, or is an additional serving required?
A student plagued with indigestion, one who has failed to recognize the full course of Part III, might fire off a series of “obvious” but needless questions.
“And what occurred on your way back through the tunnel? Did you again encounter the unpleasant spotlight owner? Were words exchanged? How did you find your way through the tunnel in the dark? How did you locate the point where you had to mount the hill to find the station? And regarding the attendant: surely Sandy reprimanded him for his deception. If not, how did you restrain her?”
Enough! Cease and desist, I beg you. Stop pummeling me with questions. Obviously we made it back. Or is the Reader entertaining the possibility that I composed my annals while seated at the deserted intersection? Does he imagine I carved them on the fresh concrete while Sandy communicated with prospective publishers via smoke signals? How on earth would smoke signals have penetrated the fog? Does the Reader think my story ends there, and the remaining pages consist of acknowledgements and appendixes, or that the rest of my story is one very long chapter titled My Day-to-Day Struggles Seated at the Foggy, Deserted Intersection?
Had such particulars been of any magnitude I would, as the humble and obedient servant of Objectivity, included them. Does the Reader doubt my judgment? Perhaps he misconstrued my advice on how to improve his digestion. How many fermented drinks has he consumed?
So that something good may arise from something bad, the answers to the Reader’s frivolous inquiries will be the subject of an addendum to this appurtenance. Its spectacular lack of merit will serve as an enduring testament to my judgment.
The remainder of this appurtenance concerns an editorial point of intermediate importance. If he was not in any way dissatisfied with the prior paragraph, the Reader should proceed forthwith to the posterior section.
While reading the prior paragraph (not including the one immediately prior to this paragraph), the Reader may have expected some lavish reference to “a Phoenix arising from these ashes” rather than the simplistic “good may arise from something bad.” The following considerations should assuage his disappointment.
On principle I avoid all references to Egyptian mythology. As clever as they were in covering a desert with giant triangles and gruesome half-cat half-man monstrosities, their obsession with the afterworld was preposterous. How did they expect a mummy to untangle himself once he arrived in the next kingdom? Did not the removal of his vital organs and brain bode ill for his health and vigor? What were those silly people thinking?
As the legend has it, after the Phoenix set its nest afire and burnt itself to a crisp, it was reborn. Why can no modern hack go within a mile of a keyboard without making a reference to it? Verily, it is the true curse of the Pharaohs. That such a story persisted longer than one generation bespeaks the appalling poverty of imagination rampant in Egypt at the time. Worse, it is frighteningly evocative of the Buddhist monks who practiced self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam War.
A conscientious writer will only use a mythic allusion to bring clarity. If there exists even a remote chance of it evoking irritating questions regarding mummies or horrific images of suicides, then he must look to other means to make his point.
Even ignoring the preceding (and utterly damning) objections, it is not clear a Phoenix reference would have been appropriate. I want something good to arise from inferior questions. There is nothing whatsoever in the Phoenix legend about a superior bird arising. It is the same tedious, self-immolating one each and every time.
A question we shall not pursue here is how a bird can set anything on fire. Did it strike a match? Did it rub two rocks together? The Egyptians were aware that birds lack opposable thumbs, were they not? Perhaps they should have spent less time carving gibberish on their gaudy tombs and more time observing the natural world. What manner of brain-disabling deadline did the author of this puerile legend work under? Had the Pharaoh commissioned him to write a new one by the morrow? Or did he compose it after hours in the broiling sun?
In summary: a reference to a Phoenix arising would have been inappropriate, subjected the Reader to needless trauma, quite possibly ruined my otherwise splendid appurtenance, and covered my hands in filth from the crime of perpetuating this cheap, contrived, and all-around deplorable myth.
A Bland and Unnecessary Addendum to the Appurtenance of Part III, Provided at the Reader’s Insistence
The puddle of vomit next to the unconscious old man made me think of giant protozoa. The beam from his spotlight now struck the interior wall of the tunnel, illuminating most of the walk for us. I put my hand above Sandy’s head to alter the appearance of her shadow.
“Knock it off.”
“It would have behooved us to ignore that deluded attendant,” I said. “Look at the time and energy we wasted.”
“How behooving it would have been. It would have been the behoovingest thing we ever did,” she said, succumbing to a sudden downpour from one of the sporadic thunderclouds typifying her internal weather.
“It would behoove you not to mock. The word was used felicitously.”
“Would it behoove me felicitously, or felicitously behoove me? Why can’t you talk like a regular person? Do you think it makes you better than others?”
“You are mistaking the effect for the cause.”
“Because it doesn’t.”
“All hail the common denominator, all hail,” I said, waving my hands over my head. The shadow cast on the tunnel wall looked like a giant bat. “Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, hip-hob, breaking wind to the tune of ‘Dueling Banjos’ – it is all good. How arrogant of me to imply that anything is superior to anything else. All ye unwashed, rap-listening, reality-TV-viewing masses: fear not, bathe not. Come, join us in the parlor for a belching competition. Have you not heard? A revolution has occurred. There is no high or low culture. We are all one. My elitist scorn is naught but petty judgment, certainly not righteous indignation against Vandals ransacking the remains of a once glorious culture.”
“It’s snootiness, that’s all.”
“Clearly you were not home-schooled. Condolences. Taking pride in the mastery of one’s native tongue, using it like a violin rather than a hand under an armpit, is not arrogance. Rather, it is the pursuit and joyous acquisition of excellence. Deciding that one word is more felicitous than another is no more arrogant than deciding that a New York strip is superior to a plate of cockroaches. Who shall help me defend civilization from the barbarians? I shall not surrender. Like the great army at Masada I would sooner die by my own sword than …”
I continued my excellent discourse throughout our walk. This oxymoronic counter-“culture” has spread like gonorrhea at a naval port and it is high time a true philosopher armed with rhetorical penicillin cured it. My discourse soon became a soliloquy, as Sandy was wont to tune out ideas she found disagreeable.
My concern that we would be unable to locate the spot where we needed to surmount the hill proved to be unfounded, a child of panic. As we approached the top I took deep breaths, afraid of what mayhem would ensue if any harm had befallen my car. Though Aristotle taught that for a punishment to be just it must be proportionate to the crime, I had logistical reservations about nailing the attendant to a tree.
Aglow beneath the votive light, it appeared unharmed. Sandy stormed into the station. “You asshole,” was all I heard before the door closed behind her. I walked to my car and inspected it. With the weight of the earth leaving my back, I enjoyed the symphony of crickets while emptying my bladder.
Sandy slammed the station door and walked outside. She pounded on the glass and displayed a universal gesture with both hands. The attendant’s face glowed with compassion. His eyes were windows into a world of absolute stasis. He smiled.
Contrary to my expectation, to the extent that I invested any thought at all in the matter, she chose the longer of two possible routes to arrive at the passenger’s door, thereby ensuring a walk through the fresh and far from negligible pool of urine.
“What the hell.”
“You will have to take your shoes off and store them in the trunk, I am afraid.”
“Why couldn’t you go over there?”
“Am I psychic? Do I know what path you will take? Please remove them. What did the attendant say?”
“Petronius, this’ll kill you. He says he’s never been there but some friend he trusts told him all about it.”
“Could you perhaps purchase a new pair? I am not sure I want them in my trunk in their present condition.”
In a gruesome exhibition of unladylike behavior, she cussed repeatedly, misdirecting her anger toward me as unenlightened persons are wont to do. Rather than embrace all that happens as thread spun from the spool of Fate, they fulminate against fellow non-combatants. She searched her backpack and tore several pages from a magazine that consisted entirely of advertisements for cosmetics. Under my supervision she carefully wrapped each shoe. As we drove out of the station she used one of Freud’s eye-crossingly inane theories to accuse me of being inordinately concerned with my car. By means of a dialogue, I attempted to demonstrate that the quest for cleanliness and order in a world of chaos and filth has nothing to do with a man’s anus.
The remainder of this bland and unnecessary addendum to the appurtenance concerns an editorial point of minor importance. If he was not in any way dissatisfied with the reference to the army at Masada, the Reader should proceed forthwith to the next section.
The Reader, if he read the bland and unnecessary addendum to the appurtenance in a doctrinaire cast of mind, may have objected to my comparing myself to both the Romans fighting against the barbarians and the Jewish army fighting against the Romans. There are two main schools of thought concerning mixed metaphors. Classicists, such as myself, consider a mixed metaphor to be as venomous and bulky as a poorly mixed drink. On the other hand, English-sacking Huns (or pragmatists) believe the evolution of language leaves us with only one criterion when judging mixed-metaphor cocktails: the proof is in the pudding.
“But how can you possibly reconcile your laudable stance with your egregious metaphor?” the incredulous Reader demands.
The Reader has to remember that we classicists are not unrelenting tyrants. Indulgences are granted when circumstances warrant them. My reference to Masada did not occur in the ambrosial peace of my study with a snifter of cognac in hand and Zeus curled up next to my oak desk. It occurred in a dark tunnel next to Sandy in the throes of one of her spells. Under the circumstances, I believe my discourse was more than satisfactory. Its ardency more than compensated for what it lacked in consistency. Would the Reader have behaved differently, perhaps composing and whistling a rondo? I thought not.
The identification and critique of mixed metaphors is a worthy pursuit, but it must be tempered with an examination of the conditions under which they arose. If the conditions were severe, clemency must be granted.
A Supplement to the Bland and Unnecessary Addendum to the Appurtenance to Part III
Does the Reader feel edified? Is his life now complete? Has the knowledge that Part III ultimately ended with Sandy walking through a puddle of pee and accusing me of being “anal-retentive” transformed him? I insist that he place a separate bookmark in the previous section. As often as he questions my judgment he may turn to it and remind himself that initially I chose not to include those inconsequential factoids.
And did the rigors of my Socratic dialogue disabuse Sandy of her psychological theory? (I assume the ever-consistent Reader insists on “closure” here. No doubt an inquiry concerning her shoes is next.) In the topsy-turvy world she inhabits, the rational extirpation of fatuous theories is becoming impossible. If only Freud were the worst of her mentors. The trend of late is the denigration of History and Reason, with wariness fertilized by the manure of multiculturalism. How on earth does the merit of an idea, practice, or work of art have anything to do with its origin? Culture should be defined as the greatest things that man has created and done and thought and dreamed. Those obsessed with subdivisions missed their calling in set theory or classifying beetles. (Do they pine for the days of “German science,” I wonder.)
“But scholar,” the Reader pleads, “doesn’t the scant contribution from Greece, Rome, Europe, and North America warrant the unbounded attention lavished on the other major players?”
Dear, sheltered Reader, multiculturalism erroneously assumes — nay, demands at gunpoint — the ludicrous notion of equality between groups. (In the absence of cloning, no two humans are equal. How could groups be?) Before any group may bask in the illustrious torch of History, it must contribute something of value to humanity. Contrary to contemporary “historians,” most merit little more than a footnote for being plundered. Victims are not heroes, and history is not a sanctuary for ne’er-do-wells. Multiculturalism is analogous to the Special Olympics where prizes are bestowed upon all.
We once took a vapid class to satisfy the benighted diversity requirement — as though exposure to “the greatest things that man has created and done and thought and dreamed” would not, of its own dynamism, erase all parochialisms. Surrounded by students deprived of Homer and Horace in favor of cryptic gobbledygook, I succumbed to labor pains of exasperation and birthed the following revision: when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Cowardly Lion discovered that the much-ballyhooed Wizard was a fraud, they should have castrated him with the Woodsman’s axe. That is how I would have ended the novel, sending an unequivocal warning to all charlatans seeking power. Then the Lion, crazed from the scent of blood, would tear the Wizard to shreds. Dorothy would grab his head, walk outside the castle and hold it high, proclaiming, “Sic semper charlatans.” This delightful vision was my only solace during the gloomy nights when I endured the grandiose, multicultural babbling of Professor Oz.