Monday, October 24, 2005

Various Essays

1. Logicobabble

I read a fair amount of science fiction. Though overly maligned by the self-appointed literati, there is (like in most genre fiction I'd think) a good deal of artistry hiding in there for those willing to delve into the pages to find it. Biased SF geek that I am,* I'd go on to point out that speculative literature can offer the reader totally unique viewpoints from which explore human nature and all the other things that literature is good for. There is in SF (as in most genre fiction) a range of talents out there for getting these unique viewpoints communicated. Nerdy connoisseurs (ahem) like to twist their panties over the "hardness" of given works of science fiction. This is basically a question of what kind of scientific verisimilitude has the author pulled off.

A SF author at the rock solid end of the plausibility spectrum will violate no known scientific laws, but may speculate on technologies or environments that are workable in principle, but as yet undiscovered. (This is usually dry for my tastes.) In the sandy middle, however, where most authors operate, the behavior of the known universe may be tweaked here and there for the purposes of telling a story, or a broad-sweeping and unlikely technological advancement may serve to prop up the premises of the tale. And that's all fine with me, so long as there's a good story or a clever point that comes out of it. But as you get down on to the soft, mayonnaisey end of the hardness scale, fictional technological devices exist only to advance the plot in an ad hoc fashion, since the author wasn't resourceful enough to unwind the plot using logic or character motivation or anything within his previously established framework of built worlds. Usually these transitions read like a mad lib of smart-sounding words, but when parsed by knowledgable readers make absolutely no sense whatsoever. This disconnected tangle of jargon has a special term: it's called technobabble. If you've seen Star Trek, then you know what technobabble is. It's amazing how many space-time anomolies can be defeated by reversing the polarity of the tachyon field.

Well, you've read the title of my post. Have you guessed where it's going?

That's right, somehow the punditocracy has become corrupted with a steaming, stinking infection of logicobabble. Like technobabble, logicobabble uses a multiplicity of seemingly rational English words, such as may be used in logical discourse, but when analyzed by those who know better, fail to hold together. Like technobabble, logicobabble serves mostly as a convenient and lazy means to get from point A to point B. Like technobabble, logicobabble is employed by hacks not quite bright or motivated enough to concoct a good story from the premises they constructed in the first place.

Logicobabble has traditionally (in my lifetime) seen its home in the storied caricatures of liberal academics, railing against the androdominion of the phallocracy and all such nonsense. But it hardly ends there. In fact, the degree of logicobabble used by today's policymakers is what I find particularly alarming. The pages of the National Review and the Weekly Standard are awash in the stuff. I present Slate's own Christopher Hitchens as the pinnacle of the art. Lots of words, no real sense.

Logicobabble has been needed badly in those circles lately, since it's hard to get from the previously accepted axioms of conservativism to the current state of affairs without piling on a whole lot of obfuscation. How do you get from balanced budgets to massive deficits? Don't waste your time with logical arguments, just load in a lot of smart-sounding words and cultivate the properly smug attitude of the know-it-all. Is logic keeping you from invading another country? Hell, wave a few vials around, make a lot of pretend arguments, and go in anyway. You just have to reverse the polarity of your integrity field. No real need to cover your rhetorical ass either, just claim that whatever's happening is why you were there in the first place; it's not like anyone can call you on it.

I wish I knew how to make it go away. My advice on the matter is cheap: think; write; reason. Try to communicate honestly, though it may take more work. Maybe this infection of logicobabble can be beaten, if only we can derive the prognostication Re: our self-actualizations.** As Captain Kirk would never let us forget, it's a one-in-a-million chance, but it just might work.

* Even my acronym of choice reveals this: "Sci-fi"? As if.

** Unfortunately for the purposes of this post, it seems I suck at doing this stuff intentionally.

2. How Easy It Is

"How easy it is, how little strength it requires, to do so much good."

Thus soliloquizes the charming but oafish Pierre Bezhukof, about a quarter of the way through Tolstoy's War and Peace.* The quote occurs during his first visit to his estates; two years after inheriting immense wealth, he undergoes an awakening of sorts and sets off to alleviate the toil of his serfs (one of those fine institutions from the ass-end of history). In this segment he gets railroaded by his cunning overseer who happily showcases Pierre shining faces of peons he's helped, while the author takes the time to demonstrate how each of his well-meant reforms have produced opposite the intended effect. It's a brief parable of the failure of good intentions, of faith without deeds, of the responsibilities of those who would govern.

Poor Pierre is getting railroaded by everone--he's a likable guy but with the unfortunate constitution of room-temperature gelatin. Most of the characters in this book (so far) are "the rich," a true aristocracy, and Pierre is both the richest in wealth and poorest in integrity. Yet, I have a hard time drumming up a blanket condemnation of all of these society creatures (due in no small part to the love with which Tolstoy paints them), because they are doing what people really should have the liberty to do--live freely and pursue happiness--they are easy to identify with, even while the cloud of an evil construct social looms over all of them. No it's not a fair system, but they are people too.

So Pierre as an empathetic buffoon, even while he facilitates the depravity of the world. I'd call it prescience, but I imagine it's always been this way. Is Ken Lay a hapless oaf ignorant of Jeff Skilling's; is Ebbers a likable lummox unaware of Sullivan's nefarious work; is George Bush a good man giving into the temptations of an easy life and excused belligerence while getting pushed around by the wily Cheneys and Roves? Maybe, but it doesn't matter much to the serfs, and the boss's failure to govern accountably has likely made things even worse.

But this is not only a screed against the rich, because it's not like these failings are confined to them. What the hell responsibilities is Keifus doing with his comparative advantage of (relative) wealth and freedom from hunger? (What are you doing?) Advancing science? Learning with an open mind? Raising responsible people? Writing out "thoughtful" sermons to a tiny audience? These things sound like hardly a start. The thing is, doing good is not easy at all. It takes work at least, and probably sacrifice. Too easily we settle for the mere intent of compassion, in ourselves and in others. Lazy, privileged bastards the lot of us.

* Probably this is a favorite sophomore essay topic. I promise I will do no worse. Next week I may move up to junior level and compare this novel with Crime and Punishment or maybe the The Great Gatsby.

3. Keifus, and then some

Alt title: I've seen more naked old men in the last three weeks…

Alt title: the great white bulk

Alt title: Oh…a gyyym*

I am not an unattractive man. Or rather, I have always had reasonably good raw material with which to be attractive, were I ever willing to do very much about it, to pay adequate attention and cash for clothing, grooming, to practice being smooth, and so forth. But I find life too short for that kind of crap. Even though I suppose I've traded off some measure of getting laid as a consequence, I'm happy to have weeded out any number of superficial annoying people. (Shut up.) I've come to grips with the fact my personality is essentially sort of dorky, but my physique is a different matter. In that, I've spent seven years in increasing denial.

They say the camera adds 20 pounds. Self-descriptions on the internet subtract at least 30, but I'm being honest here, I swear (quiet you). At 5'11", I have a biggish build that puts me at a natural 190 pounds or so (less and I look scrawny, so shaddap, wouldja?). Unfortunately, I'm now pushing 215, and it's become more than an aesthetic problem. Last fall, I was clued in rather painfully to the fact that I can't casually lose weight like I could in the B.C. days. Trucking my tottering bulk around at top (allowable) speeds on spindly joints was doing nothing less than tempting fate, and thanks to that hubris, it looks like I'll be lucky to pick up my stick again this fall. It greatly annoys me that I have to train to do the athletic activities I enjoy now, instead of just doing them and calling that my training. I suppose I should be thankful that I've thus far avoided hypertension, diabetes, etc, but I ain't exactly getting any younger (shut up!), and there's no point in being in a risk group. So it looks like it's that time again…

I've started working out more times I think more than anybody I know. Sadly, the effort has always succumbed to a pattern of shifting schedules: new semesters, then new jobs, and always new residences, year after year. It's my piss-poor time organization that always fails me--11 PM jogs, 1 AM games, bagging out of work early--none of these things are compatible with adult activities.

But fat takes its toll, and a month ago, failing to suck it in, I finally sucked it up. I joined the early morning crowd, starting the routine again for the hundredth time, but with hopefully more stick-to-it-iveness.*** For several weeks now, I've paid for the privelege of comparing myself with the old man dunlop**** crowd. I feel better beside these sagging speedo-tanned (or all-over pale) specimens, and I'm also still a lot faster and stronger than most of these guys. I'd be happy to let my faux superiority end there (knock it off, ok?), but since I need to proceed to work afterward, a shared shower is inevitable. These men's bathing habits…let's just say I'd have been happy not to witness them. After the chilly pool, everyone's scrotum looks like a wizened pale walnut and everyone's penis looks like a swollen Vienna sausage (but not mine--it's huge--shut UP!). It's not that I'm looking, but it's been burnt unwilling into my brain. I'm still frightened of the sauna.

While I'm at it, let me put a couple of myths about the pool to rest right now. First, buoyancy is no advantage. I do twelve laps mandatory (after the weight room I'm already tired out--shut up) and I'm pausing to suck wind at the end of every one of them. The second myth you chubby bastards may be entertaining is that swimming is easy on the joints. Au contraire: I can't help but keep stretching my erstwhile sprained ankle in uncomfortable ways, and my ancient knee issues still flare like white plasma when my legs push in unaccustomed directions. Meanwhile, the saggy old men proceed--slowly it's true--lap after lap after lap. But I'm faster, right?

If there's anything I've found out about excercise in all these attempts, it's this: resignation will trump resolution every time. All the times I've tried to take it up in the evenings, it's just seemed like just another chore when I got home, and as an optional one, it never worked when the excitement wore thin. The morning is treating me surprisingly well. It's easy to be resigned when my alternative is going to my crappy job. I think it's really going to be different this time (and why won't you just SHUT UP?!)

* pronounced gyme
*** The most annoying word in the language, followed closely by "winningest."
**** [southern accent] My gut "dunlop" overy my belt

4. Alarmed? Who's alarmed?

Today, it was burgers for lunch. It's the sort of grilling weather of which switters would approve, topping 95 degrees and humid, up here in the Northeast. There was something very assuring about the juicy patties rendering their fat to the fire, sending flames sizzling up through the grate as tasty PAHs condensed blackly all about, seared flesh filling my nostrils as I did my manly duty in front of the grill.

Meanwhile, yesterdays news revealed a U.S. cow, downed last year, has been positively identified for mad cow disease. Our beef supply is in trouble.

The government reassurances are ludicrous. This one was caught in the screening, therefore the screening is working, we're told. (Um, how are they screened? Are only the raving psycho cows culled?) There is no danger to humans, since this animal didn't enter the food supply. (Which ones did?!) Where the cow may have come from, is, of course, hush-hush. Bovine Spongiform Enephalitis, or BSE, comes from recycling animals* (and animal feces) as feed, principally from nervous tissue. It's so damn cheap to do use this offal, it's nearly impossible to get ranchers to stop, and producers have lobbied for less strict measures than are in place elsewhere on the globe, where people have actually died. In particular, activists worry about the loophole through animal waste. Feeding cow innards to cows is banned, but it's OK to feed them to chickens, and all right to put the resulting guano back into cow feed. The USDA has already lost credibility with regards to its testing procedures, assuring a negative, then declaring a reluctant positive, months later. And frankly, feeding herbivores shit and entrails fails the conventional wisdom test.

The USDA is so defensive in its assurances to be self-evidently lying. For some cynical amusement, compare their protestations to the color-coded Terror Warnings which are so fervent in their sweaty declaration to the affirmative, that they have also evolved past credibility. Words, or at least public words, have come to mean the precise opposite of what they say. No cause for alarm? Better duck under the sheets. Terrorists are out to get us? Better look at what idiotic idea they're trying to sell.

According to Richard Rhodes in his book Deadly Feasts, one of the scarier things about BSE is that the incubation time is ridiculously long, and the contagion is damn near impossible to destroy; contaminated equipment may well be sufficient to start killing people down the line. Dedicated measures may not be enough to stop it, and reluctant, halfassed ones definitely won't be. You have to cut cows out of your diet today if you want to insulate yourself from a possible outbreak 15 years from now.

Rhodes' book, however, is science journalism, written by a layman. He gives it a good go,** but it's not an actual scientific review. It focuses mostly on the character drama in the BSE research community--the stuff you get from interviews instead of reading research publications. Your Keifus has been too lazy to follow up on the current research, but less than a hundred Brits have succumbed, and the disease has been known for a good while now. That is, far short of an epidemic so far, despite the dire warnings. Similar diseases in sheep and deer have failed to get into people as well, so far as I am aware. I am also highly skeptical about the nature of the alleged contagion itself (Nobel prize notwithstanding), as are many others who are much more informed than I am.

Given the fact that I work with lots of chemicals (toxicological effects unknown), and that I drive like a retard, it's not BSE that's likely to kill me. I feel a lot guiltier about feeding cows to my kids.

But damn, those were good burgers.

*not only a protein-based animal feed, but insulation for low income housing, a high explosive, and a top-notch engine coolant "."

** In particular, he does a good job at examining the skepticism of the community regarding prions--the mystery contagion. And bless 'im, he brings up Langmuir's classic notes (gratuitous self plug alert!) on pathological science, worth applying to damn near anything you read.

5. Shut the fuck up
Somewhere along the line, someone apparently told you that there's no such thing as a stupid question. This was no doubt greatly reassuring to you, and, as a virtuoso of obtuseness, you took it as a challenge. The nuance behind that old saw, which you've unsurprisingly failed to grasp, is that it's something that's said by teachers who are trying their level best to dispel your ignorance, and that it doesn't apply to you now, and probably didn't even apply then either. What your teacher meant is that there is a time and place for stupid questions, and that you should ask them at the time of the lesson, not at the time when you'd be accountable for the knowledge. But you were no doubt the retarded joker that earnestly asked what all those squiggly lines were in your engineering course, the night before the final. And you grew up to be the guy that runs an advanced R&D program in the field, still without getting the deal with all those squiggly lines and big words. If it's not a buzzword, chances are it's not in your working vocabulary (and even then, chances are you don't get what it means).

There's a fine line between admitting ignorance and brandishing it, which, like all subtleties, you insist on blundering across at the expense of my time. Raising a battle cry of corporatespeak or misunderstood technobabble, you wave your lack of knowledge around the room like a sword, heedless of whose head is in the way, least of all your own. You tilt the lance of your naivete at immovable windmills of fact, or worse, against the very real dragons of the marketplace. Fortunately for you, there are lots of other wannabe salamanders out there, and I rest assured that as you waste away my hours, your contemporaries are wasting someone else's, and ultimately you only tussle with each other, or hire each other as circumstances may dictate, while the real dragons ravage and the real windmills grind away. I pity only your minions, and the suckers who don't know you yet.

It wouldn't be so bad if you were passingly aware of your stupidity. If you didn't perceive your brainless irrelevant queries as stunning esoteric wit. If by this improbable attempt to aggrandize yourself, you weren't making the rest of us look so very stupid. If you weren't making us so very ashamed of our entire organization.

But what the hell, it's not as if I had anything better to do with my day. What's another meeting? To you they're justification. What are more squiggly lines? To you, they're baubles of your empire, like great art dangling in the hallways of the nouveau riche. What's another idea lying fallow? You plague me for innovation and then cast it aside uncomprehending. Or borrow it and label it your own, or assign it to someone else.

I suppose it would only embarrass me if you took it to heart anyway. You still boggle that this stuff could be good for the things I proposed three years ago, which didn't seem attractive until you discovered someone who was doing it outside, that you could contract at three times the expense and half the IP, already behind the curve, and now we both must watch this new unlucky scion you're grilling as he struggles to answer you. You, smugly thinking that you've bested someone you don't realize is far smarter than you. Me, uncomfortably knowing that he's awkwardly coming to grips that you're question is nonsense. On behalf of all of us, just shut the fuck up!



Archaeology at Home

As I look at my yearly budgets (yes, I am that nerdy--what did you expect?), I notice a distinct trend: every three months my "home repair" expenditures spike. Like clockwork, four times a year, I find myself jonesing for a project. On this occasion, my long weekend has turned longer, longer, and gradually all-consuming as my family continues on their vacation of sorts, and I stay home uncovering artifacts in the successively ancient strata of my kitchen floor.

It's something that's not failed to fascinate me in all my efforts over the past several years. Digging into the walls and floors invariably reveals some gems of previous occupation, or some brief windows into the minds of previous contractors and amateurs. (Evidence of the latter is in unfortunate abundance in my house, but on the plus side, everything I have attempted has resulted in a substantial improvement.) It can be interesting to discover writing on the insides of walls, and try to determine to what the measurements refer. As I work, I produce similar leavings for the next renovator, from dimensions to clever notes to myself, such as "you installed this upside-down, dumbass," some of them assuming that the next person is myself, on the off-chance that my scrawlings direct me on some future effort.

My kitchen floor had three layers, two of which I removed forcibly; and judging from the patches in the lowest floor, I could piece together where the former appliances and cabinets were, back in the days before the wall was knocked out and the big reformatting occurred. The care we spend on perfecting the details that no one will ever know. And the emotional investiture: for my own patches I tacked down some boards that had formerly been the toy box my daughter helped me paint. Who will ever lament this but me?

Artifacts rise up from all levels of the food chain. The lowest of them are the tiny coprolithic offerings of my invisible worshippers, for whom I exist as their aloof god, keeper of Pumpkin, the devourer of mousy souls. Dog damage permeates everywhere in my house, and a lot of my motivation to feather my nest rose out of an attempt to erase the canine wreckage. Children too have left their mark. I've found evidence of boys and girls from babies through adolescence, from tiny forgotten toys to inexpertly scrawled admonitions of propriety ("my room, keep out") to crappy metal shop projects and even a suspicious corked test tube buried deep in the insulation that I've been meaning to take to work and analyze some day.

I discover that as I've been digging down, I have likewise been planting my own evidence. It's a perspective that I don't relish, as I silently join hands with the many, many humans that have come, and gone, before me.

Some Essays on Music

1. How Keifus Got his Groove

Many people argue that musical taste is a purely subjective phenomenon, but I disagree: there is an obvious and sound biological basis for the art. From the very moment of conception, we've been surrounded by rhythmic thumping and wheezing, sloshing and swinging, beating and resting and repeating. We've grooved from the beginning to the diurnal, tidal, and seasonal inputs that affect our host, and then our own, bodies. We're bipedal by design and walking has its own left-right dipping cadence, in 4/4 time as all marches have always been, alternating a major and minor accent with an inferior pulse in the space between them. We run to a brisk half time, ONE/two/ONE/two, and it's all spelled out right there in the score. Getting cultural, speech has its own rhythm too, and English famously bops about in five-beat measures. Mentally, we have a knack for these simple prime numbers and we sense the multiples as such: the odd times--in three, five or even seven beats--present a special emotional frisson: in tune with our mind but challenging our animal kinesthetics.

But it's not all rhythm, and pitch is natural too. Our aural detectors are an array of miniature resonators, which stimulate our nerves in sympathy to only those sounds in tune with their own natural vibration, or in integer multiples or fractions of that mode. There is a reason harmonics sound good: they are stimulating the same group of cellular sensors but in different proportions. It's like one of those pin arrays that take the shape of solid objects, or like a digital image—each element is evenly spaced but the different intensity of each creates the overall pattern, and our minds just dig that symmetry. Dividing every frequency double into twelve parts was eminently natural,* since twelve breaks down nicely into halves, thirds, fourths, and sixths—harmonics that are easy on the ears—and part of the fun is finding those other, sometimes counterintuitively consonant vibrations that fit together--and Keifus, the extent of whose knowledge of music theory you're reading right now, still appreciates it when it comes together in an unexpected way. Because when it's right, you just know it's right.

Beyond that, it's all about emotional manipulation. Competently constructed music uses these rhythmic and tonal sequences of wrong and various degrees of right to drag you through some labyrinth of feeling, often depositing you somewhere other than where you started. It builds up expectation based on our biologically and culturally wired preferences, and then plays on it. Technical proficiency is not sufficient, and sometimes not even necessary, for producing the good stuff, but emotional proficiency sure is. Whether it's learned or intuited, a good musician can translate emotion into the language of chord progressions and rhythmic sequences and, well, move people.

*Although whoever the genius is who decided to label a twelve note scale with seven letters and then put it on staff of five bars is probably teaching the sytem to Satan's good-time banjo brigade now and for all eternity.

2. More About Music

Throughout my life, I have been slowly triangulating on music as an interest and hobby. This after a long denial of many influences--I grew up around a blugrass band and I was educated on a horn--but neither of these things had much of an effect on me for the first 30 years of my life. My Dad, the bluegrass player, was the same way--it's something about the Keifus genetic code--at early middle-age some trigger was pulled in both of us, and we discovered an itch that positively needed to be scratched. In my case, the bug came in the form one of the several mandolins that the old man built from scratch--the logical expression of his crafty expression and musical urge at a similar age.

Like Dad, there was something I completely missed in my formal music education (through no fault of my educators, to their undeniable frustration). To humans, music is completely intuitive [], but imposing the formal rules of it can obviate the basic principles. Rhythm is the basis of life, and tone is the foundation of our second-best sense. For so many of us however, formal education squandered this feeling for a poor, unintuitive approximation--a pile of crappy, compromising language, a bunch of words that belie the basics of Getting It.

Unfortunatley, unlike his craftsman father, your humble Keifus blew his edjumication on engineering and the sciences, culminating to date in several papers on the science of acoustics. And I find that the freshman musical formulae are pretty inadequate from the technical angle too. I find it weird that I've angled into music from two technical sides: the boring mechanics on one pole, and the fascinating technical basis on the other; and it's taken me many years for these two perspectives to finally wedge together and point toward the real, fundamental thing. I am loving the hell out of it, even while I envy those who were lucky enough to have the intuition from the get-go.

From the nerdy direction, it's like the many fields in which I've dabbled, in that the jargon slows you down at the beginning. But musical language is really somethihng special. See, I get the language of harmonics: for stringed instruments or horns, that's the primary vibration, it's double, triple and so on. An engineer would call that the fundamental, second, and third harmonic, but in music, these words don't imply multiples, but positions in the ridiculous seven-note scale. So while a fourth may actually be the fourth, a fifth is actually the third, a second is the ninth, and it just doesn't get any better.

Part of the problem is that we hear logarithmically, but harmonics progress linearly. It makes for careful fingering, and we must progress to new strings if we wish to progress up the scale with fingers of finite width. But while the (logarithmic) chromatic scale makes a certain sense, the major and minor scales drive me absolutely batshit. I reiterate, whose retarded idea was it to label twelve half-tones with seven letters? And then put it on a five-bar staff? With slightly more thought, those sharps and flats could have been altogether discarded, and the notation could have been oh-so-much more intuitive.

(And still I wonder by what brilliance it was noted that seven notes Sound So Right, or is it just cultural bias?)

So yeah, I am one of those weirdos that wants to play more, the more I understand. Maybe I'll figure it out eventually. Rock on, dudes.

3. Musical Phraseology

My father has described bluegrass as traditional music played at ludicrous speed.* It's hard to listen to these tunes and not disagree--it's intimidating. For months, I had been trying to get my playing speed up (it's the damn right hand) at the exclusion of most other aspects of the instrument. And while it's helped the coordination, to be honest, I've really enjoyed learning new songs more than I have enjoyed the learning the lightning-fast physical skills.

Two weeks ago, Dad gave me a book that emphasized a more balanced approach, taking the time to stress rhythm playing, melody playing, and (it's about time) an explanation of the philosophies behind each.** (Poor Keifus has always been "book smart.") I like this approach a hell of a lot better than increasing the speed on the melodies I've memorized. In no small part, it's because I feel like I don't suck.

I need to elaborate on that. I've been trying for while now to get a feel for the four- or eight-note licks that fit "inside" a given chord. I figured that if I can get the hang of these bricks of sounds interlock to build a musical theme, then I'm in good shape. I've been realizing the degree to which music is a language.

This is a kickass revelation, because while I am a hack on the mandolin, I am not half-bad at stringing words together to express how I feel. Maybe there's hope yet at getting the hang of this thing.

The truncated alphabet of music, the ABCs, EFGs and their chromatic step-siblings make up the "letters" of music, which, like in language, define the sounds but don't really convey meaning until they are concatenated properly into words. These little melodic strings fit inside musical keys like sentence fragments inside a paragraph, the progression of which forms complete blocks of thought, segments of lyrical emotion. A song is a musical essay (three boring ABA paragraphs to the novice, but so much more to the maestro) placing it all together to convince the listener to get from here to there, from this feeling to the next, to some logical conclusion of sensation. When it connects, it is absolutely transcendent, but you get your share of obnoxious trolls too, irritating jingles that catch in your head and merely inflame your baser instincts. There is some expertise in both approaches.

The problem with my late-life music education is that I am learning it like a baby learns it. I must learn a foreign alphabet (Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew, or what-have-you), difficult accents and sounds, and even as I get the general meaning of the words, there's a whole world of connotation and nuance that must be mastered to really get my point across. I'm maybe at the tourist phrase-book level of understanding right now. I can compose, in pidgin dialect, simple thoughts--how to find a bathroom or get a taxi--but I get enough of it to see the poetry waiting for me on the other side. Though I may always speak with the halting accent of a "music as a second language" immigrant, I can look over the horizon to the point when I am, however clumsily, able to express myself, and really, that's all I want.


* Not his exact wording, but Spaceballs is a great flick. Dad would approve.

** If you are interested, the book is Dix Bruce's Getting Into Bluegrass Mandolin, the best educational reference I've found yet, by far. In addition to a well-developed approach, it has a CD to play along with, with tunes at both "learning" and regular speed, which is invaluable.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Homecoming Queen (updated 5/06)

Wanita Park held her brown arms to the sky, trying to catch the hands of the Lord. He reached those hands down from the deck of His yacht to lift her gently up, and together they sailed the firmament. His holy mountain soared to fabulous heights before and below them, and the cold rarefied air of that altitude lofted Wanita's long black locks in all directions. As they approached the sun, trapped in its frozen cavern, her floating mane bloomed into a golden radiance, and for a moment she was the image of a saint, a shadow-woman encased in a fiery nimbus. She alighted with the Lord on His mountaintop, and gesturing to the east, He showed her the slow path the sun had to take through its treacherous winter caves. Below, He showed her the world. As she looked down in wonder, He kissed her cheek, holy lips as delicate as the breeze that filled her room.

The scents of life filled that breath--leaves, smoke, bacon, apples--and it roused the girl reluctantly into consciousness and into the crisp gray autumn predawn. It smelled like the perfect day, Wanita admitted, her cheeks still flushed from her dream. The air just cold enough to warrant an extra snuggle under the down, and just fresh enough to pull her smiling out of the covers. It could only be perfect, of course. Today was Homecoming.

She savored the morning a moment longer, and then cast off the sheet with a giggling flourish. She put on her slippers and clambered down the wooden steps to greet her family, running up to her mother, who was frying leftover corn cakes on a griddle at the broad fireplace. She leaned against the woman's soft frame, enjoying the cooking smells at their source.

"Is there any news from the booster club?" she whispered conspiratorially, nuzzling close.

Shonda Park was, however, steadfastly ignoring her daughter, perfect day or no. Wanita would have been concerned had this not been her behavior for the entire week, with she and the other ladies hushed to secrecy about their lengthening evening conferences. Looking closer, she could see her mother's narrow, determined smile as she kept silently at her work.

In the corner by the stairs, her father was pounding his feet into his shoes--she'd run right passed him when she came down--and returned her glance with a broad smile. Wanita ran to give him a hug.

"Won't know for sure till this afternoon," he said brightly, "but I know who I'd choose." A cloud crossed her father's sunny face. "It's going to be the most important Homecoming we've had in a long time, you know. At least that's what Pater Molek said, and I'm inclined to agree with him, based on what I've seen."

He paused, hands on Wanita's shoulders; the clouds were gathering, threatening a downpour. "And who's a better young lady than you? The Lord has blessed us so. We'd about given up on babies you know... I don't how you grew up so fast."

Wanita embraced him fiercely as he lowered his head on her shoulder. It was, as always, a brief storm, and when it was over this time, he smiled again at her through drying tears, pushing back her hair to look at her face. "So big you've gotten, almost a young woman."

Shonda grunted loudly, and Wanita pulled away to gather the wooden plates from the cupboard and set them round the rough table. Still in her nightdress, she sat down with her parents, joining her hands to theirs as her father began the dawn prayer of deliverance, entreating the Lord Hayzeus to cast down the pale moon and raise the sun from its distant mountain home. The very thought was warming.

Following the morning meal, her mother motioned with her head, and Wanita dashed upstairs to get ready for the day, leaving her parents to quiet, spirited conversation. Wanita looked dreamily at her weekday dress hanging on its peg. Functional homespun wool it was, dyed onion-skin orange, which brought out the yellower highlights in her skin. She liked it well enough, but the Homecoming queen was as beautiful as one of Hayzeus's fabled consorts, radiant in a gown of the softest wool, of blue, purple, and pink. She hoisted the orange thing above her, and let it slide down before her eyes like the clouds of the sunrise. Could Dayne Westly lift her up like that? She had seen her mother whimper with pleasure as her father strained to carry her past the threshold of their room, and Dayne's arms were also very strong. But he was no Deliverer of men.

Her family didn't have much farm to run beyond a modest vegetable garden and a handful of goats and chickens, instead surviving on an honest commission of grain that was brought to the mill. Often the local farmers would barter with cured meats, preserves, cordwood, and so forth, and sometimes they paid with copper money, which the Parks used to deal with Mill Macks, the peddlar, or at the local salvage outlets. Although the harvest was nearly complete, and school was already in session, the mill was still in its busiest season, and Shonda tolerated her daughter to accompany her husband Jamal these autumn mornings. Wanita helped him where she could, inspecting the long wooden axle and the granite millstones before engaging them for the day's work. She loved working with her affectionate father, watching his broad muscular shoulders lift the endless shovelfuls of grain and flour.

The Parks’ business was located on the far side of their property, past the pens and gardens, and across the dusty expanse of ancient road, nestled in a stand of trees. The road was called the freeway, though in harder times, Deliverance officials sometimes demanded a toll for those passing through without business in town (which was rare). The millhouse was nominally made of brick, like the home of Hayzeus's third piglet, and in the summer, ducks lazily circled its little pond. As she approached the old building with her father, Wanita tried to imagine her storied ancestor Jimi and his tame savage digging out the mile-long stretch of streambed and building up the dam with rocks and rubble.

Jamal claimed that the building was centuries old, but it had been obviously modified to accommodate the mill's works, and the necessity of many decades of maintenance without old-fashioned materials and tools left it looking like most of the other buildings in town, an elaborately rickety structure resting on an ancient solid foundation. Family legend said that Jimi and his savage had painstakingly chiseled the original millstone out of some old basement wall. The making of foundation-stone was, of course, lost, but rigid as the stuff was, it still couldn’t compete with granite, and new durable stones were purchased every so many years at great expense to the Parks, mined or salvaged in unknown places abroad and no doubt cut with amazing difficulty. The great wooden wheel that Jimi had built had been repaired over the generations, and in Wanita's estimation, had been completely replaced several times over.

Whether or not the details of the story were strictly true, Jimi's mill (as it was still called) was certainly one of the early fixtures in Deliverance proper, and the struggling farmers almost immediately began pulling in their autumn corn in carts and barrows to be ground there, growing gradually more prosperous and reclaiming what dimly remembered threads of the past that they could manage. A church followed the mill, and then some salvage and drygoods shops, and slowly specialization and commerce accreted in Deliverance. The town expanded mostly to the south, between the river and the freeway, leaving the Parks on the outskirts. The close-knit community boasted a fortified downtown, many businesses, and even an intact building in original brick, a stately old edifice that now served as both the town hall and the school. Jamal and Shonda Park kept some of the rare and incomprehensible books that Jimi found there in a box under their bed, preserved under the condescending grace of the Church.

The first wagon pulled into Jimi's mill at about an hour past sunrise, dragged by a recalcitrant draft horse (one of the town's few) led by Chet Hakim. Chet, never the most sanguine of men, was nonetheless one of Deliverance's prominent, and oldest, farmers, whose ancestors were shivering through winters of raids and starvation back when Jimi Park was digging his stream. He was a short, wiry tangle of tendons and wrinkles. Upon living through enough hardship, the crusty old man had earned a measure of tolerance in his listening public.

As Jamal shoveled the dry corn into buckets, Chet made faces to get the miller's attention. "You hear what happened to my grand-niece's baby?" he said.

Jamal shook his head noncommittally--best not to get Chet talking--but he was unsurprised that Darla Washintin's pregnancy had come to term. Wanita tilted from a beam, listening wide-eyed. Darla's sister-in-law Lena had been last year's Homecoming queen, and her performance may have put all of them in a critical position this season. Hayzeus sought His revenge in mysterious ways, it was said, and if He was doling out retribution on the Washintin clan, then her classmate Bell was certainly out of the running.

Chet continued, animated by indications of an audience. "Come out lookin' like a little pink bloodsuckin' savage!" He paused and spat, eyes twisted up at his listener in evident satisfaction. Jamal had frozen at the exclamation, eyes wide and white and shoulders shuddering. He looked expectantly at the farmer.

"You mark my words, Park," Chet continued, "we been livin' too soft, and Hayzeus don't like to see us havin' it so easy. You know I'm a prayin' man, right?"

Wanita had heard her father suggest otherwise, but Jamal nodded, biting his lip.

"Bad winter, and that's the sign. Happened in my granddaddy's time. White baby, come out lookin' just like the snow. I tell you stock up, that's what I say. You save every damned ounce of that corn you skim from us honest farmers." He made to spit again, but Jamal, quickly sobered, glared at him.

Chet swallowed his loogie with a slow garish bob of the throat, and moved on to his finale. "I'm just sayin' what happened, that's all. You be careful this winter. You do what you gotta do." He looked meaningfully at Wanita.

When Chet left, Jamal hung his head with uncharacteristic withdrawal. Wanita knew that the Pater had been expressing similar warnings to her father. There had been a bountiful enough harvest, but Jamal occasionally waxed about his beloved father at the family fire, about how the meal had been rotting in the stores by Christmastime, and how the old man would not eat before his children did. Hayzeus had delivered the town that year, but not before taking His share of souls, as was the way. Wanita's unknown grandfather had been one of them.

Jamal held up a handful of Chet's corn, gazing it at. It was gray at the base of the kernel, and he sat for a time and watched the discolored grain dribble from his fingers, pattering the worn wooden floor, as his daughter went out front to await the next customer.

It was a busy morning as farmers hauled in their crops to be ground, trying to capitalize on the portion of the holiday during which business was allowed. But it was nonetheless Homecoming, and a bouncing Wanita was shuttled home at noon by her unusually moody father. The two retired to their table for a meal of grits, yams, and river trout grilled with chiles, a gift from the Munizes that had come with their morning's grain. After lunch, Shonda brushed Wanita's straight black hair, tied it, and kissed her daughter's head.

"Not much longer now," she whispered.


Wanita hiked with Toni Chavez along the freeway towards town, the sweet decaying redolence of the orchards drifting past them. The two had been friends since childhood, but both were contenders for the Homecoming crown, and it was a much more difficult walk than usual as the two struggled for words of scarcely-meant encouragement. Toni's voice was more barbed than usual.

"I'm sure it's going to be you" she purred, "the Pater loves your parents. Unless they want to go with the pretty one, I don't have a chance."

"I'll be sorry if they think flour is more important than cider in this town. And you'd better hope they go don't go with the prettier one, because if they do, you'll be all alone."

"Hayzeus would leave you crying on the river, bawling with that blind idiot Dayne." A sore spot between them: Toni never missed a chance to poke the young Mr. Westly.

"You take that back," screamed Wanita.

"He's a nobody and you know it. Not fit for the Homecoming queen, but that's fine. He'll be perfect for you."

Wanita put a couple of frosty yards between herself and her friend. True, it wasn't likely that Dayne would be the one selected to rush the pigskin through the D-line, not with that eyesight, and not with his family a scarce decade in the town, but maybe she and Dayne were both suited to be nobodies together. Maybe they could till the earth in untroubled simplicity until their elderly souls were harvested by the Lord.

The mood between the girls contrasted the shining warmth of the sun overhead, reneging on the promise of the chilly morning. As they sweated on their silent walk, the berm along the freeway grew beside them, soon sprouting the stockade crown that marked the secure outskirts of downtown. They marched diffidently through the gates, toward the old school house, and assumed desks on opposite sides of the room.

The Church governed all religious matters in town, including education. Two rooms in the town hall were devoted to this. Younger children, the low students, learned to read and write and add, while the high students mostly engaged in a reasoned study of the Goodbook. There were about sixty childen in all, and the town's three lesser clerics administered the lessons. Some years ago, the Pater had secured an expensive bale of paper (crumbly modern stuff) and each year the high school students set to transcribing two entire editions of the Goodbook, each student carefully copying three pages a day, which were used to reward the families of that year's Homecoming queen and MVP at Christmastime.

Since today was a holiday, there would probably be only token lessons, and Wanita quietly thanked the Lord that there would likely be no painful copying. When most of the students had trickled in from their morning chores, Acolyte Kalid, with his shaggy furrowed brow and odd green eyes (savage eyes), walked noisily through the door with his copy of the Goodbook and a slate full of chalked notes in his wrinkled hands, and plodded up to the lectern. The students hushed in obedience and fear of the man. He cleared his throat, setting the wattle on his neck trembling hypnotically. The students did not move.

"All of world history..." Kalid rumbled, looking at his notes, "all of the history that is meaningful, is in the Goodbook. Twice Hayzeus has destroyed the world, once with flood and once with fire, only to breathe life back into the few who kept the faith. Today I will tell you of the fire, of how Hayzeus stole the bones of the earth back from prideful men, and of how the faith is now kept."

Ah, the boring old catechisms, thought Wanita. She should have known it would only be official stuff on a day like this. Every lecture, every sermon this time of year, spoke the same story. It was the legend of how men grew so proud that they turned their back on the Goodbook's teaching, of how, neglectful of Hayzeus's admonitions, they had drained the earth of its very black blood and how, what they didn't burn of it, they used to grow ever more people. So many men were made this way that together they all grew prideful enough to challenge heaven itself. They built flying machines to assail the Lord's sacred mountain.

As always, Wanita felt a chill when Kalid described man's second fall. His voice had that perfect rasp of regret, a personal anger at the knowledge of all men's failings. He told of how Hayzeus grew angry and clotted all of the earth's wounds. The legions of vampires that had been suckled on the earth's veins had starved without those dark humors. Those that didn't starve had fought one another, and those that survived combat had frozen, burning all the trees, burning all of their houses, burning even their dead as they tried to live through the terrible winters that the Lord Hayzeus visited upon them in His vengeance.

Yet still, through all this, there were a thousand faithful families, which Hayzeus dispersed to a thousand farms to keep the oldest of His ways, hoarding their memories of the Goodbook, and harvesting only what the their Lord allowed the earth to provide. The chosen families remembered to save their corn, and they worked together. Before long, they coalesced into towns like Deliverance. (Wanita always wondered if her great-great-grandfather was one of the thousand families or if he was one of their descendents.)

Hayzeus, however, remained suspicious of even the faithful, for men had betrayed His creation not once but twice. He brought back the trees, but allowed men to take no more of them than needed, for homes and for heat--waste and carven images were punished by damnation. He allowed some of the vampires to survive too, to test the faith of His chosen. Savage creatures, they nested in the distant ruins and roamed out into the countryside in small bands, seeking to sup from the earth's veins once more. Wanita imagined their pale crabbed figures scurrying about the countryside, heads and wrists plunged futilely into the hillsides like ticks on a corpse, trying to draw out the blood that turned men's souls brown, and coming out with only a mockery of dry dirt crumbling from their wild, toothy visages.

The grinning specter of one pale brute filled her vision. In her mind, Wanita walked toward him, and he, dusty from clawing the ground, also came closer, prodding at her cheeks with filthy fingernails, staring at her with animal lust from green eyes. The foul thing reached for her again, and, with the buzz of purification distant in her ears, she reached her heart out to Hayzeus, to the lifegiving sun, and she was filled with light, floating, as in her dream. She looked down at the beast and the sunrise bloomed radiant behind her, sending the savage cowering at her brown toes. She lifted her arm.

"...the glory..." it croaked in an old man's raspy voice.

"...of the Homecoming, when faith is renewed." Wanita dredged herself unwilling from the vision. Kalid was concluding and eying her with mistrust. Seeing her alert, he expanded his sour gaze to the rest of the students, who remained silent and sunken in their chairs. The Acolyte released a short growl of satisfaction, though he had timed it imperfectly. "Take out your slates," he said. "We will do sums until the Pater arrives." He impaled one hapless pupil with his green gaze. "First you, Nino."

It was not, thankfully, a long wait. Only two students had a chance to be quizzed before the door opened discretely and Pater Molek, the head cleric of Deliverance, crept in. He was a wizened little man, with wispy white hair, a well-worn smirk, and a twinkle in his brown eye. Even hunched over a cane, he gave an impression of hidden spryness, as though a younger man were hidden somewhere in the wrinkles and folds. His doddering elderly gait always seemed something of a surprise. He patted Kalid on the shoulder as he passed, who scowled down at his own chest in response. The Pater struggled up the podium by himself, smiled beatifically at the students, and spoke in a high, strong voice.

"The time has come to choose the MVP and the Homecoming queen. You may take a short recess," (Kalid's head twitched back up), "as we assess the final opinion of the booster club. We will summon you back in."

The actual decisions had been made the night before, but last-minute changes by the committee were not unheard of (especially in easy years), and sometimes the acrimony that had been festering for weeks--everyone tended to overestimate their family's importance in the town and the quality of their children--erupted at the zero hour. It had been smooth enough for the three years Wanita had been in the high school, but long Homecoming recesses were legendary among the children, and desperately anticipated.

Wanita felt timid as she joined the students' exodus. She knew parents were lurking somewhere in the halls, but she saw no one. She found Toni in an animated conversation with Georgia Cho, apparently delivering the same acidic, backhanded consolation that Wanita had experienced this morning. Wanita wasn't wearing the pressure of the decision well either. She was sweating, she noticed, and finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate. Without noticing the person holding it for her, she drifted out the door and staked out a pacing circuit on the grounds.


"Oh, Dayne." Wanita smiled thinly at her admirer, mild disappointment in the arch of her eyebrows.

"Wanita, I--"

"Oh, look," cried the girl, brightening, and pointed to the sky. Watching Dayne comically screw up his face to see was enough to bring her down from the mountain, and she continued more sympathetically.

"It's the harvest moon, Dayne." She lowered her voice to a mock growl, "the vampire moon, scowling his big round face across the sky for the last time at his betrayed Lord."

Dayne chuckled at the impression of their teacher. As he laughed, she moved up against him, her smell of flour mingling with his smell of apples. Up close, he could see her well, but always when she got that near, there was a nervous jerk before he relaxed into the moment, as if in surprise at her presence, at her willingness to be near him. Wanita found this reaction so utterly charming that she snuggled up to him at most available opportunities. He was handsome too, tall, with heavy dark brows, and lovely angled (but myopic) eyes. When he took her hand, it was Wanita who was startled.

"Wanita...look, I know I'm not going to be the MVP, and you...I--I don't see well, and maybe I'm not as smart as you, but..."

"Who would say that!"

"I mean, I'm smart enough to see that this is my last chance," he said with scripted, but genuine, resolve.

A moment of lost hope passed over his face before he turned toward Wanita's beaming smile, a glow which could absolve any inhibition. He leaned toward her. His skin was so warm, and she found that those arms were pulled around her. She leaned into him too, and as the sun passed, unnoticed, behind a cloud, her eyes brimmed with fire behind closed lids. And not just her eyes. She leaned deeper, their lips brushing. She heard bells.

Dayne pulled away abruptly, a wounded look on his face. Kalid was angrily banging the chime, chins and body jiggling in time. There would be no long recess this year.

"Dayne, if I don't win--" she started.

But, head in hands, he couldn't return her gaze, and Wanita was pulled along by the tide of children.

The students filed up at the teacher's direction. Separated from Dayne, Wanita fell in next to Toni, who was looking like a child again, her former hauteur abandoned. She gripped Wanita's hand with both of hers, eyes imploring.

"You know I didn't mean it, right? You and Dayne. He'd actually be pretty handsome you know. If he weren't so squinty. If I don't win, I hope you do. But if you don't, I want you to be happy anyway."

"I almost hope you get it, Toni," Wanita replied distractedly.

Toni grinned with self-effacing openness (her most appealing expression, and rarely used). "You don't know how special you are, do you? I don't think it'll be me." She sighed, "not for a second, not really."


"But even if it is, then we're still friends forever, right?" She revived her grin with an upheld pinkie, and locked it with her friend's. They hugged, giggling. Kalid walked by, scowling at them.

Eyes still dwelling on the two girls, the teacher cleared his throat and intoned, "please move along. It is time."

Kalid marched the students into passed the classroom into the old auditorium, onto the scarred and ancient wooden stage. The parents followed in from their unknown places, seating themselves on the assembled wooden chairs, the light from the open windows casting long shadows across the floor. The low school students followed, led by the young Acolyte Asrel, and took standing positions behind the parents.

The Pater had been lurking on the shadowed stage, and hobbled out in his orange ceremonial robe. He winked at the high students before turning to face the assembly.

"As the harvest season ends," he piped, "and before the vampire moon slinks away in fear of Hayzeus' dawn, it falls upon us to honor our deliverance--our Deliverance—and to celebrate the Lord's gifts and repent the sins of we men who have squandered them. Homecoming is the most glorious of the year's seasons, and we elevate the best young people among us to entreat the Lord Hayzeus. After great deliberation with the booster club, the clergy and the town have chosen this year's Homecoming queen and and MVP.

"First, our lovely queen. The Homecoming queen must embody all the traits we hold dear among the thousand families: beauty, health, chastity, steadfastness, character. You will find this year's queen to embody all of these attributes. Truly she is the best among us. Chosen from one of Deliverance's most prominent households, she has upheld every virtue we strive for. Loved by her peers, adored by her parents, and a benefit to our entire community. I present to you...Wanita Park!"

The blood drained from Wanita's face, and she stumbled to the front of the stage to join the Pater, the applause washing over her. For his part, Molek placed his hand in hers and gently pulled down her head so that he could kiss her cheek. Then, bracing heavily against his cane, he raised the hand in the air, to the cheers of the audience.

"May you make us proud," pronounced Molek, and both arms dropped.


The afternoon officially belonged to the men, and though both parts of the holiday were important, the early part had devolved over a century into mere ceremony, while the later part, the women's part, culminated with a grand feast that included the entire town. As the high school boys lined up in the field at dusk, roaring as the MVP carried the pigskin triumphantly past them, Wanita remained at the school, cloistered with the booster club women in a teetering upstairs room.

The dress she would wear sat in a nearby alcove, lit by candles, and it was astounding. It was made by the ladies during the long evenings they spent discussing the candidates. The color was the pale gray-blue of the dawn sky, with elaborate orange scrolls embroidered up the sides and across the breasts like flames. On the back was sewn a mutlihued sunburst, and a pink ruffle was stitched along the bottom. It was sleeveless and low-cut and stunning, fit for approaching the Lord. The ladies hadn't the luxury of tailoring it exactly, and spent the evening measuring, cutting and coaching. Wanita, though she'd played out every moment of the past five Homecomings in her mind, nonetheless felt awash with advice about poise, stability, and control: wave with a still hand; keep your chin up; under no circumstances raise your voice.

The men could be heard cheering and singing outside, but Wanita greatly preferred this quieter environment, comforted in the soft bosom of the chattering female sphere. The shouts from the men’s group subsided as it got dark, and before long there was a coy knock on the door of the room, three short raps. The women allowed Pater Molek to shyly enter for the last ritual before the feast. The old man's cheeks burned as he spoke the words.

"By Hayzeus, you must be pure," he muttered uncomfortably, and Jem Cho held out a bowl of ghee to him, into which the old man dipped his hand. Shonda whispered encouragement in her daughter's ear as Terri Muniz removed her old orange dress, to be set aside and cast on the bonfire with this year's pigskin and the few meager relics of Wanita's childhood.

"He has done this before, every year," said Shonda quietly, as the old man probed with soft hands. "Chin up. Quiet," she whispered, and Wanita obeyed, held her dignity. It was over quickly enough, and Terri passed Molek a towel as he shuffled toward the door.

"The Lord bless us all, she is chaste," he uttered with a quaver. "I will await you at the ceremony," he said, and he made his way out of the room.

Naked in the candlelight, Wanita breathed deeply as two of the women brought the marvelous dress to her, each holding a shoulder. Her eyes picked up the light from the guttering flames and seemed to take on a glow of their own. She caressed the fabric as the women carried it to her, and bit her lip as they lifted the elegance over her head and onto her lanky frame. Shonda reached on the table for a beautifully polished piece of salvage metal, and handed it to her daughter. Posing with the candle's glow behind her, Wanita inspected the ladies' work: beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

Jem pulled some ribbon off the table, "we are not quite done yet, dear," she said, and the women began carefully twisting her straight hair into the many small braids that were called harvest cornrows (though they looked more like the small virgin hills of the springtime then stubbly dry mounds now in the fields), twining the ribbon between them. The chitchat had subsided, and Wanita dreamily entertained her conflicting fantasies, holy and blasphemous, as the women attended to her hair and her face, turning over their own thoughts of the long, lean winter nights to follow, their busy hands working independently of their minds. The evening quietly passed this way, and eventually the upstairs room yielded a beautiful and stately woman where only a nervous adolescent girl had entered hours before.

The booster club women filed out of the hall, with Wanita and her mother at the end. Shonda held her daughter's elbow, whispering instructions on proper pacing as they marched toward the feast. The night was bright, but several of the women carried candles protected in various salvaged glass, with Terri Muniz hefting the small bundle of Wanita's old things.

The school and hall were fairly close to the stockade gate, on the eastern end of the protected downtown. They proceeded toward the center, following one of the many flat, wide, dusty old tracks that crisscrossed the area. The plaza was about a mile in this direction, and Wanita's feet were beginning to grow uncomfortable in her wool slippers by the time the smoky smell and orange glow of the bonfire began to reveal themselves. The aroma of roasted pigs and lambs also delightfully filled the air, but the crowd was murmuring quietly in anticipation of the arrival of the Homecoming queen.

Deliverance Plaza was a wonderful place for a festival. The ancient path dropped down into a wide open space, surrounded on three sides by ruins of brick and broken foundation-stone. The bonfire in the center of the lot was already twice as high as a man, with a gigantic indulgence of timber stacked around it. The flames cast dancing shadows about the cavernous heaps of broken stone along the far perimeter. On the western side of the fire, a multitude of tables were arranged, and furthest away, a small wooden dais had been constructed, with a table for one atop it, garlanded with dried corn stalks and with carved-out pumpins sitting on its corners, glowing little faces cut into them. Two miniature wood fires burned on either side of the head table, adding to the cozy illumination.

When the small parade of women was sighted by the townspeople, a roaring cheer rose up, and the booster club ladies raised their candles high over their head in acknowledgement. Shonda led Wanita to the center of the procession, and, with a final whispered blessing, backed away and joined the other ladies to form a circle around the queen. The crowd stepped back toward the tables to make room, and the circle assembled before the fire, the flame at their backs, closed like an oyster about the homegrown jewel within.

Pater Molek (who had traveled to the plaza by rickshaw, dragged by his two younger clerics, while Kalid grumbled alongside on foot), hobbled forward and stood between the women and the crowd. He raised his arms and all grew quiet once more.

The old man began in his ceremonial voice, "The end of the harvest is always a solemn and joyous occasion. Soon, we will face winter, with its savage white snows and frozen wells. We have worked hard to prepare for the cold season: we have harvested our grain, smoked our meat, sheared our wool, stored our fruit, fortified our homes, hidden our seeds, and kegged our cider. We will shiver and huddle, and if Hayzeus judges us well, we will rejoin the budding world in the springtime to start the year anew. Today, however, we honor the Lord by glorifying the best among us, that He be pleased with our worth and grant us deliverance again this year. We have rushed the pigskin, and now it is time to present the Homecoming queen. Ladies, if you will join the others."

Shonda grabbed Jem's bundle and passed it, with tearful haste, to her daughter as the circle dissolved, and darted away to join her husband near the front of the crowd, the firelight painting their faces in furtive relief. Without turning around, Wanita hurled the things high onto the fire, and, when the throng became sufficiently calm, spun slowly to face her people. A rustle grew and was tamped down by the Pater's gesture.

The orange embroidery on the sides of her dress and the red ribbons in her hair seemed to gather the light of the blaze and place the rest of the queen in an ebony sillhouette. She stood for an amazed moment before she began, in a clear soprano, the fight song of Deliverance. "Deliver us, O Hayzeus from damnation of the cold; Deliver us from vampires who'd take what we must hold..."

Molek held out an arm toward Wanita and then to the crowd, and thus cued, the swells of the townspeople lustily joined in, drowning out the crackle of the fire, dulling the chill of the night. They'd fight the winter soon enough, but tonight was a celebration of a year lived. Joined in song, they were no longer simple men and women, but something bigger than themselves, and Wanita imagined herself looking down on them as one thousand-limbed body. As the song closed, the men shouted "Fight, fight, fight!" and the women replied in kind. The cheer resounded off the crumbling buildings behind them, howling back in their direction like the voices of ghosts.

The Pater faced Wanita, "That was wonderful," he said quietly, and extended an elbow. Wanita took it, and they walked to the head table as the people parted before them. He bobbed his head at her as she climbed the rough stage and took her seat alone.

The food was set up on several long tables on one side of the banquet, between the fire and Wanita’s table. On the other side, a couple barrels of fresh cider were lined up. It was too young to make you dizzy, but anything left from last year was traditionally distilled and served at the party in small jugs. Children mixed a spoonful of the liquor into their mugs, and the adults milled around with little cups of the stuff. It usually got loud. Wanita had a small glass on her table, and to start the feast, she hoisted it to the crowd and took a sip. It was vile when undiluted, burning her throat, but she smiled as she placed her cup down, and the crowd roared.

Though a constant tide of people jostled around the food and the kegs, Wanita alone was waited upon. The Acolytes (even her teacher) came regularly to the dais and asked of her desires, which they dutifully fulfilled. She only had one cup of the brandy, and was too entranced to eat very heavily, though she realized the food was delicious. The four clergymen sat at a table directly below her, on her left. Next to them, her parents occupied a table with the Akbars: Wan and Soong and their son Rondel (the MVP as it turned out) and his two sisters. Wanita frequently stole grins at her father, who sometimes giggled and sometimes sniffled. Her mother stared at her with constant, reassuring pride.

Rondel, as was his duty, stood to make the first toast. It was for an easy winter, and he complimented Wanita on her beauty and poise. It was standard fare--they belonged to different circles of friends--but Wanita felt touched nonetheless, thinking of how much she could inspire these simple men. But once the feast had begun, there was little other attention sent her way. The crowd crested in the occasional cheer, but for the administrations of the cloth, she was left mostly as an ornament. She watched thoughtfully as the fire burned, food was consumed, drinks were imbibed, and the darkness blurred the edges of the crowd in and out of existence.


As is the case with many eventful times in one's life, the hours both compressed and drew themselves out as she lived them. Wanita felt like she'd been sitting there watching the crowd as a head of state for nights on end, but when the time came to proceed, it seemed like she'd been in the schoolyard only moments before. When the eastern sky first showed signs of lightening, the Pater, motioning to his Acolytes, stood and called attention. The spent crowd responded, sleeping children in arms, cups depleted, and quieted very quickly. The vigil under the moon had been kept. It was time.

Shonda nudged her dozing husband awake as Molek spoke. "Our night is nearly over, the Lord's festival is nearing its climax. Please rise, dear citizens, and proceed with me to the riverbank that we may honor Him."

Asrel bustled over to the Park's table and whispered to them before joining the other clergy. The Pater would have to walk this last stretch to the river, and was supported heavily by his juniors, everyone else following tentatively behind them. Jamal and Shonda gratefully approached their daughter on her stage, embracing her from both sides. They stood beside her as the throng progressed slowly, the parents with heads bowed and Wanita with a tired, wooden wave behind cold charred pumpkins.

As the people rose, most of them pulled tallow-and-rag torches from beneath or beside their chairs, which they had brought with them. As they passed the head table, they plunged them in the dying flames of Wanita's two fires, and held the brands high to illuminate the autumn march to the river.

Wanita finally saw the members of town closely, as they called out blessings in their approach. Bell Washintin came awkwardly with her family, her sister-in-law cradling a tiny newborn, who, in the growing gray light, looked no less dark-skinned than many townsfolk. It was a good omen; sometimes babies grew pale in their mothers if they weren't sharing enough of the earth's blood. When the babies breathed and suckled, they often grew healthier. She smiled at wide-eyed Darla who scuttled behind her husband to avoid Wanita's gaze, peering warily over his shoulder at the queen.

The Chavezes and the Westlys passed in rapid succession. A sobbing Toni couldn't meet her gaze, and Wanita giggled at Dayne's earnest attempt to do so, the only break in her composure in the whole night, quickly frozen by her mother's questioning look. After that, she realized, she cared about the other families in Deliverance only in the abstract. She smiled at them, and raised her hand as the rest past without incident. When all were gone, Jamal lit his own torch, and the Parks followed the procession behind the rest.

The walk to the riverbank was shorter than the earlier trek. The beach was a scant quarter mile away from the plaza, and the crowd continued west through the open stockade, to the landing where the fortified section of town met the river, the bonfire diminishing untended behind them. The folk spread along the shore in chilly torchlit silence.

A tiny boat was moored in the sand, it's bowsprit pointing across the water at the descending moon. Wanita looked up at the pale thing suspended in the sky, and thought of her fantasy nearly a full day before. Was she really worthy to approach the Lord? It didn't, she supposed, matter any more.

An obviously fatigued Molek and an expectant Kalid stood on either side of the gangplank. She kissed her quiet mother and her sobbing father a last time before abandoning their hands and approaching the boat, savoring the crunch of the cool sand and the crispness of the cool air, so much more poignant than yesterday's--colder, she thought, a thousand years colder. The Pater placed his hand on her back as she ascended the plank, but she walked up to the prow alone.

Wanita turned one more time to the assembled throng, being careful to keep her poise. She saw her father, trying to smile through tears as he clutched her mother. She saw Toni looking at her, uncharacteristically discomfitted now, neither smug nor open, and she watched a squinting Dayne place a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder. She waved her arm, and as the town began the fight song a second time, she turned her back to them all. It was well that she did not cry.

The song ended and as the men and the women echoed "fight, fight, fight" back and forth, during which the group of priests, old and young alike, heaved their weight into the stern of the boat after every triad. On the third or fourth round, the craft was freed of the beach, the two young men splashing further along to shove it on its correct westward course. Wanita eyed the fading vampire moon as she floated toward it. She thought of Hayzeus's vanquishing fire, which would soon be rising behind her, to cast the damned thing down.

Even as she thought these things, she heard a hiss as the first torch dropped into water beside her, followed by another. She did not turn to look at them. She heard a thump on the deck at her back, and knew she could make no sound. Lena screamed like a child last year, and the corn had been blighted, whether most of the people in town knew it or not. Wanita would be blessed to avoid this winter.

She breathed deeply, and even as she smelled smoke, she felt a bloom of warmth on her back, and saw her unwavering shadow suddenly arch over the water ahead of her—perhaps it was the sun. The heat was building quickly, and she heard crackling amongst the clatters and bumps behind her. The pink hem of her dress felt uplifted, as though in a current. She felt her hair rise in it too, blazing like a red and orange halo.

Was this the cleansing dawn? Were those black hands, coming to pull her up?

Without a sound, she lifted her arms to them.

Friday, September 02, 2005

A Slow Burn (updated 5/06)

"A monk said to Tozan, 'Cold and heat descend upon us. How can we avoid them?'"

Time is almost over. Though I'm surrounded by clockwork, the context of all those carefully portioned tocks and dings is lost. Once, those moments were so precise, pristine, each day an hourglass full of them, dripped off like tiny snowflakes into the whirling abyss, each fleck a microscopic shard rent from the intricate, interconnected whole like a blizzard in reverse. Those days when I was big, and when I was real. (Like you.)

It is not that I have no memories--I'm awash in the things in fact, and I lay here watching them dance feverishly around me like natives to the drumbeat of the machines, unconnected visions caught in garish pose by the flickering firelight. They are ghostly things, these thoughts, the wisps and drifting sparks of my expelled substance. I do not know how much is left.

Here's one glimpse: I am laying down my large body in blankets. My clammy, trembling body. It's a bed, but not like this one. There is someone there with me: a husband? wife? I am not sure which, nor quite sure of the difference now, nor why the difference is important. (Is it you?)

What is important to this memory, as far as I can gauge these things, is the cold. The cold was everywhere. I tried to pull my body under blankets, to wrap it like a cocoon. The person next to me (it must have been you) was hot, hot with anger and hot everywhere else too, but I couldn't be near. Under my layers of cloth and skin and fat, I was turning to ice. The cold was something inside me too, I realized, maybe more inside than out. Inside me and pushing me out. I understood the sensation no more then than I do now, but I know it was important because this thought comes back more than most of them. It plagues me, chases me through the dark and echoing labyrinths.

"Tozan said, 'Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?'"

Here's another glimpse: the man placed his right hand above my chest and asked me to concentrate. The verse, he said would focus me, free me from logic. I'd submit to my thoughts, or ignore them maybe, or control them, if there's any distinction between those things. Anyway, he asked me to concentrate on his hand and also on my chest, and he chanted. He asked me if I felt anything, and I am sure I did not. He asked me once more if I felt anything. Focus, he said, and then I did. Warmth I felt, and then a satisfying heat, and then a climax of fire. Do not touch me, he said as I bounced my big body all around the room, glad of the heat and afraid too.

And there I am running. My legs burning now, the heat lifting me, floating me above the cold pain. My chest was not hot this time, or not burning as much, or maybe not in the same way. I could feel my legs burning inside though. If I went further, harder, this time maybe I could look down and watch them boil. I tried to do this, but my body fought back with its pain, brought me back with a soreness that craved, that sucked out the warmth from my heart. My feet thudded, and my chest throbbed in double time.

Not cold, you said as you touched me, but I disagreed. The cotton and wool around me, it made the warmth bleed out slower, but this helped nothing, it wasn't the problem. You shouted. You broke the thermostat, and I told you it was just as well, it wasn't the house. You were warm too, and that didn't help either.

Running but not in the dark, not through the shadows, not yet. In the light this time. (Like this thin illumination? No, in daylight I think, a fiery but distant sun.) My big body was a little smaller, a little denser, and I could keep the glow up longer, however dully. My body would burn faster if I could go further, if I could outdistance the chill, smother it with the fire of my blazing bones. A little further, a little more, fighting against the icy ache in my flesh. My heart was warming only a little, but I realized that this was something.

The man said that my heart was not hot, not cold, normal. He said to improve my diet. Nurture my spleen, drink enough water. He was wrong, and I didn't think he meant it anyway.

But watch this, he said, and picked up his right hand.

I did not ask about the man's left hand.

Each day I left the house I could go a little further. You kept pushing the water on me, and I hated it, so cold it could kill me. But the water fed the fire too in its way, and with it I could keep the glow going longer, if fainter. So a little less each time, I tried to drink. I could feel my flesh blaze sometimes, and that was a start.

We sat, you and I, in a damp, chilly field and watched a conflagration blaze distant in the sky. You were pushed close, or as close as our flesh would allow. I wondered why you did not feel the emptiness.

"The monk said, 'where is the place where there is no cold or heat?'"

Empty, but I could concentrate, become concentrated. I had been practicing the focusing trick, and chanting. I had been doing little else in the room I think. Was I there a long time? There was a bed (like this, I am sure) and I sat my body on it, small as bodies go, but it filled up the vastness of space in the inadequate rarefied way that explosions fill up the sky, pushed out by a cavernous emptiness. So I sat on the bed, collapsed on it maybe, and practiced. Was my chest warming this time? Moving faster?

Stars collapse when their big bodies can't support their burn anymore, when their substance becomes too riddled and crazed and worn, too full of a labyrinthine emptiness, to withstand the pressure of throwing their nuclear fire into the sky. They collapse and burn more conservatively, until, I suppose, there is no energy left to discard, leaving only a perfect, black, dense sphere.

Every time, I could go with less water, and every time go farther. I poured out the water you gave me. I poured out the icy liquid you'd fill me with, and I felt my heart, my head, my legs get warmer as I ran. The emptiness behind me, I was fleeing some, but not all of it. Not all, because it would sneak back into my joints and creep into my lungs. When I got back, you pushed more water on me, tears this time. I drew your body to mine, but you were draining the heat from me and I shivered. You're burning up, you said, but you were wrong, or at least you were not right enough. As you ran to get more water, I cried a little too: hot, dry tears. Maybe I was burning a little after all.

You were crying again. An accident, you said, but it was not an accident. You pressed our bodies together. You closed the door to my solitary room, leaving me alone on the bed, with the ticking machines. It was not an accident, but it didn't work.

He did not tell me about his left hand. When he turned from me, he was rubbing both of his hands together, and he looked surprised. His left hand was very cold, I think.

Though you were surprised at the idea, you thought it might help, the running. Make me happier, close the distances within myself, and the distances between us. Close them, even as I ran hard miles away from you. I was getting too big anyway, you said, and you were right about that. You brought me light clothes, a water bottle, a headset. You smiled at me as I closed the door and ran away.

The room was small, and I had nowhere to run, and my veins were pumped constantly with frigid quenching liquors. But collapsed on the bed, I could concentrate. I held my right hand, trailing its jiggling tube, to my chest as I recalled a man had once done (long before, I think) with his hand. I held my left hand under my head. I focused. How could I avoid the heat and cold?

Not just my legs, and not just my heart, but my head too this time. And there was no water at all. I had dropped the bottle at the door, and I knew that this time I would run until I got there, got past my chill, drenching body. The heat had pushed up from my legs, out from my chest. It entered both my hands, and surged in my head. I knew I was glowing incandescent, burning like a star. A few more paces. A few more. But then I collapsed, my face looking at the sky, at the distant sun, as the chill fought back, crashing over me in waves.


I focused, chanted, pressed my mind to keep the gelid tide from hollowing me out. My chest surged under my right hand, straining the buttons on my pajamas. Yes. Not just warmth this time, but real heat. I breathed in; my chest raced. Closer. Red hot, scorching, blazing. Breathed out. My chest was under my right hand, but where was my left hand? Another accident? What about the man's left hand? No.

"Tozan said, 'when cold, let it be so cold that it kills you; when hot, let it be so hot that it kills you.'"

The machines are comforting in their way, spinning little automatons, sucking breath in and out of my crumpling body. They push rivulets through their various internal courses, but they cannot prevent the implosion. It is only a body, after all.

Reduced, collapsed, I smolder like an ember or like a candle's blown-out wick, the luminescence sinking inward, hiding behind gray ash as the outside cools. Those cells that are left in my body, they burn up your miserable fuel a molecule at a time, pushing out the chilly water and spent carbon with each beat of the clock, tiny droplets in my processed breath, on my pallid skin. It is a slow burn, those bellows pumping in air to keep a steady glow somewhere deep in the infrared.

The sky is mostly empty really, decorated with only a few perfectly dense, nearly invisible spheres, which are very far apart. The canvas is flawed only by a rare spark from the far reaches, some distant body gasping its last. I can wait just a little longer, I think.


Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Frankie's Party

[This is a total repost, but it's got the benefit of brevity. You could consider it a freebie but then you'd have to imagine actually paying for this crap.]

Frankie sat quietly in his apartment. The dishes were piled high from the party, but he observed the mountain without expression. It was, he was aware, nearly 7:00, and, since he still had time, he preferred to play his CDs over washing them just now. Power chords banged away in the background as Frankie inspected the underage lingerie models in the new Maxim. It would be cool to do stuff with girls like that, he concluded inwardly--the guys at work were always laughing about that sort of thing, and he’d finally be the center of that conversation. He skipped to the joke page, and began picking out words.

The music could not stay on past eight o’clock, and at that time, Frankie rose from the couch and turned it off. He began, with neither resolution nor resignation, to work on the dishes, methodically rinsing them out, and placing them in the dishwasher, as he’d done for years when his mother was still alive. When the dishwasher was full, he started it, and since it was nearly bedtime, he made sure that all the doors of his small apartment were locked, the lights off, and, with nothing else to check, he got into bed. Frankie knew that he had to get to bed early in order to get to work on time. Mr. Johns didn’t like him being late, and so he never was.

When Frankie awoke, he showered, shaved slowly, dressed himself, and drove carefully over to the store. It was in the new mall, and he liked telling people about all of the shops and restaurants there. He walked through the employee entrance, found his time card, and punched it as he was instructed to do every morning. He pulled out his bucket and apron from the closet, looking around for Charlie, his best friend at work, who was strangely absent. Frankie wheeled out his gear and got to work swabbing the aisles, rehearsing some small talk for anyone he might run into, but no one got close enough.

When the floors were done, he started on the garbage. Finally, he saw Charlie laughing with Julio by the main entrance, next to his first two cans. As Frankie got his customary smile and script prepared, a thought occurred to him, which, unplanned, found no intermediate purchase and tumbled directly from his lips. "Hey Charlie," he stammered, "h-h-how come you didn’t make it to the party?" Charlie looked painfully at Julio, choking on the last of his smoke. He turned his tearing, bloodshot eyes to the janitor. "Sorry Frankie-man," he coughed, "maybe next time." Julio clasped Charlie's shoulder, less able to conceal the guffaw, and guided the smaller man back inside, leaving Frankie to haltingly craft a reply to only the receding laughter, muffled now, on the other side of the swinging glass.

As his words slowed and failed, Frankie looked at the place where Charlie and Julio had been standing. It was not an expression you'd normally call thoughtful, but Frankie was, in fact, thinking. He was thinking about Charlie, his best friend at work, and how his brother had brought over extra burgers for him and Julio to eat, which Frankie himself was not allowed to eat, but which he had to put away in his own fridge yesterday all the same, at least till his brother visited again. He thought about the red, narrow eyes and the greasy, black, bobbing ponytail that served as his address and his goodbye. As his mind explored this unfamiliar territory, something was getting hot in his head, a kernel of warmth flaring uncomfortably behind his brow. He inspected the heat like it was a photo spread, and found he did not like it. It made him think about the first and only time he’d been late to work, when Mr. Johns had yelled so much, about the fucking dishwasher, about his mother. There was also something more, close now. ""

Frankie started to a halt in front of the dumpster. He had been walking. He looked up at the buzzing flies and then down at the bags in his hands. He was at work, doing the garbage. He put the bag down and touched his forehead, found it cool. Wasn't there something? Yes, the joke. He hoped the guys at lunch would like it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Wet Willy (updated 5/06)

Bradford J. Scanlon (59), founder of Alcase Corp., loving father, former athlete
William Butler paused, sucked in air. He took a pull at his bourbon, and then took another, upper lip fanning the liquid surface imperceptibly. Brad Scanlon?

Mr. Scanlon died on Nov. 5 in his home after a brief illness. He leaves behind his wife of 32 years, Suzanne…
Good lord. Suzanne.

…and their two children, Douglas and Jennifer. Mr. Scanlon is best known for founding of the communications firm Alcase, which he developed from lowly beginnings into the state's fourth largest employer, after buying rights to the initial technology from a local inventor. A native of Parwich, he has maintained his parents' home there since 1973. In addition to his business success, he's remembered in his home town as cracking the winning home run to bring home the 1958 state championship in an upset victory over Darlington. Services will be held in Parwich First Presbyterian Church, where Scanlon served as a deacon until his untimely death. In lieu of flowers, his family requests...
Bill pushed down the paper. He filled his glass. He got up. Before long, he filled his glass again.


His head still throbbing with more than its usual measure of Tuesday fog, Bill shakily pushed back his lank, sparse hair and examined his work. There was no jawline was to emphasize, he noted (not for the first time)--not at his age and not with his habits--but there was no choice but to scrape the gray grit that covered his face in the morning like a stain. Finding no stray stubble, he stepped back from the mirror and grudgingly examined the rest of his body. The relatively fit, though stocky, build of his youth had melted into something grotesquely spider-like, featuring a bloated, sagging abdomen that sprouted spindly, pendulous limbs and a bulbous, poorly delineated head. His torso was decorated with short uneven bristles, many of which were white now, and longer scraggles of heavy gray hair dangled from his thinning pate. Grunting, he pushed these backwards into reluctant order with his comb.

He trudged across the tile to his bedroom and, after coaxing a reluctant bronze stream of urine past his reluctant prostate, he dressed himself in his customary fashion. He nurtured a thin pride in the fact that he still maintained his basic work attire: a buttoned shirt (now open at the top--he'd still wear the tie if he had the neck for it), slacks, sport coat. He pulled it all on quickly, unhappy with the results of his earlier inspection, and grabbed his overcoat as he marched out the door of the suite. He humming along to the muzak on as the cab creaked downward, remembering when the tune was still something relevant and alive. He sighed. He needed some caffiene.

He exited the elevator with the best face he could wear, and Marisa, as usual, met him in the lobby, leaning on her broom and flashing a big Latina smile. Her curls bobbed and her dimple appeared as she greeted him.

"Uh-oh, here come the big rich man, Bill Butler. You got some advice for me Mr. B.?"

"Be careful of old men, Marisa," he replied with a hoarse laugh, his eyes gliding from her slim uniformed waist to her pierced grin, his libido rattling the bars of its elderly cage.

Women these days. He tried to imagine bland white milk meeting something a little more coffee, but the thought of his loose, pasty flesh was too incongruous to continue far with the fantasy. If I were nineteen again… Well, he woudn't piss away the revolution this time, that was for sure.

He grabbed a /Wall Street Journal/ from the rack by the door and walked the half block to his favorite breakfast joint with the paper tucked under his arm. It was a beautiful morning to walk. The air was still cold, but the sunshine promised spring. His head was just starting to clear as he entered the diner. He was nothing if not punctual. He walked in and perched primly at the counter, spreading the /Journal/ out before him.

"The usual, hon?"

Bill loved it when Sofia took on the fifties waitress routine, even if she was doing it just for the tips. He grinned at her with his flaccid lips and did his best to reciprocate. "You betcha, sweetie."

He took a grateful swig of the coffee that Sofia had deposited (black, with a tall glass of water next to it) and skipped ahead in the paper to the stock listings and mentally scanned his portfolio. Like shaving, it was a habit that had long since lost its luster. Barring a market collapse, his investments woud take care of themselves well past his lifetime, and would probably fund his profligate heirs for the duration of theirs as well, had he any. He counted himself lucky in that regard--most of his original assets were inherited from his parents and were already stabilized before the marriage, and, if nothing else, he had fabulous lawyers.

Sofia returned with his bacon and eggs (two over easy, with extra crisp bacon and extra butter on his white toast), bending low over the counter with an exaggerated wink as she served the plate. Bill looked her in the eye with his best boyish grin. If he knew then how damn easy it was to talk to women…

He turned the /Journal/ back to its front section and found, below the fold, the inevitable hagiography of Brad Scanlon. He sighed as he dutifully plowed through it, his mind drifted elsewhere.

No, he did not understand women in those days. Yes, it was high school, and all kids were awkward, but Bill, nonetheless, had thought that it was love. It was, he admitted, a quiet and stingy sort of love, clumsily and infrequently expressed, but it consumed him, and it was pure in its adolescent way. And good lord, that purity was a foolish and useless thing. If he could go back, he'd take or leave a girl like Suzanne. Hell, he'd know enough that he could afford to. He'd know enough to not trust his naïve romantic fantasies; he'd see beyond that bullshit glamour; and screw the books too while he was at it. None of that stuff mattered, really. None of it had brought him satisfaction. If he had anything like an adult presence of mind, he wouldn't have married the first girl that reminded him of his unrequited sweetheart, and he wouldn't have squandered his youth to that childish despair.

Bill lowered his hands to his paunch. Pushing 60, it was simply too late to revisit these thoughts. He'd been resisting them for years, but Scanlon's death…

Brad had been at the heart of it. If he could pinpoint the moment it all went south, the instant his spirit broke, it was there, with Scanlon. After that, the spiral down from an earnest youth to an impotent old man seemed to be merely a force of nature. Brad was perfect--student council head, baseball team captain, possessor of those all-American good looks that defined his generation--but that wasn't it exactly. True, Brad was the kind of guy that had it all figured out, and true, Bill had never trusted that about the prick. With all that going for him, he shouldn't have needed Suzanne. Bill had always suspected that the rumors had started with Brad, even if he never heard the patronizing bastard actually utter the hated nickname in his presence. Who else, after all, knew? The stigma followed him well out of high school, leaving him desparate for anyone to plug that gaping hole in his ego, and never mind his heart.

What an ass he was to care. He sank deeper and deeper into his thoughts, and didn't acknowledge Sofia as she cleared his plate.

Bill gave in to his cups a little earlier than usual that day. Two o'clock saw him stumbling along his usual route after a four martini lunch, and by eight, he was slurring his life story to the club's patiently attentive bartender. Men like these justified the 18 dollar highballs, and never mind the dues. The barkeep nodded solemnly to each of Butler's points, and quietly kept topping the glass with the vengeful spirits of old Kentucky.

"I'd doit diffrent, dammit…"

"Yes, sir."

"Anythng…I'd givit. Sonvabitch brad…"

"Yes sir, you've mentioned your acquaintance with Mr. Scanlon a number of times. If you seriously mean anything--"


"...I've been informed that a man of your unique assets may be eligible--"

Bill blearily repeated himself, raised his eyebrows at the bartender and drooped his jowls like a drunken bloodhound. "ANYthng," he implored.

"Yes, sir. Please take this. It may interest you later. Would you like some coffee now, sir?"

Bill gazed uncomprehendingly at the business card, as the bartender discretely made arrangements that a room be prepared for Bill. The club took care of its members.

Bill stumped his way into the night's lodging. He examined the card. An impossible hope sprung in his watery eyes, even as his soaked brain struggled to register the faintest waft of bullshit. What the hell else was he going to do with his money, and what else was left for him anyway? He dialed the phone. On the third try he got it right. "…Yesh. Yes. Of course I'm shure. Yes, t'morrow then. Okay, here's the routing number..."


Bill scowled over his morning coffee. The first thing he'd done when he got home, well, after the ten glasses of water and the Advil, was to check his bank records online. No dream then, and the bastards had wasted no time, no doubt operating before he was thinking soberly. Ten thousand dollars to talk to a bunch of pseudoscience frauds, for just a consultation. What the hell had he been thinking? Well, he'd sic his lawyers on the swindlers this afternoon, but right now he was in the perfect mood for laughing in their faces. He examined the address on the card.

Not that he'd have time to go home before he visited these jokers. They were damnably early risers too, and they'd be suffering for this intrusion into his routine as well. He looked at his watch, and hauled himself off the stool. "Keep the change," he rasped at Sofia, and paced out into the morning drizzle (which also suited his mood) raising his arm to hail a cab.

The office was located a small, old, handsomely refurbished building, in, to Bill's surprise, a fairly affluent section of town. He climbed the stairs to the hallway, and approached one of the several glass doors that lined the passage. Legacy Associates occupied a small corner of the floor amidst a dentist's office and an independent insurance agent, apparently a single room, the frosted door revealing only a number. Bill squinted at the portal, but could seen nothing through it. He pulled and entered a typical, if unusually clean, waiting room. It had that new-office smell, Bill noted, having occupied a few of them. The reek of phthalates was everywhere, emitting from carpets and furniture that every instinct told him should be shabby and abused. A young, handsomely dressed man lounged in the one of the brown upholstered chairs, and rose to greet Bill as he came in.

"William Butler? Raymond Bennet." A solid, confident handshake got a surprised grunt from Bill. He was expecting something more of a mystical charade, something with robes or crystals or some damn thing. Bennet, on the other hand, resembled one of Bill's old junior partners, only likable. "I'm glad you came. I must apologize for the unusually large fee, but it's important to guarantee a face-to-face meeting, and these days people are much less trusting of our claims."

"You got that right," Bill growled. "Look Bennet, I hope you're prepared--"

"Please call me Ray. I am aware that your lawyers are formidible, Mr. Butler, but please be advised that my firm has, literally, centuries of powerful connections. I suggest that you hear me out."

With a precisely timed chuckle, he added, "although I'd have to study up on my secret handshakes. By the way, may I call you Wil--"

"Bill," he muttered, "please."

"Very well. Please have a seat Bill. I've prepared a short presentation, and then we can talk in more detail." Bennet pulled a projector and a laptop from under one of the chairs, setting it up on a nearby table. Bill tried to look at the address labels on the improbably neat stack of magazines, but Bennet was too fast for him. The younger man smiled disarmingly over his shoulder, "Technology is something of a mixed blessing, isn't it?"

"If you say so."

"That should do it." The wall lit up with the logo on the card. "Welcome to Legacy Associates, Mr. Butler, the most elite club that exists in the world. You would recognize many of our members instantly, world leaders, businessmen like yourself, powerful people of all kinds. Legacy literally moves civilization, and people like us deserve certain advantages..."

Bill's powerpoint cynicism gradually faded to attention, and soon, the sodden hope of the night before began to dance again in his eyes, as he followed with rapt concentration. He didn't believe it, of course, but as he listened he it occurred to him that he really had nothing to lose. He had no family, no one close to him, and really nothing to look forward to but more decay. He'd stopped enjoying life, he realized, years ago, and as his body continued to fail him, the despair only mounted. Bennet, it seemed, knew him very well.

"Now it is harder to make arrangements than it used to be," said Bennet, "but in your case it is simplified considerably by the fact that you have no familial connections. The charitable trusts to which you've assigned your assets can be easily arranged and diverted by us. We have connections there, as everywhere. In fact, you are in a lucky position indeed: remarkably few people with families can afford this.

"And furthermore, you have little to lose if you still mistrust us. We are strictly a handshake enterprise. You would simply die before long, and your estate would be passed--"

"Not at all," Bill interrupted. "You've convinced me!"

"Excellent. In two days, I will visit you in your home, and sedate you as I discussed. You may buy your own medication if you wish, but I assure you that I have access to your home anyway, and will take nothing so long as you retain this physiognomy.

"A portion of your remaining assets will pay for your early arrangements, and the rest will be held in trust for you when you reach majority. Again."

"Unbelievable," whispered Bill. "What if I had refused?"

"You would not have."


Bill opened his eyes painfully. God but it hurt to think, and he was unbelievably thirsty. The urge to urinate was even more overpowering. How much bourbon had it been last night? And visions now, too: the last he'd remembered, that Bennet guy was sitting in a chair by his bed. Groggy, he sat up, looking back and forth to see if the pretty crook was still around. He squinted at where his bedside clock usually sat, which only made the room blurrier. He scratched at his shorts, noting an unusual sensation. He looked down stupidly at his unfamiliar erection, at his thin straight fingers, his unblemished hand…

He shot out of bed, suddenly wide awake--and stopped, dumbfounded. He didn't lumber, strain, shamble. He /shot/. He gasped a deeper breath than he'd managed in twenty years. Did it actually work?

A mirror! This was a bedroom he was in, a child's almost. Not small, but his bed was narrow and uncomfortable looking. He looked around for the dresser, the mirror--there! The wide-eyed stranger was not at all like the last guy he saw there, and bore only a passing resemblance to his own younger self. His unruly brown hair cascaded to his muscular shoulders, smooth chin shadowing a lean chest, with only a hint of fuzz in the very center. He jumped and spun, ran out of the room in his tented boxers.

He clambered down tastefully carpeted stairs into a white kitchen. A bored-looking middle-aged couple sat at the table, sipping coffee and chatting idly. The woman eyed him up and down as the man dusted his hands and rose.

"Hi, I'm Rod. Bennet said you'd be waking up this morning, so we made it a point to be here to meet you. I suppose you should get used to calling me Dad when people are around, and…uh, the bathroom's over there." Bill nodded sheepishly, and sprinted to the head. The torrent could be heard in the kitchen.

"Amazing," he said, coming out.

The dark-haired woman at the table rolled her eyes. "Yeah, hey. I'm Rita. 'Mom.' Don't expect me to make you dinner."

Rod glared at her. "You'll be Anthony from now on, OK? We've all just moved in, and we have a few weeks to help you get the whole story straight, before you have to go to school and while we start the new jobs Bennet got for us. Too bad we weren't all bigger players, but going back can be a little hard on the budget, as I'm sure you're aware. But we should do fine with your trust for a while. You'll maybe want a haircut, and need a new license, clothes..." He looked at Bill. "Yeah, and we'll grab some breakfast right now. It's on you, after all."

"But it's worth it, right?"

Rita giggled.

At breakfast, Rod explained more as Bill (Anthony) ate ravenously.

"So you're seventeen again, and even though you've still got your old man brain, you've got the hormones and the body of a teenager. Kind of a blessing and a curse, really. You'll be clumsy for a little while, and you may be unaccustomed to actually being healthy. And all of the idiot authority figures will bug you even more than you remember, but how you handle that is pretty much up to you."

"Not that we care much what you do," Rita added, "we're paid either way. But I'd just as soon not have to deal with the cops on your behalf."

Rod continued, "it's been a few months since anyone's seen your old self alive, whoever you were. I don't suggest you try to go back. They watch for that. And don't expect to see Bennet or anyone else from Legacy unless they need something from you, in which case you'll want to make sure you comply. You are what you are now, but you're as free as someone your age can be."

Rita scowled.

Rod grinned ruefully. "Look, that's just the standard spiel. I had to hear it too, back when it was my turn. From me to you, it's even better the second time around. But it goes by just as fast, and unless you're one of the real hotshots, it's tough to get a third crack at it. Make this one count. You apparently had enough assets left for a decent car, and a passable allowance to get you to whatever 'inheritance' you have left after that. I can help you out with some of the logistics--beer, driving, or whatever--if it's not too far out of my way."

Bill, hunched over his plate and still shoveling, nodded understanding. Rita looked past him and idly lit a cigarette.


First things first, thought Bill.

He had to admit, Bennet had arranged his entry very well. His endowed car was a used convertible white Mustang. It went like lightning, sat two closely enough, and wasn't so spectacular as to look suspiciously outside his means. For a high school kid, it showed that he was paying attention, but wan't showing off. And anyway, he realized that it was all how you wore it. Correspondingly, his look was classic jeans and solid-color tee shirt and he kept the hair shaggy but clean, something he knew he could pull off without looking like he was trying too hard, and which he supposed he'd hone as soon as he got a young lady or two under his spell.

And that, basically, was the first order of business.

The local mall wasn't much to speak of, but it proved to be a good place to begin observing. Bill avoided girls who were out with their parents, or who were otherwise timid or nervous. He examined the behavior of girls with their boyfriends, isolating the ones who hung in adult-free packs, the ones who had cars, who looked back at him when he smiled. Sipping at the food court (doing his best to look mysterious), he decided that some intersection of these latter sets were what he was looking for--the independent spirit with followers. He watched one group in particular. A good first mark.

He waited until one promising young lady separated from it, heading for the door. He strode that way too: bumps, apologies, a warm smile, and thirty years of impotent conversational skill finally paying off. It did not take much effort to get her talking, and Bill did his best to make his new friend feel comfortable, gathering as much inside information as he could stomach from this chatty specimen. It was helpful stuff, and not all of Bill's interest was feigned. He touched her shoulder from time to time during the conversation, looking frankly into her face as he listened. Gratifyingly, she was not uncomfortable with this.

"Lisa, I was planning to buy some outfits for this year, maybe we could help each other shop."

"Oh Anthony, I was going to meet a friend."

"That's fine," he smiled, uncaring. "Maybe some other time."

"Well, we aren't supposed to meet for another half hour. Let's go."

Bill mostly let Lisa tell him what she liked, and made some concessions to his wardrobe appropriately. "By the way," he brought up, just as she was hurrying off. "Even though I'm new in town, I wanted to have a party to close out the summer. Get to know some of the other kids around here before school starts. Maybe you could help me figure out who to invite. It'll probably be a little out of control, if you know what I mean, but my parents are cool with it."

A moment of nervousness passed Lisa's face, but the smile which followed had teeth. "Can you meet me here tomorrow?"


Bill sauntered through the crowd, working it. He'd planned this well, it seemed. He was careful to engineer the invites, and he'd more or less worked with Lisa's advice to drag mainly the richer, more popular, better looking crowd in. The male/female ratio was calculatedly low, but enough boys were invited to save face. It was important to demonstrate his superiority relative to the popular guys as well, and friends, boyfriends and such were inevitably dragged along. It's not like any of them could match his self-assurance--Bill had had years to observe this silly mating game. He shook hands with all of the young men as though they were respected professionals, keeping track of their names with a comfortable but impersonal friendliness, setting most of them off-guard immediately.

He looked at the keg. Cheap beer was fine for the young people, but Rita had a supply of some decent bourbon in the basement bar, which Bill was sipping now (two fingers, neat). His stepmother was talking drunkenly to some uncomfortable-looking boys in the corner, showing why she apparently volunteered to 'supervise.' It's a bitch getting old again, ain't it Rita? Her behavior would have to be explained later, if anyone remembered, but he didn't exactly crave the Brad Scanlon image anyway. Even if no parent let their kid come back here, he'd be remembered by the females as an irrepressably charming bad boy, and by the males as the guy who made them all feel like the kids they were.

He tried to remember any parties from his youth, and even though his typical evening in those times had involved a good browbeating rather than a good party, he still managed to recognize the personality types and the activities. The music was terrible, but then it had always been. If anything, today's sixteen and seventeen year-olds were even more liberated than his sixties peers, with the piercings, the making out, and the prevalent weed. Some even had tattoos. They grew up faster, but what the hell, it was only going to make his second seventeen that much more fun. His teeth glinted at the thought. He spotted Lisa in a crowd of giggling girls (all looking at me, he noted), and approached her, looking her square in the eye.

"Hi Lisa, please introduce me to your lovely friends." More giggles. It almost didn't matter what you said, so long as you said it with confidence. After some chitchat, he took Lisa aside, under the guise of asking about teachers and student cliques and other high school claptrap, just to get her talking really, as he pretended to listen. The music was blending with Lisa's voice into a fine haze.

"…and then she said it /didn't fit!/ Anthony? Don't you get it?" Bill snapped up, laughed (he hoped appropriately). He'd only had a couple of drinks, but his head was starting to really swim, and he needed to pee badly. Damn this youthful body, he thought. I'm a lightweight.

On top of this, he swore he'd just been hearing voices. He spotted the source. "Hey Lisa, who's that guy by the bathroom there? I don't remember inviting him."

"Oh he just moved in with his family last week. Right after you did, I think." She giggled. "Jenny and Taylor both think he's cute."

Well this wouldn't do at all. Looks like my first big test, Bill thought, or maybe his first big test after ducking into the john and relieving himself, that is (and maybe a splash of cold water on the face). This was just a kid after all, and it was important to make sure this pecking order was set straight.

As Bill approached, the new boy stepped in to theatrically block entrance to the bathrooom door, looking at the host with too-bright eyes--he'd apparently been drinking a bit too. He paused, then spoke in the familiar voice Bill had heard from across the room. "I know you, don't I?" He lowered his voice in exaggerated awe, "I don't believe it. It's Willy, isn't it? Oh man, this is too good." He put his hands on Bill's shoulders and leaned on him conspiratorially. Bill looked into the bathroom, scrabbling with his back-stretched hand for the knob behind him. Failing this, he slowly swung back to the person leaning on him.

Through the alcoholic fog and the throbbing urge to piss, Bill's mind finally registered the face. He felt his stomach drop down, and later he'd swear that the push of his churning gut on his strained bladder was what set it off. The possibility that he responded with wild primitive alarm to the presence of a bigger alpha was a notion with which he was less comfortable. He didn't feel the moment of release, but he recognized the warm heavy sensation in his shorts and the feral scent of urine.

Arms still on Bill's shoulders, his adversary looked down, and then laughed loudly. "Nice pants, /Ant/hony." He moved in closer, and leaned boozily into Bill's ear, "Sorry Willy, coming back this time was just too damn expensive to let a /pissant/ like you steal my show." He shoved a wet, trembling Bill back against the wall and turned around to face his crowd. "Hey everyone, take a look at the /pissant/!"