It never fails. Whenever I begin to think I’m clever, deft, or at all mentally stylish, some agent of humility comes along and smashes my head like a casaba melon. They arrive in the unlikeliest of forms, turning me from deft into daft, just like that, as easy as the flip of a vowel. In this instance it was a boy of about six or seven years old, the child of friends of mine, at a small house-warming party. We were out on the back deck, under a night sky alive with a billion stars and our own moon shined up like a pearl in the middle of it all. The planet Mars was the closest it’s been in fifteen years. Mars is the Roman god of war, which may help, in retrospect, to explain the ensuing battle.
The boy’s name is Sebastian, and he is the great investigator of causality. In other words he questions everything with a fusillade of “Why? Why? Why?” and he always wins, because the unlucky geek (in this case me) who gets pulled in trying to answer a simple question, will find himself regressing from a cause, to the cause of the cause, to the cause of THAT cause, back and back until I am up against the wall of a system so complex and arbitrary I can do nothing but collapse into a pile and weep uncontrollably. My friends should’ve named the little scamp Socrates for the way he chews his adversaries down into a mushy pile of pulp.
“Why are there stars?” queried Sebastian, a slick opening gambit, looking up at the sky.
“The Great Emitter burped them up because he had eaten too many and didn’t want to get sick,” I said. This seemed to satisfy Sebastian, and I breathed a sigh of relief that no follow-up questions came at me. The boy’s attention turned to the moon. He asked me if other planets were jealous of us because we had a moon. I explained that other planets had moons too. In fact, Jupiter, the largest planet, has about 80 moons. It was the wrong thing to say, for now my young interlocutor was annoyed at our own planet’s meager number.
“Probably because of gravity. The bigger you are the more pull you have. Ever played tug of war? The biggest guy pulls the hardest.”
“That’s a lot of moons. Kind of irresponsible,” mused Sebastian.
“Yeah,” I laughed. “Jupiter is like the deadbeat dad of our solar system.”
“Why does it need so many?” said Sebastian.
I considered tacking the other way, into Greek and Roman mythology. Jupiter, or Zeus, after all, was insatiable in his pursuit of female conquests. He would change shape, sneak from Olympus, turn into a mist, shake the sky with thunder, really do anything he could to wrap himself around an innocent damsel. He was kind of like the Dr. Nasser of ancient gods, and so it would stand to reason that he had just short of a hundred tiny satellites around him. I decided against this line of reasoning. It was a conversation Sebastian would have to have with his parents, when the time was right. Instead I simply uttered,
“Why?” said Sebastian.
“You have a lot of toys, right?” I said.
“But you always want more, right?”
“What are the names of his kids?” said Sebastian.
“I only know a few,” I said. “Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, Io.”
“Those are cool names,” said Sebastian. He paused for a second and looked up above him. “What’s our moon called?”
“Umm…” I trailed off. The seconds ticked by. Sebastian stared me down, waiting for an answer, somewhat pleased at my confusion. The kid had put the brain freeze on me. Our moon was simply, The Moon. Right? There had to be a name, though. People name everything. Fungus and algae have names, and those things are slime. Was it one of those obvious and well-known facts that I had, in my day-to-day preoccupations, failed to remember. I was stunned. There had to be some technical title for that obvious chunk of space boulder right in front of us, keeping this crazy ball in relative stability.
“You don’t know!” shouted Sebastian.
“Oh yes I do,” I said, uncertainty in my voice.
“Then what’s it called? What is our moon called?”
“Gluteus Maximus!” I spat, a clever little pivot.
This sent Sebastian into a fit of hysterical enthusiasm. He began running around the party, flapping his arms, and yelling, “I want to go to Gluteus Maximus. I want to go to Gluteus Maximus. Mom, take me to Gluteus Maximus.”
Sometimes it is difficult, in retrospect, to explain a joke, especially to a friend’s tired wife who must tend to her golden issue, as she begins to suspect that I have been filling her son’s head with all sorts of subversive ideas. She grabbed Sebastian up and carried him off down the hallway.
“Time for you to go to bed,” she barked, holding her child, although her cold gaze was pointed directly at me.
Maybe so. In fact, maybe it was I who should’ve been named Socrates, particularly since the famous Greek philosopher was condemned to death for corrupting the youth. Check, check, and check. I walked to the little makeshift bar in the den. A guy standing over the bottles looked over at me.
“What may I pour you?”
“Got any hemlock?”
More Alembics to come…