Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Horrible Popcorn With the Madonna of Conflagration

I open the door to a huge black bag, encircled by the arms of the Madonna of Conflagration.

"This is..."

"Fifteen pounds of caramel corn."

"In a trash bag."

"Technically it's called a 'yard bag', if that makes you feel any better."

"It doesn't. Do you know what outgassing is?"

"Yes. It's something that assholes spend far too much time worrying about when they could be eating caramel corn. Now are we going to the park or what?"

Of course we go. I can't say no to her. I don't want to say no to her. It's usually to my advantage to say yes to her (eventually, anyway). Though maybe not this particular time. She's been in a mood for weeks now. The year is drifting into autumn, and the Madonna of Conflagration always takes the end of summer hard, and has for as long as I've known her. When we've settled in at the park, an uncomfortable bench beneath us, the huge black bag of sickly sweet popcorn shared on our laps, I ask her why this is.

"God man, I don't know. Maybe it's hormonal. Maybe it's something to do with astrology. Maybe I don't like the cold. Maybe I hate football. Maybe I don't like school buses. Maybe it's that Seasonal Affective Disorder thing. Maybe I'm clumsy and I don't look forward to icy sidewalks. Maybe the smell of burning leaves sets off my allergies. Maybe I hate that fucking parade with the balloons, even though I end up watching the whole fucking thing, usually while getting drunk alone."

"I've offered to watch it with you."

"It's important that I'm alone for that one. It's like a ritual."


"Aw, come on-"

"No, seriously, it's fine. It's fine. Go on."

I shovel handfuls of the terrible popcorn into my mouth while I wait for her to continue.

"Look, forget about that. This thing, this summer thing, I don't know okay? It's just weather right? I'm an intelligent person. I've made some tragically stupid moves in my life, but I'm not, like, inherently stupid right?"

"Of course not."

"Right. I just...Shit, I just, I have a lot of regrets okay? And mostly, for the most part, right, that's fine and everything because everybody does. Everybody. I mean you do, right?"

"Some. Sure."

"You've got caramel all over your face by the way. Where did you learn to eat? Could we bring up the tone here a little, please?" Like a low budget magician she pulls a wet nap out of the air. She hands me the unopened packet then looks away, as if I were about to do something terribly private.

"So yeah, most of the time it's fine. And sometimes it's not. And that's how it goes. And around this's bad."

I'm shocked to see a few tears roll down her cheek, and even more shocked when they stop almost immediately. She still isn't looking at me.

"It's really really bad. And that's all I want to say and all I want you to know. Okay?"

"I...yeah, okay."


"Right. I'm lemony fresh now by the way."

"Oh thank god." She looks back at me. "Yeah, very presentable." She looks away again.

We sit there for a while, saying nothing as the sun goes down (so early now), and the dusk comes in. I have no idea if this is what she wanted or not, or if I screwed up. Eventually she stands up, slinging the bag over her shoulder.

"You look like Santa Claus."

She smiles.

"Come on. I'll buy you a drink and we'll talk about what the hell I'm gonna do with the rest of this popcorn."

I stand up. On a whim I link arms with her. It's some kind of statement I suppose, though I couldn't tell you precisely what it means. Anyway, she accepts it gladly, and we walk out of the park, in step and looking downright jaunty. Something has readjusted itself, some equilibrium has been regained. Neither of us knows what it is precisely, but we take a great deal of comfort from it. There's a lot of things we share that could be described that way.

I poke the bag with my free hand.

"Where did you get that crap anyway?"

She shakes her head and puts a finger to her lips.

"It's a secret."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Portraits of Statisticians: Ostilio Ricci

"Hey, hey Ostilio!"


"Like, what's your deal man?"

"My deal is that I roll with The Footnote Posse, man."

"The Footnote Posse?"

"The Footnote Posse."

"Man, what's The Footnote Posse?"

"It's a gang for all the great people of history who have become overshadowed by a 'more important' associate or are just remembered for some damn thing that got nothing to do with what they were doing, if you follow."

"I guess. Flesh it out a little."

Well, take me: you know what my role in history is? 'Galileo's Mentor.' That's it. Not 'brilliant natural philosopher' and 'fearless scientist possessed of unbounded imagination.' The best I get is 'had a pretty good eye for fresh talent.' What the fuck is that? It makes me sound like a goddamn guidance counselor."

"That does suck. So who else is in the Footnote Posse?"

"Let's see: there's literary dudes like Max Brod, who's basically only known as 'the guy who didn't burn Kafka'; and Cyril Kornbluth who 'wrote some books with Frederick Pohl.' Politicians like American president William Henry Harrison-"

'The shortest serving president, the one who died after 31 days?"

"That's him. What else can you tell me about WHH?"

"Man, not a damn thing."

"That is EXACTLY what I'm talking about. Taft's here too, on account of people only remembering that he was a fatass.Who else? George Lazenby, Joseph Priestley, Rosalind Franklin, Jack Lescoulie-"


"He hosted the Tonight Show between Steve Allen and Jack Parr."

"So he's like a footnote to a footnote?"

"Hey you watch your mouth about Jack Parr!"

"Sorry man, but like, all anybody knows about Jack Parr is that he hosted before JC."

"Yeah, I guess. Hey speaking of JC we got Mithras and Simon Magus rolling with us."

"I meant Johnny Carson."

"I know you did man, it was an association of ideas. Like how rolling reminds me of logs and that reminds me that Jim Messina is with us."

"Who? Wait, Logs, logs...The other guy from Loggins and Messina?"

"You got it."

"Motherfucker I am done talking to you."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

My Tattoos

Right bicep: A pigeon peeking over the edge of a bucket. It holds an envelope in its beak.

Inside left forearm: A mayonnaise jar full of fireflies.

Back of neck: A plot summary for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, including spoilers for the ending.

Across back: group portrait of the Marx Brothers, including Gummo.

On right knee: A crude sketch of a boulder, imperfectly remembered from a series of recurring dreams I had in the late 90s.

Down left calf: A section of PVC pipe, slavishly copied from an illustration in an industrial catalog.

Right ankle: Eeyore (Disney). I lost a bet.

Over my heart: a British soldier's helmet, circa WWI, upside down. The helmet has been filled with soil, and a daffodil has been planted in it. The helmet rests on the steps leading up to the Lincoln memorial. A little girl in a gingham dress sits next to it, a single tear rolling down her cheek. I have no memory of getting this one.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


A pair of pickaxes, crossed like legs, is sitting abandoned on the living room floor. They are completely out of place, and the incongruity is making the whole room vibrate. Reality is looking like a loose film. If there was sound here, it would be helplessly garbled and an affront to the ears. It's a small mercy that the room is deadly silent. Still, it's impossible to focus on the white walls. It's known they'll stop moving at the lightest touch, but something makes this a blasphemy beyond compare. This is felt not known, a revealed knowledge that it would be a supreme ingratitude to ignore. There is ritual in this vibratory reaction: something in this room is worshiping something else in this room. This is no longer a space to be inhabited. Perhaps it's no longer truly a space at all, but rather the sacred given form, a demonstration of energy becoming matter. That it resembles a room for people to live in is mere coincidence.

The head of the topmost pickaxe is caked with dirt. The dirt is bone dry and cracking in places. Flecks of mica are embedded in it. They are catching the light, twinkling from the vibrations, making the head of the pickaxe into a stellar map of an unknown sky. In some places the cracks and flecks are working together to show the lines of new constellations. New to the viewer anyway. The lines and points are ancient, though perhaps still waiting to be named. It is unclear whether this is a right of discovery to be taken, or a celestial favor to be granted. However, it is clear that determining which is the case is not to be taken lightly.

The handle of the topmost pickaxe is worn from use. Strange piebald patches give evidence that the handle has been painted and repainted, varnished and revarnished, stripped and sanded, over and over again. The lines of the handle are no longer straight. Palms and gripping fingers have created curved indentations, suggesting that this is a tool with a very specific balance point. It must have been held exactly the same way for decades upon decades. Perhaps inheritance of the tool was determined by the shape of the beneficiary's hands rather than a more traditional accident of birth, so that the grip could be preserved and enhanced.

The bottommost pickaxe is immaculate and has clearly never been used. head and handle both shine. In fact, the head appears to have been chromed, an extravagance that suggests that not only has this tool never been used, but perhaps also that it is never meant to be used. The handle is glossy and black. It is impossible to determine if this is paint, black varnish, or if the handle is naturally made of a black wood that has been polished exactingly. Blurry reflections of the room can be seen in it, merging with the woodgrain. It's possible to imagine that a simulacrum of the room exists within the handle, inhabiting a lathe turned wooden universe that will remain forever unreachable.

The vibrations continue and build in intensity. Items fall off the shelves lining the walls, falling noiselessly to the carpeted floor. The vibrations grow and grow, until the point is reached where the room is no loner identifiable as such. All that can be determined is that something that may be room-shaped is in violent motion. It's individual features can no longer be distinguished. This continues for a period that may last minutes or may last years. Eventually though, the vibrations begin to recede, slowly dropping to their original intensity, and then continuing to slow even beyond that frequency.

When the vibrations cease entirely, the pickaxes are still there. however, they have switched positions, the unused axe on top, the worn one underneath. As the light begins to fade in the room, the distant sound of a single pair of booted feet approaching can just be heard.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Recent Acquisitions

A small stone statuette, depicting either a man shaped like a key or a key with feet.

Twenty yards of velvet, brushed against the nap and sprayed with a fixative.

A rubber mallet with a handle that was broken and badly repaired with electrician's tape.

A Philco television set, circa 1954, filled with goldfish bones.

Five taxidermic shrews, posed in a standing ring around a cup filled with very sharp red pencils.

A scrapbook full of clippings about Egyptian railway disasters. Marginalia in what appears to be Armenian.

A long playing record of hog calls, badly scratched.

An oil painting of a woman in a hoop skirt being menaced by a water spaniel.

A ten gallon glass jar. Empty, but smells of cucumbers and cinnamon.

A complete set of National Professional Soccer League cards from 1986, in uncut sheets (one per team).

A gold pocket watch, partially dipped in what appears to be creosote.

A bag of flaky black powder, certified to be the decomposed remains of a nitrate stock print of London After Midnight.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Aldred and the Pond

Aldred can't decide if it's somehow respectful or utterly tasteless that they've turned the bomb crater into a koi pond. Given, it's the perfect shape and saves the effort of digging a separate hole, but still. He's been feeling superstitious for a few weeks now, actively trying to avoid bad omens or anything that could conceivably turn into one. For an imaginative person like Aldred this is a difficult proposition. The day before he left America he passed a pile of new phone books that had been left outside a condemned apartment building, apparently in error. They were already fading and warping, the plastic wrap proving ineffective at keeping out light or moisture. Aldred's scrying mind was compelled to read signs of a fractured future, perhaps involving an injury to the leg (his?) before he forced himself to look away. It didn't help matters that he almost immediately afterwards barked his shins on a badly placed planter. In his experience it isn't usually this simple to connect the dots.

He's finding it irritating that the unseen is proving rather visible lately. Besides the perilous situations it ends up putting him in, it's boring. And cheap. Aldred wants to be teased by the universe, led on with tantalizing glimpses from behind a twitching veil, lifted up by spikes of intuition and buffeted by the unexpected, caressed by tendrils of mystery while he tumbles through that which is sensed and that which is known in other ways...

Good lord, he's getting an erection. That's no way to behave at a garden party, even in one of the more decadent corners of Montenegro. Ill-advised as it may be, he'd best focus his attention on the pond.

The crater is a relic of WWII. There's some debate as to which side brought it into the world, but the Countess prefers to blame Mussolini. Aldred pictures the dictator striding into the garden, kneeling on the lawn, and cracking the earth with his proud and powerful head. More conventional munitions were probably responsible in reality. The perfect circle of the pond makes the image hard to shake though: he keeps seeing Il Duce's giant skull displacing the earth, over and over. The pond water pours from his eyes and koi spawn drips from his mouth, growing to full size carp before hitting the surface. They swim off in tightly organized schools, the aquatic equivalent of the fascist ideal: opulent and regimented and fast, so fast.

It's hardly fair to the koi to indict them with the man's ideology like this, but fairness isn't at the top of Aldred's mind at the moment. All in all, he's not thrilled to be here. The estate, the garden, the pond, his hosts: it's not the atmosphere he wants and needs at the moment. It's all too 20th century. While he's currently terrified of omens, he's also obsessed with the future. It's an untenable position, but it's one he can't come to grips with in a place so mired in the past. he was hoping to find a forward flow to grab onto, here in one of the world's newest republics. Instead it's imported titles, gossip about who did what for Milošević, and wreckage from the 1940s. His disappointment is in turn making him feel childish and paternalistic. He's being an ungracious guest and an ugly American.

He decides to concentrate on the fish. There's a couple dozen of them. They're beautiful as they swim around, but they keep breaking his contemplation, by coming to the surface flapping their lips and making him think of Mussolini again. Two dozen bald dictators, declaiming from the pond, urging him to go faster, go forward. They want him to march into the 20th century, modernizing everything he touches. It's a completely irrational responsibility to place on one man. At any rate their notion of modernity is already hopelessly antiquated: Aldred hears them burbling about tail fins and six lane highways and the need for long distance air travel. History has passed these fish by and they don't even know it. They don't even to know what year it is. He wants to pity them, but he finds himself getting angry instead.

When the Countess wanders down to receive his compliments on the pond, she's rather surprised to find Aldred hopping up and down, shouting about the dead ends represented by futurism and fascism, and occasionally giving the finger to her koi. She thinks he's rather crossed the line from colorful to garish. Once Aldred calms down, he'll agree with her, but by then he'll be back in the states, boldly walking under ladders and daring black cats to cross his path. Omens be damned: he wants the future now.

Friday, July 11, 2008

My Product Testimonials

Back when I was famous —before the accident forced me into retirement and obscurity, living out my days in a rundown villa on Mauritius, where my nightmares are eternally haunted by flocks of skeletal dodos that are only kept from stalking into my waking life through liberal application of the vile local rum— I was often invited to lend my face and words to endorse products for a nominal fee. I thought you might enjoy these examples from my scrap book. Perhaps they'll remind you of a simpler time, when men shaved only their faces and women wore tennis shoes only if forced to at gunpoint.

Bon Ami Cleanser: It redefines harsh. Don't let the fluffy little chick on the label fool you: Bon Ami is serious business. I've used it to polish the very flesh off any man who slights me, not stopping until his bones are glowing white under the noonday sun. It works great on Formica as well.

Goodyear Tires: The culmination of the industrial spirit. No tire is more finely made. No round object is rounder. I don't need an automobile to drive: I just need four of these and my iron will.

Lucky Strike Cigarettes: People often ask me (their voices trembling) to what I credit my enormous strength and Herculean endurance. My answer is always the same: every morning I start the day with a bowl of crushed Lucky Strikes, swimming in warm buttermilk. They provide me with the essential nicotine and tar I need to stride through the day, crushing my enemies and grinding their legacies to powder while their widows look on, gasping with fear and arousal.

Tootsie Rolls: A single Tootsie Roll held firmly under the tongue has seen me through treks across the full length of the Gobi desert on several occasions. To bring any other sustenance would be an act of pure effeminacy.

Hanes Underpants: Putting a pair on is like being ravished by a depraved Danish courtesan made of the finest combed cotton.

The Zondervan Publishing House Edition of Today's New International Version of the Bible: A manly and robust translation that has often been of great solace to me. I only regret their decision to print the words of Christ in red, as they tend to disappear in the bloody haze so often before my eyes.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Memo From Mountford

To: Humanity

In re yours of 27 April 20--, a Hymn to the sun and a rising feeling of the spirit, like a child's balloon going up up up from the surface of the earth...

Well, I hardly know where to begin. There's certainly an expansiveness that you all desire...that we all desire, I should say. Far be it from me to set myself apart from humanity. Some of my fondest desires are human. At least I think they're human. You tell me: when they're obscenely biological; when they drip with blood and spit and semen; when they crack bones and burst organs; when they set the nerves to shrieking and the skin to peeling; when they pith infants and liquefy the elderly; when they're sick and shameful: those are human desires, aren't they?

Surely we're not talking about something merely animal?

But where was I? Oh yes: a hymn to the sun. I still hardly know where to begin. The surface of the earth is yours. Nearly two million miles to desire. Yes yes yes two thirds of that is under water, but really, you've got submarines and Dutchmen. It's only a matter of time before the whole thing is available to you somehow. I have full confidence in your industry. I only wish you felt the same way. When I get a whiff of this horrific sun worship, this retrograde Egyptian perversion, this simple ingratitude to millenia of sophisticated and supplanting theologies —spiritual and material— I weep for you. I also feel whithering contempt for you, but that's hardly what you need to hear right now, is it?

Pardon, I meant: ours, we've, us, our, us. Of course I did. Because I'm one of you.

Your notes on that morning caused a special pain which I hope never to feel again. Such sickening notes, the sound of centuries of enlightenment stripping away from your consciousness, and sung out with such unanimity. You were like pigs, grunt grunt grunting for your slops, your beady little eyes all pointing in the same direction, your drippy hairy snouts inhaling and exhaling as one. My eardrums bled, I assure you, as I heard your piggy little chorus greet the sun. I'm amazed you didn't roll over and offer up your porky bellies, the only kind of future you seem to have any sophistication about.

Excuse me, one of us. Us.

You should know: I wasn't the only one offended that day. Do you know who else found your hymn disgusting? Who else found it an aesthetic crime beyond compare? Who else shuddered and felt sickened? Who else considered winking out of existence, rather than be racked by one more torturous second of your wetbrained crooning? No?

I'll give you a hint: you're orbiting it right now.

No, sorry, that's probably still too hard, so I'll just tell you it was the sun itself, shall I? Yes that's probably for the best.

I wouldn't say your hymn fell on deaf ears exactly, though they were nearly deafened by the time you finished. But honestly, the sun is billions of years old. There's nothing acceptable you can do for the sun. Avert your eyes, cover your skin, and stay inside as much as you can. That's what you can do for the sun. Don't assault it with off-key caterwauling. Don't blast it with orisons trite and pathetic. The sun is worthy of worship, but worship from you is a dishonor, that in some small measure diminishes the holiness of any thing it falls upon. Your worship causes solar flares and sunspots. Your worship is a blasphemy of the thing it worships. Your worship is a desecration. Your worship is an ugly thing smearing itself across the sun's beauty. Melanoma and the greenhouse effect are just punishments for your kind of worship.

In short, the sun hates you. As do I. But you need to understand the difference: the sun's hate for you is pure. My hate is a kind of love. While you wounded both of us that day, I still believe in your ultimate redemption. The sun would like nothing better than to burn you off the surface of the earth, but don't worry, I've had a word with it. You're safe for now. There's no need to thank me; indeed, I'd much rather you didn't. Just remember to avert your eyes when I pass, bow your heads, and stay out of my way. If it helps, think of me as a little piece of the sun that walks among you.

Yours in service,


[For immediate distribution. Translate as necessary, but I want a copy in every set of filthy paws by the end of the week, whether they can read it or not. Tell them it's a magick talisman or their new passport or a lottery ticket, I don't care. If they just hold the words, maybe some of them will rub off.]

Monday, July 7, 2008

More Books I Have Not Bought (Yet)

Secret Kneeshakes of the Amputee Masons!

Faking Leukemia for Fun and Sympathy

101 Haiku About Canning and Pickling

Blind Bulgarian Minefield Tap Dancers and Other Horrors of War

Plant a Seed and Watch It Die: A Memoir of Teaching the Hopeless

The Sweaty Man's Guide to Home Wiring

Why I am Still a Zoroastrian

A Timed History of Briefs

How To Kiss A Clown (No Tongues Edition)

What It Might Have Been Like to be Friends With Ian Curtis: a novel

The Collectors' Guide to Damaged Goods

I Before E Except After the Reichstag Fire: A History of the Real Grammar Nazis

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Life on Earth With The Madonna of Conflagration

The phone call was brief.

"I need you to come down here, like right now. Five minutes ago even."

"Where's down here?"

"The roof of the Bentley Building. Just hurry. I promise you're going to totally shit yourself."

You can usually trust The Madonna of Conflagration when she makes this kind of call. We originally met when she ran into the bar I was having a nervous breakdown in and asked if anybody wanted to see a duck being rescued from a barrel of molasses. I was the only person to follow her, and to this day I don't know if it's because I was worried about the duck, thought the whole thing sounded hilarious, or was intrigued at the prospect of seeing a real live barrel marked MOLASSES.

Another time I was at work. She walked in, wearing a trench coat and shades, sidled up to my desk and leaned over, whispering:

"You have got to get out of this morgue and follow me down to the park, because you will totally, totally not believe this shit that I have found."

Then she tried to glide out like the femme fatale in a spy movie, but it was basically her usual full on forward charge, just on tiptoe this time. Still, the whole thing was intriguing, so I cleared the decks as quickly as possible and went downtown. I found her by one of the huge half-dead trees that dot the city park.

"This hole in the trunk here? Stick your head in it, and look down. No, do not give me 'Dubious Look Number 7', do not ask me any questions, just do it."

So I did, and it was indeed totally worth it. The hole was about three feet up the trunk of the tree. Said trunk was completely filled with macadamia nuts up to the level of the hole. They were in the shell, which I had never seen so I had to ask her what they were.

"Do you have any idea how these got here?" I asked.

"No, but I have a theory."

She looked around.

"Hawaiian squirrels. Gotta be Hawaiian squirrels. Like,they've come back to the mainland, right? Probably floated back over in discarded SPAM cans. And they've brought their possessions with them."

I e-mailed her an article later that day that said there are no squirrels in Hawaii. She didn't talk to me for a month. Even after things defrosted, I got the impression that I was not to bring up the tree and its strange cargo ever again.

So while it was six in the morning on a Sunday, I figured the odds were pretty good that she had something worth seeing. I threw on some clothes, staggered out into the street, somehow found the subway and headed downtown. I arrived at the Bentley Building ten minutes later. She was standing outside, doing everything she could to keep from jumping up and down and failing miserably. When she saw me she grabbed my hand and started dragging me through the revolving doors to the lobby.

"Come on come on come on come on come come on GOD you are sooo slow..."

She hurled me into the nearest upward bound elevator, jumped in after me, and literally punched the button for the top floor.

"This better be good."

"This is better than good," she said, while shaking her smarting hand. "It's like, better than better than good. I don't know if you can even call this 'the best thing ever.' That would insult it."

"That's pretty good."

"Dude, are you even listening to me? Shit, I think I messed up my hand. Anyway, you will remember this morning for the rest of your life, and if you don't get excited, like, immediately, there's something wrong with you. Okay?"

So I spent the rest of the elevator ride trying to get myself excited, while she nursed her hand and watched the number lights climb, counting off the floors under her breath. We were both fairly ramped up by the time we reached the top floor. When the doors opened she shot out and galloped towards the stairs for the roof garden. I followed, and we emerged into a misty morning, in a little patch of pastoral heaven thirty floors above the city. She pulled me down a raked path, her head swinging from left to right. She stopped abruptly when she found what she was looking for and pointed down at a patch of petunias.

"There there there look look look!"

I squatted down, trying to figure out what the hell I was looking for. It took a minute before my eyes found about a dozen snails, mingling with the stems. They were in a heap but paired off within it, each couple wrapping their necks around each other while strange tendrils flowed from snail to snail.

"No way."

I looked up at the Madonna of Conflagration. She had a radiant grin on her face.

"Yup." She leaned down to whisper in my ear.

"They're fucking."

Bonus- Here is a short video of snails fucking.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Pocket Diary of a Gentleman

I'm a sucker for estate sales, but I usually can't afford much: a loose volume from a worm-eaten edition of Ruskin's works, a brass shoe horn, maybe a warped andiron if the stars are right. Most recently, I scored a damp cedar chest full of amusingly stained linen. Imagine my surprise when I found a gentleman's pocket diary wrapped in a completely ruined antimacassar that rather failed in the "anti-" department. It appears to be from the early to mid 19th century, and to have belonged to a man of means and taste. A sample page follows:

6AM: Awoken from terrifying dream of Irish Catholics setting up camp in the west garden. The beasts had used the topiary as support posts for their laundry lines.

7AM: Stomach issues continue, but managed to choke down a small portion of live elver in milk as prescribed. I find myself troubled by the morality of it all.

8:30AM: Perused my backlog of Sir Jasper's Journal of Effete Concerns. Horrified to discover that the diameter of the pearl in my stick pin was 1/128th of an inch out of step with fashion.

11AM: Sodomy and badminton. Weather continues fine.

1PM: Enervated. Only able to suck the dampness from an oyster shell for luncheon.

2PM: Assignation with Hungarian prostitute. At least her procuress claims that provenance: I fear I detect a distinct note of Kentucky around her vowels. Nevertheless, the coupling was excellent, formidable and restorative.

3PM: Interminable musical salon at Wenderton manor. Why they think their walleyed daughter's mastery of the tuba is something to celebrate remains a mystery.

5PM: Free time: tied ascot, practiced harpsichord, studied pornographic French lithographs, flagellated self

7PM: Finally feeling hale, so planned to dine on medallions of fawn in a black currant sauce. Just as I was being served, a doe and her (remaining?) fawns contrived to spoil things by wandering across the lawn. Blasted things. Had the curtains drawn, but proper dinner could no longer be faced. More elver instead.

8PM: Went to Turkish baths for steam treatment and personal irrigation, only to be informed the boiler had exploded that afternoon and all the clinical tubing was out being "vulcanized" or some such thing. Infuriating.

8:30PM: Returned home. Required four snifters of brandy to soothe irritation.

10PM: Updated diary, retired.

2AM: Disturbed by nightmare of being tied to a stake and pelted with handfuls of elver by the "Hungarian" prostitute riding on the back of a fawn. Interesting that her accent was pure Magyar as she screamed the most obscene insults at me. Apparently honesty only exists in our dreams. Awoke aroused.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Portraits of Statisticians: Sir George Biddell Airy

In the secret chamber under the Royal Observatory Sir George Biddell Airy sits in the lotus position and draws the world's energy into his body. He's been there for three days now, desperately trying to summon the angel. His joints ache, his mind is screaming, his soul is cracking from the strain, and he has nothing to show for it. Where is the blasted angel, the one bigger than the earth, the one with the holy flaming sword, the one that will settle this wretched problem of the meridian?

The year is 1884 and US President Chester A. Arthur has threatened the very fabric of time and space by requesting the International Meridian Conference: a meeting to establish once and for all where the Prime Meridian would lie for all the nations of the globe. Scientists of the Brotherhood of Deep and Ancient Knowledge were horrified. Arthur, the fool, thought that an official designation was simply a practical matter. His tiny politician's brain thought the plethora of national primes was a problem. He simply couldn't comprehend that these "arbitrary" lines kept the laws of the universe bound to the earth. He couldn't know that switching out these distributed bindings for a single line was no small matter. If the process wasn't handled correctly the earth would fly off its axis, either inwards towards the sun and burning or outwards to the stars and freezing. Why couldn't he leave well enough alone? Small-minded men like President Arthur were always meddling in things they didn't understand, and who had to clean up the mess? The Brothers, that's who.

Not for the first time the members of BDAK found themselves regretting that they took the secret part of "secret society" more seriously than others. Clowns like the Masons, the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati: how secret were they? Everyone had heard of them and could name a couple of famous members. BDAK, on the other hand, was totally obscure, and in consequence had never successfully recruited the rich or famous or powerful. The occasional great man was approached, but invariably found joining some backwater secret society hardly worth his time, even when they promised to reveal the real secrets of the universe. Dr. Johnson had flatly refused the invitation, saying "Bee-dack? Bee-dack be damned, sir; I have better things to do with my time and good name than throw them on some bonfire of obscure iniquity and watch their ashes mount to the sky."

It still stung.

At any rate, there was a distinct lack of political pull in the organization, so infiltrating the conference and bending it to their will was pretty much out. It was then that Sir George Airy's name came up. The statistician had retired from the position of Astronomer Royal a few years before, but he still had a certain amount of critical access. Sir George had never made much of a splash as a Brother. He had never been much of a help at the rituals and was famous for nodding off during the longer incantations.

True, he had a sure hand when it came to drawing a circle of blood around an ancient stone altar, and he certainly knew a thing or two about the true nature of planets, having picked up some techniques for orbital weirding from the unearthly John Couch Adams, techniques that were previously (and strangely) unknown to the Brotherhood. Still, he wouldn't be anyone's first choice for a working as great as the establishment of a single binding meridian that could serve the same function as the many it would replace. But even in retirement he could come and go from the Greenwich Observatory whenever he pleased. This was useful, as President Arthur's wretched little conference had settled on Greenwich as the site of the new prime from all the other arbitrary possibilities, and the working would be most effective and easiest to perform from that location.

Airy's passion for the Greenwich meridian would also be of benefit. As the maps changed, and as world belief in the primacy of Greenwich grew, it would take a conduit who believed in the value of the meridian to focus that belief into the tower of thought energy that would reach out into the heavens and draw the attention of the angel. Summoned correctly, the angel would descend to the human realm and inscribe the new meridian on the sphere of the earth, using the point of his flaming sword to write out all the names of God around the ring, raising the power of the binding by orders upon orders of magnitude and keeping reality in place.

It seemed like a heavy load to place on the 83 year old shoulders of a man they regarded as competent at best. What they didn't know was that Sir George had been preparing for this moment for over thirty years. He had marked out the Greenwich meridian himself in 1851, supposedly as a way of showing the scientific establishment he was the Royal Astronomer and he meant business, but really as a way of increasing his standing in BDAK. He'd even gone the extra mile and done a couple of crude bindings to give the Greenwich line a little extra shine. The Brothers had nodded and said "yes, that's nice George," which in turn rankled, as it was never "Sir George". But over the next few decades, he clung to his belief in the meridian and nurtured it, noting that year by year more maps and charts were marking Greenwich as degree zero. When Arthur's pathetic little showboating conference had been called, Airy had already known the likely conclusion.

When the Brothers came calling cap in hand, tugging their forelocks and using his title, he was more amused than disgusted. He made a great show of his age and infirmity, doubted he still had the acuity needed to do the simplest of charms, let alone a complex working. Oh, but he would try, and he simply hoped that for all their sakes the world plunged into the sun when he failed, as burning would be the quicker death. The Brothers went away with ashen faces while Sir George chuckled to himself.

Later, as his efforts spilled over into a fourth day, he wondered if he hadn't bitten off more than he could chew after all. He was starving down here in this dank chamber. By his estimates the work should have taken no more than two days. Had he merely miscalculated, or was something worse happening? Perhaps his belief wasn't strong enough after all. Perhaps his stewardship of the meridian over the years hadn't been enough, or had been of the wrong quality, or some other factor had escaped his notice. Perhaps the Brothers had been right about him after all...

And then suddenly something clicked over and a segment of his beloved Greenwich Meridian stood before him. It was an obsidian band arcing through the ceiling and the floor of the chamber. Everything else he had ever seen in his life looked unreal compared to it. Sir George reached out to touch the line and found it to be warm like flesh. A mad urge to throw his arms around it seized him. When he did, the line almost immediately began to move. As they passed through the ceiling, Sir George knew he was sharing in the undeniable quality of the meridian, that the earth was the mere geographical abstraction, the line and its creator the physical reality.

He rode his line through the next four timeless days. Eventually his consciousness merged with the meridian, and the motion stopped or at least appeared to, as he was present at every point along the prime. It was beautiful, but it was too much for one man to merge with for long. When it came time to disengage from the meridian and return to his earthly body he felt not sadness, but the deepest satisfaction of his long career. It was a satisfaction both wise and smug. Smug because as he had moved around the world he was sure of one thing: he had seen no angel. The work was his and his alone.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Aldred Overreacts

It started as a desperate bid for a bit of novelty, and now Aldred is afraid things have rather snowballed. He's got nothing to blame but his own tendency to overreact to tedium. It's a character flaw that has laid him low before, even almost gotten him killed on occasion. More than once he's woken up in the hospital, a disapproving nurse looming over him like some hideously misshapen medical monument, waiting only for the merest flutter of his eyelid to launch into a speech that inevitably began with "Well! I don't know what you thought you were doing, but you're very lucky to be alive..." He would nod, sigh, and if at all possible fall back into a coma for a few days (an imperfect ability that when it worked proved to be invaluable, and was really the only worthwhile thing he learned during a wasted couple of months in Tibet).

Aldred has a nasty feeling that he's on that track again. He had been stuck out in one of the more uninteresting middles of nowhere for weeks now. He had thought he needed a bit of solitude to clear his head and soul. On reflection, he should have gone in the opposite direction. He should have found the noisiest, foulest smelling, most garish urban center going, crammed his brain and guts with the strongest stimulants he could lay hands on, and just had a complete sensory blow out. Even if it was like that time in Macao when he ended up blind for three days and deaf for four, it would have been better than this, this...this place. That's all it was. You couldn't even call it a "dull place" or a "featureless place". One couldn't attach a descriptor to its surface: they simply didn't stick. It was a place, and nothing but a place.

The place was killing him. It was flattening him, sucking the third dimension out of him using some kind of vampiric geometry. The place was trying to kill him with blandness. It wanted to leach the pigment out of him not just until he went white, but until he went transparent. It wanted to suppress his personality, apparently by pasting over it with some sort of cosmic layer of blah. The place was out to blank him. The place was out to erase him. The place wanted to rub him out.

It was also making him a touch paranoid, but that was incidental.

He stood against this attack for a few weeks (trying to prove something, he was no longer sure what), until one morning he simply cracked. Anyone standing outside of his rented (and boring) cottage that dawn would have seen the door fly open, and a determined Aldred launch himself through the opening, wearing nothing but a determined look and a kimono embroidered with dragons. He marched to the highest point for miles, a shriveled mound that dreamt of one day being mistaken for a hillock. He jumped up and down on this for the better part of an hour, all the while chanting "I deny you, I deny you, I deny you, I deny you", until his ankles began to hurt. He then proceeded into the town, shooting the evilest of evil looks at anyone he happened to pass. At a used car lot he selected the least reliable looking salesman, pulled three thousand dollars from inside the kimono, and said "Give me something that will break down inside of five hundred miles, but will last long enough to get me out of this damned place."

Four hundred and sixty miles later, he finds himself eating an ice cream cone and standing next to the smoking ruin of a 1994 Geo Metro, in the square of what appears to be a very nice little town. The kimono is making him stick out a bit, but that was a matter easily fixed. The important thing was that he was finally getting a bit of stimulation. The ice cream was the sort of bland chocolate favored by children and was perfect. The square was a vortex of civic pride, centered on an equestrian statue of someone who had probably committed unspeakable atrocities and was therefore terribly patriotic. Aldred wasn't quite sure he liked what all of this meant, but he was relieved that it meant something.

He strolls as nonchalantly as a big man in a small kimono can, ducking into the first menswear shop he can find. He emerges soon after, clad in a blue seersucker suit and yes, a genuine straw boater. He's delighted to be in a place where such outlandish gear allows a body to blend in. Apparently he's wound up in 1890 somehow, the wrecked Metro the only thing that gives it all the lie. It's a perfect place to be before the Fourth of July, so utterly false. He'll stay for what he's certain will be excellent municipal fireworks. Why not? He's earned it.