The Emperor’s New Gallstones

There was an alarming series of accidents in my neighborhood last week. Something like five people had fallen from their roofs early Friday morning. Everybody was going to be alright, save for a few bumps and bruises. It was a strange epidemic. Why, suddenly, was there dangerous roof work being done, in the middle of the night, without the proper safety equipment, with plenty of red wine and marijuana?

Blame the asteroids. The Perseid meteor shower was predicted around midnight, Thursday. It was just the excuse some of my neighbors needed to have a party. The booze and the smoke got them in the proper stargazing mood and some had relocated to the tops of their houses to get a clearer view. They followed the astronomers’ suggestions of relaxing the eyes for about half an hour, unfocused, taking it all in, and before they knew it the night sky was awash in white tracers. For a few drowsy audience members relaxing the eyes for a half hour at midnight in the middle of a work week after two glasses of cabernet and a bowl of kind bud means passing out and, depending on the pitch of the roof, careening off the side of the house. 

Too much work will kill you. If not directly then with a slow, insidious drain of vital energy. People work until they are too tired to live. When they push themselves a little too far, that is with a late-night meteor shower party at neck-breaking elevations, they are inviting injury. All it takes is a good thirty seconds of nodding off and before they know it they are launching themselves from the eaves of their ranch house like Superman in a heroin stupor.

It reminded me of a story I had tried to write some years ago about a narcoleptic superhero. Maybe not clinical narcolepsy, per se, but as the nonstop demands of saving humanity from floods, fires, earthquakes and terrorists began to take its toll, the intrepid yet weary rescuer would take off into the sky to fix some grave injustice and about two minutes into the flight he would fall asleep and go crashing like a meteor through somebody’s house, or just create this huge, burning, hundred-meter furrow through a patch of farmland, or torpedo an overpass on the interstate. He would pull himself out of the debris, a little stiff, and mutter and shake his head. He had slept through his chance to save the schoolchildren from the avalanche, the nuns in the burning bus, the bridge from collapse, and not only that he was going bankrupt from serious amounts of civil litigation from super lawyers because of all the property damage he had caused.  The story was a bummer and I was right to abandon it. Nobody wants that type of realism.

Point being, any job can get old. A good example of this is that even the Japanese Emperor is looking to retire. Emperor Akihito is in his eighties, has survived cancer, and is ready to call it quits, even though there is something within the whole setup that frowns upon resigning. An “emperor” is as alien to my understanding of a society as the monthly ritual sacrifice of virgins. I’m only familiar with two others besides the Asian sovereign. The wrinkly old cloaked fellow from Star Wars and the one who paraded around nude in the Hans Christian Anderson story. And why not? You’re the emperor. It seems entirely natural to be able to march around naked as a jaybird. Forget the magic clothes. You’re the emperor, crazy to retire from eating peeled grapes and being fanned with palm fronds and walking around in your birthday suit. What else is there?

I left the meteor party early. I found myself becoming a little obsessive compulsive about the messiness of the visible galaxy. Even the constellations didn’t make sense. Perseus looked like a stick figure with half his body hacked off. Orion was getting heavy. The Big Dipper looked like god’s own spittoon. As I walked home I was reminded of that line in Nabokov’s novel Pnin when the two professors are walking home at night after a cocktail party. Both look up to regard the stars. The first professor marvels that, “And all these are worlds.” The second professor kind of sneers and says, “Or else it is really a fluorescent corpse. And we are inside of it.”  The first professor is a poet. The second is an acerbic genius.

When I got home there was a news update about Emperor Akihito on TV. He had released a statement…

“I have decided to retire from the throne. No longer will I wake to have my feet massaged by beautiful servants. No longer will I be welcomed with flowers everywhere I go. No longer will nubile young women regard me as semi-divine. No longer will I be able to cut the line at Kentucky Fried Chicken. No longer will people drop to their knees and stare at the floor as I walk past. No longer will I have somebody else pump my gas for me, or be able to rig horse races and boxing matches by simply shaking my head or nodding. You know what? On second thought. As your semi-divine, eternal and great emperor I advise you to disregard everything that I have said in the past few days. I may be suffering from royal dementia, which is the most honorable kind. Keep calm and carry on.”

More Alembics to come.

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