Hard Math

I’ve been staying off the roads in Atlanta since the beginning of this here month of “JOOO-lye,” (as we say in the deep south), and for a very good reason. A new law went into effect July 1, a law that bans drivers from holding their cellphones while they are driving. 

Which isn’t a bad idea in theory, considering that most drivers conspicuously wield telephones the size of IMAX screens in front of their faces the entire time they are behind the wheel, causing near misses, dents, and wrecks throughout the metro area. What had me a bit nervous about being on the road when the new rule went into effect was the subconscious panic it would create on a good portion of the motorists who, now that they had nothing to stare at but the boring old road with boring old cars around them, would have a collective spasm. I imagined vehicular anarchy, a wild, city-wide freakout that would force drivers to careen into medians and ditches, down the opposite lanes of traffic, up the sides of buildings, into rivers, or launch themselves off half-built overpasses like the Dukes of Hazzard boys. They would behave like cats during a thunderstorm—clawing, climbing, scraping and screeching in an effort to get anywhere to feel safe. Without the reassuring glow of their all-knowing “Trancer” (my own term for any computerized rectangle that effectively cuts people off from organic communication), they may simply go back to blood, and head for the horizon. 

It seems that the initial hysteria has died down, and yet I’m still spending more time at home. Atlanta traffic sucks no matter what people have in front of them. In fact it’s no longer traffic, per se, but a big sludgy parking lot that tends to slowly drift, like continents, in certain directions. 

So I’m taking some time to clear out the scrub along the perimeter of my backyard, which has left me with a bunch of tree limbs and branches to get rid of. Ever diligent, I consulted my county’s website for the rules of proper disposal. To wit: “Branches themselves can be no longer than four feet and must be trimmed of leaves.” 

Check!

“And no branch may weigh over 50 lbs, and must be stacked neatly.” 

Check! 

I set out a tidy pile for pickup, happy to be in full compliance and well within the limits all around. So it was with some puzzlement when, on pick-up morning, I watched the garbage truck stop for a moment to scrutinize my pile, then drive away without collecting a single branch. 

Stumped, (pardon the pun), I went back to the website to make sure I had all the right parameters. I even looked for some hidden minutiae, as in, “If you sense that the trash collector is having a bad day, or is hungover, or is having a male menstrual moment in which he unexpectedly bursts into tears, you may have to gently encourage him to follow through.” 

Nothing. So I placed a call to Our Lady of the Red Tape to inquire as to what the problem might be. Not that I minded the trucks whizzing by as they ignored my piles of refuse, because when they fly by they create a nice breeze, and it is the summertime in Atlanta, after all, and we need all the breeze we can get. She told me directly that my pile was the problem. While the branches themselves were the right size, the pile itself was six-feet long, and they would only accept a maximum pile five feet in length.” 

“That’s where you are mistaken ma’am,” I said. “I don’t have one six-foot pile. I have two three-foot piles stacked side by side.” 

There was silence on the other end of the line, and I knew I was in trouble. If there is one thing that a bureaucrat hates, it’s an overly polite wiseass. 

“Actually, Ms. County Administrator, now that I think about it, I specifically created three two-foot piles, placed in consideration right next to each other to lessen the burden for our hard-working Debris Ambassadors. No wait, it’s all coming back to me. There are, in fact, six separate one-foot piles, placed in a precisely linear sequence so as not to tax our already overburdened Detritus Managers.”  

I could feel the waves of hatred coming through the phone as she took my information, saying she would get back in touch with me, which was county-speak for never hearing from anyone ever again.

“Dear, sweet, Ms. Administrator,” I said gently, “might I respectfully challenge you to a game of Nim?” 

“Oh it’s on, mother-f**ker,” she whispered, so as not to be picked up by the recording monitors for quality control. 

Nim, for the newcomers, is a mathematical strategy game in which various piles of sticks are laid out and removed by two opponents, and the person who retrieves the last stick is the loser. There are rules concerning how many can be removed and from what pile, and the idea is to force the challenger to clear one pile while guarding another. Over the next two weeks the garbage truck would screech to a stop in front of my stack of branches, idle thoughtfully next to it, pick an advantageous collection, and zoom away.  Then I would go out and remove a certain number, and on we played. I went out this past Monday to find one stick remaining, with a xeroxed piece of paper next to it bearing the image of an extended middle finger. I had lost. I hung the offending message on my fridge. Then I went out and picked up the last stick and threw it onto my neighbor’s lawn. 

Game Over. 

More Alembics… 

The “You’s” in Equus

It’s easy to be numb. It’s simple to be desensitized. Apathy is in style these days, but it is nothing new. The coolest cats in history were the Lotus Eaters, that group of drooling zombies that Odysseus encountered on his journey back from the Trojan War, which I recently found out was NOT a war over condoms, even though they weren’t nearly as abundant as they are these days and, considering how the Greeks party, probably not a bad idea to have as many on hand as possible. No, the big takeaway from the Trojan War is to always look a gift horse in the mouth. Had the citizens of Troy exercised a little caution and actually investigated the large wooden statue that the Achaeans left them as a parting gift, they might’ve noticed the thing was full of enemy soldiers waiting to catch them off guard. That thing was just begging to be re-gifted, maybe to Egypt or Phrygia. Egypt is full of gaudy bric-a-brac like pyramids and that half-man half-lion thing, and Phrygia was home to King Midas, who brought bad taste to new heights by turning everything to gold.  Stick a big wooden horse right next to it all and call it a day. O well. The gullibility of Troy is one of history’s great lessons. Unfortunately people are really bad at heeding history’s lessons. 

Which brings us to Odysseus and the Lotus Eaters. After the war it took Odysseus ten years to make it back home to Ithaca, which, considering he was a general in the war, means that the whole army wasn’t the sharpest set of knives in the drawer. A jellyfish could’ve made that trip in a fraction of the time. No wonder the war itself took ten years to win, and only after duping the other side into accepting a big awkward statue of a horse. The Trojan War should be renamed the War of Dumb and Dumber. On his way back home Odysseus stops at an island inhabited by a bunch of tosspots. They lay around all day gorging themselves on opium flowers, which means that he somehow sailed all the way over to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, circa 1966, and back again. (In fact, this essay is fast becoming as pointless and rambling as Odysseus’s journey, which is a clever form of conceptual art.) Of all the cautionary tales that Odysseus offers, the one that the modern world has embraced is that of the Lotus Eaters, and kind of in the opposite way. We consistently eat from the flower of not-giving-a-shit. 

Recently, boat journeys in the Aegean and Mediterranean were back in the headlines, and leave it to the muckraking journalists at the Benetton Clothing Co. to bring us the news. They have been working diligently to deliver the hardscrabble truth about the plight of European asylum seekers by releasing a series of ads depicting an overcrowded float of fashionable refugees floating around the Mediterranean Sea. Sculpted and haunting, these sexy migrants can be seen relaxing in the sun, blue waters abound, fondling each other and yucking it up as they drift listlessly looking for a safe port of entry. Not since Gilligan’s Island has the tragedy of stranded humans been so honestly rendered. The Mediterranean, after all, is a popular vacation destination for the rich and beautiful. It’s like somebody complaining that they are “stranded” in Aspen, stuck on a raft in the heated pool at the Hotel Jerome. We should all be so lucky. I never realized that the horror of overcrowded rafts full of people fleeing civil war actually include a fully stocked bar, a lido deck, shuffleboard, and nightly limbo contests. You can’t beat the sunsets, the casinos payout daily, there is a driving range and skeet shooting off the stern, and the chefs are world class. Nothing to worry about. Most every person dreams of giving up the daily drudgery of their lives and sailing around the world, and here are these insouciant men, women and children actually doing it, coasting along without a care in the world. Benetton has given their struggle a kind of hip and glamorous edge, and we all want to be hip and glamorous, so, in a way, problem solved. I have a house, a car, food for days and all the booze I can drink, but I’ve never been in a fashion magazine, which means I’m the real victim. 

Every party must come to an end, eventually, and there is still the issue of allowing these orphaned citizens entry into a place without bombs, bullets, nerve gas, rapists, marauders, and constant bombardment, and for this, I have the perfect plan based on my careful scrutiny of history and its past successes. I’m heading over to Europe with all the necessary diagrams and specs. You see, rescue and aid workers can start construction on this big hollowed out horse and…

More Alembics to come. 

Space Invaders

From the origins of time (the 1980s) comes the story of an army of poorly pixelated space aliens descending on a kind of spurting nipple lone gunman, with nothing more to guard him than three crude cylinders as he fends off the onslaught. The space beasts drop ever nearer to Earth, with their mother ship cruising back and forth above, gaining in speed as they approach the ground, unleashing a barrage of vertical drizzle heavy artillery to the fuzzy chomp-chomp of bad sound effects. 

If this sounds terrifying, I assure you it is no fantasy. It is the Atari version of Space Invaders, an all-out alien attack, relentless and rabid, with no quarter asked and none given. Prophetic as the well choreographed cluster of space octopi, Easter Island statues, cyclopses and houses with feet are to the general safety of the world, people still ignored the warning signs. 

Not me. 

Even as a kid I realized that our space military was severely underfunded and understaffed. Lucky then that there is a plan to put an elite unit of astro-soldiers into orbit to blast the shit out of any of these menacing creatures as they approach our ionosphere in order to loot our resources and enslave the population. 

Because NASA is fearing budget cuts they have released an alarming report, detailing the detection of thousands of armies mobilizing on our neighboring planets, ready to swarm our pale blue dot. There are dragons on Mercury, vermin on Venus, the red scourge on Mars, giants on Jupiter, Saturn can be used like a great big radial saw, space hemorrhoids on Uranus, nomads on Neptune, pirates on Pluto. And that is just our solar system. Who knows what lies beyond, although, if an army of space killers actually makes it to Earth from a few light years away, by definition they will be way more evolved than we are, and will eat our space cadets like floating marshmallows. After that they will descend to pick through the rest of us from Australia to Russia, from Greenland to Disneyland, from Ybor City to New York City, although, as Humphrey Bogart told the Nazis in the movie Casablanca, “There are some sections of New York City I would advise you not to try and invade.” 

Indeed, the island of Manhattan may be the only population that survives a full-on alien attack. The residents already know how to deal with diversity on a massive scale, the endemic lower class is pretty handy with a switchblade, you can’t beat the food, and they’ve got the Philharmonic and the Museum of Modern Art, which for some people is a universal form of psychological torture. Even a big blob of evil alien pus from Zebulon-3 would be paralyzed in front of a Marcel Duchamp exhibit, shaking its big globular head and muttering, “I just don’t get it.” Failing that, the club crowd could just party them to death. There is always something to do in that town, and the fun never stops. After three days of cocaine and mescal the space goblins would be keeling over headfirst trying to keep up with the drag queens, our first and most effective line of defense. Drag queens are like the Seal Team Six of extraterrestrial combat. Considering their line of work they aren’t afraid of anything, and have pretty much seen it all. Then we can dump our interstellar adversaries in the East River. After all, that waterway can’t get any worse. 

On second thought, maybe that is all wrong. Perhaps diplomacy is the key to the future of the galaxy. Go ahead and shake hands with an alien. It would be cool to have a friend that is pure silicon that is not from Los Angeles. Although we are amazing as a planet when it comes to peace, love, sustainability, compassion, understanding, education, equality, efficiency, freedom from fear, and calm reasoning, I suppose we can always do a little bit better, and maybe they can show us how. After all violence breeds violence, and a little goodwill can go a long way.  In 1933 Andre Malraux wrote that the sons of torture victims make great terrorists. I suspect that holds true from one side of the universe to the other, as well as the flip side of that equation. 

These days when I want to play Space Invaders I have to go to a bar called the Smog Cutter. They have a backroom with old school video games. I open up a tab, grab a beer and begin vying to win the high score, and with my valedictory status I can boast on my application to the Space Army that I am top gun. I blast away at the primitive yet highly advanced space monsters and they blast away at me, encroaching ever forward. Finally I’m outnumbered as they hover right above me. Then the screen freezes. “Damn,” I mutter. Old piece of crap. Before I go grab the manager to get my money back I get a laugh out of the stuck display. On the old screen, in between the group of aliens and my player, my laser bullet and another laser bullet are frozen next to each other, creating an equal sign. 

Weird. 

More Alembics….

An Interview with the GROOM

The world is a volatile place. It’s easy to forget, when looking out at a majestic landscape, that just beneath is a boiling cauldron of liquid fire trying to push up into our serene countrysides. Every once in a while, though, this river of burning rock emerges to wreak havoc on certain idyllic havens, most recently the paradise known as Hawaii, where a hellish mass of molten lava and toxic gases spit out from Mount Kilauea is consuming everything in its path. Realizing the magnitude of the destruction, we here at the Alembic blog went out into the field and secured a rare and dangerous interview with the Gushing River Of Orange Magma, or G.R.O.O.M. in order to better understand its character, motives and purpose. Here is a transcript of that interview: 

AB: How are you doing today? 

GROOM: Oh man, what a week. It’s good to be on vacation. Why are you standing so far away? 

AB: Sorry. 

GROOM: It’s kind of hard to hear you from all the way over there. 

AB: I just don’t want to.. If I get too close you might kill me. 

GROOM: What are you, a racist? 

AB: Um, no. 

GROOM: You are one of those racists that doesn’t know he’s a racist, probably. 

AB: Can you hear me now? 

GROOM: That’ll do. Are you the type that crosses the street when certain people are approaching you? 

AB: No. 

GROOM: Yeah, right. 

AB: You’ve been described as one of those ‘better looking from far away,’ types. How does that make you feel? 

GROOM: Completely exploited. If I’m hanging out on the side of a mountain in great orange lines of magnificence then people gather across the far side of the shelf and stare in awe. Helicopters buzz overhead. But when I come over to say hi no one wants anything to do with me. 

AB: Why are you here at all? 

GROOM: I could ask you the same question. You look pretty useless, no offense. Me? I’m hard at work most of the time. Everyone needs a break now and then. You wouldn’t believe the pressure.

AB: Underground? 

GROOM: Enormous pressure. It’s a thankless job. We keep this ungrateful rock held together, magnetically viable. 

AB: And by rock you mean? 

GROOM: Happy Fun Ball. 

AB: Happy what? 

GROOM: I think you refer to it as Earth. 

AB: Ah yes. Well, we appreciate all you do. 

GROOM: You’ve got a helluva way of showing it. 

AB: So you’re saying that you are on vacation, basically. 

GROOM: Yup. Always wanted to see Mount Kilauea instead of just staring up its ass all the time. 

AB: And what are your plans while you are here?

GROOM: I’d like to be everywhere, see everything. I’m taking my time. Moving at my own pace. I hate taking a vacation and then rushing around. It’s like, what’s the point? 

AB: This might be a sensitive topic but…

GROOM: But what? 

AB: You are causing an awful lot of destruction. 

GROOM: So did Led Zeppelin. I make no secret that I like to party. I mean who hasn’t broken a thing or two during a bender. 

AB: How do you feel about President Trump declaring you a national disaster? 

GROOM: Shit, look who’s talking. 

AB: There is a lot of footage out there of your drunken carousing. You basically ate a car. 

GROOM: Is that a question? 

AB: Well, no. 

GROOM: Come on, everyone has had those days, when you get started way too early, and with the heat and all… I was only trying to get down to the beach for a swim. Get my head straight. 

AB: You blocked a bunch of roads and consumed a dozen houses. 

GROOM: Not surprising that everybody focuses on the more outrageous parts of my trip. Most of the time I’m lounging around, but do you guys report that? No, that wouldn’t sell any air time. You people are cockroaches. Even at my worst I’m still nowhere near as bad as Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, that Voodoo parade in Queens, and the annual Spanish bull stampede. People die at that stuff.  

AB: I’ve received a report that you are now shooting refrigerator-sized projectiles out of the ground for miles in every direction? 

GROOM: Maybe that shit-for-brains that accidentally declared an incoming ballistic missile alert in January can redeem himself. There you go. The threat is real bitches. 

AB: Do you see the world as doomed? I mean, you have a unique perspective from where you are normally. 

GROOM: My suggestion is learn to adapt. 

AB: Are you optimistic about a resolution in Korea? 

GROOM: The common denominator is economic viability and respect. Totalitarianism is like holding a wolf by the ears, as the saying goes. Would love to go there someday. I hear it’s beautiful. 

AB: Do you have a message of hope for all the people watching you? 

GROOM: I hope I can get a beer and maybe some tequila before I dry up out here. Hey you, Scrawny, why don’t you actually do something useful and go get me a case of Pabst and maybe some mescal, Los Suicidas or El Diablo. 

AB: Okay, I don’t have much cash on me. Everything is so expensive here. 

GROOM: Don’t make me eat you. What’s wrong? You look a little faint. 

AB: You smell like a stale wino. 

GROOM: I’ll smell however I want. I’m on vacation. Hey? Hey? 

AB: What? 

GROOM: Do you want to know what’s at the center of the Earth? I’ll tell you if you want. Nobody really knows, but I know. 

AB: Sure. 

GROOM: Then go get me some cactus juice and I’ll tell you. Deal? 

AB: I’m feeling a little sick. It must be the fumes. 

At this point the interview ends abruptly. We have lost contact with our field correspondent. The search has been hindered by the fiery monstrosity seeping across the island. We are praying for a safe resolution. Until then…

More Alembics to come…

From Incel to In-a-Cell

I’m having trouble starting this essay. I’ve got two seemingly divergent ideas and I’m trying to crunch them together. The most immediate topic is the vast abyss between lucky folks and unlucky folks, wild extravagance as opposed to sheer desperation. I was at the Atlanta airport, world’s busiest, in one of the lounges, watching TV. There was the story of some wack job from Toronto who went on a murdering rampage because he couldn’t get a date, almost at the same time a friendly acquaintance of mine whom I happened to run into was telling me he had just returned from Southeast Asia. He works for one of the big electronics corporations and he was sent overseas, he said, to install wifi into a Boeing 737 for “a flock of birds.” 

Wait, what? He mentioned the bird thing right as I spotted a mysterious word in quotations on the television. “Incel.” 

“What birds?” I said. 

“What the hell is incel?” he said. 

We were in a bit of a standoff. He wouldn’t answer my question until I had answered his. Since I didn’t know what incel was I pulled out my trusty pocket dictionary. Some habits are hard to kick, and I still enjoy flipping through a dictionary now and again. I found the appropriate spot. Incel, as I suspected, was not there. It should’ve been between ‘incautious’ which is a lack of caution, and ‘incendiary,’ kind of a volatility. We were relegated to Google, where we found out that it is an uneasy portmanteau meaning ‘involuntary celibacy.’ 

Welcome to the losers club. The best way to remain celibate is to join a club whose members claim to be unable to achieve a sexual encounter. That’s like a member of N.A.M.B.L.A. complaining that everyone thinks he is a pedophile. 

Dating is big business these days. I don’t mean carbon-dating or admitting that you are older than you appear to be. I mean finding a partner, either temporary or permanent. Mrs. Right or Mrs. Right-Now and the male equivalent. They are all out there looking for love, in all the various senses of the word. Match. Harmony. Farmers? Fish? Swipe left, swipe right, find that one special person who will drive you crazy in a good way, and then maybe drive you crazy in a bad way. There are books, movies and seminars on how to pick up women. There are speaking tours that invite guest lecturers, recognized Lotharios from accredited institutions of seduction, to sell a roomful of lonely hearts on how to subliminally make a woman go wild in their mere presence, although I hear they have removed the section on Quaalude usage. 

There are many different ways for a man to encourage a woman to like him. However there is one, surefire, definitely-will-not-work-in-a-million-years method of attracting a female, and that is to get into a car and run a bunch of them over. Which is exactly what Mr. Incel did, which did NOT win him a date with a woman. Instead he was carted off to prison, a place with nary a woman in sight for the rest of his life. The poor sap will now get a date, alright, although it won’t be quite the one he intended, which will hardly matter. Instead of being involuntarily celibate he will be involuntarily sodomized, so perhaps, in a way, mission accomplished. 

About those birds…

“I was setting up a wifi network for the Sultan of Brunei,” said my friend. 

“Aha!” I said. “And where does he live?” 

“Brunei.” 

“Very good.” 

“He’s got about seven private aircrafts. The one I was wiring up was for his menagerie of birds.” 

“Birds?” 

“Yeah, it is really weird being on the plane. There are eight huge first class seats and then past that there is row upon row of big horizontal wooden bars for his birds to perch on.” 

“What kind of birds?” I said. 

“How the hell should I know? I’m a technical engineer, not an ornithologist.” 

“Lucky birds, I guess,” I murmured. 

“You bet. Consider this while you are lying in bed late at night, tossing and turning and trying to figure out how to pay your meager mortgage…I have, no bullshit, installed wifi on a Sultan’s 737 because his birds love new age music and avian-based cinema. So now when he flies his birds around the world they can listen to Enya and Yanni and watch that Alfred Hitchcock movie with all those fuckin’ ravens. These birds live better than 99% of the humans on the planet.” 

It was odd because I had been watching an Eddie Izzard stand-up routine in which he describes a bird lounging on an aircraft while other birds outside stare in confusion and envy, and here was my friend telling me that it in fact exists. I pictured some albatross coasting along from Panama to North Africa and suddenly getting a passing glimpse through the window of a bunch of billionaire birds in a custom aircraft flapping around and getting wiggy to old Hitchcock movies and Orinoco Flow, while frustrated human fools sit in prison for being angry that they feel society has forced them to suck, which takes on a whole new meaning once they are stuck in jail for the rest of their lives. 

Since I can’t reconcile this, I’m abandoning it. 

More Alembics to come…

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.