Scherzo!

Troubled by the recent rise in evil, I headed off to Rome the other week to attend the “Exorcism and Liberation” symposium given at the PURA, or the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum. This year was a very special one, billed as the “thirteenth” annual. Not to be missed. Thirteen is the number of demons, of chaos, of hazard, of the darker forces seeking to undo the very reliable order that humankind has placed upon the world. I was very much hoping to see some unlucky babbler’s head explode in a rain of pea soup. 

The main lecturer was some grizzled old pontiff that, like Noah and Methuselah, had been around for half a millennium, whacking people over the head with a crucifix, grabbing their mouths with both hands and forcing the orifices open to peer down their throats and yell at Satan to come out of his hidey hole. The crowd of canonical scholars seated in the hall furiously scribbled notes. There has never been a more critical time in history than now to address the rampant degeneracy. The modern age has ushered in a whole new host of express lanes and super highways to transport devils, demons, incubi, tormentors, ghouls, goblins, gremlins, and gargoyles to the hearts and minds of Us, the Chosen Species, and it was high time that the Guardians of the Faith pull a Chris Christie and clog those arteries up like it was the bridge from Fort Lee. 

Many important things were discussed at the PURA this year, like how Satan hides in your cellphone and then jumps into your mouth when you aren’t looking. Then he does a little cloven-hoofed dance and backflips off the tongue down the gullet. Behind the lectern was a giant anatomy diagram of an anonymous head and torso, and the old cardinal traced a laser pointer trajectory down the esophagus, showing the tiny spot near the heart where the devil hunkers down like a parasite. The lesson was interrupted, though, by the cardinal’s own I-phone 10 suddenly going off, an abrupt, pealing ringtone that I recognized as the fiddle-fighting scene from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” by the Charlie Daniels Band. The cardinal pulled the gadget from his robe and paused for a moment as he tried to figure out how to answer it. 

Fire on the mountain, run boys run.

The devil’s in the house of the rising sun.” 

An eerie song to hear at an exorcism convention, particularly since I live in Georgia these days, and didn’t want any undue associations. After the interruption, (it took the old man a minute to figure out how to put his phone on vibrate), he continued about atheism, general witchcraft, and dance music. Nothing was more symptomatic of the Dark Prince of the Underworld inhabiting a body than watching a mud-soaked hippie flail back and forth in front of a stage at Bonnaroo. 

Feeling enlightened, I had many questions. In particular I asked about the sudden emergence of craft beer breweries, particularly the hubris involved in men turning water into a hoppy pale ale. I wondered if Jesus might’ve just been a really good water skier. The hermeneutical theory that the serpent in the garden was actually Eve’s tongue. Gay unicorns on the ark? Alice Cooper’s reprisal of King Herod’s Song? Elmer Gantry, barker or savior? Twitter rants: the devil in 140 characters or less? 

I was able to ask all these questions because I had paid the extra $300 to have my own translator. The Italian cardinal fielded my questions with reluctant decorum, until my translator rushed up to my side and ordered me to shut up. “I already have to modify everything that you ask!” he whispered. “If I translated your questions verbatim we’d both be burned at the stake.”

“They still do that?” 

“When necessary,” he hissed. “Which it may very well become. Some of the other translators are taking notice. I can’t sit around and protect you all day. You can have your money back.” 

Things settled down a bit, and our instructor went on to say that things were so bad these days that machines were also being possessed by Lucifer’s minions. Il Diavolo Ex Machina, so to speak. He flashed a slide on the back wall that showed the recently shattered engine of the Southwest Airlines jet. Indomitable proof of ghostly saboteurs at work. He noted the twisted shards of metal, the splintered casings, the gashes and wreckage. If these devils can do that to a million-dollar turbo prop, imagine the destruction to the human conscience. Luckily God had landed the plane safely, he added. I made the joke that while most pilots think they are a god, it was a relief that one actually is. The cardinal’s face went red. He could stand me no longer. He started to get saltier than Lot’s wife, and my translator ripped his headset off and ran out of the room. 

“Scherzo!” he cried at me, and seconds later I was thrown out of the class by the Swiss Guards, a couple of walking Christmas ornaments in striped pantaloons and plumed casques. Doubly ridiculous. 

***

As I was waiting for my flight back home I stared at my airplane with a tickle of dread. I didn’t know what I would do in the event of an emergency. I pictured myself with my oxygen mask atop my head like the tiny fez on an organ grinder monkey as I choked on the freezing air while trying to rip the tray table out from the seat in front of me in order to beat other passengers away from the emergency exit. I considered sneaking down to the tarmac with some chicken bones and a pint of blood to purge any insidious forces from the aircraft, but decided against it. My modern faith is simply to go with the flow. As long as one person is in control, and as long as it is the right person, all of us passengers can flounder around like happy lunatics. I reminded myself when I got back home to mail a donation to the New Church of Tammy Jo Schultz. 

More Alembics to come. 

Back to the Future, Ahead to the Past

I was mowing my lawn a few weeks ago, at the edge of my property, when I spied a car coming down the block. It was a sunny day, and as I looked up at the approaching vehicle I was momentarily blinded by it. At first I wasn’t sure what had happened, other than a silver flash from the windshield had left me sightless for about two seconds. As the car got closer I realized what it was. There was a most glorious and impressive array of CDs spread across the driver’s sun visor. There had to be about forty of them, extended in perfect circular symmetry, reflecting the sun’s magnificence and frying the eyes of every driver who happened to be going in the opposite direction. 

This was the height of convenience for the modern music lover, if by modern I was speaking about the year 1992. It meant there was a CD player in the dashboard, which played them one by one, and not a six-disc changer in the trunk, even. It seemed like such a weird throwback. Had the driver not heard about digital and streaming music? I couldn’t have been more surprised if the car was towing an old Wurlitzer jukebox with a gramophone horn extended from the speaker, blasting the hottest hits of the forties and seventies, everything from Glenn Miller to more recent acts like England Dan and John Ford Coley. I suddenly wanted to climb into the car to see what other odd relics I could dig up, like a glove compartment full of badly folded maps from Triple A. Maybe there was a boxy television plugged into a potato battery in the back with a groaning video cassette recorder so the kids could watch the pile of VHS tapes scattered about the floor of the backseat. 

As luck would have it the guy slowed up his ’88 Pontiac LeMans and stopped in front of me. His window was already rolled down and he was shirtless, which meant no air conditioning. He asked me for directions to the tobacco shop. He had heard there was a shortcut through the neighborhood, which there was, which also meant he had no GPS. What really got me thanking the universe for this odd encounter was that he was wearing a pair of old Ferrari brown-tint sunglasses, the collapsible kind with the classy leather case. The glasses were situated right above a broad, blond, porno mustache. 

I approached the smooth eighties time traveler and pointed him around the corner to the cigar shop. He had just moved into the neighborhood, he said, and was still getting a feel for the place. Awesome. 

“My name is Chad. They call me Hanging Chad.” 

“Of course they do.” 

“Because my name is Chad and I hang.” 

“Got it!” 

“I was the bass roadie for the Atlanta Rhythm Section years ago.” 

“Even better.” 

I told him I’d see him around, and as these things go, I began to see Chad everywhere. I was a victim of what is known as the Baader-Meinhof syndrome, in which something that you never notice becomes something you constantly notice once you notice it.

Hanging Chad at the coffee shop. Hanging Chad at the burger place. Hanging Chad in line at the bank. Hanging Chad driving backwards down the block to the mechanic because his car was stuck in reverse. 

Chad was providing a refreshing counterpoint to the news about Mark Zuckerberg and Cambridge Analytica and the whole defense of data trading and exploitation. Chad did not have an on-line profile. Indeed he thought Facebook was another name for a criminal’s mugshot. And concerning the need for privacy Chad remonstrated, “If you don’t want somebody to know something, you don’t fucking tell them.”  

Hanging Chad was getting along in the neighborhood quite nicely. That is until the day I ran into him at our neighborhood tobacco shop up on Lawrenceville Highway. I had gone in to buy a tin of Arturo Fuente cigarillos and found him castigating the girl at the register. 

“Can you believe this woman?” Chad said to me. “Here I am paying by credit and she didn’t even check to see if the signature I provided on the receipt is the same as the signature on the back of my card.” 

“There’s a chip in the card, sir,” said the salesgirl. “Nobody checks signatures anymore.” 

Chad started to panic. “But how will you successfully detect a fraudulent purchase? Here, here. Look at this signature. It is a work of art. Notice the initial flourish. The loop and whorl. The way the ‘d’ leans to the right, real cool, like it doesn’t have a care in the world!” 

“Haven’t you heard? They are doing away with all that signature stuff.” 

Chad was outraged. He took his credit card back and stuffed it into his wallet right above, I noticed, a sleek white card with a gold border that said, “Playboy Club and Casino. Member since 1978.” 

“Playboy Club, eh?” I said. 

“I was a big wheel in Vernon, New Jersey. That was one of my hangouts back in the day.” Chad’s eyebrows bounced up and down on his forehead in an effort to convince me how impressive it all was. 

I hesitated to tell him that his beloved club had closed around 1982. Chad looked defeated enough, knowing that the world was going into technological overdrive right before his Ferrari, brown-tinted, sunglass-covered eyes. 

“Care to join me in a glass of cheap scotch and a badly rolled cigarette?” he offered. I agreed and we adjourned to the outside of the cigar shop where there was a little sampling area set up. 

We spoke of the nature of things. How no longer, as in days gone, could the intrepid explorer go digging into unknown tracts of land looking for oil, or bauxite, or precious metals. The landscape of opportunity in this day and age is microscopic. It is the collapsing inward of the great ranges and plateaus of the world. It is the data miner. It is the nanotechnologist. It is the microbiologist working to unlock the protein codes of genetic recognition.  Not a very sexy lifestyle. 

After the cigarettes had burned down Chad got up to go. I suspected that I may have seen the Pontiac LeMans roar off for the last time. He was heading in a different direction than we were. That place in the past when everything made sense. 

More Alembics to come. 

I Fought The Law and The Purple People Eater Won

It is a strange and unnerving thing to be a law abiding citizen, a man of the outside natural world, a bohemian of coffee shops, booze halls and art studios and did I mention booze halls, who suddenly finds himself sitting in a courtroom for one of the most bizarre charges ever to land in the lap of jurisprudence. The Fulton County court was packed that day, the honorable Judge Bufo presiding. Guilty or innocent, we were all treated with sarcastic disdain by the bailiffs as we filed in, collectively threatened with contempt because a few puddle heads couldn’t figure out how to remove their hats and turn off their cellphones. Never has there been a more scrupulous polarization of authority and delinquency than in a courtroom, particularly this kind of strange cattle call. And when the cops, the judge and the solicitors start admonishing the crowd for petty infractions like whispering to the person sitting next to them, then we all kind of reflexively adopt the “fuck you” attitude of the outlaw. I was amused at how naturally the setup breeds its own dynamic.

I was answering a rather strange citation. I had been given a ticket for speeding, except here is the thing… I was sitting in the passenger seat at the time.

My first brush with “The Law” happened when I was about four years old. Recently instructed on the finer points of spelling, I had innocently picked up a permanent marker and went into my parents’ bedroom. It was laundry day, and the mattress had been stripped of all the sheets. I had a king-sized canvas, and I went to work, spelling the two new words I had learned, in this case, “SHIT” and “ASS” in a fine and careful lettering. Proud of my recent publication, I showed it off to my mother, who had returned from the laundry room with a gasp of shock and horror. Even then my writing was controversial, and I was thrashed accordingly. Seething from the injustice of it all, I hired an appeals lawyer, in this case my mom’s sister, who pointed out that while the text was a bit licentious, “At least he spelled it right.”

And now here I am, a lifetime later, answering a charge of “Failure to Convince the Operator of a Speeding Vehicle to Slow Down.” It all started when my truck spluttered to a miserable death on the highway a few months back. Something had gone wonky under the hood. The demon that controls my engine was angry. So I took a 1950’s Uber, or in other words, I stuck my thumb out at the flow of traffic and hitched a ride to the next exit. A twitchy, high-strung woman pulled over and agreed to give me a lift. She stabbed that gas pedal down and we rocketed off into oblivion. A mile up the road we were pulled over by a cop. Immediately she complained to the police officer that I had exerted an unnecessary and undue pressure on her to go as fast as possible. She was only a waif of a woman and I was a big crazy man with big crazy male ways. The officer agreed and handed me the ticket. I was about to protest, when my chauffeur whispered to me to shut up unless I wanted to be cited for the trunkful of methamphetamine too.

The court has the ultimate advantage over the accused. It’s their home turf. I watched as a parade of misfits and non compos mentis types were led up to the podium. Every once in a while a handcuffed individual would appear from a side door and be made to sit in their own little penalty box. We in the normal gallery could at least take some consolation in the fact that we weren’t in the shackled category. My favorite guy was some wild and broken genius who had somehow got caught after dumping 5,000 used tires on a desolate stretch of road in South Fulton. The cops finally noticed when the stack got taller than the surrounding trees.

“One-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater…”

Shit, where did that come from? Oh yes, my stupid brain. Every once in a while, in times of extreme stress, my mental jukebox will play dumb songs to torment me, and something in my head had hit the ‘play’ button on the old Sheb Wooley song. Then I realized what was happening. Follow me, please. Theoretically a people-eating monster would indeed be a cold-blooded murderer, and since I was sitting in court, I was now seeing a one-eyed, one-horned, handcuffed and despondent purple people eater being led into the little penalty box on the far side of the room. I knew I never should’ve taken that hit of acid in college that one time. In fact I blamed Sheb Wooley, whose name alone sounds a bit monster-ish, as well as a string of god-awful pop music that had plagued us for decades. These were the real criminals, robbing us of good taste: “One-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater,” “You’re a pink toothbrush I’m a blue toothbrush,” “Up and away my beautiful balloon,” “Yummy yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy,” and a host of other wrenching pop tunes. Like any psychedelic court scene, I was now watching lollipops, toothbrushes, balloons, zombies, Katy Perry’s left shark, puppies, a rhinestone cowboy, dandelions and everything else get led into the dock.

“From the laboratory in the castle east,
to the master bedroom where the vampires feast,
the ghouls all came from their humble abodes,
to get a jolt from my electrodes. They did the mash. They did the monster mash.”

As if this wasn’t bad enough, things really got out of hand when the purple people eater chewed through his chains and, as is natural to his species, ate the bailiff, the stenographer and the judge. I figured that was tantamount to an adjournment of the court, until the big monster banged the gavel and burped my name out. He was in charge now and he wasn’t going to let the rest of us get away with anything. I approached the bench. He found me guilty and told me that I could either feed him my money or my body, which was exactly what Judge Bufo would’ve said, and I dutifully chose the former. He gobbled it down right then and there, and before he nodded off for a midday nap rife with drooling and snoring he told me to have a nice day. I walked outside into the cool, free air, and never felt better. Freedom is most thoroughly enjoyed after a few hours in a courtroom. I decided, because I have a reputation to uphold, to never tell anybody about the crazy monster tableau I had just imagined.
It will be our secret.
More Alembics to come.