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.

“Dulcinea”

The Juliet Club…Bad fictional advisors… Pachuco and Dulcinea..

There is an office in Verona, Italy, known as the Juliet Club. It is staffed by a team of Italian women–volunteers–who answer letters of heartbreak addressed from all over the world to Juliet Capulet, the doom struck heroine of “Romeo and Juliet” fame. At first I was taken with the romantic sensibility of the whole thing, but then I remembered that in Shakespeare’s famous play Juliet commits suicide by running herself through with a dagger after finding Romeo dead from poison, which probably ranks high on the list of the worst possible outcomes for people in love. I tried to put that fact aside lest people accuse me of being callous, skeptical or even worse, a grouch.

I was sitting on the deck of a local cantina, drinking my margarita, watching the frothy liquid go from the lip of the glass, down to the tropic of cancer, to the equator, further to the tropic of capricorn, and finally to the south pole at which time the waiter facilitated my trip back up to the arctic, so to speak, by refilling my glass. I began to wonder. I was curious as to how the women in the Juliet Club office who answer these letters from all over the world can articulate useful advice on love and romance while still maintaining the style, eloquence and fury of one of the most famous characters in literary history. Are they speaking as the ghost of Juliet (she’s dead, theoretically) at thirteen, or at four hundred years old, which is just about how old she would be now. If I were answering the letter I know my advice would be different now, in my thirties, than when I was thirteen, not to mention four centuries of watching the agony, the ecstasy, madness, fervor and ultimate demise of generations of lovesick wanderers. I would suppose that after almost half a millennium to think about it, “Juliet” may be a little wiser and a little less impetuous. But then again, maybe not. Maybe, true to form, all her correspondence has to have the same suggestion as kind of a rigid fatalism. I’ve read “Romeo and Juliet” a couple of times in my life, and damn if it always ends the same way.

“Dear Lonely in San Antonio. Yes I’ve received your letter, and thank you. It does seem a shame that Rick is taking Anne to the prom instead of you. Might I suggest you do what I did. Get you a dagger and cut a big hole in your chest. That will show everybody. Say something fancy before you do it though. That is what worked for me.”

“Dear Lachrymose in London. What happens when you come home from work early and find your bloke dressed in all your frilly girly things? Why you run yourself through with a dagger is what you do. Cheerio.”

“Dear Downcast in Dublin. I don’t care what the ghost of St. Patrick asks your girlfriend to do to him in the name of martyrdom. Some things are just too filthy. And by the way, if he’s playing darts and drinking a pint at the pub, it’s probably not St. Patrick. Best to just get a dagger and run yourself through, though, just to say you considered all possibilities.”

The lesson here, I decided, is that some fictional characters, although they mean well, may just be the wrong folks to ask for advice on love and relationships. Desperate fictional characters are usually too obsessed and too tortured, unable to compromise, in it for the reckless thrill of it all. I cite from a few classics books…

“Greetings Frederick Clegg. Just writing because I wanted to ask your opinion on something. I have a tremendous infatuation with a woman from my neighborhood. Do you think it would be odd to kidnap and imprison her, to “collect” her, so to speak, and try to encourage her to love me through a system of rewards and punishments. Oh. Oh you have. Same thing. How did it work out? Tried to get you with an axe, eh? Well if at first you don’t succeed…”

“Hey Mr. Humbert Humbert, do you think it is okay to flee with a twelve-year-old Lolita and go across country, having your way with her every chance you get after inadvertently causing the death of her mother?”

“Hello there, Mr. Clyde Griffiths, do you think it wise to murder my wife in order to gain a more prestigious place in society? She’s not a very good swimmer and… oh, oh really? In a boat on Big Bittern Lake? Accidental, eh? Got caught, huh? An American Tragedy, indeed.”

I’m feeling the pinch of the old philosophical truism that when someone seeks out advice, depending on whom they ask, they’ve already set in motion the answer they are eager to get. If someone asks Frederick Clegg whether it is reasonable to collect a woman like a butterfly, of course he is going to say yes. Humbert Humbert will insist there is no other way but to take the girl-child. Likewise Clyde Griffiths will draw a detailed map to the big fat lake where the unlucky wife gets to swallow a lungful of murky water.

I was putting myself in a weird mood with this line of thought and so decided it was best to move along. In my experience tequila only exacerbates. It never really solves. On my way home I cut through a bohemian neighborhood of Atlanta called Little Five Points. I passed a grungy little shop that was advertising two mangy, worn out tee-shirts for the price of one. Basically I had to buy one, and I could choose another of equal or greater manginess, and that one was free. I’ve always been a fan of the classic tee-shirt. For starters, they are extremely comfortable. Second, you can get in touch with some great American obscurity. Whether it is Bucky Beaver from the Ipana toothpaste commercials or a flaky old photo of Harry Dean Stanton, you’re sporting a very peculiar history. Little did I know I was about to stumble upon a weird scene, which is not really unusual for Little Five Points. The situation was not without its share of confusion, and I found myself a bit wiser after it was all over.

It all started as I was approaching the store. I spied an old acquaintance of mine, let’s call him Pachuco, loitering off at the side of the building, looking like his usual shifty self. He seemed nervous. He waved me over.

“Hey Chuco,” I said. “You’re looking particularly unkempt today.”

“Listen,” he whispered, getting right to it. “Do me a favor and go into the shop and see if Dulcinea is working.”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“She’s super beautiful, plays in a band and she is usually back by the socks and belts and stuff.”

“How useless of a description,” I said. “What color hair does she have?”

“She changes it depending on her mood.”

“Height?”

“Straight up or slouching?”

“Forget it. What do I do when I find her?”

“Tell her you are interested in buying her Hammond B3 organ with working Leslie amplifier. Like I said, she is an artist. Please. If you don’t help me I’m going to have to write a letter to the Juliet Club. And you know what they will tell me to do.”

It seemed simple enough. A total pain in the ass, but relatively simple in its design. I went into the store. Dulcinea, by the way, is not the girl’s name. I use it only because Dulcinea was, or is, the name of Don Quixote’s object of affection from the Miguel Cervantes classic, and whose description varied significantly depending on whether starry-eyed Don Quixote was describing her, or the more grounded Sancho Panza. The former painted her as beauty incarnate, a thousand points of artistic inspiration manifest in the feminine form, unparalleled with anything before or since. I don’t recall Sancho Panza’s exact description of her, but I think he mentions she’s got a good bit of hair on her chest for her gender, or any other for that matter. She’s got a neck like a turkey. She can arm-wrestle even the wildest drunk and flip him ass over teakettle, and she has got a voice like a foghorn that shakes the roofs of the whole village when she calls her fourteen children in from the field.

I walked into the tee-shirt shop, trying to resolve my dual purpose of finding a few decent old, coming-apart-in-your-fingers shirts, and finding the nebulous Dulcinea and inquiring about the Hammond, at which point I would say thanks but no thanks and be on my way, done with my obligation. But everything went wall-eyed. I could immediately feel a tension in the air. There was hostility. Two women were standing on opposite sides of the store, staring each other down. None were super beautiful, kind of frumpy and frumpier, but I figured one of them had to be Dulcinea. I tried to be casual, just flipping through a couple of racks, when one girl asked if I could come back in five minutes.

“We’re having a thing,” she explained.

“Actually,” I said, “I’m looking for Dulcinea. I hear she is selling an old Hammond and that it has a working Leslie that comes with it. I might be interested.”

One girl, less frumpy, stepped forward, but the other stopped her. “You stay here,” she said, after a moment of calculation. “I’ll show him.”

More frumpy led me out the back door to a garage. When she stepped out the back door into the sunlight she paused, sniffing the air. I walked outside and caught a fleeting glimpse of Pachuco peering around the side of the building. He was gone in a flash. The girl yanked up the garage door and led me into the storage area where the huge musical instrument sat in a big room full of dusty junk. The thing was enormous. Even if I wanted it I would have no idea how to move it. My dowdy companion started giving me a technical rundown, the kind that completely loses a person unfamiliar with the terms. Rotors and stops and pedals that do this and buttons that do that. But she was jumpy. Her eyes darted. She must’ve sensed I was some type of impostor, because she suddenly stood bolt upright and ran out of the garage and back into the store. I followed. The store was empty. The other girl was gone. My guide to the Hammond stormed out the front door, and, being unable to resist, I followed. What ensued was a snarling scene of mad rage as the girl stood on the sidewalk, watching the other girl get driven off by Pachuco on the back of his motorcycle. A geyser of invective drifted in every direction, like verbal death right then and there. Deciding it was the wrong time to inquire about any good tee-shirts, I silently made my exit, thinking that once the woman got it in her mind to figure my possible complicity, I would be in big trouble.

Back home I pondered. I considered what I would say if I had been a volunteer at the Juliet Club and had received a letter from the angry girl from the tee-shirt store outlining her love triangle, and devious behavior, and jealousy, and feeling unworthy in your own skin, and all the other crap that goes with it.

“Dear Lit Up in Little Five. This is Juliet Capulet. Thank you for your letter. First off, I was wrong about the dagger thing. I was young. Hasty. I overreacted. Grief, sadness and pain are all uncomfortable. Try to avoid them. But these emotions are the counterbalance to great joy, and if you possess the capacity for sadness, rest assured the possibility for great joy is there too. Keep your head up, and be on the lookout, for consciousness is the possibility of possibility. The agent of your bliss is out there. And by the way, if you find any good tee-shirts with a roller disco theme can you put them off to the side for me. Arrivederci.”

More Alembics to come.