Category: Prose


The end

We returned to King’s Cross Station, and Lawrence went straight to the luncheon room for a boiled pork pie.  I went with him and saw, in a corner, the omnipresent English television–this one playing a health & medicine program that had a segment going on about the chances of reviving drowned people, people who would be dead except for the “mammalian dive reflex”–how to resuscitate them and all that.

The next segment had a nurse talking about the hardships of working the emergency room of a London hospital.  “We see a lot of rubbish,” she said, “but I suppose some other casualty departments get more.  It’s an unrewarded job, really, dealing with all the rubbish.  Naturally, some are filthy, but so are some workaday people.  Some aren’t.  Some are rude, some offensive.  Some meek.  Some are unbearable.”

The man tending the luncheon counter alternately watched the show and glanced out into the lobby, at his own rubbish to deal with, and then he turned off the television long enough to make a watercress sandwich for an Indian gentleman waited patiently ahead of Lawrence and me.  The Indian had turned and asked Lawrence “Watercress.  Is this vegetarian?”  Lawrence shrugged, so the man asked the same question of me.  I said “I believe it probably is, but you should ask the man there,” and the man smiled and thanked me.

Larence sighed and looked around the station, as if he were trying to find something, and then he turned to me and said “No.  Let’s go.  Let’s get out of here.”

We left the station and walked around the city for a while, down to Tottenham Court Road and along Woburn Place, as far as Southampton Row, where Lawrence spotted an Easter display going up in a Grace Bros. department store window.  He mumbled something, but I wasn’t really listening.  I was too busy watching him look the window over, look at the artificial grass and plastic Easter eggs and stuffed bunnies, and the Easter hats and suits for kids.  So I didn’t catch his comment, whatever it was.

When he had seen enough, we turned onto Coram Street, and there was the Lord John Russell pub.  It was a place I had wanted to visit since I first arrived, especially because the portrait of the Lord swinging on a shingle out front showed a guy who looked a lot like me–red hair, blue eyes, aquiline nose.  But Lawrence had managed to sidetrack me, and I hadn’t been in yet.

“Now or never,” I thought, so we went in and sat at a small round table in a back corner, next to a fireplace piled high with burning logs, and we drank shot after shot of Cardhu and Laphraoig Scotch.  We didn’t talk much, except about the coincidence of the Lord and I sharing names and appearances.

“He was a good Scot,” Lawrence said.”

“Tautological,” I said, meaning it to sound like a joke.

There was a long, awkward silence after that.  I sat there quietly because I could tell Lawrence was thinking about something, but he wouldn’t say what.  He just stared into his glass of Laphraoig.  I picked up a sports page from the hearth–even though I couldn’t make much sense of it.  It was all about scrums, rounders, and chukkers.  When I put it down again, several minutes later, Lawrence looked up at me and then back into the glass.

“I think that I should go back up there,” he said.

“To where?” I asked, even though I thought I already knew the answer.

“Stirling.”

“How come?”

He cocked his head and shrugged, the way a little kid does when he has an answer but doesn’t want to share it.

“It is a beautiful place,” I said, “and the people are nice.  I wouldn’t mind going back up there myself.”

“Yeh, but you’re a tourist,” he said, in kind of a snarly and derisive way.  “You’re supposed to keep moving.”

“What do you mean?  You’d stay?  Not come back to London?”

“I don’t know.  There’s nothing for me here any more.”  He shrugged again.  “Asides, I don’t generally plan things that far in advance, you know?”

I think that Lawrence understood why he felt compelled to go back.  Even if he didn’t, I think I understood.  It was for the same reasons I’d like to go back–not as a tourist, but as someone included in that union up there, someone more than a pitied transient.

*     *     *

After Lawrence and I had said good-bye and thanked each other, we went back out onto Coram Street.  He turned to the right and I stood there and watched him walk along the buildings, into and out of the light from street lamps and store fronts, blue-backed and brown-legged in the bright fluorescent light, hands shoved deep in his pockets and tattooed head bobbing low.  He passed on unsuspected and helpless, like a stray lap-dog in a street full of men, melting into London at the tube stop.  I turned the other way and walked along Marchmont Street, past the soaring Postal Tower, red and orange in the final rays of the early spring sunset, and back towards No. 47 Cartwright Gardens.  It was clear to me that the best thing to do, or at least what I wanted to do, was spend the following day lazing on the strong bright grass in Saint James Park.

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She touched; she ate II

I talked to my mother yesterday, and I mentioned my previous post to her–the one about apples–and she said “Well, you know, that wasn’t Chita.  That was Ana Maria Palacios.”

As soon as I heard that name, I knew that she was absolutely right.  It was Ana Maria.

It turns out that she and my mother still run into one another from time to time–at the library or the grocery store or whatever–and Ana Maria, after forty or 45 years, always asks whether I’m still eating my apples.

Maybe my very first crush wasn’t unrequited after all.

She touched; she ate

I was a very lucky kid.

I never got consigned to day-care, and rarely had a babysitter.  I only remember one babysitter, actually, and the fact that I remember her is a pretty good sign that I didn’t need her–I had two sisters, for heaven’s sake, one two years older than me and the other five years older.  What did we need a babysitter for?

My dad was a college professor and sometimes he worked through the summer.  When those summers coincided with the summers that my mother was a Girl Scout camp counselor and both of my sisters were at camp, guess what happened to me in lieu of day-care.

That’s right:  I went to Girl Scout camp.  I was an honorary girl.

At first, I was horrified and humiliated, but eventually it dawned on me:  “Hey, girls is cute.”  And after a while I wasn’t just an honorary girl:  I was an honorary Girl Scout.  To this day, I can sell cookies and do CPR like nobody’s business.

I never got the green vest or the sash or the knee-socks, but that’s okay.  I learned how to fold a flag and got to look at lots of girls.  Lots.

There were occasional summers when, instead of going to Girl Scout camp, my mother would just drop me off at the UTEP campus, where my dad worked.  I guess she assumed that I would make a bee-line for my dad’s office, but I never did.

My first stop was the Centennial Museum.  I got to look at shrunken heads, stuffed animals, a planetarium-in-a-box, and rocks that glowed in the dark.  I loved that museum, until that S.O.B. Bill Clements became governor of Texas and decimated funding for anything that smacked of education.  His tenure was, in my opinion, Texas’s darkest hour.  It was awful.

Anyway . . . .

After I toddled around the museum, I’d go toddling around Leech Grove, which was a very pleasant little park, and then I’d wander off to the library, which was an awful place.

The library, by that time, was a hideous concrete confabulation of ugliness and efficiency-at-any-cost.  I’ve never been in any prison, but I’ll bet you anything that every one of them feels like that awful, awful old library.  Every time I walked in there, I thought “Man, this totally sucks.”  It seemed to have been designed to keep people away from books rather than attract them.

The worst part is that, contained within the old library was the older library, which was a beautiful and serious old building of Georgian architecture, with arches and columns and busts of great thinkers above the marble lintels, and mottoes in Latin inscribed beneath them.  In the middle of the older library was an enclosed atrium, with exotic flowers and–rarity of rarities in El Paso!–humidity, and marble benches where librarians sat and ate their lunches.

It’s the worst part because you had to negotiate the ugly, cold confines of the newish library in order to get to the old one, and that little garden atrium within it, with the sweet flowers and the solitude and quiet, and the marble bust of Descartes and the inscription “Cogito, ergo sum” beneath it, and the musty smell of hundred-year-old dictionaries.

Being a youngster, it didn’t take me long to get bored, so then I’d wander off and go sit on a rock wall over a ditch and wait for UTEP’s innumerable feral cats to come sneaking out from the big concrete pipes.  It got to the point that I saw the same ones so often that I could recognize them individually, and I gave them names:  Ma, Jiggs, Otis, Barney, Blinky.

Eventually, I’d find my way down to the Liberal Arts building, where my dad’s office was, and I’d wander in there, sunburned and cat-scratched.  My dad always had a couple of work-study students and teaching assistants within hollering range, so as soon as I showed up, he’d holler for one of them–usually either Chita or Marisol–to take me away for something to do.

Chita always took me to the cafeteria.  She’d hold my hand and tell me I could have anything I wanted, but for some reason, all I could ever say was “A apple.”  She’d ask “Is that it?  Are you sure?  (¿Es todo?  ¿Seguro que si?),” and I’d say “Yes, please,” and then she’d hold my hand and we’d wait in line along the chrome bars where people rested their trays until we got to the cashier and Chita paid the twelve cents for my apple.

I don’t know whether my dad ever reimbursed her.

Then, still holding hands, Chita and I would walk down University Avenue, to a concrete picnic table between the hideous library and Magoffin Auditorium.  I don’t remember anything about the apple.  I only remember that I was always wearing shorts, and the heat from the concrete, against my thighs, kept getting worse and worse.

Twenty years later, I was a graduate student at UTEP, studying rhetoric and literature, and I spent many hours sitting at that same picnic table reading Aristotle and Tennyson and Joyce and all that.

Nobody else ever sat there.

One of my graduate classes was a Milton seminar, which was pretty grueling.  I hated the professor, who was a pompous ass with a reputation for being a genius.  The other students in the seminar–all of whom I liked–fell on the “He’s a genius!” side of the fence; I seemed to be the only one who thought “He’s not a genius; he’s a pompous ass.”

Which doesn’t mean that I was right:  It just means that it was, for me, a tough semester, and I suppose, now, that you could be a genius and a pompous ass at the same time.

Bach, for instance.

So, we spent three months doing nothing but picking apart Paradise Lost.  I learned to love it.  I learned to love Milton’s idea of how God and the angels tried to corral the earth and all the people on it, and I learned about the natures of Satan, Sin, and Death, and their relationships with God.  I also learned about God’s approach to Adam and Eve, which was pretty telling–how He dispatched an archangel to remind them not to do what He had already told them not to do (although, being omniscient, He knew they would go ahead and do it anyway).

Here’s the bit from Paradise Lost that hit me like a baseball bat in the crotch:

She touched; she ate

It hit me for a couple of reasons.

First, Eve has gotten a bad rap.  You have to remember that she and Adam both were totally innocent in every way–they had no concept of harm or foul, or sin.  So, Satan appears in the form of a serpent–why should Eve doubt the credibility and kindness of a serpent?  Incredibility and unkindess had never existed in Eden.  It was Paradise, after all.  There wasn’t anything to be afraid of.

Satan, though, was one bad-ass mother, and he managed pretty neatly to connive innocent Eve into doing the one and only thing God had told her not to do:  touching the fruit from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

So she comes wandering back into the glen or the dale or whatever, and Adam sees her, and he knows, immediately, that something’s wrong and that Eve has screwed up, big time.  He can tell just by looking at her.  She has fallen.  She had touched; she had eaten.

What does he do?

More to the point, what should he have done?

Well, he should have fallen to his knees and cried to God:  “It was her!  Not me!  I’ve kept your one and only commandment!  I ain’t done nothin’!”

But did he?  Heck, no.  He hitched his wagon to a woman he knew was fallen, and he took his own bite of the apple anyway.  Pretty stupid.

For my money, innocent Eve was bamboozled by the ultimate irresistible salesman who can make anything look good (that being Satan).  Adam was pretty much just a guy with a boner.

We all know that the Bible doesn’t say that Satan took the form of a snake (“serpent,” which could mean pretty much anything legless, I guess), and we all know that it doesn’t say that the forbidden fruit in question was actually an apple–it just says “fruit.”  More likely, it was a fig or an apricot or a date.

So now Eve and apples are both taking a bad rap.  That’s not cool.

Why’s the apple the scapegoat?  A fig looks like a dessicated snotball, an apricot looks like a peach that didn’t make it, and a date looks like a fig.  Why pick on apples?

The only answer I can up with:  They’re red and they’re shaped like hearts (okay, they’re not all red, but they’re certainly not dates, figs, or apricots.  Botanically, I think that green apples came much later, and in a different hemisphere).

Mostly, I think, it hit me because those four words, right there, say it all:  Somebody succumbed to temptation, in such a seemingly harmless way, and it’s all been downhill for everybody since.

There’s a great deal of meaning in those four words:  “She touched; she ate.”  You could spend three months just on that.

For whatever reason, and in spite of all this anti-apple and anti-Eve haranguing to the contrary, I grew up as an apple kid.  I never liked cake, for instance:  Every time my birthday rolled around, I would ask my mother for an apple pie, not any kind of cake, and I always got that pie.

This here’s a bit odd, because I grew up in prime apricot country (Shirley O. Corriher, one of my favorite food writers, praises El Paso apricots in her book CookWise).  Still, I’d much, much rather drive a few hours north, into New Mexico, and take advantage of the High Rolls apple harvest than eat an apricot–which, incidentally, we had growing in the back yard of my parents’ house.  Peaches too.  And plums.

When I lived in Vermont, I had my first tastes of real, fresh apple cider, both the hard and soft varieties.  I also tasted “boiled cider,” which is apple cider gently reduced down to a syrup, and used in place of butter and maple syrup and things like that.

Kind of makes me wonder why I ever left Vermont.

My second year of teaching at UTEP, I had a very attractive young student named Leslie (she was a model and an aerobics instructor to boot).  I didn’t think too much about it at first, to be honest, but one day, she came to my office and set an apple at the edge of my desk.  It was November.  The apple was red and flecked with gold and had a long stem with a drying leaf on it.  I could smell the apple from where I sat.

“From my tree,” she said, smiling.  “From my own yard,” and then she smiled more, showing her perfect white teeth.

“Oh, God,” I thought; “I’m screwed.”

And indeed, once again, I was.

If you haven’t already done so, you might want to read the first five installments of this story.  Just click on the Prose button above and tackle everything labelled Skinhead in sequence.  Thanks for reading, and I hope you like it.

I had nothing in partiulcar planned for the following weekend, so I decided to accept Lawrence’s offer and accompany him to Scotland.  We were going to visit his relatives for a big family reunion.  I wanted to explore the Highlands, drink some local scotch, and try haggis;  I didn’t think that I’d be too interested in hanging out with a bunch of Lawrence-types.  One was about all I could handle.  But, to his credit, Lawrence had proven to be a capable guide in the past week.  He had even found me a decent Chihuahuha-style restaurant in London–El Coyote Invalido, on Camden High Street–although I’d swear that they put some weird and inapproriate English cheese on the enchiladas.  Still, it was pretty good.

Most of the trains leaving London for Scotland begin at Saint Pancras or King’s Cross Station, both in north London.  A lot of peculiar people hang around those stations, so many that north London has a reputation for having the highest concentration of crackpots and weirdos–“rubbish,” the English them, outcasts.  I saw at least a dozen who would probably be better off in an institution sprinkled around the King’s Cross waiting area.  They weren’t just talking to themselves (I do that sometimes); they were yelling at nonexistent people and fending off imaginary attacks.  A few sat slumped against the station’s tiled columns, furiously smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, wide-eyed and mumbling.  I saw two or three who had withdrawn into catatonic stupor, right there in the station.  The whole thing put me in mind of a Turkish madhouse.

Years later, I made friends with Bev, a nurse who had been a Catholic missionary in north London around the time that I was there.  She told me about having to de-louse the rubbish who had come to her clinic for help, having to wash them off with a high-pressure hose and an abrasive sponge.  Some of them had ulcerated wounds populated by maggots.  It could take most of a day just to get them cleaned up.  None of them were alcoholics or drug addicts, she said, because they didn’t have the money to make the purchases.  They weren’t beggars; they were just castaways, lost.

Lawrence had a knack for ignoring them.  One of them came up to me by the escalator–it was made out of wood, like a lot of escalators in London–that goes down to the Underground, and he asked me if I had been up the river.  Before I could regain my composure and tell him that I didn’t know what he was talking about, he smiled and said “You’ve been up the river” and walked away.

Lawrence and I finally climbed aboard the Flying Scotsman, London to Inverness, and chugged off for the Highlands.  The train made several stops, including one just north of Hadrian’s Wall, where there’s a beautiful view of four streams coming together from completely different directions, through the soft green hills dotted with heather and converging to form the River Tweed.

I sat on the cold train and looked, through a scratched and yellowed window that blurred everything, at all the sheep and the dogs gamboling and wandering on the green and purple hills.  I wanted to get off the train right there and go sit on the big, slippery, black boulder that was caught smack in the middle of a golden sunbeam, kick off my shoes, and steep my naked feet in that stream, right there among the trout, the sheep, and the collies, but naturally I didn’t.

The train picked up five young and boisterous Scottish soldiers who yammered away in an indecipherable dialect.  When I asked Lawrence what they were saying, because I thought their language sounded both jaw-cracking and lyrical, he said that he didn’t have any idea and went back to reading an article about a band called Saxon Violins in a rock and roll magazine.

We finally made it to Stirling, a very pretty Scottish town.  There’s a hill on either side of it, with an old castle on top of one and an old church on top of the other.  The day we were there, the whole town was blanketed with a barely perceptible mist.  The sun was shining and it was warm, thanks to the air currents that blow in off the Atlantic (it’s not unusual to see palm trees in that part of Scotland, as odd as that sounds).  It made me wish that I had gone to appreciate spring in Scotland from the beginning, instead of in London.

Lawrence and I went up to Cambuskenneth Abbey–the church on the hill–trudging along a steep and narrow trail beset with mud, weeds, and thick, ancient tree roots like speed-bumps.  When we got to the top, to the church itself, we saw a sign that said that the abbey was open to tourists only on alternate Tuesdays.  We were there on a Saturday.  We could have avoided the exertion, at least, if someone had put that sign at the bottom of the hill, but we figured that–as long as we were there–we’d look at it from the outside, the inside being inaccesible.  We admired the peculiar architecture, kind of a stylized art deco-gothic, walking around it, taken in by the delicate casements and fierce gargoyles.  The dazzling, clean granite was a perfect contrast to all of the grimy and dark buildings in London.

When we got around to the back of the abbey, we saw a man lying face-down in the grass, his head wrenched around so that his chin almost touched his shoulder blade, his arms and legs splayed out in a curious swastika fashion.  His gold and black striped neck-tie flapped in the breeze.  My first thought was that he had had a heart attack, but my second thought was that he had jumped, or been pushed, from the red granite bell tower, which was just behind us.

Lawrence and I didn’t wait around to compare thoughts; we just looked at each other and started quickly down the hill.

“I saw a phone box at the bottom of the hill,” I told him.

“I don’t want to be the one to call 999,” he said (that being the British version of 911).  “You do it.  You’re an American; they won’t do anything to you.”

Before we could settle this point of contention, it became unnecessary.  Several police cars and two ambulances, with those hee-haw sirens blaring, rumbled past us on the narrow little road; we had to step onto the weedy shoulder to avoid getting run over.  The police car at the end of the convoy stopped, paused, and then backed up down the hill, to us.  The officer was very polite and smiling, and he spoke slowly and carefully to accommodate our difficulty with the language.  He asked us who we were, where we were from, where we were going, and whether we had seen anything odd.

Lawrence had panicked when the officer got out of his car and walked toward us.

“I don’t know what’s going on.  What are we supposed to do?”

I knew that he meant that question rhetorically, but I went ahead and answered him:  “You don’t need to know anything.  Just tell him the truth and do what he tells you.”

After the officer let us go, we walked across the River Forth, which splits the town in two.  We crossed the river on the very same bridge where Scotland’s William Wallace had clobbered General Lord Surrey and his English troops back in 1297.  Surrey had horsemen, swords, battle axes, and the longbowmen who had conquered Wales for Edward I.  I don’t really know how it happened, but somehow Wallace and his gang of ill-equipped peasants sent Surrey running.  There’s a bronze plaque on the bridge:  “None fled faster than the noble Earl of Surrey, for he arrived first at the nearby stronghold of Berwick, on a horse so far spent that it was never able to eat corn again.”  I found that hilarious, but Lawrence didn’t.  It bothered him.

We hiked up the other hill, to Stirling Castle, and I’m happy to report that no drama met us there.  We stood on the windy battlements, leaning on carronades that still look over the Blairdrummond Plain like old soldiers who haven’t heard the wars are over, and we looked at the big red cows that Scots call muckle coos snoozing in broad strokes of sunlight on the green hillsides.

I don’t know what prompted Lawrence to think of it then, but that’s when he told me the story of his middle name, Weymyss, and a little about the saint he was named after.  He was very proud of Saint Lawrence, since he had stood up to the Roman Prefecture, but he didn’t know the story of Saint Lawrence and the gridiron, which I told him as we were standing around the courtydard of the old castle.  I told him about Saint Lawrence being stretched out over a huge cooking grate, getting grilled to a turn like a fine young leghorn, and at one point telling his captors, “Okay, I’m done on this side.  You can turn me over now.”

While I was telling Lawrence this story about his namesake, he was standing on bunches of banisteria and laurifolia that grow on the ground there at Stirling Castle, crushing the arching, downy branches and little white flowers and reddish-orange fruit under his Paki-bashing feet.

An elderly volunteer–a castle docent, tour guide, and matron–very polite–asked Lawrence to please mind the walk, and he silently complied, stepping off of the plants and back onto the rough and ancient paving stones of the castle’s courtyard.

The next day, we went to church with Lawrence’s family.  They were a fun bunch, even though I could understand only about half of what they were saying.  All of them–the Weymyss family, the Blodgetts, the Aulde clan, the Fyvies, Ayrs, and Craigmins–lived right near one another; an entire section of Stirling was populated exclusively by Lawrence’s relatives.  They lived in adjacent squares of white-washed and copper-roofed houses on the northern bank of the River Forth, and each square of houses was built around a little garden ringed with bright pink and purple flowers.  In one corner of each square was a communal outhouse, which didn’t seem to bother anyone.  They spent a lot of each day sitting in their gardens, eating and drinking and talking, singing, watching babies crawl around on the grass.  I thought, “Food, drink, talk, music, babies, an outhouse.  Who could ask for more?”

Contrary to my expectations, I enjoyed my time with Lawrence’s family very much.  I hadn’t ever given much thought to having kids, but there was something about a garden full of strong and reckless babies that made me sorry that Lawrence and I had spent so much time snooping around dusty castles and abbeys, acting like a couple of tourists.

Lawrence’s extended family pretty well embodied the Scottish notion of thrawn–they put a great price on independence, discipline, pride, and self-sufficiency, but ironically, at the same time, community and symposia and friendship.  I had the feeling that it was always spring in Scotland; there were always lovers in the blooming parks, marriages in the news.  It wasn’t a good or ordinary day if you didn’t hear how Mrs. Mauchlin’s wee Colin was progressing, or whether little Maggie was still sucking her thumb, or whether Ellie down the lane had been safely delivered of her twins.

At the church–not the abbey, but a modest little cottage-looking thing up in the hills–we all took communion, including Lawrence.  I watched his relatives watching him take the wafer and the wine, and I began to get the feeling that it really wasn’t a family reunion so much as it was an invitation extended to Lawrence, an invitation to return to the old union.  He was a sheep who had wandered off, and they wanted to let him know that he was welcome to come back.

We were all kneeling at the rail before the altar.  I was around the middle of the clan, between Grandmother Fyvie and a little cousin called the Nipper.  Lawrence was toward the end, way to my left, and when Father Claer got down toward him, we all turned our heads to watch, and it was like he was another baby in the garden.  Everything he had said earlier about violence and being a skinhead seemed like it had come from a dream or a very distant memory.

The jarring reminder, the thing out of place, was Lawrence’s bald and tattooed head silhouetted by the beveled, cut-glass church window set deep into the thick white wall, beyond which was a view of the silent hills, the Forth, and the spire of the abbey across the valley.

The Kisser

So there I am making out with Alicia Silverstone behind a stack of Deepak Chopra books at the Southwest terminal of LAX, and in walks Kristy McNichol.  She’s so shocked to see the sight of me making out with Alicia Silverstone that she dumps her entire cup of Starbucks white chocolate macchiato on my bitchin’ Hawaiian shirt with a pineapple motif, which I had just got at a surf shop in Santa Barbara.

Okay, okay, that’s a complete lie.  I wish it were true (except for the part about Kristy McNichol), but I made it up in order to get your attention.  It worked, didn’t it?  Rest assured that everything from here on out is true.  No more lies, I promise.

Everybody’s familiar with the CIA, of course, and I imagine most people have heard of the NSA, but I’ve got news for you:  There’s a lot of military/intelligence/espionage agencies that nobody knows anything about.  I used to work for one of them–the NOC–and if you think the CIA and the NSA are secretive, you’ve got your head in the sand (no offense).

I wasn’t one of the cloak-and-dagger guys at the NOC.  They hired me, as a civilian, to be a technical writer.  My job was taking statistical information and research findings and putting them into some kind of sensible paragraph form, in case we ever had to present it to a governance panel or a Senate subcommittee.

I don’t think that any NOC project that came my way was ever completed.  They either got terminated, because they cost too much and weren’t getting anywhere, or they just played on forever and forever, getting renamed and redirected to other agencies.  I’ll give you a few examples:

  • Can sea-slugs be genetically modified to assist in surveillance in the South China Sea?
  • Are Senegalese Coptic Christians predisposed to psychic abilities?  (Specifically, remote viewing and precognition.)
  • Can common cats be outfitted with transceiver implants and used for domestic eavesdropping?
  • Is it possible for American and allied astronauts to focus their upsilon waves into a beam that could destroy offensive submarine and air traffic?  (Project GASER–you might have heard of it when the IG Times leaked the story.)

I know they all sound pretty crazy now, but bear in mind–this was back around 2085, and we were desperate.  By far, though, the craziest project I ever saw is one that you sure as hell never heard of:  Project Shade, which involved a very unfortunate man named Col. Collum.  He was an Air Force guy who’d been almost killed when he fell asleep at the wheel and ran off a mountain road in Colorado.  I saw pictures of the accident scene, and it was pretty gruesome.  He was tossed out through the side window and landed on some rocks, folded up like a business letter, his back broken in three places.  He could literally have kissed his own ass.  Thank heaven his wife and his daughter weren’t with him.

He just barely survived at all, paralyzed from the neck down.  The SC Hospital tried every rehabilitative thing they had–electro-neuron therapy, myelin transplants, ganglio-anastomosis.  Even mitochondrial modification, which was in its infancy then.  All this stuff cost an incredible amount of money.  Nobody thought too much about it at first–if anything, it was something to be proud of.  Our government was pulling out all the stops to take care of a man who had served his country.

After a while, though, people (nurses, therapists, and technicians–not a word from the doctors) at the SC Hospital in Colorado started to talk, to ask questions.  What it all came down to:  Why are the feds spending all this money on somebody who’s obviously going to die soon?  The poor guy was blind, deaf, diabetic, paralyzed, had cancer, and, worst of all, a raging infection that was taking out his organs one at a time.  Some of the water-cooler gossip was that his deafness, diabetes and cancer came from the “treatments” he was getting from the government, and that he should just have been left alone to die.

Like I said earlier, I was a technical writer for the NOC and not a scientist.  I didn’t know much about medicine, and I still don’t, so I’m not really in a position to comment on what might or might not have happened.

All I do know is that the NOC asked Col. Collum to volunteer for Project Gator, which had him trying to receive upsilon waves from astronauts.  The astronauts were supposed to concentrate on a series of simple pictograms, and the NOC wanted to see if Col. Collum could reproduce the sequence.  For hours and hours, day after day, he sat there in a TR room in his wheelchair.  “Square.  Square with a dot inside.  Circle.  T.  Cross-hatch.  Triangle.  Half-moon.”  I had to transcribe it all, and that was pretty stultifying.  I can just imagine how poor Col. Collum must have felt.  On the other hand, I guess he didn’t have much else to do.

The NOC’s theory was that Col. Collum’s body wasn’t using his energy, so maybe it was redirected to his mind, making it more perceptive to upsilon waves.  He did pretty well with those experiments–a lot better than random guessing–but not 100%.  The NOC was disappointed and put Project Gator on hold for a while.

Then, on August 19, a bunch of civilian eggheads started showing up.  There were Cartesian philosophers, evolutionary biologists, hypnotists, linguists, you name it.  They tended to huddle together and look baffled, though a few of them seemed excited to be there.  Excited or not, a bunch of people in white coats with “Visitor” tags and clipboards doesn’t really inspire much confidence.  Their presence raised more questions than it answered, and it didn’t help that none of them had kissers.

A kisser was a little red panic button that everybody had.  You could wear it on your lapel or carry it in your pocket.  Some people wore it like a pendant.  I kept mine on a braided bracelet that my daughter made for me at summer camp.  If you hit your kisser, whatever people were on security rotation that day–Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force–showed up, guns drawn and ready to duke it out, even if it turned out to be Armageddon.  They were armed to the teeth and had their own version of kissers.  Theirs were purple, and God only knows what forces would have been called upon if anybody ever hit one.

The official name was Emergency Summons Device 85L-412112E.  I don’t have any idea why they were called “kissers.”  I’ve often wondered about that.

I should probably point out that, although Col. Collum was injured in Colorado, the NOC facility where I worked was in New Mexico.  That’s where they sent him after SC Hospital got him stable enough to transport.

Most of the eggheads came from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.  I only know that because I had to include their credentials when I wrote up my reports.

If you’ve been waiting for this story to get interesting, prepare to meet your reward.  It’s about to get very interesting.

Col. Collum volunteered to have his brain taken away and plonked into a jar (the doctors called it a “vitrine”) of saline solution.  They attached about a dozen electrodes to it, in strategic spots, so that they could monitor his limbic system, cingulate sulcus, corpus callosum, anterior commissure, so on.  When I first read about it, I thought it was creepy as hell, but then when I actually saw it, it was kind of cool.  There were a couple of tubes running into the base of his brain, where his spinal cord would have begun–pumping in nutrients, I guess.  There were also a couple of tubes coming out.

The tubes going in were red and the ones coming out were green.  To me, that was the creepiest part.  Some bunch of people sat around at a meeting and decided “Okay, it’s definite.  The red ones go in and the green ones come out.  Agreed?  All in favor, say ‘Aye.’”

And some poor Air Force med tech had to do the dirty work, the plumbing, all by himself at three in the morning, nobody else around (his name was Loadmaster Spec 4 Warren, by the way.  Not recorded as a med tech for obvious reasons).

Everything was going along just ducky for about three months before it all fell apart.  There was Col. Collum’s jugged brain floating around, sparking out the occasional wattage.  Eggheads stopped by to tap on the glass, say “Hm!” and scribble on clipboards, like he was a fish in an aquarium. Made me sick.

Even worse was the EBK monitor, which reeled out a tri-color line graph showing his activity, like you can put numbers on that kind of thing.

I don’t have any idea what the different colors stood for, but I can tell you that I saw some definite patterns.  The yellow line pretty much always stayed flat, but the red and green lines went way up whenever somebody else was around.  On the few occasions that his wife visited, the red and green lines pegged the chart (his daughter was too young to get in, but I wonder how that would have turned out).

When he was alone for more than an hour or so, all the lines dropped and flattened out.  When I was trying to put all the numerical data into paragraph form, all I could think was “Dang, this poor dude’s bored and depressed as hell.  Can’t say as I blame him.”

At one point, Gen. Goodman had me put it all into a PlexiPoint presentation, and I practically vomited.  I was getting sympathetic with the guy, which was a big mistake.  “Objectivity” is one of the Twelve Cardinal Rules of technical writing, and I failed miserably.  It got to the point that I hated seeing the eggheads tapping the glass and Mrs. Collum dabbing her eyes with hospital Kleenex.  “Leave the poor bastard alone” was pretty much all I could think.

There was a long weekend–Labor Day–and when I went in to work on Tuesday, there was an EBK chart on my desk, all three lines straight as an arrow and lined up at zero.  Col. Collum’s brain had crapped out and given up the ghost over the weekend.  There was a big spike before it went flat-line, but I don’t know why.

Spec 4 Warren had scribbled on the margin:  “Project terminated 0649.”  I wanted to hunt him down and kick him in the teeth.

The Aztecas marching band is an unstoppable juggernaut, kind of a mobile conjunto assassin squad (picture a Bowie High version of the Borg).  People are cowering in phone booths and doorways.  Abuelas are crossing themselves, mumbling novenas, and fingering rosaries.  It’s a bad day in downtown EP.

The place is crawling with police cars, but the cops don’t seem to be doing anything to stop the Aztecas.  Eventually, through the grapevine, I hear that the cops have a pretty sound strategy:  They know that if they shoot at the Aztecas, the Aztecas will get peeved and shoot more civilians.  So the cops are loading as many people into their cars as possible and hustling them off to Azteca-free neighborhoods.

Well, I figure it’s a good approach overall, but it’s also an approach that got me into this jam in the first place (can’t really blame the cops–they had no way of knowing the Aztecas’ itinerary).  I figure there has to be a way out of this sorry pickle, a way that doesn’t involve relying on the fuzz.

A-ha!  Railroad tracks.  Marching bands don’t follow railroad tracks, railroad tracks lead from downtown to the hinterlands, and as long as you’re close to the tracks, you’re bound to run into civilized people who can point you back home.  So I head for the tracks.

Turns out I’m not the only one who had such a bright idea–there are hundreds of people already there, trudging along out of town.  Looks like an exodus.

Pretty soon, EP’s empty.  Just the Aztecas and the cops are left.  The rest of us are wandering up the tracks, not quite sure where to go.

Then a loud noise woke me up, and that was that.

So this old broad keeps kissing on me as we’re walking down the street, and I’m just trying to be polite but blow her off at the same time.

By my watch, it’s a few minutes before seven.

“Look,” I says, “I don’t mean to be rude,” I says, ” but I have to be at work at seven and you’re kind of slowing me down.”

Now her face changes from creepy-and-lovelorn to creepy-and-double-creepy.  She ain’t happy, and I’m starting to get spooked.  What have I got myself into?

The old bat’s all over me, a-huggin’ and a-kissin’, and I’m trying–politely, still–to get her to shove off.  Getting nowhere.

Finally, push comes to shove and I tell her “Look, your huggin’ and kissin’ on me is not welcome, and you’re really getting on my nerves, so knock it off, you old cow.”

“Fine,” she says, “I’ll just call 911 and tell them how you’ve betrayed me.”  She whips out a phone, dials, and squawks a string of accusatory lies.

“Oy,” I’m thinking, “how do I get myself into these jams?  Time to bail.”

So I turned and started walking the other way.  She shoves her phone back into her purse and starts yelling “Help!  Robber!  Rape!  I’ve been burgled!  Piracy!  Help!  Help!”

Sure enough, some brave citizen–a skinny, cute, punkish girl–comes to her rescue, throwing rocks at me (bad aim and/or weak arm, luckily–no hits) and hollering at me to stop.  I toy with the idea of reasoning with her–she is cute and punkish, after all–but when another rock whizzes by my head, I think better of it.

By now I’m pretty well resigned to the idea that it’s going to be a bad day, so I just run like hell toward what looks like the most congested part of town, figuring that it would easier to shake the rock-throwing punk heroine in an area with tall buildings and short streets.

Sure enough, she’s off my tail, but suddenly I’m in EP, southside, and the place is crawling with cop cars.

“Jiminy!” I’m thinking,”she sure did call 911.  Dang my luck.”

I keep trying to dodge the squad cars, but they’re everywhere, and eventually I get tired of hiding behind billboards and newsstands; I flag down one of the cop cars, ready to surrender and make a full confession.

Cop pulls over, gets out, opens the back door, and tells me to hurry up and get in, which I do.  Already in the back seat are two little school kids, with their backpacks, textbooks, and homework.

What the blazes?

Cop drives to another neighborhood and kicks us all out.  The kids are grateful; I’m confused.

Now I hear blaring Mexican music.  No big deal there; lots of EP downtown storefronts play their own music.  But then I look down the street, and there’s a marching band cadre of the Aztecas coming up the sidewalk, all in black uniforms, ominous as hell.  Half of them are playing perky Mexican music–lots of trumpets and violins.  The other half’s packing heat, shooting people–women and kids, mostly–at random.  They keep in step and they know where they’re going.  Trumpets and violins in the front, semi-automatics in the back.  Very organized.  Something they’ve planned for quite a while.

More soon.

I don’t dream very often (or remember what I do dream–take your pick).  Just a couple of times a year.  Most of my dreams are pretty ordinary and predictable–falling, flying, snakes eating donoughts, showing up naked for a chemistry final.  Nothing special.  This one, though, is a pip.

A little background, first of all.  Most of you probably know that I was born and raised in El Paso.  EP is the gangsta capital of North America.  Ironically, it has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the country.  I think it’s because gangsters are generally pretty law-abiding while they’re not out gangstering (they’re afraid of getting pulled over and popped), plus the fact that the EP jails are chock-full of gangsters waiting to get called up on charges.

The Aztecas are probably the most significant and influential EP gang; they’ve infiltrated the federal prison system and are a very large part of the “Mexican mafia.”  Serious business, and not to be taken lightly.

Okay, that’s part one of the groundwork of my dream.  Part two is a lot quicker and simpler, and is as follows:

I worked for a catering outfit here in Craptopolis for a little while last year.  The kitchen is run by a talented and capable chef, and her sister runs the office.

Here beginneth the dreame:

I went to the catering joint to ask for my old job back.  The chef was sitting on the concrete floor, next to non-functional boombox, smiling.

“I was just wondering if you needed some help, you know–I could use some work.”

“Oh, you bet!” she said, “but how come there are sesame seeds in my transmission?”

It went on like that for a while, and I brought it to her sister’s attention.

“Yeah, she’s been like that.  Don’t take it seriously.”

Hm.  Good time to leave.  So I up and left, and that’s when the landscape changed–no longer the actual pancake-flat Craptopolis, but a hilly place with lots of tenements and alleyways.

I was walking up a hilly alleyway, and coming down the other way was an old woman helping an old guy in a wheelchair.  There was a very low fire escape between us, and a little quick mental calculation told me that we’d arrive there at about the same time.  The fire escape didn’t allow space in the narrow alley for the three of us to pass at the same time, so I opted to take the gentlemanly way out and let them have the right-of-way.  Beyond that, I decided to be an übergentleman and help her pilot the wheelchair down the hill–she was a frail old bat, and I knew that commandeering a downhill wheelchair was no simple task.

When we were about half-way back down the hill, she let go of the hand-grips on the old guy’s wheelchair, and off he went like a shot.  I don’t know exactly what happened to him, because I was distracted by this toothless hag hugging and kissing me and saying, “I never cared about him anyway.  Now it’s jsut us.  Let’s go for a walk.”

I was too horrified to think straight.  “Just be polite,” I thought.  “No matter what happens, nobody can ever fault you for being polite.”

More later.

Skinhead V

What I had to remember while Lawrence and London went on and on before me was that England–not Britain in general, mind you; I have nothing against the Irish, the Welsh, or the Scots–is nuts.  They drive on the wrong side of the road, of course, and they do it in laughably silly little cars (some of which have three wheels).  They park with two wheels on the sidewalk.  They put their coins into pay phones after the people they’re calling answer.  They push their kids around in strollers–“prams”!–until they’re seven or eight years old, and they take their dogs to the movies.  Their traffic lights turn yellow between going red to green, and they have coin-operated gas meters in their bedrooms.  Their toilet paper is like sandpaper, and the shower heads hang straight down from the ceiling, like light fixtures, so you can only get the top of your head wet.  They drink lemonade mixed with beer, and everything they eat–bubble and squeak, bangers and mash, spotted dick–is boiled to death and swimming in grease.  And they’re absolutely convinced that all Americans are irretrievably crazy.

The essence of England is at the Tower of London, where ravens hop around with clipped wings because, centuries ago, some witch or warlock predicted that when the ravens left the Tower, the Empire would crumble.  The English solution:  hobble the birds so they can’t go anywhere, and that way, the Empire will endure.  Perfectly sensible.

Somebody said that the sun never set on the British Empire.  Some cynical wag then pointed out that the sun therefore never rose on the Empire either.  Either way, the empire ethic continues to thrive in London, even though the sun hardly ever breaks through the clouds and the smog and the haze, and the English sun-worshippers never really get their tans.

*

I went to the London Zoo a few days later.  Lawrence worked there on a government job scheme (although a lot of Brits make more money on welfare than they would working), and he got me in for free.  I don’t remember too much about it, except for the “chimps’ tea party,” which is just a quaint way of referring to a feeding frenzy.  The day I was there, one of the chimps had a deep gash in his foot.  The other apes worried over him like avuncular chums, except for one glum orangutan, who sat on an upturned milk-crate, off in a corner by himself.  He was part of some primate educational program, and he stayed there, morose in his little nook, with scattered pieces of a kid’s Speak ‘n’ Spell toy around him.  Every now and then, he’d pick up a piece of plastic–with a letter of the alphabet, or a cartoon picture of a chicken on it–and he’d look at it for a few seconds and then drop it back on the ground, staring off into space, crossing his long arms and sighing.

The chimps’ avuncular fussing stopped the second that the attendants–including Lawrence–showed up with big conical feeders full of Purina Monkey Chow.  All of the apes–except for the lame chimp and the orangutan–rushed the funnel-shaped feeders, trampling one another to get their first.  The bigger, older ones took their time and shouldered their way through the crowd, shoving the younger, weaker apes aside.  The chimp with the cut foot had to sit and wait until the able apes were satisfied and had moved on to other things, but by then there was just Purina Monkey Chow dust and a few crumbs left.  The big orange orangutan didn’t show any interest in eating.  He watched the other apes enjoying their tea party frenzy, but didn’t participate.  He sighed, crossed his arms, and looked at the sky beyond the thick Plexiglass ceiling.  Without looking down, and in a way that looked absent-minded to me, he used his long toes to fiddle with the broken bits of the Speak ‘n’ Spell scattered in the hay around him.

On the human observer side of the partition, I stood next to an American teenager in a Mr. Potato Head t-shirt.  “Whoa,” he said.  “Awesome.  Excellent.  Whoa.  Look at that stupid fucker.”  He planted a fingertip on the Plexiglass partition and turned to his friends–a high school tour group, I guess–and laughed, squinting, tongue sticking out.

If that sounds like a deliberate attempt to point out some irony, rest assured–I was struck by it too.

I wandered around the rest of the zoo until Lawrence ended his shift at 2:30, and then we went to the Tower of London; Lawrence had never been there either.  The part that impressed me the most was Beauchamp Tower, which is generally overlooked by tourists because it doesn’t have a very interesting façade, and it’s right next to the infamous and sensational Bloody Tower.  Lawrence and I really only went into Beauchamp Tower because there was a bunch of people dressed up in Elizabethan costumes, having an Olde London Revival party on the central green.  Lawrence was somehow offended by them, and he wanted to get away, so in we went to Beauchamp Tower.

It had originally housed long-sentence prisoners.  Many of them had whiled away the years by carving on the old stone walls.  They carved family emblems, mostly–Latin mottoes and coats-of-arms.  There are also statements of innocence and complaints against the crown.  Those carvings are still there, carved deeply into that rock 500 years ago.  You would think that the prisoners were all artists too, because even the simplest coat-of-arms is an expertly rendered, flawless byzantine bas-relief.  Now they’re protected from curious souvenir-seeking hands by plates of clear plastic bolted to the walls.  Those poor people spent so much time up in that lonely cold old tower, but they were only concerned with leaving behind some noble reminder of a good family name.  I think they’d be happy, because the carvings are still there, and they still look good.

Skinhead, part the fourth

I would ordinarily tune anybody out half-way through such a tirade but as Lawrence was saying this stuff, early morning London was slogging through the melting snow just on the other side of my window–a living diorama of Lawrence’s universal hierarchy.  You could tell from a block away who was Fleet Street and who was Whitechapel and who just didn’t matter at all to anyone.  The people in nicer clothes did get faster service at the newsstands and they were never around to hold the door for the great unwashed at the North Sea Fish Bar.  They were at the Trattoria Verdi on Southampton Road instead, maybe nodding distantly at the doorman.

The immigrants–Pakistanis, Bengalis, East Indians, Guyanese, Punjabis, Bahamanians, Bermudans, Malaysians, Indonesians, Thais, Egyptians, Lebanese–deferred to the natives at every turn, surrendering taxis and waiting quietly while the fairer-skinned got tended to ahead of them.

Even some of the skinheads got deferential treatment on the sidewalks, since some of them had leather pouches and red enamel badges that said “Royal Mail.”  Everyone stepped aside to let the Royal Mail pass, even if its agent had a tattooed head.

In just about every regard, the natives displayed tendencies opposite those of the immigrants.  The natives seemed to me less civilized, less restrained, less decorous and conscientious.  It first came to my attention on the train from Gatwick Airport to Victoria Station, first day in London.

The porter had found out–despite my efforts to stay anonymous–that I was an American.  He stopped me in the passageway, backing up foot-traffic for a car-and-a-half.  I felt like I was being interrogated by the State Police.

“Well, what do you think of us English?  We’re a bit more civilized, eh?”

His shirt–he wasn’t wearing the official blue and red BritRail tunic–was filthy and halfway tucked in.  It looked like he hadn’t shaved in a few days and his hair was greasy and unkempt.  He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and he had newspaper pages shoved into his shoes to keep out the cold.  He wanted to hear me say “Oh, goodness gracious yes, you’re infinitely more civilized.”  It took me several seconds to realize that he was serious.

I don’t remember exactly how I answered his question.  It was just something to get him to shut up and let me past him.