Archive for fiction

Washing the Dead

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on June 30, 2011 by Dean

Farook was afraid.  He had doubts that any man could speak for God.  He had prayed for guidance and Allah had filled his mind with questions instead of answers.  He was afraid of doing something horribly wrong.

He was not afraid to die.  There was no one left who depended on him.  No wife or child or parent, not even a goat with young of its own.  No one who would miss him.  No one who would grieve.  All gone.

He had come to these people in a boiling rage, seeking revenge, seeking an end to his own pain and sense of failure.  A man took care of his family.  A man provided food and shelter and protection from harm… and Farook had not.  So when these people had approached him and given a name to those who had taken his family, reminded him of his duty to retribution, he had grasped it like a falling man.  He had embraced their offer of vengeance with the hope it would make things right, and bring an end to his anguished life on earth.

The body was an imperfect vessel for the soul, it cared for little but its own safety and satisfying its own appetites.  It had its own fears and displayed them in shaking hands.  It made him feel light-headed and dizzy.  It made him feel like there was not enough air in the entire world to fill his lungs.  It made it hard to think clearly, now, when it mattered so much.

He doubted the mullahs, the messenger Muhammad, the Quran, doubts he kept to himself.  He could not read the Quran for himself because he could not read.  He had only the words of others to tell him what it said.  The mullah said Muhammad said the words in the Quran came from Allah himself.  The mullah said all the wisest men said Muhammad spoke the truth.  Farook had heard this all his life and accepted it.  His father had said it, everyone said it.

All these things were said by men, but men were flawed, men lied, men blew up houses where mothers and wives and children lived.  Men said Muhammad said God said killing was wrong.  At least they had when he was a boy.  Now men said Farook should kill people he did not know.  Not just other men, not even soldiers, he should kill mothers and wives and children himself.  And he doubted them, because they were men.

Farook had never thought about religion deeply.  It was just there, in the landscape, like the mountains.  It was how people greeted one another, how the passage of time was measured and how people measured each other, though they had other ways too.  He said the words when he prayed, but his thoughts went to his family and his life, not to Mecca.  To pray was to stop what you were doing, bow your head and think of more important things for a moment.

One day, when he was a small boy, a man on a horse ran by Farook and his uncle while they were walking down a sandy road.  The horse was running swiftly and the man was leaning forward, pressing the horse’s neck.  The man’s mouth was open.  He looked breathlessly surprised and pleased.

His uncle turned to Farook.  “That man is a fool,” he said. “He should be married by now, but he has spent all his money buying that horse and all his time racing around on it.  He has no real use for a horse except to ride around on it, but if you ask him why he has done such a foolish thing, he will say ‘Allah is in the wind, and if Allah will not come to me, then I will run to Allah’.”

His uncle smiled, some teeth missing, others brown and worn.  Then he laughed and threw out his hand after the man and horse.  “Fine then, I give you the wind!” he called, laughing again.

When he had first been instructed in how to pray, Farook had gone through the motions to please and honor his father.  Once, he had even silently apologized for his deceit, asked God to forgive him for his disbelief.  That he would do so had briefly puzzled him, but he soon forgot it.

After the bombing, when he demanded to know why his family had died, he remembered… remembered he had apologized because he felt the presence of something, and felt it still, that something great existed in the world, was the world, was like the landscape and the mountains and the way people greeted each other.  It was that something he pressed for an answer to murder, and that gave him only questions.  Who could know what it all meant?

Perhaps the men who spoke of God were mistaken in their own understanding.  Perhaps they were liars keeping secrets.

Farook longed for an end to his pain.  He was ashamed of his failure as a man.  He was ashamed of his anger, though he still felt that too.  He did not want to kill strangers, the mothers and wives and children of strangers.  He knew if he spoke any of this now, these people would kill him.  They would call him Farook, the coward, the one who let his family be destroyed and did nothing.

They were putting the heavy vest on him now, showing him how to detonate it.  They were telling him he was a hero, a martyr of Islam, that Allah would be pleased with him.  And they were watching him very closely.

They would drive him to the edge of the market.  He would walk to the crowded center and blow himself up.  That was the plan.

The thing he must do settled on him with the vest.  He felt the muscles in his legs and back receive the weight.  His breath was deep and steady.  He was strangely calm.  “I am ready,” he said.  “I will do my best to please Allah.”  These people smiled and said soothing words and touched him on the shoulder.

During the car ride to the market he fell asleep.  He dreamed of his daughter and that he would never have to tell her he had killed children.  He dreamed that she forgave him for letting her die so young.  They woke him up and nudged him out of the car, told him to go with God.  He walked two blocks to the market.  He walked through the market and down to the river.  He climbed over the low wall and slid down the bank to the water.

The water was dancing with reflected sunlight.  Two boatmen smiled and waved to him as they drifted past.  He waved back.  He thanked Allah for giving him life, hard as it was.  He thanked his father and mother and wife and daughter.  He thanked the man who had helped him when his goats were sick, and the women who had helped deliver his child.  The world was beautiful.  He was sorry to leave it, relieved to do it alone.  He knelt at the edge of the river and put his hand in its flowing coolness.

May we all find peace, he thought, and squeezed the detonator.


The 92M understood that he had essentially two jobs as a mortuary specialist: to suffer, and to return dignity to the dead, and so to the living.

It had taken him a while to understand this, the suffering came first.  The 92M was pretty sure the suffering and the living and the dignity were inseparable, from now on anyway, but he had taken the job and so he would do it.

The mortuary was cool and clean, they worked hard at keeping it clean.  The smell was scorched decay, industrial antiseptic, tang of the citric deodorizer they put in the swamp coolers, blowing a steady cool breeze of desert air through, their fans spinning, humming soothingly.

The commander told them this morning he had tried to get them a Valorous Unit Award, like a Silver Star for the bunch of them, but it wasn’t going to happen, the word came down that someone thought it sent the wrong message, I’m sorry, I think you should get it, that’s all, carry on, went around and told everybody in little groups so he didn’t disturb their work too much, but his message ran ahead of him, and people stopped and gathered when they saw him coming, and they said thanks anyway sir, but still it was hard news to take.

The 92M was up for some Pink Floyd today, just the right blend of outrage and heartbreak and beauty, that guitar, man, said it all.  Maybe some Jimi Hendrix later, keep him going till lunch time.

He had a choice now.  That one came from a burned vehicle, the charred fingers broken off the steering wheel.  But here’s one that still looks human, easier on the soul, usually, sometimes they still have that last look on their faces, but heck, even then, sometimes they surprise you, look serene, or just sleeping.  You could say they all had a bad day, some handled the moment better than others.  Serene was easier to look at, but that would probably get creepy too, if you saw too much of it.  How much happiness could there be in being dead?

The paperwork says this fellow here was a suicide bomber wearing a vest that malfunctioned, only part of it went off.  The vest was gone now, but the 92M could kind of picture it by the damage, how it must have been.  A suicide to be proud of, go off by yourself, well done, see, found something to like about you already.  The dude looked like he was thinking some serious shit, not mad but fierce, kind of had that noble savage thing going, like these people could do so well, make you feel like the world you lived in wasn’t quite real, just like Pink Floyd.  Well ok partner, let’s get you cleaned up and see if we can learn your name.

There was nothing in his clothes to identify him, no keepsakes or amulets to protect him from the evil in the world, gone out the way he came in, alone and on his own, no evidence of his buds or kin, well, except the shapes and lines in his face, some old scars, everything and everybody left some kind of mark on you.

The 92M was washing him off now, blood and bits of flesh making their way to the drain in the floor, massaging his face gently, help him relax just a little, now that it was all over, remember the good times, why any of it meant anything, why it was worth it, why you’d do it again if you had the chance, and there it is right now, that guitar, man, calling out to you with those high notes, almost pleading, can you hear it?

Growth Inc

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on April 18, 2011 by Dean

I am the victim of relentless economic growth.

It was an accident, really, that made my cash start growing.  I guess you could say it was the result of a chemical spill.  I had taken the few dollars out of my pocket and put them in a basket on the kitchen counter, along with my keys and ID card from where I work — Growth Inc. Investment Consultants.  I had dripped a little sauce from my micro-waved frozen dinner on the bills, not on purpose you understand, and after I ate, I looked for some way to clean the money.

I found a stiffened, crumpled rag under the sink, and a nearly empty, unlabeled spray bottle of pinkish-green liquid.  I did not recognize the smell or color of the liquid, but I had only moved in a few days earlier, and had no other cleaning supplies.  I used them to wipe off the money and the counter, and threw them in the trash.  I put the laundered money back in the little basket and took the bag of trash outside to the dumpster in the parking lot.  I watched TV for a while and then went to bed.

As I was getting ready to leave the next morning, I put a few of the bills, they were all one-dollar bills, back in my pocket.  It seemed like there were more than I remembered from the night before, but I didn’t think much about it.  I mean, more is better, right?

I eat lunch every day in a diner down the street from my office.  Most days I am waited on by Gary.  He is polite and has even taken the trouble to learn my name–Mr. Everson—from my credit card.  Everyone at the office calls me Billy.  Billy is not my name.  William is my name.  My mother called me William the Conqueror sometimes.  I have no idea where she got that, and I don’t think she did either, but we both thought it sounded pretty good.

Everyone calls me Billy because I’m just a low-level flunky.  Of course, they’re all flunkies too.  No one who isn’t a flunky ever talks to me… why would they?  I resisted being called Billy for a while, but it just backfired on me.  I never knew William could be said with such condescension and contempt, so ok, fine, I’m Billy.

Those brokers all fantasize they are masters of the universe, and a master, by definition, has to have slaves.  That’s my job, and why they insist on calling me Billy.  They get commissions and bonuses for pitching stocks.  I get fourteen bucks an hour for doing data entry and compiling simple reports.  None of the real masters even have offices in the building, it’s just one little franchise of a giant financial corporation.

Gary calls me Mr. Everson because I tip him in cash and he doesn’t have to report it on his taxes.  Sure, I bought his pretended respect but so what?  At least I get what I paid for.  That’s why I keep a few bills in my pocket.  They look at me funny at the bank when I ask for one dollar bills, like, what do you think you can buy with that?… but they give them to me.  I used to keep them in a little gold-anodized money clip, but I got tired of the smirks when I pulled it out, so I stopped doing that.

When I left Gary’s tip at lunch that day, it seemed like I had more bills than I had put in my pocket, but I figured I must be mistaken.  When I got home and went to put my keys and money in the basket on the counter I had a little shock.  I had more bills in my pocket than I expected again.  And there were twelve dollar bills in the basket already, which just didn’t seem right.  I tried to recall every movement of money in and out of my pocket over the last few days, and I simply could not account for it.  It was mystifying, but again, who’s going to complain about having more money than they thought they had?  I mean, more is better, right?

I had an even greater shock the next morning.  There were forty dollar bills in the basket.  I counted them three times.  There had been twelve and I had added eight, which makes twenty, and now there were forty.  I left them all in the basket because it was all getting just a little… creepy.

I went to work, but I was pretty distracted about the money.  When I went to lunch, Gary wasn’t there.  The woman who waited on me said he hadn’t shown up, hadn’t called in sick, didn’t answer his phone, she hoped he was all right.  I included her tip on the credit card.  I gave her less than I always gave Gary, I’m not sure why.

I work at Growth Inc.  Every day I hear those masters of the universe talking about investing your money and growing your money and leveraging your money and a long list of catchphrases for some kind of magical thing that is going to happen to your money if you give it to them.  The successful ones brag they could sell ice machines to Eskimos, and then sell them generators to power them, and then sell them gas for the generators, and then sell them stock in oil companies to drill in their own back yards, and then jack up the price of gas because it is so hard to drill in the ice.  They say they are super-salesmen and meta-investors because they always make money no matter what happens.  It’s some kind of alchemy they practice, a secret power they have because they are masters of the universe.  That’s the way they tell it, and then they go out for drinks.

I didn’t get much done in the afternoon either.  I got so wound up trying to figure the money thing out I almost got in a wreck on the way home.  Had some unpredictable blend of TV dinners and household cleaning products caused the money to start replicating?  Would it work on hundred-dollar bills?  It was turkey breast with potatoes and gravy, wasn’t it?  When I got to the apartment complex the first thing I did was run over to the dumpster to look for my bag of trash, but the dumpster had been emptied.  I raced up the stairs to my apartment and unlocked the door with shaking hands.

Yes!  The cash had filled the basket, flowed out on the counter, fallen into a pile on the kitchen floor.  I was going to be rich!  I was going to be a zillionaire!  William the Conqueror!  Fuck yeah!  I started hyperventilating.  I had heart palpitations.  I guess I passed out.

When I regained consciousness, the first thing I became aware of was a rustling sound, like dead leaves in autumn.  When I opened my eyes, the pile of money was huge.  It seemed to be breathing.  It was reaching for me…

Bizarre Counterfeiting Bust

Authorities revealed today the discovery of an apartment full of counterfeit one-dollar bills.  Police had gone to the home of William Everson because a neighbor had complained of strange noises and an awful smell coming from Everson’s apartment.  After forcing their way into the apartment, police officers found it loosely packed from floor to ceiling with paper money.  Treasury agents were called in to assist.

Everson’s body was discovered after some of the cash was removed.  The coroner estimated Everson had been dead for several days and may have died from what appeared to be thousands of paper cuts.

Everson was employed at Growth Inc., a financial planning and brokerage firm.  He had been absent from work since last Thursday, but was not reported missing.  “He just typed stuff into little boxes in spreadsheets,” said a Growth Inc. supervisor.  “He had no direct contact with any money transactions whatsoever.  Billy was adequate at his job, though kind of a loner.  We have no knowledge of his personal life.  He hadn’t even reported his recent change of address to us.  We’re as surprised as anyone, although frankly, we’d sure like to know how he did it.”

An anonymous Treasury source told this reporter they are puzzled by the cash.  “We haven’t looked at all the bills yet, but we can’t actually identify any of them as counterfeit.  We know they must be… there are tens of thousands of bills involved, but so far we have only found six different serial numbers on them, repeated over and over on multiple bills.  The weird thing is, each bill we have examined appears to be completely genuine.  There is no known technology that can replicate money like this.

“They say it takes money to make money, but this is something else altogether.  Money is just a convenient medium of exchange.  It is worth nothing in itself.  It only has value because it represents actual production of some kind, something real like shoes or bushels of tomatoes or something.  The problem with counterfeit money is that it represents nothing but human greed.  Every counterfeit dollar makes the real dollars less valuable.

“The Department of Treasury takes this sort of thing very seriously because it weakens the economy of our entire nation.  You may not be able to see the blood on their hands but believe me, the people who do this are vicious criminals who leave a trail of destruction behind them wherever they go.

“Clearly, there are bigger players involved in this than one lonely man in a shabby apartment.  We should find these people and put them in jail.”

No statement has yet been made by an official Treasury spokesperson.  Police and Treasury investigations are ongoing.

Fried Food

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on March 30, 2011 by Dean

Fried food can be a great boon in times of stress.  It has a wonderfully filling and calming effect on one’s queasy stomach.  The stomach, having its own priorities, can become anxious, what with so many future hungers to worry it, so many things it can do nothing about.

Unlike with some mood altering substances, there are no legal repercussions for driving under the influence of fried foods.  In fact, many purveyors of fried food have thoughtfully provided drive-thru facilities.

At hand, of course, is the issue of job interviews, and how fried food might increase one’s chances in becoming employed.

Whether or not one is impressed by the size of their domain, one must recognize that meeting with job interviewers is no different than many other human interactions… no matter if it is a cop who has stopped you for speeding, or the RETURNS clerk at Walmart, one must be clear about who has the power and who has their hand out, begging for favors.  One must acknowledge, and visibly, the power structure as it exists, without undermining one’s own position.

The appropriate blend of humility and confidence requires practice and ought to be taught in school.  But our belief in the myth of equality is fragile, and so we avoid disturbing it with close examination or discussion.

Groveling works on occasion, but generally is perceived as weakness.  It causes many people to distance themselves, in case it may be contagious.   It is true bullies enjoy seeing people grovel, but their response is rather unpredictable.  They might reward you, but then again, they might further gratify themselves by denying you the very thing you abased yourself for, particularly if they have many applicants to choose from.

One does have to be cautious with fried food.  Quantity and timing can be crucial.  If one is completely sated, one might be filled with a sense of peace and wellbeing that can make one appear lethargic, indifferent, lacking in the drive and ambition that makes fortunes in the modern world, regardless of who actually ends up with the money.

One is advised not to go grocery shopping when one is hungry.  The logic of this requires no explanation.  Still, grocery stores stand ready to serve those who defy that logic.  They place an attractive display of candy bars, energy drinks, and celebrity-bashing magazines at the check-out, for those whose self esteem or blood sugar is low, offering near-instantaneous revitalization.

Naturally, I’m not making a direct comparison between grocery shopping and seeking employment.  When it comes to acutely low blood sugar, one quick fix is more or less as good as another.  Any negative effects are minor, so long as one doesn’t make it a habit.

On the other hand, one is expecting, or at least hoping, the job will become a habit.  Why else would one bother to fill out the absurd forms and spend so much time weaving fact and fiction together in one’s resumé?

As I said, groveling might work, but it is risky.  Despite the large influence sociopaths have had on our nation, they remain a small percentage of our population.  One is much more likely, in one’s job interview, to encounter someone more within the normal range of human neuroses.

Therefore, while it is certainly advisable to recognize that the interviewer is more important and powerful than oneself, it is also probable the interviewer will have other concerns as well, such as one’s fitness for the work and the work environment.

To be at one’s best for an interview, I recommend a moderately light meal of fried food and a single medium-sized cup of coffee, taken about an hour before the appointment.  This will put you in the zone of well-nourished confidence, without making you bloated and sluggish.  One definitely wants to appear forward-looking and eager, not contented with one’s lot, but neither frightened and desperate and hungry.

In fairness, I must mention that not all of this applies to all jobs.  Some employers are looking for hires that are merely young, reasonably healthy, poor, and have some sort of fixed address, such as their parents’ house.

In many such cases the interview is just an informal opportunity for the interviewer to get a good look at you up close.  They want to see if you have any visible physical defects or unattractive skin conditions, if you really look like you can pick up fifty pounds (as you claimed), and if you can answer a simple question or two without sounding like a lunatic or being a smart-ass.

Historically, down-trodden immigrants have landed many of those jobs, but that might be changing.  In that situation, some good old-fashioned, poverty-inspired, class-conscious subservience is your best bet, attitude-wise.  No one will care what you had for breakfast.

Sixpack Rules

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on March 25, 2011 by Dean

“As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.” – Denis Diderot, “Encyclopédie” (1755)

Richard’s face was numb from slamming into his laptop.  He could taste blood.  He wondered, dreamily, if his nose was broken.

He had been told to expect some discomfort when he turned on the electric ab belt.  He had not expected intense, burning pain.  He had not expected his abdominal muscles to contract so forcefully it doubled him over, face first into the coffee table.  It had never occurred to him he had such strength.

He could hear an internal buzzing, blending eerily with the talking heads on TV.  He was just beginning to gather his wits when the second jolt hit, shrieking into his gut and mashing his face into the keyboard.  The contraction drove all the air out of his lungs.  For ten long seconds he could not breathe.

There are certain things required for continuation of life.  One can live for days without water, weeks without food, months or even years without companionship.  That’s not to say it’s any fun or doesn’t do some damage, but a person who was healthy to start with will likely survive it.

The need for air is constant and immediate.  There’s nothing quite like its absence to bring things into tight focus.

Ten seconds on, fifty seconds off, was how the belt was programmed.  He had set it to manual, which meant this cycle would repeat until he turned it off, or the battery was dead, or the wiring melted.  Richard imagined himself dead, twitching like Galvani’s frog (1791).

Somewhere, in his panting numbness, Richard knew he still had arms.  He would find one.  The right one.  He would find the controller.  He would find the big red button.  In the upper right corner.  Opposite the end where the wire comes out.  He would press the button.  He would live.

Richard was not athletic.  He did not enjoy or practice exercise or sport.  However unfairly, for some years he had enjoyed a well proportioned and trim body, with little effort on his part.  Similarly, he had enjoyed an irregular series of temporarily fun, sometimes even enchanting, at least in the beginning, but chronically brief affairs, all natural encounters becoming flirtations, becoming sexual, eventually becoming sated enough to come to an end, with little effort on his part.

But he was forty-two now… growing a pot belly, getting scrawny in the limbs… losing it.  He saw the belt on TV and desired it.  He desired it romantically and sexually (just try and get him to believe that).  It turned out Richard knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew how to hotrod these belts, get some real results.  He sent the guy a check and got the belt in the mail.

He could not find his arm.  The third jolt hit him, emptying him of everything but pain, and the question… why did I do this?  When it was over, when he was gasping air again, the answer came to him starkly… because I was lonely.

He could not find his arm.  He could not catch his breath.  He was dizzy and nauseous and the buzzing in his head was louder.  He decided the next jolt, or the one after… he would be lost.

Richard made a concerted effort to get in touch with his body.  Gradually his arm, his hand, his fingers obeyed him.  He found the wire, the controller, the button, and pushed it.



After a bit, his breath went from stuttering gasps to a deep, steady bellows, to a huge, grateful sighing.  After a bit more, the next burst of fire in the belly, and even the one after, never came.

Richard came back to life through a rising arc of emotional states… resentment at the humiliation… but I brought it on myself… all the more reason to be pissed…. as his breathing eased he became calmer and more curious… how could I not know I was that lonely… pragmatically realistic… well, you know it now… even cheerfully philosophic (glad to be alive as he was)… I’m guessing this means I have to put my own will into it… into not being lonely, not being alone… I think I’ll do that… after my face heals up… and my pride… maybe a broken nose will make me more appealing to women… no pain, no gain.


Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 25, 2010 by Dean

you can’t say we didn’t see it coming… people rising up into the sky… rising up, to paradise or another fate… rising up, as chosen ones… or sinners caught and summoned to reckoning…

now we are ascending… some, not many, with their arms stretched wide in graceful surrender… some dumbstruck… some terrified by freedom, come at last…

I myself am clinging to a garden hose… dangling a hundred feet in the air… just luck I was washing my car when gravity decided it had had enough of us… for as long as I can hold on, not long, I am a fountain of clarity…

the novelty is exhilarating… it is what we miss when youth is gone… when too much is known… life too familiar… contentment dried and curled at the edges… now, I am at the end of my tether… arisen…

I had always thought of gravity as being uniform and utterly without prejudice… indifferent to human artifice… unimpressed by opinions… it cared not at all if you were large or small… brilliant or vacuous… moral or mean… animal, vegetable, mineral, solid, liquid, gas, particle or wave… it embraced all with equal affection… a reliable and impartial arbiter in every instance…

it appears to have changed its mind about that… there are no other objects launching themselves upward, only ourselves… gravity has become selective… taken judgment into its own hands… perhaps it has decided to play the perennial trickster’s joke upon us, and give us what we asked for… to be the highest of all…

I can understand gravity’s disdain for us… it creates wheeling galaxies… shapes stars and sets them afire… molds planets and bathes them in light and tides… it has called us into being, and we have replied… we have given it calculus… and robbed it of intent… added fantastic formulas to our collection of grizzled gods… made of them all the toys of our childhood… we have imagined ourselves the proper center of all attention, surpassing even gravity with our grasping…

I don’t know if there’s anything up there except cold and breathless death… but what does anyone know until their time has come… and even then, we are all adept at believing untrue things… and deflecting the encroachments of the obvious… it’s how we tolerate our confused existence… why would we abandon those comforts at the end…

well, I’m off… wish I could see how it all turns out… I will assume it is all for something and not for nothing… it’s the best I can do, under the circumstances…

Tin Cups

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on September 1, 2010 by Dean

Once upon a time there was a man who made tin cups.  Tin cups were handy for dipping drinking water out of buckets and streams.  They could be used for soup from caldrons and beer from kegs.  They did not break like pottery or split like wood.  They worked just fine even if they got dented.  One tin cup could last a person a lifetime, with a little luck.

This tin man got in on the ground floor of cup making and had plenty of customers at first.  Everybody recognized the value of a tin cup—they were very useful and not too expensive.  The tin man would even trade for a pair of shoes or a sweater or a chicken or some firewood for his shop.  Business was good.

After a while, though, everybody but the very, very poor had a tin cup and, since they were so wonderfully durable, business started to fall off rather steeply.  The tin man thought long and hard about this problem and finally had a brilliant idea.

Up until then, all his cups had been more or less the same.  People marked their ownership of cups by scratching their sign on them, or tying on a piece of cloth or leather, or even by denting them in some particular way on purpose.

The tin man realized that declaring their ownership of the cup was quite important to people.  They decorated or deformed their cups to show that their cup was special and belonged to them alone.  His brilliant idea was to do this for them.  He realized he could make big cups and little cups and cups with special designs.  He could make cups for special occasions like marriages and births and winning a horse race or a battle.  He could make tin cups into a symbol of wealth or glory or respect or loyalty or bribery.  And if he could make all this happen he would never run out of customers because he could just sell more and more cups to the same people.

So the tin man starting making these special cups and sure enough, people bought them.  He even discovered he could change the shape of the handle a little and call it the new, improved cup, or the revolutionary new cup, or the cup just like the royalty used in some far away and fabulous part of the world—and people who already had a perfectly good cup would buy a new one.  He made cups for everyday use and cups just for parties or guests people wanted to impress.  He made cups people would pay ridiculous prices for because they were unique.  Business was good.

Business was so good he couldn’t make as many cups as people wanted to buy.  So he hired some workers to make the cups for him.  He no longer had time to make cups himself.  He was busy managing his workers and suppliers and coming up with the next revolutionary cup idea.  But he managed everything well and eventually a new problem arose: people were becoming jealous of his success.

The men on the town council became jealous.  They decided that, since they were the ones in charge of things, it simply wouldn’t do that they had to buy cups from the tin man the same as everybody else.  After all, their fathers and their father’s fathers before them had been in charge of things, and it had always been understood they would get special deals and privileges.

At first they tried to be dignified and subtle in rectifying the situation.  They made speeches about the glorious traditions of the past and how God had smiled upon the town.  They praised the tin man and all the great things he had done to put the town on the map, so to speak, and said he was a terrific example of good citizenship.  They talked about his hard work and determination and innovation.

But the tin man was slow to take the hint.  He had a talent for making cups and managing and marketing, but he didn’t really know much about how government worked.  He was flattered by all the nice things the town council said about him and swaggered around town like a lord.  He became so intoxicated and full of himself that he forgot the most basic thing about politics… political speeches are almost always lies and the politicians are telling those lies because they want you to do something.

After a while, the town council realized the tin man just wasn’t catching on.  So they started talking about putting a tax on tin cups.  They had public debates about this.  Some councilmen said maybe they should tax ownership of tin cups.  This upset the citizens who had already bought numerous cups.  The citizens thought it was entirely unfair they should have to pay a tax now on things they had bought in the past.  This whole argument was just a ruse, of course, to put more public pressure on the tin man and remind him who was in charge.

Other councilmen said that, while the tin man had certainly brought great benefit to the town, he had also made a nice little pile for himself, and it was his duty to contribute some of his profit to the town for civic projects like reducing the number of beggars on the streets—or waging war on the neighboring town if that became necessary.  There were rumors going around that somebody was starting to make tin cups over there, and that wouldn’t be good for our town, now would it?

By that time the tin man was starting to catch on.  When he swaggered around town people gave him dirty looks and made insulting remarks behind his back.  He suspected the councilmen had even deliberately maneuvered him into becoming a strutting peacock so they could use it against him later.

He may have been an ignorant innocent when it came to politics but, by God, he wasn’t stupid.  He hired a lobbyist who entered into secret negotiations with the council.

The lobbyist hinted at making donations to the councilmen’s favorite causes, giving them special deals on the finest cups, and maybe even employing them as consultants when they retired from public office.  An agreement was hammered out that imposed a small tax with plenty of loopholes and unwritten promises of little extras here and there as the councilmen needed them.

They all realized the tin man could raise his prices to pay for the tax and just blame it on something else… inflation or scarcity of materials or those damn labor unions or the cost of handouts to those beggars in the streets or something.  As you probably know yourself, the citizens always pay for everything in the end anyway, one way or another.

And so, everybody made out all right, at least the people who matter did.  They all had plenty of tin cups, more than they needed in fact, and the town was one step closer to the goal of prosperity shared by the tin man and the councilmen… tin cups for everyone.

Discontinuous Cows

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on August 17, 2010 by Dean

They were just two middle school teachers on summer vacation, trying to see a little country, get away from the wilderness of Los Angeles, get somewhere you could actually see stars at night.  They were middle-aged, but fighting it off with vegetables and athletic shoes and yoga classes.  They were driving up Nevada state highway 379 north of Duckwater, on the way to the Alkali Desert where they intended to camp out and go hiking.

It was late June, not too hot, and they had the windows down and Jack Johnson playing on the CD player.  They had seen some green pastures and hay fields around Duckwater, but now they were out in the desert again, driving along about sixty-five on a mostly empty two-lane blacktop road.

A farm truck came up behind them and went on around with its engine roaring and its canvas tarp flapping.  It was a good sized truck with wooden slats for sides and a back gate that split in the middle to swing open for loading and unloading.  There were cow legs sticking out between the wood slats, and the sudden, nauseating smell of rotting meat.

The legs stuck out in random places, some up pretty high, which gave the impression the truck was full to the brim with dead cows that could not have walked in on their own.  And then there was that smell.

Most people have encountered some dead and rotting meat by the time they are middle-aged.  Some dried out road kill pancake or a dead mouse in the back of the closet or some baloney tucked behind a stack of low-fat yogurt containers—those ones in a flavor you don’t really like but you got because they were on sale.  And they can tell the difference between old, desiccated flesh and fresher stuff, stuff that is still moist and turning strange colors, or maybe looking eerily in motion with maggots crawling all around on it, or a swarm of flies.

Dead fairly recently, is what I mean, with that smell that about knocks you over, and that’s what this truck with the legs sticking out smelled like.  Enough to make you gag as it passed you on a desert highway going eighty miles an hour—the legs bouncing up and down with the bumps in the road.  Going much too fast for any flies to linger outside the truck, but you could imagine them under that canvas tarp.

That’s the first thing Norma imagined—about six billion flies buzzing around under the tarp, some of them wandering too close to the edge and getting blown off into the desert.  What a surprise that must be for them.  Thinking things were going pretty good.  They were going to eat some meat and lay some eggs, complete the cycle of life as nature intended, and then that’s all gone, and there you are, tumbling in the turbulent desert air, cycle of life pulled right out from under you, maybe ending your short life going splat on the windshield of two school teachers.  Norma taught biology, among other things, and egg-laying was as close as she ever had to get to explaining sex to children, for which she was grateful.

Louise’s initial thought was how the cows had gotten in the truck in the first place.  She could tell by the legs that they weren’t standing.  She imagined the cows in there sort of sliding around on top of each other.  Maybe they had just been dumped in by a front-end loader, already dead.  One leg stuck out the top through a hole in the tarp, its hoof angled forward like some weird-ass periscope.

“Get a picture,” Louise said.  Her voice sounded muffled because she was trying to talk without breathing.

Norma reached into the back seat to find her camera.  The truck was steadily pulling away.  The truck driver in a big hurry to get somewhere, or away from somewhere, or outrun the stink, or maybe just crazy… who knew?  Louise sped up to try to stay with it but she was still losing ground.  By the time Norma turned back around and got the camera ready, another strange thing happened.

An F-16 swooped down right over their heads about a hundred feet off the ground.  It swooshed on over the truck and started climbing, a faint black smoke coming from its tail.  Norma got a shot of the truck with the jet fighter beyond it—nose slightly up and banking to starboard.

A truck full of dead cows barreling down the highway in the middle of nowhere.  A nauseating smell that made you want to be just about anywhere else.  And a jet fighter fiercely asserting its presence.  Did it get any more weird-ass than that?

Louise only said things like “weird-ass” during summer vacation.  She taught arithmetic, and the thing about arithmetic is that it has dependable rules and ordered relationships you can count on—there’s nothing weird-ass about it.  Louise wanted the students to understand that.  And she wanted their parents to know they could count on her to give their children something stable and solid to help them cope with life.  She wanted to keep her job.

This, however, was a very weird-ass business, this truck full of dead cows with jet fighter escort in the Nevada desert.  Weirder than even Las Vegas, where they had just spent a day and a night.  Las Vegas had a fake sphinx and fake volcano and fake castles and thousands of people faking having a good time, but it didn’t have anything as weird as this.  Well, maybe.

“Can we slow down and get some breathable air?” said Norma.

In fact, there were some fairly weird-ass things about arithmetic, when you stopped to think about it.  Like when you multiplied and divided fractions.  Or that if you added all the digits in a number together and if that sum was divisible by three then the number itself was divisible by three, which was practically like numerology.  But thankfully there weren’t too many you had to deal with in middle school.  Mostly things were pretty simple and straightforward and some rules—like, no dividing by zero allowed—you didn’t have to explain because they were just true and always the same and that was that.  And if you needed six decimal places in the value for pi you just looked it up in a table in the back of the book and you didn’t have to worry about how they figured that out or if it made any sense or if you could trust them to be right. Everybody else used the same table and even if there was a typo somewhere what did it matter as long as everybody agreed?  It’s not like the kids were trying to land a space craft on Mars or anything.  What mattered was that there were things you could count on.

“How did the picture turn out?” asked Louise.  She eased off the gas as the truck disappeared over a low hill.

“Too far away,” said Norma. “You see a truck and a jet.  You can’t really see the legs sticking out, or that the jet swooped right over him.  What the hell was that?”

“It was a truck full of dead cows.”

“It was a jet fighter.  They fly around in the desert all the time.”

“He was just curious.”

“He could smell it even up there.”

“He was practicing his attack dive.”

“He was messing with the truck driver.”

“He was showing off.”

“He knew there were two cute school teachers in the car.”

“They died of mad cow disease.”

“They ate radioactive hay.”

“They were killed by space aliens.”

“It’s a government cover-up.”

“We’re going to get sick and die horribly.”

“I want a shower.  Please stop the car.”

“Maybe we should go back to Vegas for another night.”

“He’s going to blast him as soon as there aren’t any witnesses.”

And this, boys and girls, is why you never divide by zero.  Because you might blow up your engine chasing a truck full of dead cows and get stuck all alone in the desert with no cell phone coverage and all you can do is wait for a van full of scientists in white biohazard suits to show up and spray disinfectant all over you.  Then they will take you to a secret underground military installation for intensive debriefing and make you sign a non-disclosure agreement in your own blood.  There will be veiled and not so veiled threats about being disappeared from normal human society if you don’t keep your mouth shut.  Is that what you want?  Or you can just be a good citizen and go along and everything will be fine.  What’s it gonna be?