A Diary of the Plague, from Japan

March 25, 2020: 

When 2020 started, it was all about Bernie and Elizabeth and the gay mayor from Indiana taking down the Big Orange. That’s over now. Now it’s about Joe Biden at the end of all things, and not in that order. We are all in a Camus novel. Yes, that one.

I have been fascinated with the numbers of the dead. I remember obsessing on the 2006 Indonesian tsunami: 50,000 dead, then 100,000, then 200,000. It must be a human impulse, the thing that draws your eyes to an accident as you drive by. Ancient thousands cheered the gladiators and marveled at the blood on the Coliseum floor. Well into the 18thcentury, huge crowds in Europe gathered to see a man or woman burned or dismembered. Is it because (as Hamlet said holding up Yorick’s skull) “to this we must come?” Confession: there is in me a perverse desire to see my country punished, crazy on the face of it. Should I attribute this to my Jewish heritage, whose God was wont to curse Israel for its sins? Now a tsunami of infection breaks over America. It elected a sociopath as president, it invaded Iraq, where hundreds of thousands died. Even before that, Madeline Albright described the sanction-caused deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children as “a price (she) was willing to pay.” White folk have always been bulls in the china shop of the Third World. Now we build walls against poor neighbors, put their children in cages, and as the wave crests, 40% of Americans still think the entitled psycho who ignored the warnings and tells folks to get back to work is doing a good job! The P.O.S. could actually get reelected.  Imagine that! America has never been ravaged on the scale of Europe or China or Japan or Russia. America is a teenager among the nations of the world, playing chicken. We’re all in a stupid James Dean movie.

Yes, stupid to indulge in schadenfreude because obviously, who will suffer? The poor. The healers. The emergency personnel. Those who HAVE to go out there and work, while the lucky few stay at home and open their Zoom apps and hunker down with their stockpiles of groceries and wipe their asses with lots of toilet paper. People like me. People who can philosophize about it. Until I make one bad move, of course, here in Japan where the tsunami rises ever so slowly. Like Pynchon’s V-2 rockets plunging down upon London, no one knows when their life might go to hell in a handbasket.  Some of us have better odds, we send cheery or scary videos and wish each other well. If we’re lucky we may be able to do it for quite a while. Maybe a long while. Maybe a year, maybe two. Maybe long enough to celebrate the demise of Our Own Hitler.  Or not.

April 5, 2020

The news is that infections in Japan are spiking now. Be very clear: nowhere did I say I wanted Americans to suffer. That was my evil twin Carlos. In fact, I want everyone to recover immediately. My 12-year old boy has been going to sleep every night saying he feels overheated, which made me paranoid, but then my wife reminded me he’s been like that for a year. He’s a hot boy. Eventually, possibly later this year, he’ll begin emitting whatever fluids are heating him up. Then his life will become more interesting. Or maybe after he turns 13 in October. We should all live that long.  

April 7, 2020

Andy goes to his first junior high gathering today. He’s been getting nosebleeds and building toy weapons. He gets massages from Mom before he falls asleep while I read to him from Lord of the Ring. I remember my own puberty vaguely in Los Angeles. It turned out alright, but of course there was no plague in 1957. 

April 9, 2020

It occurred to me on waking this morning how non-American I am. I’ve not lived there for 28 years now. I am only one generation removed from my centuries-long European past. And of course, we are left-wing Jews, which separates us from any nation-state in a profound way. I want to tell my sisters, “don’t think of yourselves as Americans.” Don’t even  identify yourself with one more historical permutation in tragedy. But then without America, I wouldn’t exist, my father would have become an ash heap in 1943, as his father did.

How can I express this? I know two American teachers, both nice guys, neither of whom I’ve been able to relate to wholeheartedly. Intelligent fellows, good fathers as well, they seem lost here in Japan. They’re so…American. Midwestern types who have it all figured out. They find the monster in the White House laughable, but hey, the guy is on to something. They don’t feel that revulsion in their guts. American news anchors repulse me with their false concern and self-seriousness. I feel no connection to them. The cars, the ads, the fast food outlets, the sitcoms, the lightness of being, I see all through a glass darkly. The U.S. was a child of human history, an offspring “conceived in liberty” that, after it had crushed native Americans and released its African slaves, came of age and saved us from Hitler. It has become in 2020 the crackhead that steals its mom’s TV and brutalizes the locals. Of course it always did a bit of that, and now it again revels in its hatred of those who hold a mirror up to what it has become. Whatever, man. The plague was caused by the Dems. Fake news, man. It’s all fake.  

April 10, 2020

I think we’ve been locked down here for 6 weeks now. I forget what it feels like to jam my body into the morning train Today I uploaded a video combining Eric Clapton’s achingly beautiful “Drowning In A River Of Tears,” with shots of our local cherry trees, merging into an astonishing zoom-out from the center of the Andromeda galaxy. Time, distance and sorrow expressed in a perfect collage that probably just irritated the people I sent it to. Maybe it isn’t the message we need these days. On the other hand, who wants comedy right now? (Coming up next, my timeless video. “Sunny Side of the Kitchen.”)    

April 11, 2020

We discover a rash breaking out on Andy’s neck and legs. I rush to the Internet to see if this is a COVID-19 indication. Apparently not, but it might be, right? Iko comes to bed late, she was fanning his face. The lights go out and self-reproach descends upon my endless self-involvement, my obsession with precisely what I’m doing now in this chaotic, inscrutable world. Andrew will recover but I will die, the final nail in my cosmic coffin: a family abandoned, a son and wife left destitute. This was not funny! I realized that when we’d opened the new Scrabble set that night the first word I had formed in the center of the board was “pox.” Yes, it was 20 points, but that’s the same number of pieces of silver that Judas got! In the dark this is all very real, the prayers for forgiveness, the ruminations over my moral frailty, the abhorrence of churning out words no one will ever read. And so the promise: to destroy this diary. I awaken as Frodo ready to cast the One Ring into the chasm, to trash and delete. Then Andy comes in, fresh of face and all cooled down. 

“Dad! You know what I would have done if I was Sauron?” he says. “I’d have posted four Nazgul around Mount Doom to make sure no one tried to destroy the Ring.” 

“Yeah, but he never thought anyone would do that,” I say.

“So the guy wasn’t really that bright, was he?

“Right. I mean, if you got the One Ring, you gotta use it.”

“Right. So what’s for breakfast, Pops?”

A couple hours late my sister calls from California.  The subject of Passover comes up. 

“When is that?” asks the Jewish black sheep of his Christian Science sister. 

“Passover? Oh, that was last night.” 

April 18, 2020

I realized in the shower tonight what this perverse fascination with death and economic catastrophe is: I want revolution, want the ancien regime to fall. With enough chaos, revolt will come, creeping across the nation from California, fighting its way through the Midwest to finally lay siege to Washington. A lot more will die, but change will come. I won’t die of course, I’ll stay here in Japan and follow it in the Washington Post. And not my son John in Connecticut either, I want him to stay out of it ­– like I did in the 60s when the Freedom Marchers went to the South or when Yuppies got their heads smashed in at the Chicago convention. The rest of my family in California and Oregon? They’re too old and stuff. But blood has to be spilled sooner or later. Like in France in the 1790s. That worked out well – now they have democracy, you know, after Napoleon, I think. Or how about the Russian Revolution, the Tsar and all those fucking nobles – Lenin showed them a thing or two. That’s what we need in America. I mean, what they need. So I’m like, bring it on. Seriously, though, anyone with an intact soul dreams of the day when the great temple of corruption, greed and exploitation comes crashing down. Somehow, someday.

April 19, 2020

My throat feels weird today, and I have 12 online classes coming up over the next three days. I should just let the students talk. I’ll try to stay out of their long silences. Or maybe assign the best student to be the teacher. But hey, bring it on Corona, it’s my Vietnam moment. If I have to run through the viral jungle I’ll come out in one piece with an antibody count that would impress General Maxwell. On the other hand, they say words have power, so like, never mind. 

April 21, 2020 (morning)

I awoke in the night in a cold sweat, but I think it was just the unstable temperatures of spring plus too many bedcovers. The throat seems better. (evening) A scary day, it felt I was getting sicker during classes, the dry throat, a general weakness. Then after a good homemade lunch, recovery. Heading for sleep feeling much better.

April 23, 2020 (morning) 

Today was scarier, the throat condition is still here, if intermittent. Four more classes today, then four days off. Only 2 days next week, then the Golden Week vacation arrives in Japan. 

Golden Week commemorates Abe Golden, a Jewish man who came to Tokyo in 1912 to try to teach the Japanese to relax. It didn’t work out, and he swam out to sea and disappeared in the Thirties, but the Japanese felt badly about this and created Golden Week, during which they spend inordinate amounts of money sitting in hot springs and eating expensive food. So Abe managed to teach them guilt, even if they still can’t relax. (afternoon): Four classes, no problems, feel fine. No COVID-19 in me, baby, I was just stuck in Tokyo with the Paranoid Sore Throat Blues Again. Wasn’t that a Bob Dylan song?  Let’s see how long I stay healthy this time. (evening): Feel crappy again. Some virus is fucking with me. Go away and kill a bad person, will you? But it’s been there, heard that before. Bugs just want to have fun. 

May 1, 2020

Well, I made it to 75. Ran under the cherry trees this morning on a spring day. Main challenge: accepting that I’m an old man. I don’t get it. Yes, my throat gets a bit scratchy at the end of the day, but that’s due to reading 10 pages of Lord of the Ring (for the umpteenth time) to Andy at bedtime. He kicked my ass in Monopoly again last night after I had him down by law, buying everything in sight and creating a Street of Death where he killed me with $500 and $700 rent salvos. Completely innovative strategy I initially judged pathetic. He wound up with $26,000, and I still had to read to him. But I like to read to him! It’s a blissful May 1. Great weather out on the balcony, a good book, a pizza-pastry party at lunch. All my life I did what I could to avoid labor, yet I was born on International Labor day. Go figure. 

May 6, 2020

Richie Cole died. I didn’t know he used to travel around the country looking for gigs in a little RV. I always wanted to do that and write about it. Richie didn’t have to, he hooked up with Eddie Jefferson and had a career. 

May 17, 2020

The dry throat persists, at the periphery of my experience. Last night I could only read a few paragraphs of LOTR to Andy before I had to stop from the irritation. I’m a few pages from the end of Cormac McCarthy’s magnificent 1,000-page Border Trilogy. In the dark of night its steady gravitation toward death weighs on me. Last night, the gruesome knife fight and the murder of Magdalena, stunningly written. McCarthy makes Woody Allen seem like Woody Allen. What if my death is like Trump 2016. What if suddenly Death is president and I’m Hillary. Thank God for coffee. Almost completed, my self-assailing retrospective based on Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.”  Pretty cool. Pretty self-absorbed. Selah.

May 25, 2020

The throat is still touch and go. And the last two nights, headaches at the end of the day, one extending deep into sleep-time. I’m better today, ran in the morning. Thinking of opening a Hypochondria-R-Us shop with face masks and end-of-life note pads for last reflections. It feels like COVID is having a conversation with me. “Hello, Arnold, well, you’re quite hale and hearty aren’t you! Let me just redden your throat a little for now. How does this headache feel? Can I interest you in a little congestion at the top of your esophagus? Just a touch, now. That’s it! Tell yourself it’s a springtime allergy.”  

My son’s unjustified exuberance is a physical force in the apartment. Alan Greenspan would not be pleased. Could I have been thus at twelve? I like to see myself as young in heart at 75, but Andy’s physicality and emotional intensity reminds me of my limits. Yet without him there would be no baseball, no grounders, no curve balls in the dirt, no football passes, pretty spirals to toss and catch, no frisbees dropping onto my outstretched  fingers. 

Bobby Parrs, of bobbysbackingtracks.com, loves my new sax video of  “I Wish.” His track is beyond funky. The tracks he produces make my musical life livable, and he throws free ones at me when we chat on Messenger. Bobby lives and windsurfs in Phuket and believes in the Plannedemic, QAnon and the Obama hit list. How can a masterful pop/jazz  guitarist and studio engineer eat up that stuff? He sends me conspiracy shit every now and then, saying, “Check this out, Bro!”  I say nothing. I need the eggs.

May 27, 2020

Got through that week with no throat issues at all. And the world has changed again. Finally: Americans in the streets. Why? A cop murdered a black man named George Floyd on camera in cold blood. Protests worldwide. 

May 28, 2020

Feeling better, just some ups and downs with the throat. No more  headaches. And it looks like the chronic pain on my right side is more like a bruised rib, possibly from when a fastball in the dirt from struck me there. I was meant to be a first baseman, not a catcher.  Andy goes back for morning classes starting next week, masked and dangerous. U.S. deaths passed 100,000.  That’s about .03% of Americans. They won’t be missed by the GOP. All politics is local, and around here it’s all about broccoli and Minecraft.  

I just tried to watch “Play It Again, Sam.” Despite the unfair libel he’s been subjected to, Woody’s sardonic juvenile sexual fantasies here are far too unsavory for 2020. He’s like a poster-child sexist at the moment when the wave of 60s sexual rebellion smashed against the cliffs of 1970s feminism, when Whatever River flowed into No Way Bay.   

June 10, 2020

A peculiar anomaly: people vote for a president not logically, but based on if they feel “comfortable” with the guy. Yet they say people voted for Trump not liking him personally but saying “well, he’s tough, he’ll get the job done.” Why would they vote for someone they don’t like, in fact, a figure who is repellent in so many ways? Consider “The Apprentice,” that snuff show for wannabe businesspeople, all about acceptance/rejection by an unforgiving father figure. So millions of Americans need to be on the safe side of a punitive father-figure! Hey! remind you of anything? Our Judeo-Christian deity! Or maybe Zeus and Thor are better figures, playful – sexualized and vengeful. Don’t cross Zeus, you’ll lose your Senate seat. Just sit back and enjoy his vengeance against the minorities you never really felt comfortable around. Living in Japan, it’s easy to forget how consumed by fear Americans are, even after winning a 40-year cold war: fear of blacks, fear of gays, fear of some nut killing your children in school, fear of Muslims, fear of poverty and eviction, of job loss, fear of the PC enforcers. The Gauls and the Visigoths are always at the gates of New Rome. Only thing worse would be say, a Bill Gates Plannedemic where you’d actually have to hide in your home. You’d need a strong father figure to protect you I guess. 

They could re-elect this son of a bitch.

June 18, 2020

Another black man shot down. People are shouting at each other online, stereotyping: “Evil cops!” “Why did the dude try to run, why did he point the taser?” What happened in the minds of these two men on that night in that parking lot. I sat down and tried to make an educated guess.  This is what came out:

Rayshard, what a name. A shard of light, right? Rayshard, as if the Universe was cutting us a piece of light, of insight, a Rayshard.  Rayshard Brooks had three daughters, Blessing, 8, Memory, 2, and Dream, 1.  

The brother had had a few that night. He fell asleep in the wrong place, and they called the police, and what was that all about? Why was Papa drunk in a Wendy’s drive-thru?  Why was he drinking and driving? The Apologists ask this, and we have to consider their point of view. I have a buzz on myself writing this, though I’m not behind the wheel. And I’m not Sleeping In My Car While Black. And now here come the Man. Why the Man come? Issue No. 1: Americans are afraid of each other. No one had come over to him when he was blocking traffic, knocked on the window and said, “Hey, brother, you blocking traffic, you need to go over to the parking lot and crash there.” No, someone got to call the Man.  

Rayshard manages to park the car as directed, he’s trying to be cool. The Man behaves himself. Very polite. It’s 2020. Jim Crow is done here in Georgia. The Man is wearing a damn camera! Can you imagine that in 1920?  

“Have you been drinking, sir?”  And so on. It’s a civil conversation. Then the Man grabs Rayshard’s hands, maybe says something about “under arrest” prior to grabbing him, like he’s supposed to, or maybe not. The Man likes to arrest black people, even in parking lots.  

Now, Rayshard is tripping: remember, he’s confused. Why they arresting me in the parking lot? The subtleties of the law are not available to him. He knows the country is up in arms about police brutality, police murders. He’s had a few drinks. He’s getting emotional. Fuck this, he thinks. Fuck this shit. I was polite, I was civil, why they arresting me? What these crackers got planned for me?  Fuck this.

Suddenly he falls out. Suddenly everything’s crazy. And the shit feels good. I can kick these white boys’ ass – Rayshard can feel it. He has snapped. “I AM OUT OF HERE!” That’s the stupidest thing you could do, say the Apologists. Fighting with the police and then running away. But Rayshard is not thinking, not about his car sitting there, about his driver’s license, about his family, he is in some ancient netherworld of lynchings and shootings and white devils that smile in your face and have had you on the run your whole life. “I GOT YOUR TASER! You can’t tase me, I got your damn taser.” 

Now here comes Garret Rolfe. His name sounds like a dog barking: Rolfe, rolfe!  like a hound coming through the Mississippi swamps after a runaway slave, a dark satanic American nightmare re-enacted in a Wendy’s parking lot. And Rayshard makes one mistake, like Russell Wilson did trying to sneak that little pass in at the goal line in the Super Bowl against the godamn Patriots. Because he realizes what an Atlanta cop might do to a black man running away from him. He might shoot him in the back! He hears the footsteps, hears Rolfe shouting, (Rolfe! Rolfe!) So he turns around in his fear and his fury, in his crazy flight into an Alabama forest, and points that taser at Rolfe. At pissed-off Garrote Rolfe.  (Oops, that’s  spelled Garret. Garrote means death by strangulation.)  Now comes the moment of truth.

In an alternate universe, Rayshard is Ray Bob, a fucked-up Southern white boy with an attitude, Ray Bob got drunk, grabbed a taser, he’s running away. Ray Bob points the taser at Garret.  

“Stupid punk,” thinks Garret Rolfe.  So Garret backs off. “We got yo’ car, boy!” Garret yells.  “You in a heap of trouble boy. Yo’ papa gonna kick your ass good!” 

But this is not Ray Bob. It’s a black man who has just kicked your ass and now he’s pointing a taser at you, clumsily, as he runs away. You know black men hate you, and you don’t much like them either. Deep down, they frighten you. You’ve never sat at a Thanksgiving table with a black family, never walked a mile in their shoes. You’ve been trained to kill in this situation. To act with prejudice. Rayshard hadn’t robbed a convenience store. He hadn’t raped or shot anyone. He didn’t have a gun. He was sleeping in his car. But there’s no love lost here, no tribal commonality, and thus no humanity. Only fear and anger and hate and male pride. 

So you take him down. Two shots in the back. Like how you’d kill a runaway slave. Then you kick his bleeding body. You. Show. Your. Colors. The audacity of this black S.O.B.  He pointed a taser at me, mama. I got my rights! The Department will protect me. Fuck him.

James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country, and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time.” And to be white is to fear black men. So, God save the United States of America. Or not. As for me, I have always loved black people, stupidly, indiscriminately. They gave me their music and that music has been a reason for living. And I’m lucky to have a family and my son, sitting safely over here in Japan. I’m just an observer on the sidelines. All I did was write this. 

June 28, 2020

Enclosed in our sheltered sheltering all seems well here in Kunitachi. I run in the mornings, play sax in the park, make videos and send compassionate words to relatives and friends in the States. Meanwhile the COVID wave is developing into a tsunami there, as when the ocean flowed relentlessly into Banda Aceh, Indonesia in 2004. It is a Greek tragi-comedy of apocalyptic proportions in a country numbed by lies and insult, now by the number of its dead. In January, 100,000 dead was inconceivable, as June comes to a close, it’s somehow baked in, as Arizonan deplorables gather close to each other, unmasked, to hear their hero chatter and sneer. Anger is the coin of the realm. Biden leads convincingly now, and the left takes heart.   

July 27, 2020

A month gone by and all’s well, right? Let’s relax and stop worrying! Japan bent the curve down, the kids can go back to school, let’s open things up again!  Oops:

     Well the death rate hasn’t moved. But daily infections in Japan have gone from about 50 a month ago to 998.  Mr. Lucky-so-Far (me) is still working from home, even Micron looks fairly good for the yearly contract renewal, since a world on ZOOM means increased demand for memory! After crashing to $34 on March 16, its stock has climbed back to a steady $50 all through July. So: all systems go for another year teaching at age 76! Then there’s America. Planet Zombie. At this writing Portland, Seattle, several other cities with angry folks in the streets and Trump goons swinging clubs and spraying pepper. Back to the Sixties, with one hundred days to go until Crunch Time, November 3.     

August 3, 2020

So if you’re writing about a worldwide pandemic in a journal called Thanatos, don’t call yourself Mr. Lucky. Micron has just cancelled our contract. Now I’m out of work starting in October. The three-month notice was nice, but it’s still a pandemic (Japan infections past 1,000 per day) and I’m still 75. Oh, and I just threw out my back taking a false fall in the park for one of my hilarious videos, “Running To Daylight.” It’s entertaining, but then so are a million other people’s videos in the age of serial self-involvement. Well, as New York Jews used to say, you got your health you got everything. 

Perspective: a 1985 article on Hiroshima, the 75th anniversary of which we observe this year. It told of a women who managed to dig her children out of the rubble and then struggled through 30 years of illness, backbreaking toil and desperate poverty to raise them to adulthood.  A hibakusha, she and her compatriots were ignored by the government for decades, yet she survived and achieved a measure of serenity in the end. Whatever lies ahead cannot be worse than that. The potential for inhumanity in those in power has not decreased. Where there is no vision, the people perish. 

August 17, 2020

So as I was saying before…I got fired. That is, Micron fired Aspire Communications, and I work for them. What’s that like at 75 with a 12 year-old under your roof? It means your wife needs to get a job. Unfortunately, they’re hard to find here on HMS Titanicovid, just as the Japanese economy dipped by 27% this last quarter, so she’s doing a lot of deck chair re-arranging instead. Bookshelves from here to there, then back to here. Decluttering is very big here, easy to lose your old Bermuda shorts or little brass Buddha. I wake up depressed, reminding myself that Social Security covers the rent. Plus some food. Thanatos indeed. I feel a lot like Thanatoast, but let’s be positive. Someone just needs to get somekind of job. Should I try to get on the COVID Express to downtown, where there could be a few more scraps if at seventy-five I get lucky? Edison said, “The harder I work the luckier I get.” Of course, he’s dead now.  But enough of this hand-wringing. Let’s talk global warming. 

August 23, 2020

California is on fire. In other news…

Homo Sapiens arrived in Australia 45,000 years ago and decimated all its major fauna, huge marsupials and giant birds found nowhere else on the planet. Then during the ice age we penetrated the Americas from the Arctic down to Tierra del Fuego in just 2,000 years and did the same thing. We have always been a murderous species, so today it’s just more of the same. I ache for the earth yet paradoxically know that it will eventually be fine without us. Beautiful, artful new species will evolve over the aeons. I contemplate a universe that transcends time and space, even this planet of unspeakable beauty. Not an easy assignment, but I chip away at it.  

August 25, 2020

Infections sloping down in Japan. U.S. past 180,000 dead. If India had the same incidence as the U.S. they’d be at 24 million infected. GOP convention this week after a terrific Democratic one where Joe Biden waxed eloquent. Watching any of the GOP gathering is beyond repugnant to me. But that means the opposite: their base, incomprehensibly, finds revolting what we find beautiful. A schizoid country is still a schizoid country. Where Germany had a tradition of authoritarianism and had been brutalized by the Great Powers after WWI, America has a tradition of democratic institutions no one ever brutalized it. Yet it stands on the brink of fascism. At this writing it’s completely unclear, despite optimistic polling data, exactly how dark its soul is. We’ll find out in 70 days.  If the planet is unsaveable, the GOP path of meanness and suspicion is simply the wave of the future. Sapiens will become more and more a vicious species, surviving in brutal ways.

August 26, 2020

High level, powerful government apparatchiks have witnessed Trump’s insults of slain American soldiers. Think Caesar, think Cassius and Brutus. The knives do not come out, one insider just whispers his secret to a reporter. The Atlantic’s Jefferey Goldberg seeks confirmation and gets it. General Kelly restrains himself, hiding behind a curtain like Polonius in Hamlet. Meanwhile, the populace is lost in the fog of four years of presidential lying and Fox News propaganda. The needle doesn’t move. Trump takes back Biden’s lead in Texas. North Carolina is getting tighter. The country is like a grinning Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, with his bloody finger pointed at his head. Bang!  

There’s really no historical precedent. A Japanese politician who called WWII soldiers suckers would be either dead or in hiding. Goldberg, the Jew, says this is only the “tip of the iceberg.” So what. Rumors and gossip among the power elite won’t do the job any more. The only iceberg I see is a corrupt, gutless Republican party, and the Titanic is American democracy. Someone cue Brutus.  Please.  It’s time for his close-up.

October 4, 2020

Thirty nine days in 2020 is like a year in 1995. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died too soon and McConnell is rubbing his hands. Meanwhile, I still don’t have COVID, but the Trumps do. Keep fatso in the hospital another 39 days, please. The stupid man infected a bunch of others too, right after his psychopathic debate fiasco with Joe. Three GOP senators tested positive too, so there’s at least a chance Mitch is in a ditch, we should be so lucky. Happy birthday, Mom.

October 17, 2020

I saw a documentary tonight about a 97 year-old Cal philosophy professor struggling around his Berkeley home with his walker, grieving for his wife of 70 years, muttering that all the stuff he’d figured out in the various books he’d written wasn’t helping him in the face of impending death. “What’s the point?” he wonders about life. He’s got a young Latina to wash his feet in the morning. He sits out on his little Berkeley deck (of my dreams) and looks at his garden and bemoans his not appreciating it earlier. No observable gratitude. But then that’s what depression will do to you. 

The old guy needed a doobie, but it’s too late now. He died. I got depressed myself the other night about the end of the world, reading about the permafrost melting and releasing billions of tons of methane into the air. Then I saw a picture of a huge, terrifying Australian spider grasping a dead bird in his web and remembered that our beautiful planet has always had a subtext of horror.  Our romanticism is illusory.  

In Quora, I recently scanned a long thread between two professors, one of them a climate change denier brandishing endless charts and dense terminology. Eventually he was overwhelmed online (and in my brain) by the rest of the scientific crew. But what I found reassuring in their bad news was that all indications are the worst we can do will amount to no more than a glitch in the geological life of the planet. Bottom line, we run out of fossil fuels, then over the millennia the ocean sucks back all the CO2 in the atmosphere, the ice ages come, the ice ages go. The Earth will in all probability NOT become Venus.  For me, despite the unconceivable maelstrom we humans are facing (and inflicting on most other organisms) that’s a win.  Imagine the earth in 3500 without humans, or perhaps majorly downsized humans. An earth redeemed, in other words. What’s not to like?   

Back to the depressed Jewish professor getting his feet washed. Such a rationalist! He “proved” there’s no need to fear death. “You just stop being,” he wrote. “No  problem. Why then, he asks himself, do I think about it so much? Why don’t I want to leave?” It’s not that he’s necessarily wrong about personal oblivion. The lights might just go out. Who am I, one Sapiens in a 2,000,000 year evolutionary process on one planet in a vast infinitude to expect more than the fourscore and twenty I can get nowadays? It’s the philosopher’s certainty about that trips him up. You know he wants to hook up with his wife again. He sits in his easy chair, crying in his Mozart. (“We used to listen to it together…”) 

My own wife has another, equally un-disprovable take. She holds we are little interconnected eternal souls residing in bodies, the Universe seeking to understand itself, so next time it might be an entirely different planet I drop into. Not only that, we reshuffle partners after death – like square dancing! She might wind up as my uncle next time. Reincarnation as improv theatre. Could be. I’ve read about a 5 year old kid running down provable details of how he died in a WWII fighter and about a woman under hypnosis with zero knowledge of ancient Israel reporting extinct town names she visited when she was touring there with… Jesus. 

I know, it’s all smoke and mirrors. But hey, we’re O.J. Simpson against eternal darkness. A reasonable doubt is all we need.  Johnnie Cochran could get us off! Anyway, think of death as a theme park ride. One of these days it’ll be, “Here I go!” I’ll be standing in line at Great America and I will NOT want to get in the car, but it’s like the Tokyo subway, you get mashed in and you got no choice. I wish us all luck.

November 14-16, 2020

Although at this writing he clings to his fantasies and his conscienceless, sycophant party clings to him, The Donald is Done. He beat COVID in his own body, but a guy named Joe will move into the White House in 70 days, its interior possibly trashed like a hotel abandoned by a dissolute rock band. Certainly it’s been trashed spiritually. The U.S. feels like a torpedoed freighter that somehow got its engines started again and is limping toward port. A wolfpack of Incomprehensibles still circles it: to actually reach port, it will need a Georgia Miracle to keep its engines running. 

Meanwhile, COVID infections Stateside roar towards 200,000 per day as Satan dawdles out his final weeks golfing and plots who knows what revenge. An American Gotterdammerung in slow motion. (Who put me here in Japan, where our own winter surge is just 0.6% of America’s and everyone is masked?) 

The year of Thanatos is coming to a close, though its horrors will seep well into 2021. Its end-days feature the death rattle of the most abhorrent figure in American history bar none, our own Nero. The huge third COVID surge has coincided precisely with his vocal refusal to accept his loss and total, uncaring disregard of the plague. The world’s first great democracy has never seen its fundamentals attacked in this way. Though the election was a 51-48% affair, it’s slightly reassuring to realize that 48% represents 23% of the total population. But are any of those 70 million beginning to sense the mental imbalance of the man, as he wallows in his fantasies of victory and betrayal? Like cult members, they’ll need help.  

December 9, 2020

We approach Christmas and later this week 300,000 dead in America. The president from hell cares nothing about this, only about an alternate reality in which he has been cheated out of his throne. It is easy to imagine him planning his next self-publicizing efforts to keep himself in the public eye after January 20. Perhaps they will gradually fail, and by the time the vaccines (there are vaccines!) slowly bring an end to the nightmare, the bad dream of daily obsession with this malevolent creature will end with it. That would be next June. 

Political spotlight on Georgia, where the Senate majority will be decided. Democrats hope against hope to grab two seats. I hope to get a few more English classes. The pain of job loss has been assuaged by the news that Yukichi has left behind a tidy sum to be divided between Iko and her brother. Inspired by this windfall, I fantasize about buying rechargeable batteries for my beard trimmer or even having two or three age spots removed. At 75, you don’t need much. 

December 15, 2020

The end of Annus Thanatos, and its danger-fraught Christmas, looms before us. Given a death rate of over 2,500 a day (for now), one question is: will 2020’s 350,000 dead be exceeded by 2021? Hopefully not, we think, since the long hoped-for vaccines have arrived, and after January 21 at least, distribution will be overseen by an actual president and a competent national administration. But it is a daunting task, and winter is only now tightening its grip on the nation. Mad King and his Minions merchandise their fantasies, and collect millions from their suckers, Proud Boy idiots shout for the destruction of the GOP in the streets of Washington. Today the electoral college votes. Democracy struggles forward, like a beached fish wiggling back toward the ocean. The rest of us dream the emperor without clothes will one day be led away naked, but in handcuffs. We aging hipsters vow to live long enough to see that.    

December 21, 2020

Sometimes these days, I don’t know who I am. I’ve spent so much time trying to create, but without recognition (as for so many in this execrable age of mass media)…so who am I anyway? If I could get outside myself surely I could see what a sad figure I am at 75, vaguely longing for…whatever recognition even is in this bizarre, convoluted new world. If I were in America I could do mushrooms and stare out in awe at the trees and the lakes and the mountains and seek oneness with them. In Tokyo, all I can do is secretly drink a 7% Chu-hai and noodle on a sax under a tree. 

I have written some novels and essays and played some music recorded onto videos. For all of it, the word cleverwould suffice. Compared to artists I truly admire, the bulk of it belongs in the libraries of the famous Greek philosopher, Mediocrites. Full of sound and fury. 

Like Yorick, I must come to this: anonymity. Why is that so hard, this final acceptance? Anonymity goes without saying for 99% of humanity, the fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers who measure themselves by the love they have given and gotten in their lives, the service they’ve done for others, their ability simply to have survived or even prospered. They don’t wrote essays and hope for fucking recognition.  

The creator has to die – in some sense at least. This morning, I look at the cups and spoons and the sugar bowl on the kitchen shelf, at the inexpressible beauty of each item. Why so beautiful, so radiant, despite my not being stoned on acid? It must be the love that informs them, that they are family objects, things possessed by three people living together in a loving home. That must be it. To the extent I can live in the moment, this radiance is available to me. It is not necessarily so for others, for my single male friends, for my wife’s mother, who sits across the way in her lonely apartment. Blessedness cries out to me from all around. Who needs FaceBook likes when blessedness is crying out to you from all around? I mean, get a clue. I don’t know who I am? I’m a husband, a father, a brother, a cousin. I am loved. I should stop journaling and cook an egg for someone,  

December 29, 2020

Is it 2021 yet? No matter, the winter equinox of Year Thanatos will be January 20, when the Great Cretin leaves public office. 

My wife’s philosophy, and tentatively mine, harks back to Hinduism and Buddhism and sees this world as a stage voluntarily visited by reincarnating souls to play out dramas of spiritual self-education. In this system, certain great exemplars appear, both good and evil. Hitler and Jesus, Ghandi and Stalin, Caesar and St. Augustine.  There is, then, a greatness to Donald Trump, his soul is an old and formidable one who has bravely chosen this dreadful role for his own edification, and by extension ours. What more perfect expression of human selfishness could arise to hold the mirror up to our selfie generation? Just as good news doesn’t make the news, there will be no articles on the millions who look at him now and reflect (as I do!) upon themselves. For no matter our social station, we all wander around our personal golf courses – am I on mine now? – when there is much we could do for others, even within our own families. We could talk less about ourselves and listen more.  We could work harder and love more.

But this doctrine is all probably a chimera, except in the broader sweep of history. Nero fiddled while Rome burned and Trump golfed while Americans died. He will stand astride history like a deranged oaf. Meanwhile, the beat goes on. He who hath an eye, let him remove the beam therein. 

There are arguably worse actors. Rupert Murder is after all, Trump’s Aristotle, the political equivalent of a drive-by shooter, a one-man Corona virus that arrived from Australia to infect England with yellow journalism in the ‘60s, then perfected his foul art in America in the ‘90s. Should we consider him a Great Soul embodying evil for the benefit of us all? As I say, my embrace of my dear wife’s neo-Hinduism is tentative.  Would that I could embrace evil long enough to throttle that malevolent fart with my own hands.  Peace out, dude.    

December 31, 2020  

I struggle to put myself in the mindset of a Stop-the-stealer, filled with righteous anger. As we are filled with righteous anger. What a strange political moment. Two mutually exclusive information sets set against each other. Almost a Heisenbergian situation: is the cat dead or alive? Who knows? The information rabbit hole is deep and circuitous, filled with details, with reports of deception and intrigue. The more evil we assign to Donald Trump, the more evil Joe Biden becomes in the eyes of the opposition: Biden is a conniver, a cheat, a corrupt enemy of democracy.

Is there equivalency here? Of course not, the evil resides in Trumpism. But this crisis is like a fever dream. Will it ever break? What will the world look like after it does? Will it take a year, five years, a generation? 

The chasm is impassable now, there is an abyss before us where combat will likely take place, for how long we do not know. The worst of it may be over in three months if we’re lucky. This election and installation of a new government is the breaking of the pustule, painful and violent, but predictable: Americans are not ready to abandon an orderly transition of power, this 250 year-long tradition. Soldiers will follow orders. Traitors and seditionists will be rooted out. The insurrection will be repressed. 

But listen to my language, an outrage to the opposition, because for them WE are the insurrectionists! WE stole the election! In this light, the campaign of 2024 becomes a deeply disturbing prospect. Where reality itself is in question, a nation is lost. The only corrective I can think of is the methodical exposure, confirmed by the courts, of a corrupt man, his dishonest family, and his sleazy sycophants. The exposure must be relentless, all talk of presidential immunity rejected outright. This was a traitor in the White House.

But he was also everything dark about America, its willfulness, its refusal to listen, its hungering after power and money, its exceptionalism, its racism and meanness. Can the Trumpistas ever come to see that in themselves? Am I just another liberal barking at the moon? Probably so. I keep thinking about Germany and the price it paid for similar sentiments and choices. Nations come to their senses, like human individuals, through great pain. One hopes that the pandemic, the Year of Thanatos will be enough. But it may take more even than that.

January 7, 2021  

And now we have seen the Insurrection in real-time. After four years of disgrace, a final outrage. This will be the last entry for my Thanatos, Year of the Plague, although Mr. T still rides across America, a grim reaper gathering three thousand souls a day to his dark bosom. 

This is actually written at the end of January, after the shock of the insurrection, but still within its reverberations. It’s clear that three weeks after the obscenity of the attack on the Capitol, the mayhem and death, the fever has not broken. The GOP steps back from convicting on impeachment. The craven GOP minority leader skulks down to Florida to kowtow to his traitorous master. The Big Lie lives on in the minds of tens of millions. Liberals chatter among themselves worriedly. But here I will speak to what lies deep in the soul of the country. 

It will take a good part of the decade – if we are lucky. The minds of too many are locked and loaded. I can feel the rage within my own body. So I fear, as Cormac McCarthy would say, that there will be blood, a kind of guerilla war perhaps, of what dimensions I do not know. Cadres of barbaric whites against  multi-racial alliances of the enlightened. Cops, perhaps, against cops. 

But the good will win, and this evil thing will be crushed. Because America, despite the ugliness in its historical record, does have a soul, and a noble heritage. It was conceived in genocide and slavery but also, paradoxically, on the concept of human dignity. It now has a young generation for whom multi-culturalism comes with the territory, kids who think racism is just nuts. They are not as namby-pamby as the oldsters think. If push comes to shove, they will step to the plate. And critically, the left is more fucking intelligent than the right. The idiots who broke into the Capitol with murder on their minds took selfies! They fell for the most ludicrous conspiracy theories. They still run around without masks and infect each other. For five long years, they worshipped the stupidest con man ever seen, a psycho who made Richard Nixon seem a paragon of emotional health.

I believe sooner or later the Stupid Right will start the shit and the rest of us will finish it. It didn’t fly in 1860 and it won’t fly now. Stupid doesn’t win wars. Stupid gets bloodied, runs back into the hills and festers. Let them. 

I hope I’m wrong, of course. I hope the Great Goblin and his minions go down hard by legal means. I hope – and this is absolutely critical – that enough good legislation gets passed to snap the deplorables out of their Republican brainwashing. Or at least pacify them. I hope the GOP never ever controls a single branch of congress again. Or of course the presidency. But, like…good luck with that, right? 

The question is, Lefty Liberal, in February of 2021, do you feel lucky? 

I don’t.   

Posted in EXODUS, Stage Left, Parts 1-5 | Leave a comment

How can Eco-Aware Hedonists Best Shower in Wintertime?

Is your shower equipped with a long hose and nozzle? If not, get to a hardware store, buy one and mount it prior to showering. Of course, by “mount it,” I mean install it in the shower room. A hose-mounted nozzle is required for the activities I explain here:

1.  Would you put blueberry muffin batter in the oven without warming it up first? Hah! Well then, make sure the shower water is warming up as you disrobe.  

2.  Place the towel you’ll use to dry yourself immediately outside your shower door.

3.  Wait. Do you even have a shower door? Are you stuck with some plastic shower curtain? In this case, get dressed, go back to the hardware store and buy a reinforced glass shower door assembly and install it onto the bathtub.   

4.  You have now disrobed again and entered the shower stall. It is winter and you are cold and naked. 

5.  Spray your chest with hot water. This is moderately pleasurable and represents a kind of hydro-foreplay. Enjoy the feeling, ranging down as far as your stomach if you wish.

6.  This is the moment where you have a decision to make. As your body relaxes, there is a natural urge to release bodily fluids. My advice? Go for it.  Such a pleasure! It all goes down the drain and no one will ever know. Think about it: EVERYONE PROBABLY DOES THIS!  They just keep it a secret. Accordingly, don’t tell anyone I said this, OK? 

7.  Your back is still cold. Turn the hose onto your back, where your spinal column is hiding. The level of pleasure here is analogous to that of penetration in sex. All the discomfort and stress of being cold and naked is gone now. You have feelings of great happiness and security. Life is good. Things are going to be all right for you.

8.  Elevate the spray to the back of your neck. This is the orgasmic experience: warming the super-sensitive place where the spinal cord enters the brain – the most intensely pleasurable spot. I don’t know why. The Indians speak of Kundalini energy, so this may be a kundalini thing.  Kundalini is the energy source at the base of the spine. The actual zone at the neck is called Vishuddhi. Let’s not get too deep though. We’re just taking a shower here.

9.  Freely warm your chest, shoulders, legs, back, etc.

10. OK, go for the top of your head. This is the ultimate blossoming point of the meditative experience, where god-realization takes place but if you’re taking a shower it’s actually a step down from the back of your neck as far as I’m concerned. If you do realize your god-nature at this point, well, mazeltov.

11. Your face is still cold! You probably forgot about it. Spray your face next, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s a lovely feeling. 

12. Now form a tight smile and spray into your mouth. Suck it in and spit it out. Suck it in and spit it out. Bacteria have been forming in your mouth, but now you’re sort of spraying it all away. I suppose. Not a major part of the showering experience, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

13. Now turn off the water. It’s winter. Hot water cost money. Don’t waste energy. 

14. Shampoo time. Shampoo your hair, and then pull some shampoo down onto your face. What’s wrong with shampoo in your face? Nothing. You’re killing two birds with one stone.

15. Turn on the water again. Wow! Your body got cold while it was off. Now a wave of pleasure washes over your body as it warms up again. Rinse out the shampoo. Now turn off the shower. It’s winter. Hot water cost money.

16. Conditioner time. Use just a little. (See my essay, “The International Hair Conditioner Conspiracy,” for instructions on how to water down your hair conditioner.) It doesn’t need to be that thick. You can double the amount. Don’t let them rip you off. 

17. Turn on the water again. Wow! Your body got cold while it was off. Now a wave of pleasure washes over your body as it warms up again. Now turn off the shower. Hot water cost money.

18. Address your Netherlands with soap. Note: Your anterior nether region can produce large quantities of useful suds due to the profusion of floccules usually located there. Now do what you have to do, we don’t need to go into it here. By “we don’t need to go into it,” I mean… oh, never mind. Now soap up the rest of your body, I guess.

19. Turn on the water again. Wow! Your body got cold while it was off. Another wave of pleasure washes over your body as it warms up again.  Rinse everything off everywhere.

20. Now begins a sad time where you know you should get out of the shower, but you really don’t want to. Scold yourself. Tell yourself to man up or woman up, whichever is appropriate. 

21. Turn the water off. Slightly crack open the shower door and reach out for your towel, then close the door quickly. You can now dry off in relative warmth. 

All About Drying Your Body

1.   Open the towel wide and push your face into it. You cannot dry your body without thinking and you cannot think with a wet face. 

2.   Using your thinking, lift the spread-out towel over your head and with a back-and-forth motion, dry your back twice, first at a back-slash angle, then a forward-slash angle, thus reaching both shoulders. Think about it. Why does the back comes first? Right! Your back has less insulating flesh than your stomach, and it’s where your spine is. Dry it first, so cold cannot penetrate your body to make you sick and kill you. With this method, your spine immediately sends signals to the brain saying, “It’s OK, brain – we’re getting dried off! You’re feeling warmer already.” 

3.   Dry your chest and stomach and the rest of your body.

4.   Here’s something most people don’t discuss in polite company: drying the Gluteus Maximus Zone. Namely, how far into, you know, your ass, should you push the towel? No one wants to walk around with a wet ass hole, and yet…sure, you can throw it into the washing machine afterwards, but still…it was in your ass! Well, it’s a very personal decision, so I’m just raising it as food for thought. Yuk. Bad metaphor. 

5.  Don’t forget to dry your triceps. I always forget my triceps. Then my t-shirt sleeves get stuck halfway on.  

6.  I suppose you should dry between your toes. I never do, but that’s because my life is over and my feet don’t sweat. If you’re under 50, dry between your toes or you get athlete’s foot. 

7.  OK, get dressed and do something useful. Save the whales. Lesson over. 

Posted in EXODUS, Stage Left, Parts 1-5 | Leave a comment

A Letter to My Friends, Who Love Donald Trump

I’m going to take some time to compose my reply, as I think the “why people don’t open their eyes” issue, felt on both sides, is a profound matter. How can we address it without seeming partisan? We cannot. All we can do is return to the issues and try to hash them out.

Patrick, thank you for your substantive response. You seem to have focused mainly on foreign policy, and I’m with you to a degree. I’m with you regarding Snowden and, generally, Greenwald. A lot of what Assange did early on as well. Opinions differ greatly regarding the Ukraine in 2014. I often turn to the excellent site, Quora.com to understand a huge variety of things, for instance, “how high above Paris do you have to go to see London?” (9,000 feet). Here’s a few posts on Ukraine/2014… https://www.quora.com/How-involved-was-the-United-States-in-the-Ukrainian-coup-and-its-aftermath.  But surely, across many administrations, the U.S. has behaved as the imperial power, meanwhile selling arms helter-skelter around the world, an expression of the arms industry and what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex. Both parties have been in bed with many oppressive regimes, including the Saudis, whose religious sect spreads hatred of us everywhere. It’s a crazy world.

Lori, you mention the “riots.” Well, there was some acting out during the protests, no question. America is an astonishingly violent country. But I don’t see the politicians you mention being “responsible” for them. In fact, for years, the streets have been empty of protesters. From the left, we felt, as Trump said or did many things we felt were grievous, “where are the protesters?” It’s interesting: in the 60s, it was also Black people protesting for their rights that preceded whites protesting the war. Here you saw this again. It takes a lot to get people out there, but police, videoed shooting a black man in the back or sitting on his neck until he’s dead, can under the right circumstances do the trick. I would suggest that the watchword here is “compassion.” I know the Republican watchword is “self-reliance,” or “individual responsibility,” but I’d come back with the expression, “walk a mile in my shoes.”  We can’t do that, of course, but we can certainly go on Amazon and find reading materials such as Michelle Alexander’s highly regarded “The New Jim Crow,” that lays out the black experience with the American legal system, one entirely different from how you, Laurie or you, Patrick experience it in Chester or Nevada City. You can drop it into your iPhone for $15. https://www.amazon.co.jp/-/en/Michelle-Alexander/dp/1595586431

Lori, you mention, somewhat strangely, an Israel / Palestine “peace treaty.” As your Uncle Frans can tell you (don’t ask!) Trump has done nothing but disregard and marginalize Palestine Arabs and empower an aggressive Israel, cutting humanitarian aid to needy Palestinians and sealing deals with Bahrain and the UAE.  Please check this article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/19/will-trumps-major-foreign-policy-legacy-be-israel-and-palestine

But ultimately, this doesn’t speak to the “why people don’t open their eyes” issue. The disconnect between Trump lovers and haters is a visceral one. And a moral one. This is what’s so deeply disconcerting to those of us on the left. I don’t see Clinton – either one – as a hero. I have my criticisms of Obama as well, a man inexplicably hated by so many. I actually wrote an entire novel trying to plumb the depths of his psyche and how he could do so much bombing in the Middle East. It’s cheaper than Michelle’s book, and much funnier.  Hey – two of my “heroes” even hang out on the Yuba River. https://www.lulu.com/en/us/shop/arnold-baruch/nukes-over-nevada/paperback/product-1ng28zzd.html?page=1&pageSize=4

But our inability to see Trump even remotely as a hero rests on pretty solid moral grounds, I think. And I for one have great difficulty trusting politically someone with immense moral failings, Bill Clinton’s sexual dalliances notwithstanding. For me, and I thought for most people, character counts. So let me ask you guys to explain the following to me, you know, like I’m 5 years old:

  1. “I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there. And she was married. Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything. She’s totally changed her look.”
  2. Trump’s (criminal) negligence  of COVID 19: “This is deadly stuff,” Trump told Woodward on February 7. Trump revealed that he had a surprising level of detail about the threat of the virus earlier than previously known. “Pretty amazing,” Trump told Woodward, adding that the coronavirus was maybe five times “more deadly” than the flu.  His public comments here (sorry, CNN) Read ‘em and weep:https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2020/09/politics/coronavirus-trump-woodward-timeline/
  3. 26 women have accused him of sexual assault. (See 1., above).
  4. The 20,000 lies.  Consider this: we have to assume – and this applies to the issue of election fraud – that literally thousands of normally honest people are dissembling to bring him down, including the press calling him out for 20,000 imaginary falsehoods! Would you, Patrick or Laurie, lie to bring Obama down if you were a reporter? Probably not. So who are these people? Are they the same people that used to be outside my apartment listening to my every move when I was smoking weed in Berkeley in ’72? Probably!
  5. “The press is your enemy.”  Who says things like that? Again, I thought the press was people I went to school with at Cal or across the country, who in good conscience majored in journalism for the purpose of finding out the truth and telling the American people about it. Real people, subject to various pressures, yes, but at heart well-intentioned people, just like government workers or…wait for it…Democrats. 
  6. His kicking to the curb anyone in his administration who disagrees with him. His inability to work with others. His attraction to dictators. All issues of character.

Well, that’s enough in regard to my sense of Trump as a hero. 

We are so confused. Is global warming real? Do we trust science? Is the vaccine dangerous? Do we need masks? Is the country filled with treasonous cheaters who hid millions of votes? I’ll tell you what. History knows. Time will tell. If people can look at what happened last week – people pissing on the Capitol building, breaking windows, a mob killing cops, an assembly invited by the president and then sent on down the street to engage in “trial by combat” thinking this would accomplish their goals – if enough people can still look on that and see the inciter-in-chief as a heroic figure, the country is headed for a very violent future. Because most people do not, and the commitment to democracy is well and alive in America. Check out the Peach State. But still, history will decide which force is stronger and what was true and what was not.  In the meantime, I hope you are guided by the word I mention above: compassion. Compassion even for this strange, incredibly egoistic man who is at the center of the whirlwind. As Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” 

Posted in Other Writings | 3 Comments

A Journey North in Autumn

We sped north on the Shinkansen, then by car over country highways to an old shack of a house in Misato in northern Saitama.  At the drab concrete-brick walled entrance, unkempt grass and worn statuary lay amid a confusion of tubs and pails filled with flitting silverfish. But what is this as we enter? A tall black lacquered byobu folding screen and, arranged before it, decorated porcelain vases and aged sculptures in wood and iron. Then into a tumble-down kitchen, cupboards crammed with porcelain bowls and dishware. Off the kitchen, a dark chamber, like a museum warehouse with more statuary and vases and a 1000-year-old wooden Buddhist relic hung near the ceiling. “That one is priceless,” the owner’s son, my brother-in-law, comments.

In a room just down the hall an old man lies in repose in a blue and white yukata on a futon, hands folded on his stomach, his feet bare. The beauty of his face is beyond description, an ancient face perfectly in harmony with the precious, if jumbled artifacts around him. Against one wall, treasures from as far back as the 13th century are stored in little wooden boxes, each one labeled and tied carefully with ribboned string. Yukichi Soga’s head is bare save for what white hair remains around the sides, but great salt-and-pepper eyebrows protrude above his closed eyes. The mouth is broad and sensual, concealing the hint of a smile. This is the face of an artist or an actor, a musician, perhaps a sculptor, his fingers are big and strong. But whatever we can say about the man, there is still the incomprehensibility of death, of a human presence that is not present, the appearance of one who, seemingly asleep, has gone and is not actually here. Hinkaku: dignity. There is an enormous sense of dignity about the old man, despite the marked imperfections of his life and character that his family know well. I have seen it before, on my mother’s face. It seems to be something that, usually, falls naturally upon the faces of the dead. 

But the dignity he is now accorded is quintessentially Japanese. Ikuko and her brother Akinori, his partner Hana, myself and young Andrew kneel on the tatami as a mop-topped young representative of the funeral company meticulously guides us through the steps of the initial ceremony, and his more rotund sempai, almost sleepily, monitors things from behind him. The youngster’s delicacy of word and manner are ineffably Japanese. Each of us is given a small wet-nap to perform the gesture of cleaning the body. My wife and I attend gently to the man’s feet. Next, we slide silken slippers onto each foot, securing them with white ribbon. Then we must lift each leg slightly to wrap wide bands of silk about his lower legs. Two small silk pieces cover the backs of his intertwined hands, kept there by little loops around a finger of each one. A small packet of symbolic money is slipped inside the folds of the yukata to pay off any demon that might bar his way upward.  

The two men go out to get the coffin, not a heavy, ostentatious western thing but one of light and easily burnable wood, clearly something made with care, and it is set on two aluminum risers. We gather around and grasping the bedclothes on which he lies, raise up Yukichi and set him down inside it. There is a small silk pillow to go under his head. Two woven reed sandals are placed at his feet. I am assigned to place an insubstantial peasant’s hat, woven of the same reedy material, just above the crown of his head. It may rain in the next world, but in that world, the gesture of a rain-hat may suffice. I lower it into place with all the slow Japanese grace I can muster, my hands pausing for that extra moment, then I rise. Ikuko nods approvingly. 

A metaphorical little wood cane is laid by his right hand should he need that. A few faux-silk cloths are laid upon his chest and legs. A last light, silken blanket is laid over the length of the deceased. Finally some personal items: his favorite tennis shoes, a grey cap, a leather pouch he favored. This moves me (even as I write this), these expressions of tenderness for a man I never, over these many years of marriage, even met once. At last, we set the light wooden covering, embossed with ornamental brass corner-brackets, over the unresisting Yukichi, enclosing him in his casket. Two small doors with a plastic seal beneath are folded back above his head for viewing.  He is all tucked in now.  

What a mystery not to have known him. But there were hard feelings over an angry parental divorce 15 years before I even met Ikuko. His actions then were quite inexcusable. And he was not pleased to learn of his daughter finding love at 35 with a foreign man. From these two issues, primarily the latter, arose a father-daughter estrangement. I’d like to submit here what I have finally learned about this unique man. Ikuko, now more sentimental about him than she realized, has shared much to me in morning conversations. I knew he was a tough, self-centered man, unevolved emotionally, yet also an accomplished maker of jewelry. What were the roots of this? 

Growing up in the 1950s (as I did) but in a ravaged post-war Japan, a university education was not on the table for Yukichi Soga. Instead, he was shunted into an apprenticeship with a local jewelry maker. Living in his parents’ apartment house (two floors, eight rabbit-hutch units), he fell into what would prove an inadvisable marriage to Fujiko, the girl upstairs. 

Iko’s mother had arrived from Kyushu a few years before, part of a necessary diaspora of seven children from a poor family there. She had won an NHK singing contest, but it came to nothing, as the family couldn’t afford the vocal lessons a serious career would require. So Fujiko lived for a time with her sister Kaiyo and her American husband on Fussa Air Base near Tokyo. She grew interested in English and western literature but, in a Robert Frostian moment, declined Kaiyo’s offer to take her to the U.S. to study there, opting for a job at Epson and a little apartment in Hino. At a local Bingo game, invited there casually by Yukichi, she won a fateful prize – a piece of jewelry he’d crafted. They were young and they must have thought…Bingo!

An early indication of his enterprising character and personal charisma was that at 19, after the impulsive marriage, Yukichi quickly set up his own shop with two followers. The team would grow to ten. In the early days, two workers would sleep in the same room as Yukichi and Fujiko. Well, not exactly…let’s see what their rented home looked like.

For perspective, the “living room” is about 12 feet on each side. When Iko and Aki came along, the little family slept crowded together; prior to this, the two workers had slept in the area marked “closet.” Did you have your own room as a child? Iko’s only personal space, at the end of the hallway is marked, “desk.” Corrugated plastic roofing and walls led to an external bath. 

But early on, Yukichi became fascinated with porcelain antiques. Thus, the cabinets crammed into the living room. Iko and Aki, packed off to sleep as kids, would listen through the shoji doors to her father and friends discussing their subtleties, “Look at this beautiful bowl…” Increasingly, Yukichi delved into books on antiques, haunting book stores, studying eras, styles, materials, manufacturing techniques. Those books he bought were stacked up in the little home. Yet the research, the jewelry work, the antiques were not enough: every morning Yukichi arose to attend to, eventually, about 100 bonsai trees set in antique pots that encircled the small rented house. Local ojee-sans (old men) were forever dropping by to request explanatory tours of his collection.  

The years passed, Iko and Aki became teenagers, the business thrived. The marriage did not, except in Japanese terms. They worked. As a team. 

Let’s have a wider look at the area: 

This was a neighborhood of hands-on working folk, one in the traditional sense. If drinking led to a family fight, neighbors rushed over to separate a couple. At age five, Iko would make daily tours of the surrounding houses to entertain housewives with a song or dance. Soon, Yukichi was able to buy the land adjacent to his rented house from the landlord and build a studio for the production of his creations. Tired of her cramped life, Fujiko wanted it replaced with a larger, respectable building combining the shop with family quarters upstairs. This was against Yukichi’s eccentric nature. He loved the old shack, more precisely, he was a man uncaring of possessions in the conventional sense, reaching instead for knowledge and mastery, unattached to wealth, living in the moment – this was being alive. He could stare for long periods at an artwork, considering its nuances, immersed in mysteries no one but he perceived. His little house was but a shell to keep the rain off his things. Familial proximity was fine; before, on cold mornings, he’d insist Iko get under the covers with him to snuggle, something she hated. Because the man was instinctively an authoritarian, giving on his terms only. “Go draw something!” he would admonish her, turning off the TV. He bought her coloring pencils.  “Draw this…or draw that!” And she would.

Eventually, the larger house got built (Soga 2) but only as prelude to divorce. Imagine the oppressive maleness of Fujiko’s environment, the lack of privacy, the studio as be-all, end-all. Her duties were not only cooking for 10 single men but doing the accounts as well. If a mistake was made in either area, a slap on the head was likely to result, not a rare thing in Japanese households in the 1970s or even later. Of course Fujiko was no shrinking violet, she stood her ground, and the memories of the final days and nights are better left untold. At some point, unhappy with the children keeping to their new rooms, he announced to the family, “I’m lonely.” After this declaration, he began to shower at days end, put on nice clothes and drive off to points unknown. Things went downhill after that. By then, Iko’s grandmother was renting the old house, and with the divorce the two women and Iko would have to move away together, leaving Yukichi and son Akinori in the new house, tending his business. Let’s just say the settlement was less than fair. Fujiko opened up a little snack bar in Hino. A few years later the grandmother passed away, Iko found her own work in Tokyo and eventually, in 2005, a Jewish-American English teacher showed up on the scene. 

Back here in Misato, one end of the tatami room has been hung with a silk curtain and a large smiling photo of a younger, vigorous Yukichi has been placed on a pedestal behind the casket. A low table with incense, flowers and a small Buddhist singing bowl with striker, stands in front of it.  There’s a flat pillow you can kneel on. Then we all gather for a typical family lunch of supermarket sushi and salad around the weathered kitchen table. All this furniture Ikuko recognizes from the old family home 30 years ago. Why did he keep it, for some vague comfort? Or is it just another aspect of his disregard for what was unimportant to him. Our lunch completed, it’s time to leave. Ikuko will stay behind. Two days from now, a priest will come to chant the final prayers, then the children will take their father to the crematorium.  

Ikuko later described those two days during which she labored to clean the house of accumulated debris: “Every night I slept on the tatami next to him. I talked to him then, and during the day. ‘Can I throw this out, oto-san?’…and he’d just grunt, ‘Aaah!’ in his typical way. I found a beautiful bowl, perfect for my watercoloring. ‘Can I have this, Papa?’…’Ahh,’ he protested. ‘That’s very expensive!’  All the time I was talking to him, telling him how I felt. I could hear his voice so clearly!”

Yukichi’s antique business came later, after he moved to Saitama-ken, where he became a wheeler-dealer of pieces whose value serious students of the trade appreciated. His passion for the genre made him a fearless negotiator, willing to call someone who improperly questioned the price of a piece a “Bagaero!” (asshole!) to his face. But he possessed a gruff charm that attracted helpers and kept customers, often eccentric characters he described as weird, just one variety of otaku, the self-isolating single-obsession nerds Japan is famous for. When his helpers tried to neatly arrange the antiques for display, the otaku complained, as they loved to dig around in the jumble of boxes for treasures which upon discovery they would hide in the back of the pile. Yukichi understood, and neatness was doomed. Meanwhile, he drove all over Tokyo looking for new items, trading, buying. His son Akinori, after a period of escape as a frame-making surfer in idyllic Kamakura, moved nearby and halfheartedly partook in sales at antique flea markets. He tried to be his own man without success, until he put his father’s shop name above his stand. “Oh, you are Soga-san’s son!” were words that signaled his acceptance and better sales. This was, after all, Japan.    

Although he spent his last years mainly alone, it wasn’t a life of seclusion. Customers and antique aficionados were forever dropping by, and he had woman friends or assistants to look in on him, especially as he grew older. Still, Ikuko visualized him eating his ramen out of a bowl probably worth three grand, alone. Yukichi was almost exactly my age, and in my youth my actions were little better than his, worse arguably. But his children, grudgingly, forgave him. His son attended him over the years. After a 13-year estrangement, Ikuko and he tearfully reconciled the week before he died, a spiritual release for them both. He had heard for the first time the voice of his grandson Andrew, speaking in Japanese. In his extremity, he could accept it all now, even the family picture with the American husband, the three of us seated smilingly on a camping trip in the forest near Yamanaka-ko.

The morning after Andy and I return home, Ikuko mother calls her, subtly desiring to not be completely excluded. As Iko explains when the concluding act will be held, Nana drily comments, “Ja, kongari,” using a verb normally applied to grilling chicken. One translation might be, “Well, cook him until he’s well done,” combining her spite with Japanese practicality. Telling me this, Iko shouts to her father in the other room, “She’s just joking, oto-san!” To which we imagine him replying, “You don’t have to explain, I know the woman.” Yes, that woman again. The woman who worked alongside you, served lunch every day to your team of workers, and from whom you appropriated the family assets. That woman. After my morning jog, I drop by to visit Nana and am invited in for a bowl of soup. “Soga-san sugoi wagamama hito deshita,” is her comment – Mr. Soga was a very selfish person. “But,” she goes on, “he was father of our two children. I hope he sleeps peacefully.” Forgiveness is the order of the day.

On Thursday, in the tatami room before the cremation, the Buddhist priest labors in prayer, chanting before the casket with Ikuko and Akinori in attendance. Suddenly he cries out, shouting at the top of his voice, violently clanging his brass cymbals together. “Go away! Your life here is over! It’s time to leave and ascend!” Afterward, he shows concern that Mr. Soga may not reach nirvana this time and may have to live another earthly life. I imagine it’s not the first time he’s told a grieving family that. With the casket, the three of them now make their way to the nearby crematorium. In the waiting room, the siblings look up, astonished, to see on the wall the kanji of their mother’s name, Fujiko. The room is named after the wisteria, or fuji tree, so popular in Japan. Apparently more karma remains between those two souls. The eternal game goes on.  

It is November 14th, 2020, and the compelling, yet flawed beauty of Mr. Soga has now vanished in smoke. Life’s challenges still lie ahead for us all. As for Yukichi, no one here can say.

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On Woody

April 13, 2020

Apropos of nothing, I just read Woody Allen’s, Apropos of Nothing.  Halfway through, I decided to check the media response and discovered a condemnatory piece by one Catherine Bennet.  I tweeted her, which resulted in this exchange:

So that was strange. Mr. Allen, you see, has mounted an impressive defense in Apropos of Nothing, coherent and well-documented enough that the stigma he endures, the professional shaming make you wonder what else is going on. 

The criticism by The Other Ms. Bennet focused on Woody objectifying female actors he directed or starred with. Point taken. Embarrassingly, this bespectacled product of the 60s can’t restrain himself from repeatedly combining phrases like “terrifically talented” and “gifted” with sexualized references to feminine beauty. But for me (the other) Ms. Bennet is a photographer zooming in on the wart on Abe Lincoln’s right cheek. “Look at that giant pimple! Yuk! Who let that bum into the White House?” Woody is not stupid, though, and more to the point, he is a writer, so the question arises, why did he opt to put this sensual language about women in our face? The therapist within speaks: passive/ aggressiveness.

This is how I react to beautiful women, he says, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem. I don’t talk to them that way, but I shall write here what I feel. Look, I’m media-averse and fundamentally apolitical anyway. I don’t read reviews, I never look back on what I’ve made. I write, I schmooze, I work. I have my loyalists and my betrayers. And over my entire career no one, no actor, no mother, no young woman has stood up to accuse me of improprieties. Think about that. I weathered #metoo with zero accusations, except from Le Cabal de Mia. So if I think an actress was “not just gifted and beautiful, but sexually radioactive,” or that she had “the sexiest two front teeth in the business,” I’ll say it. Thirty years from now, they’ll remember what I created, not a few provocative one-liners in my memoir. And Ms. Bennet?  Her grandkids will say, “She used to write for the Guardian, I think.”  

Yet the stigma remains. You have to read the book, the litany of Mia Farrow’s abusiveness, the failure of two investigations to find misbehavior on Woody’s part, his son Moses’ descriptions of the toxic power Mia wielded and still wields over the offspring under her sole control. How is this – and more – so widely ignored? Allen is not subjected to this denigration in Europe or anywhere else. Could it be good old American prudishness, that puritanical essence the children of the Sixties so fervently tried to root out? It’s a fine line between liberation and regression. And then there’s the director’s appearance itself. We’re talking about an awkward, bespectacled Jewish man that made most of us, including me, cringe when he bussed a starlet on-screen. Unconsciously, do we judge the book by its cover? The fucker looks like a child-molester, right? 

Now Mark Harris, a successful chronicler of Hollywood history, unloads in New York Magazine.  Born in 1963, 18 years younger than me, he’s utterly repelled by Woody. I’m sure our politics, even sexual politics, are the same, but his long piece drips with malice. Mark is so furious at how sordid Woody’s descriptions of women are, at how Allen “hurt Mia’s family,” and on and on. Again, no attempt at balance or to weigh the possible veracity of Allen’s defense. Again, a blatant predisposition against and distrust of this man. He begins by apologizing for breaking the Woody PC Rules: 

“I want to explain that I took the assignment to read this book because I wanted to know how Allen made his movies and what he thinks about them. I realize that sounds about as credible as ‘I only go to PornHub for the user comments…’” 

How cheap a shot is that in an opening paragraph? Can you hear the fear of retribution Allen refers to among so many artists who worked with him and benefited professionally as a result? Allen’s central imperfection for Harris: he is cold and unfeeling. When JFK was shot (Woody states) he turned off the TV and went back to work. Harris ignores that the world has always appalled and anguished Woody; Is it possible the obscenity of Dallas was something someone with his disposition simply felt was to painful to process? Maybe. Allen  turns this despair and cynicism into cinematic meditations, i.e., Crimes and Misdemeanors. Yes, you get tired of it, in fact he often overdoes it, but it’s something your average Jew can grasp. Indeed. how fucked up is the world now?  Woody is preoccupied with human cruelty and with death, but he’s somehow so passé in 2020.  

April 19, 2020

I can’t watch movies on the computer for more than 15 minutes. Attention disorder, courtesy of FaceBook’s “Attention Engineers,” I guess. I just watched the beginning of Irrational Man: Typical: Woody rehashing the bleakness of existence, plus really nice legs, and I don’t mean those of Joaquin Phoenix. In fact, Allen is not the world’s greatest screenwriter. Too often his upper class intellectual characters have a cartoonish quality, their chatter overdone, and his concerns have become clichéd. And wow, the man has his bloopers. Irrational Man is embarrassing. And why is he so into killing women? Scarlet Johansson in Match Point, now Emma Stone, and of course Crimes and Misdemeanors.  Do his moments of brilliance make up for it.   

Another review, dissing his remark that Scarlet Johansson was a terrific person “once you waded through her pheromones.” Yuk, was the comment. Was Woody referring to the aroma of her pussy? Of course not! He used a vivid term to refer to her sexual radiance. Imagine: the young Scarlet Johansson arrives to audition for Match Point. She wants the role as a femme fatale. How might she present herself?  What Woody might be describing is simply his attempt to maintain professionalism in the face of an onslaught of sensual beauty. Set this against the young comedian guy who recently suggested how funny it would be if his audience raped the woman who had stood up to protest his rape jokes. 

Think of it from a generational perspective. Woody’s and my generation were angry about two or three things: Vietnam, racism, and the sexual repression and hypocrisy of our parents. Millennials are angry about racism, climate change and male entitlement. Thus, Woody’s license to wax sexual in his description of beautiful women was issued in the 60s. Millennials were literally born into the age of feminism. Careful comes with the territory. So the male gaze is anathema, but will it ever completely go away? At best it evolves into the male slightly-extended glance, the male furtive deer-in-the-headlights gawk. Men, like certain birds, genetically predisposed to promiscuity, not to mention aggression, are unlikely to transcend their female objectivism or not get paralyzed momentarily at the sight of an ass proportioned to their tastes. It is modern civilization’s great challenge to learn to restrict, not eradicate these ancient instincts, for we cannot. I plan to in my next reincarnation or maybe…yeah, the one after that. 

Ultimately the tempest around Woody Allen is swirling within the teapot of the liberal elite. Out there, beyond the Hudson, while the PC community focuses on a old Jewish director who shuns the spotlight, makes movies and does to defend himself,  Trumpian males strut and threat and brandish their semi-automatics. Much easier to beat up on Woody.      

And what do we make of the Farrows? The deeper you look into Mia’s sad personal history and crazy threats of violence against Woody, into Dylan’s ever-changing story, into the Mia-Dylan-Ronan coordinated attack campaign of 2014, into the neglect and constant renaming of her brood of imported children, the more the PC crowd resembles the zombies who uncomplainingly swallow of Donald Trump’s latest outrage. Confirmation bias is a mother-fucker. 

Ultimately, if we make a tremendous leap and consider the man innocent of the charges, the remarkable thing about him is that he protesteth so little. Aside from this memoir, he holds his peace and lives out his life with equanimity. One is reminded of Mel Brook’s joke about Moishe, who steps into the street and is knocked down by a car. His friends rush over to him as he’s lying there, slide a coat under his head and throw a blanket over him. Waiting for the ambulance to come, one of them asks, “Moishe, are you comfortable?”  Moishe looks up and says, “I make a living.” 

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The Other (after Borges)

It was in 1968, in the aftermath of a Berkeley People’s Park riot, wisps of tear gas still wafting in the night air, cops leaning watchfully against their cars in front of the Student Union. I’d worked at the record store until nine and was headed across campus to my dorm. Stopping at Ludwig’s Fountain to feel the mood, seated on its big concrete edge, I realized an old man had joined me a few feet away. I say joined me, though there was no greeting or acknowledgement of any kind. 

I had just graduated without fanfare, a printed diploma handed over by an office worker. My grades in psychology were not graduate-school worthy and I had no money for one either. My arrival at Cal had been heralded by a bullet through John Kennedy’s head, my matriculation by another through that of his younger brother.  American boys were dying by the score in Vietnam, and my draft board was sniffing around for me. I was fair game in a game beyond my 23 year-old comprehension. Even further beyond my comprehension, I was still a virgin.

The old man began to whistle, “The Cat Came Back.”  The words flowed through my mind…

But the cat came back, he wouldn’t stay away

He was sitting on the porch on the very next day

The cat came back, he didn’t want to roam

He haunted Freddie’s ghost…..

This sent a chill through me, and not just because he’d whistled just that last, fatalistic verse. I turned to look at him. The man wasn’t looking my way, but he struck me as some family member I’d never been introduced to. Our prominent noses were strikingly similar. He had the same Van Dyke beard I affected, though his was completely white. 

“I know that song,” I told him. “It was written by my uncle.”

“He must be pretty old then. Harry Miller? Miller was born in 1867.”

“No, my uncle’s name is Josef – I thought he wrote it. He and my aunt always sing it in their concerts. 

“Ah, you know Marais and Miranda? I love them. Fine artists. 

Which was no comfort. Who was this guy? Why was he sitting there in the dark, looking like… 

“Excuse me,” I asked, “but are you Jewish?”

After a disconcerting silence, “I would say so.” 

“You would say so?”

“Well, my parents raised me in Christian Science, but I left that behind long ago. I’m a Jew.”

I hadn’t smoked weed that day, but now I was paranoid. Was this some schmuck from the Draft Board sent to fuck with me by carbon copying the details of my life? I was about to get up and leave, but curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to pursue the religious issue to see if he’d left that unfortunate sect for the same reasons I did. When I looked at him again, he had turned towards me. Even in the dark I could see the troubled expression on the strangely familiar face as he stared at me. 

“Your name is Arnold, isn’t it.” 

“What if it is? What’s yours?”

“That’s my name too.”

I felt dizzy. I was named after my grandfather, a Dutch dentist murdered at Auschwitz.  But the pictures I’d seen of that Arnold bore no resemblance to this old fellow. He looked to be in his 70s. My grandfather had been in his 50s when they gassed him and my grandmother. But my middle name was different – that of my father’s close American friend. I asked the old man about his.

“Arnold Charles,” he said, and his mystified look, like the name, matched mine. “We are both Arnold Charles Baruch, sitting here on a bench in Kunitachi, Tokyo.”

“No,” I objected, “this is Berkeley, the Cal Berkeley campus. Damn! Someone must have spiked my coffee at work, I’m hallucinating. Or you are.”

“Well, besides seeing me, do you feel stoned? Are things moving around you?”

“Not really.”

“Rather than that, I think I must be lying next to my wife dreaming about you.”

“Have you ever had lucid dreams like this?” I asked. “Held conversations with people in your sleep?”

“Never. I am attempting to wake up now. I can’t seem to do it.” 

“I’m certainly not dreaming,” I told him. “Look at my hands, how they tremble.” 

He glanced at my hands. “Well, that’s understandable,” he said drily.  “You’re something of a chicken, aren’t you.” He smiled at me then, a smile both kindly and irritated. I didn’t know what to say. But it was sinking in that somehow I was in the company of my own self, decades into the future. 

“Let’s assume this is some sort of magical event,” I sighed, trying to calm myself. “Suppose we really are the same person at different ages. You suggest I lack courage, and maybe you’re right. But you must know I’ve been infatuated with Carlos Castaneda – so…did we ever conquer fear? Did we achieve the clarity of a warrior?”

“No chance. You never get there. You just get slapped around a bit. But that’s not the problem. It’s your unparalleled stupidity. And your laziness.” He cleared his throat and spat, not successfully.  “You cannot imagine, sitting there on your bench with your little diploma…”

“I’m at a fountain.”

“Whatever. You can’t imagine the inane choices you’re going to make, the years you’ll waste, the money you’ll lose. At some point you’re going to think you’re a writer, but no one will read your stuff. You’re no Borges, believe me.” 

I became angry. “If you know everything, fucking tell me what to avoid, tell me what to do…”

“Oh, naturally at my age I have some ideas, Arnold. But even now, looking back, I can’t be sure about them. And my heart is in the life I am living now. With luck I may have 15, even 20 years left. If I change your path by advising you, well, it may be bad advice –  or you may not implement it anyway. But most of all, you’ll probably destroy the two people who now live in the very center of my heart. And other dear ones. You see, you are also a lucky fellow. Inexplicably, things will turn out OK for… for us.” 

I had to get something out of him, or rather, out of me. “Just give me a hint or two.  Hey, it’s the ‘60s! I want to take time off and just play saxophone, maybe get in a band. What about Nancy, should we finally have sex or should I break up with her? What about grad school? And how do I get out of the fucking draft?”

The man slowly rubbed the back of his neck, then sighed. “Let’s just say the pleasure you give to others with that saxophone of yours will fall short of the pleasure it gives to you,” he said. “Ultimately, that thing’s a troublemaker. You know, if it looks like a snake and sounds like a snake…” He turned away and fell into silence. I felt him fading, in my guts first. He was getting harder to see. Just as he was evaporating, I faintly heard him speak these 14 words: 

“Buy an apple in 2006 and hold on to it for another 15 years.”  Then he was gone. 

What the hell did that mean? What was I supposed to do with an apple – freeze it? Let it rot? When 2006 rolled around, I got one though, a Fuji – I was in Japan by then. I had it freeze dried right away. I have it in a closet somewhere, but his advice still makes no sense to me.  

I keep a picture of it in my iPhone.  

Posted in EXODUS, Stage Left, Parts 1-5 | Leave a comment

Memoir

So where do I start, I’m thinking, sitting on a bench in Hachioji Station as hundreds of Japanese commuters stomp by. First books seldom get published anyway. God’s did, but He always had enormous pull with editors and agents. Especially after he zapped the guy who tried to shorten the Pentatuch:

Agent:  God, sweetheart! This Pentateuch thing. Too repetitive! You don’t need all the geneolo…

God:  Zapp!

After that, the deal was don’t change a word.

Today, as cherry blossoms attain their peak effulgence all over Tokyo, inspiration strikes: Start with the travel journal!  Drop Query Letter From Hell down into an optional appendix. Don’t be pushy: insinuate personal history just here and there. After all, it’s an ebook, people can jump around if they like. Maybe people will like it. Even at 74, you gotta give it a try. Look at the Angela’s Ashes guy, an sixtyish Irishman. Had a big hit, a movie too! Of course, this was back in the ‘90s, before everyone and his FaceBook friend was self-published, and Boomer eyesight began to fail. I mean, why write a book if you can’t see it?

Or maybe this effort will just be for posterity, for my great-grandchildren, if such people exist after the Great Plains becomes the American Sahara and Dolphins Stadium actually is a dolphins stadium.  WAIT! An e-book with embedded YouTube links!  A V-book!  These days people can’t read more than 100 words without a video clip, right?  Let me check Word Count right now…What?  278 words??   ROLL THE CLIP!!

The Query Letter From Hell

The Big Sashimi

March, 1992  At dusk we landed at Narita. Winter was still in the air. On the train downtown, appalled, I saw bleak 12-story apartment houses stretching to the horizon. It was freezing in the little Shinjuku office of Kumiko’s telephone-sex company, where we would stay until further notice. In those days, long before free on-line porn, men paid to hear erotic phone recordings by voice actresses. Kumiko, a prim and proper young woman unable to work under her student visa, had stumbled into an administrative job in the U.S. office of the company, where they paid her under the table. Then she’d wrangled a transfer back to Japan. The office was only a small bed, a sink and a bank of computers hooked to telephone lines.

My watch showed 3 AM, West Coast time. Crawling onto a futon, shivering under a blanket, I sought to shield my great nose from the frigid air. At dawn came the demonic laughter of the Tokyo crows, which should be, but is not, the name of the city’s baseball team. I looked up to see Kumiko’s sister immersed in meditation amidst the hard grey clutter of a Japanese office. I began to sneeze. To be nice, she went out into the freezing streets to worship at a nearby shrine. Why have I come here, I thought, as I walked the streets later that day. It is cold. The wind blows and the rain rains and tomatoes are $3.00 each.

But it got better. I felt my way around Shinjuku. After subways and neon, I found the most striking feature of Tokyo was the sheer quantity of restaurants – ramen, tempura, sushi, soba, yakiniku, shabu-shabu, ten-don, katsu-don and don and don, piled one atop another from basement to the top floor of building after skinny building, all brimming with customers. The Japanese love to eat out and think and talk about their myriad foods, yet no one seems to get fat. I’ve seen maybe fifteen kinds of Japanese cuisines and many skillful renderings of Italian, French, Thai, Chinese, Korean and every other ethnic food. Restaurants are everywhere. You can trip over the smaller ones.

Next I began to discern architectural Tokyo, full of contradiction. Her narrow old buildings and medieval alleys convey a sense of antiquity, while on adjacent streets ultra-modern mini high-rises abound, each a clever exercise in chrome or polished marble or textured pastels. Even in quiet residential neighborhoods, an outrageous mauve or green-gold concrete-and-glass thing will leap out at you, cool and cutting-edge. All over Tokyo, electric sliding glass doors are de rigeur. Tokyo’s department stores are first-rate and attract dense swarms of meticulously dressed, coiffed women. They stand out in elegant relief against the nondescript, harried, thoroughly managed males around them. Younger men seem like harmless, mop-headed boys, older ones are often mopes without mops. In department store basements are astounding grocery-delis with fresh fish, meats, prepared Japanese food, vegetables and fruits, endless European and Japanese confectionery and pastry counters, arrays of exquisitely formed sweet creations, artfully wrapped in the subtlest pastels. And everywhere the vendors shouting,  “Irashai, irashai! – irashai masen!!”  Roughly translated into New York-speak,

“Yo, check my stuff OUT! I got a throat like a bagpipe, and I can do this all day!  COME ON DOWN!”

Japanese attention to detail, quality, aesthetics, is universal.  Good service and courteous treatment occur with on a level unimagined in America. As time goes on however, the courtesy and its correlative confomity  reveals a less attractive side or, as expats call it, the Disneyland Effect.  Women at the fast food restaurants or offices chirp at you with little-girl voices, robotic movements and true-believer Macdonald’s eyes. Young girls teeter down the street in super-short skirts and ridiculous platform shoes. New fashions are edicts written in stone. “Japlish” slogans on clothes leave you dazed:  “Sodomy: Enjoy Your Wonderful Life-Style!”engraved on the backpack of a first-grader. Or “The Puberty Club – Do Whatever You Like!” on an older student’s pencil carrier.

The Arigato gozaimasu!  hurled at you by three different clerks as you leave a shop or the robot-speak at the 7-11 counter has nothing to do with you at all and in time grates on the nerves. And the iron rules of commercial behavior flash when a store is out of what you want. The clerk holds up his hands helplessly when you inquire who in the area might have it in stock. He may know but will not say. An American tells you, “Yeah, Grossman’s should have it over on Third Street,” figuring you’ll remember he helped you and come back to him next time. The Japanese more likely hides such knowledge in allegiance to his firm, and it feels like he’s saying, “to hell with you,” but we forget that a Japanese would never even ask the question. Rules are pretty much inflexible.

Yet despite all the formality and control, there is in Japan a pervasive interpersonal gentleness that enfolds you. A gentility of manners seeps in to your daily life until you forget about it. Only on your return to the States, when your best friend is shouting out his political views, disagreeing before you can finish your sentence, do you realize how confrontational Americans are, how we need to establish the correctness of our ideas and our own worth.

The characteristic facial expression in a Japanese interaction is one of rapt interest, as if the revelation of a remarkable new truth is imminent. Lips are pursed slightly, eyebrows raised. Wisdom, empowerment, knowledge comes from outside, from the Other. Americans listen primarily for an error, a lapse in reasoning, a chance to leap in with their own valued truth. Of course, we did invent science that way, so maybe there is an upside to this.

Once, early in the morning, I was speeding along on my bike to catch a train. I’d just made it across a major street zipping manically through a yellow light. Ahead of me two people were running along pathetically late for their train. (The only thing worse than a lifetime office sentence is having to run down the street because you’re late for a Train To Jail.) Unfortunately, as I zoomed by one man, he hung  a quick left. I slammed into him, my shoulder nailing him on the cheek, both of us tumbling to the ground in disarray.

In America, you know what comes next. “Asshole!! Where you think you’re going on the goddamn bike? Where’s the fire, shit-for-brains?!” In the States, we’re talking lawyers on the cell phone right now, or lower on the socio-economic ladder punches, hell, maybe even gunplay. In Japan, the guy didn’t even have time to brush off his expensive suit, he was so busy bowing and apologizing and asking if I was okay, for God’s sake. We’re both there bowing to each other, anger the farthest thing from our minds. Anger is considered childish. Stoicism and moderation are instinctive.

There is the pleasant adjustment one makes, gradually accepting a sense of personal safety in Japan. Americans perceive their cities as dangerous places at night and are always on their guard; in Tokyo, the night carries no threat. You can set down a package and walk away knowing it’s unlikely to be stolen. The rule is simple: leave things where they are. You notice that men throw fewer hard stares at each other in the street. Instead, facial language may involve a quick glance, penetrating and severe, followed by a sudden downcast expression that speaks of self-examination and humility. It’s as if there was a kind of subliminal dissemination of social values in the daily culture. “Be tough on yourself but don’t make waves,” as opposed to the not-uncommon American street vibe: “Don’t fuck with me, I may be carrying a piece.”

Japanese alcoholism is arguably pathological, but drunkenness is a happier and far less belligerent affair than that of Americans. Grown men or inebriated teenagers clasp hands, hold each other up, stumble along arm in arm. How could they have raped Nanking, these people MacArthur called a nation of 12-year olds, with their gentle style, their blue jeans and orange hair, dressed up in imitation of all they see in the world around them? A friend once encountered a hard-eyed, heavy-metal gathering of leather-jacket toughs in a bathroom. They were staring knives at him as he entered. He took a breath and moved with trepidation toward them to reach the toilets. As he did, the wild ones melted away in a burst of bows and apologies and friendly groveling. They were future salarymen wearing costumes, playing roles. In America I’m a peripheral monkey, but in Japan everyone is so retiring I can find myself walking with a chip on my shoulder, assuming all males will get out of my way. I really must take care.

Of course, the lack of elbow-room creates stress in foreigners.  I recall the first time I rode the Yamanote Line during rush hour. Walking toward the station there was a pre-roller-coaster feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then the train scraped to a stop like a huge metal burrito with people for beans. Next,  everything that they say happens happened. The sausage exploded. Then I was pushed in sharply by a white-gloved attendant, a crucial part of me nearly clipped off by the closing door. Talk about in your face: we were in each other’s faces, backs, bottoms – we were in each other period.

The Filling of the Burrito

I am a small man. I held my head high to avoid burying my nose in the right shoulder of the man pressed in front of me. I was squeezed in from the right and the left by others squeezed in by more human bookends. I thrust my hips painstakingly back to avoid inappropriate contact with the left bun of a small, elegant young woman before me. Safer contact could be made by pressing my chest outward against her back. This balancing act could be executed only by the firm application of my left butt to the butt of a uniformed high-school student behind me. The rich musk of 90 or 100 tightly packed human bodies filled the air. Every so often the trainman hit the brakes and all the butts, chests, hips staggered forward or back in unison, then reassumed their previous postures. Part of a compact mass with nowhere to fall, I remained erect. That is to say, I remained standing.

At Shinjuku station, the flood of people-beans surged down the stairways. The muffled sound of two hundred heels clicking on the tiles. Sharp-dressed women, gray-suited men with their briefcases and super-serious expressions, a silent army on the move. No one spoke, no one laughed. But from inside Berkeley-me, something else. A revulsion, a sense of insult at this dungeon march.  We sheep led to slaughter. Many years now I have lived with it, and I am not an amateur. Mostly I stay out of the rush but sometimes, if I fall again into that gray mass swarming up the stairs I still rage inside, and wonder if they ever do too.

I’ve ridden the trains enough, at midnight with people packed in like arrestees handcuffed to their handhold rings. Each day some women get grabbed by sickos they fear to berate. The children go to school on the train. They grow up, get jobs and look up at the placards advertising $45,000 weddings. Then they have their kids. Years go by. At night, drunken men weave home to their sleeping families, get up early and trudge down to the station again, and then again. Young husbands grow old on the trains, staring straight ahead, not looking out the windows. Nowadays it’s cellphones they stare at, punching maniacally at video games. Falling asleep, riding drunk with red eyes, avoiding each others glances, shoving each other a just little to get in and get out. Their hair grows thin, turns white, falls out. The young girls stop giggling, become mothers looking at little boys with a severity that was not there before. Smooth faces grow wrinkled, and new faces take the places of the old. They have few options, no wild frontiers, no Phoenix or Seattle to run away to. There is duty, propriety,  co-operation, rare shows of affection, and then you die.

I know they have their happy moments.  Self-discipline, loyalty, sacrifice have their rewards. And they do know, when scheduled, how to party. In their own way when the time is right they shout and laugh like anyone else. I don’t really want to criticize Japan. Berkeley, my old home, was pervaded in the Eighties by so much cynicism. That knee-jerk negativity was not the whole picture. You can become a complainer. I don’t mean to do that.

Tokyo, unraveled a little, reveals its opposites. The throng rushes on, yet there is a small stillness in each human interaction.  Everywhere Tokyo is new, yet there is always something ancient here. The style of expression is gentle and courteous, yet beneath it lies a system of expectations and values that cuts like a knife.

But hey, I’m out of here next year.

What year is it anyway?

Regarding Brooklyn, And Me

May, 1945: Legal documents show that I arrived in the world at Brooklyn’s Jewish Memorial Hospital literally a few hours after Adolph Hitler blew his brains out in Berlin. There was a time in my insensible youth when I would tell people this, comb my hair off to the side, use two fingers to narrow my moustache, adopt a manic expression and try to get a reaction. But the resemblance was marginal, and the idea that the great monster of the 20th Century would be reincarnated as a smallish Jewish saxophonist is intolerable.

My life, though imperfect, is far too gentle a consequence for the embodiment of evil. He killed my grandparents and eradicated six million souls. He should be sentenced to watch film clips of the most precious moments of every family he destroyed until his black heart breaks, then Bruce Lee should be there to rip it out of his chest, spit on it and reinsert it for the next clip. He should see his failures too, for instance my wonderful aunt, who escaped Holland with her two children in 1938. She and her British South African husband became world-class folk artists. What can anyone say about Hitler? He should drink Drano in the morning forever. Selah.

My father was a Dutch classical violinist, my mother a budding American popular singer whose career was nipped in it by her marriage to Dad. But my second cousin Andre may have done the most for my personal development. Another European emigre, he made himself one of the country’s top radio and TV announcers and married a famous big band vocalist. Then, in 1954 he was handed a job he’d dreamed of: calling play-by-play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, teaming up with baseball’s smoothest, most articulate young announcer, Vin Scully. He kept the gig until the Dodgers left for L.A. in 1958. Those four years were like no others for me.

One Saturday morning in June of ’54, when I had just turned nine years old, Andre pulled up in his new Packard in front of our brownstone on Harrison Street and called up to the second floor bedroom I shared with my older sister. “OK up there, who wants to go see the Bums play St. Louis?”

Dad had told me the night before that Andre might come by and I’d hardly slept. I’d been to Ebbets Field just twice before, once with my grandfather Harry, a frustrated comedian who ran a smoke shop on the west side of Manhattan, and once with my Dad, who barely knew a double play from a pop-up. I was down the stairs, glove in hand, in less than 30 seconds. “Hop in, Arnie, batting practice starts in half an hour,” Andre smiled. I clambered in next to his son Wayne, a year or two older and a foot taller. I was the shortest kid in my class.

Andre had his own parking spot in the narrow lot behind the left field grandstands. The three of us walked down Lakewood Avenue to the main entrance, then climbed the stairs to the announcer’s booth. Scully was already there and gave us a brief, “Hello, boys, you enjoy the game, now!” in his dulcet Southern tones. Andre showed me his scorecard from the night before.

“Roy Campanella two hit homers, right over there by the Camel sign. He’s been hot lately.”

Scully took the cigarette out of his mouth. “Andre, why don’t you take these boys down and get them set up so we can go over a couple things before air-time, all right?”

We followed him down to a couple of seats right behind the Dodger dugout. Paris, the Great Pyramid, the Seven Wonders of the World, forget about it. For a nine-year old Brooklyn kid, this was heaven on earth. Twenty feet away, there was Campy warming up young Carl Erskine. In the batting cage, Gil Hodges was taking his swings, lacing liners wherever he chose. There was Jackie Robinson chatting with Pee Wee behind the cage, and everyone knew the story of how Reese had put an arm around Jackie that day in Cincy when the going had gotten really rough for the only Negro player in the majors. Now had come glory days: they were in first place more often than not, fighting for the pennant every year and only the Yankees, the unbeatable Yanks remained to darken their Octobers. From time immemorial, Brooklynites had moaned, “Wait til next year.” Little did we know in 1954 that next year would be just that.

In the moment, the World Series was not my concern. Just six feet away, here came a figure wearing a big 4 on his back. The Duke had emerged from the the Brooklyn dugout. “Hey, Duke, how ya doin?” Wayne cried. Snider turned toward us, his bat resting on his shoulder and smiled.

“Morning, Wayne, how’s your dad doing?”

“He’s okay I guess. You gonna hit one out today, Duke?”

“I just try to hit the ball hard, son. Hard to know what’s gonna happen next. Who’s your buddy?” I gulped. He’d noticed me. I existed.

“Duke, this is my cousin Arnie. He’s a big Gil Hodges fan.”

I could have killed Wayne, but Snider remained affable. “Well, that’s a good choice, Arnie,” he smiled. “We couldn’t win very often without Moonie.” That was Hodges nickname. His face looked like the man in the moon.

“You’re the best, Mr. Snider, it’s great to meet you,” I mumbled. It was like talking to God.

“Don’t you fellows eat too many hot dogs,” he smiled. The Duke turned away toward the batting cage. When Hodges had taken his swipes, he came back to the bench and we exchanged friendly waves with him. Meeting Snider was about all I could take that day. We settled back and watched Brooklyn slowly take apart the Cardinal pitchers. No homers, mostly singles and doubles and Reese and Robinson stealing the Cards blind. I got to see that Enos Slaughter looked less frightening than I had imagined him on the radio, and Stan Musial’s coiled presence at the plate was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever witnessed.

That summer I was at Ebbets five more times. When 1955 rolled around I was 10, and we came to the park so much most of the Boys of Summer would automatically wave hello to Wayne and me in our regular spots behind the dugout. In those days they weren’t millionaires, several of them lived within a few blocks of Ebbets. But that didn’t detract from their allure. Just to be known by these deities, I figured I was destined for something special in life. Millions of kids all over country would have given anything to be in my shoes. I knew I wasn’t bat boy material – too small, a step too slow. Fred Cameron and Chris Shafter were older and better connected to the players. I had one moment of glory in ‘57, when I was twelve. Hodges swung late and stroked a screaming foul ball right at my head late in a game against the Giants and I threw my glove up in self defense and the ball stuck. The fans around me gave a big cheer, and Hodges looked up at me with my glove in the air, triumphant, and threw me one of those big smiles of his. As if that weren’t enough, he took Sal Maglie deep on the next pitch for the three runs that settled the game.

I got in for just one game of the curse-breaking World Series in 1955 with Grandpa Harry, way up the right field line. Sadly, the Yanks won that one. But Wayne was with his Dad in the booth at Yankee Stadium when Johnny Podres shut New York out in the seventh game. I was at home watching with Dad and Mom and Harry and the rest of the family. That was okay, I had no complaints. I actually knew those guys dancing around in grainy black and white on the pitcher’s mound after the last out. And my friends at school knew I knew them too.

Actually, that was a problem. When you’re the smallest kid in the 6th grade class at Public School 191, you don’t want to attract a lot of attention. I got leaned on some after I made the mistake of bragging about my spot behind the Dodger dugout. Once, a pair of brothers, Italian kids, decided to slap me around after school, not a real ass-kicking, but enough to bust up an eleven year-old ego for a few weeks. The next day, Saturday, I headed down to Ebbets alone to wait for Wayne and Andre in the parking lot. I was on the ground slumped against the fence, staring at tire marks in the dirt when I heard a voice I knew, one with just a tinge of the South in it, very clear and calm.

“What’s eating you, Arnie?” It was Jackie, with that cool, edgy smile of his. “Somebody giving you a hard time?”

“No,” I lied, “I’m just waiting for Wayne.”

“Come on, man, what happened – tough day at school?”

I caved and ran the slap-down by the Italian boys by Robinson. The great Dodger third baseman looked hard at me for a couple seconds, and as he did, the irony – I couldn’t identify it as such at eleven – and then the understanding sunk in. I saw it in his eyes, saw how much more he’d been through than I had. He lifted his eyebrows and said, “Look, Arnie, it gets tough sometimes, but one day you’ll be somebody and those clowns will be parking cars in Flatbush. Maybe it’s gonna come to punches, and then, well, do not run away. But however it ends up, keep doing good in school and you’ll be okay. How’s your grades anyway?”

I smiled up at him. “Mostly A’s,” I beamed.

“Well, there you go, slugger! I figured you for a bright one. You’re gonna wind up at NYU and leave the rest of us in the dust.” Jackie reached down and tousled my hair with his big hand. “Come on, you can come in with me, let Wayne catch up later!” So I strolled into Ebbets with Jackie Robinson that day and never forgot either his kindness or his words. I steered clear of trouble after that, and when I finally picked up a saxophone in the 8th grade, I knew I’d found a weapon to assert myself in the world. Brooklyn’s no-nonsense world insulated me against the facile love-peace-and-brotherhood illusions of the Sixties. I knew in the music business it was every man for himself, and I dedicated myself to constant practice, emulating the achievements of Coltrane and Henderson and the other players who by the time I reached NYU were blowing withering cascades of notes through the clubs of Manhattan – the Five Spot, the Village Vanguard, the Half Note. From Jackie Robinson to Coltrane, Snider to Cannonball, the memories are rich and….

Well, not quite.

Actually, my family left Brooklyn in 1946. I was nine months old when they moved to Los Angeles. Andre Baruch was just a shadowy, distant relative back East. I didn’t learn about his job with Brooklyn until much later in life – I’d known he was an announcer on TV and radio, but my parents apparently never knew he worked for the Dodgers, for whom as a boy I’d rooted from faraway Los Angeles. It was only long years later I realized – saw with certainty – that naturally I would have gone to Ebbets Field with Andre and Wayne and would have met the Duke and PeeWee and Jackie in an amazing alternative universe. But it was not to be. Those guys were in Brooklyn and I was in Eagle Rock, three miles from Pasadena.

Until they came west as the Los Angeles Dodgers, in 1958. I was thirteen years old then. That was the year my dad moved the family to Oakland.

Bumping with Rika

June, 2003: For five years I stood on a small platform next to a baby grand piano, pouring smooth saxophony into the room. The Cru was a cut above the more vulgar venues I’ve described. The décor was elegant, the behavior restrained. Across the burgandy and gold room the most beautifully groomed young women in Tokyo were escorted to the tables of well-to-do men for the kind of vacuous chatter perhaps possible only in Japan. I was nearly 60 now, they were all in their 20s. Did the male gaze glaze my eyes? How could it not. One girl in particular was so ravishing to me I was sure that the few times our eyes met, Chiharu (“a thousand springs”) must have seen right through me. There was a time she was given a clueless geezer whose hands kept reaching for her breasts as they sat on a couch immediately in front of my perch. Appalled, I left the stage and made my way around to blow some sax directly at the guy to distract him. He desisted and, amused, reached in his coat, and came up with 20,000 yen ($200) for my trouble. Chiharu smiled in appreciation but of course nothing came of that. This was not 13th century France. In fact, the times I was flirted with I could count on the fingers of one hand. I wasn’t tall, I wasn’t blonde, I wasn’t black. And most important, in a world where conversation was everything, I was mute.

I’d come in from the wind-blown outside staircase just off the dressing room one night, where I’d been warming up. The shabby, narrow chamber was a sad flower garden of hostesses. The girls were hunched over their cellphones, calling customers. They get business cards and call a few days later. “Where are you now? I miss you. I really enjoyed our conversation…” and so on.

Entering, I nearly kicked over a beer glass filled with old cigarette butts. One girl hunched on the floor cried, “Abunai!” (Look out!) She was smoking two cigarettes at the same time, so I thought I’d try to describe a clever Japanese picture book I had with gadgets, devices designed to be “almost useful.” The one I had in mind showed a man wearing a perforated gauze mask holding 14 cigarettes, for people who need super-fast nicotine hits. The book’s name was Chin-dogu, literally, “strange tools.”

When I said, chin-dogu, the girl looked up delightedly and shouted, “Baibu-raitoru!” (vibrator!)  Chin-chin  is slang for penis, and dogu means tool. Every girl in the room stopped to look at me. I cleared my throat, said I didn’t mean that, and stumbled out.

But the little one kept flashing her eyes at me. Baby face, skin like milk, trounces Julia Roberts in a lip-off. As I became a fixture at the club, she began popping out with little comments when she saw me. “Yes, I love you!” she exclaimed once in passing, apparently a real-time decision. I figured it was a joke. Soon after that though, outside the dressing room, she greeted me shouting, “I like dick!  I like big dick!” What do you even say to that? “Gee, you’re in luck! I happen to have one on me right now.”

“You’re cute, Arnie!” she decided, and then began to tell me every night. “Isn’t Arnie cute?” she’d ask the other girls. “I like dick!” she shouted in the kitchen at me as I ate my dinner. The staff looked at her, then looked at me.

“It’s American style!”  Rika exclaimed.

“I don’t think so,” I mumbled, picking at my teriaki chicken.

I gave nightly reports to Jack Shipman.

“She’s wants you, Arn. She’s saying, here I am, take me.”

“She’s so young…”

“Young is good. Don’t worry about that. You need to get laid.”

“But she’s twenty!  She’s much younger than my daughter. And what if she falls in love with me?”

“She won’t fall in love. You don’t mean shit to her. All these girls think about is themselves. They’ve been catered to since they were five. If you can scratch their itch when they need it, they’ll let you.  She says she likes dick? That’s exactly what you are to her, that’s all.  So what’s not to like?”

Here I was, graced with an unheard of, full-time gig.  Blowing it was the last thing I wanted to do. This was a 20 year-old Japanese girl who spoke little or no English shouting at fiftyish me that she likes big dick. For me (though maybe you) this was over the top.

One night I was sitting next to my neatly coiffed manager Kawasaki-san at the pink-marble crescent bar in the VIP room. The gig was over and I was relaxing with a beer. Rika spotted me and made a bee-line. “Oh Arnie,” she bubbled, sitting down between me and Kawasaki in her jeans and little top. Her fascination with me was palpable, her eyes sparkled, one breast rubbed lightly against my arm. Next thing I knew, we’d exchanged numbers. We agreed to go dancing soon. Despite my assumption of the iron prohibition, as she walked away Kawasaki turned toward the bar and sighed,

“I, too, am butterfly.”

Cool! The night came. I brought my car and waited on a side street for Rika to get off work. At 2:30 AM she found me leaning Bogartishly against a building and pranced over joyously. She’d shed the evening dress and was again cunningly cute in jeans and a short top.

“Let’s go to the car…” I offered.

“Go dancing!” she said evenly, so I gestured down the stairs to Pickford’s, where all my black buddies were pumping hotter-than-July hip-hop on a big stage. There was no audience left except for four young Western women and an aging Japanese beatnik. One of them, a blonde, got up and demonstrated every possible way to shake at top speed her amazing body. After a while, I pulled Rika onto the floor. We drew close to the band, and Rika stood right in front of the lead singer, grinning, entranced at a paragon of black soulfulness. The singer, undulating, singing, rapping, had no problem with this, as I danced nearby, feeling idiotic, trying to find a nice Hebrew groove.

We drifted into the group of dancing women and suddenly everyone was dancing with everyone. One of the blondes swept over, slipped her hands under Rika’s breasts, weighed them, and exclaimed, “Ah, ippai, desu-ne!” (How full they are!). Rika was this new ingénue on the scene. She was smiling like it was a new ride at Disneyland. I had my arms around the stunning blonde, people were sweaty, everything was slinky and wet. Then the scene shifted, and a wizened Japanese uncle who had been jiggling on the periphery drew Rika into his arms. I glanced over worriedly, but a lovely Italian woman in my arms was whispering, “No jealousy!  No jealousy!”

Time slipped away. It must have been around 4 AM. We rested, tried to talk, then got up again and fell into a torrid front-to-back bump, my arms around Rika, my hands grazing whatever bounty I found, while Rika did nice things with her derriere. I tasted the rims of her ears…

Okay, okay, who do you think you’re reading here, Bukowski? Larry Flynt? Let’s get grounded, okay? We wound up in my car at 5 AM.  I was supposed to sleep at a nearby hotel for an English intensive the next morning. I’m not Bukowski. I spent the Eighties being trained by Berkeley feminists. I figured there would be another time, so I took her home. I was George Bush Sr. not finishing off Sadaam. On the way, I stopped the car on a side-street and did research.

“Rika, my wife told me my moustache hurts her when we kiss. Does it?”

“Huh?”

I leaned in for a couple of soft tastes of her angel lips. “Itai desu-ka?” (Does that hurt?)

Rika looked quizzical.“Nai-desu.” I started the motor. Rika seemed a little tense. We got to her neighborhood, she jumped out and sprinted down a narrow street and disappeared.

We went out again a few weeks later. She danced like a 12-year-old possessed. I kept up with her for nearly an hour. I remember her gyrating on her knees atop a bar-stool, her memorable mammaries jouncing inches from my dazzled eyes. It all came to naught. I said something in the car in front of her apartment about needing love. Everyone knows you can’t say things like that. Rika nodded understandingly and didn’t answer her phone any more.

Roppongi Nights    (Get your popcorn – this one’s 14 minutes long.)

L.A. to Berkeley

January, 1956: Two ragged eucalyptus trees rising up behind a green house, a tawny hill sloping down to Verdugo Road, me clambering up the apricot tree in our front yard for syrupy summertime fruit, nights lying in my darkened room waiting for the lights of our  1953 de Soto to appear when Mom and Dad went out together. Were they all right? Did they have an accident? The little violin Dad makes me practice when I’m five, twisting my elbow just so until one day I smash it on the table, splinters flying everywhere. Ronny Chavez, a pro boxer’s son, grabs away my basketball at six so I punch him in his mouth in the days before I knew fear. Towering Forest Lawn Cemetary wall where I bounce baseballs high into my glove for hours on end, the long walk to Occidental College pool where Dad will not let me escape down the ladder from my first-ever perch on the highboard (everyone’s watching me!) plunging into cool blue, rushing back up the ladder to do it again. Whizzing down to Fletcher Elementary on my scooter, engendering a school-wide scooter-rage until the principal announces, “No more scooters!”  I call up my friend Larry Scribner one Saturday morning and his brother tells me, “He died last night, his appendix broke.” Our neighbor down the street Leo Scheer and Saul Dubman on their antique Violes d’amour, Antoinette Fredrickson on her Viole da gamba, Dad leading them through Monteverde and Vivaldi on his Pardessus de viole, rehearsing for concerts at Cal Tech or recording sessions at Columbia Records with Uncle Josef and Aunt Miranda, as my sisters and I are falling asleep in our rooms.

Mama is singing Sophisticated Lady in the kitchen, I’m standing atop the dining room table lip-syncing to Sinatra’s “Singing The Blues.” The newspaper fire I started there, shoving the cinders under a throw rug, stupid boy what have you done, a smack on your butt and off we go to the fire department where Dad reports it to a fireman. “Gee kid,” the firemen says, “you shouldn’t do that.” But they give me an IQ test and it says 140, I’m a genius or some shit like that. Sometimes I wake up at night and everything is loud, my hand moves against the sheets like thunder, my fingers feel strangely thick, I get up and sit in the bathroom wanting to knock on Mama’s door but it would be like, BOOM! BOOM! so I don’t, but now we’re at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, there’s Joseph onstage in his tuxedo strumming his guitar and Miranda looking like a fairy queen, singing like one, pulling laughs from the big crowd with her clever asides and those big blue eyes. Some boy at school says you’re a Jew, you’ve got a big nose, so Dad explains, “You’re not Jewish, son, that’s a false belief, you’re a Perfect Child of God.” Another kid says I’m a runt. “Tell him good things come in small packages,” Mom says. Marty Bingham punches me in the stomach, but everyone had to get punched by Marty. I learn how to make kids laugh. In 5th grade, Mrs. Fisher tells me I’ve got the gift of gab. Now there’s Dad up on the podium at church, a Reader, intoning the Scientific Statement of Being, hearing testimonies of old people being healed by Christ Jesus, “There’s no Life, Truth, Substance or Intelligence in matter, all is Infinite Mind”…then down to Santa Monica in the de Soto, wading in the surf, the hot sun, the watermelon, crunchy grilled hot dogs, Dad’s head snoozing on Mama’s lap, me and my sister bedded down on the back seat all the way home at night, “We’re home now, we’re home, so good to be in your own beddy, your own beddy…”

The Dodgers win the Series in ‘55, I start clarinet lessons, getting older now, then junior high school. In the bathroom I’m cluelessly squeezing my dick ­– what’s this sugary leaking, this indescribable buzz? In summer, Josef and Miranda drive my sister and me up to Idyllwild to their cottage on the ridge overlooking Palm Springs where they practice new material for their concerts, Josef’s guitar ringing out on the deck, matchbook covers under a glass-top table from cities they’ve played all over the world. Meredith Willson of “Music Man” fame drops by and asks us what angels are. Good thoughts from God, we dutifully report and are given ten bucks each. One night I stay at a dorm down the hill at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts where M&M are artists in residence. The 18 year-old who’s playing Puck in Midsummer Night Dream settles in next to me and puts his hand into my underwear. Uh, your hand is on my butt, I say. Oh, sorry! says Puck. They nail him a few weeks later. One too many butts.

But now Dad says we’re leaving L.A. to start a new life in Oakland, up north somewhere near San Francisco, goodbye green house, hello second floor duplex (rented, not owned) but new friends in junior high, it’s all good, our little music store on Grand Avenue sells records and record players and guitars and TV sets, a mercantile anachronism but Dad doesn’t know that. I’m getting a hard on every morning on the bus, I notice the peach fuzz on the back of Kathleen Lindsay’s neck, the curl of Bebe Chan’s lips, but it’s all mystery, girls are beyond me, I’m just a happy kid, then on to Oakland High, then at a party Terry Lee grabs me and sticks her tongue in my mouth. The benightedness of me, the cheerful, leaf-floating-down-a-riverness of me. Back up at Idyllwild, I’m tootling clarinet in ISOMATA’s orchestra and at a dance party Suzy Rubini is rubbing her vulva against my leg. I mean, you’re 17. It’s summer! There’s a dark forest out there! Pine trees to brace the object of one’s passions against, but I say thanks Suzy and go back to my tent. Back in Oakland, weird Walter Hurd comes bouncing down Grand Avenue into Dad’s store, nodding and clapping his hands softly to himself, needing this week’s Top 40: Bobby Vinton, the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys. I’m the class joker in dance band, wielding a tenor sax now, and Mr. Jewel Lord, always funny in his 1940s double-breasted jacket looks down at me and drawls, “Son, if brains were hair you wouldn’t have enough to make a grape toupee.” In dance band it’s still Glenn Miller and Count Basie, but I’m all As and Bs my senior year, class valedictorian, scholarships rolling in: Kiwanis Club, California State, even the University of California is giving me money and I’ll be going there in the fall. And I got a real girlfriend now, Nancy Chan, shy, bespectacled, letting me do stuff to her as we kiss and cum in the Oakland Hills in my ‘47 Chevy. Yes, 1963 looks like a golden year. In September, I’ll start at Cal. In October, the Dodgers sweep the Yankees in four games led by a legendary Jewish southpaw from Brooklyn – just like me!  I’m bopping through Sather Gate on the Cal campus, it’s November 22, 1963. What could go wrong?

The Art of the Cat Box

March: 1998:  Kumiko is in the kitchen cooking furiously. She churns out meals casually, as I would brush my teeth or order french fries, for she is action-oriented. Minutes after we get up on a Saturday morning, she raises her voice to 9.8 on the Japanese Intensity Scale (which ranges from 9.7 to 10.0) to demand if I’ve made three different phone calls we’d discussed the day before. I look hard at her and come this close to asking, “What would  you do if you woke up to find me and my clothes missing?” But I don’t. She’d say something like, “Put the Beethoven 9th on the CD player and play the ‘Ode to Joy’  really loud!”  She flaunts a lightning-quick, take-it-or-leave-me bravado when I make threats. I remain immobilized by a belief that she loves and needs me, and that my leaving her would bring enormous pain into her life.  But why this talk of departure? Let me explain: while abandonment is not a major fear for her, neither is abandon a major joy. Since we got here, things have cooled off big time. Kumiko hugs and squeezes the cats in bed, one of which I’m clearly not. In summer, her feet protrude from under the sheets near my head (we lay on perpendicularly arranged futons) vaguely evoking a body in a morgue.

Soon after moving into our first apartment, Kumiko had a kitten named Fujiko sent from her home in Iwate. Then Tuttle appeared, a roly-poly orange-and-white tabby sunning himself on a local sidewalk. Irresistible. Next came Bob, a December kitten crouched stoically under a bush a block from our place. Then Kumiko needed a fashion cat for her collection, so on a trip to the U.S., we bought Sophie, a rag-doll. To balance things, we threw in Natasha, a Russian Blue from the Oakland Humane Society. Five cats in a tiny apartment. Oh well, I thought, we have a little back yard, I can live with it. But over the next few years, things spun out of control. Our feline population peaked out more than once at twelve, as she joined a team of cat ladies finding homes for stray cats. Ours was a half-way house. I constructed a phone-booth-sized wire cage on the veranda, accessible by a cat door, to contain the cat boxes. My job: clean them.

Introduction 

To free their devotees of worldly desires, Indian holy men often have them clean cow-stables of manure for decades. There is a school of thought that claims the sound of “one hand clapping” is heard only when the seeker of truth finally leaves the stable, enters the temple and slaps his guru hard in the face. For though we hear tales about self-immolation leading to transcendental bliss, skillfully concealed are horror stories of seekers who could not purify their thoughts, who died of heart attacks in the stables, old men tumbling over into the manure, gasping out last breaths, their pitiful lives finally over. On the other hand, attacking the guru is a dangerous step to take, for a true master, using pure mental concentration, can amputate an angry novice’s accusatory finger in mid-air and relocate it within the devotee’s own body, say, in that orifice “where the sun never shines.” Confronted by one such fed-up disciple, the renowned Peruvian guru, Rama Llama ­– the only full-blown schizophrenic to achieve satori – famously warned him, “If  I were me, I wouldn’t do that!”

And we who labor in cat-boxes each day, are we so different? Do we not strive for serenity amidst squalor? Let us remember this when cleaning the cat-box, waiting for our own neko-hako satori (catbox enlightenment). Recall Abe Kobo’s protaganist shoveling sand in Woman Of The Dunes. And Isaac Newton’s seaside metaphor of his search for truth, “examining interesting objects I found on the shore, while all about lay the great sea undiscovered.”  Pebbles, seashells, cat shit – whatever.  It’s about enlightenment.

The Archaeology of Sand

Your cats have done what they needed to do.  Let’s look at the box and try to understand what we see. Yes, there are brown objects scattered about, but consider the scene more deeply. Hidden below are the pungent clumps of moist sand that cat sand cognoscenti  refer to as “peecakes.” Your bag of catsand probably shows a cartoon of someone casually reaching into the sand with a curved scooper to remove a peecake.  THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE!  It represents a cat-sand industry conspiracy to sell more sand! In fact, the peecake must be systematically excavated  from the cat-box.

Tilt the cat-box on end to about 35 degrees to expose your peecakes. They’re usually located on the far ends of the cat-box, but four separate tilts from each side should be standard, as this allows full inspection of the cat-box bottom. Use a big flat dust pan, which should be the full width of the cat-box, to pop the peecake up off the bottom. Some people use a small scoop, but this takes more time and represents a kind of obsession with cat-boxes, something discouraged by the American Catbox Society.

Never try to dig out the brown objects first, as you can  easily strike and fragment a submerged peecake, creating numerous peecrumbs that are too small to be trapped in your sieve-scoop  (your next tool) and pollute the cat-box with their bizarre smell. Time is of the essence. There’s still plenty to do: vacuuming up cat–hair, wiping up a vomited breakfast, trips to the vet, tracking down homeless cats. The words of the Bard ring down through the ages, relevant today:

“There is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in your scatology, Horatio.”

After the peecakes have been properly extricated, your sieve-scooper can move gracefully about, scooping up brown modules until only the tiniest of peecrumbs remain.

Now all of us, in dreams or even in waking reverie, have thought wistfully of defecating on a perfect white beach in the tropics, then neatly covering our work with a little mound of snow-white sand. So now, this final touch: grasp the cat-box in two hands and toss the cleaned sand in a rotary motion, as if sautéing onions in a fry pan. In this way, any remaining mini-crumbs sink to the bottom and only smooth, Bali-like sands remain on the surface, waiting for their next feline rainfall. The American Cat-box Association has set the acceptable peecrumb incidence at 2.8%, so we are not talking here about tracking down every fucking peecrumb. Yet rather than plowing chaotically through a complex ecosystem, you have now sequentially removed nearly everything that could offend the sensibilities.

Those who wish to look more deeply into the cat’s capacity for non-verbal communication should investigate the works of the German cattist, Otto Lipschitz. Dr. Lipschitz argues that after centuries of observing humans’ apparent interest in their feces, cats have developed the ability to alter fecal shapes as a form of communication. He claims that specimens in the shapes of miniature mice or link sausages represent requests for a more varied diet, for example. You can write to Dr. Lipschitz directly at the Hamburg campus of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of the Psychoses. Occasionally some of his mail is censored, but a written response from this insightful man is an unforgettable experience.

Granules, Globule Spills and the Yellow Samsara

Irony, central to good art, makes its presence felt in the realm of modern sand substitutes. For when we approach a cat-box filled with those bouncy little white high-tech globules, the soul of modernity, it is the old and solid that takes priority over the liquid. Why? Well, we find that in this environment, the defecatory modules always seem to float at or near the surface. They are easily removed without disturbing the peecakes since…there are none! There is only a semi-liquid residue on the bottom. So almost as if time were running backwards, all is reversed: we remove the solid first, the liquid last. Scooper in hand, one is overwhelmed by the incongruity of it all.

Emerging from our metaphysical reverie, we realize there is work to do. For while in the first few days, the globules mysteriously absorb all liquid, eventually a remarkable “urinary pudding” of saturated yellow balls gathers at the bottom, and you must conduct the same careful tilting and scooping operations as described above.

By the way, civil engineers know various formulii that govern the maximum angle at which gravel or soil can be piled or tilted before they collapse.  Tilting our cat box to expose the bright pudding below – Dr. Lipschitz calls it tapioca solinarus, we have not these formula at hand, yet we ardently wish for the little white globules not to reach the point of collapse and create an inconvenient globule spill.

No, we do not want a globule spill. We do not want dozens of little wet beebees scattered across the floor, the indelible carpet stains, the trebly, clattering sound of them distributing themselves under chairs and bouncing into crevices where the little buggers hope to escape discovery for weeks or years. We especially don’t want the emotional sea-change associated with this, the flaring anger, the hostility, the Question again rearing its head (especially for those of us with more than five cats):

“Must I spend my life cleaning these fucking cat-boxes ??”

No, we need to view cats as elegant friends. Not selfish beasts who stalk, kill and eat fragile songbirds, or conduct torture sessions with mice until they succumb from loss of blood and internal injuries. They are not cynical humorists who intentionally throw up on newly cleaned rugs, parasites that drain us financially with endless visits to the vet. They are not an affliction sent to remind us of our failures, as we laboriously scoop and dump, scoop and dump, hooligans highlighting our impotence, underscoring the claustrophobic, nightmarish dead-end that our lives have become. These are just dark dreams of anger, what Sri Rama Llama calls Yellow Clouds of Samsara, that hold us back from enlightenment and spiritualized love. We love our cats, don’t we!

Sophie Takes A Hike

We were driving home on a winter Wednesday.  She turned to me and asked, “Do you know what today is?”

“Sure,” I answered, it’s December 10th.” We both knew its unpleasant significance. Six years before, Fujiko-chan had come in through the cat-door, gone into convulsions and died thirty minutes later in the vet’s office. Fujiko was my wife’s first and irreplaceable cat, one who had attached herself physically to Kumiko from early kitten-hood. She’d liked prowling the neighbor’s verandas. Unhappy with this, one of them had probably poisoned her. People do that.

The event devastated her for weeks. Now, early this year, Tuttle had died under worse circumstances, wasting away in excruciating slowness. And here it was again, December 10th.

We got home, and Kumiko looked around the little apartment.

“Where’s Sophie?”

“I don’t know.”

“She ran into the yard at 2AM last night when I was cleaning the catbox.”

“Well, she can’t climb the garden wall with those little legs, she must be around here somewhere.”

But she wasn’t. An hour turned into four hours. A day turned into two. Thus began the Sophie reclamation project. Wandering the streets, calling for Sophie, mounting yellow posters over a 24-block area, Kumiko marching into December darkness at 3 AM (“She can hear us at night.”).  Endless theorizing: “Cats always move toward the west,” “Cats don’t go very far,” “Cats find a place to hide and stay there.”

We figured she must have gotten past the small, interior fences and reached the end of the condominium, where there was a way out. Sophie’s brain wasn’t up to the task of guiding her back. Sophie was one of those cat-food cover-girls, a luxurious, long-hair elegance on four little legs. Someone, we feared, had grabbed her and taken her home – especially as the second week wore on.

I gave up after two weeks or so, but I couldn’t buy a December 10th curse. It was too simple-minded, like Jesus coming back on New Year’s Eve, 2000. Yet the sense of tragedy, the tension, was crushing. Every day it grew colder. Nighttimes sank toward freezing. A Christmas-from-Hell came and passed. We ignored it. Then, on December 25th I called my Christian Scientist sister in California to wish her happy holidays. And I added,

“Please pray for Sophie to be in her ‘right place’ (a favorite Christian Science expression) as soon as we say goodbye, OK, Sis?”

“Of course I will,” she assured me.

When my big sister prays, she doesn’t fuck around. Ten minutes after we hung up, the phone rang. A woman told Kumiko she had seen a long-haired cat like ours across big Kampachi Dori, the freeway-like artery we never dreamed little Sophie could cross and survive. We rushed across Kampachi, then down a little path behind a big building. There, minutes after my sister’s promise, behind a chain fence, a brown-and-white longhair was meowing passionately at us.

Was it really her?  After sixteen days in the Twilight Zone, to see her in the, well, in the fur, was dreamlike. I clambered over the fence and picked her up. She was freaked-out and pissed-off enough to qualify as Sophie. She was meowing at us, we were yelling at her; it was a mixed-species’ love-fest. We carried her home where she gulped water ravenously and ate her fill. She’d lost about 20% of her body weight, but everything considered, she was in good shape.  On the 16th day of Christmas, my sister gave to me….

The Cat-box Revealed

Kurosawa’s Woman Of The Dunes.  This is my life. Our little home lies at the bottom of Kurosawa’s sand pit. Each day, I scoop away the sand; the next morning it must be processed again.  Sand was a metaphor for the drudgery of common life, but his protagonist’s relationship was conjugal. And his sand was clean!

I force my face down toward the cat-box, press my nose firmly into the sand. Neighboring salarymen leaving for work stare down from the terraces above, appalled. Uncaring, I remain, asking myself again and again,“WHY is this happening to me?  Surely, there is a realization here!”

I cannot attain sainthood. I cannot relinquish the desires of a normal male! I want a woman I can reach out to. Until these fires are quenched, my face shall remain pressed into the sand. I am losing consciousness, slipping down, everything spinning around. My head cracks hard against the veranda wall and darkness descends.[1]

[1]  The parasite Toxoplasma normally lives inside cats, and when they eliminate, it moves to its next host, a rat or a bird or some other prey of a cat.  Once the parasite gets into the intermediate host, it replicates and builds a protective shell. People pick up toxoplasma all the time, gardening or handling kitty litter.  It likes to be in the brain.

Drifter Steals Family Jewels, Shoots Self

It’s a windy night in 1967, and June Redding has put a bullet through her head in the basement of my mother’s house in Berkeley. Ms. Redding, a butch tumbleweed from Texas with short-cropped red hair, had rolled into Oakland on a motorcycle a few years earlier. Employed as an instrument repairperson by my father in 1964, befriended by my mother, she fell into their marriage like dry ice into water: all these bubbles came exploding out, until my 1950’s family had evaporated before my eyes. Now she lay there dead, as the coroner chuckled blackly with a Berkeley cop. She had fixed clarinets and saxophones in Dad’s music shop as it was slowly going broke and he remained locked within the fortress of his Dutch severity. June Redding, cosmic catalyst, scruffy herald of feminism. My father’s emasculation, explicit or not, was brutal. His chauvinism hadn’t been blatant, just a joke here, a presumption of superiority there. But June tapped a hidden desire in my mother for independence and within a year after she appeared mom and dad were doing verbal toe-to-toes in the living room, every night it seemed. There was fiscal fuel to feed the fire: Fate, in the form of a newly-deceased New York uncle, had handed Mom a tidy inheritance which Dad saw as a way out of his troubles. Mom, not so much. To help support the family, she’d created a job for herself driving around to Oakland child care centers, singing to the kids, strumming her auto-harp, telling stories in different dialects as she did hand-puppet stories. She felt newly empowered, though she never said as much. Then June lost her apartment. The woman began crashing on our living room sofa. Dad couldn’t get her out. Everything got crazy. And then he left.

So my 13-year-old sister and I had to follow Mom and June through a series of East Bay apartments. I never knew exactly how intimate June and my mother were but hell, they shared the same bed. Any shrink worth an assault would have some thoughts on what this did to me. Wow, this weird lady is sleeping with my mom. But it was 1966, and at 21 I was still 17 and didn’t know what the fuck to think, much less say.  Sometimes Dad tried to call, but Mom refused to speak to him, fearing she would succumb to his persuasive skills. One day he came to confront her, found a chained door guarded by June, and when they began shouting Dad tried to push his way in. June reached through the door and ripped at his throat. Afterwards, I sat with him in his car where he blotted at his bloody neck and where there was nothing much a father could say to his collegiate son. It was the beginning of his Jobian era, and I don’t mean Steve. Many times I’ve wanted to re-live those years and be a better friend to him in that desolation.

Mom finally purchased a house in nearby Albany, but soon June flew to Dallas for treatment of steadily worsening throat cancer. She came back from the operation with her larynx removed. Now she spoke by burping through a hole in her throat. Hunkered down in a basement room with half-gallons of Gallo Port, she grew bitter, sometimes belligerent. Finally, my mother, who all her life had shown only compassion to others, found a ruthlessness inside her and told June she had to leave. The tough little motorcycle lady, racked with pain, dying anyway, loving my mother, left a despairing note: “You’ll never get rid of me.” Then she shot herself in the head with a pistol she kept near her pillow.

My mother was 51. Everyone adored her because she was so accepting, so supportive, so funny, so there for her friends. Mom was…hey, don’t get me started. A mother with too much kindness, like a little knowledge, is a dangerous thing. But the day after that December nightmare was the first day of the rest of her life and it continued, rather happily, for another 28 years.

So, all righty then!  You wanna get back to Tokyo now? I’m betting it’s a big YES!

Intensive At Yamanako

Early on, I saw that riding trains across the world’s largest city for 2-hour classes was an issue. I found another approach – intensives. On these, I’d pull down as much in a week as in a month commuting, and in surroundings that were often lavish.  Juggling English companies, I made the transition, living with students and seeing them up close.

April, 1994:  I just spent a week teaching Tomen Trading freshmen, (“new faces”) at a lavish resort at the foot of Mount Fuji. The classroom was adjacent to my plush bedroom, so each morning I awoke in paradise, bathed in porcelain luxury, then walked next door to where my students were waiting for me. The bedroom was huge, with an American style bathroom, big tub, fresh towels every day, a refrigerator for fresh vegetables and, outside my window, a stunning view of Mount Fuji looming a few miles away. The dining room was modern and expansive, with white-clad cooks providing your choice of Japanese or Western fare. Outside lay broad lawns and manicured gardens, all this luxury bespeaking the wealth and power of a large Japanese corporation. Aside from the Japan Self-Defense Forces firing artillery every afternoon on its training grounds near the foot of Japan’s sacred mountain, rattling our windows with each fusillade, it was quite peaceful.

The JSDF apparently does this all year long. It is, I think, disrespectful to the mountain and risks seismic retaliation. A contingent of U.S. Marines was recently relocated to the Mt. Fuji military zone as part of the downsizing of U.S. forces on Okinawa. My friend Carl Windsor, a remarkable man you’ll meet in much more detail later, taught here at that time. He theorized that the reason Marines started firing their 155mm Howitzers one Monday morning at 6AM (two hours earlier than called for in the U.S.-Japan security agreement) was their anger at having to leave their Okinawa island paradise. Carl, a Vietnam veteran, was no less angry. Awakened with a shock, he dove under his bed thinking it was 1969 and shells were incoming. When he told his students about it, they thought it was funny. He didn’t.

Our group of teachers must have seemed a motley crew to Japanese eyes, perhaps not so different from the unwashed Portuguese sailors who stumbled ashore here 450 years ago. There was Jack Shipman, gaunt and bearded, always dressed in black. He likes to answer his phone as Rock Hartley and is always falling in love with stunning young women who stand him up on dates and turn out to have boyfriends. Jack is either telling you how he detests Japanese women or emitting lascivious groans describing The One He Passed In The Street Today.

There was Dick Handley of Nottingham, a cheerful young English army veteran of the Falklands and North Ireland who drinks like a sailor and swears like a fish. Or is it the other way around. He told me an charming war tale of being stabbed in the neck in the Falklands by an unwise Argentinean soldier who had been playing dead and soon really was. His friend Kenneth, from Manchester, had an even more unintelligible Cockney accent than Dick. Ken’s speech was unnerving due to a certain touch of the serial-killer in his eyes. Maybe I just haven’t met enough Brits.

Then there was Danny, wonderfully gay. After a few days he dropped all pretense, referring explicitly to his sexuality, though there had never been any doubt. I liked him immensely: he told lots of gay jokes and fit right in. No, that’s not what I meant.

Mine was the A class: all top students. They were reasonably fluent for beginners and totally co-operative. There is a fundamental sweetness to young Japanese guys, a generic inoffensiveness. We held mock business meetings where they discussed important issues: proposals for flex-time at their company, how to help retired workers, how to deal with an extortionist planning to poison their company’s fruit juices.    Still, ten hours a day of English is a load and staying awake, as always, was an issue. In Japanese business meetings, lowering the head and closing the eyes is acceptable body language. It can signify deep thought, though everyone knows when people are nodding off.

Handling Japanese students is baffling. After ten years of no-conversation, grammar-fixated English classes, very few can actually speak the language. Meanwhile, the English schools here mold their fly-by-night Western teachers into a strange mix of cheerleader, drill instructor, entertainer and cultural poster-kid. Enforcing a kind of Western cultural correctness on their charges, “language consultants” are forever trying to cajole opinions out of people who are inherently other-directed. Japanese think teachers are there to provide knowledge they can receive in silence or simply regurgitate. Too often, teachers assault students with corny exhortations and clownish exhibitionism. Instinctively, I’ve slowed down among the Japanese. I pick up the nuanced pauses, the little verbal inflections that suggest the restrictions their system inflicts on them. Their humor, when it’s not kanji-based wordplay, is ironic and resigned.

But the hardest thing is the silence. A beautiful phenomenon, really, it can pour into a roomful of Japanese like a breeze through an open window. They sit there untroubled within it. They are processing things, waiting, editing, sensing. There’s no rush. The seconds tick by.  Silence is just okay. The Westerner begins to writhe in discomfort. Inexorably, tension fills the pit of his stomach. It is as if a spotlight is shining on him – especially if he’s a teacher dedicated to “improving communication skills.” And so he breaks in too quickly with a pointless comment. Or he calls on a student to speak just before another might have taken matters in another direction, perhaps a more interesting one.

For me, it’s still tough. They do not feel our experience of silence any more than we feel theirs. They don’t know I’m suffering.  But in my comical pleas for opinions is there an insight for them into the secret panic of our ostensibly confident culture?  We fill silences because we are afraid of them. We batter each other and defend ourselves so often out of our underlying insecurities. We are isolated from each other in some way the Japanese are not. How nice it would be if Americans could sometimes just be quiet together.

Neither able nor willing to be browbeaten into an assertiveness they’re unlikely to achieve, my students hunger for the little English expressions, the phrases and key words to make themselves better understood. The same mistakes appear over and over: “Almost my friends enjoy to play ski,” “Please choice anything you like,” “Let me introduce you about our new product.” So I make sure to fix these and give them some short cuts to make their English easier. I tell quiet little jokes. I have a lot of tricks. Their memories of English are fraught with severity and strict testing, so they can’t help but wind up liking me. I get good evaluations. It’s a learned game.

On Friday night, all the classes gathered for a huge party. Kirin beer flowed in rivulets of gold and there was food aplenty. The boys were loosening up. The heavy weight of English study had slipped from their shoulders. They were all the way through the door now, the grind of high school competition and testing behind them, young guys who’d made it into that big corporation, set for years to come. There was a shift of mood.

A turning point in the party came when a corpulent, drunken student set himself up on a chair in the middle of the big hall and ceremoniously dropped his pants to perform the feat of snapping two sets of chopsticks by sliding them through the rear of his underpants (on a line parallel to one drawn through the empty space between his ears) and then bending over. When he had done this to the cheers of this crowd of young professionals, the one and only female member among these sixty – she had unluckily sat directly in front of his display – bent down in her chair and began sobbing. Our English school rep, the only other woman present, came over to comfort her for a moment. Then both ran from the big room, effortlessly ignored by the group, including the company’s senior personnel manager, smiling approvingly at the whole spectacle.

In 1946, Douglas MacArthur, called the Japanese a nation of twelve-year-olds. My charges were twenty-something, young men just out of college about to begin lifetimes of service in Tomen Trading, seventh largest in Japan. They’d been passive and malleable in class. In a larger group, a different mood prevailed. Other guys got up to do funny dances with their pants down or, stood on a chair to publicly compare their chests and nipples with each other. A former collegiate boxer stripped to the waist and circled the room pounding his fists into the upraised hands of his compatriots. When he’d completed one circuit, the crowd roared for another and another time around the big circle, until he finally collapsed back into his seat exhausted. Innocent horseplay, I suppose, but unavoidably, visions of World War II flashed through my mind. The other teachers sat mystified, except for our approving ex-British soldier, who was quite popular with his class for teaching them how to call each other a “fuckin’ cunt.” The young woman student who had left in tears was in fact the first woman ever to be admitted to the company’s management level program. The next day she was smiling at one and all, an inpenetrable mask firmly reattached.

At the party, the teachers were challenged to do something to add to the festivities, but everyone cowered in the back. Except for me. I know a stage when I see one. I got up and sang all six verses of the Marty Robbins classic “El Paso,” introducing the tune in a Western accent: “How many y’all been to Texas?” (blank stares), then switching to a Mexican one to teach them to do a mariachi howl:  “Aaahhh-ha-ha-haaa….”

For the last line, “One little kiss and Felina….goodbye,”  I lay down on the floor and died, and in so doing, killed. It was a huge hit. We left with heads held high – but a little stunned by what we’d seen.

Kobe

On a cold January morning in 1995, I walked into a post office and saw on a TV a helicopter video of fires in a city somewhere. Ten minutes later, on the street, a courier was handing out newspaper extras with photos of a huge freeway collapsed onto its side. A bus teetering on the edge of an elevated road. A ten-story building lying on its side. Train tracks twisting in empty space. A catastrophe had struck.

Kobe just has had a $100 billion earthquake. The terrifying Oakland, California fire of 1991 killed 30 and destroyed 3,000 homes. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire killed 700 and destroyed 28,000 buildings. Kobe was 6,200 dead, 140,000 buildings and 300,000 homeless.I’ve tried and cannot visualize 140,000 buildings. 300,000 refugees? There are only 250,000 people in all of Oakland.

In the days after the quake, thousands of people left Tokyo on trains to bring supplies to relatives. The last part of their trip, with local trains out, was long walk through hell. For the rest of us sitting by televisions in New York or Tokyo, it was an abstraction, a disaster movie, we could barely grasp the great spread of it across the land.

But in Kobe, the inability of Japanese government to protect or help was suddenly revealed. A few hours after the quake, the Kobe mayor went on radio to urge people not to rely on the government, but “to learn to stand on your own feet.” It was the first hint that the power elite were not on the same planet. After the quake hit, the prefectural governor took four critical hours to request a state of emergency. The Prime Minister of Japan found out about the quake when he woke up, two hours or so after it happened. An hour and a half before this, a renown French rescue team had offered their services to Japan. They were refused.

That day, with major elevated freeways fallen over and broken in huge pieces, with the Japanese transportation system basically cut in half, the Japanese Minister of Transportation got up, flew to Northern Japan for a political meeting, then came home that evening to attend a banquet of some kind. I’m sure he made some phone calls though. He must have made some phone calls.

TV announcers were explaining the big delays in official response. They looked at you in all seriousness and said that the spreading fires weren’t being fought with water from the air because “there are regulations against dropping things out of helicopters.” Specially trained dogs, rushed from France and Switzerland to sniff out buried people, stayed in quarantine for two days while people died in the rubble. French doctors, also members of a famous relief group, were told they couldn’t practice medicine without passing a test and earning a certificate. A crack medical team from Los Angeles, veterans of their own earthquake, went through similar delays and only escaped official interference gradually as they made their way through the wrecked city, finding large numbers of injured people who had received no medical care at all.

The army straggled to the rescue over the next 48 hours. Later, people would say, “If they’d been here yesterday my mother (or husband or son or sister) would still be alive.” Even if you made it into in an ambulance, where most seriously injured people die, your chances didn’t improve much:  Japanese ambulance attendants aren’t paramedics and provide little or no medical treatment.

Weeks after the quake, it emerged that the gas company had waited six hours before turning off the city’s gas lines. By then, 12 noon, fires were raging all over Kobe. Though they knew the quake was three times the level where regulations called for gas service to be stopped,  administrators claimed they couldn’t determine how serious things were, since almost all electricity and telephones were out.

Amid all this insanity emerged the legendary stoicism of the Japanese, not given to looting, grateful for a little water or a rice ball or a plastic sheet to hide under when soon after, rain, snow and biting cold came, as if they had lived through a thousand earthquakes and seen it all before.

In English writing classes, Westerners often try to teach Japanese how to present ideas “logically.” Western arrogance perhaps, but some newspaper articles made you think twice. One writer pointed out with careful statistics how much worse war is than earthquakes, drawing the conclusion that the Self-Defense Forces should not be asked to rescue people in emergencies. His astonishing rationale was that rescue operations increase the military’s power to control society and thus lead to war. The article revealed how deeply phobic many Japanese are of their own militarism, as of a Godzilla lurking beneath Tokyo Bay.

The Japanese penchant for the indirect statement, for avoiding opinions that could offend, lead to articles that inexplicably contradicted tough headlines. Under the lead, “Rejection of Overseas Quake Aid Betrays Outdated Thinking,” the national director of the Japanese Red Cross nonetheless proudly tells how his group dispatched 23 six-member teams to Kobe the day of the quake,  plus 130 volunteers from all over Japan, with no apparent awareness of the huge inadequacy of these numbers. He reviews other earthquakes, explaining how “unwanted,” or “forceful” help has often caused “confusion.” Yet in Kobe, Japanese Red Cross members arriving on foot found local authorities “in total confusion and unable to give rational instructions.” The article peters out with no clear conclusion. In Japan, confusion, is a code-word. The reason repeatedly given for the LDP’s hold on power for 40 years, through one scandal after another, is that a change might cause confusion among the Japanese.

Beyond the revelations of deficient emergency services, shoddy building and freeway construction and inept politicians, even beyond the courage of everyday people, there was the earthquake itself, overwhelming, terrifying, beyond the power of humans to predict or control, no matter how well prepared they might have been. As the weeks went by you saw articles calling for changes in this and changes in that; one writer amusingly argued that there can be “no resistance now” to the much needed decision to move government operations out of Tokyo to other parts of the country and end the centralization here and the vulnerability to paralysis from a major earthquake. There will be no such change.

A student of mine once explained:  “In Japan, change is bad; continue is good.” A change of that magnitude would be to Japan what eradicating drugs is to America; it would be like moving Mecca, or like the nations of the world giving peace a chance.

The Scary Trucks of June

In June the rains come to Tokyo, the air sweet with fragrances of decaying cherry blossoms. Late last night I walked home, a little drunk, breathing mist, head to the sky. The rain was warm and came straight down for there was no wind. You soak it up and pray for more because when it goes away summer will come, that thick sauna of smog and heat.

As July becomes August, Tokyo does not smell better every day. What assails your nostrils at some street corners is not cherry blossoms. It rises up from the deep in the sewers, and in some places you just have to hold your breath. Waves of superheated air waft from a million air conditioner exhausts, monoxide spews from trucks and black limousines idle at curbs, enclosing sleeping drivers.  Exhausted, sweaty Tokyo salarymen trudge along in dark suits under the July sun. This only becomes truly surreal when you see them reach in their pockets, pull out their Peace cigarettes and let the smoke roll up over their bewildered, blinking eyes.  Then they enter the ramen shops and suck up that scorching stuff until rivers of sweat stream down their faces.

Today Shinjuku had a sad, oppressive flavor. The usual Sunday crowds thronged the great main street, swept free of cars by the police, under towering department stores and commercial buildings.  It was hot and humid under a gray sky that rendered everything and everyone colorless and somehow dirty. There seemed to be more injured souls among the bright and shiny youngsters, people with limps, people with wounded faces.

A bright, green-and-white cable-car vehicle, decked out in political banners and slogans, came rolling up Meiji Street toward the center of it all. Several young women with white gloves waved smilingly from the truck at uncaring shoppers. From out of this truck a woman’s voice was, to Western ears, shrieking out the name and virtues of a candidate in the coming elections.  The decibel level was beyond description. The tone of her voice was of a hysterical mother imploring passers-by to save her child from drowning: “Please help Ito-san, please hurry, Ito-san’s a nice boy, it won’t take long!  Thank you very much!!  Thank you very much!! Thank you so very much!!”

Check my satirical video of this process from 2007

The truck inched slowly, screamingly forward in the traffic jam, but when it reached the very center of the intersection it found a place in the middle to stop, and the woman just sat there, screeching like a mental patient holed up with some hostages, several tons of explosives and the Rolling Stones’ P.A. system.  This scene, and also the blaring right-wing nationalist trucks you see from time to time, call up images of World War II, and how the people must have been brow-beaten, literally shouted into a state of war. Is it possible that the kamakaze  pilots were simply pedestrians who volunteered to crash headfirst into aircraft carriers rather than listen to the loudspeakers any longer? I stood there thinking farther back to Old Japan, where right here there must have been quiet nights and green fields, stars in the sky, clean air and much less Coca-Cola.  Who then could have imagined this concrete nightmare?

A Tokyo Yakuza Party

I watched the people just trudging wearily along through the heat.  They must be so offended somewhere inside, these mannered, sensitive people. Polls show they hold their government in a sort of mild contempt, yet they always return the same party to power.  There they were now, powerless to stop what can only be described as an assault with batteries. Amidst all this, a boy of nineteen or so slouched by me wearing the new reigning champion of printed-matter sports shirts.  Incredibly, it said in big blue letters on his chest,  “Be Very Powerful – Gain Much Attention.”  The elections were more than a month away. I straddled my bike, turned, and wheeled home. The trucks would soon follow.

Boomer Shit

August 1973: So the band broke up, man – after all the booking I did for them! We’d played the On Broadway in San Francisco, me driving home drunk across the Bay Bridge every night, wailing weird semitic dirges, a Jose Cuervo bottle tucked away in my coat, but now the guys didn’t want to gig with me anymore! Something about me being unserious about my sax playing. Bummer. So I got a day gig in a record wholesale company in the East Bay. What a drag. A guy named Fud used to get me high at lunch. I scored a ticket to a Stevie Wonder concert and his after-party too. The great man is coming out of the stage door after his concert and I’m like, Hey Stevie, I’m a Taurus too! Stevie was cool. “I thought so from the sound of your voice,” he murmurs.  How cool was that? At the after-party in a synagogue across the street from the Fillmore, there’s like free drinks. So I had a few and upstairs, here’s Stevie again, cooling out! And there’s a stage with all these instruments. Drums, guitars. It’s a sign! I try to hook him up with my old band­ – “We could come down right now and audition!” But he says well, maybe another time. He was with this beautiful girl, so I ask him, is this Syreeta? No, he says, she’s not Syreeta. Well, let’s stay in touch, I say. Sure, he says. But Stevie never called. Then our old lead singer (black Ray White) went off to tour with Frank Zappa for like the next 15 years. Everyone was touring with Zappa except me! Then I get caught ripping off product from the record wholesaler and get fired. But the boss didn’t call the cops on me!

So I guess I’m Mr. Lucky, right?  Right. But I had to get out of that marriage, man. I mean, everything was so messed up. It was 1973. You had to do your thing, you had to be free! So my wife and kid moved back to her parents’ house in San Jose and I crashed back at Mom’s basement. I rented a piano and wrote this cool song, though:

Calvin the Crab

Then I got a gig with Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys! They were getting ready to record their next album! But it didn’t happen. We gigged in Marin County and I shot cocaine into my arm with this hippie girl. Then Cat Mother broke up too! That’s when I got the job in the record store with Meher Baba. I think.

Once, just after we separated, I stupidly asked my first wife what her hopes for us had been. “I thought we’d walk hand-in-hand through life and into old age,” she said. She was a sweet, uncomplicated woman possessed of far more common sense than I. A few years later she married my antithesis, one of those big macho guys who’s alternately menacing and beneficent. They drank a lot. They fought, but she could handle him. He didn’t think much of me when I came down for visitations with my daughter. “You the splittenest dude I ever saw,” he’d chide as I slipped away back to Berkeley. Once he didn’t like an arrogant look I threw at him walking out his door after he’d used harsh words towards the daughter I’d abandoned. He followed me outside, picked me up, whirled me in circles like a doll, drooped me halfway over a second story railing, then decided to back off. My murder fantasies lasted about two weeks. Then I kind of moved on.

I still have somwhere a strange, sorrowful family picture including me, a little man in a pink shirt with a scruffy beard, head held high, absurdly adopting this macho Latino look, with one arm around my big father-in-law, his arm around my waist. I am 26, so thin that a gust of wind could blow me down. My father-in-law owns his house, having clawed his way up from poverty to establish an insurance agency in San Jose. On the right my 15 year-old brother-in-law equals me in height. In a corner, seated with our 2-year old girl, nearly invisible next me, my wife Linda appears, looking down almost mournfully, as if she knows what is to come. But she did not.

 

Posted in Other Writings | Leave a comment

At The Canal Club

At The Canal Club

So there I was, crawling through a 2AM Shinjuku gridlock on a rainy Saturday night, just a little stoned, rolling west on Ome-Kaido, wondering why it was taking so long to reach my right turn on Kampachi Street. After a decade or so I recognized a large darkened intersection as –  yes! – my turning point. After that it was a piece of cake.

This is where Jesus is up there negotiating with Meher Baba, who wants to slip a Japanese senior citizen under my wheels and let me writhe in hell for the rest of my life. “Stay thy fierce wrath, Father,” says Jesus, “the boy was smoking on that horn tonight.” Main Baba is growling, “A son I need! A son to tell me what to do with a spaced-out jazzer like this. You should be a lawyer already with that mouth, Jesus. A million times a day you’re on the phone interceding for these nuts, not to mention your mother, who’s just as bad as you. An agent, Jesus, you could have been an agent.”

There have been periods when I’ve maintained the sobriety most serious jazz musican practice. Louis Armstrong on the other hand did not, on a daily basis. And at a jazz concert Lester Young once sat backstage and lit up a big splif in full view of everyone.  “Mr Young, please, this is a jazz festival!” one official protested.

“Well then,” Pres exhaled, “Let’s be festive!”

I had gigged in Shinjuku that night with a singer, a brother from New York with a voice like gold. As many club acts do nowadays, we relied on pre-sequenced arrangements, so there was only a keyboardist-singer and guitarist on the set. Joe Ruby was effortlessly tossing off everything from hard funk to Al Jarreau.  When he sang ”Me And Mrs. Jones,” his high notes were as crisp and powerful as a trumpet. I slipped into the cracks between his lines, dabbing notes here and there, trying not to muck up the works.

Meanwhile, the club’s patrons were oblivious of us, a hundred besotted salarymen packed into a big plush hostess bar, jabbered at by the pretty young things hired to entertain them. Shy young guys unclear what to say or do, patiently mothered by lean-and-mean mini-skirted foxes who flitted to their tables escorted by manic little waiters. Arriving, they knelt briefly before their clients, then snuggled in next to them. The bow comes from giesha days, but seeing it executed in western-style clothes boggles your mind. Hostesses get showered with everything from Gucci to sushi by customers dreaming of further intimacies. Gifts here are against the rules, but management can’t stop it. There are pawnshops catering to hostesses with too many designer handbags. They sell the stuff, and it goes back into the stores again.

Crusty geezers are scattered around with more than enough cash to prove that there’s no fool like an old one. Waiters streak around the club, bellowing like fish salesman at market. In Tokyo, this scene is considered stress-reduction. It’s a party. You’re out a couple hundred bucks, but you spent time with this young thing, and if you keep at it, maybe the third or fourth time, you and she will waltz over to the local love hotel for an hour of sweaty bliss. Maybe, because it’s her call, and a sexual rendezvous is a long-shot. What’s incomprehensible to most Westerners is the final scene where they walk upstairs and the little lady stands there enthusiastically waving, “Bye-bye!” as the guy staggers off empty-handed and three hundred bucks short. He thinks he’s cool. His wife, waiting at home with a late-night dinner, may not.

What’s he been saying to the hostess? “I had such a hard day today. I wish I had a nice young girl like you. Here, I’ll buy you a drink. And you always listen to me – my boss doesn’t. My wife doesn’t. But you do. Hey – you want a Gucci bag?” He waxes wise, holds forth on the business world, then asks for details about her bra as she smilingly adjusts it for him

Late one night I saw an exhausted salaryman passed out next to his girl. She reached over and began absent-mindedly stroking his inner thigh. Nothing. His friend on the other side moved the girl’s hand up to his crotch, and maybe ten seconds later the guy snapped awake, looked down, smiled sheepishly, and faded out again. Then his friend puthishand on the guy’s privates. In Tokyo, everything’s okay for a laugh.

But after we played our tunes, there wasn’t even a smattering of applause for vocals that would do Luther Vandross proud. At breaktime, Joe and I went to get some conveyor-belt sushi. Joe was a little down. His Japanese girlfriend had cut the cord, for good it seemed, the previous Sunday. Then on Friday after his gig, he’d walked out of the club he played in Nakano and nearly got run over by some mob punks in a minivan. Words were exchanged, there was some shoving, next thing he knew it didn’t matter how many good punches he’d landed: one guy had him in a headlock while two other hoods were smartly applying brass knuckles to his legs to get his ass on the ground and make it nice and kickable. Joe managed to remain on his feet until some club people came to help. His face was unmarked, but he hurt all over.  The management sent him here to Shinjuku till things cooled off with the yakuza.

The Tokyo night scene is a velvet glove hiding a variety of terrors. That night, up and down Kabuki-cho’s dingy neon canyons, mini-skirted, bare-legged pretties stood holding their umbrellas against the spring rains. Kabuki-cho is the biggest of Tokyo’s tenderloins; other gleamy electric alleys are scattered all across her sprawling landscape. Wherever there’s a train station there are watering holes and walk-up “snack bars,” and not too far away, a woman to soothe your blues. At the pinku salons, of course, they do more than that. If you’re Japanese.

Ruby rambled on. In New York, he revealed, his dad had been a gangster. He recalled for me a night he’d seen his father approaching their Bronx apartment with a gaping knife wound in his shoulder. Nearby was the man who’d stabbed him, a local drug dealer his dad had tried to shoo out of the hood. Joe rushed to back up his father, but he was told to go upstairs.

“This is my fight,” his dad admonished, “but I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. First I’m going to put bullets into the brains of these two dogs of his that bit up my legs. Then I’m going to put two shots into that motherfucker’s stomach so he’ll understand not to fuck with me.”

Joe reluctantly went upstairs, heard shots ring out and rushed back thinking they’d killed his father. But the dogs were dead, and the drug dealer was bent over with two bullets in his stomach. He would survive them. It went down in the Bronx.  There were no arrests.

Another hot, yet perfunctory set. Another break. We sat talking in our dressing room, a large closet with a cigarette machine at one end. Waiters had to squeeze past us, scoring packs of “Peace” ciggies for their customers. Joe was running down to me the famous bands he knew personally and the collection of keyboards he kept at home in San Diego. Korgs and Moogs and Rolands and Yamahas, DX7’s and PR72’s, and God knows what else. He tossed off references to recording techniques as if he weren’t talking to a ghost who’d spent the last twenty years interpreting license plates and mowing lawns. I nodded sagely, then asked how he got started.

“I’m a programmer,” Joe explained. “Always have been, ever since ’81. This blind man taught me how to program.”

“Blind man?”

“Yeah, super keyboardist and singer. Back in New York. I used to work around the studio for him like a gofer. One day, he’s at the keys, and he tells me to turn off the lights and says, ‘Come on over here.’ Then he puts his hand on my shoulder and I’m thinking. ‘If he’s gay, I’m in trouble.’ Dude was six foot four, and strong. Then he says, ‘Give me a KM930 patch.’

“I can’t see anything,’ I say.”

“Neither can I,  he says. That’s how he taught me, feeling my way around the console, listening in the darkness. Opened my ears like a motherfucker. I stayed two years, he taught me everything.”

Joe turned and went out the door to get a beer. Fifteen minutes later, he came back with four wrist watches he’d won in the UFO grabber-machine game. He threw out his watch-laden arm in a street pose.

“What you need, man, what you need?”

At the end of the second night, I felt pretty good. There had been moments where I’d bumped into guitarist Darnell’s lines, but what the hell, I was just learning the ropes. As he finished the evening’s final credits, Darnell announced, “…and everywhereon sax, Aaron B!” That sounded a little funny. When the last notes had faded away, I tapped him on the arm and inquired, “Hey, have I been stepping on your toes?”

I might as well have stepped on a land mine. On the now thankfully darkened stage, Darnell was on me like Deion Sanders on an injured rookie wide-receiver. He was about the same size as Deion, actually.

“As a matter of fact, you’ve been stepping all over my shit for two nights now. Man, you need to lay back!” He looked down at me from a foot over my head. “Don’t you ever listen? You need to lay back. Me and Joe have been working together for two years here, we’ve developed a certain sound. You need to respect that!”

“Yeah, well I was tryingto. . . “

“Trying? That’s hard to believe. Man, you’re not 18 years-old, you no spring chicken, you should know better than to play all that shit.”

Joe came over to listen. I appealed to him.

“Joe, was I playing too much?”

The keyboardist nodded sadly, “Yeah, you might need to be more careful with the guitar parts, man.” His tone was gentle, but there was no way he’d go against his regular sideman in full, flaming attack. I mounted some half-hearted protests and looked completely baffled, but basically hung my head and took the verbal beating. I wanted the gig. And every musician has a different take.  Another player might feel my contributions outweighed my mis-steps. After all, these guys play the same arrangements six nights a week; you’d think they’d welcome some fresh energy. But it was a moot point. I waited for the fury to subside, then made like the ozone layer and disappeared. It was a  lonely walk to the car.

The next night, I took the stage right at 8:30, saying nothing to no one. There was, you might say, tension in the air. I stood in the back and kept the horn out of my mouth. And I listened. I noticed that without my sax, everything sounded just fine. I noticed the interplay between keyboard and guitar, the completeness that was already in place. I noticed all the freedom Darnell had to express himself. But that first set, Joe threw three solos to me, chances to aquit myself and to kick out the jams, the actions of a sensitive man and an experienced leader. I won’t forget the few seconds after Joe nodded to me to take my first solo. I was wound pretty tight; time nearly stood still.

As the first chord of a solo approaches and then rings out, good players perceive something like a wide green valley below, into which they can swoop in a variety of ways. Especially, the very first note, if selected correctly, can be a kind of revelation to player and listener as well. Miles Davis was the great master of this. That night I was filled with a largely unconscious, passionate anger Darnell’s verbal butt-kicking had engendered. It focused me. I waited, like Joe Montana on a three-wide-out pattern, checking off uncool notes in my head like covered wide receivers, until in the last split second I heard the note I wanted and hit it. It hung there in the air like a diamond, like a ball floating toward Jerry Rice on the 20-yard line. It also felt a lot like a right cross landing on the side of Darnell’s head. Then I heard the next note, and then another and I was off to the races. That shit felt good.

After the set, I went back to the closet/dressing room and sat in there alone, nursing a beer. Maybe 30 minutes later, Darnell came in and looked me straight in the eyes. He was wearing this big floppy African dashiki.

“Look, man, he said softly, “I don’t want us to be enemies.  I want for us to get along.”

I let the air out of my lungs slowly.

“Yeah, well, of course, I’m cool with that…”

“No man, come here,” he said, motioning me to stand up, and when I did, he threw his arms out and enfolded me in a tremendous, NFL defensive lineman hug. “I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry!” He kept saying this over and over. “I shouldn’t have said all that to you, man.”

I patted him on his invisible shoulderpads and said things like, “No, you were right, forget it,” and he said, “No, I wasn’tright,” and hugged me harder. I decided not to argue the point.

After that, me and him were tight. Darnell is a sweet guy 95 percent of the time, but he just goes off on people occasionally.  Joe explained it all to me later. Me and Darnell were so tight that naturally I made sure to visit him in the hospital a couple of weeks later after he got creamed on his motorcycle by some lady making a left turn dead into his path at 2AM on a major street. He got off with a broken ankle, a screwed-up back, plenty of bruises, a destroyed bike and three Japanese lawyers as dedicated to proving him in the wrong as that nice Admiral Yamamoto was to eradicating Pearl Harbor. You know what they say about nice guys.

I found him sitting in the very same hospital that I’d once gone with an inflamed gall bladder. An old man sat stooped over the edge of a bed adjacent to Darnell’s. He took the couple of books I gave him to pass the time in the stuffy little room with no TV or radio. Not that Japanese TV would have helped. A couple of days later he found the strength to get out of there. A couple of months later he was back at the club, but I wasn’t. I was in a classroom hoping for another gig.

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NUKES OVER NEVADA: First 50 Pages

Prologue

In the 26thCentury, technologies exist you could not dream of, inconceivable devices that make your iPhones the techno-equivalent of fingernail clippers. Combined with an ability to travel through both time and space, our vision penetrates all things. Yet one Steven Jobs axiom persists: Observe, Record, Share. This no longer requires holding a rectangular plastic object in the air and pointing it at what interests you. Our wholeware actually recreates and represents scenes never observed, save by their participants. We visit Marie Antoinette imprisoned in the Conciergerie on the Île de la Cité, listen to her curses and prayers. We know every detail of the events of November 22, 1963, though to reveal them to you would cause repercussions. Trust me.

But then you have no choice, do you.

In the first part of this work, I will take you in narrative form deeply into the everyday lives of the main protagonists in certain events that occurred in the early 21stcentury. It is not an assignment I am proud of. I present it anyway, knowing full well that in your time no one may ever read it. I mean, do you think someone like myself, a top agent of the Trans-Temporal Corrections Agency can hang around in your century building a social network, creating backlinks to a web page, shooting video trailers or using QueryTracker.com to endlessly appeal to literary agents who lust only after the next breakthrough young adult novel?  Who do you think I am? 

Wait a minute. Let me check my Trans-Galactic ID Card. Oh yes. Here it is…I am Legion Ayers!

What were we talking about? Oh yes, the story of my visit to 2014 and a heretofore unknown intrigue involving the first Afro-American president, an improbable pair of terrorists, a frightening nuclear threat, some really good drugs, and…well, shall we begin?

Part One

 

The Main Man

There was that famous picture of us standing at the door looking like we was scared to go in. Or maybe it was just me had a bad feeling. Didn’t want to set foot on that big carpet. Twin Peaks come to mind, Kyle MacLachlan in the Red Room with Bob the Fiend chasing him, then Bob grab hold his shoulder and Kyle come back all evil. Barry and me used to watch Twin Peaks back in Chicago. He used to listen to me a lot more then. Farther back, when we be gettin’ high, we were super-tight. You could shoot from the hip, say what you feel.

“Well, here’s the moment we all waited for,” he says. Then he flash that big African grin and we went up in there. People don’t get how African it is, even trips out some of the brothers sometime. Barry sits on down at the big Resolute desk. FDR sat there. JFK too. Dick Nixon paced this room til the day he drop to his knees and beg Kissinger to pray with him. Felt like Caesars’ palace and I don’t mean Vegas. I mean I could feel the blood everywhere, all the people got killed cause of shit went down in the room. William McKinley fucking over the Philipinos in Asia, we bombing this city, fighting that country. Yeah we saved the world from Hitler, but Truman sat here too, say what the fuck go ahead drop that shit on Hiroshima and kabloom 60,000 souls, women and children in the street burned to a crisp and a week later another 80,000 gone in Nagasaki. Kennedy heads off to Dallas and he come back in a box. What was that about? We never gonna know. Some bright moments, JFK sending troops into Birmingham. Eisenhower on TV warning folks about the military-industrial complex.

But like I say, mainly I could smell the blood. I knew that room was up to no good. When Barry got the nomination, he start backtracking fast. People said what the hell, Barry doin’ the practical thing, Barry movin’ to the center. The center of what? Center of the Red Room, baby. I knew that room was up to no good. Hell, I dug the pressure: banks going under, whole world falling apart. Wouldn’t you know: let a colored man take over the plantation and before he can move in they set the damn mansion on fire. Call the fire department and here come a redneck fire chief sucking on a toothpick staring up at the flames talking about, “How much you pay me to put out this fire, boy? Hey, how about your soul! I put this mother out in a jiffy, you give me your soul!”

Looking back, they had him sized up. CIA, FBI got so much cash to play with, they was likely on his case early on. Great compromiser at Harvard? Hotshot Negro speechifier at the Democratic Convention? They was on Barry like Hershey on chocolate. New black senator from Illinois?  We can work with this guy, they must have figured. Even if hell freezes over and he gets elected, we can mold his ass to a tee. This boy looks malleable.

Back in ’86 in Chicago at the Developing Communities Project, him being a high color dude from Hawaii, he wasn’t ready for no hard core Windy City black attitude, so we tried to get him up to speed. We dug his heart was in the right place. You could see that on the basketball court, the warrior in his African ass come out. Brother could shoot hoops. I mean, we was tight. But it was always checks and balances with Barry, find the middle road. You get to a certain point and he always looking for the compromise position. We’d go at it late at night. Sometimes, seemed like you was talking to a ghost, the way he’d wiggle around. Barry the Friendly Ghost. Thought he could make friends with everybody. And that was the days when Reagan was crushing unions and Papa Bush’s Contras were running their genocide shit in Guatemala.

Then Barry’s off to Harvard, leaving us homies far below. He come back a celebrity professor of law and all. But he tracked me down and we went back to playing hoops again, talking shit, but over coffee now. Years went by – I was just a cat he’d hook up with on the sly more or less. Finally, he’s a damn Senator and then boom– he’s shooting for the White House like Michael Jordan on a night he knew he couldn’t miss. A few days after the convention he send me a message that he gonna need me. Me! To watch his back, he said. A lot of help I was. He never heard much I said. But I showed up.

Now after he nailed the nomination, it was like we could feel something breathing down our necks. There was some subtle shit, little nuances. Like with the Secret Service. Barry thought he could have a casual conversation with them coming out a hotel or riding to the airport. I told him, you think just anyone gets this assignment? There were these little remarks about safety. Subtle shit. Coming into L.A., I remember we got up in the Humvee and they locked it down. The agent – who was a brother – get on his walkie-talkie: “All right, SENBO secure, let’s roll.” So Barry thought he’d make a little joke.

“SENBO?” he says. “Sounds a lot like Sambo.”

“It means Senator, plus your initials sir.”

“You’re Darnell, right?”

“Yes, agent Hopkins, sir.”

“Look, we’re rolling now, you can relax, brother.”

“Yes sir, thank you sir. You sounded good today, Senator.”

“Well, thanks. Hope I get your vote.”

“Senator, my main concern is you staying healthy.”

Barry laughed, sort of stiff-like. “Whoa, brother, you think I’m in that much danger?”

“We get reports, sir. It’s our job to check ‘em out.

Then he pause for a minute and say, “I think you did the right thing to step back on that telecom immunity thing, by the way.”

“What does that have to do with my safety, Hopkins?”

“It just makes my job easier, you could say. It’s not just the crazies out on the street, sir. There’s bigger fish we have to keep an eye on too. You’d be surprised. You know how it is, sir.”

So right from the start they were dropping these lugs. When I heard the agent’s rap I knew right away he wasn’t no regular Secret Service. Blood had to be workin’ with someone else. That shit come from up high.

Like I said, back in Chicago, early days, we were tight. We’d finish each other’s sentences, think the same way, like we say in the hood, weave, devil, weave. But you always felt that little white part of him going on.Then too, his father being a big time politician in Kenya until he dissed the wrong people and Kenyatta throw him under the bus. His old man got drunk, had the car accident and died young. I do believe that had an effect. You know, “step out of line, the man come and take you away.” He don’t want to wind up like his dad, so when push come to shove, he go into his “why can’t we be friends” thing. Mellow, like Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks.But generals get up in your face quick when they smell mellow. It happened at the first security briefing. I’m sitting in back, still amazed Barry got me cleared for a meeting like this. Halfway through, this Marine four-star General McCaffrey, clears his throat, like he wants to spit, and just jumps on in.

“Mr. President, may I speak freely?”

“Go ahead, General.”

“I want to make two points, sir. First, the United States is at war with an enemy determined to destroy it by nuclear or any other means. Unlike the cold war, we cannot establish a balance of terror. Secondly, war, Mr. President, is hell. Women and children die in war, Mr. President. The question is will it be the enemy’s children or ours. No American women or children died in Vietnam because we took the fight to the communists. Political treachery at home forced us to withdraw, but we punished the enemy severely and ended his hopes for world domination. Now another enemy appears, as he always will, and inflicts a terrible wound on our homeland. Even as we speak, he seeks ultimate weapons to realize his goal. Our duty is to inflict pain on him, remorselessly, cruelly, without a trace of mercy. He must know we have no compunctions or concerns about his families or his homes. Our rage, sir, must exceed his.”

Barry waited him out and said, “I appreciate your passion and your patriotism, but you know I was opposed to going into a country that never attacked us and we now know was uninvolved with the events of 9/11. Look, we need to move past partisanship. I deeply respect the sacrifices of our men in uniform. But in my judgment the time has come to reduce our profile in Iraq.”

This guy was checking Barry out like he was breaking a horse. “With respect sir,” he goes, “your knowledge of the geo-political, military and technical aspects of our operations is fairly limited. It is imperative that we maintain a strong footprint on the ground. We cannot withdraw, realistically speaking.”

‘With respect, sir?’ ‘Your knowledge is limited?’ Barry bristled and told the general he’d be the one to decide that. The guy just kept throwing punches. “In one form or another,” he goes on, “we’ll need an ongoing presence to interdict and destroy terrorist elements in the region. We have a wide range of tactical tools to put at your disposal going forward. But these are very dangerous people, not some Chicago politicians we’re dealing with here, Mr. President.”

I remember how that shit echoed off the walls. Barry just twist his head and do this little smile. Then he change the subject. McCaffrey read that smile as weakness. Man, the blood rushed to my head. I wanted to jump in that honky’s face right now, but I felt Barry check me like we was on the court. So I bit my tongue.

But Barry’s nothing if not a quick study. You ever watch a big white cumulus cloud on an autumn day? You watch it close, it doesn’t seem to move. But look away, then back again after half a minute and its shape has totally changed. That’s Barry. Step by step, inch by inch, there he go. First he snap to the center like he’d been held down on the left with rubber bands. Snap! Then he gets in office and the real shit goes down. CIA briefings, Joint Chiefs of Staff, NSA, CIA, the bankers, the insurance companies – you know, forget it. Andthe thing is, Barry is definitely digging the power. But he never even punched no one when he was on the street. But what he going to do? Oval Office is like a jet fighter cockpit. Bogies at 3 o’clock!Kaboom! Rat-a-tat-tat! Who the hell would have thought it? Of course, some Afghan farmer loses his babies to a drone, that man can’t get in Barry’s face like a general can.

But as for me, I can’t walk out on the brother. We been tight too long. He’s under a lot of pressure, on a tight leash. But maybe something gonna snap him back the other way one day. People say the “change you can believe in” thing was all a front. They say he look black but be white. But he got something more inside him than people realize.

Akbar

Akbar Hamid Al Sabah closed his quantum physics textbook and watched his students scattered through the lecture hall slowly file out. Outside his country’s borders few imagined that such modern fragments of pre-invasion Iraq clung to life. They weren’t even aware how advanced Iraq’s infrastructure and civil society had been before the Americans blasted it into rubble and three hours of electricity per day. Certainly, he reflected, life under Saddam was oppressive and dangerous, but there’d been clean water, dependable power, the benefits of modern society. Now they were gone.

He donned a light jacket and made his way out of the building and onto the street. A U.S. Army jeep rolled by, its occupants armed to the teeth, casting cold, robotic stares at those about them, himself included. It always sent a chill up his back. Before, there was the fear of Saddam’s police, but you knew what to say, what not to do. Now, these Americans, it was impossible to read their thoughts. If you spoke no English, you were possessed by fear and worried about rousing their suspicions. And then there were his Shiite neighbors and the waves of unspeakable violence ripping through Baghdad almost daily. Akbar, his wife and two children lived in a Sunni enclave bordered on two sides by Shiites. There was tension everywhere. No one knew what the next day would bring.

He was 38 years old, a young professor formerly possessed of a bright future. He had thought of himself as a citizen of the world during the four years he had studied at M.I.T., graduating with a doctorate on an obscure aspect of quantum physics. Now the world had closed in on him and his days in America were a distant dream. Well, he thought, I have my family. And luckily, a job in a university that is still operating. Things would slowly improve. It would not always be like this.

Despite his highly developed powers of logic, honed by mathematics and the laws of physics, Akbar retained the faith given him in childhood. Especially now, when chaos and catastrophe surrounded him, he clung to his conviction that Allah would see him through. He held no anger in his heart against Shiites – his education and worldliness allowed him to see the schisms of Islam as the sectarian nonsense they were. Would that all the followers of Allah could express the simple demands of Mohammed: piety, charity, justice, morality, not so different from other religions as far as that goes.

Akbar was of medium height, thin, almost gaunt now, but determined in his movements. His face was all angles and planes, his beard closely cut in the modern style. He laughed less now than before, but in his eyes his family always saw hopefulness and great love. Making his way home, he stopped in the marketplace to buy pomegranates and fresh plums. His wife and children would enjoy them. He had known Shada since their youth, a neighborhood girl who had entranced him the first time he saw her. From the beginning she had a way of mocking him with her eyes, making light of an adoration he could never hide. It was not until the end of high school, when he acquired a certain maturity and bearing, and as she watched him surpass his classmates in every endeavor, that she allowed him into her heart. Then he had approached her and asked for her hand. He proposed a four year undergraduate courtship, then marriage. As it happened, his efforts there earned him a government scholarship to do graduate work in the U.S., and he was accepted to aprestigious school in Boston. There was not enough money for her to join him, but she agreed to wait until he returned. When he did, they consummated their love, brought a daughter, Leyla, and then their son Gabir into the world.

By Baghdad standards, their home was spacious enough, an apartment on the second floor of the Khadimiyah district. On his return, Shada always concocted something delicious for the family. If there was no electricity, she used their small gas burner or they ate bread and fresh vegetables and fruit. Her job at a local textile factory was long gone and unlikely to return, but they had enough to get by.

Tonight, Gabir, age six, met him at the door with a customary leap into his father’s arms. The boy was getting so big now, too heavy to hold for more than a few moments. Leyla approached quietly and waited for her kiss. Shada called out a greeting from the kitchen, her voice like music. Akbar opened his bag filled with pomegranates for the delighted children. “Take these to your mother,” he instructed them. Layla grabbed the bag and ran off, but now Gabir’s mood changed. “Did you hear the explosion today near the market, Papa?” he asked his father, with a look in his eyes more serious than a boy of six should have. In my youth, Akbar thought, I worried about lightning and sandstorms. No child should have more to fear than that. “Yes,” he answered, “but it was far away from us. Let’s not worry about it. Allah is watching and protecting us.”

“But why doesn’t he protect everyone?” the boy asked. “Why the bombs? I hate hearing guns at night.” Words like this tore at Akbar’s heart. Once again, he was possessed by thoughts of escape, of a way to gather his family and run far from this insane city, this tragic country.

“Don’t bother your father with questions he cannot answer!” Shada entered from the kitchen with a generous plate of biryani, a spicy dish of meat and rice. “Only trust in Allah,” she said. “He has shielded us this far. And soon peace will come again. This trouble will not last forever.” A muffled boom from far across the city shook the windows just as she finished speaking. Akbar spoke quickly to dispel the fear that seeped into the room. “Let’s enjoy your mother’s delightful meal, my children, prepared by the most beautiful woman in Baghdad!”

Later, as the children slept, Shada crept closer to Akbar in their bed. “Is there still no news from your friends in America?”

“Don’t you think I would have told you, Shada? I pray each day for some response. Dr. Solvay has repeatedly contacted Immigration in Boston offering to sponsor us, but with no success. You’d think they would welcome a scientist like me, but the political situation is so sensitive now.”

“Can’t we run away? Many others have done it.”

“Wait a little longer, my love. If there is no news by spring, and conditions here don’t improve, it may be best – despite the hardships we would face in the refugee camps. Now please, let us sleep. Tomorrow is another day.”

Barry

The question first occurred to me in the ninth grade as I read a biography of Einstein. At the instant he mathematically confirmed the relationship of space and time – what was that like? That is, how did it feel to be transformed in a moment from just a gifted scientist into the equal of Archimedes and Newton? At what point, in other words, did he realize he was…Einstein! Was it like a shaft of light illuminating hisbeing? The Holy Spirit descending on him? What was it like for Balboa to reach the crest of that last hill and behold the Pacific spread before him? Over the years, I’ve reflected on the seminal moments of those who passed through the entranceway to greatness. Men like Napoleon, Stalin, even Babe Ruth or Bob Dylan.

I realized it was partly a matter of being in the right place at the right time. This was true of Einstein, whose ideas blossomed from soil prepared by Lorentz and Poincaré. And the great are imperfect. Ruth didn’t look like an athlete. The young Dylan was no feast for the eyes, his songs were a mishmash of beat poetry, blues and a baying voice that happened to catch the nascent cynicism of his era. Napoleon was famously short. Stalin was seen as a stupid rustic, a perception that worked to his great advantage. These weaknesses would have discouraged other men. Nevertheless, at a key moment each had a realization: I’m an extraordinary human being! My destiny is far, far above other men’s. They saw open field ahead, their competitors far behind them, nothing between them and greatness. I was fascinated by such a psychic event. I wanted it for myself. I didn’t get the very best grades. I was racially mixed in a country that tended toward racism. I didn’t even know my own father, who had wound up a drunken loser. On the other hand my mother persistently built me up, said I was special, descended from kings. And my father had been political, very bright, a Harvard man and a serious player in Kenyan politics.

When I reached Occidental College in the ‘70s, students were obsessed with South Africa and apartheid. I was a natural fit. There was a synchronicity to it. I was half-Kenyan. They asked me to give a speech. At the rally students watched me, I saw a look of fascination in their eyes. I heard the sound of my own voice, larger than life, a seductive amalgam of intelligence and moral authority. It was like picking up a trumpet and playing it, sweet and sudden. That speech had a lightning bolt quality. It awakened dreams, made me want to move East to Columbia in the same way jazz musicians seek out New York. Later, it led me to walk away from a career on Wall Street to pace the streets of Chicago testing myself as a leader. Always in the back of my mind I wondered: am I destined for greatness? Then Harvard opened its halls to me, and in that rarified air I found Chicago had helped prepare me for intellectual battle. They say death focuses the mind wonderfully. So do a whole lot of Windy City brothers in your face with attitude. My escape from that exhausting two-year street exercise was bracing. I found I could focus on the mental challenges of America’s top law school with great precision.

This more than any public recognition was my moment of illumination. Now I could fully sense the merging of my intellect and charisma. I was older than the other law students. My racially mixed international heritage gave me definite cachét. My life journey from Hawaii to Indonesia to Chicago empowered me to see others more clearly than they could see me, and I cultivated that opacity. As I carefully rephrased their ideas, they inferred I supported them. White liberals projected their far-left sentiments onto me. Those on the right found me open-minded. What greater political asset could there be? But to realize I could grasp subtle legal issues, to find I could thrive in debate with the best of the best, this was my open-field moment. It completed my needed circle of personal characteristics. This realization occurred long before the public event that elevated me into an elite circle. When I agreed to run for the presidency of the Harvard Law Review, when the conservatives threw their votes my way, I thought of Sun Tzu: “Every battle is won before it is fought.” I already knew I was unique, on theway to a great summit, that my future was absolutely unlimited. I feared no one. I had achieved clarity.

Mariella

It took time for Mariella Aguilar to grasp her brilliance. Once her fifth grade her teacher asked if she wondered why she was so much smarter than her schoolmates. “No,” said Mariella sweetly, “I wonder why everyone else is so dumb.” By the time she was twelve it was clear she was not only very bright, but going to be attractive as well. Not in the conventional sense, she was underweight and gangly, but at fourteen, her eyes and lips held promises such that grown men would catch themselves staring and guiltily look away. By then, she knew what the glances concealed, already able to look through most people, read motives, assess hearts.

She lived in a pleasant home in the Oakland Hills, several cuts above the dangerous East Oakland flatlands. Her father Ruben was a sociology professor at Mills College who as a child had witnessed the tumult of the 1960s from too-close a vantage point. His own father Benedicto had been clubbed by Oakland police at the U.S. Army Induction Center and never recovered completely, his vision impaired and speech slightly slurred. He had quit graduate school and taken to the bohemian life, doing odd jobs, staying high, immersing himself in Gil Scott-Heron’s proto-rap and eventually daily doses of Red Bull malt liquor. Fortunately for Mariella, his son Ruben was the sort to learn from parental disaster. He put himself through Cal Berkeley in the days when a student could still do that. But as she matured and her perceptiveness grew, Mariella appreciated more her grandfather’s rambling monologues. The old man spent much of his time at Brookdale Park, a patch of green off High Street where seniors, mostly black, gathered to chew the socio/political fat, interspersed with speculations on the fortunes of the Athletics or the Raiders.

From her baby days, Mariella was Benito’s special angel. Saturday mornings were their together-time during her girlhood, so much so that his love for her insured his Saturday afternoon sobriety. He took her on trips to Lakeside Park or Jack London Square or up to the Oakland Zoo. In her teens, she was mainly with friends, but some afternoons in high school, Mariella found time to drift by Brookdale Park, especially if she had a social science or history assignment on the burner. Benito’s knowledge of politics and economics was encyclopedic. He lifted away veils of illusion and grounded Mariella in socio-economic realities that were seldom aired in her (mostly white) classes at Skyline High School. She would mention a topic to him – American expansionism at the turn of the 19th century or the early labor movements and Benito would ramble on for thirty minutes, connecting historical threads all the way to Reagan’s modern-day union busting or George W. Bush’s disaster in Iraq.

“I can see now, mejita,” he would tell her, “the Sixties was just a brief letup from the ascendency of the elites. I mean yes, at root capitalism is cool in certain ways, commerce and exchange is natural for the human species, but let those power brokers and arbitrageurs run the show, let empire builders have their way, the people get stepped on. Always have. Power corrupts, mejita. I don’t care if it’s a Bush or an Ayatollah or some Saudi prince. They get off turning the screws on the little people. They hang out together. And don’t get in their way. You’ll be in the danger zone.” Then Mariella would kick out a superb essay for her class, articulating his ideas with impact and style. Yet she agonized over the question Benito could never answer: how could you change anything? Her grandfather was living evidence of the ability of power to destroy lives. “Don’t worry too much about this stuff, mejita,” he would tell her. “You’re young, you’re beautiful – enjoy life while you can. Soon enough you gonna have niños and niñas of your own – life is long, our days of freedom are short!”

“Hey, grandfather! Women aren’t just baby-makers any more. Don’t fence me in, OK?”

Perdoneme, mejita, feminism isn’t my strong suit. It came in after my formative years. You go do your thing. You’re special, the future belongs to you!”

In 2010 she won a full scholarship to Stanford. She had grown into a lissome 5’ 10” athlete and an all-countyforward in girls’ basketball. Being a minority woman helped, but Stanford came with a sense of social estrangement. Skyline High had accustomed her to affluent Anglo-Saxon youth but so many at Palo Alto, despite their cultivated 21st century hipness, reeked of entitlement. It was subtle, revealed in chatty accounts of a Vale ski trip or shoulder-shrug attitudes to political injustice. At 18, her heart was wide-open to suffering and impatient for change. At Stanford, driven to find solutions, she gravitated to hard core political science rather than typical cultural and gender studies. But determined to excel in a hyper-competitive environment, she avoided overt political activity.

It was in her junior year that the idea germinated, at a beer party, of all places. It was early 2012, and by then it had become very clear that the man Mariella and her friends had been so entranced with, the man they had gone door-to-door for to make the first black president, was disappointing them. The disparity between his imagined promise and his performance left them dazed, whether it was civilian bombing deaths in Afghanistan, his too-cozy connection to Wall Street or his extension of the security state, including his implacable war on whistleblowers. It was an administration they had not dreamed possible in the heady days of 2008.

Marty Seymour was an oriental philosophy major focused on Japanese culture, but also on the occasional joint – occasional being a good idea since his style was so obscure that the ganja was the last thing he needed. Mariella’s coterie of left-leaning friends had gathered in the campus Rathskeller on a November evening, and talk naturally turned to the change in mood from four years before, when all was idealism and celebration of a new era. Marty was sitting on one end of the big couch, staring off into space. The others chattered complainingly about the political situation. Out of nowhere, and to no one on particular, he began to speak.

“You know, to get this done, I would need a mole.”

Sam Duncan, a second-string basket-baller and the athlete of the group, had at Marty.

“You mean a birth mark? Like a mole on your butt?”

“No, stupid, an infiltrator, a plant, a spy.”

“Is this about passing a test? Is this about that tort course you’re taking?”

“No, it’s about changing the world.”

The little group fell silent. “Marty,” Slam countered, “don’t hold out on us. You must have another joint somewhere. I know you didn’t smoke the entire stash.”

“You guys are bitching about political betrayal, but you don’t really know what’s going on in the Oval Office. And much less what goes on in the guy’s mind! It’s all fucking speculation.” Marty’s voice rose to a crescendo on the last word. “We need a mole.”

Mariella spoke up. “You’re right, Marty. That’s perfectly logical. And if we had a mole in heaven we could read the mind of God. That’s about as feasible as infiltrating the White House.”

“Maybe more feasible than you think. Look, they infiltrate any organization they see as a threat, right? Why shouldn’t we have a fly on their wall?”

“Of the White House?” broke in Daniel, a junior in computer science from the Philippines. “And how does this fly get in the window?”

Marty smiled and showed his ace. “Hello! Ever hear of the White House intern program?”

“Dude,” said Slam, “please, gimme a toke. My metabolism is very sensitive. One puff and I can be up there with you.”

“Don’t underestimate me, man.”

Slam smiled condescendingly. “Check it out, Fidel, it’s a summer intern program. Three months, max. Interns work across the street at the Executive Office Building running errands. They might see the president once, for a photo op.”

“And Steve Jobs started out in a garage.” Marty sighed. “Americans, always in a rush. It’s just a first step. Our mole’s objective is to make an impression, to stay on, move up the ladder, become indispensible. I admit it’s a long shot but…”

“Ya think?” Slam turned to the others. “Anyone else gonna help me score some herb? Marty’s no help.”

“I don’t know, Slam,” Mariella put in, “It’s an interesting challenge for the right person. We have to eliminate you and Marty though. I heard you have to take a drug test.”

“Exactly. And here’s the skinny. To be all the way honest, it was more Mehal’s idea than mine. We brainstormed it together over coffee this morning.”

Mehal, an engineering major from India, had been silently scrolling through email on his iPad. “I asked you to keep me out of it, man. It’s just conjecture, an extreme long-shot. But this person who’s supposed to somehow access the inner circle– it’s not a he. It’s a she.”

“Why’s that?” Marty asked.

“You need more than observation, more than reporting back to a bunch of nonentities at Stanford. It means persuasion, captivation, even, dare I say, seduction.”

Mariella reacted reflexively. “Seduction? That’s been done, Mehal. Monica didn’t change the world”

“That’s only because,” put in Slam, “she couldn’t talk policy with her mouth full.” Male oohs filled the air.

“Shut up, Slam,” Mariella snapped. “You’re disgusting.”

“Yes, Slam, please shut up. OK, a bridge too far there. Let me re-word it. We’re talking about a woman with intellect to match anyone in the room. But also allure, feminine charisma. A woman’s moral force, her conscience and spirituality…all the good stuff. Think Lady Eowyn, think Galadriel – she ruled Aragorn!”

A silence fell. Mariella felt a tingle go up the back of her neck. It was obvious what the men were thinking.

“Look, guys,” she said, feigning calmness despite a buzz that had moved to the top of her head. “I’m the poli/sci major here, the realist. You guys are dreaming. If you want change, there’s serious work to be done, organizing, jump-starting a movement, educating people. Life is not like Star Wars.”

“You mean the Force is not real? Next thing you’ll tell me Luke Skywalker’s gay!”

“You hadn’t heard? But let’s stay on topic, man,” Marty said. “Mariella, you’re dynamite in three or four categories. Everyone knows that. I gotta admit, you’re a perfect fit. For one thing, you’d turn up clean in the background checks. All you’ve done is study and do a little volunteer work. Hey, forget the conspiracy, it would still be a nice career move, right?” Her momentary hesitation lent him confidence. “It’s just three months, very cool on your resume. You could let it play out, see what happens.”

Mariella took a careful sip of her Dos Equis, continuing to gaze up at the ceiling after putting the bottle down on the table. “Our communications would be verbal only, by Skype, say. There can’t be any email record showing ulterior motives on my part – you know, if I had some sort of strategic breakthrough.”

“Yes!! She’s on board!”

“No, just playing with the idea, Marty. Actually, they can probably hack video chats too. I’d need to be 99.9% under cover if I really got my foot in the door.”

“Your pretty foot, sweetheart.”

“It’s not about that.”

“Yes, but look, the First Lady is as big a disappointment as her husband. After she goes ‘this is the first time I’ve been proud of America in a while,’ she just became apolitical. Some of those campaign speeches she gave, I thought she was going to be his back. Now she’s just this fashionista talking about healthy diets. I mean, she’s like an Oprah double.”

“And the connection with my feet would be…?”

“I guess I imagined her talking to him in bed, Mariella. Like when he was cutting deals with insurance companies, she could have been on his case. All the times he caved, she should have straightened his backbone. Wives are supposed to do that. A woman should look out for her man’s soul. Vice-versa, of course, but usually it’s the man out there climbing the ladder. She should have…”

“I’m not convinced she hasn’t tried. Like they say, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. Anyway, if the guy doesn’t have it, you think his mama can fix it?”

“Maybe not. I should have seen it in 2008, but everybody was tripping they were the second coming of Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King.”

“I thought we were just going out for a couple beers. Now I’m supposed to be a cross between Joan of Arc and Elizabeth Taylor.”

“Elizabeth who?” Slam put in.

“Taylor. You know, she broke up Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher’s marriage.”

“Was that before Van Halen?”

“Never mind, Slam.”

Mehal spoke again. “Mariella, if you decide to apply – for the purposes we’ve discussed here – I know some interesting self-empowering techniques I could show you.”

“I’d really like that,” she answered, then shook her head and blinked. “What the… did I say that?”

“You did. That’s just a quick demonstration. It’s all in the eyes and the lips. Some people learn quickly, some cannot do it. We’ll have to see.”

“Where do I sign up?” asked Slam. I know several young ladies with respect to whom I need self-empower…”

“Not. This is ancient Vedic knowledge, not to be abused by vulgar dilettantes. But if Mariella is setting out on a quest for justice and peace…”

“The Force will be with her!” Slam shouted.

“Speaking in teenager-ese, yes,” said Mehal. “Let me know what you decide, Mariella.” He rose and said goodnight, slipping carefully past the noisy tables filled with beer-swilling students.

Doctor Khan

Abdul Qadeer Khan put on his winter coat and stepped onto the front steps of his comfortable home in the highlands north of Islamabad. The walled manor lay equidistant from Quaid-e-Azam University, the Pakistan Technological Center and the National Center for Physics. Gazing out at the expansive view, Abdul Khan took a few deep breaths. His smile bore a certain quiet ferocity. He was observing the anniversary of the day the last vestiges of his insulting house arrest had been rescinded and his name officially returned to the place of honor that he and his countrymen felt it deserved, Allah be praised. Indeed, he felt the power and the will of the Prophet surging in his veins, as if the Sword of Allah itself had been placed in his hands, as it had been in that of the great Khalid ibn al-Walid in the 7th Century.

Why had he been placed in such a position at this critical historical moment? Why was he blessed with such prodigious powers of intellect, able not only to probe and manipulate the secrets of the atom but also conceive of and pursue political action? Why were pious men drawn to him looking for leadership? As these thoughts flowed through his mind in the bracing February air, his cell phone rang with the call he was anxiously waiting for. He reached into his coat, flipped it open and heard the voice he was expecting.

“Dr. Khan, our ecological research is going well.”

“How are the density readings in the lake?”

“As we expected.”

“How many of the measurement tools are usable?”

“Both of them seem to be functioning perfectly.”

“That is good. Please visit me next Monday so I can see your data.”

“Of course, Doctor. Goodbye for now.”

“Goodbye.”

So it was true. What he had sought for so long was nearly in his hands. And on this, a day of personal celebration! He recalled how, as a lowly shepherd, the Jewish David had slain great Goliath. He thought of the English King Henry V and his impossible victory over the French at Agincourt. Such things happened in olden times, he thought, and now will happen again. But this time, if the laws of Allah are not submitted to, the vengeance will be on a far greater scale. He smiled again and stepped inside for the warmth of some Masali chai, the sweet milky tea that would help calm his excitement.

His life had been showered both with honors and disgrace. He had to battle for the former for years before his country acknowledged his invaluable contributions and leadership in Pakistan’s nuclear project. They were safe from India today because of his efforts, despite the obstructionism of Munir Ahmad Khan, his scientific rival. That small-minded fellow, he thought, not a political bone in his body in an age where Islam struggles to rise from the centuries-old chopping block of Infidel imperialism. Of course he had endeavored to provide Libya and Iran with the means to protect themselves instead of standing naked before the West. Would Iraq be a chaotic wasteland bombed forty years into the past, littered with spent uranium shells if the apostate Saddam had possessed the right weapons? Would Libya have descended into anarchy if Kaddafi could have threatened to obliterate Paris?

And still today Islam – even Pakistan – cowers like weaklings before an American president who insultingly bears an Islamic name, yet rains terror down on its people, its women and children, devout followers of Muhammad. Christians talk of an anti-Christ. How then should Muslims perceive this quisling, this bizarre historical creature, this repulsive joke of a man? He can only exist as a tool created by Allah to impel us forward to revenge his holy name. There is no other explanation for it. Yes, this presidency is a sign, and yes, today’s phone call is our signal to proceed.

So flowed the thoughts of Dr. Khan as he sipped his tea and waited. The next morning men came to his home. He guided them to the sitting room. Tea was served, and they chatted amiably about the weather and simple matters. Finally, Khan fell into an expectant silence.

“We have two suitcase-devices, Sahib Dr. Khan. That is the fact. There was a chance for another, but for some reason it was not provided. We have done a brief inspection and they seem to be real Russian RA-115s. As you know, they are described as around six kiloton weapons, less than half the power of what was used in Hiroshima, but quite enough to destroy most of Manhattan or the heart of Washington, D.C.”

“Let’s not talk about such things. We pray such actions will not be necessary.” Khan intended to maintain a statesmanlike image, and a statesmen would talk thus. “I want Dr. Ahmad and Dr. Hamid to do more complete inspections in my private laboratories in the Institute. They should report back within a week. I am concerned about agents monitoring our activities. Exert yourselves to use the highest caution in every communication or action. Our lives and the fate of Islam itself is in your hands.”

“We must also find the brave martyrs who will bear these gifts into the heartland of the Infidel’s power. Their souls must be on fire with love for Allah and the Prophet. I believe we will be led to them, for they will be figures of legend for centuries to come.”

Dr. Khan gave in to a moment of passionate expression. “Think of it, gentlemen! To finally have our knife on the throat of the Evil One!”

Pickup Games

When we dug her in 2012. I think Barry and me felt the same thing over at the Executive Office Building, greeting the summer interns. “Mr. President, this is Mariella Aguilar,” says the Director of Interning. “She’s a political science major from Stanford University.”

“It’s a pleasure,” he says, in a voice he hadn’t used with the others. A little extra sweetness in there. Lady had eyes that drill right into a man. Girl can’t help it, I guess.

“You might be interested, sir, Ms. Aguilar was an all-county basketball player in high school.”

“Well, you got to come across the street for a little three-on-three game, Ms. Aguilar,” I said, “and show us your jumper.” That blew Barry out of the water. I was totally out of line, you know. I never do that. The girl looks at the president drop-jawed.

“On the other hand,” Barry goes, “I’m sure the director has your work cut out for you.” He trying to cool everyone out. But then Maria turns those eyes on the director and nails him with a killer smile. “Well,” the director grins, “I might be able to let her go for an hour or two.” Barry smiles and says he’ll put it under advisement, whatever that means. Now the lady speaks up.

“Mr. President, she says, “I just wanted to congratulate you on the passage of the ACA, your decision to outlaw waterboarding, and the whole range of reforms you’ve been trying to institute since taking office.” The interns next to her smirk, but wish they’d said it. Barry looks impressed.

“Thank you, young lady. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to get any free shots.” Everyone laughs, and the president moves on down the line.

So the lady was playing on my mind. She just seemed to have something going on, a cool energy. Barry had forgotten all about her, but in July he was getting out to the new court on the South Lawn pretty often, so I made a call and arranged for her to visit on a day Barry had scheduled a quick game. Told her to dress casual. Whatever happens, happens, I figured.

They drove her up a bit late, after the game had started. He looked surprised, then ignored her, but I knew he wanted to see her play. Well, she was wearing these black tights under some basketball shorts. It definitely changed the mood. After the set, I told her to go ahead and take some shots. She sets up in the corner, looks me dead in the eyes and buries it. Then comes the smile. So one of the guys drops out. The men played her low-contact of course, and she sunk enough of her pretty jumpers to win.

Anyway, I can’t remember when it was, but at one point she just looks up at me, breathing heavy, and says, “Why you always hanging on the outside? You should get aggressive, drive the lane more.” Sort of shocked me the way she said it, couldn’t figure it out. Like did she even know who I was, to speak like that? Someone else, I’m gonna tell them mind their business, especially her being lucky just to make a scene like that. But she just left me at a loss for words. Next thing I knew, off she goes back across the street to her gig, thanking everyone, drifting off like a summer breeze. Damndest thing. And then, well, a couple months later I pulled a string to bring her on board in-house, so to speak. With all the heavy stuff going down, the Great Recession, health care wars, Iraq, Afghanistan – well, she just seemed to brighten up the place.

Hector and Ariel

“Damn. Is that a fire I smell again?”

“I think so, honey. It’s not what we’re smoking.”

“Getting to be par for the course in summer.”

“God grant it’s not coming our way.”

“The Goddess directs the winds, honey. Pray to Her. God’s the one you talk to when your ass gets blown off on Guadalcanal.”

“Sweet. Hey, is that thing still lit?”

“Here you go. Don’t drop it in the lake.”

Ariel pulls the joint from her lips and holds it out for her husband in the plastic holder that keeps it dry. He takes a long drag and exhales towards the fleecy clouds sculling across the sky. Floating is second nature to them, their breathing a meditation. Barely noticeable wavelets rocking them serenely twenty yards out from the jetty. The lake water a light milky green in the sun. A tilt of the head reveals a pristine, pine-clad shoreline all around.

Hector grunts. “That chopper this morning, haven’t seen one in a while.”

“Yeah.”

“It’ll be drones next. With little cluster bombs.”

“They wouldn’t do that. Besides, legalization’s just  around the corner.”

“You think?”

“Sure. They don’t spray like they used to, right?”

“That’s cause we put the plants under polyethylene sheets. Conservatives never give up. Remember Nixon? When he imploded, they just took a break and went back for a double shot of Reagan. Then…”

“Honey, don’t start. I barely remember that. Don’t you love me? Don’t you love your pretty wife?”

“Like life itself, baby.”

“Then lighten up. Try to be more positive. Just stay in the moment, honey. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

“Maybe you’re right. Bobby Dylan said it’s all good.”

“You’re basically a very spiritual guy, you know? We must be the only growers in the county who aren’t armed to the teeth.”

“Sometimes I wonder if I should own a piece just to cool myself out. I get so upset at the whole fucking planet. Not the planet, you know, the people on it.”

“Oh, that would solve everything, you with a gun.”

“I know. But look what they’re destroying. These trees, this priceless lake. Fifty years from now it’ll all be gone. It was nearly nuclear war in the 60’s. Kennedy, Cuba, all that. But this, this is pure science fiction horror stuff. They could be turning the earth into fucking Venus, Ariel, a burnt-out carbon dioxide oven!”

“And what exactly can we do about it? By the way, you’re dick just went soft.”

“Yeah, I noticed that.”

“You disconnected from your life force, baby. You gotta stay in the peace zone.”

“Warrior dicks are supposed to be soft. You can’t fight enemies with a hard on.”

The image makes them both laugh. Ariel rolls over onto Hector and they submerge, rolling and hugging under the surface, then emerge breathless and swim toward the dock. Ariel jumps out first. When he climbs out he pulls her down and rolls her onto him.

“Hector, don’t. Kevin might come out…”

“He’s totally napping. Consuela said he went out like a light half an hour ago. Then she went back to her cottage.”

Ariel sinks down onto him under the hot sun. When they’ve finished and caught their breath, sweating in the heat, they roll and splash back into the water and surface, exhilarated and laughing. Later, they sit on the cabin deck with sandwiches and iced tea as the day’s real heat sets in. The lake shimmers in it. Hector gulps his tea down, crunches on his ice. He looks out at his plants, ready for harvest. He turns a grizzled face toward Ariel and gazes at her skin, her long hair, the slope of her shoulders.

“I loved you the first time I saw you…”

 ‘“…that’s an old songwriter’s cliché’ – don’t quote Paul Simon, give me something original.”

“I did though, I fell in love as soon as you went into your crazy rap.”

“And I adored you. But you didn’t show it. You made me pay for my lunch.”

“Hit on a girl sitting in a booth at Denny’s, you don’t pick up her tab. It’s too much pressure. It suggests expectations.”

“You could have offered. You blew the magic.”

“I was taking it slow. My dad told me to always take it slow.”

“You’re 52 and you treat women like your Dad told you?”

“You’re here, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, I am.” She sniffs the air. “I don’t smell the smoke anymore. Don’t see any either.”

“You’re tired of living with me. There’s nothing happening up here in the mountains.”

“They’re not even mountains. They’re sad-ass foothills.”

“Don’t leave me, Ariel.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll never let Consuela have you. You think I don’t see the way you watch her?”

“Consuela? I can’t believe she can eat so many chimichangas.”

“That’s a weightist remark.”

“There’s no such word.”

“It’s new. Anyway, I still love you. And you promised we can move to Hawaii next year. Kevin can go to kindergarten there. Time marches on.”

“I know, I know. I’ll figure something out. I can’t go on like this either. I’m too paranoid. Can’t talk on the phone, can’t do email, Google Earth sees everything we’re doing. I can’t write diatribes against Obama online. They watch everything I do. It’s ridiculous.”

“No, you’re ridiculous. But yeah, we need to stop.”

“It’s everywhere. The Chinese hacking the Pentagon, the Brits hacking the EU, the U.S. hacks fucking everybody. It’s like Reservoir Dogs, everyone pointing a pistol at everyone. Governments are nuts.”

“You know why?”

“Why.”

“Men don’t know how to make peace. They live for war. Their default emotion is fear. You’re not as different from them as you think. Look at the life you live.”

“OK, I’m a warrior, but like in Castaneda’s books.

“Oh, please.”

“For me, everything is a challenge. I walk only on paths with heart. I live by acting, not thinking about acting.”

“Like I said, men can’t make peace.”

“Look, I’m making the delivery Tuesday. Javier and I harvest the plants and pack them up on the weekend.”

“Can we leave Kevin with the two of them? It’s just a few days, right? It’d be nice to have time alone like in the old days.”

“That sounds sweet. Yeah, of course.”

“You need to get out of the mountains. Me too. You could go shopping in Pasadena, we’ll see a Dodgers game, hit a Sunset disco.”

“Oooh, exciting. After you sell your goodies, OK?”

“Of course.”

There is a rustling inside the kitchen and then a bang as little arms fling open the screen door.

“I’m up! Papa, can you read to me? Or play hide and seek. Either one is OK.”

Hector pinched the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger, resting his head there, closing his eyes.

“One…two…three…four…”

By The Tigris

Akmal walked on aimlessly along the west bank of the Tigris north of Baghdad, close to Khalaf al Ja’ata. He had taken off his shoes and thrown them into the river. Sharp stones cut his feet and he glanced down with satisfaction at the blood that seeped up between his toes. Now along the riverside, the groves of fruit trees gave way to a bare open area strewn with carved stones and other objects of antiquity. He turned toward them and stopped to rest in the shadow of a crumbling brick wall. Distractedly, he rubbed the soles of his feet, then his sweaty face, streakingblood across it. Archaeological ruins in this land could be 3,000 even 4,000 years old, they humbled a man, made him feel like nothing, a speck in an endless procession of anonymous souls. Indeed, for most of that time, people had no expectation of living beyond forty.

But even 4,000 years ago, men hoped for their children to outlive them. Strange thoughts came to him now, thoughts he never expected. That he was lucky. That Allah could have been more cruel. That he might have had to watch them die. He might have heard them crying, calling out his name in their last suffering. Oh, he might have held them in his arms and seen the light fade from their eyes. But the rescuers said they died immediately, quickly crushed when the building collapsed. Hate. He should hate someone. The Shiite neighbors all around him. He should get a weapon and kill some before turning it on himself. An image came of firing an automatic weapon in the dark, spraying bullets into a pitch dark that enveloped him.

But this only distracted his rage away from its primary object, himself. It was he who – God, no, take away her voice, the memory of her eyes – it was he who ignored his wife’s pleas to escape this hell. He was the criminal, the unworthy husband and worthless father. Fathers protect. Nothing is more central to fatherhood. He had failed and his family was dead as a result.

He wanted to die but did not know how. The Prophet had said, “But do not kill yourselves, surely God is most merciful to you.”So he could not destroy himself out of sorrow. But life was pointless. If he could only transfer his hatred for himself to those who had brought death and destruction to his country, martyrdom might be acceptable. Sitting in this ancient plot of land, gradually his heart moved toward this.

It was America, after all, that first devastated Iraq with bombs and violence in its reflexive vengeance against a country totally uninvolved with the disaster in New York. They had set off the firestorm of Shiite against Sunni, probably gloated over the mutual slaughter. In their hearts they hated Muslims. They hated blacks, Mexicans, anyone unlike them. He listened to his own thoughts half-convinced, but behind the rationalizations lay the image of his death, the ecstasy of self-obliteration. There must be people he could contact among his Sunni brethren, some who were still bent on destruction. He would not attack Shiites, only the Americans, but he must hurry, for more and more of them were leaving Iraq. Toward sunset, he rose and turned back toward Baghdad.

Mariella Calls Home

“Mehal?”

“Yeah – Mariella?”

“Do you always know who it is automatically?”

“No, just sometimes. What’s up?”

“I’m calling from a phone booth, like you suggested. How’s everyone?”

“Same old stuff. And you?”

“I think he’s dissociated or something.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it got arranged for me to work in the White House, right? But the first time I was sent to bring him some reports, he looks at me like a stranger, he had this far away look in his eyes, then snapped out of it, but his voice was cold, indifferent. Then, when I opened the door to leave, he calls out, ‘So how’s the new assignment going? You settling in OK?’ He’s suddenly all sunshine and roses.”

“Well, maybe you’ve affected him, but that’s no reason to think…”

“It’s just my feeling, OK?”

“You might be imagining things, Mariella. But go ahead and use the techniques. Be direct with him in the moment. Probe his affective level. You’ve made great progress, Mariella. Don’t think or analyze so much. There’s a risk he’ll react against it. But when the energy is, what did you say, ‘sunshine and roses?’ try to explore the state a bit if you can. Your timing is critical – not when he’s busy of course. You’re a woman. You should be able to sense the moment. Let me know how it goes.”

Breakthrough

The cell phone rang as Khan sat in his study. An assistant began excitedly describing someone he called an individual of interest.

“The police found him wandering around downtown Karachi, talking to himself. He’s just skin and bones.”

Dr. Khan cleared his throat impatiently. “And why do you find this Iraqi so interesting?”

“He claims to be a scientist. A professor of physics.”

“Yes?”

“And he wants to become a martyr. He lost his family to the Americans, he says. He seeks revenge. And death.”

“But he is irrational? He talks to himself?”

“Sometimes. I think it’s because he’s been so lost. As our people befriend him, he seems to become calmer, more lucid. We want to care for him a bit longer and encourage him.”

“Tell him nothing about us but try to establish who he is, how accomplished he really is. Any disturbed idiot can claim to be a professor.”

But this man really was. After confirming his identity and learning of the tragic circumstances of his exodus to Pakistan, they provided Akbar with his own apartment, decent clothes, and a temporary position assisting in some routine research at Khan’s labs. Eventually, he was brought in for an interview by the Director.

“Ah, Doctor al Sabah! I assume you know who I am?” Khan inquired in a friendly way.

“Yes, of course, Doctor. It is an honor. I have followed your career with great admiration. I cannot thank you enough for saving me.”

“How are you feeling these days? Are you comfortable in your apartment? You have suffered greatly, I know.”

Akbar looked at the floor. “I pray. I sleep a little. I am besieged both by sweet memories and scenes of horror. Then I pray again. But it is a little better than it was, thanks to your kindness.”

“It is you who are the heroic figure in this room, my son. I have never suffered such a loss. It is unimaginable to me. But tell me, don’t you wish to take up your life again someday? Not immediately, I know, but someday? I can offer you a position in the Institute. Each day that passes, your wounds heal, even if you cannot sense it. Someday…I don’t know, you may meet another…”

Skillfully, Khan paused as if embarrassed to go on, and waited to see if the younger man would react. And Akbar did. He stopped gazing at Khan’s desk at stared up at him, his eyes widened in shock. Good, this was what was needed. In those eyes, Khan saw how deep the talons of death had sunk into Akbar’s soul. He was no longer really of this world, this wretched man.

“Please, Doctor. I am done with science, done with every living thing I see around me each day. You rescued me from the streets, but you can only be my savior if you find a way for me to die in some honorable way. As you said, what I have been through is unimaginable to you. You must take me at my word.”

Khan stared back at him in the silence that followed. Was this the chosen one? He wanted to act quickly. Discovery was always possible. Here was an intelligent and capable warrior before him. Surely, another sword had been placed in his hands.

“There is…well, a project you may be interested in, Doctor. Of course it is a matter of the highest secrecy. Let us spend some time together over the next few days and talk more of matters both secular and spiritual. Perhaps hoping you can play some role. Come, let us go for a walk in the gardens. It is a lovely day, is it not?”

The Ovaltine Office

After the Secret Service agent checked her badge and nodded Mariella knocked on the door and carefully opened it. The president was at his desk, head in one hand. Sleeping? Worried?

“Uh, excuse me, Mr. President…”

He looked up, obviously exhausted. The speckles of grey in his hair were more prominent day-by-day.

“Hi Mariella, what’s up?”

She risked a joke. “If you don’t know, sir, I certainly don’t.” Her humor didn’t take.

“Well, young lady, fact is I know too much. They say knowledge is power, but …” He seemed to drift off for a moment, then snapped out of it. “What do you need from me, Mariella?”

“Something from John Brennan. Your eyes only.” The president tilted his head, sort of like Reagan, but he just looked like he had a migraine.

“Brennan? His stuff always makes me feel like Lincoln getting casualty reports from Antietam. Except…” He wandered off again, worrying Mariella. He shook his head. “OK, thanks, just get back to work now,” he snapped.

Mariella stood there squarely, her eyes fixed on his. “You want to talk.” She said it slowly, in an impassive monotone.

The president shifted and rubbed his cheek. “I wish we could. You’re perceptive to notice that. But…”

She kept her level tone. “You seem extra-serious today.”

He stared at her for a moment. “Do you know ‘Evil?’ Stevie Wonder? It’s in ‘Innervisions,’ right?”

“No, it’s ‘Music Of My Mind.’”

“Yeah, right.”

”You mean, like, Evil, why have you destroyed so many minds…? Yes, I think about that sometimes. It’s an amazing song. What is so beautiful to me is Stevie’s anger. He’s so angry at the power darkness possesses.”

A flash of surprise in his eyes, then he looked down. “Right, that stood out to me too.” He brightened and lit up the office with his famous smile. Now a knock on the door. Valerie Jarret breezed in. “Mr. President, I…” She glanced at Mariella.

“Are you busy?” she asked drily.

“No, Mariella was just delivering some documents. Thank you Ms. Aguilar.”

Fahran

With the instincts of an inveterate texter, Fahran felt someone approaching his cafeteria table and looked up from his iPhone to see Dr. Qadir, bespectacled and sweaty, as usual. A visiting physics professor from the United Arab Emirates, he had arrived in Los Angeles one year ago, and in speech and manners his incompatibility with the world of Southern California couldn’t be more obvious.

“It is the hour of prayer, my friend. Let us honor Allah together.”

There was nothing to be done. One did not refuse these things. He pocketed his phone and smiled at the older man. The two headed for a room on the 4thfloor of the UCLA student center set aside for the religious needs of Muslims. It was not spacious there, and kneeling on the prayer rug, the heat of Qadir’s body next to him, he felt suffocated. He sought surrender to a power he had instinctively accepted as a child, but one whose nature now more and more confused him. His mind wandered to places he knew were unacceptable, even blasphemous. All the while he sensed Qadir’s unquestioning passion, as intense as the heat emanating from his body, disturbing as the pungency of the man’s physical odor.

“I worry about you, Fahran.” They had finished prayer and were making their way toward the Molecular Sciences Building across campus. It was an unseasonably cold day for Los Angeles in late spring. A melancholy grey haze off the Pacific had unblued the Southland skies. “I hate having to check up on the strayings of believers.”

“What are you talking about, Qadir?” But he knew instantly.

“The claw of the Infidel never ceases reaching out for us in this shameful land, my friend. Sometimes they catch us. We must pull ourselves free, time and again. Especially their music entraps.” He paused and glared at Fahran. “Why are you so weak?”

Cut to the chase. “Someone saw me at the disco last night, it that right, Qadir?”

“The someone was myself, Fahran. I take no pleasure monitoring your wanderings – but it is what I’ve been asked to do. Fortunately for you, your country is interested in you.” Qadir’s smile was a frozen thing. It chilled Fahran like an ice cube down his back. Pakistan, Islamabad, his cloistered old life with his parents, these things he felt he had moved beyond. But as a student of physics studying in the U.S., he inevitably attracted the attention of Pakistan’s secret service.

“Why do you tell me this today? What’s this interest you speak about?”

“Fahran, a man of your gifts, of your scientific talents, automatically attracts notice. You are young and impressed by the Americas exalted freedoms, but forget you are in reality a budding flower of the great tree of Islam. You would have no life without your people and your faith, any more than a flower cut off from its roots. Spurn us and you will quickly wither and die.”

“I spurn nothing and no one, Qadir. Why do you say that, what did you see? Was I doing evil or plotting against anyone?”

“That degenerate club was no place for a believer, Fahran!”

Fahran thought back to the night before and a club on Sunset called Motown West featuring bands dedicated to ‘60s soul music. “Qadir, I mean no disrespect to Allah. The Prophet spoke many times of compassion. That music is filled with compassion and brotherhood. Do you know anything about Mr. Marvin Gaye?”

“Now you speak of homosexuals! How far you have fallen! We can’t tolerate this…”

“No, no, Qadir, Gaye was just the man’s name. He was a normal man, a beautiful artist who sang a song called ‘What’s Going On.’ Do you know it?”

“Of course not.”

“He said war is not the answer, and mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying…brother, brother, too many of you dying.”

“Fahran, Fahran, please. You’re young. Satan has many disguises, many strategies to pull us into sin. We have no mothers or brothers outside of Islam. There is only the true word of the Prophet to guide us.” They had reached the Molecular Sciences Building. “Come to my office, Fahran. Let us talk a little more.” Grudgingly, the younger man acceded. The office was dark, papers piled on the desk, scientific books on the walls mixed chaotically with Islamic texts. Qadir pulled a book from a shelf behind him and opened it to a marked page.

“This writer makes an important point. He quotes the Prophet:

Let him beware! If he does not stop, we will take him by the

Naseyaha, the lying, sinful Naseyah!

“Then he explains that Naseyahis the pre-frontal lobes, the center of planning and motivating action that is referred to here. Western science only discovered this area very recently. The Prophet knew about it long centuries earlier. You too are operating from the front of your head, thinking you can figure out everything there. Today, from this moment, you must turn away from all this. The time has come. Lucky fellow, I am come to be your friend in this moment of temptation and opportunity. Even as I speak, you are being gradually healed of all sinful urges.”

Fahran heard something in the room, a buzzing, a droning. It seemed the ecstasy he’d done at the club hadn’t worn off. Maybe this was a kind of flashback. It didn’t feel like bad, but it felt different.

“Just relax, Fahran. Your struggle with Satan is almost over. A new path awaits you. Be strong. As I say, you are a lucky fellow, perhaps the luckiest in the world. No need for details now. Just relax and open your mind. Wonderful things are coming your way.”

Fahran closed his eyes and shook his head to dispel the sound. Slowly, it diminished and he opened his eyes, but he was no longer in Qadir’s office. He was sitting at the kitchen table in his apartment. Water was boiling on the range. Oh yes, he had been making some coffee.

Barry

The summits of November, 2008 and 2012 were illusory. My lucky star, my charmed life, my easy ability to shed difficulties like lint brushed off my shoulder, they did not apply to me after all. Rather the opposite was true. As the first inauguration approached, most vivid in my night-imagining was the figure of Icarus, falling through lightning-laced clouds into fathomless water. Or that I was blind, being led along a precipice.

The opportunities I had seen to point the country in a new direction seemed in that bitter winter so far out of reach. I discerned my real parameters. I met privately with the insurance companies in December and accepted their basic demands. They were reasonable in many ways and, immersed in policy discussions, I felt in my own element again. Concessions were made, but on balance I achieved something worthwhile. Business is business after all, and companies must make a profit. I felt I could make adjustments later. But how ironic for a teacher of constitutional law to discover, from the very apex of its structure, that it was obsolete, in fact a shadowy, impotent shroud riddled with holes. We were, after all, custodians the American Empire, the mightiest in the history of the world. Its real borders stretch far beyond the California shore or even Hawaii. Where power resides, power must be exercised. I was like one of the fabled blind men describing an elephant – what was the real shape of this thing? I did not know.

Now, for a few years in office, I have watched and reacted to events. There are those who like to keep old ways, who refuse to learn new realities. I have never been like them. How can a man loafing in the valley instruct one who has attained the mountain top? How can a child who is cared for and protected decide things better than his father, who sees the world clearly, who through hard effort has gained access to facts the uninformed have no knowledge of? Many men are like children in their innocence, emotional and sympathetic as women. When they were children they thought as a child, and they still do. They think problems can be solved with a friendly conversation. They speak of justice and peace when there is no peace, of a world without war when it has always been filled with crazed and irrational men, tyrants, conspirators, religious maniacs who love death more than life. The wise father knows this. He has slowly come to respect the fathers who came before him. He knows of their bloody hands but loves them all the more for the cruelty they inflicted when it was called for, because the world is cruel and they came to learn that fear makes the world go around, not love. And money, of course. Money and force. It is a sad thing, but this is the soil in which the roots of the tree of life find their strongest hold.

And so all this I have learned. And so, my enemy, raise a hand to strike my people, I will strike back. I will protect my sons and my daughters. Only think of striking me, only say a word, and I will destroy you utterly. A man does not make his life. Life makes a man.

 

Part Two

Mexico

Akmal stirred in his bed and tried to sink back into sleep, but it was gone, the dream of his wife and his two children. He had been in the open desert, save for a single palm tree he approached and touched, and then tears had come to his eyes. He turned and they were there. He embraced each onein succession, very deliberately. Their eyes smiled. So real theyhad been. He had turned to look for water, for a well, thinking there must be one nearby. He turned again and they were gone, the palm tree gone as well. But instantly he knew they were unquestionably alive somewhere, in heaven certainly, so very alive. There were no tears, they were well and strong. But now they were gone again. How he ached for them.

He opened his eyes into the dim light of dawn. The night had been hot, but not the dry heat of the Iraqi highlands. It was moist and tropical. He turned his head toward the bed where Fahran lay, still sleeping. Tonight would tell a story, seal their fate. He heard the man who lived next door drive up on his motorcycle, a man he’d never seen and would never see. Eight days he and Fahran had squatted down in this hovel, given a few tortillas and eggs, some bitter chorizo, folding it all together to keep their stomachs half-full. You’d think they would treat us better, he thought. He rose from his grimy bed and went to the sink to splash brown water on his sweaty face. He missed his beard, felt less than a man without it, but clearly there was more to manhood than that. He was living proof of it. His hands trembled a little.

The phone in the corner rang.

“Paco,” the voice said. “Como esta?”

 “Es demasiado caliente, pero ésa es vida,” he answered in his clumsy Spanish.

“Forget about bowling,” came the response, in Spanish. “I’m coming down with a cold.”

Akmal mouthed the memorized words. “It’s all right, I don’t want to go anyway.”

“Right.” The phone line clicked off. So their handlers would be coming on schedule. Those men had nothing to lose, unless the Americans were really watching them all. They would just take him and Fahran to the drop-off spot and head back to town for beer and more drugs. The Tijuana Cartel owned this part of Ensenada. They were invulnerable. The phone camouflage was just insurance.

“Fahran, wake up.” He had to shake the man, he was deeply asleep. “We’d better eat something before we leave.” Fahran sat up bleary-eyed.

“Why there is nearby no McDonalds?”

“There is nearby nothing. What were you dreaming of?”

“I can’t remember. Wait! I was at an AC/DC concert. They were playing Dilbar.”

“What the hell is that?”

Dilbar is hit song by Mirwais Sahab. You remember. It’s like a World Beat thing with hip-hop vocal. In my dream, Steven Tyler was singing with Mirwais, it was amazing. Angus Young makes screaming solo and…”

“You are talking crazy. Think about our mission, Fahran. We have spent too many days drowsing in this hovel, your mind is confused.” Akmal went to the narrow kitchen and pulled out tortillas and some cheese, a few lumps of chicken meat and began to heat a frypan. Such unpleasant food, barely digestible.

Fahran rose and went to the other room and reappeared with two big, normal-looking suitcases, the innards of which were not at all normal. They had practiced lifting them as casually as possible so as not to betray their weight, about 75 pounds each.

“Not yet,” Akbar snapped. “It will be another two hours. Those cases make me nervous.”

“For me it is a blessing to be close to them. I can feel the vibrations, the power. I can feel the hand of Allah himself within. They are almost…sexy!”

Only someone like Fahran could make a blasphemous remark like that, combining the presence of the Holiest with a sexual feeling. He had lived too long in America. How could a supreme quest like theirs succeed with a dunderhead like him involved? Fahran had studied his physics at UCLA, he was brilliant, but had spent too much of his time at the beach. The mission’s planners selected him for his knowledge of weapons technology, but for Akmal too much about him was unstable. He was supposed to have been indoctrinated for the mission, subjected to some sort of psy-ops process to insure his total dedication and single-mindedness. At first he seemed totally focused, but in the heat and deprivation of the last week his ardor had faded.

“Leave them in the closet for now, Fahran. And do not use foul words in the same sentence as the Holy One. Let us watch our every step. Allah rewards the judicious.”

It was mid-morning when the pickup truck rolled up outside. The truck had a camper shell over the bed into which Akbar and Fahran, with false facility, loaded their cargo.Then they climbed in and squatted down next to it. To their escorts, they were not Fahran and Akbar, but Ajram and Haddad, Lebanese middlemen for an Afghan heroin cartel. Of course, it was essential that the two suitcases remain locked. No one could predict what would happen if the Mexicans saw their contents. At the very least Fahran and Akbar’s lives would be forfeit. What these murderous outlaws would do with two atomic devices – if they could identify them – was anyone’s guess. But if all went well their people had promised a clandestine entry onto a U.S. shore. In a seaworthy cruiser, with their knowledge of the long California coastline, they said it was not such a difficult matter.

They drove north along the coast for the next two hours, leaving the city behind, moving through a series of small fishing towns on the unlit highway. The two men, used to the rough roads of their home country, were undisturbed by the bumpy ride. The smell of marijuana drifted back to them from the cab, accompanied by the sounds of guttural Spanish and occasional outbursts of laughter. At length, the truck pulled onto an even rougher road that led down to the ocean. Soon, it rolled to a stop and the driver came around to pull open the camper shell flap.

Here before them was the smooth, expansive Pacific and built out from the shore, a long concrete jetty. Pulled alongside, maybe thirty yards out, rode a sleek, powerful looking vessel that rolled slowly on a calm sea. A casually dressed, deeply tanned fellow with a stubbly beard approached the two travelers, smiling a smile that chilled more than warmed.

 “En su servicio, señors

“I’m sorry,” said Akbar. “We can only speak a little English.”

“That will be fine. My name is Garcia. Let’s get you on board before the weather changes. We have some wind coming. Have you sailed before?”

Fahran grimaced. “Not really.”

The man looked surprised. “But Lebanon was always a seafaring country, wasn’t it?”

“These days, the sea is for fishermen or the rich. We are neither. How far out must we go?”

“Are you more concerned about your stomachs or staying out of Guantanamo?”

Akbar sighed. “Go where you must, captain. Our business is all we care about.”

“I thought Allah was all you people care about,” the captain said with the slightest tone of disrespect.

Akbar bristled, but Fahran broke in. “Some of us would prefer to have our forty virgins in this world, captain!”

The atmosphere lightened with this, and the Mexicans laughed, though Akbar’s was more grimace than gaiety.

“Yes, money rules the world, doesn’t it,” the captain chuckled. “Without it you are crushed beneath its weight. Your people have lots of it, that is what matters.” He stiffened.“However, please understand we cannot allow passengers to bear weapons aboard ship. Do you have any weapons with you?”

“We do,” Akbar admitted, to avoid a search, but after he relinquished his Glock, and Fahran a Beretta M9, they frisked them anyway and took their combat knives.

“Please co-operate with us, my friends. Do you think you can take over our ship with a couple of shivs? Anyway, where would you sail this yacht on your own, to Hawaii for surfing?” The Mexicans’ laughter was hard and derisive.

“It is not comfortable to be unarmed in a strange land,” Fahran argued, his head hung down.

“You are protected by people far more powerful than either you or I, señor. Relax and enjoy yourselves. Vamanos, muchachos, let’s go.”

Garcia led them along the quay and aboard ship. It was a magnificent thing with polished wood decks, sparkling brass fittings and chromium rails. The two men were shown to a shared room below, clean and well-appointed, luxurious beyond anything in their experience. Within moments, they felt the motor cruiser back away from the dock, then smoothly, powerfully move forward. Akbar turned to his compatriot.

“One of us should stay here with the suitcases at all times. Don’t let them out of our sight.”

“Of course. I don’t trust any of them. Anything could happen to us out here. We are at their mercy.” He rubbed the rough stubble where his beard once was. “But we should hang out with them a little, you know, to give the impression we are friendly.”

“I don’t want you getting high with them, Fahran. Allah will not protect us. Please, this is a sacred mission! The world will be changed if we succeed.”

“I know, I know, but this is also like the American action movie. It is a caper! Each day I feel like a Pakistani Tom Cruise. Especially now, on this fabulous cruiser.”

“You like too much the degenerate American culture. Many have told you this. Think of what they did to my family.”

“They await you in heaven, Allah be praised. I have no words to express my anger at that hideous crime. But look, Akbar, we Muslims have to compromise a little. It is not Steven Tyler killing our people, it is not Tom Cruise or Michael Jackson. It is those fucks in Washington.”

“Michael Jackson will kill your soul, Fahran. It is more valuable than your life.”

“You must lighten up, Akbar. Michael had soul. Mirwais Sahab knows this, and he is still a good Muslim. Someday you and I will party and be rocking theworld.”

Akbar gave up, shrugged and turned away to test the softness of his bunk. Lying down, he felt like a sultan, but fought the sensation. He feared falling under the decadent spell of Fahran. They felt the cruiser’s engines below and the vessel surging across the sea. It was late afternoon. He began to drowse and did not notice when Fahran stepped out the door and up the stairs to the deck.

 

He awoke to the sound of men shouting in Spanish, the sound of a confrontation about to turn violent. A chill ran through him. He could tell by the tone of voice that at least one of the Mexicans was spoiling for a fight. Then, cutting through like lightning came a metallic voice booming through a loudspeaker,

 “United States Coast Guard! Prepare to be boarded! Ahoy – prepare to be boarded!”

He lay paralyzed on his bunk. He was dreaming. He turned his head to look for Fahran, but his partner was not there. The roar of a patrol boat engine became more and more audible. The worst possible scenario was occurring, he thought, but he was mistaken. For a few moments later, he heard the unthinkable sound of an automatic rifle firing from above him, then another. A black hole opened in his stomach. His entire body began trembling. He tumbled off the bunk and staggered toward the hatchway and the stairs. As he stood in fear, trying to find the courage to ascend the passageway, he heard even more weapons. Shouts, swearing, pounding feet on the deck above his head, then a terrible cry of pain, and another. What could he do on deck unarmed, he thought. He decided to wait. If men were coming with guns to kill him there was nowhere to go anyway. The firing grew more sporadic.

Without warning came a hard jolt that rocked the vessel and threw him to his knees, as if the ship had collided with a dock, with something heavy. A long pause. Then the sound of just a single rifle spraying bullets at some distance. More silence. The heavy rolling of the sea. Then, a thud, as feet hit the deck above him. Another burst of gunfire, close at hand, a full-throated scream. Immediately, footfalls over his head, then feet descending the steps on the stairway, approaching where he stood. He braced himself to die. The door was flung open and there stood Fahran panting, a wild, desolate look on his face, a splash of bright blood across one side of his shirt, and one of the Mexicans’ rifles clutched in his hand.

“Oh, shit, Akbar, this is not caper!” His face was wet with tears. “This is fucking Kill Bill! Oh shit, Akbar, oh shit!”

They heard movement up behind him on deck, and Fahran spun and rushed back up the stairs, firing his weapon wildly. Akbar saw only Fahran’s legs, heard him shouting, “Fuck you, mister! Fuck you!” then sink down onto the steps and drop his rifle. It clattered halfway down, terrifying Akbar. Fahran threw up then, vomiting on the stairs, folding in on himself, crying, sobbing, wailing at the top of his voice for Allah to forgive him. The two men remained thus for a few minutes as Fahran slowly began to regain control and Akbar worried that another attacker might appear. But it was deadly quiet. Again, he became aware of the slow rocking of the ocean. He knew he should go on deck and see whatever horrors awaited there, but fear and shock kept him motionless. Finally Fahran raised his head. The look in his eyes drew Akbar toward him. He took three steps up the stairs.

“What have you done, Fahran? What happened?”

Fahran rose painfully to his feet. “Come, my brother. We must try to save ourselves, but I fear all is lost.”

The two men ascended to the deck, where an unbelievable nightmare confronted Akbar. A shaft of blinding light struck him from the helm of a Coast Guard patrol boat that lay wallowing a few yards away on the moon-sparked seascape. It was loosely lashed to their ship by a towing hawser. In the garish moonlight he could make out two young Americans lying in dark blood on its deck.

“There’s more below, I think” Fahran said. “It was like a dream, Allah must have possessed me. Now He has left us alone here to wait for death.” Akbar looked around him. The captain, the man named Garcia, lay sprawled over the own ship’s gunwale. Blood was still oozing from the matted hair on the side of his head, dripping into the sea. Some part of Akbar understood Fahran’s words: he felt as if he were on the set of a movie. This wasn’t real. He struggled to accept that it was. They moved toward the cabin where two more Mexicans lay among shattered glass. Streaks and pools of blood assailed their sight everywhere. Averting his eyes, he gazed up at the sky and saw a gibbous moon hanging among the stars. The obvious resolved itself in Akbar’s mind.

“We must escape from here. There must be a life raft or something. Move quickly! More ships will be coming very soon – and planes!”

“But where…”

“There must be something onboard!” The two men began moving desperately around the decks, pulling open hatches, peering into cabins until a shout came from Fahran. “Here in the back!” Akbar ran aft to find his partner holding a canister, on which was inscribed Throwable Rescue Platform. Toss overboard to activate in bright red letters. They stared at each other. Fahran shrugged and threw the device down onto the dark sea. In a few seconds there was a loud pop and the sound of compressed air being released. A yellow and black rubber raff was slowly deploying, swelling up into a rectangular shape, finally flopping over onto its back, ready for boarding. Fahran hauled it back against the hull by means of the rope still attached to it. It seemed remarkably sturdy, an expandable metallic ribbing supporting its passenger area. What Akbar hoped were telescoped oars seemed to be lashed along the inner walls. “Too bad it’s not black,” Akbar complained. “Our chances are bad enough anyway.” He took a deep breath, with great seriousness and weight, as if it were his last. Then he snapped at Fahran, “Let’s get the RA-115s. Quick!”

“Are you crazy? It will never take all that weight!”

“Then let us die like cowards, let us dump the mighty swords given us by Allah into the sea.”

Fahran bowed his head, shamed. The pair stumbled toward the bow. Fahran slipped on the deck and fell to his knees on blood-slippery hands. They descended to their cabin and got the two suitcases up the stairs. Next was the matter of guiding themselves along the slippery, rolling deck, hanging on to the rail, struggling to remain on their feet. Carefully, Akbar swung himself over the rail and three feet down into the raft.

“Lower the first case down to me,” he rasped. Fahran managed it, and the craft remained stable and buoyant. The second case followed. Then Fahran joined his accomplice in the boat and still the sides of the raft remained a full foot above the sea. Akbar paused and studied the garish scene around him. Suddenly an obvious imperative struck him.

“Fahran, have you still your weapon?”

“It’s on deck somewhere.”

“Hurry and get it. Then shoot out that searchlight for God’s sake.”

It took just a moment for Fahran to locate the rifle near the stairs, raise its sights to the Coast Guard searchlight and shatter it. Now they were pitched into blackness. Only the moon lit in shadowy greys the scene of battle. Fahran again lowered himself into the boat. By now, Akbar had undone the objects he’d seen, and as he’d hoped, they expanded out into short but serviceable oars. Caring nothing for direction, he braced his feet against one of their terrifying pieces of luggage and began to row away from the two death-laden ships. Now, only the sound of the night wind and dipping oars and their own panting. They took turns. After twenty minutes the two ships seemed much smaller and distant enough to suggest that what lay there in the dark need not be their affair. As their sense of shock receded, the next critical and obvious issue clicked into place, this time in Fahran’s head.

“Where should we go next, Akbar?” They had no idea of their position at sea. Hopefully, they were close to the coast – the appearance of the patrol boat suggested that, but no lights could be seen anywhere on the horizon. “At least let us guess our direction,” Akbar replied. For the first time, he glanced at his watch. In the moonlight, it showed it was a few minutes before onein the morning. They had perhaps five hours to reach shore before dawn. Above, he found the north star and then from the westward inclination of the moon deduced they had been moving more or less parallel to the coast. Where along that coast they were and how far from it he had no idea, but he turned the raft towards where it should lie. Then he began rowing again.

“Tell me now, Fahran. How did this happen?”

“It is as you said, I was fool to join those men. It was not just marijuana. It was cocaine. There were other things, other powders they put into their cigarettes. And whiskey – can you believe it? I tried to leave, but they stop me. Next they want to see our shipment! Captain Garcia said no, but other drug guy, Roberto, arguing with him, all shouting like crazy men. This is when American boat comes out of nowhere. Garcia grabs rifle, runs outside and shoots out at the other ship. Then Roberto shoots Garcia! He shoots his captain! I can’t believe it. But I am very high. I go out like a fool to help Garcia but he is dead already. I took his rifle to defend my life, but after that…” Fahran dropped his head into his hands and furiously clenched his black hair, then looked up again.

“The men in other boat begin shooting now. They kill our people, but Roberto is crazy man. He is Al Pacino in their face! Their boat crashes against us and he jumps over there shooting and killing. They can’t stop him like Clint Eastwood. He goes down into their boat shooting until it is quiet again.”

“And you did nothing? How did he die?”

“Please, my mind will not go there. It’s enough, what I remember is enough. Let me row now, I have to move my body.”

“How did he die, Fahran?”

“I shot him when he comes back on deck from the other boat…he would kill us next, of course! I shot his body and he was just falling down into the ocean. So I did this thing. Now let me row!”

“Maybe you did the right thing, Fahran. Maybe you had no choice. OK, It’s over now. We must try to survive. Here, take the oars.”

Akbar rose up carefully and exchanged places with his partner. “Point the raft away from the moon. It is in the west now. We must go east.” Fahran took up the oars and began rowing with determination. In the distance, they heard the sound of a jet, but it was quickly identifiable as a airliner approaching the coast, perhaps from Japan. Fahran kept his gaze on the moon, then gave out a cry.

“Look at the moon, Akbar! Look how the plane is crossing the moon!”

“And so…?”

“Do you not know the miracle of the splitting of the moon in Qur’anic verse? It tells how the Messenger of God was able to do such a thing, and look, this was just like that. That plane split the moon! It went very precisely through the middle! This is a sign! We will be all right, Akbar.”

Akbar was a scientist who viewed the finer details of Islamic holy scripture with skepticism. He also knew many Muslim scholars disputed the veracity of the moon-splitting story. So he nodded his agreement with Fahran, but with a sigh that betrayed his real feelings. He knew Fahran was traumatized and still high on his drug binge. What a fiasco. But the dark scene of the dreadful battle was no longer visible on the horizon. American rescue ships, for some reason, still could not be seen. After a while, Fahran, sculling smoothly through the seas, began singing softly to himself.

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EXODUS, STAGE LEFT: First 50 Pages

Part One:  The Sands of Time

And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it. And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews’ children.

I’d missed my insertion again. If I’d landed one foot lower, I wouldn’t be here to tell you the story. And it was hot. That was the first thing that struck me. I looked up at a scorching sun you could fry an egg on, though actually you can’t fry eggs on the sun, you couldn’t even get eggs close to the sun. But that’s another story, and not a pretty one.

I look around, everything is white. White sand. Lots of it. Just my damn head sticking out, the rest of me encased underneath. And there wasn’t any running water down there, because my legs would have been cooler. And I could’ve moved my legs, kicked my legs around if there was water, right? But how could sand be on top of water anyway? That’s impossible, except on Esophagus 9 in Galaxy 334A, where all that Styro-sand has been floating on the petroleum oceans ever since the Great Unsuccessful Cleanup of 2487.

But let me introduce myself.  I’m Legion. Legion Ayers of the Trans-temporal Corrections Agency (or TCA) a 26th century agency whose mission is preventing horrendous crimes throughout history, which is not a walk in the park with a piece of cake. No, it’s more like a run through the jungle with a bomb, and I’m not talking Credence Clearwater or Chris Brown. I’m talking about really terrible things like the sinking of the Titanic, or The Black Plague or Celine Dion’s first vocal lesson. I’ve been in this TCA operation for a 200 years or so, and now, at 282, I’m close to retirement age. But I still love the work. Always a new challenge, a new adventure, and a new story to tell my great-great-great-great-great-great grandkids.

But let’s get back to the sand.

I couldn’t move my arms. Nothing to do but shout for help. Sure, I could have Withdrawn back to 2542, but Quantum Regnum, my boss, would have had a fit. I needed to tough it out.

heiroglyph1.png!!”

(What the hell was that?) 

heiroglyph1.png!!”

There it was again! Was that me?

It was me! Then it hit me. My assignment! Ancient Egypt. Long before Cleopatra and her erotic seal, thank God. I must be shouting “Help!” in ancient Egyptian!  Now I remembered more: I’d been installed with a C.L.C. unit – a Cognitive Linguistic Converter. But what was the gig all about? The Insertion had screwed up my memory again. My temporal lobes would come around soon, I hoped.  But where the hell was everyone? I was gonna drown in my own sweat. I gave it another try.

heiroglyph1.png!!”

Suddenly, I heard footsteps on the sand. Well, more like scrunches, really. Someone was approaching from behind the sand dune on my left. It was a woman, stunning in a vivid green sheath dress, her legs like the Pillars of Xerxes, her skin the color of a Starbucks Caramel Macchiato.

“Hey, will you get me out of here!!” I screamed in ancient Egyptian with my last ounce of strength.

She ran to me, knelt down, and began scrabbling at the sand. It was hard work, but soon my arms were free and we began scrabbling together, and I don’t mean we were playing a board game with little wooden squares that make words.

No, we were digging me out of the desert sands.
 At last, I was free. We stared into each other’s eyes, lost in the mystery of the moment. “Need water,” I rasped, brushing the sand from my clothes. I was wearing a white robe with a knitted belt and tassels, with a finely-made leather pouch strapped around my waist. The woman pointed behind her, beyond a sand dune, and headed that way. We labored up the incline, our feet sinking into the loose sand at every step, until at last atop the dune, an unimaginable panorama spread out before me. There across a huge green river a city of white and ochre buildings stretched to the horizon. Imposing temples and obelisks rose up in its midst, and in the distance, three monumental pyramids stood against the azure sky. Pi-Rameses! A segment of my memory clicked in. This city that would not be called Cairo for another two thousand years. The name rang in my head. Pi-Rameses, filled with monuments, for this was where great Ramses II had caused his new capital to be founded.

And the Nile, the eternal Nile was close at hand. I staggered down a sandy incline to her shore and waded in, falling to my knees, cupping my hands to bring the waters to my parched lips. Sated, I sat there in the shallows, exulting in the cool current lapping at my body. Out on the river, scores of small fishing boats moved unhurriedly about, and larger ones too, with billowed sails, pleasure boats of the rich, I supposed. The woman’s voice came from just behind me.

“Who are you, strange wayfarer, and who was it buried you thus?”

“I am called Awshalim,” popped up from my installed memory. My brain’s contents seemed to be on a need-to-know basis.

‘“One who helps others,”’ the woman said, smiling, her teeth as brilliantly white as the sands, but less granular.

“And you are…?”

“I am called Suhad.”

“Insomnia. Your name means insomnia.” It felt like they’d loaded a whole Metapedia in my cranium. “Why are you called that?”

The beautiful woman laughed shyly, but her eyes flashed.

“That, good sir, is a mystery, but mysterious also is why I found you buried in the hot sands? Are you pursued by enemies?”

I had to think fast. “Let’s just say it was a spiritual exercise that got out of hand. I was reaching for great knowledge through suffering and was not worthy of my quest. But great Amun-Ra smiled on me this day and caused you to save me. For this I can never repay you.”

“You speak of our Amun-Ra, who gives life to all things, but your clothing tells me you are of the Assyrian people. I wonder why have you come to our land?”

So I was an Assyrian! I racked my brain trying to remember the details of my assignment. Nothing. I had to think fast – again. “Why am I here?” I looked down at my side. “Perhaps the contents of my finely-made leather pouch will explain better than my own poor words.” You’re probably thinking I was being too open with someone I didn’t know, but there was something about her I felt I could trust. I raised the flap of the pouch and pulled out a yellow parchment covered with strange symbols. It was Greek to me, but what with the desert and the Nile and the pyramids, that just didn’t add up. I figured it must be Egyptian.

“To tell the truth, I cannot read your script,” I said, and handed it to her. She looked it over and seemed impressed. Her face reddened and she performed a ceremonious bow before me. I liked that.

“Awshalim, limmu, you are come from Assur to treat with our Great King Whose Name I Cannot Speak.”

I tried to remember. Assur was the Assyrian capital and limmu was an official of some kind, a very high one.

“I am in your service,” she said. “But where are your servants, your supplies, your camels?”

“We were, uh, waylaid by Habesha bandits in the desert as we made our way here. I had brought tribute from our king, precious jewels and objects of the purest gold. They are gone, and only I survived. I buried myself in the sand as an act of repentance.”

But she looked strangely at me, probably because she’d never heard of the Habesha. They would not emerge for another 1,000 years or so, but that was the best I could come up with. And then, how the hell do you bury yourself in the sand up to your head? Still, she seemed to accept my story.

“Great limmu, destiny has certainly joined usthis day. I am a courtier before the Great King Whose Name I Cannot Speak. If it is your wish, I will take you there.” Destiny indeed.

“And you were wandering of the shore of the Nile because…”

“Because I bade the pilot of my sailboat leave me here for a time, as I wanted solitude. A strange mood had swept over me. But these are the ways of destiny.”

“You speak truly, Suhad,” I said. Yet inside I was a bundle of nerves. If only I knew what my purpose should be before Ramses. But there’s only one direction for a man of action, and that’s straight ahead. Something from that old religious document the Bible crossed my mind. A prophet God was sending somewhere, complaining he wouldn’t know what to say, but God telling him he’d know what to say when he got there. That was me all over.

“For this weary traveller, Suhad, you are both the sun and the moon. I beg you to light the way forward on my journey.”

“It will be my honor, kind sir. You have suffered greatly.” You might not believe it, but I was getting used to speaking ancient Egyptian. It had a nice feel on the tongue, sort of a cross between Russian, Hebrew, and Bklopsk, which is spoken on the fourth planet from Flopnosh 9. But that’s another story.

Suddenly, a rapid, rhythmic splashing sound came from my left. Before I could even think, two crocodiles were on me. Still on my knees, I stopped the first with a hard left jab to his snout, then followed it with an uppercut that nearly flipped him over backward, but his huge tail flexed off the riverbed and he was in my face again. “More? You want more?” I shouted, battle lust now coursing through my veins. He opened his  big mouth and I gave him my right cross. It cost him a few teeth. He was done, turning tail, so to speak, and slithering back into the Nile. I looked at the other croc and saw fear in his eyes.

“You want a piece of me too?” I asked. The big guy seemed to shrug his shoulders (not an easy thing for a crocodile) and slipped back toward deeper waters and easier prey.

Suhad, impressed, reached out to help me to my feet, then took out a small mirror from the sheer garment she wore. She seemed to be directing the sun’s rays toward one of the boats gliding along the river, and I watched as it change its course toward us. It was quite beautiful, made of cedarwood, not the papyrus bundles typical of the smaller boats. I wondered if Egyptian arsonists could be called papyromaniacs, but quickly dismissed the idea.

The boat was approaching. Its crimson canopy was decorated with figures of birds and other classic figures we know from archaeological excavations. The craft entered the shallows and dropped its sail. Suhad gestured me forward and we splashed up to some little stairs that the men extended toward us and boarded the boat. There were four dark, smooth-skinned men managing the ship, all of them bare-chested, and mystified by my sudden appearance.

“Take me home,” Suhad ordered, and they immediately obeyed.

Clearly, she was a woman to be respected. And admired, I thought, stealing glances at her lissome figure. She gestured for me to recline on a cushioned bench under the canopy and gracefully positioned herself next to me. One of the men approached with a palm-leaf fan, but she waved him away, for the winds now gently caressing us on the Nile were cool enough. The sails of Suhad’s schooner whipped above us in the breeze as we made for the far shore. The city grew closer, and its many monuments loomed against the sky. A huge statue of the Great King bestrode the near shore as we approached. “His palace is like another city entirely,” Suhad said in a low voice, “enormous beyond belief.” I gazed up at the giant figure as we passed by. Enormous beyond belief, yeah, you could say that. Behind his sculptured stone skirt Ramses’ schlong would have been the size of my personal jet cruiser.

That’s when these Egyptian fighters showed up out of nowhere, leaping aboard and flashing spears. They got one oarsman right away, right through the heart. But the other boys were up to the challenge, like they’d been through this before. Of course I joined in, ripping a spear out of the hands of one of the attackers as he thrust it at me, whacking him upside his head and off into the water. One of Suhad’s men grabbed a length rope and whipped it around another fighter to immobilize him, then delivered a devastating kick to the groin.

Then I turned to see Suhad simply staring at one of the attackers. He was frozen in his tracks, a bizarre smile on his face. As I watched him I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The guy’s skin was shrinking up before my eyes. I heard crackling sounds, as his skin turned gray and dried up, adhering to his bones. He shrank into a folded-up shell of a human, toppled into the water and floated there like a tree branch. Indeed, Suhad was not someone to take lightly.

That’s when it struck me. If I could get her back to the future, we could do a “Mummies ‘R Us” start-up. But wait – we’d need bodies, lots of bodies, hundreds of them. I shelved the idea and got back to whacking attackers in the head with an oar. Whacking Attackers – good name for a rock band. But I had to shelve that idea too, as the fight was about over. Which was too bad. I do some of my best thinking in brawls. Isaac Newton, on the other hand, he needed a tree.

By this time we’d somehow made our way to the dock. Suhad’s retinue was waiting there with an elegant litter carried by four more men. We leapt from the boat into the conveyance and the bearers took off, sprinting onto a huge, thickly-peopled thoroughfare lined with giant palm trees shading the avenue on each side and within, a verdant central divide. Here they slowed to a brisk walk. The full heat of the Egyptian summer had enveloped us like an out-of-control sauna. We passed great sandstone temples and magnificent public buildings, then turned into an area of smaller streets where private estates hid behind tan walls. The calls of strange birds filled my ears, avian cries I’d never heard before.

“What was all that ruckus at the docks about, sweetheart?” I finally asked. I realized my communication skills were becoming more nuanced. I was slipping into my normal style, that of a hard-nosed but subtly elegant man of the world, the kind that can handle himself in a tough spot and whom women find irresistible. A guy who’s up to speed, yet has that weathered look. You might call me a wabi-sabi technorati.

But you don’t have to. I’m easy that way.

“There are those,” Suhad sighed, “who seek my life. The court of the Great King is a place of ruthless intrigue. You must watch what you say and to whom you speak, limmu.”

“Call me Awshalim,” I said. “Or just Awsh. My friends call me Awsh, and that’s what I hope you and I will be. But why would anyone be out to kill someone as lovely as you?”
 Suhad blushed, hard to see given her maple-syrup complexion.

“Thank you, but for me appearances mean little. It is the heart I most care about. But in our land there is a man, a good man, who has fallen into disfavor before the King Whose Name I Cannot Speak. My admiration of him is known, and so my life has become cheap to those seeking to curry favor before the King Whose Name I Cannot Speak.”

“Well, your life just increased in value as long as I’m around, anyway. By the way, isn’t there some way we can shorten that name? Couldn’t we call him Mr. Big, or the R-Man? I mean, do you really think he’s a god?”

“Well, he is…goddish. But yes, Mr. Big is acceptable to me – just between you and I.”

“Great.”

“But limmu, you must be in shock. You have lost your companions and have been attacked twice this day. You must rest and recover. We are coming to the home of my family, where you will be our guest and safe. Put all other thoughts out of your mind for now.”

“I will try, and thank you, Suhad, but I must ask a question of you. We just fought together…I couldn’t help but notice your, uh, technique. How did you…?”

“Technique? I don’t know what…oh you mean that poor man. He seemed to have some disease that attacked him, didn’t he?” She smiled a distant smile that told me what I’d seen was not a fit topic for discussion. I let it drop. For the time being.

Perusing The Palace

“I don’t know if I can do this,” I whispered to Suhad the next day as her litter approached the entrance to Ramses’ colossal palace. “Are you sure Mr. Big knows I’m coming?”

“Yes, of course. Otherwise we couldn’t get in.”

“Do you really think he’ll like the Assyrian figs.”

“He will most certainly be delighted.”

“But they’re Hittite figs. What if he notices the difference?”

“It’s a chance we have to take. Such gifts are simply put to one side. Of course the tribute sent by your king, the gold and jewels, were taken by thieves. I hope he will understand your situation.”

“All these engraved stone slabs around here, do they say he’s an understanding guy?”

“No, they say he crushed the Libyans, fought the Nubians single-handedly, and slaughtered the Hittites in their entirety.”

“It doesn’t say ‘understanding guy’ anywhere?”

“Not really.”

But then our doors were opened and we stepped out before the gateway to the palace. Two colossal seated statues towered ten stories over us, staring out toward the desert. I’m a man of action, I kept telling myself. I’m a man of action. An older guy in a golden skirt came out of a barely-visible side door, greeted us formally, and guided us up a majestic flight of stairs and through the massive portal beyond. I didn’t like his looks, and I didn’t like the way he was eying Suhad. Within the palace, servants and functionaries moved about smoothly and silently, carrying scrolls or stone tablets of various sizes. We made our way along one magnificently painted corridor after another, then through an expansive plaza. A great central pool played host to snowy ibises and pink flamingoes. We climbed another set of marble stairs to a portico overlooking the plaza and then Mr. Gold Skirt led us through gilded doors into an inner sanctum. At the far end of it, I saw the throne and upon it, none other than Mr. Big.

Ramses II, son of Seti I. There he was. Even though he was wearing a skirt, he looked like a hard case, that was for sure. Like he could spear you in the neck and eat a ham sandwich at the same time, if they had sandwiches. I wasn’t sure. I thought about ordering one to find out, but dropped the idea quick. Mr. Gold Skirt led us slowly toward another guy in a flowing blue tunic and fancy headdress and introduced him as Hatiay, the Vizier, right-hand man to the Pharaoh. I didn’t like the look of him either. But I greeted him and apologized for my poor Egyptian.

“Please don’t apologize, limmu, and let me welcome you into the presence of The Great King Whose Name I Cannot Speak. He has heard of your misfortune and sends his consolations. You must be a great warrior to have survived.”

“On the contrary, Vizier, my camel panicked, the cowardly beast, and took me far from the battle. When I could coax him back and found my compatriots dead, I choked him to death with my own hands. A titanic struggle it was, but when my fury subsided and the camel had breathed his last, I realized I had lost my means of escape from the desert. Then began a long and blistering trek. But Amun-Ra sustained me, and here I am before you. Surely then, the gods wish our nations to be at peace.”

“Well and truly spoken, limmu”

“Call me Awsh.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“OK, limmu is good. We’ll go with that.”

“Let us approach the throne, then. The Great King Whose Name I Cannot Speak awaits you.” So Suhad and I followed Mr. Hatiay toward the throne, where the Pharaoh sat in all his splendor. He had gotten himself a big mango and with one hand he was taking bites from it, the juice dripping from his chin and down his arms. In the other hand he held his golden scepter with a falcon’s head on it. He wore one of those shiny blue and gold striped headdresses, like King Tut’s, had the long skinny beard that dropped from his chin. He looked all right, if you were into Pharaohs. But I wasn’t. I was still trying to figure out why I was here in the first place. I followed Suhad’s lead and prostrated myself before the king. He spoke.

“We welcome you, limmu, noble leader of our Assyrian neighbors. We wish you well, and safer journeys than the one you have just taken. You may rise.”

Which we did.

“We have sent soldiers to search for these bandits. Perhaps they will recover the gifts you lost. But it is no great matter, limmu. You can see the unparalleled glory which surrounds me. All the same, tell your king, upon your return to Assur, to send me twice as much gold as he did this time.”

“It will be done, Great King.” I bowed low and reminded myself to stay the hell out of Assyria. Now Ramses turned to my beautiful companion. “Suhad, We thank you for rescuing our visitor from the sands. Amun-Ra placed you there in his wisdom.”

“It was my good fortune, Great King. He is very brave and fought both river beasts and attacking bandits in my presence.”

“Yes, We know of his bravery.” Then Ramses turned back to me with an unsmiling face. “And yet it is said,” he paused for a long moment, “that you refer to me as ‘Mr. Big?” A chill ran down my spine. I felt like I’d gone over Victoria Falls in a papyrus bucket, or like the crocodile had come back with twelve of his buddies. Ramses seemed to swell in size and loom over me like Horus the Falcon-God himself.

“Well…your majesty, that is, I…I can’t imagine who reported such a thing…”

“Silence!” Ramses voice became low and harsh and rasping. “Do you not know that The Eye of the Pharaoh is everywhere, that nothing is unseen to me? All things are visible to Horus, Lord of the Skies. Tremble before my infinite power, lowly ant!”

I felt the best thing at that point was more prostration. I hoped all the prostrating wouldn’t damage my prostate, but I had to take the chance. So did Suhad, but I don’t think women have those. The two of us said nothing as silence fell over the room. Ramses had kept his voice low, but his angry posture and the tone of his voice was unmistakable.

“Mr. Big, you say?” Ramses growled. “Mr. Big?”

He paused for another endless moment. “You know, I kind of like it. After all, I am big, I’m the biggest. How about ‘Mr. Biggest?’ No, that doesn’t have the same ring. Mr. Big. That’s the one. Rise again to your feet, my vassals, and fear not the wrath of your King.”

He stood up from his throne and raised his scepter.

“Hear now my words,” he roared. “I grow tired of hearing ‘Great King Whose Name I Cannot Speak’ every day. I mean, if you say that, that’s my name, right? So you’re saying my name anyway. What’s the point? And it’s too long! It makes me crazy. Let it be known throughout the palace that all shall henceforth call me…Mr. Big! Mr. Big! Much easier. But write not this appellation in stone, for it is not befitting that future generations know of it. It’s just for around the palace, OK? So, let it not be written, but let it be done!” He returned to his marble throne and turned to us.

“Now you two get lost before I change my mind. Oh yes, and limmu – thanks for the Hittite figs.”

“I uh, that is, actually, I…”

“Will you get out of here? Scram! It’s time for my dancing girls.”

Scramming was no problem. We headed out to the portico, but stopped there, afraid to leave the palace without an escort. Suhad said to wait for the guy with the gold skirt, but after ten minutes I was ready to make a break for it. That’s when this other guy came out and stood looking out at the plaza with a faraway look on his face.

He looked like a major player. Very fancy get- up. But there was something about him I couldn’t put my finger on. High forehead, angled features. Pretty light complexion too. I’d seen that face somewhere before. Was it in an old movie back in the 20th century? The name Charles popped into my mind. Charles Manson? No, he was a psychotic killer. Charles Lindbergh? No, not him. Charlton! Charlton something…

Suhad drew close and whispered to me. “That is the man of whom I spoke. You can see who he is now. He is a prince of all Egypt! A son of Queen Tuya, as is Ramses.”

That’s when it hit me! Now I remembered why I’d been sent to ancient Egypt. It wasn’t about Ramses, it was about this guy. This was the young Moses in front of me! The founder of Judaism as we know it. The Grolnathians wanted more data on the history of humanity and the effects of religion. What was with all the violence, they were wondering? The Crusades and the religious wars in Europe and India and the Aztecs and, well, just about everywhere? No wonder I’d repressed the memory. This was too big for anyone. But here I was, and I’ve never run from a job – except that time they assigned me to try to make Wayne Newton sing more soulfully. I admit I bailed on that one. I wound up feeding $500 into the slots and headed back to 2510.

“Would you like me to introduce you?” Suhad finally asked. I snapped out of my reverie.

“Sure, why not,” I said, trying to appear casual. Moses seemed startled when we walked over, then, recognizing Suhad, he accepted her introduction of me.

“So, limmu,” he said, letting out a chuckle, “you are the creator of Mr. Big! That was quite a coup. You must be likeable – and certainly fortunate. But you must realize now that the king’s spies are everywhere.”

“Yes, great prince,” I said. “Thank you for your friendly greeting after our awkward exodus – that is, I mean…exit from the royal presence.”

“Oh, I’ve experienced such things before. How can you satisfy the expectations of someone with supreme power. He is, after all, a god, and knows all things.” I sensed something mocking, even sardonic in his tone. I liked that.

“What, may I ask, interests you most in this life, great prince?”

“A deep question, certainly. I take little pride in my military achievements. The shedding of Ethiopian blood by my soldiers only saddened me. These days I often pass my time with common people, not courtiers, pardon my honesty Suhad. You are different from most, your heart is open and compassionate.”

Suhad smiled. “Compassion is not a virtue much praised in palaces.”

“That is an understatement.”

“I am new to Pi-Rameses,” I said. “I know nothing of the common people.”

Moses brightened. “Then you will come with me now! Let us walk the streets and feel the pulse of Egypt’s capital together.” He had already taken my arm in friendly, supremely confident way. “Come, Suhad, please join us. Let us leave this place.”

I had mixed feelings, knowing what happened to people who followed Moses around, but I figured he had more like a day tour in mind than a forty-year march, so I went for it. Plus we had the escort that we needed to get out of the palace, and it was Moses himself. Imagine! I was walking around with the prophet Moses.

This is why I got into this business. Who wants to sit around in an office all day when you can walk around an ancient Egyptian city with Moses? As long as he stays away from the desert, I thought, what could go wrong? And talk about transportation! We get outside the gates and here’s a completely enclosed litter the size of a limo. A limo for a limmu, I thought. He’s got eight big guys carrying the thing. Inside, a couple of, compartments dark and cool, with cushions everywhere. Moses gave the lead bearer instructions, then excused himself and ducked into the second room. Suhad and I sat down as the thing took off down the boulevard. But I was not ready for Suhad turning to me with a longing look, the kind of look a man knows is asking for a kiss, a dramatic and passionate one. It wasn’t the first time this has happened to me, but it was a first inside the chariot of a major Biblical figure. But what if our host came back to see us embracing and started throwing stone tablets around? You never know with a guy like Moses. So I pretended not to notice her passionate look. When Moses did return, he was wearing what looked like common peasant clothing, and a had change of attire for us too.

“Where we are going, we do not wish to attract attention,” he explained, gesturing for Suhad to retire into the other room with a plain linen robe. “Your own clothes will be safe here and you may reclaim them after our little tour.” Soon we were both clothed anonymously, in the most ordinary manner.

After a ride of thirty minutes, the litter stopped and we stepped out into the dazzling sunshine. A narrow street extended to one side, and Moses immediately strode down it, forcing us to catch up to him. He went unrecognized, his cloak hiding most of his features. The alleyway was filled with merchants selling fish, fruit, spices and various handcrafted items, and we found him examining some ripe figs.

“How much for a basket?” he asked the old merchant who stood behind his stand.

“Well, these are the best figs in all Pi- Rameses, my friend. One bite and you will find the happiness you’ve longed for all your life. Another bite and you may rise up into the heavens and dance with Amun-Ra himself. Such a fig. Who can put a price on it?”

“You can, of course,” Moses smiled. “They’re yours.”

“Really? Yet in a way, one might say I am theirs. I must raise them, serve them, and I could not live without their blessings, the nourishment they give, the joy they extend to my customers. They possess me, I am theirs. They must decide their price, not me. Why don’t you,” he smiled mischievously, “make them an offer?”

Moses reached a hand in a pocket of his tunic. “I have a few silver deben rings in here,” he said. “How about one of them for a basketful of these beautiful figs?”

The man looked shocked. “A silver deben?” He leaned down as if to communicate with the figs. “Did you hear that, my friends? What say you?” He pretended to listen to their response then raised his head. “They cannot accept, kind sir, it is too much. But they will gladly exchange two basketfuls for such a ring.”

“A deal it is,” Moses said, and they made the exchange. Moses handed the figs to me and the three of us continued down the narrow, crowded street.

“Life is terribly hard for these people,” Moses said, “but they treat each other fairly and pray fervently to the strangest of gods – one they cannot see. He is not a bird or the sun or a river – I don’t know what he is supposed to be. And he seems powerless to help them. They sweat in the brick pits or waste away hauling great stones to build our temples.” His words had been directed mainly towards Suhad. There was a strange expression on her face as she looked at Moses, a questioning, doubtful look. Finally, Moses stopped in mid-stride and turned to her.

“All right, already. Enough. Do you think I cannot see in your eyes what you think, Suhad? The rumors that I am kinsman to these people, the Jews. All right. I shall tell you the truth: I am certain it is true. The story about me being picked out of the river, of my being the child of slaves? It’s true.

“In fact, I have found the basket in which the queen found me. She kept it all these years. I took it to the court alchemist, who examined it closely and found remnants of gefilte fish and cream cheese among its strands. These foods are popular among the Jews. I now enjoy them myself, in secret, with a nice cup of tea in a glass. It must be that I am one of them. And so I spend time at their encampments in Goshen. I asked Pharaoh to respect their holy day, and he did. But all this is why I have enemies in court.”

Suhad’s eyes were glowing. “That you can tell us this openly only makes me admire you even more, Great Prince. You bear in your heart a kindness never seen in court. I would that more were like you. Of course we shall never speak of this to others, is that not right, limmu?”

“My lips are seals – I mean my lips are sealed,” I said, cursing the memory of Cleopatra’s maidservant Charmion and her lover Thoth, keeper of the Great Seal of Egypt. It was bad enough how she broke my heart in 24 B.C.  But it almost destroyed me when I found out they were doing a 3-way with the seal.

Moses sighed. “Thank you my friends. Of course, I am mainly Egyptian. I am not really one of these unfortunates, I have been given another destiny, but this question of my origins clouds my vision and I often wonder what my future may hold. But come – let us wander farther through these quarters.” And so we moved on, munching figs, under the hot sun. As good as they were, I longed for a icy cool Coca-Cola, but Cokes were outlawed in 2417 by the Grolnathians, when research showed they were linked to sarcasm. Anyway this was 4,000 years before they were invented.

Now, as we approached the end of the street, we heard coarse shouts, the voice of an angered man, incensed and threatening. Moses walked faster, and we had to hurry to follow. The backstreet opened into a small square, where a new building was under construction. Moses pushed his way through the crowd of onlookers, Suhad and I following in his wake, and we saw an Egyptian foreman standing over a prostrate Hebrew on his knees who crouched before him. Another worker held his arms to the ground. He was about to be whipped. The Egyptian held his lash high, studded with metal, and unleashed his first stroke just as we broke through the encircling throng. Blood sprang from the man’s back as he cried out. From the gathered people came a gasping wail of anguish and pleas for mercy. Again, the lash came down, with a report that seemed to echo through the square.

Suddenly, Moses stepped forward and walked deliberately toward the raging Egyptian. I watched as he withdrew a metal sheath from his cloak and with a lightening movement, plunged it upward, deep into the aggressor’s chest.

The man collapsed immediately, the dark red blood quickly spreading across his tunic. Moses turned toward us with a look that was easy to read: leave this place, tell no one what you have seen. Then with the same purposeful, calm demeanor, he strode away into the crowd. The people fearfully made way for him, but an undisturbed escape was not to be his. There were shouts now from our right and two soldiers appeared, surveyed the bloody scene and, aided by pointed gestures from one or two men, took off at a trot in the direction Moses had fled.

“Come quickly, limmu, Suhad whispered, we cannot stay here.”

This I didn’t need to be told. We instinctively held hands as we made our way back along the street where Moses had bought the figs. Moses’ litter was still waiting at the intersection where we had first alit. Suhad spoke to the lead bearer and explained Moses had met a friend with whom he wanted to spend time and that they should return home without him. They offered to take us where we wished, but of course it was best to distance ourselves from anything associated with Moses at this point. We found a small teashop and quickly entered it. The place was pleasantly dim within, and after the host unceremoniously served us a dark brew, unrecognized by anyone, we began to talk.

“What do you make of this shocking act,” I asked.

“I am speechless. But…it seems Moses has two faces. One is kind and moderate and without passion. The other I have never seen before. I am stunned. But his people are fearfully encumbered, they are slaves. And Moses himself is a military leader. Perhaps The King Whose…uh, Mr. Big, does have reason to fear him. But how foolish Moses would be to challenge the most powerful empire the world has seen. What he did today he may not understand himself.”

“We are lucky not to have been drawn into this trouble.”

“Indeed! And I thank the gods you were with me.”

Suhad snuggled closer on our cushion. Her hand strayed to my thigh and clung to it, seeking security, but there was more than simple fear in her touch.

That night I dined again with Suhad and her family. Much later, in the wet heat of the Egyptian night, she came to me. I had been restless, hoping for her to come, yet fearing her, for I had not forgotten the deadly powers she had displayed in our battle against our enemies on the Nile. I lay upon my expansive couch, a soft night breeze wafting in through the open window above me. Who was she, anyway? How and why had she been there to rescue me from the desert sands? Could she possibly suspect who I was?

But these worries vanished when I heard the rustle of my curtains and saw her lithe, unmistakable shadow approach my cushioned divan. I rose quickly and parted the inner curtains to welcome her and save her any embarrassment. Her fiery glance as she passed under my arm aroused me instantly. I longed for a pair of tight jeans, rather than the loose fitting night clothes I’d been given. Turning my back, I sank to the cushions trying to conceal the tent-like protrusion that had appeared below my stomach. She gazed down at my hands folded upon my lap, and arranged herself deliciously next to me. In the semi-darkness, her breasts pushed out against a gauzy lavender sheath that passed for her nightwear. Nothing was left to the imagination. Her scent, like a gardenful of sweet flowers, permeated the room and my senses as well.

“I’m so sorry to disturb you, limmu, but after today’s shocking events, I could not sleep. Can you keep me company for a while?”

Again, she rested her delicate hand on my thigh, letting one forefinger trace lazy circles on it. I struggled to repress a gasp, but with gasps you have, like, maybe a microsecond to take control, and in this case I failed. She leaned her head on my stout shoulder and sighed.

“Why do you gasp thus, limmu, are you in pain?”

It was time to clutch the alligator by the snout, as they say in ancient Egypt. “In truth, Suhad, oh incomparable flower of the Nile, I longed for your visit,” I whispered. “Your touch excites me beyond words. But you are also a great mystery. What happened by the river…you seem to possess remarkable powers, fantastical skills that I cannot comprehend.” Suhad twisted her body toward me so that one buoyant breast pressed against my right arm.

“There are secrets one does not speak of. You must accept this. Why not live for the moment? Trust that I have your best interests at heart.”

“I do trust you.” The words emerged easily from my lips.

“Then let us enjoy this time together. Why do you hide the natural reaction of your body? Would you really rather be painfully locked in tight-fitting jeans?”

I stared into her eyes, stunned. She laughed mischievously.

“Yes, I can read your mind, Legion Ayers. There is little about you I do not know, except perhaps where you got that silly name. But this night is not as long as I want it to be, and we may not have another like it. Come, let us play the eternal game.”

Then she took my hand and put it upon her exquisite breast and moved her own fingers, centimeter by aching centimeter toward the center of my rampant ardor. Indeed, my ardor was definitely ramping. But I retained enough sanity to realize my cover was completely blown. She knew who I was! She could even read my mind! There were secrets here beyond my 26th century understanding. Could she possess me, control me as well? She was certainly controlling the raging center of my passion now, with astonishing skill, and these thoughts pulsing through my mind gradually faded. I succumbed to her ministrations, and I did trust her, strangely.

“We need to talk,” I mumbled, as our bodies cleaved together and my fingers finally found the syrupy fig newton between her limbs.

“What’s with you and figs?” she whispered into my ear, her breath quickening. This was beyond belief. She knew every thought that crossed my mind.

“Figs are the fruit of the gods,” I ad-libbed, “and so, in my arms, are you.”

“You see me as a fruit?” she panted, her fingernails digging into my back.

“No, no,” I said. “It’s just a figure of speech.”

I probed her inner sweetness and she thrust against me like a wild panther.

“Panthers don’t thrust,” she moaned. “They creep, they pounce, bite. I’ve never heard of them thrusting. I suppose the male must do some thrusting – but are you saying I’m acting as a male?”

“Oh, no, your thrusting, it’s very feminine, I just…”

“Look, you need to stop this inner narrative you have going on. It sounds like you’re writing a book. This time-travel business must be throwing you off. Just relax and look into my eyes.”

And I did. That’s the last thing I remember, except for an experience of physical ecstasy beyond anything I’d ever known. When I awoke at dawn, my entire being still tingling from pleasure, I was alone again.

The Deported

Events would probably move quickly now. The Torah tells that the slaying of the taskmaster was the basis for Moses’ expulsion from Egypt. But what was I supposed to do, follow him into the wastelands of the Negev? I’d have to figure that one as I went along. The next morning, determined to get away, I excused myself from Suhad’s matchless hospitality and told her I needed to walk the streets of Pi-Rameses on my own for a few hours. She just smiled knowingly and nodded her assent. Chills ran down my spine as I turned away from her and headed out of her father’s courtyard.

I could feel excitement in the air, as if people knew something big was up. They all seemed to be going in one direction, so I followed. Sure enough, they were heading for the Great Palace of Ramses. I arrived at the back of a great throng gathered around those titanic statues guarding the main entrance. A big rectangular wooden contraption had been set up between the statues, with a ladder on one side and a bench near the top of it. People all around me were murmuring the name of Moses and The Great King Whose Name I Cannot Not Speak.” A ragged man next to me spoke to his friend. They seemed to have developed a nickname as well. “GREKNICS is doing the right thing. Moses has slain a fellow Egyptian. He must pay the price.” His friend seemed unconvinced.

“But Moses is a great prince himself. He can kill a man if he wishes. Many say GREKNICS is envious of Moses’ popularity.”

“Nonsense! GREKNICS has conquered the world! Who can be compared to him? He is like the sun!”

“Yes, this is true. Moses may get a bad sunburn today!”

They both laughed and craned their heads to see what would happen next. Moments later, four men appeared carrying a giant bound crocodile, which they lifted high over their heads and dropped into the wooden structure. A great splash of water revealed what lay within. As quickly as I guessed Moses’ fate, he now appeared, his hands bound behind him, led by two soldiers. A great shout went up from the crowd. He was led up the ladder and placed on the bench above the crocodile tank. Now a high priest arose and stood before the crowd.

“Hear me, people of Pi-Ramses,” he shouted. “Moses has slain a loyal soldier of the Great King. He is friend to the Israelites. He has been called a prince of Egypt, but it is the King’s will that his divinity now be tested. If he lives, he is free. If he dies, we shall know he is an imposter. Such is the will of The Great King Whose Name I Cannot Speak!” The crowd cheered.

I saw now there was a kind of target-and- spring device connected to the bench. The priest called up a few children from the crowd and handed each one a little sack, probably filled with sand, to hurl at Moses. He lined them up and they began to hurl their bags at the target. Moses sat impassively on the bench. The sixth bag struck the target, and the prince plunged into the water. I figured that was the last I’d see of him. Aware that string theory had finally been confirmed in 2073, I theorized that I’d crossed over into an alternative universe, one where the Jews never escape Egypt at all.

My conclusion was premature. There was a great thrashing and commotion in the tank. I assumed it was Moses’ death throes. I pictured his body clamped and ripped in the sharp teeth of the great beast. But it continued long past when he should have been subdued. Water was still being ejected from the enclosure, and the whole contraption began to wobble and lean from side to side until it finally collapsed and its contents gushed out, the water, the crocodile and a still-active Moses, who now sprang onto the reptile, spun him onto his back and began hurling hard rights and lefts onto the animal’s white throat. The crowd roared its approval. The crocodile tried to wriggle away, but Moses dove atop its long snout and began pulling the jaws open, farther and farther apart until with an audible crack the beast’s jaw snapped out of joint and it was finished.

Then with the same purposeful, calm demeanor, he began to stride away into the crowd. But an undisturbed escape was not to be his. Three soldiers rushed after him and put him in chains and led him away. The crowd booed lustily.

So much for Ramses promises, I thought. The soldiers were leading Moses to a cage with carrying poles, and they pushed him into it. The cage door slammed shut and there he was for all Pi-Ramses to see, locked up like a wild animal. Then they took off toward the river. I looked around desperately for a way to keep them in sight and spotted a litter that looked like it might be for hire. A couple of guys were leaning against it. I rushed up to them and offered to pay them for a ride.

“Yes, we will take you where you wish, my friend.” I pushed two deben rings into his hand. “For this, we can take you across the great desert.”

“That might be helpful actually,” I said. “What is your name?”

“I am called Shleppa.”

“Follow that chariot, Shleppa,” I instructed, “but keep out of sight.”

The two men did a good job, weaving in and out, avoiding street stands and traversing the narrow alleys until we reached the great river. I bade Shleppa farewell and stepped into the shadows to watch what came next. The soldiers had a boat ready and shoved Moses on board.

I had to think fast. I moved stealthily toward a boat tied up next to Moses’ and plucked some long papyrus reeds from its hull. I spied a length of woven rope there too and grabbed it. Now all I needed were some heavy stones. Maybe beneath the dock. I slipped into the water behind the second boat and stroked toward the bottom. Yes! Plenty of rocks. I tucked several into my white robe and knotted it so they would weigh me down. Now I rose toward the surface just enough to poke the papyrus reeds out for a breath of air. I was still deep enough, and the odds were no one would notice me in the murky Nile waters. I eased myself around toward Moses’ boat. I needed one more thing and I got lucky again. At the stern was a protrusion I could tie my rope around – and did. That was when the vessel started to move away from shore. All I had to do was hold on to my rope and breathe through my reed.

The journey was short, just a few miles upstream I guessed, and uneventful, except once, when I used one of the rocks to bonk a curious crocodile on the head. Curious Crocodiles. Good name for a band.

They pulled the boat into shallow water, then beached it against the gently sloping sands. I let go the rope as we approached shore – but too late. That was when they saw me. What the hell, I thought, and rose to my feet, standing before them in two feet of water.

“Slay him,” shouted one of the four soldiers. How foolish I looked, desperately untying the heavy stones from my robe. A spear flew toward my head, but I looked up and dodged it at the last moment. I picked up the spear from the water and advanced on the soldiers as Moses watched helplessly, his hands bound behind his back. Suddenly I remembered my days as drum major in the University of Minnesota marching band, way back in the 23rd century. Spinning the spear skillfully, I whirled it over my head, then executed the high toss. The soldiers all looked up to follow its flight, and as they did, I pulled my TCA combat knife from the finely-made leather pouch (yes, still slung around my neck) plunged it into the chest of the closest soldier, then slashed open the jugular of the one standing next to him. In the next instant, the spear fell into my hands and in one motion I whipped it at the third fellow, impaling him onto the boat. All this had taken maybe five seconds. The fourth man looked at his suddenly dead companions and tried to flee, but I wrenched the spear out of the third soldier and hurled it at him, skewering him through the neck, much as Achilles did to Hector in the Iliad. A classic performance, if I say so myself.

Moses gazed at me, impressed. “You are a fearsome warrior, Awshalim. I am forever in your debt. They were surely going to kill me.”

“You did OK yourself with the crocodile, Moses.”

“Thank you, but I fought them for years as a boy. I’m surprised Ramses did not remember. But how did you find me here?” When I described my tactics, he smiled. “Ah, the old papyrus-breathing- rope-hauling-stone-ballast trick! I know it well. But you should be going now. If they find you with me your life will not be worth a broken brick.”

“And where will you go now, great prince?”

“I am prince no longer. I am a man without a country. But it is said the Jews came long ago from a land across this desert. I will walk there. Goodbye and fare thee well, comrade and savior.”

“Don’t call me savior – that guy comes later. But look, Moses, no man can pass this desert. You have no water, no food. This is suicide. Don’t you wish to live?”

“The God of my people will help me,” he said. “I shall put my life into his hands.”

He turned and walked away into the burning sands, yanking the spear out of the last soldier’s neck to use as a cane. I didn’t like it. I don’t mean using the spear, that was a good idea. But walking like a nut into the desert? I hate hot weather.

“Moses, wait!” I shouted. He turned and looked at me with raised eyebrows. “Let’s take the boat! We can wear the soldiers’ clothes. Sail down the Nile, hang a right at the Great Sea, and next thing you know, we’re in ….”

“Canaan, it’s called Canaan.”

“Fine. We do a little fishing, stop somewhere and get water, maybe some bananas, some figs. What’s not to like?”

“The Egyptians will certainly stop us.”

“We’ll travel by night! We can do this. I just saved your life Moses, be flexible.”

“Can you sail this boat?”

“Is Egypt a big sand trap?”

“What’s a sand trap?”

“Never mind. Of course I can sail a boat like this.”

Moses turned and made his way back to the boat.  “All right, my new friend,” he said, grasping my shoulder. “Let us journey together to a more peaceful land.”

I began wrestling the military garb off one of the dead men and Moses did the same. We changed into Egyptian military clothes, stowing our own onboard.

“Let’s bring their spears,” I said. “We’ll catch some fish for dinner.” But it was a grisly scene we left behind us, four soldiers lying dead, two of them naked, their blood still flowing into the Nile. “Look at them,” Moses observed. “They nearly turn the Nile red with their blood.”

“So do you think that kind of thing is possible?”

“What?”

“Turning the whole Nile into blood.”

“Of course not. Who could do something like that?”

“I was just wondering.”

And so my new course was set. As I struggled with the sail, my mind drifted back to beautiful Suhad. She had no idea where I had gone. Would she long for me? Would she be safe, or seen as complicit in Moses’ escape and my disappearance? I realized I would probably never see her again, nor solve the mystery of her tremendous psychic powers.

As the Nile winds caressed me, I trembled slightly, longing for another night in her arms and the unsurpassed pleasures she had given me. But my better judgment told me sleeping with a woman who read my mind and knew my true identity was ill-advised. Here I was with Moses by my side, and the narrative, as fiction writers say, was moving forward. I turned to the task at hand.

“Now let’s see. Where’s the jib?”

“What’s a jib?” Moses asked.

“It’s one of the sails, I think.”

“You’ve been going in a circle for five minutes, Awshalim. You have no skill at sailing,” he said.

“That is because the winds of the Tigris are different from those of the Nile.”

“How?”

“In my country, they blow straight down from above, not from the sides.”

“That’s unbelievable. That’s as impossible as a bush that is on fire and yet is not consumed.”

Moses took over and skillfully held the boat to lee or starboard or port or one of those places. After another two hours, we headed for a spot on the shore enclosed by trees and hid ourselves until nightfall. Moses speared two fish there and we cleaned and ate them raw. When it had grown dark enough, we headed down the Nile.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m changing history. If I rescue Moses from the soldiers and give him a free ride to Canaan, instead of him tramping through the desert alone like a nut case, everything gets thrown off, causing repercussions that echo down the centuries. Maybe the Jews become a nation of sailors or they all wind up eating raw fish like the Japanese.

What you don’t understand is that a phenomenon was discovered in the 25th century, when time-travel began, similar to what was called fuzzy logic in the 21st. It’s called fuzzy history. MIT historian and time-traveler Karyn Klondike discovered there’s a lot of leeway interacting with the past. When she went back to Las Vegas in 1973, she accidentally struck and killed Joan Rivers crossing Las Vegas Boulevard. After returning to 2435, she checked the history books and found no changes in River’s life story. At first it was thought, well, this was Joan Rivers, she was indestructible, but further research by Klondike showed the past was quite flexible, sort of like a rubber band that springs back into shape.

So I figured Moses could skip the Negev and we could take another route and relax aboard ship under the Mediterranean moon. The night was warm and only gentle swells rocked our boat. A few lights twinkled on the shore.

“So Moses,” I asked, when our craft had left the Nile delta, turned east and begun following the Mediterranean coastline, “a great change has befallen you. What are your plans now?”

“Honestly, Awshalim, I hoped your country might offer me asylum. I have heard Assur is a great and beautiful city.”

“Well, Moses, that might be possible, but a man of your stature…perhaps hunted by Ramses II…that is a delicate matter, needing careful diplomacy. I will do what I can, but Canaan might be your best choice. I hear it’s lovely this time of year.”

“But I was a great general and a prince of my people. What could I do in that desolate land?”

“It’s not so desolate, really. They have a lot of nice dairy farms there with friendly goats. And beekeeping is very big. Some call it the land of milk and honey. Perhaps a rustic setting would do you good after this trauma. Have you ever thought of getting into shepherding?”

“Are you joking, Awshalim? Me? A prince of Egypt? Sleeping in the fields with sheep?”

“Starry skies above you…silent nights…the gentle lowing of the flocks…”

“Sheep don’t low. They go ‘baaaah!”

“Is that so? I don’t know much about them.

They have soft wool though, right?”

“You may seek intimacy with sheep, sir. I do not.”

“Hey, I didn’t mean…”

“There are many beautiful women in Pi- Rameses who weep and tear their hair for me tonight, Awshalim.”

“I’m sure that’s true, Moses. You must have been beloved by many fair princesses. But they have some cuties in Canaan as well, Moses. Robust, meaty goddesses who can smother you with their enormous…”

“No, no, Awshalim, this is not to our Egyptian taste. We prefer our women to have slender hips, lean and sinewy, their gentle valleys giving way to sweetly swelling breasts.” He looked nostalgically toward the dark horizon. “For me there is nothing like a bare collarbone to gnaw on.”

“Strange, we read nowhere of this in Exo…I mean… yes, I understand. ”

“But I am a military man, a leader, a man of action. How can I recline on a hillside and do nothing?”

“Moses, this will not be your fate. Take the advice of the man who cared enough to follow you and fight for you. You will find your destiny in Canaan.”

“Well, maybe I’ll try it. Awshalim, if I’m to be a Canaanite, do you think I should grow a beard?”

“Terrific idea.”

As the night progressed, my eyelids grew heavy. Many times I nodded off but whenever I looked up, Moses was at the rudder, his steely gaze fixed on the horizon. By morning we had reached the place where the eastern shore of the Great Sea, as the Mediterranean was called, begins to slant to the northwest. In the light of dawn, we saw rudimentary dwellings along the shore. It was Gaza, in the early days of its existence. It was already a center of trade and travel and was to become one of the five main cities of the Philistines, but now it was still subservient to Ramses.

“Runners will be sent this way telling of my escape. We must move quickly and somehow find refuge farther inland,” Moses reasoned. “Let us pass by Gaza and alight upon the shore in some less populated spot.”

This we did. In that land there was no cover. Only the desert come to the sea along an endless, barren beach bereft of coves or complexities. We had changed back into everyday clothes, and as we approached the beach, we saw fishermen casting their nets in the early morning light. I spoke first.

“My friends, we became lost in the night. Where is this place and where can we find food and water?” They glanced at each other doubtfully, then one of them asked,

“Where do you come from, sirs?”

Moses now spoke, in a voice of quiet authority. “We would be honest with you. We have escaped from Egypt and may be pursued, though we have done no evil there. Give us but a little water and food and we will be on our way.”

The man looked troubled. “It is our rule to help strangers, but…”

He looked at the others, then seemed to reach a decision.

“Well, we have caught enough fish for our morning meal. You can join us now and recover your strength.”

Once again, Moses had found good fortune. The men asked no more questions, but led us back toward the outskirts of Gaza and a simple brick dwelling and introduced us to the leader of their clan, a wizened old man named Yassib. There we ate and drank, but talked little.

Finally, Yassib spoke. “If you would hide from the eyes of the Great King, it is best to go to the south, toward Aqaba, perhaps. It is a long journey to the land of people called Midians. They are good people, and perhaps you may start a new life. There is a caravan that leaves Gaza for there tomorrow. I can arrange passage for you both, and we will give you clothes in which no Egyptian will recognize you.”

Moses glanced at me. “Awshalim, you have a faraway look in your eyes. What troubles you?”

Troubled I wasn’t. When the old man said Midian, I remembered: that’s where Moses was supposed to go! The Midian well. Jethro and his 12 daughters, Zipporah, the daughter who would become his wife. What was I thinking?

Well, Canaan, Midian, Egypt, who can remember it all? It was a memory glitch. I was 282 years old – 18 more years till I retired. Give me a break. But now this old Canaanite was directing us right there! You see what I mean about fuzzy history? These things work out. Destiny’s rubber band was snapping Moses back where he needed to be.

“Moses,” I answered, “the words of our host Yassib are wise. But for myself, I must return to Assur and fulfill my duties there, much as I have enjoyed this passage with you and been honored by your presence.”

Moses nodded understandingly. “I assumed as much, Awshalim.” He turned back to Yassib.

“Tell me, my benefactor, these Midians, what are their women like?”

The old man grew serious. “That is a difficult matter, my friend. Sadly, they are not full-bodied and stout like our Canaanite women, but rather have narrow hips and tend to be lean and sinewy, with prominent collarbones.”

“Then this is my fate,” Moses grunted sensuously. I shall leave for Midian tomorrow. But I am forever in your debt, Yassib.”

So that was it. I saw Moses off the next morning, gratified to see him seated high atop a camel rather than plodding on foot through an endless wasteland, beaten down by the scorching sun. I had no doubt he would find the well where he would rescue Jethro’s daughters from the raiders who were about to drive them away. He would spend the next forty years married to Zipporah, tending Jethro’s flocks, an entire career for a modern man, but for him, just a warm-up.

The Bible has him living to be 120.

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ANDROIDS OVER NEW YORK: First 50 Pages

 

1 Arrival

When Laurie Lucid stumbled over the rigid body of Manny Perril lying in her darkened apartment, she shut her eyes and screeched like a peregrine falcon. Concerned, she touched her nose, feeling for a beak, then felt her forearms for feathers. Nothing. She opened her eyes. Manny’s saxophone was lying at his feet, his lips still clutching the mouthpiece. Laurie looked closer: traces of an onion bagel were clinging to the reed.  Most women in her shoes, or even their own, wouldn’t have noticed that.

But Laurie did. Scanning toward her left, she saw Manny’s wide open sax case near the door, several dollar bills scattered within its velveteen interior. Her mind reeled. Had Perril been busking in the hallway?  Had her neighbors in the posh 55th floor Manhattan condo been dropping cash into his sax case? But now he was dead. Maybe it was something he played. She recalled wanting to choke him more than once when he was mangling Misty.

But let’s get back to the body on this hot day in July, 2034. Back to Manny Perril. There he is, Laurie thought.  She lit a Phillies Cheroot and took a long drag, but her mind was unable to focus.  What was she supposed to do without him? It seemed he’d always been a part of her life, guiding her, directing her, making choices for her.  She tried to recall life without him and couldn’t. Whatever. The body. She had to get rid of Perril.

Suddenly, inches behind her willowy neck, a soothing whisper,  “Got a problem, lady?”

Laurie whirled around. Then whirled again. And again!  That crazy music in her head – West Side Story!

“I like to be in A-me-ri-ca,

OK by me in A-me-ri-ca,

Everything free in A-me-ri-ca

For a small fee in A-me-ri-ca…”

Whirling about the apartment like a mad thing she was now, unbridled and free, her arms spread wide, doing little Latin pirouettes over Perril’s body.

But I sometimes have that effect on women during Insertion, the instant when I download myself from the future. So let me introduce myself.  My name is Legion.  Legion Ayers of the Trans-temporal Corrections Agency. TCA’s mission is preventing horrendous crimes throughout history, which is a tall order, and I’m not talking about those Mile-high McDonalds Macro-Macs topped with ice cream and banana shards. They stopped selling those in 2265, when all 229,300 McDonalds restaurants worldwide were vaporized by order of the Grolnathians. No, I’m talking about really horrendous crimes, like what had happened to Perril. Or World War II. Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. Justin Bieber’s first record date.

I guess I should explain I’m not your average gumshoe. In previous centuries, your private dick was a 40ish, Humphrey Bogart type. Even CIA agent Dreck Pantalonia, the 22ndcentury Latinx automaton, had a weathered, craggy look, but me – well I’m just 18. See, in the 26th century we grow up fast, and with all the time travel, let’s just say that for a teenager, I’ve been around.

But back to Laurie, whirling like a mad thing. I tried to bring her down, joining her dance, exchanging energies, melding auras. We wound up face-to-face, pulsating, pumping, snapping our fingers. It was chill.  Real chill.  Laurie was staring into my eyes with a dazed look, the attraction between us skyrocketing. She slipped her arms around my waist and drew me into a long kiss, a kiss so deep I was afraid I’d get the bends if I pushed her away too fast. I could feel nitrogen bubbles forming in my saliva. Finally, our mouths rejoined their respective faces with a loud popping sound. I took her by the hand and led her into the bedroom, sat her down on the bed.

“Look, lady, you been through a lot.  I want to help.”

“Who are you, kid?  Where did you come from?”

“That’s a long story. You’ll have to trust me for now And don’t call me kid.”

“Did you see Manny?  Did you see that awful…”

“Don’t worry about it.  Maybe it was just a bad dream.”

“What do you mean?”

She looked at me disbelievingly, leaped up and sprinted into the living room.  I whipped out a stopwatch and timed her – 1.3 seconds.  Impressive.

“He isgone,” she exclaimed.  “The sax, the blood, it’s all gone!  What did you do?”

I ambled out of the bedroom.  “Are you sure it really happened, Miss…?”

“Lucid. Call me Lucid.”

“I’m sure you are, but are you sure about…”

“Manny? Of course I am. There’s his case, open, with the cash inside!”

Oops. I’d forgotten to time-transfer the sax case.  No matter. Nothing special there. But Laurie was suddenly frantic. “Where’s the sax?  I need it!”

“You do?  Why exactly?”

“For a…for a remembrance?” For the first time since my insertion, something didn’t add up. Something smelled fishy and it wasn’t a wine-poached salmon with asparagus and black truffles in Dijon butter sauce, which was too bad. I couldn’t tell Laurie now, but I’d sent Perril’s head and body and the saxophone back a few hundred years. Some Native Americans of the Lenape tribe might be looking up and wondering what that grisly apparition was floating 500 feet in the air over their teepees, but their arrows couldn’t reach that high and there were no helicopters back in the 15th century. They came later, during the French Revolution. Or was that guillotines? Too much time-travel. I needed a drink.

“Forget the sax,” I told her. “You got any Dom Pérignon?” I lowered myself carefully onto her French provincial sofa. There were times I’ve sat down through a sofa, being not fully solidified. It makes a terrible impression. Not on the sofa, on people. You lose their confidence when your molecules merge with the furniture. Tonight, no problems.

“What’s a Dom Pérignon?” Laurie asked. That was when the entire Folies Bergère from a 2160’s Dom Pérignon cyber-commercial came hurtling through the wall, plaster flying everywhere. I sent them back where they came from. I have to watch what I say sometimes.

Laurie passed out when she saw the dancers, so I went into the kitchen and got two Pepsi’s out of the refrigerator, slipping a tab of TellItLikeItIs, the 26thcentury truth serum, into hers. When I came back, she’d started to come around.

“What happened?”

“You had a relapse.”

“What was your name again?”

“Legion.  Legion Ayers. Here, have a sip of this.”

“Wait, why did you – why are you in my apartment?  And where’s Manny?”

“Who’s Manny? I came by, your door was open and you were in here calling for help.”

“I was?”

“Yeah, you was, but you seem OK now.”

I got her going on the Pepsi and after a while she relaxed. I moved on to something stronger, adding a dollop of vanilla ice cream to the brew. Now she’d become more interested in the foamy head than in Perril’s. “It’s got a rich, creamy body that tickles my upper lip,” she murmured.

“So do you,” I said, moving in for another kiss. The Perril caper could wait.

“What was your name again?” she murmured.

“Lonnie Donavan. I was with the Yogurt Hurlers.  Played lead guitar on our album, Hey Mama, Mama, Wow, I’m Drunk. But things have been tough lately.  Now I order pizzas for a living. You want a pizza?”

“Yah, gee, excellent.”

She had no idea what she wanted anymore, at least that was my impression. Boy, had I a lot to learn. But I figured it was time to move on. I went to the phone and dialed a random number. “Leaning Tower of Pizza?  This is Lonnie. Send a pepperoni-minestrone-Welsh pony pizza to my current GPS location. Yeah, large.  Cool.  Bye.” Twenty minutes later I was headed across the bridge in Laurie’s 2042 BMW for a visit with Perril’s mother.

2 The Perril Variations

I had a bad feeling about the way things were going.  I’d googled “Brooklyn Perril” on Laurie’s on-board computer and there were thousands of them in Flatbush, not to mention all the trees.

But more important, I’d forgotten my mission. That happens to me a lot. Frontal lobes just weren’t designed to go zipping across five centuries at light speed. I knew it would all come back to me, but for now I was running on empty, like in that old rock song by Jackson Pollack.

I could feel the hard Brooklyn streets closing in on me like the lips of a giant sea clam. I turned right at Central and drove past the YMCA. They say it’s fun to live at the YMCA. I hear young men can do what they want. But I’m not that young really. Experientially, that is, in terms of my Einsteinian inner time-clock, I’m 280 years old, so the YMCA might not be that much fun, even though my body looks 18. Actually, I’m in pretty good shape. I do a lot of jogging, about 10 miles on foot and another 5 miles on my hands. It’s not fun, but it’s better than hitting myself in the head with a hammer. I used to do that to toughen myself up. That was the first time they took me away, but that’s another story, and not a pretty one.

So there I was, cruising up Central, when a motorcycle pulls up alongside, someone slaps a magnetic device onto my passenger-side door, then speeds off with a roar. I knew I had to get out of the Beemer fast. I slammed on the brakes, shoved open the door and rolled out into the street. I kept rolling, rolling fast, rolling under the car in the next lane, luckily missed by his onrushing wheels, rolling all the way to the curb. That’s when I heard the crash and raised my head to look. The big gasoline truck behind me had crunched into Laurie’s car, crushing it like an aluminum BMW, like a car made from Pepsi cans, if there was such a thing – not a bad idea, you could market it on eBay and make a killing.

But I knew more trouble was on its way, big trouble, so I leaped up and ran over to a guy on a BMW chopper – God, that company is doing well – gave him an elbow in the face, jumped on and gunned the motor and got the hell out of there. In my rear-view mirror I saw the explosion, cars flying everywhere, end-over-end like in those 50 million dollar action movies they had back in the 21st century. Wait! This was the 21st century, and I was in it.

I had to catch that bomber on his motorcycle. I weaved left and right around cars until – there he was up ahead! “Hey, slow down,” I shouted, “I can’t catch up!”  but the guy ignored me and kept going. Luckily, my last assignment had been in the Old West and I’d developed some skills there. I pulled out the lariat I keep in my backpack. I told you I had a backpack, right? No, don’t leaf back through the book, the part about the backpack is probably gone. This book is written in Ephemeral script, from Ephemertech, a 26th century firm, and the contents are constantly changing, morphing as you read it. Picture the primordial nothingness just before the Big Bang. What you’re holding is a lot like that.

Back to the lariat: I whipped it out and hurled it unerringly at the biker. It dropped over his head and I pulled hard, jerking him off his, yes! – another BMW bike! I’d strongly recommend BMW at its current valuation and anticipate robust growth in earnings in the next quarter, except who knows what quarter you’re in. Down he went on the pavement, and I flew past to drag him behind me for a few blocks to teach him a lesson, but I could see in my rear-view he had kept his feet and was actually running behind me, holding on to the rope! This was impossible. Now he was pulling back on my bike, slowing me down. Who was this guy?  When he got me slowed way down, I jumped off the bike to face him, tying the rope to my bike handle.

That was when he started whirling my motorcycle around in the air in big circles as oncoming traffic veered off or screeched to a stop. This was turning into a hell of an assignment. Ever feel nostalgic for the future?  That was me. But I couldn’t cut and run. There was too much at stake:  Laurie, Manny Perril, my BMW shares, and the Starbucks coffee shop behind me. That whirling bike was getting too close to the cappuccinos for my taste. That’s when it hit me! I needed a cup of coffee right now! I turned and headed for the door.  That’s when it hit me! The bike, that is. He was good.  He just grazed my temple with the front tire. I went out like a light.

3: Oh Captain, My Captain

New York City Police Detective Feral O’Farrell was dog tired. He was finishing up an 18-hour shift during which he’d had to race on foot from 41st Street to the Bowery to run down and pummel into submission a white-trash meth dealer, then he’d gotten into a bloody 45-minute firefight with a firefighter, spent some intimate moments with a Romanian hooker while trying to get the story on her Russian gangster boss, then used his rock-climbing skills to scale the first 28 floors of the Empire State Building to pluck a buck-naked hippie exhibitionist off a ledge and clamber back down with the guy on his back.  What with all the running and shooting and hippie-hoisting, well, he smelled awful.

But now here was his police radio springing to life with the hated voice of Captain Quartz, his boss. “Get off your butt, O’Farrell, you lazy Mick, and get over to 23rd and Central in Flatbush. We got a gasoline truck explosion and some street-fighting bikers in front of a Starbucks.”

“I’m off duty in ten minutes, sir.”

“And I’ll be off the can in thirty. Time and a half, O’Farrell. You can buy a lot of Guinness Stout with that.”

Feral bared his teeth at the cloudy Manhattan skies, fired up the engine of his cruiser and headed toward the bridge. By the time he reached Central and 21st, he was back in control, except for when he plowed into the burnt hulk of the gasoline truck. No problem. He gunned into reverse before his wheels could catch fire. Where was that damn Starbucks anyway? He found it two blocks farther down. Central and 23rd, that sounded familiar. Lots of police cruisers with flashing lights too. Something must have happened here. Something bad. He needed a cup of coffee to deal with it. Inside, waiting on his Caramel Macchiato, a cop approached him.

“We’ve got one of the bikers over in a booth, Detective.”

“Bikers?  What’s this about bikers?”

“Didn’t Captain Quartz tell you?”

“No, he just said something about a fight between some bikers.”

The cop looked confused. “Maybe you ought to talk to this kid.”

“Why? We can’t kick his butt here. Let’s take him downtown.”

“Don’t you want to ask some questions first?”

“Ask who a couple of questions?”

“The kid in the booth.”

“Good idea.” They called him for his Macchiato. He downed half of it in one gulp. By the time he reached the booth, he was back in control. The suspect, just a teenager, looked like he’d been through a grinder, but tough enough to break some of its gears. He looked like he could take care of himself, maybe even handle a bizarre fictional narrative in the first-person. Feral could care less. He took out a coke shaker, unscrewed the top, emptied its contents into his Macchiato, tilted his head back and poured the rest of the coffee up his nose.

4: Legion Meets His Match

I looked up at the brawny detective. I’d never seen someone intentionally pour coffee up his nose. My kind of guy, a risk-taker. But his voice was blurred by the sudden expansion of his adenoids, and I had to strain to make out what he was saying.

“So, shmart guy, whatsh your bike doing shticking out of a window in da shird floor of shish building?”

I smiled at him. “Must have been the gas truck going up.”

“Hell, that wash two blocksh back, on 21sht.”

“It was a hell of an explosion.”

“Maybe sho.  Sho what’sh wisha lariat around shyour neck?”

“Beats me. I used to be a cowboy in the 19th century, but…”

“So you’re a wise guy, huh?” His voice was clearing up.  I liked that. “Got any other cute ideas?”

“I anticipate robust growth in the next quarter for BMW shares.” The cop took out his notebook and wrote the information down. “How about Apple?” he asked.

“Come on, an antiquated record label? The Beatles are dead, O’Farrell. Wake up and smell the New Millennium.”

“No, I mean Apple the compu – hey, how’d you know my name?”

“It’s your I’m Feral O’Farrell And You’re Not baseball cap. But I know a lot more about you than that. I do some gumshoe work myself. I know you’re a rock climber. Look at your fingernails, all splintered and filled with concrete. I know you got a little issue with the white powder. And I know you smell awful. But I can overlook that. Look, let’s forget about this little gasoline truck explosion thing. Help me track down a couple of people. I have a feeling we could work together.”

“So who you looking for?”

“Just the guy who clamped an explosive device on my car. And I’m trying to find out more about a guy named Manny Perril.”

“Manny Perril the jewel thief…I mean the sax player?”

“That might be the guy, yeah.”

“Never heard of him, punk. And why don’t I think you’re really a gumshoe?”

“Hey, lighten up, pal. We could team up on this.”

“OK, kid, I’ll give you a chance. But no funny business.  Now what about your friend on the motorcycle?”

“I have a feeling he’ll show up again. I’ll let you know when he does.”

“This is getting too complicated, Mr. – what was your name again?”

“It’s Ayers,” I said. “Legion Ayers. And yeah, I know you been through a lot today O’Farrell. Maybe you should try one of these.” I reached into my backpack and pulled out a vial with some yellow pills from which a strange glow radiated and handed one to O’Farrell.

The police detective looked around to see if they were being watched. “I’ll try anything once,” he murmured and popped it into his mouth.

“Wait a minute,” he mumbled. “I hear a pulsing, exotic melody in my ears. Everything is fading around me. Only a tunnel of light, and look! A shadowy figure approaching the door. Now the door itself is dissolving. Look! A radiant, robed figure, bathed in lavender glow.  Hey, I know this guy. It’s Lord Krishna, the Vedic godhead, Divine Prince of the entire universe! What’s that you say, your Divine Majesty?

We we need to talk?”

5 Getting Lucid With Laurie

The dazed look in O’Farrell’s eyes told me my interrogation was over. I slipped out of the booth and made my way back through the kitchen and out the back door, taking a couple of blueberry scones along for the ride. I looked down the darkened alley and wondered what my next move should be. Now I had an angle on Manny.  Some kind of cat burglar maybe. Well, not any more. Now he was in a holding pattern over pre-Columbian Manhattan. He’d been there a while now, and I realized the crows would be working him over up there. That would look really weird, flocks of birds congregating in the sky, ripping at the flesh of a human body floating in mid-air. Eventually there would be nothing left but the saxophone, sunlight glinting off its varnished brass, visible from miles away at sunset.  That would look pretty cool.

Wait, I had to snap out of it. Get to the bottom of the case. Of course – the case! That must be where the stash was! I had to get back to Laurie’s place. Of course, she’d be angry as hell her BMW exploded, but a world-class collection of jewels can buy a lot of Beemers. I headed down the alley toward the side street leading to Central.  That was when I heard the footsteps behind me. I stopped, they stopped.  Just like in the movies, except this wasn’t a movie. I made sure, checking right and left for cameras or a director in one of those big director’s cranes that go up in the air. Nothing. I started walking again and the footsteps were closer now. I began skipping along like a little girl, and heard the same pattern echoing behind me. I tried a silly walk, leaning back and sticking my legs way out in front. When I stopped, silence; then, very softly, a Woody Woodpecker call. This was getting ridiculous.  I executed a couple Olympic floor-exercise moves, including an acro line and two different saltos, finishing with a triple-reverse overhead flip. I hit the ground perfectly in balance, but I couldn’t move. Must have pulled something. That was when I sensed someone caressing my back and felt a wet tongue in my ear and heard the whispered words,

Kiss me, kiss me, infect me with your love

And fill me with your poison

 I ran it through my installed data base and came up with someone called Katy Perry.  Except it couldn’t have been Katy, she was 50 years old now. But that voice – I knew that voice.  It was…

“Hey, tiger, why’d you ditch me like that when our little party was just getting started?”

“Laurie! How the hell did you get here?”

“Oh, I get around. And I’m not as stupid as those pink elves looking down at me from that tree think I am.”

“What?”

“Never mind, tight-buns. I followed you down to the parking lot and slipped secretly into the trunk of my own car. I was with you all the way to Brooklyn.”

“Hey, I’m sorry about the car. How’d you escape the explosion?”

“I know a couple things about locks.”

“I suppose Perril taught you that, right?” I was starting to put apples and oranges together but they didn’t add up. And it was hard to concentrate: she had changed into tight leather short-shorts and a red, see-through camisole.

“Let’s not talk about Manny anymore,” she said.  “Let’s get out of this alley and find some birds and bees.” I had no problem with that, except I still couldn’t move. “I think I hurt my back a little,” I explained.  “Poor baby,” Laurie said, and put one hand on my rock-hard pecs and began rubbing them up and down.  “Wow,” she breathed, “some six-pack.” She changed to a circular motion and moved lower, lower. My back started feeling better fast. I experimented with it by thrusting my loins forward, then back, then forward, then back again. I took a couple steps. My back was OK now, but I couldn’t stop the loins. I tried to be casual and took her hand to lead her out of the alley, but my thrusting wouldn’t stop. Talk about a silly walk. It was embarrassing. Laurie slapped me hard in the face and it stopped. “Later, Tiger,” she said. I liked that. I like a woman to slap me sometimes, or choke me, or even slather lard on my face, but more about that later.

We reached the end of the alley. “Here’s our ride, Legion,” she purred. Parked there was a gleaming new BMW 800 GS Enduro. This was making no sense. The big chopper couldn’t have been stowed in her Beemer’s trunk. But all I could think of in the moment was the cleft in her short-shorts. Laurie climbed onto the seat, turned a key and the motor roared to life. This baby had room for a passenger behind the driver and she motioned me aboard. I put my hands around her waist and held on as she roared up to the corner, hung a right on Central, passed the stunned police and headed for Manhattan.

Now I’m the kind of guy who needs emotional intimacy in relationships. I like to take things slow and find common values. I need to hear a woman share where she is on her journey and her creative life. So it was hard for me to understand what happened next. It was as if a cloud of pure sensual energy descended on me and by the time we were on the Brooklyn Bridge our bodies were joined together as one, both of us crying out in ecstasy, oblivious of the people pointing at us from passing buses. And we must have been quite a sight, with me splayed out on my back, my head bouncing on the headlight and Laurie astride me gripping the handlebars, her beautiful face triumphantly upturned into the wind.

But as we screamed off the bridge at 120 mph, I finally realized: I had seen this chopper before, and it wasn’t the one lodged in a third floor window. In a flash, I lost my, well, sexual function. Luckily, I always keep a cucumber in my backpack, and was somehow able to placate her. When we reached her apartment, on a hunch, I licked the tip. It tasted like pomegranates with a touch of silicon and solder. No doubt about it now: she was a bionic woman. It really was she who had whirled that motorcycle around like a tennis ball. She lowered the kickstand, turned and stared at me.  My only advantage was that she didn’t suspect I knew what she was.

“I suspect you know what I am,” she said. I scanned the dimly-lit garage. I didn’t stand a chance against her if she went ballistic.

I had to try to humor her.

“Skeleton walks into a bar and says, ‘Give me a beer and a mop.’”

Laurie stared at me uncomprehendingly.  Finally she rolled her eyes.

“Comedy will get you nowhere, Ayers.”

I shifted gears.

“Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, or that the everlasting had not fixed              His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter…”

“Tragedy won’t work either. Look, you play your part and you won’t get hurt. Got it?”

“Yeah, I got it. So what’s the play?”

“There is no play. You might thank me for getting you away from the cops. And for our little bridge-bang too. Stay in touch. You know where to find me.” She turned and slank away toward the elevators. Believe me, that girl, or whatever she was, knew how to slank. I breathed a sigh of relief and watched her disappear into the shadows.

It had been a long day. I needed a place to crash. I headed down the stairs and up 6th Avenue to Central Park. There was a secluded spot near the Balto statue, so I pulled my 3rd millennium sleeping bag out of its flask, it expanded and I settled down. The stars were as bright as a million stars. I couldn’t be completely sure though, because it was totally overcast. But stars are always like that, right?

I drowsed off trying to remember what my assignment was. Oh yeah – this Perril guy, he was going to destroy the earth with some sort of technology he’d developed. Bionic people, something like that. There must be a connection somewhere, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  I was so sleepy. And now Perril was dead?  Seemed like there’d been a mix-up back at headquarters. Whatever.  I wanted to check out that sax case. I decided to stake out Laurie’s in the morning, wait for her to leave, then break in and case the joint.  Then case the case. Then, my eyes closed.  I assume.

6 Rockin’ The Warehouse

 “Number 4700 said to Number 3,

You’re the cutest android I ever did see.

I sure would be delighted with your company.

Come on and do the Robot Rock with me,

Let’s rock….”

Deep in the labyrinthian bowels of a cavern under a West Side warehouse, hordes of what appeared to be beautiful young women and strikingly attractive men began to writhe to the pulse of a 1950’s rock classic.   High above, passersby stopped briefly, feeling ground tremors. Below, on a subterranean stage, a figure that appeared to be Elvis himself joyously slithered and barked out his lyrics and strummed his Gibson guitar. Actually, they weren’t all that attractive. A minority of the young women had parts of PC boards protruding from their bodies or CPU chips for nipples. Some had their spleens on the outside rather than inside, and some of the guys had clumps of hair instead of hands, or eyes on their tongues or, you know, cartilage lips.

Their creator, a sociopathic computer genius named Manny Perril, had worked for Microsoft way back in the early days, long before his bionic humanoid start-up.  People forget the constant PC crashes at the turn of the Millennium, the data losses, the suicides, office workers jumping out of windows because of Windows. People thought it was Bill Gates’ fault, but Manny Perril was the one responsible for those horrors. Supposedly a quality control manager, he used to sneak in the building at night and insert bugs in all the programs.  Nothing in life gave him more pleasure than the words, “Oh no!  It’s gone!  All my work is gone!” Around 2004, they discovered him, he got fired, and people noticed PCs were getting more stable. Perril went ballistic and spent decades planning to get even, until he hit on a way to eliminate the human race itself.

Most of the androids in the cavern were enormously attractive, and in any case, the males were programmed not to objectify females. The females, well, a woman can overlook cartilage-lips if a guy is sensitive and caring.  Yes, the androids crashed sometimes, but that was manageable, unless they were driving a car, in which case they really did crash. But Perril figured that would just keep the android police busy. Since everybody was programmed to be honest and cool, the police would have a lot of down-time, so traffic accidents, paradoxically, would be kind of beneficial.  Perril was way deep into kind of.

His sick idea was to replace the conflict-ridden human race with a race of sensitive, New Age, dance-till-you-drop humanoids, except they never would drop. But could they reproduce! The little ones came out all ready to go, no special care needed. They did video games until they were 3 months, then they could have sex, because their growth rate was 84 times faster than humans. At three months they were full-sized. They were multi-colored and multi-racial and free of prejudice. Hey, you’d love these people. Only problem was, they didn’t love you. They weren’t really New Age.  They were set to take over the world and you were set to be toast. As Perril liked to say, “You gotta break some eggs to make a peaceful planet.”

Now, as Elvis finished up, as the dancing frenzy subsided, as a disco ball descended and a Donna Summers clone took the stage, Number 4700 said to Number 3,

“Hey, doll, let’s get some fresh air.”

She looked at him uncomprehendingly. “Fresh air? What’s that?” For many the androids, planetary details were on a need-to-know basis.

“I’ll show you…follow me.” 4700 took her hand and headed down some stairs and into a side tunnel off the ballroom. They came to a big iron door, but he performed some manipulation and it creaked open.  The N Train subway tracks lay before them.

“Come on, 3,” he shouted, “we have to beat the train to Canal Street Station.” Perril had made the androids fast. Sprinting down the tracks, they got to Canal Street in less than a minute and quickly jumped up onto the platform without being seen. They could run and jump too, could kick some Usain Bolt butt, no problem.  Number 3 got a few stares because of the CPU chip protruding from her chin, but most of the New Yorkers figured it was a punk thing. When they got to the exit gate, jumping the turnstile was a piece of cake.

“Hey, you two, snapped the attendant, “Pay up or you’re looking at jail time!” Tough guy.  4700 reached out and tore his face off. Hard to yell without a face.  By the time stunned commuters could react, the two androids were gone. Number 3 was upset though.  “Why did you have to do that, 4700?  That was kind of extreme.”

“Look, 3, there’s things coming up you haven’t been updated on yet. Let’s just say I know what I’m doing.  Trust me, this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and pretty soon everything’s gonna be harmonious – real harmonious. Anyway, look around you, it’s New York! The greatest city in the world.  Hey, you want to eat Italian?”

“4700! We’re not cannibals!”

“Not eat an Italian – Italian food – pasta, pizza, spumoni!”

“What’s that?”

“It’s – wait, you should be programmed to know that.”

“Yeah, I think my memory chip is chipped.”

“Really?  Where’s France?”

“In Paris.”

“Uh-oh. Where’s Africa?”

“Monday nights on NBC?”

“What’s an elephant?”

“On the kitchen counter next to your keys.” 4700 sighed. Some date night. Conversation was going to be tough. Well, 3 was a very early version. You would expect some glitches. He escorted her down Canal Street to Mulberry and turned uptown into Little Italy.  Sophia’s was three blocks up. “You’re going to love Sophia’s,” he said. “They make an amazing linguini alla vongolecon vino blanco.”

“Linguini and clams in white wine? Sounds great.”  Some sectors of her memory must be OK. 4700 wondered about her sex techniques file. Well, time would tell. The couple reached the doorway of the small family-owned bistro and strode in. 4700 headed for a table near a small stage where a performer was plucking a mandolin. A maître d’ soon appeared and cast a withering look at their attire. He was a barrel-chested man whose gravelly voice was much rougher than his choice of words.

“I’m sorry, sir, this table’s reserved. All of them are, actually,” he growled

“I want an appetizer,” 3 smiled. “Do you serve Oysters al Pacino?”

4700 cut in. “Let me handle this.” He grasped the waiter’s wrist with a lightning-quick motion. A look of shock came over the man’s face as 4700 locked his intense gaze on him. “Two linguinis alla vongole, very good,” he mumbled submissively and shuffled away.  “Don’t forget the vino rosso and some nice pane michetta with olive oil!” 4700 shouted. Heads turned toward the couple, then turned away. The bread soon appeared and a Sangiovese was politely poured into their glasses, then the linguini came.

3 was delighted.  “Oh, 4700, you dance so well, you handle awkward situations with such aplomb, and 299.1 million tons of shipping passed through the Panama Canal in 2033.”

“Thanks, 3, no one’s ever told me that before.”  He felt her hand under the table stroking his thigh.  “Let’s make babies,” she whispered. “We could live on Long Island and go to the beach in the summertime, and… it’s a bouncer toward first!  It goes through Buckner’s legs!!  Here comes Knight – he scores and the Mets win it!  I don’t believe it!” She was out of her seat, shouting with a faraway look in her eyes. Some of the customers were irritated, others seemed to be smiling at a long-forgotten memory.

“Sit down, 3, sit down!  Cool it. Here, have another sip of this Sangiovese.”

“Isn’t that a crime family?”

“No, that’s Genovese.” A large man at the next table watching them out of the corner of his eye scraped his chair back and started to get up, but his girlfriend grabbed his hand and pulled him back.

“How’s the wine, sweetheart?”  4700 inquired, with a touch of Bogart in his voice.

“Well,” commented 3, “it’s delicious and oaky and spicy and fruity and corky and tarry and flowery and mellow and piquant and…”

“OK, OK, 3, I like it too.” They focused in on the linguini. It was fabulous, as 4700 had predicted. About halfway through, a small older man in a fedora came in with a burly compatriot. The man looked down toward 4700 and 3 and grabbed a passing waiter. There was an intense conversation with angry gestures. The bigger guy headed toward the two androids and stopped in front of their table. His voice was menacing.

“You two need to clear out in a hurry, like right now, if you know what’s good for you. This is Mr. Scarlatti’s table.”

“Scarlatti!” 3 burst out. “Can you play the Sonata in F Minor K. 69?”

“Please, 3, let me talk to the man.” He smiled at the bruiser looming over their table. “My friend, I think you might not know who I am. In Chicago, my name is very well-known. Mr. Scarlatti and I have some important business to discuss tonight. Does the name Carlo D’Amato mean anything to you?”

The man’s face turned red.  “What the hell you talkin’ about?” He lowered his voice. “Get the fuck up and take off now, you testa di merda.”

Hearing this, 3 grabbed her t-shirt and pulled it off, revealing her totally bare breasts. Then in a motion so fast the man barely saw it, she stood up, unzipped her shorts and stepped out of them. In another instant she had leaped in the air and wrapped her legs around the man’s shoulders so that her sex was pressed against his nose.

“Get the fuck up and take off now??” she shouted.  “Testa di merda?? Oooh, Italian men are so hot!”  She was thrusting herself against his face as he struggled helplessly to pull her off.

“Oh God, I’m coming!  I’m coming! Thank God you’re Italian!” she shouted, lost hopelessly in her passionate ride. The restaurant was a frozen tableau of stunned patrons. 4700, oblivious, had returned to his linguini, finishing it off with gusto.

That was when he heard the piercing cry of a peregrine hawk. He looked up to see Laurie striding down the aisle. She whipped 3 off the man’s shoulders like she was a toy doll and slam her back into her seat.

“Put your clothes back on, 3. What are you two doing off-campus?”  She focused on 4700. Is this your idea of a joke? You’re all on-screen, 24/7. Supervision always knows where everyone is, where they go.”

She felt 4700’s anger growing, saw his breathing speed up.  “And don’t try to tear this guy’s face off. We know about that too. Come on, let’s go.” The male android shrugged, got up, and Laurie followed the two of them up the aisle.

“I can’t take you anywhere, 3,” he muttered.

Behind her, Laurie sensed the big Italian guy make a rush for them. She turned and with a single shove pushed him back four tables and through a wall into the laundromat next door. His pals at the Italian Dockworker’s Social Club would never let him live this down. As a result, two of them got life-time jobs helping concrete hold up a new building on 89th Street.

“Another day at the office,” Laurie grumbled, as the three androids, to human eyes, simply vanished.

7 Peacing Things Together

Someone was kicking me in the side. It was morning, and I was still in Central Park. The man standing over me was wearing gold velveteen boots and paisley pedal-pushers. He had a sheer, tie-dyed blousy thing on and Jesus, he was wearing beads. And he’d blown his hair out into this Afro thing. On his forehead was a red bandana with a peace sign.

“Wake up, Ayers, we need to talk.” I knew that voice!  It couldn’t be, but it was.

“Feral!  What happened to you?”

“I’m Farah now, Legion. I’m in touch with my female side.”

You never know what the effects will be with Transpsychlin. It’s a powerful substance. Some people see God or Lord Krishna. Others have channeled Donald Trump. O’Farrell had obviously been through some changes. I had to handle him carefully. I grabbed his foot and twisted it hard, spinning him to the ground.

“Oof!”  he grunted. It’s a satisfying sound. If I get a guy to say oof, I know I’m pretty much in control of a situation. But this was no time for nostalgia. O’Farrell needed help.

“You’ve broken my beads,” he whimpered.  “I strung them myself!”

“Look, O’Farrell, snap out of it. It’s a tough world. You have to be strong.”

“But Lord Krishna said…”

“Krishna? The deity who told Arjuna he had to slaughter all his cousins in battle? You must have caught him on a good day. What else did he tell you?”

“He said to lighten up and go with the flow.”

“Well, I’m the flow now, OK? We have to get you out of these hippie duds. Any of your fellow-cops see you like this?

“No, I got up at 4AM and was meditating in the Ashram.”

“Wow, you went off the deep end.” I got to my knees and started stripping the clothes off his body. He just lay there moaning, “No, no, don’t please!” A couple of teenagers came by, saw us and started giggling. New York City, what a town.

“Here, crawl between these rocks and wait for me,” I told him. “I’ll be right back.” I grabbed his clothes and rushed through some trees onto another path. Luckily, there was a guy in a suit there, about O’Farrell’s size. I punched him in the stomach. He said “oof” and I dragged him behind some bushes and stripped him. A couple of teenagers came by, saw us and started giggling. Sometimes I hate this job.

“Put these on, buddy,” I told the guy, “and start a new life.” I rushed back to O’Farrell and threw the business clothes at him.

“Put these on. Now.”

“Aren’t you going to dress me?”  he asked. I slapped him a couple of times. He pushed me away. I slugged him hard in the jaw. He got to his feet and threw a haymaker I just ducked. Then he landed a hard right that put me on my butt. Now O’Farrell was on top of me, unloading lefts and rights to my head.

“This is more like it, O’Farrell,”  I shouted. “You’re back now, aren’t you?”

“Goddam right I am, punk I’ll show you whose boss.”

“If you’re the boss, why are you sitting on a guy stark naked?”  That stopped him.

“What the hell am I doing naked?”  he asked confusedly.

“Don’t worry, Feral, just put on the suit.” Which he did. “Now why are you here, Feral? You must have a reason. How did you find me anyway?”

“Look pal, the New York City Police Department isn’t as stupid as that advanced race of intelligent reptiles living deep in the earth thinks we are.”

“What?

“Never mind. You think you can just take off from the scene of a crime with some broad, have sex with her on a motorcycle and lose us in the big city, the city that never sleeps?  You think you can do that in Gotham, the Big Apple, the city so nice they named it twice, the city where every dark, twisted alley leads to an unmarked grave, where only fools and lepers venture out after dark, where hookers are as cheap as cigarettes and twice as bad for you…?”

“Knock off the noir clichés, Feral, what are you saying?”

“It’s what I’m asking, Ayers, not saying. Who’s the dame? What’s going on at her condo? What’s with the motorcycle in the 3rd floor window? What was she doing with the couple that took Sophia’s Restaurant apart last night? And while we’re at it, who the hell are you, anyway?”

O’Farrell had just recovered from a psychic shock. I needed his help, but he could only take so much right now. I knew I had to handle him carefully.

“Feral, I’m a time-travelling visitor from 400 years in the future, an agent of the Trans-temporal Correction Agency.”

Bad choice. He swung from his heels and knocked me into the bushes. “Don’t fuck with me, Ayers, I’ll hurt you and desert you, I’ll take your soul if you let me. But don’t you let me…”

“What?” I sat there rubbing my jaw.

“I’m a big James Taylor fan. ‘You Got A Friend,’ 1972.” He blinked and shook his head. “Hey, why are you lying in the bushes?”  He obviously wasn’t all the way back yet, so I changed gears.

“You were asking about the girl. I live in her apartment building, see? And I found her yesterday with the door open and, well, there was a dead body her room.”

“Why didn’t you report it?”

“It disappeared. I took her into another room to calm her down, and when we came back the body was gone.”

“And two hours later, you’re screwing her at 120 mph on the Brooklyn Bridge? You gotta do better than that, Ayers.”

“How about screwing her on top of the Empire State Building?” Feral swung from his heels and knocked me into the bushes again. “You’re an awful sexist who disrespects women. You think your screwing jokes are funny? Think again. Lord Krishna is ambidextrous, you know.”

“Androgynous.”

“Whatever. Don’t talk like that. It upsets me. Now level with me. What the hell is going on?” I realized there was no getting around it. I had to give him a Demonstration. “Hold on, Feral,” I said, “You’re going for a little ride. You say you like James Taylor?”

“Yeah, I…”  and he was gone. I’d sent him back to the Troubadour Club, Sunset Strip, summer of 1969.

Just for a while, while I figured out my next move.

8 More Than Meets The Eye

O’Farrell had said something about a dustup at a restaurant. What was my synthetic ladyfriend up to now? I had to get back in that apartment. I found a local coffee shop and got myself some breakfast, then headed over to Laurie’s high-rise. I skulked around the front and after an hour I got lucky. Out of the garage Laurie zoomed on her chopper, turned uptown and sped off. Getting into the building was no problem. I mean, if you’ve mastered space and time, you can get through a security door, right?

I made it to the 55th floor with no trouble, threw a couple moves on Laurie’s door and waltzed in. The sax case was shoved up against one wall. I opened it and prowled around inside, hoping to find the treasures of an international jewel thief. Nothing. Hey, what did I need with jewels anyway? Suppose Perril was a thief, what did I care? I had to figure out…what was it?…oh yeah, a bionic threat. I always have trouble remembering my assignments. When they sent me to stop the attack on Pearl Harbor, I spent the assignment scuba diving. Came up one day and all hell had broken loose.

So now I was muttering to myself, “Bionic threat, bionic threat, bionic threat,” and that’s when I noticed the chatter in the next apartment. I put my ear against the wall and heard maybe four or five voices. I picked up a few phrases, “automate speech,” “right-arm dysfunction,” “missing left eye,” “incoming shipment.”  And then it hit me. It wasn’t just Laurie.  There were more of them! They were next door! And where else were they? Whatever Perril had set in motion was still happening.

I needed a look-see, so I got out my Walleye Paste from the backpack. Made from the eyes of walleye pikes that, by the 26th century had evolved the ability to actually see through walls, the paste lets you visually penetrate solid barriers. But you have to really, really believe it’s possible. Which I did. Like magic, the whole scene inside unfolded before my eyes. People with sensors for eyes, six-fingered deformities, hot numbers like Laurie, stunning, Mitt Romney-like males, all working at their computers or talking on cell phones or scratching their spleens.

It was horrific. What were they planning? But I needed to get out of there before Laurie came back.  Luckily, I didn’t hear her footsteps down the hall and have to hide in a closet where she’d want to hang up her coat and almost open the closet door and then the phone would ring and I’d be like “Whew!” and afterwards maybe she’d go into her bedroom and I’d sneak out, or maybe I’d pretend I’d just arrived and go in there and we’d have sex and it would be really good and then… But no!

I just left.

I headed back to the spot in Central Park where I’d slept. I needed help on this case. I needed O’Farrell. I decided to bring him back from 1969. In a flash, there he was, lying on his back on the ground, eyes closed, his pants down, it was worse than the androids. Much worse.

“Oh God! Oh shit! I love you, Moon Crystal!…Wait! What the…?” He opened his eyes and saw me.  “Where’s Moon Crystal? Where did she go? MOON CRYSTAL!!” he bellowed.

“Who the hell is Moon Crystal?”

“My James Taylor groupie. We were backstage at the Troubadour and we did this really nice Orange Sunshine acid and she was so beautiful and, whoa, that tree is moving!”

“Feral, you’re too deep into drugs. You need to clean up, go into – what do you call it – rehab?  Pull yourself together, you’re back in the 21st century.

He stared at me. “You really are a time-traveller.”

“Yeah, and now you are too.”

“Ooh, Legion, now you’re body is covered with little worms. I’m scared.” He was useless to me in this condition. Luckily I had some antacid pills in the backpack and got him off his trip fast. When he had pulled up his pants and straightened his tie, he looked good again, like a cop, a detective, a dick, a tough guy.

“Look, Feral, that body I found was Manny Perril’s. You said something about him being a jewel thief, but that was just a cover. Here’s the lowdown: he was out to destroy the human race with a race of bionic androids. That’s why I was sent here. And he set the whole thing in motion before he died. That babe on the motorcycle?  She’s an android. She’s the one that threw the chopper up to the third floor. And there’s a bunch more in the apartment next to hers, running some kind of operation.”

“But who killed Perril?”

“I wish I knew. It might have been Laurie, some kind of robot revolt. But we can’t bust in there until we know more. Anyway, are you in with me on this? I need someone I can trust.”

“When it’s over, can I go back to Moon Crystal?”

“She was just a groupie, Feral.”

“Yeah, but she had a way of touching me that was so.…”

“Enough with the shared intimacies, Feral. OK, maybe I can send you back, but you gotta stay clean while you’re working with me, no drugs.”

“No meth?”

“Of course not.”

“A little coke?”

“Forget it.”

“OK, I’ll just smoke weed.”

“Nothing!”

“Look, man, I’m kind of a chemistry hobbyist.  Titration tubes, flasks, you know? I’m not just a magnificent physical specimen, and I’m not as dumb as the guy behind you smirking at me with the two rectangular heads thinks I am.”

“No drugs.  Nothing.”

He sighed.  “Okay, it’s a deal. I think I love her, man. I need to go back there.”

“Let’s hope we survive long enough to let you.”  I didn’t trust him at all, but what could I do?  It was me and Feral O’Farrell now against the robot hordes.

9 At The Warehouse

Detective O’Farrell slouched into the 23rd Street NYPD precinct looking like a man wearing someone else’s suit. Police officers milled around nursing their coffee cups, observing him out of the corners of their eyes, except for the rookie cops, who let his photons stream directly into their eyes. But they were rookies and didn’t know any better.

Everyone was wondering where he’d disappeared to after his trip to Brooklyn. There had been rumors he was seen emerging from the Divine Goddess Ashram on 4th Avenue wearing paisley pants and beads, but they wrote that off as impossible.  Another source said they’d seen him sitting in the lotus position on the beach at Coney Island, playing a guitar and singing “Across The Universe” by John Lennon. The two reports seemed to add up to something, but – O’Farrell? The sexist dick who once got drunk and climbed the Statue of Liberty and punched her in the face because some perp got off on a Miranda-rights violation? The mind couldn’t accept it.

Feral slouched down behind his desk and lit a cigarette.  He knew he was being watched but didn’t care. That was when Captain Quartz moved in on him.

“So here’s our wild Irish rose, come to pay us a visit.  We’re honored, Milord.”

“I been working the case, Captain. It’s a real puzzler.”

“You thinking about maybe filing a report later this year?”

“Cut me some slack, sir, I think I’m getting close to something.”

“Slack? You’re close to getting sacked, wise guy. I want a report by 5 P.M. or your ass is grass.” Quartz snorted and retreated to his desk in back. He knew O’Farrell was his best detective, even if he did have a taste for chemical substances. He was responsible for 91 convictions in the last six months. Quartz just couldn’t stand his cocky attitude.

An hour later, Quartz had a carefully written report on his desk that basically told him nothing, which was how O’Farrell wanted it, and the big cop had slouched back out onto the hard streets of New York. He’d agreed to keep an eye on Laurie that afternoon, so when she streaked out of the garage around 4 P.M., he was there to see her. He turned the ignition on his unmarked cop car and carefully tailed her uptown. After they crossed into the Bronx she turned toward the Hudson. Traffic was light, and he thought she might have spotted him.

He grabbed a cigarette out of the pack of Salem menthols he found in the pocket of his stolen jacket and reached down to shove in the lighter. The car in front of him pulled over to park, and now he was directly behind her, not good. He reached down for the lighter and put it to his cigarette, but the damn thing was cold. Now Laurie’s chopper was slowing down. He’d have to pass her or…now she jammed on her brakes and pulled over too, so fast he had to hit his own brakes. What was this, some kind of trick? What the hell. He pulled alongside her bike and rolled down his window. She smiled a killer smile at him and her eyes buried passion-spears deep into Feral’s brain. “What is it, officer, was I speeding?” He wondered how she knew he was a cop.  Maybe some sort of android clairvoyance?

“What makes you think I’m a policemen, sweetheart?”

“That flashing light on your roof?”

He thought back. The cold lighter! The flasher button was right next to it. It all started to add up now.  He’d been tailing her with the flasher on! Not good. It was so hard to function without at least a couple white lines off a mirror. He had to think fast. Fake it, he thought. He swung open the door and walked around to her Enduro, looking it over carefully. He looked into those devastating eyes again. No wonder Ayers had lost control  riding behind her on the bridge. “Driver’s license and registration, please.” Everything was in order. Laurie Lucid, that really was her name.

“There’s been a few Enduros hijacked from trucks lately, so we have to check them out when we see one. Sorry to bother you ma’am.”

“Anytime, detective,” she bubbled. Those eyes, drilling into his skull. “You’re a detective, right? That’s so exciting! Here’s my card, call me sometime.” Feral felt a warm sensation spreading though his lower intestines. A robot romance. Maybe she could help him forget Moon Crystal. He took the card and smiled grimly. “You can go now, miss.” Laurie smiled mischievously, gunned her bike and took off.  Smooth operator. If she had suspected anything, she didn’t show it.

O’Farrell smiled too. Another cop would have lost the trail, unable to follow her in a car she now recognized. But while Laurie had been digging into her jacket for her license, Feral had clipped a GPS unit under her seat. All he had to do was kick back and watch where she was headed.

He kept about three blocks behind. She was driving toward the West Side. Her signal finally stopped moving at a warehouse near 58th and West End Avenue. He parked his unmarked on 56th and sauntered toward her location. There was a trailer pulled up to a dock, a couple guys unloading some crates. He got out his mini-binoculars and saw they’d come from some city he’d never heard of.  Osaka.  He’d have to Google it. Anyway, Ayers would be interested in this. He stepped back quickly into a doorway as the Enduro came whizzing around the corner, right past him.  Excitement welled up inside him. He turned and punched the building hard. It felt good. He strode back to his unmarked and noticed his flasher was still on. So that’s why all those cars had kept pulling over.

10 Family Jewels, Metal Fist

O’Farrell had called me later that afternoon, and now the two of us were back on the job, approaching the warehouse in his unmarked cop car.  All he talked about was Laurie.

“Her eyes, Legion, I can’t forget her eyes.”

“She’s programmed like that. Danger lies that way, O’Farrell.”

“You seem to have survived.”

“I had a cucumber.”

“A what?”

“Never mind. Here we are.”  The warehouse was dark and shuttered as we pulled to a stop.

“We’ve got to get in there,” Feral growled.

“No problem. Keep a lookout until I call for you.”  I crossed the street, threw a 3rd millennium move on the door lock and slipped inside. Then I pulled my night-vision glasses out of my backpack and looked around. Crates and boxes were piled almost to the ceiling, but it looked more like an assembly plant than a warehouse. There were conveyor belts everywhere and what looked like some kind of welding devices too. I moved carefully over toward the machines, and that’s when I saw her, a naked woman lying perfectly still on the conveyor belt. I knew what she was. The missing hand was a major clue.

I made my way deeper into the cavernous space and now I saw rows and rows of plastic cases about the size of human beings stacked up to the ceiling. It didn’t take much to figure out what was in them. I reached for my iPhone23s, and that was when a hand grabbed me from behind – by the balls.

“Eeek,” I said. He started pulling me backwards, I had to step slowly, very carefully with my legs wide apart. “Eeek,” I said.  “Eeek, eeek!” I looked like a spread-legged square-dancer going in reverse, except I wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat and I don’t like Hank Williams XXI. The guy pulled me against a metal post and secured me there with some wire cable, and then he came around and I got a look at him. He looked exactly like me! The only difference was he was wearing a light blue jumpsuit uniform, like he was a warehouse employee.  Even more bizarre, the uniform had a name stitched into it: Newman Ayers. What was going on?  He began to speak.

“Whatchu doing-doing, whatchu,” he said.

“Huh?”

“Whatchu-whatchu doing-doing-whatchu?”

“You mean, what am I doing here?”

“Yeah-yeah, whatchu doing-doing whatchu.”  My alter-ego was great at imitations and ball-grabbing but had definite speech issues. I had to think fast.  “Look,” I said.  “I’m the Company Night Inspector. I’m just doing my rounds.”

“But there’s no no-no ni-ni-ni-ni-ni-night insp isnp isnp insp…”  He was going to go on like that for a while. I tried to wiggle my hands free but no luck. That was when something heavy hit me, like an atomic bomb  (“Stranded In The Jungle,” the Cadets, 1956). The blow twisted me around the pole like I was in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. I looked up and there was Feral getting ready to hit me again.

“Feral! Feral!” I shouted, “It’s me!  Legion!” He was winding up for a killer punch. Then I realized – I was still wearing the night goggles.

“Take off the goggles,”  I shouted. O’Farrell started feeling his face. “But I’m not wearing goggles,” he said.

“No, look at me! I’m wearing goggles.” Feral looked confused and turned to the clone.

“Ayers,” he said, “Who is this guy?”

“He’s-a, he’s-a, he’s a ro-ro-ro-bot-bot-bot, he’s a robot.”

“Hey, man, are you OK? You sound funny, Legion.”

“Feral!” I shouted. “HE’S the robot – take off my goggles!” O’Farrell looked down at me.

“Where are you from, man?”

“The 3rd millennium,” I snapped.

“That’s impos-pos-possible, Feralofarrell,” the android said. The creature, though flawed, was relentless.  Finally, Feral reached down and tore off my goggles. “Far fucking out,” he said, whirled and threw a haymaker at the android, who ducked effortlessly and then smiled…a smile from hell.

We were in deep shit.

“We’re in deep shit,”  Feral observed.

“Maybe not,” I said. “Untie me, man, but real slow. And keep talking.” I winked at him, hoping he would understand.  Feral got it.

“You’re not the real Legion Ayers,” he shouted at me.  He turned to the robot. “This guy is trying to fool us, Ayers. I’m going to take him to Laurie and we’ll find out what the story is.” He got me loose and then grabbed me by the balls.

“Eeek,” I said.

“Shut up, pal. You’re in big trouble now, breaking into our warehouse. Isn’t that right, Legion?”

The android looked back and forth between me and Feral. He didn’t look convinced. “I don’t, don’t know, don’t know-know-know…”

Then I got a brainstorm. A long shot, but we had to try it.

“Tickle him!” I shouted.

“What?  Are you crazy?”

“Tickle the sonofabitch!” I yelled again and moved in on the attack. As soon as I put my fingers on his tummy, he keeled over and started yelling for me to stop. Feral got his nerve up and joined in.

“No, no!” the android was yelling, but he wasn’t trying that hard to stop us. He was an android, he didn’t have to put up with it. He liked it.

“OK, that’s enough,” I said.

“No, tick-tick-tickle me more!” the robot says.

“Just a minute more,” I say, and we go at it again. The sonofabitch looked so damn happy, but I knew he was still deadly.

“OK, now Uncle Feral and I are going to go get some tickle powder and come right back, OK?” The android’s eyes opened wide. He’d never heard of tickle powder before. Hell, I hadn’t either. You could probably market it on EBay and make a killing. But this was no time for merchandising. I signaled to Feral and we headed for the door. Outside, we jumped in his ride and skedaddled, pulling away from faux-Ayers, who had emerged and was trying to chase us down, shouting,

“There’s no-no-no-no such-such thing as tick-tick-tickle-tickle-powpowpow….”  His voice faded as we picked up speed and we finally lost him.

“I think I need a drink,” I told Feral.

“I could use a cocaine-laced caramel macchiato up my nose.”

“Those days are over, man,” I said.  He looked at me and smiled. “So the big bad time-traveler is ticklish, huh?”

Forget it, Feral, and don’t try any funny stuff.”  I giggled suddenly, then pulled myself together. “Man, just think what we learned tonight. They made a copy of me! They screwed it up, but he looked real enough to fool you.  How the hell did Laurie do that?  And why did she do it?”

“Maybe she scraped something of yours from her love canal after your bridge party. You look like a leaker to me.”

“What a horrible thing to do.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself. We all leak sometimes.”

“Not that, I meant using my DNA.”

“Hey, why you picking on Laurie?  She’s not that bad. I’d like to get to know her. She’s got some nice qualities.”

“You looked into her eyes, didn’t you. She’s an android, Feral. Don’t go there. Besides, it’s been done: Blade Runner, Ridley Scott. Definitely off-limits, both as regards personal danger and plagiarism.”

But now I had something else to worry about.  She’d thrown her spell over my partner. As for how she cloned me, his fluid retrieval theory was probably a good guess. I remembered the babe on the assembly line.  How many more like her were out there, sampling human DNA?  It boggled the mind.

“Anyway,” Feral added, “I’m waiting for you to thank me for saving your sorry 3rd millennium ass.”

“Thanks, Feral, I especially liked the punch in the jaw.”

“My pleasure, tough guy. Where you want me to drop you off?”

It dawned on me. I had no place to go. What was I going to do, broke and penniless in a cold-hearted town like Gotham. I started feeling sorry for myself, tears began welling up in my eyes. Then I remembered: my Universal Credit Card!

“O’Farrell,” I said, “Drop me off at The Waldorf.”

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1961: First 50 Pages

Prologue

Kira is dream-painting. A streak of indigo twists across her seascape, then Kira sees her. The black dress, the black hair. She walks in the shallows, then smiling, sends a silver disk spinning toward the dreamer. A green swell rises about the woman and she disappears into the sun-speckled water.

In the dark, Kira feels his touch on her shoulder. There is no authority in the touch, feeble in the early morning dark, a tactile pleading. To touch a woman’s shoulder like that, fearfully, like a lonely stranger, it sickens her. But even at the edge of consciousness she know it’s something she can handle. Her back shakes him off as she moves farther away under the covers. Now his hand is on her waist. He is hopeful, a consequence of the previous night, the sho chu they drank with a miso nabe she had prepared as a wintertime treat. The clock-radio, glowing nearby, tells her he has enough time to make a concerted attempt out of this.

“Please, I’m exhausted.”

“But you just woke up.” The logic of him, the endless point and counterpoint.

“I’m still asleep, maybe later.”

In answer he moves his hand around and upwards toward her breast. She will have to placate him. She reaches back and touches him. He moans, that unpleasant sound. He pulls her back and applies kisses to her neck. It is time to set limits.

“Just let me touch you,” she whispers. “Here, roll over and relax on your back.” But he wants kisses, he wants to caress her, he wants her closer. He cares nothing about her indifference. He lives a fantasy where her body is his toy and her coldness irrelevant. There is only the struggle to satisfy him – how much of her does his orgasm require? Every increment of contact is a defeat and worse, a room with walls closing in.

She gets panic attacks. On the street sometimes on a hot day or in the passenger seat of a car, her heart races out of control, nausea comes, she sweats. Now her heart beats faster as he strains to touch her. She will not let him touch her sex. And she will not let him mount her, even to pretend. He must lie there like a woman as she strokes him, listening to his own body-pleasure. At last he comes, recoiling back into himself. He moves away, sated and pathetic, oblivious.

After breakfast, after the door closes behind him, she turns on the kitchen faucet and stares at it, waiting for hot water to come. The physical pleasure of it on her hands comforts her. She scrapes his plate off, fish skin and rice bits and a few shreds of ham, scrubs it clean, then the utensils, the tea cup, the pan.

Little everyday things about him used to bother her. The way he ate breakfast, precisely crossed his legs, the look of his fingers on his fork. She’s past that now, she feels nothing. He goes to work. It’s not so bad. It is spring, after all, in the most beautiful city in the best country on earth – America, glorious America. A forgiving place after all. A reasonable people. And even among Americans, she can count herself fortunate. Beyond her lace-curtained kitchen window, down beyond the backyard sycamore tree, stretches the azure line of the Pacific. In her mind she no longer wanders back across its vastness to barely-remembered places. Again today she marvels at the songs of the local mockingbird, its endless chirping permutations, its intelligence, the antithesis of those black crows of the city of her birth, their harsh screams and rasping sarcasm. My mockingbird, she thinks, my own Yardbird, perched atop his favorite cypress, Parker’s only rival, his riffs exploding into the air like intricate bubbles.

The dishes done, she steps outside to get the paper, turning to the arts and music section. Miles’ first show at the Blackhawk will be tonight. Cannonball and Coltrane are gone, and Hank Mobley will be on saxophone. A good player, but with less fire than what leapt from the other two. Probably sold out anyway, she decides. Another hour passes. She’s in the den, staring at a real canvas. It stares back with contempt. White out. How can you paint when you can’t feel? Titles skim across her mind. “The Structure Of Infertility.” “Barren Moon.” On the wall to her left hangs last week’s pure black collage, laced with text having to do with rejection and despair. Very cool. Very awful. What do you want, she asks the canvas. Pretty pinks? Shit brown? Maybe a new technique. Add sugar and milk to the paint, suck in a mouthful and spit it out at the canvas. That might feel good. She envisages herself on the cover of Time and a week later in the hospital with lead poisoning. Then Kira recalls the dream woman. She makes a few half-hearted strokes. Briefly, the figure reappears before her, in her mind the sea closes in, but her hand traces the outlines of the face, her sense of time fades, and when she emerges she has captured something of her, not perfect, but enough for now – it feels almost satisfying. As if she needed to be here, the two of them gazing at each other.

She shakes her head, decides she needs fresh air. Throwing on a jacket she steps outside, locks up and wanders along Balboa Avenue to the ocean, trips down the eight cement stairsteps and props her back against the great Ocean Beach seawall. This close to the sea, spring doesn’t matter. The steady wind from the sea renders your face numb after ten minutes, no matter how bundled up you are. She uses the cold to remind her she is alive.

They drop off the wall maybe twenty yards away. The two figures register in her mind in this order: male, young, military. She feels their stares, feels them wanting to walk toward her, their nervousness. They remind her of male pigeons, driven to strut and ruffle their feathers. She knows they are required to approach her as a matter of pride, knows this just looking quietly out to sea. Now they will come.

“Hey, sweetie, nice day!” They don’t realize she can see them without looking. She smiles non-committedly and says nothing.

“Hey, what’s your name?” How stylish. But wait, she thinks, they’re not war criminals.

“Karen,” she says. They come into view. Marines.

“Ma’am we are honored that you would provide that information. You are one beautiful lady, you know.” The smaller man is the charmer.

Kira bats his compliment away. “Where are you guys stationed?”

“Fort Ord, ma’am, but we are in fact on leave and would be pleased to act as your escorts today if you choose to move from your current position.” His buddy snickers appreciatively.

Amazing, she thinks. They think they’re cool, looming over me like birds of prey, like khaki-feathered peacocks. They could have spoken of the weather, the seasons, the simplest of things. They could have sat down quietly and looked at the sea. But they have forgotten the sea completely, or never saw it at all. A woman and the sea. That should be poetic, it should silence a man. For a woman to accede to conversation should be quite enough in the moment. She’d already brightened their day, but they could not grasp that. Well, they were young.

“Sorry, guys, I’m okay right here. Say, why don’t you visit the San Francisco Zoo? It’s great – less than a mile south of here right across from the beach.”

Then the taller one leans down and touches her arm, stupidly, and says, “Come on, honey, we could just…”

And Kira breaks. She just snaps.

“Look,” she spits, “you’re just ghosts to me. You’re a horror show. You’re the Klan. You’re goddam Nazis as far as I’m concerned…” Nauseated, her body takes over. She spins away and in one motion sprints for the seawall stairs. She was always fast, won all her races in school. It’s automatic, like an invisible button was pressed. When she glances over her shoulder and sees she is not pursued exhilaration sweeps over her, she runs faster, shoots across Great Highway, angles up behind the Safeway. She’s darting across Cabrillo when she looks up and sees the panel truck coming straight toward her. It is only a few feet away. An old grey truck. It’s going to hit me, she thinks abstractly; it is coming so fast her body can’t even feel the fear. Kira sees a medallion on the front of the hood and the terrified look of the man behind the wheel as he jerks the wheel and the truck screeches to the right. She feels the passenger-side mirror whoosh past her head three inches away. She hears the truck screech again to correct course and then the man’s angry horn. She stands there untouched, her heart pounding like a hammer. It’s impossible she wasn’t hit. He was so close.

When she mounts the back stairs, tears come to her eyes and she sobs once. Then she hears the phone, rushes in and gets it on the fourth ring. A familiar voice snaps her out of the nightmare.

“Girl friend! I need you tonight!”

“Maya? Can’t you just speak normally?”

“Oh Kira,” she laughs, “you always know it’s me. Hey, are you okay? Why the heavy breathing?”

“I was out running…”

“Look, are you free tonight? I got tickets to see Miles!”

“Miles? How’d you do that? Sacrifice your virginity?”

“Ooh, sarcastic. You are weird today. Well, snap out of it. Paul got tickets from his boss at Discount Records. We’ll be a threesome!” She pauses. “Just keep your hands off him.”

“I’m married, remember?”

“Barely.”

“Anyway, three feels funny.”

“Come on, it’s 1961, no one worries about that stuff.” Kira has to choose between her anger and Miles Davis. It isn’t hard. “Okay, I’ll come. Thanks, Maya. Meet at the door?”

“Swell! See you at 8:30!”

She runs to the kitchen and runs the faucet to warm her chilled hands under hot water.

Davis had his back to the crowd as usual, and Hank Mobley was working over “Seven Steps To Heaven” in a bluesy way as Kira settled into her seat in the crowded room. She missed the sheer genius of Coltrane, whom she’d seen with Miles a year before. Sipping on a Pabst beer, she pondered what went through the minds of players like these. Their skills were terrific, but as musicians they had certain advantage. Not only did they enjoy their camaraderie and interplay, but their notes, once released into the air, disappeared, while the colors she finally left on a canvas stayed forever. Their ideas flew out in minutes. They could paint the same aural picture a hundred times, never the same twice. Her paintings could require weeks of effort. She envied them.

Kira looked up to see Mobley’s eyes locked on her. A shiver ran down her back and she looked away. His notes now seemed personal, causing the back of her neck to tingle. Perhaps Mobley sensed it. Yet after the set, surprising herself, she rose and walked over to him.

“Mr. Mobley, I…”

“Call me Hank,” he said in a voice like velvet. He wore a black suit and tie like most jazz players did to affirm their seriousness, but his white shirt had delicate silver stripes Kira hadn’t noticed. The light sheen of moisture on his face was beautiful.

“Okay… Hank. Well, you sound good tonight.”

His smile was strained but kind. “I don’t know I’m saying that much tonight, but just the saying of it interposes feelings into reality, like the here-and-now, the you-and-me and – well, thank you, Miss…”

“Kira.“

“Miss Kira. Yeah. And konbanwa to you. Is that right, darlin’? That’s a pretty name for a pretty lady.”

“You speak more Japanese than I do,” she lied.

Mobley was unfazed. “Anyway, it’s like there’s always the need to connect, the phonetics of freedom. But like Balzac said, ‘A flow of words is a sure sign of duplicity.’”

Kira felt he was trying to intimidate her. Her favorite author came to her rescue.

“Be still when you have nothing to say,” she recited. “But when passion moves you, say what you have to say, and say it hot.” Mobley stared at her. “D.H. Lawrence,” she said. His face lit up. “Oh, that’s hip. ‘Say it hot!’ You got to hip me to old DH!” His voice was as sweet as his tenor. Then a raspy voice behind Kira so harsh she didn’t dare turn around.

“Man, what was you doin’ in ‘Walkin.’ And why the first damn thing you into after the set is the bitches?”

Mobley bristled. “Miles, the lady walked over to me.”

“You think that tenor gonna walk over to you too? Man, John didn’t fuck around between sets. He’d be back in the dressing room sheddin’ on breaks.”

“Well I ain’t Trane, Miles – Trane’s gone. But I’m sure the hell not nobody. I’m Hank Mobley and I never took no shit from no one, not Mingus, not Bird…

“You didn’t even know Bird, man.”

“Miles, I’m Bird’s daddy, I taught him everything, and how do you think Thelonious got his name? He attended my conservatory of cacophonous polyphony. I transmit to Trane, I radiate to Rollins, I…”

Wow, Kira thought. Be-bop bullshit.

“Well,” rasped Miles, “play some of that shit you talk through your horn next set, brother,” and walked away.

Mobley chuckled at Kira’s stunned look. “Baby, that’s just Miles. He goes off on people sometimes. He don’t mean no harm. Hey, I’m gonna see you later, alright? You stick around, now.” He turned and strolled back toward the stage and picked up his tenor. She watched his fingers tip-tap lightly on the keys.

Maya’s voice rang out, “When I snap my fingers, you will awaken.” Kira laughed and retreated to their table. The Blackhawk was buzzing with conversation. She noticed glances thrown her way. Who was she? Mobley’s lover? A noted journalist? Maya kept asking her what had transpired. She smiled, pulled out her lipstick and began freshening up.

Twenty minutes later, Miles stepped to the mike and rasped out the name of the next tune, written by Mobley. Kira looked startled, and her two friends stared at her. It was called “Heartland.” The melody was lilting and angular. Mobley’s playing was so gentle. Davis played with great feeling too, and his muted trumpet made one wonder how such tenderness could live inside someone so hard-edged.

The set lasted about 40 minutes. Maya and Paul were going to drop Kira off at home, but she didn’t really want to go. She felt an urge to go check in at her grandfather’s club, maybe help out behind the bar. It was just a quick taxi ride away. When she got there, the band had just finished playing. The old man behind the bar looked at her as if he’d known she’d drop by, but then he always looked that way.

“Good timing, Kira-chan, I need a break,” he said softly, and turned to go upstairs. “I’ll just shut my eyes for a bit. Please wake me when it’s time to close.” She stepped behind the counter and looked at the scene.

At the end of the bar, just a middle-aged man, sitting there with his beer glass empty.

Beginnings

1904  Keigo Kurazumi, a young man from the Edogawa borough of Tokyo, sailed as a gunner aboard the battleship Yashima. The great ship was part of a squadron led by Admiral Toshioki sent to relieve Japanese naval forces at Port Arthur. In a terrible disaster, the squadron blundered into a Russian minefield, and the Yashima and another battleship were lost. In the chaos and explosions, Kurazumi fell from the deck of the ship into the icy sea. He found himself floating near a fragment of a wooden bulkhead and managed to climb up on it using his arms, for his legs seemed to be immobilized. Lying empty of hope on his back as a wilderness of wind and waves encompassed him, he was possessed by a vision of great cities on fire, of armies moving across dark fields in metal beasts as countless bombs fell from the sky. At the same time unrecognizable music poured into his ears, wild and rhythmic, shouting trombones and trumpets, skittering, frantically looping notes that seemed to leap from the top of one towering wave to another. To Keigo, a young man of the Meiji era, it seemed to be the trumpet calls of death itself. He called out in terror to Kanon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, hoping his pleas could overpower this hallucinatory nightmare. And it did subside – a strange silence descended on him, so that even the crashing sounds of the sea were quieted. After that, he remembered nothing. Keigo was fished from the sea by the crew of the cruiser Kasagi, searching for survivors. But he had suffered wounds that led to the amputation of his legs at the knees. He returned to Tokyo, his mind filled with storm and fire and blood.

Back in Edogawa, Keigo eventually married the compassionate daughter of a local merchant. A son, Katsuhiro, was born to them in 1907. Keigo stayed mostly at home, seated upon a pillow in his tatami-mat room or moving about on a little wheeled cart. An instinctive artist, he began executing calligraphy in the shouso style and slowly developed a reputation for his skill. But he was a tyrant at home, using a cane to strike his wife and child as a matter of course, as another man might sigh or complain. There need be no reason: he considered those around him near-servants and not very bright ones either.

Japan, emerging slowly from its ancient and finely articulated feudalism, was inherently authoritarian. But Keigo, despite his boorish ways, was a bright and independent man. He had learned some English as a boy, and it had pricked his interest in the world outside. Now he began to read again, and within a few years he found he was able to comprehend difficult works in English: histories of Europe and its ideas, as well as the works of writers like Dostoevsky and Dickens. From these books, and his own disfigurement, he concluded that modern war was a stupid thing from which a poor man should try to protect both himself and his family. As fighting now began to rage in Europe, the endless carnage reported in the newspapers confirmed his opinions.  He felt fortunate that war remained at a great distance. But the violent maelstroms of images from his time in the cold waters off Port Arthur recurred to him at night. He knew that war would seek him out again, and that next time it would be far worse.

 

Winter, 1910   Fear hung over him all morning. At one o’clock, the sound of the doorbell was like a punch in Joshua’s stomach. Szolnoky the Hungarian was back. That long, slippery, “Goot afternoon, Mr. Greenfeld, and vere is our leetle violinist?” He sensed the snow-filled winter wind all the way up the stairs in his second story-living room. He felt sweat on his fingers as he picked up the fiddle, knowing all the mistakes he would make, scraping and sawing out sounds of no beauty or joy. The old man’s smell, dank and fetid as he leaned over to adjust Joshua’s hands with his cold fingers.

“I started piano lessons at six. You’ll start yours at the same age,” his father had ruled. “In a year, we can play simple duets…then on to Mozart!” He had scoured violin shops all over Manhattan until he found an instrument that satisfied him and paid more than he should have. There seemed no escape.

This afternoon Joshua was especially bad. Mistake after mistake, the violin slipping around under his chin, almost out of control. “Leetle Yoshua, vy can’t you hold zis position as I show you many times?” His head was beginning to spin, his heart racing. He felt blood pulsing hot in his ears like the time he had to run home chased by bullies. Mr. Szolnoky reached down to grasp his elbow and roughly forced it inwards to create the correct angle for Joshua’s fingers on the fingerboard. His shoulder was already aching from the position and now another jolt of pain coursed through it. Reflexively, he spun away from Szolnoky, but this spinning reflex somehow took on a life of its own as his body moved in a full circle away from the old man. When he stopped he found himself staring at the round, blonde-wood table in the center of the room, but his arm, the arm with the violin, was still in motion. Years later, he could not recall the actual violence of the moment. But in the next instant there were shards of wood flying and falling to the rug, and the body of the violin lay open-faced and broken on the blonde table. The fingerboard remained in his hand, strings all askew.

Hearing the horrific sound, his father rushed in from the kitchen and stood thunderstruck. Joshua looked up at the two men and wondered at their sudden impotence, how they stood there in silence. He waited for a blow to land – his father was capable of lashing out when enraged – but the man was too devastated by the loss and too astonished at this exhibition of a six year-old’s will. He looked as if something apocalyptic had occurred, something wrought by God. Szolnoky seemed about to collapse, his eyes were watery and he was breathing hard. He turned without a word and collapsed into the big armchair where Joshua’s father always smoked his pipe. Then Mr. Greenfeld just let out a great sigh and told Joshua to go to his room. The boy began crying. “I’m sorry, Papa, it just happened, I don’t know why I…”

“Be quiet, now, just be quiet. Mr. Szolnoky needs to rest. I do too. Go to your room.” Joshua turned quickly and ran upstairs. From his bed, breathing hard and wiping the frosted window clear, he looked out at the afternoon’s falling snow. A horse-carriage moved by the house in silence, then a noisy new black Packard, it’s canvas roof sagging from the weight of the snow. A wave of joy swept over the boy and he smiled. No more violins, he knew that. Whatever the price he had to pay for his crime, he was sure he’d seen the last of Mr. Szolnoky.

His father did not speak to him for two days. Joshua’s mother berated him, but without real force. She seemed far more worried than angry. He was a well-behaved boy. Nothing like this had ever happened. By the third day, it seemed almost a dream. But then his father sat him down in the living room after dinner. He seemed both sorrowful and exhausted.

“You hurt me more than you know, son. What you did was terrible. But at your age you cannot control your impulses. I won’t force the violin on you any more.” Joshua managed to repress his joy. “But you must learn some musical instrument. Music is part of what we are. It was given to me as a boy in Germany, and even in this rough country – especially here – we must keep our culture alive. And control ourselves. We are not like other people. There are those who hate us, who think we are not clean. You’ll see that as you go through school. Always control yourself. Present yourself as a neat and tidy boy. Don’t look for trouble. Believe me, it will find you soon enough.” Joshua understood maybe half of his father’s words.

“So, did you brush your teeth after lunch at school?”

“Yes, father.”

“Go now and brush again. And use the floss as well. Then wash your hands.” The boy nodded.

“Now, this Sunday you and I will go to the Philharmonic. Watch the musicians and their instruments and choose the one you like best. If possible, we’ll start you on it.”

On Sunday, as fate would have it, Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic presented the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.

 

Summer, 1915  As soon as his son Katsuhiro was old enough to understand the world a little, Keigo would try explain it to him. After dinner, Keigo would recount what he had learned of history, of soldiers marching off endlessly to fight for kings and emperors, of generals thriving while young men slaughtered each other on grassy fields. Japanese militarism flourished as the Twenties began, and he feared deeply for his son’s future.

“The western nations, Katsuhiro, extoll victory. Victory is the highest and best thing. But in Japan, we remember best the brave loser, one who sacrifices everything and dies for his daimyo. Even kills himself, perhaps. All to keep his heart pure.  Perfection and purity and honor are everything to us. And we love to submit ourselves to those above us, prostrate ourselves like loyal dogs. But this modern world is one of money and machines and soulless compromise. There is little honor dying in a muddy field for rich men seeking profit for themselves. I fear our character will be our undoing. The Japanese militarists will crucify Japan in a hopeless struggle. Beneath it all will be the idea that losing and dying is the highest honor.

“I know you must bow your head in school. And you must respect me, of course. But when you are older, you must draw a line. Do not let them use you for cannon fodder.”

Young Katsuhiro grew up with just basic schooling. There was no money for more than that. A college education for him was out of the question. He grew up idolizing his father and respecting Keigo’s order that their conversations remain secret. In 1926, at 19, he would marry Miyako, a neighbor girl. They all shared the single little house in Edogawa. Little Kira was born to Miyako and Katsuhiro in February of the next year.

Keigo, the patriarch, watched and waited.

 

Spring, 1918 Joshua went straight upstairs to his room, quietly closed his door and pulled a thin package from under his sweater. He sat on his bed listening carefully. Silence. He was alone in the home, his father was in the first floor office with his dental patients, his mother out shopping. Sure that he had the run of the upstairs apartment, he crept into the living room and started up the big Brunswick phonograph. He lay his prize down on the new-fangled horizontal turntable, turned the volume down and placed the tone arm onto the black shellac disk that bore the words Victor above the hole and inscribed beneath. He’d first heard it at a friend’s house, who was incredulous Joshua didn’t know the hottest sound in New York. Now, baroom! – here came the fat trombone, sliding into a chattering eighth-note bass line. Now a delicious mishmash: a shouting trumpet, a chunky banjo, a noodling clarinet and somewhere behind them a piano, all playing at breakneck speed. Now and then you heard the drummer smacking a cowbell, but the pace was breathtaking. At fourteen, Joshua had never heard anything so joyous, so exuberant, a mood that took him back to when he was three years old and couldn’t stop wiggling. And the clarinet wailing over the top, looping notes like a circus juggler – what could be more fun than that? A turgid Bruckner symphony? Romantic warbling from Mendelssohn? Tiger Rag was a streaking freight train of 16thnote goodies that was going to vault him out of the old century into the new one he’d been born into. He ran to get out his clarinet. As he sought to copy the melody, then a few slidy licks, he lost track of time. Intoxicated, Joshua even turned up the volume. His father’s appearance at the doorway was inevitable.

“Joshua!” The father’s fury was physical. “Shut off that noise!”

He stood mute as Mr. Greenfeld strode to the record player and lifted the black disk out. He held it in both hands, slowly bending it until it snapped and shattered into pieces.

“Throw this junk away. And never stoop to this level again, boy. This isn’t your culture, this monkey music! Who gave you this? Did you buy it?”

“Yes, with my allowance.”

“Who bought you the beautiful instrument in your hands?”

“You did, Papa.”

“So now you pour garbage into it? Do this once more and you’ll lose it forever. I’m so weary of your stupid behavior. Put it down on the table.” Joshua set his clarinet lovingly on the blonde table where eight years ago he had destroyed the violin and retreated to his room, but he knew this was just the first battle of a long war. Ragtime was still pulsing in his blood as he walked away. On his back, that fabric of trumpet, clarinet and trombone. It percolated in his brain. He’d discovered a new world.

 

April, 1927 Keigo Kurazumi stirred on his futon and opened his eyes. Tongues of fire were licking the air outside his bedroom. The paper of his shoji doors had begun to char from the heat. He shouted to his wife, turned and dragged his useless legs toward the bedroom of Katsuhiro, Mariko and two month-old Kira. Sliding open the door, he saw an empty room. He was now fully awake. The house was becoming engulfed in fire. He heard a wooden beam above him shift downward. Satoko came, grasped his arm, pulling him onto his pushcart. “The children are gone!” Keigo shouted, but she was silent, her eyes wide. Keigo rolled himself forward after Satoko, his heart pounding, but he could not see her anymore, the heat seemed to be lifting him into the air. His hands no longer felt the floor beneath his cart. Was his death at hand? The orange fury of the flames was changing into a reddish fog. A figure appeared before him, vaguely formed, its eyes an electric blue. As it drew closer, Keigo saw the figure was clothed in white. It spoke to him thus:

“You called to me amid the waves, Keigo Kurazumi, and I heard you. I am the one called Kanon the merciful, but I am also Buddha. I am all those enlightened. I am the One who fights against Evil. Keigo, evil in this world is so horrific, God himself cannot win every fight. I am not omnipotent. Yet I care for every sentient being. I play tennis with Evil, but with a billion tennis balls. Understand, then, why the Buddha is shown with many arms! Sometimes I miss and someone gets hit by a car. I feel terrible about it, believe me. Keigo, try not to be so serious. With all the sorrow and the suffering, you need a sense of humor. Ups and downs, downs and ups: it’s the circle of life.”

Keigo heard this in the language of pure thought and responded in kind. “Kanon-sama,   why are you telling me these things? Am I dying? Where am I?” The figure smiled compassionately and shrugged what appeared to be its shoulders.

“These are the wrong questions.”

“Not for me. And how can you stand here talking and still hit tennis balls?”

“My mastery of time and space is beyond your comprehension. I can stop time itself to have a conversation like this. Or for lunch. My abilities make atomic power look like a spark plug.”

“What’s atomic power?”

Never mind. Look, I like you, Keigo. you have a good heart. I’ll try to watch out for you, but whatever happens, let a smile be your umbrella. Remember me, Keigo.  Remember me…”

“Wait, I…” but Kanon now burst into otherworldly laughter and slowly started to expand. His features, the details of his body began to distend. What had been a human-like shape now surrounded Keigo, forming a translucent shell. Jagged, angular cracks formed across its surface. The red fog faded into yellow and then as the shell dissolved into a field of pure white. The world had become an ivory infinity. Suddenly Satoko’s voice came, whispering gently,

“Wake up oto-san, wake up…”

His room was dark again. Keigo was covered in sweat.

November, 1928 The phone on the dormitory wall rang four times before someone grabbed it. “Greenfeld! It’s for you,” a voice called out. Roused from a sleepy perusal of the psychology textbook he would be tested on the next morning, Joshua rolled off his bed and ambled into the frigid corridor. He lifted the black earpiece hanging on its chord and leaned into the speaking device on the wall.

“Yes, this is Joshua Greenfeld.”

“Westside Ballroom on 8thAvenue, tonight at seven. Can you do it?”

“Gregory? Great timing. I’ve got a mid-term tomorrow. There’s no way I …”

“Why’d you take forever to get to the phone, Josh? Napping over your books, were you?” Greg Manning, fellow NYU student and part-time trumpet player was a perceptive sort, to the point of clairvoyance, Joshua often thought. “You’ll pass the test, pal. You get your B-minuses whether you study or not. And you could use the fifteen bucks, right?”

In fact, Joshua was glad to escape into the night, though the society band drivel he’d be playing would be barely tolerable. “OK, Greg, swing by and pick me up. Black tie, spats, the usual get-up?”

“Dat’s it, Sigmund,” the trumpeter replied. “Your Yid-id done kicked de ol’ supah-ego in de pants again!”

“No id involved with that lily-white band of yours. They wouldn’t know a blues from a banana.”

“Oh you IS de uppity Hebe, ain’t you, brother Greenfeld,” Greg cackled, on good enough terms with Joshua to risk the offense. “Once we get into the Charleston, you’ll get your foot to tapping and lower your standards – or is it raise them? These days, who the hell knows?”

He did enjoy the Charleston, a dance so infectious very few bands could ruin it. And around 11 PM, the musicians took a 45-minute break while the upper-class charity group holding the ball gave speeches on their latest project. Joshua stepped out onto 8thAvenue for a brisk once-around-the-block, relishing the chill air and the feeling of being part of Manhattan at night. When he turned onto 44thStreet he saw the marquee at the end of the block. “Wow,” he said, “Club Alabam!” He’d forgotten how close he was to the hottest spot in town, home of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and the amazing young Louis Armstrong.

“Real jazz,” he exclaimed aloud to no one in particular.

“Real as it gets, boy,” came a mellifluous voice from inside a doorway on his right. He turned to see a big young Negro, partly concealed in shadow. A chill ran through him. The man wore a stylish dark-red overcoat with an ermine collar. He saw more, a woman’s arms wrapped around the man from behind. She was reaching into the breast of the coat to pull out a silver flask.

He feigned nonchalance. “So, you been inside tonight? How’s the band playing?”

The woman giggled, leaning her head on the man’s shoulders as she sipped from the flask. “Oh, they on fire, mister, they on fire,” she said. The man cocked his head to one side. “And what brings you out in this cold, son?”

Son? He seemed about the same age as Joshua, maybe younger. Always hard to guess their age. “The name’s Joshua. I’m a musician, actually. Playing clarinet with the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra.”

The man raised his eyebrows. “Royal Society! But now… y’all say that’s not real jazz?”

“Of course not,” Joshua grinned, abandoning his tough exterior. “THAT’S real jazz!” He pointed up the street to Club Alabam. “Fletcher Henderson, Armstrong, and the new guy playing tenor…Coleson…what’s his name?”

“Coleman,” the man intoned. “Coleman Hawkins.”

“Right. Hawkins. I want to see them, but I’m just twenty – can’t get in.”

“Well now, ain’t that strange. I’m twenty, but got no problems with access. How long is your break, boy?” Now he was a boy, Joshua thought, but he didn’t care. He sensed a better break coming than the one he was on.

“I got another 30 minutes, why?”

The Negro stepped out of the doorway and threw an arm around Joshua. “Y’all come on with me, catch a couple numbers before your next set. I’ll get your white butt in.” Joshua was equal parts thrilled and scared. What if he drags me down some alley?…No, he’s with a woman, they wouldn’t…or would they?

The man took the flask and pushed it into Joshua’s. “Relax, Licorice Stick, you gonna be all right tonight,” he said, with a soothing black lilt, as Joshua sucked down hard whiskey and fought to keep from choking it up. Then they did turn down an alley, but it was alongside the Club Alabam, to a side door near where – Joshua recognized him immediately from newspaper photos – Louis Armstrong stood, his back against the brick wall, dressed to kill. The trumpet player grimaced at the group.

“Now what all you done picked up here, man?”

“Cut me some slack. This here is Joshua.” He adjusted his ermine collar, affronted. “Bad-ass clarinet player from uptown on a break.”

“Good thing Emeline be hangin’ on you, man, else I’d be worried, you pickin’ up young white boys like this. This the big time, Hawk, you best play things low-key.”

This further offend Joshua’s patron. “Louis, you not my daddy, not my big brother neither. Joshua here just going to lay low and check out a couple tunes. It’s that time anyway – we best get our butts inside before Fletcher throw a fit.”

Now an awed Joshua knew whose company he was in. This was Coleman Hawkins, the sensational new arrival from Kansas who they said had created a whole new sound for the tenor sax. Hawkins followed Armstrong in the door. Emeline grabbed Joshua’s hand with a kind of tender urgency and pulled him after them. Inside, not far away, stood a baby grand piano; the rest of the stage opened out to the left, mostly blocked from view by a lateral curtain. He could hear the loud, carefree buzz of a big audience beyond that, though only a few patrons near the stage were visible – all white people. The pungent aroma of a night club filled his nostrils. The big semi-circular platform was filled with big-band music stands and chairs, quickly being filled by Negro musicians. Emeline pushed Joshua into a discrete corner, squeezed his behind in a friendly way and disappeared into the smoke-filled audience.

A small-featured, light-skinned man brushed by Joshua, shot him a critical look, then went onto the stage. It was Henderson, baton in hand, a professional smile suddenly sweeping across his face as he bowed to the crowd and quickly counted off a breakneck tempo. Joshua recognized Sugarfoot Stomp right away. The impact of it played live, so far beyond anything a 1920’s record player could capture. Armstrong’s cornet voice sang clearly over the band, rendering the arrangement his own personal territory. Joshua leaned around the curtain. Elegant, dressed-to-the-nines couples had leapt up and were bouncing around the dance floor like intoxicated dolls. He’d never seen so many beautiful female legs at once, pretty hips shaking, curvaceous waists twirling in the arms of their escorts, the short, shimmering dresses all askew. And on stage, that music. The band played with all the precision he’d heard about, but more: here was that rough-edged exuberance he remembered from hearing Tiger Rag the first time as a boy. All in all, he preferred that chaotic old Dixieland mix, its wildness and fervor to this molded society swing, but hearing it live, seeing the glittering audience and the meticulously dressed black jazz musicians was indelible and seductive. And the gleam in Armstrong and Hawkins eyes, the lilt of their speech. There was something there he needed.

When Sugarfoot Stomp was over, Henderson took his bows, signaled for Armstrong to rise briefly to applause, then introduced the next piece as “My Pretty Girl,” and counted it off. Joshua was amazed at the difficult ensemble work, the infectious energy and charm of the tune. A brief vocal, then Hawkins rose for no more than an eight bar solo, but it was enough to stun Joshua with the extraordinary technique of this boy just turned twenty who had drifted in from…Kansas? Then he and Armstrong traded licks like circus jugglers. The tune came to a close in a rush of perfect cadences and tight cymbals. The crowd went crazy. Joshua couldn’t take his eyes off Coleman Hawkins. He watched as the saxophonist’s eyes fell to the watch on his hand, then turned his way to lock onto him. Hawkins sliced one finger across his throat, then gestured unmistakably with his thumb: “Time’s up, pal, get out of here…”

The sound of Coleman’s tenor echoed in his mind as he hurried back to 8thAvenue and the Westside Ballroom. What would it feel like to play tenor that way? Suddenly, a rush of wings inches over his head. His eyes followed the sound up into the darkness. What was it a peregrine hawk alighting on the lamp-light on the far side of 44thStreet? He blinked to clear his sight. A gloomy crow stared down at him, then cocked its head elsewhere. He rounded the corner, head turned, and a thudding impact knocked him back. A staggering figure in a tuxedo loomed over him.

“Get the hell on your feet, Josh, you’re late for the third set. Geez, what are you doing out here, sleepwalking?”

Joshua rose and brushed himself off. “How exactly do you define sleepwalking, Greg?” he asked, glancing up at the now empty lamp-light. “Maybe dreams are real and this chat is that.”

“Well there’s no talking to him,” said the trumpet player. Arm-in-arm, they made their way back to the Westside Ballroom.

 

May, 1929 The speaker spread his hands wide and looked out over his audience. “Of course,” he said in a heavy German accent, “we are decades from establishing any scientific connections between quantum mechanics, relativity and my discovery of synchronicity.”

Joshua stood against the back wall, breathing hard. One had to be fit to attend N.Y.U in the early 1920s. Classes at its Washington Square College were held on the seventh to tenth floors of the Zucker Building, and its small elevator was often either full or inoperative. Having overslept again, he had sprinted up the stairs and entered the packed Lecture Hall 801 as Dr. Jung was concluding his remarks.

“As you may know, I have had fascinating exchanges on the subject with Wolfgang Pauli and also Professor Einstein, both of whom found my ideas and anecdotes compelling. On the sub-atomic level, increasingly, we see that time, space and causality are far more elusive concepts than our predecessors imagined. Perhaps Plato was not so far off describing ideal forms beyond the physical world. My contention is that the relationships between ideas, emotions and human history itself comprise a logical structure that in special instances disseminates meaning into this world. But remember that the appearance of the golden scarab in my office was not a psychologically random event for my patient. The stage had been set by the circumstances of her life. She was in therapy and striving to reduce her excessive rationality. Subsequently, impressed by this strange appearance in the real world of the insect she saw so vividly in her dream, her rationalizing decreased and she became more receptive to therapy. We must also ask ourselves to what extent my own psyche was involved in the event. After all, I have always been sensitive to these matters, and I am positioned to share such knowledge with the analytical community!

“In any event, if this governing principle can actually be utilized therapeutically, please remember: we must lay the psychological groundwork – as an ornithologist waits long years for a rare bird, or even, this is perhaps a poor analogy, as Ahab waits for the white whale. We cannot run about ascribing meaning to every passing event. I caution you against such speculation, such…impetuosity. In fact, in self-analysis it is quite dangerous. It could lead, in extreme cases, to schizophrenia.”

 

August, 1931  Japan, having suffered famines in the Twenties, now looked out at a worldwide depression. Its rulers, drawn naturally to the imperialist example of their European counterparts, coveted what they called Manchukuo, the rich Chinese region where rice fields to feed their people could be abundantly cultivated. It was thought among the populace an invasion was possible any month, and Keigo knew the army would come for Katsuhiro. He would not tolerate it.

In those days, United States law unequivocally  forbade Japanese immigrants, but for citizens of the Philippines, an American protectorate, the story was different. In his youth, Keigo had made friends with a Philippine family that traded in the fruit markets of Kanda, and in 1931 he approached them for help. To Keigo’s great relief, the father, Mr. Daguhay, proved sympathetic. His parents, a retired couple living in San Fernando, fifty miles north of Manila, agreed to make a place for Katsuhiro and his family. Stilling his fears, Keigo made arrangements for them to travel there aboard ship, believing it would be possible for them, as Philipinos, to eventually reach the United States.

Katsuhiro’s young family left Tokyo quietly in the fall of the year, their passage booked on a nondescript freighter. With time, the co-operation of his new friends there, and money from his navy pension and art work distributed to the right people, Keigo achieved his goal. After ten months living quietly in San Fernando, visas and identity papers arrived, and in the summer of 1932, Katsuhiro, his wife and his daughter, now the Silvio Daguhay family, left for America.

It was aboard ship that little Kira saw her for the first time. On the fifth night of their voyage, after being seasick every day, she was just beginning to adjust to the endless rolling of the ship. But at dinner in the dingy mess hall, she spilled her soup, drawing a slap on the head from her father, who had learned Keigo’s harsh ways. Normally, the little girl took punishment submissively but this time, angered, she ran from the table and out the doorway onto the ship’s deck. Her parents, surprised, reacted too slowly, and when they emerged on deck she was gone. The strange fury that enveloped little Kira took her around corners and up stairs until she found herself on the forecastle. A woman stood there, a pretty young woman with long hair, dressed in black, looking out to sea. The woman turned to her with a smile.

“Hello!” Kira, who never spoke first to a stranger, now heard herself speak in another language.

Konbanwa, Kira” came the answer from the lady’s unmoving lips – though she was not Japanese. “Why are you crying?”

“Papa hit me. He always hits me. I’m scared of this ship. I want to go home.”

Dai jobu, Kira. It’s okay. Soon you’ll be in your new home. Try to be strong. And when you’re scared or hurt, think about me. “Kore kara wa, zuto tomodachi.”

The strange promise to always be her friend confused the child, though it filled her with a sweet warmth. She wanted to reach out and touch her hand. But the woman shook her head. Kira’s mother’s voice could be heard coming closer, calling for her.

Ashita, asobo!” Let’s play tomorrow, Kira had whispered, but the lady smiled sadly and shook her head. “Ima wa dame, dake do zuto tomodachi! Watashi wo wasurenai de!

What kind of friend was she, who wouldn’t play, but said don’t forget me? Now Miyako rushed up the stairs, frantic with worry, and swept Kira into her arms. The lady smiled again, seeming satisfied. “Call me Lisa!” she whispered across the night air, and then Kira realized her mother neither heard or saw Lisa. Now Miyako’s worried scolding replaced the strange silent conversation as she spun Kira around in her arms. On the third revolution, as Kira leaned back laughing, she saw Lisa was gone.

After that night, she tried once or twice to slip away alone, but it was impossible. But when she was on deck with her family, feeling the ocean winds bluster around her and seeing the endless sea all around, she sometimes felt the skin on her arms tingle, and it was not from the cold. “Lisa-san, Lisa-san,” her mother would hear her calling out. The little girl would only say she was calling her friend, and after a few days “Lisa” became just a quiet cooing before her afternoon nap or in the mornings when she awoke.

After an otherwise uneventful voyage, the ship passed through the waters of the Golden Gate, whose monumental span the Americans would begin constructing in another two years. They made it through San Francisco customs with only a few glances of suspicion from American officials, who seemed interested only that their papers were in order. It helped that Keigo and Katsuhiro’s lineage traced back to Kyushu. He and the children possessed the rounder, less Asian eyes common to the southernmost Japanese island. Upon this fact, from the very beginning of his plan, Keigo’s hopes had rested. Their passports were stamped, and the family was accepted as Philippine immigrants.

 

June 1932  Joshua Greenfeld struggled to sit up in bed. The woman sleeping next to him mumbled something and rolled toward the wall. He squinted at a clock on the bureau. A little after one. Behind the gauzy curtains, rain was trickling down the hotel window. On the night stand stood a glass of watered-down whiskey; he drank some of it, absurdly trying to freshen the staleness in his mouth. Outside he heard automobiles growling by. He lit a cigarette and waved out the match. Slow drag and exhale, a morning ceremony. Except it was afternoon.

He looked over at the sleeping woman and felt nothing. She had caught his eye the night before and one thing led to another. The sex had been awkward and blurred by alcohol. Now she rolled over again and opened her eyes. Joshua smiled reflexively.

“Get you some coffee and toast?”

“Ooh, thanks.” She was too heavy for his taste and the angle of her nose displeased him. He wanted to be alone, maybe practice a little. His horn case lay against the wall by the door.

In a few minutes the coffee was ready. He pulled two pieces of bread out of the toaster and spread some jam on each. There was a little table to sit at. She wrapped herself in a sheet and sat down. He never knew what to say in these situations.

“Last night, that was great,” he lied.

“Really? Me too.” She brightened, her eyes sparkling as she sipped her coffee. “So, let’s do something today. Take me for a ride or something. There’s a park out toward the hills. I’ll make a picnic.”

“Did you notice outside?

“What?”

“It’s raining.” She tilted her head to listen and heard the rain for the first time. She was hung-over. He wanted her gone.

“We could go to a movie,” he said.

She liked that. “Gee, that’s swell, I never go to the movies. There’s a matinee at the New Rio with Cagney. I like his style. Did you see ‘Public Enemy?’”

“Yeah, but I could see it again. Let’s go.”

The band had three more days in town. What the hell.

A knock on the door. Joshua heard Clyde’s voice outside and called out for him to come in. His fellow-musician eased the door open.

“Hey, Josh, what’s the story?”

“Nothin’ much. What you got?”

“What I need to keep me smiling, that’s all.”

Clyde was a slim guitarist from Arizona, he played more chords than Josh could wave a reed at, hyperactive, a perennial smile on his face. He pulled out a little felt bag and poured some green clumps on the table.

“My name is Anna,” the woman volunteered, a bit offended. Josh apologized and introduced Clyde, who was shaping leafy green bits into a cigarette he licked and then lit with a stroke of a match.

Anna asked what kind of tobacco it was. Another smile spread over Clyde’s face as he held his breath and said nothing.

“That’s reefer,” Joshua explained. “I don’t touch it.”

“Ahhh,” Clyde exhaled, coughing. “You’re missing the boat. Boat to the land of milk and honey.”

Anna was interested. “I heard about that stuff, what’s it like?”

“Take a few drags, sweetheart, it won’t bite you.”

She did, and fifteen minutes later the two were convulsed in laughter over the shape of Joshua’s toaster, while the owner sat mystified and off balance. It was half out of jealousy, half out of pride that he decided, for the first time in his 27 years, to partake. After he’d taken three deep puffs, as the other two urged him on, he felt something. There was a pounding in his heart, but also a stillness. Clyde and Anna looked at him with unconcealed amusement.

He stood up, walked to the door and stepped out. The rain impressed him tremendously, its magnitude, the extent of it. It was like walking over a hill and coming upon the sea. In his mind he saw the ocean, its swells and endless expanse, now the world entire and beyond it the sun and the universe. He recalled Edwin Hubble’s recent discovery of a much larger cosmos than anyone had dreamed possible and that it appeared to be billions of years old. Or was it billions of light-years old? And constantly expanding, everything moving away from everything. He laughed softly. In what sense, he wondered, was he himself real? Occupying an unimaginably tiny quadrant of limitless space in one blinking flash of time, how absurd was his own existence? He felt as if he were inside one of those imaginary boxes the new physicists put a cat in, then hurled at light speed through space, except his own box was perfectly still. Perfectly nowhere.

But wait! Why was he living here in the precise moment in human history – in the history of the universe! – that instant when humans had come to knowthese things so clearly? Then there was synchronicity, Jung’s scarab and the night he bumped into Coleman Hawkins. Something is aware of me, he thought. Am I really at the epicenter of it all? What the fuck is going on?

A phantasmal voice whispered in his ear. “What the fuck is going on?” Joshua nearly jumped out of his skin, then turned to see Clyde’s mischievous smile and hear Anna giggling inside the room.

“You got real deep real fast, brother,” Clyde laughed. “Let’s lighten you up at the talkies.”

The three of them went to see Cagney. Joshua felt jittery watching the film when he realized that Cagney had the same initials as the son of God and that Jesus had also been branded a public enemy! Afterwards, he dropped off Anna and slept until it was time to play. At night, driving to the gig with Clyde, he smoked another half reefer. The saxman entered the club in a daze. He put his horn together and stepped onto the stage just as the pianist counted off a blues. When Joshua put the horn to his lips, nothing came out. He blew into it, then blew again. Something was wrong with his sax. Or was it him? He tried again. Nothing. Finally he looked down into the bell and saw his cloth swab inside, where he routinely stuffed it after each gig. The other players watched him, mystified. But even with the bell clear now, Josh’s sound was off. His mouth completely dry, he moved his lips to try to raise some saliva. Hal Pullman, the bassist, grinned knowingly and offered him a sip of his beer. After that, things got better. The music was a lot like the rain, and he went for long walks in it.

As time went on, he got stoned nightly. Time and again, he was fooled by the swab hiding inside his sax. The group with Clyde lasted another year, then it disbanded when the leader got an offer to play in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in New York. Joshua drifted into Chicago and had no trouble finding work in the speakeasy-filled city. Chicago jazz was hotter than the restrained, almost sissified styles in New York. Obsessed with his inner world, he mostly kept to himself in a hotel room on the West Side. Empty days flowed into nights. The music he played masked the solitude of his days.

 

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