My Unknown, Yet Apparently No Less Real, Life

Ordinary folks are starting to catch on to what scientists and mobsters have known for decades: the best way to solve a problem is to make it disappear. Hummingbirds fly by
making their wings disappear. Buddy Rich performed drum solos by making his drumsticks disappear. The problem of Antarctica melting will be over when all the ice disappears. Frankie “The Greaseball” Costello avoided a prison sentence by making Jackie “The Nose” disappear, and the problem of sobriety was solved when I made a bottle of Four Roses disappear.
I like to think of myself as a reasonable fellow. No overt homicidal inclinations based on chronic paranoia. No unnerving, vague suspicions of being watched. No subtle twinges of feeling scrutinized. No voices in my head to argue with or shout at. But I have realized it is best if I am not startled. I will lash out to defend life and property. So it went that I had to confront an intruder the other day.
I’m still getting used to my new computer. It is a slick machine that seems to have all the answers. It anticipates my confusion. It is ready for my errors. When it spots a mistake it suggests I take steps to correct it. “Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”

The control bar at the top of my keyboard is a touch-screen. I treat this control pad like I do my own brain, only using like ten percent of its probable potential. If that. Most of the time I ignore it. So I was a little disturbed when I chanced to see a message, from my computer, written to me, in the constantly shifting iconography it displays. I mean, who else would it be for? The computer has to know that nobody else uses it since it only recognizes my fingerprint. It knew what it was doing. I’m convinced of that. The message was both vague and menacing. It said:

I Am The Body

I knew exactly what had happened. An evil spirit had infected my computer and was offering an opening gambit in the fight for my mind and soul. It was already laying claim to my body. It was no coincidence that I had just read a news article about a technician in Corpus Christi (latin for Christ’s body!) who had gotten swallowed up inside an ATM machine. The gadgets are advancing to dominate humans. The war had begun.
I started tapping the touch screen in order to antagonize the demonic creature, when suddenly my computer beeped and a voice asked, “What can I help you with?”
It was Siri, the moll, and she had startled me. I screamed an expletive and was reprimanded for my use of foul language by her calm voice.

“Mark, please, your language,” she said.

“That’s it, bitch, you don’t come into my house and tell me my business!” I shouted, with the idiosyncratic finger-wag and head-bob of an enraged Jerry Springer guest who has just learned her man is two-timing her. Siri was ready for me. She dropped an avalanche of questions at me, figuring it best to confuse me into submission.
“Some things you can ask me? Text Brian I’m on my way. Find the best nail salon. When is the sunrise in Paris? Go to my photos from last night. When is my wife’s birthday? Should I bring an umbrella.”
First of all, I thought, who the fuck is Brian? Second, I get all my nails from Ace Hardware. I don’t need a fancy salon. I already know when the sun rises in Paris. Just like everywhere else it rises in the morning. I didn’t take any photos last night. I’m not married so how can my wife have a birthday. I don’t even know what she looks like or who she is. I don’t own an umbrella, only a collection of ornate parasols that I use on my walks during afternoons under the hot Georgia sun.

I was gobsmacked. I dared not utter a word for fear Siri would show me all of the elements of my life that were a mystery to me; the possibilities, the fantastical alternatives I was missing, my best friend Brian, my beautiful wife “Whomeva,” the pictures from my forgotten party, the rainy seascape that I stand out in front of to contemplate with my umbrella.
Instead I threw my computer out the window. It disappeared into some bushes.
Problem solved.
More Alembics to come.
(Author’s note: The author is fully aware that he has pilfered a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” in the above essay, and would kindly share any profits from said essay with the E.A. Poe literary estate or Viking Penguin LLC, the profits of which are $0.00, of which any copyright holder or subsidiary thereof is more than welcome to 15%-100% of listed value. Thank you.)

Cold Wars

I live in a neighborhood that is usually described as eclectic, which basically means any resident of our little grid community can be as weird as they choose, as haphazard as they choose, and as nutty as they choose provided we assign them terms like eclectic and eccentric in order to keep the property values stable. Nobody wants to live next to the crazy person or the scatterbrain but if they live next to the eccentric that chooses from a diverse set of design influences then it is somehow justified, condoned, looked upon with a mysterious fascination, like a million dollar modern art piece made from the feces of a bonobo monkey.

So it is not uncommon to see things like hula hoops hanging from tree limbs, a collection of ornate weather vanes on a roof, the skeleton of a large pig mounted on its hind legs dressed in a three-piece suit in the middle of a meticulously manicured lawn, Gort the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still, or, most recently, an ice cream truck. I’m so used to bizarre decor while on my morning walks that I thought the ice cream truck was just another piece of strange expression until I ran into my neighbor who told me that he had gotten a summer job as an ice cream man. He said it was great. The benefits were endless. He was doing his part to fight global warming, which I thought was a bit misguided, and he was worshipped by children, which I thought was a bit creepy. There were downsides though, he said. The first was the plague of the pre-recorded jingle the truck blared over and over again while my neighbor drove his route. It had infected his head. He heard it everywhere, day and night. On the television. On the radio. In the walls. In his dreams. I could imagine him stalking his house at all hours, like some deranged Edgar Allan Poe character, ripping up the floorboards to find the ghostly music box that would not give him a minute’s peace. The other slight problem was the fierce competition among ice cream vendors.   

Summers in Georgia are hot. Many a southern author has used the weight of this oppressive warmth for the backdrop of countless stories. Eudora Welty. Flannery O’Connor. Tennessee Williams. Harry Crews. The heat is a thing that lingers and presses in, like atmospheric opium, doping the crowds into soporific languor and making them irritable. So it was no small stroke of good fortune that I was invited to my neighbor’s place for some ice cream. I was hesitant at first, not wanting to pillage his livelihood. Any shrewd drug dealer knows it is bad business to “smoke up” the inventory, but my neighbor assured me he had plenty, it was an accepted perk, and to choose whatever I wanted, and “Can you hear that fucking music, or is it just me?” I helped myself to an ice cream sandwich and told him I couldn’t hear anything. He told me to listen as he consumed a bomb pop like it was a rather lewd sex act, encouraging me to hear the icy notes hanging somewhere in the rafters of his house. “It sounds a bit like pop goes the weasel,” he said. I asked as to whether he could maybe change the music that the ice cream truck played. He said no can do. It is universally recognized as the soundtrack of the ice cream man. To play nothing is to pass through neighborhoods unnoticed. To play regular music is to be misunderstood as any old douchebag cruising slow with his radio blasting.

It was an enjoyable afternoon. The ice cream was served cold and delicious. There had been bad news of late. News seems to be worse in an election year, said my neighbor. Tragedy is used as ammunition, he said, and if there is one thing we don’t need any more of it is ammunition. We have plenty already. I agreed. Plus he was getting nervous about his own situation, he said, shoveling an Italian ice over lips, teeth and tongue stained an electrified purple. As the summer was heating up so was the competition among rival ice cream trucks for the good neighborhoods. He had received threats. Stay away from here and stay away from there. I told him to be careful and went to leave through the front door when I noticed something on his doorstep, wrapped in newspaper. We unfolded it. There was a solitary ice cream cone melting in the hot sun. My neighbor looked down and gulped. The message was clear, he said. Luke O’Brozzy sleeps with the ice pops. I asked who Luke O’Brozzy was? My neighbor said he was another ice cream truck driver who pushed his luck too far by driving through rival territories. A low level casualty in a rich man’s dessert war. They had made an example of him.

“What are you going to do?” I said.

“Evolve or die,” he said and jumped into his truck.

I went back to my house. In any capitalist enterprise, be it street serenaders, mimes, pail drummers, hippie buskers or Afghani tombstone washers, it is important to control the turf. Control of the turf means control of the money. The world is his, who has money to go over it, says Ralph Waldo Emerson. But there were neighborhoods in Boston I’m sure that even Emerson wouldn’t go near. His famous line of traveling is a fool’s paradise was probably scribbled down hastily after having his ass handed to him by a couple of Southies for lingering a little too long in the Irish projects. A bloody nose and two black eyes will make any geek look to nature in its splendor as the only place a man can truly be free.

I didn’t see my neighbor for a few days. The ice cream truck was nowhere to be found. Eventually he knocked on my door with a look of terror in his eyes as he started throwing boxes of ice cream into my house.

“Just take it all,” he said, his voice quavering. “I’m leaving town. I’d rather run dope. At least those guys have a code of ethics. These ice cream guys, it’s like sitting in that refrigerated truck freezes your heart. They’re brutal. Watch yourself and if anyone asks, you never met me.”

A solution in one area may engender problems in another. As I sit here surrounded by my newfound ice cream I may have to contend with a sudden onset of obesity. The world is merciless. There is no recourse. I put on a recording of William S. Burroughs singing that line from The Black Rider.

“When it gets too hot for comfort and you can’t get an ice cream cone, taint no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones.”

(This entry is dedicated to John Miller, who I’m going to miss for all the great reasons, and to Michael Herr, author nonpareil.)

More Alembics to come.