This picture has nothing to do with the book, but I thought it might catch your attention
here’s the link to Jungle Fever! The book that Hollywood dared to ignore!
This picture has nothing to do with the book, but I thought it might catch your attention
here’s the link to Jungle Fever! The book that Hollywood dared to ignore!
CONFESSIONS OF A GLASS EATER
I eat glass for a living. For the last couple of years, this has involved eating an ashtray an evening at a bar. I get the other men along the bar to wager that I can’t eat an entire ashtray in one sitting. It takes me a couple of hours to do so, but I smash it into small shards and then slowly swallow them all. For this, I make anywhere from sixty to one hundred fifty dollars a night, tax free. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. At least I’ve got to do something, and this is the best way to make money I’ve found recently.
I once met a man who ate an entire automobile. It took him almost two years to do so. He died shortly after he swallowed the last bolt, but the autopsy revealed eating the car was not his undoing. It was liver cancer, an infirmity that had been progressing for some time.
My line of work proves one thing: that you can accomplish seemingly impossible tasks if you break them down into small enough pieces and don’t give up.
My wife is the unusual one in our family. She has a tattoo that stretches from her left shoulder to her right calf. I don’t care much for tattoos, but I have to admit this one is well done, with all the colors and lines clear and defined. There is, however the troubling issue of the name of her beloved at the time of the procedure. The first man was named Hugh, which was skillfully redrawn to read Bart, then Burt, then Bert. For a while she had a thing for men whose first names began with the letter “B.” The moniker remains Bert to this day, as the skin in that area was beginning to thin which permitted no more adjustment. Now, just above her buttocks surrounded by palm leaves, it reads “Bert,” though she is now my wife and my name is Donald.
We have learned to accept each other with all our foibles. She is married to a man who eats ground glass for a living. I admit to myself that in her massage practice she sometimes strays over the line of what might be thought of as common decency.
The State of Emergency has been renewed again. I can’t remember how many times they’ve said they’re about to take away the curfew and stop interring the undesirables, but then they go and renew it for another ninety days. The Swat Teams are still coming and going, especially downtown, running in and out of local businesses and dragging more undesirables away to the huge, black trucks, the ones they park out back with the engines running.
Things could be worse. They say that almost everyone in Western Africa has already died of Ebola. The government channel keeps repeating that only because of rapid action by our peacekeeping forces were we spared the ionizing radiation that took out so much of Korea and Pakistan. So we’re luckier than some, I guess.
I’d like to think that my line of work has protected me from disease. Quite a few of my friends have died in the past few years, but I seem to enjoy better health as time passes. Maybe there’s something in the glass they use to make ashtrays that is beneficial, some sort of micro-nutrient. The guy who ate the car didn’t get cured of his cancer, but maybe if he’d have stuck with ashtrays he would have been. Just a thought. Sometimes it pays to stick with something, so matter how sick of it you’ve become.
A few years ago I went to the emergency room because I had a terrific headache. They ran about fifteen thousand dollars worth of tests and finally told me I had a brain tumor. I laughed and walked out the door. Good luck getting me to pay. If they’re right, I’d be insane to give them my money now when the debt will dissolve the moment I die. If they’re wrong, then why should I pay them for a faulty diagnosis? The headache went away as soon as I had a couple of cups of coffee. Quitting caffeine is really difficult. That’s why I have no intention of trying it again.
The more coffee I drink, the more quick-witted and talkative I become. There’s a point where I can’t think or talk any faster, and then it quickly nosedives into agonizing anxiety. You’d think I’d quit, or at least moderate, but such notions are foreign to my very nature. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing all the way, until you just can’t do it anymore.
My wife and I only have sex once a year, on her birthday. To get herself in the mood she starts drinking at breakfast. By noon, she is no longer herself, adopting the character of Bette Davis, the thirties/forties film star. Even though English is not her first language, she does a very convincing impersonation, excelling especially in surveying the room and then proclaiming “what a dump!” Unfortunately, by evening she has take the role too far, and all the fun is gone, but that, unfortunately, is when she decides to get physical. Our little game evolved from repeated viewings of our favorite Davis film, The Bride Came C.O.D. In one scene, Jimmy Cagney, an aviator who has discovered that Davis is a rich heiress, conspires to trap her in a cave until he can claim the ransom from her rich father. By kissing him, she tastes that he has been out of the cave and eaten something, so she realizes she has been deceived, and begins hitting him furiously. That’s my wife’s favorite part of the movie, and it was ours, until she took it as license and inspiration to attack me like a pole cat, all in the name of fun.
At this point in the birthday revelry, she has dropped the Bette Davis accent and is simply grunting and howling in her native Russian. It was fun the first year. By now, like those Twilight vampire films, it has grown tired through repeated sequels. This last time, she stayed drunk for three days, coming to when she stopped mid-sentence while telling a story at a dinner we were having with friends. She had been talking in a pirate voice, a cartoonish characterization full of swearing and fake Cockney nautical phrases, when all of a sudden she asked in all seriousness “Where are we? What time is it? What are you doing here?” Needless to say, she put a damper on the evening and our guests soon found an excuse to check on the baby sitter.
But we’re happy most of the time. I never told her about my diagnosis of a brain tumor, but I’m saving that in case I need a “get out of jail” card to get me out of a jam. Not all my behavior is blameless.
For most of my work life I worked in the furnace repair business. During that time I never repaired a furnace, but rather gave the illusion of having done so, taking advantage of the fact that the obituary columns of local newspapers gave me plenty of leads to visit new widows about to endure their first winter alone. I would arrive at the house saying I was the man who had installed the furnace and was here to check the inverter before winter set in. Usually I would bring along a good-looking young man as my assistant. He would ask the widow about her late husband, their children, and generally charm her and soothe her fears. She would always confide that she knew nothing about the furnace for that had been part of her late husband’s domain.
I would bang around on the pipes in the basement for a few minutes, then come upstairs holding a filthy piece of equipment that I had surreptitiously brought with me in the first place, and proclaim that this was her lucky day because if she had fired that baby up it would have been sure to blow the house sky-high. These things usually run 700-800 bucks, but I had one in the truck that I would let her have for 350 cash, installation at no charge.
Nine out of ten times it worked and in the spring I could reprise the act again only with a roof repair version. Again, my assistant would praise the beauty of her grandchildren while I stomped around on the roof. This time I replaced the gutter diverticulator, which had rotted clear through. Usually I could only get two hundred for one of those imaginary babies, because the onset of winter is a lot scarier for most widows than that of summer.
When I tired of this, and the complaints reached the local police, I would move to another community with a large percentage of recent widows in their own homes, and harsh winters. The northern Midwest was my field of dreams.
But then I heard of a friend who was making great bucks running a modeling agency for teen-age girls in the Southwest. In this case, of course, their mothers were the marks, and all I had to do was supervise a pretty college-aged girl to work with the potential models. I dropped a lot of names and made many a vague allusion to showcases in Rio and Paris, but was careful to never make promises I could be held to. One of my greatest breakthroughs was a series of affirmations sent to the fifteen-year old girls on their cell phones. “If he thinks I’m pretty, then I am,” was one of them. “My hairs smells terrific and I feel just as good,” was another. We had a good time making those up over shots and chasers in the motel room one night. Every teenage girl’s life centers around her cell phone, so when it talks to her, she listens.
The mothers paid a monthly fee for the instruction, another for photographs and video demos, and we were able to get a dollar a day per client for the affirmations. It beat banging furnace pipes in the basement.
Eventually I know that I’ll have to settle on a line of work that pays into social security. Once, when I was in my twenties, I was traveling in Mexico and I came upon an old American man who was staying in the same cheap hotel as I. He had been running a fever for days and was trapped in his room, covered in blankets. I asked him if he’d seen a doctor. No, he had no money for that. Didn’t he have social security? No, he’d been self-employed all his life. At the time I remember thinking “note to self: don’t end up like him.”
Now that the Department of Homeland Security has taken over all the local police departments, the War on the Homeless has taken on new vigor. I have no desire to spend my golden years interned in a camp in Utah or Nevada. I’ve heard rumors that there is a plan to send the Homeless and Undesirables to Paraguay, a country that has agreed to accept them for a fee, and them allow them to live in the Chaco, a region as difficult as any on the planet. Coincidentally, it’s also where George W. Bush bought a hundred thousand acres of land just before he left office, in case he had to flee to a place with no extradition policy. Paraguay also welcomed many an ex-Nazi after World War II ended.
Well, I always wanted an excuse to work on my Spanish. Maybe there would be an upside to being shipped off to Nowhere Latin America. Room and board would be paid for by FEMA or some other Federal Agency.
There’s already a stretch of Federal land in the Colorado Desert, east of the Salton Sea, where a de-commissioned army base, Slab City is home to a great number of nearly homeless year-around, though the population swells during the winter and gets very small during the summer, when the average temperature is 110 degrees. These people live in their vehicles on in tents. There is no water, electricity or sewer service, but the residents of Slab City make do.
There is another settlement nearby called East Jesus.
Most migration is caused by economic incentives. Many of us are economic refugees, though we’re often reluctant to admit it. The reason I don’t live in downtown Manhattan isn’t because I don’t enjoy museums and restaurants, it’s because I can’t afford the rents. The reason I no longer live in the States is because it’s too damn expensive for what you get.
After some Internet research, I found several affordable and interesting places I could live in South America and Southeast Asia. Looking at making a major move in order to free myself from the grind of trying to make ends meet gave me a sudden rush of hope. Unfortunately, my wife wasn’t as hopeful. “What a dump!” she intoned, wearily, as she wandered around the kitchen, looking for something to eat.
We decided to try Nicaragua first, then if that didn’t seem like a possible home, Thailand. We bought tickets that very evening, but our mood was less than celebratory. I wasn’t sure about Natasha’s desire or motivation in this quest for change. In fact, wasn’t sure she even wanted to be with me anymore.
The morning we left, Natasha and I were hopeful for a few hours until we were stopped at the airport. As we went through immigration, we were separated. They took each of us to small offices on either side of a hallway. I was detained only briefly, but she was in there for almost half an hour. When she emerged, she wouldn’t look at me, but she did manage to say “I’m not going,” as she headed back to baggage claim. I chased her for a while, asking what happened and why was had she changed her mind, but she was in no mood to respond. The last thing she said to me was “Have a nice life.”
It turns out I never made it to Nicaragua, or Thailand for that matter. They took me off the plane in Miami and gave me two men as escorts who sat with me in some sort of lounge that felt a lot like a jail. We watched TV together. Fox and Friends, as I recall. Then I saw my picture fill the screen with the caption “ISIS terrorist captured at Miami airport” and my wife being interviewed by Sean Hannity and a blonde bimbo who pretended to be a tough-talking journalist unafraid to ask the important questions like what were my favorite TV shows and did I ever play video games and if so which ones?
My wife looked great under the TV lights, and then it occurred to me that this segment must have been recorded earlier, because she had had her hair styled in that way a couple of days ago. I asked my companion to the right if what we were watching was live TV, but he simply stared straight ahead, the only visible sign of life being the muscles in his jaw flexing as he slowly chewed gum. I suppose he had been instructed not to talk to me.
His companion also stared straight ahead, but at least he was watching TV, witnessing my wife telling the world that I was a high-ranking officer in ISIS, the spin-off terrorist group that split from Al-Qaida. He seemed interested in her story and impressed by the variety of realistic details with which she embellished her story.
I wanted to see and hear more, but then they cut to a diaper commercial. While young moms were beaming at their babies, I was escorted through a little-used door and out on the tarmac, where a military-type vehicle was waiting for me. We drove for a long time, nobody saying anything. Finally, we stopped in front of a Walgreens and a man joined us. He started speaking to me in another language, as if he expected me to speak it too.
“Is that Arabic? Are you speaking to me in Arabic?” I asked.
The man stopped talking. There was a long pause.
“If it is Arabic, then I don’t know what you just said. If it isn’t, I don’t speak that language either.”
He stared at me some more. Then he said in English, “we’ve got as much time as you do.”
I shrugged. He shrugged back. We drove on in silence.
When we came to a clearing in a dense woods, it was already dark, but I could tell that it was some sort of air strip. And sure enough, there was an airplane waiting for us, a military plane. The seats faced backwards. The three of us were the only passengers. By this time, I had decided not to speak unless spoken to, and since no one was telling me anything, I had no idea of our destination, but I know we had been aloft for many hours before landing at an airstrip in the middle of a forest. Had we simply flown in circles all that time? No, the vegetation was different, the sounds of birds unfamiliar. Now it was morning, maybe a few hours past dawn. From there we drove a while in another vehicle, this time a Mercedes-Benz limo. Finally, we arrived at what seemed to be a hotel, built in the style of an alpine chalet.
I had slept on the plane, but not well, and so I was a bit groggy by the time we entered the building. The first people I saw looked strangely familiar. Then I realized who they were. George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were hanging out near the bar at one end of a large dining room. In the middle of the room, near the head of a long dining room table, slumped in a wheelchair and not talking to anyone, was Richard Nixon. Though my brain my clouded, I did some quick figuring and estimated that he must be over a hundred. He looked every day of it. But here he was alive! And for some reason, someone had gone to great lengths to bring me to him!
Hillary Clinton and Condaleeza Rice entered the room dressed in tennis clothes and holding rackets. They looked in my direction and nodded to my two escorts, who quickly left the room. Condy came up to me.
“How was your flight?” she asked.
“No peanuts, no drinks, but at least we didn’t crash,” I answered.
Hillary seemed to find my response hilarious, because she snorted, and soon the others followed. Within seconds even Nixon smiled, though he might have simply been suffering from gas.
“I can eat an ashtray if anybody would like to wager,” I said.
Nobody said anything for a while. Nixon began to drool from the corner of his jowls.
Condy came in closer. “You want to eat an ashtray?”
“A glass one. It’s what I do. You bet that I can’t, and I do it anyway.”
“How big an ashtray?” Rumsfeld asked.
“Anything you got.”
There was some discussion among different groups in the room. Finally, Cheney snapped his fingers and a waiter came to me, carrying a large, glass ashtray.
“I’ll need a hammer and a sock,” I added. Someone translated for him in Spanish. He returned with those after a few minutes.
“By the way, where are we?” I asked Hillary.
“Paraguay,” she responded.
It was all making sense now. I remembered the Bush family had purchased a large estate in Paraguay just before he left office.
As I began the process of reducing the ashtray to shards, another man in a wheelchair entered the room. It was Henry Kissinger, and he pulled up parking himself next to Nixon.
“I’ll wager ten thousand dollars that he can,” Rumsfeld announced. Cheney piped in “Five thousand that he can’t.” “I’ll match that,” Hillary piped in. Nixon started mumbling and then said very clearly “I’ll suck Kissinger’s cock if he can.” The room erupted in laughter.
Then some men in colorful shirts carrying harps and oversized guitars entered the room and began singing what I assume was Paraguayan music. We were in for the long haul.
It took me six hours to eat such a large ashtray, and by the time I finished many of my hosts had drifted away, but Hillary and Condy stayed with me to the end. When I had a moment alone with Hillary, I whispered “I thought you were on the other side.”
“I stick with the winners,” she whispered back.
Suddenly the party was over, at least for me. A couple of men in dark suits approached, one holding a black hood which he put over my head. From there I was escorted out of the dining room and into another room, which might have been as big as the first, but since there was little sound, I couldn’t tell. From there I was made to crouch and enter a smaller room, except it felt a lot like the same room. Then they took off the hood and I could see that I was inside a cage in the middle of another ballroom or dining room, only this one was dimly lit. This was to be my home for the next five days.
My first visitors were a Boy Scout troupe. They were respectful and silent as they gathered around, whispering among each other until their leader told them I was a recently-apprehended terrorist and that there had been a ten million-dollar bounty on my head. Then the whispering stopped and they simply stared. I smiled. Then I growled and they quickly backed off.
A Girl Scout Troop came next, but they kept much more distance than the boys, and many of them refused to look at me at all, feigning interest instead in the windows and furniture of the room itself. After they left, I was served lunch, which I wolfed down. Then Condy came to see me.
“We want to thank you for your cooperation. Our campaign needed a victory and even though we know this is all entirely made up, well, so was our invasion of Iraq. A fully-functioning democracy is a difficult myth to maintain, and having you here is helping keep it afloat,” she said.
“I don’t remember agreeing to anything,” I said.
“It was tacit. There will be a simulated execution in a few days and then you’ll be handsomely rewarded and relocated. What’s your feeling about Indiana?”
“Don’t know much about it. I was born there, but we moved to Chicago when I was still a toddler.”
“We know that. Peru, Indiana is interested in helping us with this. Real estate is a real bargain in Peru. Not a bad place, either. It’s everything wrong and right about small town America.”
“Isn’t it easier to hide in a big city?”
“That’s what they say, but if you move to a place like Peru, Indiana, everybody’s glad to see you. As long as you make a good first impression, you’re golden. If you tell them you’re a nudist or an atheist or you believe homosexuals should marry, then we’ll just have to relocate you again.”
“Lightning bugs on a summer night. Listening to the ball game on the radio.”
“Beats Gitmo any day.”
“But why me in the first place?”
“You made the mistake of pissing off your wife. She’s a well-connected woman with some strong opinions of her own, especially about you. When she made up her mind, she made up her mind. Fortunately, her offer to us came at a time when we could use an unconventional person such as yourself. One with no support network to speak of. Few close friends. A guy like you can disappear and cause nary a ripple.”
I saw her point. Instead of gaining a sort of freedom from not cultivating ties, I had become an invisible, forgotten man. Not the kind of guy you need to torture or repress, because I wasn’t trying to do much of anything at all. I was a thorn in no one’s side; instead I was a shadow creeping along the wall. My lack of zest had put me in the position to be the perfect puppet.
Well this puppet was going to find some way to break his strings, or at least tangle them. I had to lay low and wait for opportunity. Despite her assurances otherwise, would I be executed in a few days? Probably not, but who knows what other lies Condy could tell with a straight face?
I thought I would lose my mind when they started showing my favorite kids show from the fifties, Andy’s Gang on the big screen TV that filled most of the opposite wall. Sixty years later I still found the character of Froggy to be terrifying. And Andy Devine was hideous. I kept waiting for him to clear his throat, but he only grew hoarser over time. The show was so mind-numbingly stupid that even at the age of five I must have known something was deeply wrong here. When they had nothing to show they cut back to a stock shot of the kids in the audience laughing dementedly. Froggy would use his magic powers for evil to confuse Andy (no difficult task) and make him do what he never intended.
Yes, Cheney and Rumsfeld had done their research well. How many of our tax dollars had gone into determining which television shows their future torture victims had watched as children?
The television torture went on for eight hours or so. Everyone once in a while a nurse with a clipboard would quietly enter the room and record my reactions. At first I waved at her and smiled, but later on I ignored her. The last few times I must have been asleep, though my sleep was fitful, as every time Froggy laughed his horrible laugh I convulsed.
The next morning a beautiful young woman was staring at me. She was dressed in a brightly colored polyester uniform, the kind favored by fast food employees.
“A broken old man with shattered dreams,” she cooed. “We get a lot of those. Do you want breakfast?”
“Pancakes,” I replied. “I was dreaming about pancakes.”
“This is your lucky day!” she assured me. “Smothered in imitation maple syrup, with a side of greasy sausage links, just the way you like ‘em.”
Unfortunately, she brought me no pancakes, but instead continued to tease and make fun of me the rest of the morning. Then a man brought be a Burger King Double Whopper Combo Meal with bacon, large fries and a Chocolate Shake. It amazed me that such a thing could be found in Paraguay, but I inhaled it and felt just as bad as I usually do afterwards. It was sort of comforting in a nostalgic way.
As I sat there burping and swishing the grease around in my mouth, another couple of men came and handed me a swimming suit, which they indicated I should put on. I did, and then we sat in the back of an open jeep and drove a short way to a river, where they motioned that I should enter the water and swim. This I did, as well. The water was a pleasant temperature, not terribly clear, but not filthy. It smelled OK. I decided to swim downstream and made rapid progress. When I turned around after a few minutes, the men were gone. I was swimming through farmland. A herd of cows grazed a mile or so up on a hillside. I was enjoying myself at last!
As I rounded a bend, I saw a large group of what looked like girl high school students in the traditional high school uniform, jumper, knee socks, white shirts with peter pan collar, jumping up and down in unison. Through a bullhorn, a woman was barking orders at them in Spanish. I waved, but no one seemed to notice me.
Then the bends came more quickly, the river narrowed and the current picked up. I was going quite fast now, and that’s when I saw the fish leaping from the water. Fish with big teeth. Very big teeth. Teeth so sharp that I didn’t feel the bites at first. They started with my toes, then my knees, and finally my elbows and hands. By the time I pulled myself up on the bank, it looked like somebody had poured a bucket of red paint on me.
I tried sitting on some stones and strategically dipping parts of me back into the water to wash off the blood, but that just infuriated the fish all the more, and many of them leaped up onto the rocks and grass, lying on their sides, opening and closing their jaws in one last attempt to get me. That’s when I noticed I was being shot at.
The bullets arrived before the crack of the rifles. They had the power to break off chips of rock, while some merely slapped the sand and mud on the river bank. I looked up the hill and saw a party of five shooting at me. It was Hillary, Condy, Don, Dick and a black man in an army uniform who I took to be Colin Powell. I reasoned that he would probably be the best shot, so I kept a close eye on him as I ran into some nearby bushes. I could hear laughter and whoops of encouragement as they took turns trying to kill me.
Walking on the sharp stones, my feet were not happy, nor was the rest of me. If they really wanted to kill me, surely there were easier ways of accomplishing it. So what was this about? I didn’t have time to really think it through, for they continued to shoot randomly at the bushes, so I decided it would be best to back up while keeping as low to the ground as possible. That’s when I noticed the video cameras in the nearby trees.
And thus began my long and remunerative career in entertainment. It turned out this whole episode was being taped for a new show that became a world-wide hit overnight. Bad Boys Pay the Price, a new type of crime/game comedy that filled a niche nobody knew was there, but once it was filled it inspired many a competitor. As soon as I stumbled back to the hotel, scratched and bruised, I was hailed as a hero. The penthouse suite. Complimentary room service, massage by a lovely young woman. The next morning they flew me first class back to the States and gave me enough money to rent a deluxe condo in LA.
Turns out this whole experience had been some sort of audition, and I won the role. I became the star of the season opener, and was asked to reprise my role many times, though at the advice of my agent I demurred, holding out for film work. Some of us only have one shot at the top, and we have to maximize our advantages when they appear.
A few weeks later I met a taxi driver who told me that he had a screenplay “concept” that he wanted to pitch me. I guess he recognized me when I got in his cab. His story idea involved Scarlett Johannson and I as a couple of witty, cynical detectives. Kind of an updated version of the Thin Man. I said it sounded promising and told him to contact my agent. Suddenly he became crestfallen.
“You’re blowing me off. Nick Cage had the same reaction when I pitched him Lethal Injection Four. He pretended to be interested, but when I called his agent they’d never heard of me or my concept. You guys get big and you forget what it’s like for us little guys. It’s hell, that’s what it is. Living hell.”
I felt bad, but what could I do? People were suddenly coming at me in waves, each wanting something. There was only one of me, but there were thousands, maybe millions of them.
A few days later, I got word that my wife was trying to contact me. Apparently, she thought she deserved some sort of finder’s fee for launching my career. A Judas-agent fee. I told my handlers I wasn’t interested in communicating with her, but she persisted and finally showed up at my front door about dawn one morning.
“What a dump!” she said as I answered the door, and before I could react she had strode right past me.
“Are you alone?”
“Natasha, what a surprise,” I blustered. “Coffee?”
“You realize you’ve started a glass-eating craze across America. Children are dying.”
“Always nice to see you. What brings you this far?”
“But now you’re Mr. Big Shot. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Couldn’t have happened without my help. Kissinger and Nixon are crazy about you. They still wield a lot of influence, especially among old, white men, who still really run everything even if they pretend to have shared some power with women and a few token minorities.”
“Yes, good people, all.”
We sat in silence. I waited for her to broach the subject of why she was here. I suppose she was waiting for me to be the first to ask. The way I see it, if you barge into someone’s apartment at six in the morning, you’re the one who ought to do the talking.
“All right, I want you to take me back. I made a terrible mistake. I was so unhappy, and even though it wasn’t your fault, I wanted to make you suffer as much as I was. Please forgive me Ronald…I mean, Donald. Please, let’s try to be happy again.”
I didn’t say anything for a while. I tried to remember when we were happy together. Try as I might, it didn’t come. Then I thought about the name slip-up, and wondered how many men she was seeing.
“I never got the impression that you actually liked me,” I told her.
“I didn’t, but that was my fault, not yours. You’re a perfectly likeable person. It’s obvious. It’s always been obvious, only I couldn’t see it until now.”
“But what about your drinking problem?”
“I’m planning to quit any day now. I’m already in therapy. They’ve told me I’m not a bad person, just a sick person getting better. I’ve already halved my vodka intake. I feel better than I have in years!”
I had to admit she looked good. But I was afraid that without her zany side, there wouldn’t be much to her. I didn’t say that; I just thought it. The zany side had definitely worn out its welcome, and there was no guarantee of another side that would make us compatible.
“Let me think about it,” I offered.
“You’ll never forgive me. I can’t say I blame you, but I want you to know that you’re killing me. Your resentment is like a dagger pointed at my heart.”
With that she put both hands over her left breast and sighed. I felt I was watching a silent movie heroine in action. So now it all boiled down to being my fault. She who had turned me over to the authorities was playing the victim and the choice to make this all better was strictly mine.
“You’re the one who should be the TV star, not me,” I told her.
“Your right, of course. There’s no justice in this world,” she sighed.
We agreed to a trial reconciliation, the terms of which would be re-negotiated after two weeks. It was all sweetness and light at first. She was overly solicitous, serving me coffee in bed the moment I awoke. Then I entered our bedroom one afternoon and found her on a skype call with Kissinger, and could hear Nixon mumbling and grunting in assent, though he was off-camera. She was also using a Ouija board, which I thought was unusual.
“I didn’t know you were into that,” I commented as blandly as possible.
“Just something to pass the time,” she replied.
“Wasn’t that Henry Kissinger you were talking to?”
“Yes. He asked about you. How’s that glass-eating husband of yours?”
“I’m a movie star now. Glass eating is a thing of the past. Like furnace repair.”
“You can leave the ashtrays alone now? This I have to see.”
“But you can’t leave me alone, can you? No, I’m like an addiction. An all-consuming addiction.”
“Have you been drinking?”
“Just a little. It helps take the edge off. Oh please, don’t be a scold. It’s so un-sexy.”
“I don’t have an opinion about whether you should drink or not. I just know that I don’t enjoy being around it.”
“That’s what you say, but you know it’s not true. You know you want me drunk or sober. You’re just using my drinking as an excuse to protect yourself from being vulnerable. You’re afraid of not getting what you want, what you need, what you’re addicted to.”
With that she left the Ouija board behind and came towards me. I resisted the impulse to run out the door, and instead embraced her. She smelled like vodka and cigarettes, not my favorite scent.
Even though it felt like I was trapped in a 1940’s melodrama starring Victor Mature and Loretta Young, I kept on with her, vowing every night that I would tell her the next morning how I really felt, but by then I had lost my resolve and had to accumulate a new batch of resolve in the face of the accumulated evidence of that day. Sudden mood swings, hysterical laughter one moment and tears the next. I remembered what it had been like dating less volatile women before I met Natasha, and I must confess I found them predictable and a bit boring, though surely more comforting that any time spent with my Russian doll.
Meanwhile, the offers kept pouring in for acting work, but most of them were absurdly inappropriate. I was offered roles that more prominent actors had already rejected in vehicles that seemed doomed from the outset. Lex Luther in Superman 15, Willy Loman in a hip-hop version of Death of a Salesman. Someone who should have known better wanted me to play Helen Keller’s father in a sentimental Hallmark Family Special.
To each of these I instructed my handlers to issue a polite yet firm ‘thanks but not today. Please keep me in mind, though.” I didn’t want to risk burning any bridges at this stage in my career, but I hoped that someone in a position of power would finally be able to see the real me, and the real scope of my talent, before senility sets in. If any of this was an indication of what I could expect from my show biz career, I might want to go back to faux furnace repair.
I began to wonder if Natasha and I would have an easier time of holding our marriage together if only we shared a mutual career. Maybe I could get a TV series launched for the two of us. Surely some of the tried and true TV formulas of the past would work for us. Maybe a modern update of the Billy Jack movies of the seventies…righteous hippy couple fights the squares. Combine that with cute young cops, sarcastic medical students, and a few cute kids or pets and someone with a longer attention span than mine could create a recipe for a long-running hit that would bond Natasha and I together as well as plenty of cash. Didn’t I owe us one last whole-hearted shot at marital and financial success?
It turned out it wasn’t up to me. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my former captors had a scheme in mind that was far beyond my ability to imagine the many twists and turns. When Kim Jong-Un came to our front door, I figured he was an impersonator, and this had to be some sort of Hollywood prank, sort of like having Elvis sing you happy birthday or finding Marilyn Monroe in your bed.
But it really was the infamous North Korean dictator, and he really was there to see me. Through his translator, he told me that Dennis Rodman had recommended me for a feature-length film about Karaoke-singing volleyball stars who take gold at the Olympics while becoming International Entertainment Sensations. I would play the promoter who never loses faith in them not matter what obstacles cross their path, including a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the United States, whose women’s volleyball team failed to qualify for the finals. I told him the concept sounded original and interesting, but I’d have to check my schedule.
Finally, there was a bidding war. Various firms were offering me larger and larger amounts of money not to sign with another firm. This was called “an exclusive option on my services,” though the exact nature of those services was left up in the air. They were simply bidding for me to sign with them and no one else. My agent assured me that in most cases nothing real ever comes from these, but the money would prove real, and substantial.
I had discovered a legitimate way to provide no real service or benefit to anyone and still be handsomely rewarded for my lack of effort. You might think I would finally be content, but instead I was growing more dissatisfied by the minute. How dare these people patronize me this way! Didn’t I have my pride?
And I was lonely. I missed the personal touch, the one-on-one contact I enjoyed back when I was swindling old ladies in their living rooms and basements. Now, money came to me anonymously, through the machinations of my agent and the largesse of creative directors at entertainment studios. I didn’t feel like any of it had much to do with me.
Money makes some things easier. Problems disappear in the face of ample funds. Of course, there are numerous opportunities to use money to manufacture new problems, and I seem especially adept at that process. It’s another one of my many counter-productive talents.
The move to Peru, Indiana was uneventful. Since I owned almost nothing, I was able to make the trip with just one extra suitcase. Natasha said she would come later, that she had something to take care of, but I knew she wouldn’t be joining me, which was fine. She saved me from having to summon the spine to tell her I wanted to be free of her.
So I decided to start a school, an entrepreneurial academy to teach Leadership! That was the hot thing, that and Passion with a capital “P.” Everyone was gaga over Leadership and Passion, and I wasn’t about to stand by and let others take the credit and the lion’s share of the booty. Creativity was also quite sexy at the time, and I promised to unblock and unleash it in every student. After all, I was a certified success, wasn’t I? Surely there was an easy and direct path for someone of my stature to help others achieve even a modicum of what I had.
Peru, Indiana turned out to be the perfect place to establish such an academy. I could lease an enormous commercial building for almost nothing, as half of downtown had been abandoned once Wal-Mart established itself on the edge of town. I settled on an old Elks Club. The furnishing that had been left behind were massive, grandiose, and free for the taking. These lent an air of legitimacy to my latest whim.
Hiring faculty was no problem, either. Over the years I had surrounded myself with a plethora of the over-educated and under-employed. Men and women who had once showed promise, but that was so long ago that no one could quite recall what those promises were. Braggarts, dullards, nincompoops, poseurs. No matter, today they would be more than willing to work for slightly above minimum wage, just to have a private office with their name on the door, preceded by the title “Professor.”
There is no scam like education, for the marks line up and take out loans just to participate. You assign readings and then after a suitable amount of “discussion,” test them on the readings. You don’t even have to write the assigned readings, in fact, it’s better if you don’t. That way you risk nothing!
Education is the only scam where the mark continues to credit and thank his tormentor long after he should have realized he’d been taken for a ride. As my celebrity status increased, the fortunes of my academy soared. There was interest in me giving a TED talk. I demurred, citing a busy schedule. I encouraged my staff to organize symposia, and they did, charging outlandish fees for other no-talents to come and give talks about their derivative “research” to an equally mediocre audience.
Then I went a bit too far. I decided that it was time to bring in some heavyweights, and when I invited Henry Kissinger to receive an honorary Doctorate in Leadership, I knew I was treading on thin ice. This could easily blow up in my face, but the temptation was simply too strong to resist. After all, hadn’t he received the Nobel Peace Prize after bombing Laos back into the stone age? What could be so wrong about receiving an honorary doctorate from a diploma mill like mine?
It turns out the CIA had their own opinion about my offer. Suddenly, our little campus was crawling with creeps, athletic young men and women who looked like they had already endured plenty of special training, and I’m not talking about poetry class.
Finally, they confronted me in my office. They had determined with substantial evidence that my academy was a fraud, my faculty a group of dullards, and that nothing of value was being taught or learned.
“And your point is…?” I countered.
It was a brilliant day in early autumn. The maple trees on the front lawn were aflame. Little did I realize, that the main building and our new annex would soon be aflame as well, and that although no one lost their life in the mysterious blaze, the institution I had founded only months before would soon be no more than a hazy memory, an incomplete transcript.
Thank God I had had the foresight to include “no refunds” in the terms and conditions for admission. I owe the lawyer who suggested that golden tidbit a lot. Maybe I’ll award him an honorary doctorate someday.
I thought maybe this would be an excellent time to take the North Korean dictator up on his generous offer, but by then he had changed his mind and was more impressed with persuading Justin Bieber to become his new Minister of Culture.
So I was back to Square One. For someone who had just been wiped out, I was remarkably at ease, for I had not owned much of what was lost. In fact, I’m sure with a little digging I could find some sort of government hand-out for business owners who had suffered a catastrophic fire. Even an interest-free loan might suffice. No, I was not sitting in the hot seat, but I was straddling a fence, as I had no idea what to do next.
I thought briefly about starting a religion, but then surmised that would be too much like my recent foray into higher education. Taking advantage of the irrational beliefs of others is child’s play. Surely someone as clever as I could come up with a scam more novel, one that required more original thought and would be a bit harder to decipher.
That’s when I came up with the Psychic Bypass. As long as I didn’t make the mistake of predicting exactly where on the heart these new arteries would grow, or when, there was indisputable evidence that one could increase blood flow to damaged heart muscle simply by staying alive long enough for it to happen. Survival could be insured by taking conventional medications to control blood pressure and coagulation, but who could seriously dispute the fact that attitude and prudent exercise couldn’t share the credit for a new blood supply?
The trick of making claims while not legally making them has been well-studied already. What with tens of millions of baby-boomers reaching heart attack age, Psychic Bypass was a guaranteed winner. But then, after I had lined up scores of interviews on health and fitness shows, and had what seemed real interest on a segment of the Lifetime cable channel, when Facebook and Twitter were ready to go viral with an explosion of Psychic Bypass likes and tweets, when it came time to launch, I did what I always do. I got bored.
I found myself asking “Do I really want to spend these last chapters of my life fooling others into wasting their dwindling hours? No. Surely there is something more fun to be done.” What I would really enjoy is out there, just under the horizon, and all I have to do is wait a bit longer for it to rise.
Contemplation, Patience…these reared their awful heads and demanded my attention. Before they had had their way with me, during the forty to forty-five seconds I dared examine my heretofore unexamined life, I thought I would not be able to draw another breath. Nausea came in waves. But as they left, the certainty arrived that yes, I would survive. I am me, dammit, and that just has to be good enough. Sure I’m a sociopath of sorts, what of it? I’m not alone. Many whom we grant positions of prominence share my proclivity.
I’ve always enjoyed reading the stories of other people who greatly changed their lives halfway through. Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Mother Theresa, Edgar Buchanan. He played Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction, one of many forgettable TV shows from the seventies. But he was unforgettable, because he was a character actor with real character. A former dentist, he only became an actor at the age of thirty-six. He’s best known as Uncle Joe, a role he played across three different television shows – Petticoat Junction, Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies. One could say he owned the role of Uncle Joe.
Yes, Edgar Buchanan gave me hope. He was completely self-invented, absolutely authentic, and people appreciated what he had to offer. He wasn’t John Barrymore. He was a dentist from Oregon who moved to Hollywood in mid-life and became an actor, a move that changed not only his life but the lives of millions. Forever.
It seems my hankering for ultimate significance and my boredom and revulsion with life as I had been living it was responsible for the germination of a new idea. How could I really be of service?
Such an idea had never before occurred to me because I never thought it would be possible for me to do anything without a hidden motive or agenda. My very nature was duplicitous. I had accepted that as a given. But maybe being an imposter was simply a role I had chosen to play, and anytime I chose to play another role, I could let the false one drop.
So I began yet another chapter in my life. Suddenly I was Joe Lunchbucket, except without a job to define him. I was nobody in particular, certainly nobody special. On the other hand, I was keeping a low profile, so in all probability I had nothing to fear.
The only job I could find without misrepresenting myself was that of Wal-Mart Greeter. Apparently there’s a high turnover, as some folks find it too stressful. I found it suited my personality and proclivities rather well. I could space out and do very little if that’s what I felt like, just handing people shopping carts, or if I felt talkative, like there was fire in my gut that needed expression, I could pour on the charm. “how are you folks tonight?” “My that’s a nice dress” “The family that shops together stays together.”
Sometimes things got quite slow at Wal-Mart. Nobody wanted my greetings or my help with a cart. At those times I was able to dream up Meaningless Inspirational Slogans, much like the ones we sent to teenage models as cell phone affirmations. Here I was thinking of placards, posters, framed statements to hang in board rooms to show a commitment to excellence. Eagles, sunsets over the ocean, proud stags lifting their mighty rack of antlers aloft.
“Never Apologize, Instead Inspire!”
“Excuses are like jelly beans, one is too many and a thousand aren’t enough.”
“Wings and Imagintions Need to be Stretched to Fly”
I would write these down in a little notebook I carried in my blue Wal-Mart greeter vest, the one that said “Sam” (my nom du Walmart) on the pocket. After a few weeks I made the mistake of showing them to the Assistant Manager.
“These are great!” he exclaimed. “Let me show them to the Manager. I knew you weren’t just a Greeter.”
The next week they asked if I could make a presentation at a management training seminar to be held in a nearby hotel. They assured me I’d still be on the clock even if I was off-site. I agreed.
Well, wouldn’t you know it but Sam Walton’s son just happened to be at that seminar, and he was so impressed he asked if he could license my slogans and print them for in-house use. I agreed to that, as well, and then within a month the plan had changed to embossing them on laminated plaques and selling them at every Wal-Mart in the English speaking world, with plans to translate them into thirty-two other languages.
That’s when Natasha came back into my life. It turns out that she and Dick Cheney had checked into a motel just blocks from my house in Peru, Indiana. They were registered as “Mr. and Mrs. Donald Rumsfeld.” I had no idea they were a couple, and the idea seemed both oddly grotesque and inevitable.
She called just as I was leaving for my morning stroll around the neighborhood, what people used to call a “constitutional.” She asked if they could come over. I asked “who’s we?” and that’s when she broke the news about her being hooked up with the former VP and Halliburton CEO.
I told them I would be back in forty-five minutes, make it an hour, and would be glad to serve them instant coffee and what was left of a box of Oreos. When I got back home there were four SUV’s parked in front of my house, each with tinted windows. I could dimly make out men wearing sunglasses sitting inside each. As I approached my front door, I heard the door locks open, sounding en masse like the rifles of a firing squad being cocked all at once.
After I opened the door, five men wearing earpieces pushed past me and quickly went through each room in house. In less than a minute they re-appeared, returning to their vehicles. Then Natasha and Cheney emerged, deep in conversation, seemingly oblivious to my presence. I stood at the door and waved them inside, Cheney giving me his trademark smirk as he passed.
I broke out the Nescafe and the Oreos (both, by the way and product of Nestle foods, a Swiss corporation that had major holdings in Halliburton.) We exchanged pleasantries. Then Cheney got down to business.
“I suppose you’re wondering why we’re here. Why are your ex-wife and one of the most reviled men on the planet sitting in your living room? Well, I’ll tell you why. We want you to stand up to the enemy. We want you to risk taking a bullet for your country. Fact is, you’re not afraid to be an asshole and neither am I, and that’s the kind of people America needs right now.”
I couldn’t really follow him, but I nodded in assent so he would keep talking.
“I know I’m one of the most despised men in America. I planned it that way. Being popular is for wimps. I can take the heat, and believe me, somebody has to in order to get anything done. Oil is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. He who has access to oil is powerful and secure. Those who don’t are just hanging on by a thread, even if they’re not aware of how precarious is their position. The world, especially America, is full of new-age wimps, liberal arts graduates who think solar energy is going to solve all their problems. Solar isn’t going to solve shit, and least not while any of us are alive. So the question is, do we want to live in a third-world shithole and buy our gasoline from people who might suddenly decide not to sell it to us, or do we want to be in charge of our own destiny? What do you want?”
“I want to be left alone.”
“That’s what you think and say, but it’s not true. You want to be taken care of, just like everybody else. You depend on infrastructure and services that you’ve come to take for granted. When they’re suddenly not there, you freak and demand an explanation. You’re a normal American.”
“So what can I do for my country?”
“You can stop lying to yourself and others. You can man up to the fact that it’s them or us.”
“Who isn’t? Do you think we have allies? Friends? When the shit hits the fan, everybody is going to duck at the same time. Your wife has bigger balls than you do, but she lacks your talent for deception. You’re a real sleeze-ball. You’re perfect for this kind of work.
We want you to spend a few months in Viet Nam, starting up a phony Internet business. Then we want you to move to North Korea and become buddies with the fat guy. Eventually, we want you to wind up in Iran helping them advise North Korea on nuclear reactors and weapons manufacture. You’ll probably get out alive, but maybe not. If it all falls apart, we’ll probably deny knowing you.”
“There’s the stick. Where’s the carrot?
“There isn’t one.”
I swallowed. “If there were money involved…” I began
“Then you’d just be another whore like me,” Dick interrupted.
“You don’t seem to mind making money off your patriotism.”
“You have no idea of the depth of my self-loathing. Not only am I universally despised, but I judge myself even more harshly than do my enemies who are legion. Facebook disgorges a steady torrent of calls for me to stand trial at the Hague. Bush himself is pitied, but I am reviled. Americans don’t mind being lied to if the person lying is cute or somehow attractive to them. Reagan got away with Iran-Contra by just smirking and denying everything. My lip, however, is curled into a permanent sneer. I may be many things, but I am not cute.”
“Why don’t you just retire and let somebody else fight the good fight?”
“Nobody has the guts to stick with it. We have worked hard to keep the populace in a permanent state of anxiety. It takes perseverance and imagination to keep changing the details of precisely who is our enemy this month, or week. The public has a short attention span. They’re easily bored. Do you know how long it took to sell them on Saddam Hussein? Half of them are still confused about the difference between Osama bin Laden and Obama. Heck, they’d rather watch re-runs of Full House than try to figure out who we’re bombing this week and why. No, it takes a lot of creativity to keep America chomping at the bit.”
I had to admire the guy. He showed pluck. Most people would find themselves to some degree cowed by the sheer volume of venom they faced with each new day, but not Dick C. He was convinced that he was right, and is still right even now.
Those who lack his self-confidence do not warrant his attention. I found him both admirable an pathetic, but I secretly feel that way about a lot of people, and the co-dependent in me makes me want to help people like him save face if at all possible. Truth is, I felt sorry for Dick and his over-supply of pluck and I would stand up for him if he asked me to merely because I was afraid he would ultimately find himself alone, growling, hissing and swatting while his accusers and detractors closed in.
Fortunately for all involved, higher ups in the administration nixed Cheney’s offer to me, and I was given a few hundred dollars compensation for my time. I promptly used this sum to purchase an extremely cheap air ticket to the nearest third-world country, in this case Nicaragua.
The capital city, Managua, proved to be a real hell-hole, but getting just thirty miles away made all the difference, and I soon found myself lounging in the courtyard of a cheap hotel, catching up on my reading and swatting flies.
But I was no longer in Peru, Indiana, and even though I had brought myself along for the trip, the change of scene was significant. Yes, I was still me, but I was me in an entirely different place. You could buy sweet corn once a year for a month in Indiana, but here there were tropical fruits for sale year around, and the quality was as amazing as the low price. Here, people spoke only Spanish, but I felt more connected than I did in Indiana.
A bus trip to Matagalpa got me out of the bloated, decaying capital city, where the ruins of the 1970’s earthquake still lay on the ground. Matagalpa was not Switzerland, it was chaotic and junky, but on a scale less overwhelming than Managua. And my chances or being robbed were much lower.
I checked into a minimal hotel, the kind with a fan instead of AC, and lay flat on my back on the single bed to try to figure out what I was doing there. It seems I’d be pondering that question a lot over the last few months, with no easy answers forthcoming. Fortunately, before I got too far down the familiar path of self-loathing, there was a knock at the door.
I wish I could say it was a beautiful senorita, but instead I have to admit it was a young man of college age, still wearing his backpack. He also sported a nose ring and a very crude tattoo that ran halfway up his neck.
“Sorry to bother you, but do you have a cigarette I could bum?”
“Sorry. Don’t smoke. Come in.”
He entered my little room and sat stiffly on my lone chair, still keeping the backpack on.
“What brings you to Matagalpa?” I asked.
“No reason. Wandering about hoping something comes to me. Hoping to have occasional bouts of fun.”
“And have you found any?”
“Very little. Mostly boredom and loneliness.”
“Welcome to the club,” I barked with forced enthusiasm. “Don’t take it personally. It comes with the territory. Surely you’re writing a travel blog.”
“Me and everyone I know.”
At this point my guest began to pick his nose and then studiously examined his encrusted finger. I pretended not to notice.
“Already graduated?” I asked.
“Eight hours short. It’s all bullshit, though. I’m not going back. Who needs another guy with a B.A. in English? No, I’m out here to find the real world, to sample reality on its own terms.”
“What do your parents think about that?”
“They’re so deluded I can’t take anything they say seriously. My Dad is an ex-army officer. My Mom is a co-dependent nurse. I took a course in Psychology. She’s a classic co-dependent with underlying narcissism.”
“So how do you afford to travel?”
“Last of my student loan. “
We sat in silence for about half a minute. “I gotta find me a smoke. I’m seriously addicted. The cravings come every few minutes.”
“This is the place to do it. What do cigarettes cost, thirty cents a pack?”
“Marlboros are fifty. But yeah, it’s way cheaper than back home. I’m gonna plant some tobacco when I find a place to settle down. Grow my own. Go natural. Mind if I take this off?”
He glanced backwards at the back pack. I nodded and he let it drop to the ground with a thump. I could only imagine the quantity of soiled laundry it contained along with a dog-eared copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra, as well as a rusted harmonica wrapped in bandana.
“I thought about switching my major again at the last minute,” he confessed, “but I didn’t want to start over again with the core requirements. It seemed like everything I wanted to do required math. I hate math.”
It began to feel hot in the room. I thought about opening a window, but I thought that might imply that I wanted him to prolong his stay, to settle in and get cozy. So I stayed put.
“I’ve always wanted to learn a foreign language or two, but it’s so darn hard to memorize all those words and grammar rules. They say if you take acid you can learn a language completely in a few hours. I’ve taken acid several times but I don’t think I got to that point. Maybe I didn’t take enough.”
“Sounds like a rumor. If it were that easy, why wouldn’t everybody do it?” I ventured.
“I once saw purple veins underneath the skin in my face when I stared in the mirror for a long time. I kept wanting to come down but the whole trip lasted fourteen hours. That was no fun. But I’d do it again if it meant I could learn a foreign language.”
This kid need more attention that I was willing to give, so I thanked him for visiting me and promised we would stay in touch. I showed him to the door and let him out. I stood there dazed for a moment, then was just about to start packing to change hotels when there came another knock at the door. It was him again.
“I forgot to tell you that Dick, Condy and Hillary all send their love. I don’t know who they are. A guy in the lobby gave me a hundred pesos to tell you that.”
“What kind of guy? An American?”
“I don’t think so. He might have been German. Or Dutch. Maybe even Russian. He has some kind of slight accent.”
“You can eat for a whole day here on a hundred pesos.”
“I’m sure you can. OK, thanks for the message.” I tried closing the door.
“Your picture is in the newspaper. Today’s Mataglapa paper. Not the big one out of Managua. Under you picture it says ‘Famous Glass Eater Visits our City.’ What exactly does a glass eater do?”
“Eats glass, I imagine.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“I’ve been asking myself that for a while now. I’ll let you know if I come up with an answer.”
This time I closed the door and locked it.
I didn’t sleep well that night. For one thing, a club started playing Ranchera music with the bass turned way up. Salsa I might have been able to handle, but the strict, Germanic oompah beat set my teeth on edge. Mexican cowboy music is German in origin. It’s Polka music. I guess the Mexican influence in Nicaragua is stronger than the South American salsa tradition.
In the middle of the night I gave up tossing and turning and went down to the street to see what all the commotion was about. There weren’t many people about, just a noisy sound system in a dim club. I peered inside and realized my hotel was above the gay club in Matagalpa. Gay men and women, embracing, dancing, leaning against one another in dark corners. How unexpected. Somehow the terms “gay” and “Nicaragua” had never come together in my consciousness before.
Somehow seeing such an unexpected side of a banana republic made me feel less far from home. Whether I called Peru, Indiana home or Matagalpa, I was still just a human being living among others, trying not to mess up too badly and enjoy what was in front of me. This awareness allowed me to calm down. No hurry to accomplish anything. If my friends and tormentors wanted to find me, they already knew where I am. No running away from them.
I went upstairs and slept soundly until dawn.
The next morning I was ready to go somewhere and do something, but even though that was my sincere intention, as I dawdled over breakfast the where to go and what to do part never bubbled to the surface. So I waited until lunch and went through the same process, with the same results. By the time night fell, I had lost all impetus to do anything, and dinner found me slowly chewing on rice and beans with shredded chicken that might as well have been pork, and staring forlornly in the distance.
But then I met Claude. And Claude introduced me to Veronica. And Veronica changed my life for the better, an outcome which by this time I had completely given up on.
Claude was French, but he spoke perfect English, as well as Spanish, and was always in a hurry. He spoke so quickly it was hard to keep up with the flow of ideas, even though his elocution was impeccable. I just couldn’t think as quickly as he could talk. He was having breakfast at our hotel dining room, the same place that became a cantina at night. I later realized that most of the young women who sat on tables in front of our restaurant were prostitutes, but nothing about their dress or attitude conveyed that at first. When I realized what they were doing there, staring into the street and looking as actively bored as a person can, I realized that I would never in a million years be one of their customers. There was no way I could imagine this as sexy.
But Claude loved the nightlife, he loved the life of the city day or night, and he was to show me the intricacies of what I had been overlooking. He was friends with all the ladies of the night. He knew their boyfriends and husbands. He played uncle to their children.
And even though he was sort of ugly and good looking at the same time, with oversized horsey front teeth and a long, Gallic nose, he thought himself handsome, so others did too. In fact, his complete immunity to the thought that he was not charming is what made him so very charming. He was Cary Grant without the looks.
I first noticed that phenomenon when I was in high school, how sometimes a highly unattractive guy could win the hottest girls simply by acting as if were his birthright. “Of course women love me. Why wouldn’t they?”
Women do not find male shyness or timidity alluring. They might wish a timid man well, but they are not inclined to succumb to his charms, because he has none. Claude oozed charm. In the days I knew him at our hotel in Matagalpa, he was never without the ministrations of an attractive female. I, on the other hand, never knew them. The ladies of the evening looked at me as if I were a man there to check the gas meter.
I would smile at one and she would look away, as if something in the street were suddenly more interesting. Later, Claude confessed that he had told them I was a police informant. At the time, he admitted, he thought perhaps I was, for why else would a man of my age and bearing be living in a cheap hotel in a small, Nicaraguan mountain city?
Later, when I told him that I was simply drifting around the world without purpose or direction, and had spent quite a few days watching people stand in line in government offices, just to share in our common human condition, he started telling people I was mentally ill. It has occurred to me that he might be right.
By the time the seventh day of my stay arrived, I was told that it would be free, for I had unwittingly qualified for the stay a week, get one day free promotion. I took this as an auspicious event, and I was right, for that seventh day was the day Veronica arrived.
She shared Claude’s complete disregard for convention in dress and speech. I think her native language was Serbian, but I could never get a straight answer out of her regarding where she came from, as she seemed to have already been everywhere and done everything. She liked to talk a lot about Borneo, and once started singing a song that she said she learned in Paraguay, though it sounded Mexican to me. Her hair was jet black streaked with gray, and she wore it in an old fashioned bun, which made her appear a Mennonite schoolmarm on acid.
The three of us decided to do some exploring together. The paved roads ended soon after the city limits, and in order to go east one had to first travel on a heavily-rutted dirt road, which then dead-ended at a river. All travel beyond that point was by boat, mostly canoes paddled by half-naked Mosquito Indians. Our impulsive and recently-proclaimed goal was to reach Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, a vastly undeveloped area that contained only one city of an size, Bluefields, which had been founded by English pirates many years ago.
From there we would journey by a larger boat to Corn Island, and then by a smaller craft to Little Corn Island, from which we were promised we would find rare snorkeling and diving, a tranquil stay and untarnished tropical beauty. I wasn’t much for beach scenes, but I do like a good adventure, and just getting there promised to be at least that.
The canoe travel proved endless. Four days we spent sitting in a narrow dugout tree log, being poled and paddled downstream. We stopped for meals twice a day and when it got dark, which comes early in the tropics, we stopped for the night. Claude, Veronica and I entertained each other by telling stories, and in the process got to know each other quite well. The Indians were content just to sit around the fire and stare at us talking to each other, for apparently they knew each other so well they had nothing much to say.
Out in the forest, the night is quite loud. Insects saw, monkeys hoot, and non-vocal creatures move through the undergrowth. Unfortunately, no matter how little I drink before retiring, I still have to go to the bathroom a couple of times a night. I learned to urinate as close to the tent as I dared, for any step farther than absolutely necessary promised unacceptable risk.
Bluefields is as ugly a city as you could ever fear to visit, but it looked like Paris to me by the time we go there. By this time the river had widened as it approached the sea, and our going was painfully slow. It was all I could do not to jump ship and start running down the banks.
We missed the boat for Corn Island, so we had to spend the night in Bluefields. The only hotel with air-conditioning was relatively expensive for Nicaragua, but after four days on the river we were in no mood to quibble. All three of us shared one room, and as had been our habit the last few nights, we sat around in a circle talking. That’s when Veronica told us about her contact with Jesus.
“He appeared to me one morning after I had finished mowing the lawn. I didn’t really see him, I just sensed his presence, and I saw him in my mind’s eye. He was enormous. The size of an office building. And there were two angels, one on either side of him, who were equally large. The strange thing was the feeling I got off him. He was the nicest huge guy you’d ever want to meet. He knew me and cared about me and was delighted by me. I got the feeling that he judged me far less harshly than I judge myself. And he had a sense of humor! A wicked, delightful sense of humor. I could tell all this, though I can’t explain how I knew. The only words I heard were in my own voice, inside my head, and they said “You don’t have to worry about any of this. I’m in charge of everything.” The weird thing was, his presence lingered. Even after I stopped seeing him, I could feel him. It was Jesus, though he didn’t tell me that. I just knew it.”
Claude and I sat in silence for a long time.
“Did he ever come back?” I asked.
“Not yet. But he will I’ll see him again, one way or another.”
“I wonder if we will all meet him,” Claude added.
“I sure hope so. You’d be crazy not to want to. He’s the greatest friend a person could ever have,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say in response so I surprised myself by saying nothing at all. Usually not having a strong opinion makes me talk even more vehemently about subjects about which I care little or know nothing. I guess I envied her for having this experience of Jesus, and for knowing so assuredly what was up in that department.
But all the confiding in one another we had engaged in bonded the three of us together in a way I had not known for years. Not since my undergraduate days had I sat around talking so earnestly about abstract ideas.
The boat to Corn Island got us there without a hitch, but the smaller boat from Big Corn to Little Corn was a roller-coaster ride. The seas had picked up and the boat was being piloted by a maniac who obviously imagined himself in an action movie. The boat bucked like a bronco. Every time we slammed back down into the water, I thought the fiberglass hull would split and toss us into the sea. When we arrived on Little Corn, I suppressed an urge to drop to my knees and kiss the sand.
Later, I would be praying for a way out of there, but fortunately, I didn’t know that at the time.
The first night on the island, we stayed at a minimal but tolerable set of shabby bungalows. At least that’s what I thought at the time. Now, I realize we were staying in the best building on the island. Each of us had his or her own cabin, but accustomed as we were to the group, we instinctively turned to visiting. My bungalow had the biggest porch, so we gravitated there.
The first night, just after dark, the electricity quit, and it didn’t come back on until late the next morning. No one seemed surprised.
Everything on the island had to be brought over by boat, so it was at twice the cost of the mainland. Claude bought a big bottle of cheap vodka, and we passed it around. After a few hours he admitted that he was gay, and that he had once been a Roman Catholic priest. Veronica admitted she had given away twin daughters when she was very young. I admitted to being a professional glass eater. My admission earned the longest pause in the conversation. After what seemed like an eternity, Claude asked “Why?”
“I’ve done a lot of different things to make money, but this is the one that seems to work best anywhere and anytime.”
“But it is dangerous, yes?”
“Not very. Glass is just sand. You break it down into sand and then your body eliminates it. Not problem.”
Claude seemed satisfied with my explanation, but Veronica did not.
“How does it make you feel to do that for money?”
“I’ve had worse jobs.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Proud. Proud and accomplished. Sexy. What do you want to hear?”
“Angry. Why am I the chump who needs to eat ashtrays?”
“And the answer is…”
“I wish I knew.”
“I think you already do know. It’s just something you’re unwilling to admit.”
“Are you a therapist?”
“No, but I’ve been to plenty.”
“You and every other woman I know.”
The conversation died, but nobody wanted to go off to bed. We sat and stared at the darkness that was ocean. When you thought about how tiny this island was, and how enormous was the sea it inhabited, it got kind of freaky, which is why I avoided thinking about it as much as possible.
The next day proved eventless and made me wonder how anyone, even the most empty-headed young narcissist, could sit around listening to Bob Marley (obviously the Patron Saint of all island dwellers), sipping beer and watching other twenty-something walk by. Everyone wore flip flops and swimming apparel. Getting high, playing guitar and dozing in hammocks was, I swear, the only activity, other than probable screwing after dark. The smell of marijuana was omnipresent. I found myself wondering how these people avoided work, until I realized I was simply their older brother.
Again, when left to my own devices I began to worry about being suspended on what amounted to a large sand bar in the middle of a vast ocean. I tried to put it out of my mind.
The next day, however, avoiding thinking about our vulnerability became impossible. The morning began with impressive water spouts, little tornados of sea water that rose to a height of maybe three hundred feet. The sky in the distance was dark purple, but I couldn’t tell if the storm was coming towards us or away. The winds were from left to right, at right angles to the storm and the island, but then, after a few minutes of calm, they shifted and went from right to left. They also gradually increased in intensity. The big flag at the top of our hotel was flapping so hard it threatened to shred itself.
“Is this a problem?” I asked no one in particular. Claude and Veronica didn’t reply. There seemed to be no one out and about, and the beach was empty. The smaller boats had been taken in and the bigger ones lay at anchor, bobbing up and down in the increasing surf. Now there was lightening, but still no thunder. It got very dark.
“Is this a problem?” I asked again.
“Depends on what your level of acceptance,” Claude responded.
“My acceptance level is getting lower all the time,” Veronica added.
When the storm finally hit, it was preceded by heavy rain coming in horizontally, rain so heavy that even the buckets metaphor failed to describe it. It was a fire hose.
My ears began to pop. I was looking out the windows on the side of the hotel when they bowed out and exploded, the wind sweeping away the glass shards. The first thing to go was the thatched roofs, all of which blew away in a few minutes. The metal roofs took longer to fly off, but they did, joining their thatched cousins in the sea somewhere off the other side of the island. It turns out the island is only a mile wide at its thickest, so that was pretty much an instantaneous event.
Fortunately, our hotel was made of concrete and rebar, so the walls and floors remained. When the blowing stopped after a few hours, the sun came out and we were able to see that a great many structures had not been so fortunate. Many palms trees had been snapped in half or uprooted. The air was fresh, the sky blue, and puffy white clouds sparkled under the sun. Unfortunately, anything in the foreground failed to contribute to the calendar photo. The palm trees were denuded, with only a frizzy frond or two still in place. There’s nothing sadder-looking than a decapitated palm tree.
We assembled on the beach in front of what used to be the center of town, really just a wide sidewalk that ran from the pier to the city hall.
“I knew he would save us,” Veronica said at last.
“Who?” I wondered.
“Jesus. He has a plan for us. Otherwise that would have been it.”
I thought about snorting in derision, but then checked myself. What was to be gained by alienating one half of the two friends I had? Besides, maybe she was right. Maybe Jesus did have a plan for me, and I was just too dense to notice.
I guess it’s going to be up to Jesus to call my attention to whatever clues he’s leaving. I can’t follow the breadcrumbs if I can’t see them.
But He knows that. He knows more about me than I do. Every hair on my head is counted, and God knows somebody should be counting them, because they’re falling out fast.
“Now where?” I ventured.
“Someplace else. Someplace lucky,” Veronica offered.
“We’re already lucky. We’re still alive. I bet some people that lived here aren’t so lucky,” Claude said.
Indeed there were people walking around crying. Maybe they were looking for lost family members or pets. I remember there had been a large flock of chickens at the house next door, but now I saw no sign of them. Not a feather remained.
“I’ve got an idea! Let’s ask Jesus,” Veronica fairly shouted. Claude and I smiled weakly at one another.
“Go ahead, ask,” I said.
“Jesus, we need some guidance here. We need to go somewhere else, but haven’t got any idea where. We’re willing to do whatever we think you’re asking of us, but you’ve got to let us know what that is. Anybody else want to say anything?”
Claude and I shook our heads.
“Well, that’s it then. Now we wait for an answer.”
We waited until the son got too hot, and then we sat underneath the awning of the city all, which, being made of concrete, still stood. About twenty minutes later, a boat pulled up alongside the pier and two men in naval uniforms disembarked. They both walked quickly towards us.
“Are you Americans?” one asked.
“Yes,” we all said at once.
“We’ve got orders to evacuate you to Tegucigalpa.”
“But that’s Honduras. Why not Managua?”
“We don’t question orders. You have luggage?”
We were holding the few bags we came with.
“Come on then.”
We followed them to the boat and within seconds we were whizzing across the waves at the same speed we enjoyed upon our arrival. I kept trying to brace myself for every slam, but soon gave up, and just let my fillings begin their process or rattling out of my mouth.
Unfortunately, this went on for some hours. Way too many hours to keep track of. It made the peaceful canoe ride with the Indians seem like paradise. I kept trying to talk to either of the two men who picked us up, but could not made myself heard over the roar of the engines. It seemed that this was some sort of racing speed boat that had been retired from competition and was now being used to rescue stranded Americans
We arrived just before dark. The officers told us that their mission had now been accomplished and we were now on our own. They suggested a motel which seemed pricy by our standards, so we found one favored by backpackers, a group which apparently we had joined without knowing it.
Our motel was OK, though it smelled strongly of some artificial grape or cherry carpet freshener. Easier to sprinkle that stuff around than clean the carpets. There was a dining room/bar, and it was open when we arrived. There was a Honduran teen age girl staring at her cellphone, and an old guy nursing a beer and sort of paying attention to the TV, which was playing what I imagined to be a rerun of last night’s Honduras Has Talent!
We ordered cokes and a beans and rice dish, with shredded chicken. The old guy turned to us. He wore a patch over his left eye, a ragged hat pulled halfway down his forehead, and his teeth were a convincing shad of dark brown.
“You the Americans from Little Corn?”
“Yes,” Veronica said. “ How did you know?”
“The man you want to see gave me some instructions for you. He said wait here for further instructions.”
“Who is this man?” Claude asked.
“You’ll know him when you meet him. He’s been waiting for you. Knocking patiently at the door, as it were.”
“What does he want with us?” I added.
“His exact words were ‘Don’t do anything until you hear from me.’ ”
“That’s a be-bop song from the forties.”
The old guy went back to watching the TV.
“He’s talking about Jesus,” Veronica whispered.
“You mean we’re on a mission from God?” I whispered back.
“Darn tootin’,” she hissed. “This is the real deal.”
“I wonder if Honduras is dangerous. I thought I heard of it described as the murder capitol of the world,” Claude mused.
“This place ain’t so bad,” the old man said, turning away from the TV during a commercial break. “Nicaragua is safer, because they don’t allow our DEA free reign. Here, they just roll over and in exchange for foreign aid let us do whatever we want. That drives the price of drugs up, which makes it more profitable to sell, so the place is awash in drug runners. Don’t buy drugs, you’ll probably be OK.”
I noticed when he turned back that the eye patch was now on his right eye. I whispered this fact to Veronica, who nodded vigorously.
“You’re Jesus, aren’t you?” she said.
“How did you know?”
“I’ve been getting bliss rushes from your divine presence. We’re at your service. Honored to meet you. Want to do a good job for you.”
“Thanks. I wish I could say more people felt that way. Most people are pretty angry with me because something they expected would happen didn’t. Their plans didn’t work out. That’s the thing about plans. When you’re making plans that involved millions of people, not everybody gets to have it their own way. You each gotta take turns being right. Sometimes it’s not your turn yet. Learn to live with that and you got it made.”
“So what is your plan for us?” Claude asked and bit rudely, I thought, give the circumstances.
“Chill, Claude. It will all become apparent in due time. There’s an interesting volcano you can climb a few miles from here. It’s mostly dormant, but every once in a while it burps out a cloud of hot gas and pumice. Good day hike.”
“Why are we supposed to love you?” I found myself asking.
“You get to love me. If you’re lucky, you know about me and you want to love me. Once you’ve experienced me even a little, it’s torture to be without me. That’s the thing most people don’t know yet. It’s your job to get to know me and then tell others to do the same. If they want to be happy, and live in peace, it’s the only way. The good news is there’s no alternative that isn’t horrible.”
“Good act my friend. Hilarious. Understated, clever. I have to hand it to you. Even your getup tells a story. But we’re not stupid enough to believe what you’re telling us,” Claude said.
“I am,” Veronica piped in.
“Me too,” I echoed.
At that moment we looked at the each other and knew this was it, true love and I felt like an invisible horse had kicked me in the stomach. I knew this was going to lead somewhere, and I wasn’t sure I had the nerve to go for the ride.
The old guy chuckled. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to come around. You’ll get there eventually. There’s all the time there is. No ‘Hurry, Sale Ends Tomorrow.’ This isn’t a race. It’s the way things really are and always have been.”
Claude was getting upset. “If I thought you weren’t completely out of your mind, I would call you out on this bullshit you are serving up. But instead I will laugh at you. Ha. I laugh at you and the preposterous things you are saying.”
The old guy didn’t register a reaction. He looked like he was thinking about something else.
“I’m drawing men gently to myself. That’s the only way it’s gonna work. You come when you’re good and ready and not a moment sooner.” Then he went back to his beer and started watching TV again.
Claude, Veronica and I looked at each other and the quietly left. I wanted to say something like “Nice meeting you,” but it sounded too trite. Either he was the real dead or not, but nothing I could say at this point would make a bit of difference.
We rendezvoused again, this time in Veronica’s room.
“I guess we’d ought to look into long-term rates. And stop wasting money on privacy. This might take a while.”
“Claude, what will you do?” I asked.
“I do not know. Surely I will not remain here long. There is a decided lack of touristic beauty.”
“Infinite beauty requires infinite patience,” Veronica said, sitting on her suitcase.
“Something I admit I lack, Especially at this moment. Well my friends, good luck to you and your new associate. Together, may you save many souls.”
We wandered around together for a few hours until we stopped for a meal at a local sidewalk food stand. The man at the next table had a rooster tied to his big toe. The rooster’s head was sticking out of a hole in a bag.
It didn’t take Claude long to decide he wanted to return to Matagalpa alone. I didn’t blame him. If I hadn’t had Veronica and a sense of higher purpose I wouldn’t have spent more than a night is ‘galpa. We hugged at the bus terminal, and then he was off, on yet another colorful Central American bus, an old Blue Bird school bus from the States, now enjoying a second car career as an international carrier. As it drove off, I saw “Mason City School District” stenciled above the emergency exit at the back.
I don’t know how long Claude remained in Matagalpa, but Veronica and I stayed five weeks before we heard from our new employer. During that time we busied ourselves with such sightseeing as could be found, learning Spanish, practicing our daily lesson with the hotel staff, and swimming. Tegucigalpa does not come to mind when one thinks of water sports, but the nicest hotel in town had a pool, and most times we could use it for free, as everyone assumed, being white, that we were guests. The few times they asked us to pay, we ordered a lavish lunch, and then they forgot payment altogether.
So our needs were being met, maybe in mysterious ways, maybe not, but having each other proved a great prize. This being low season, the monthly rent for our humble room came to about twenty dollars American, and Veronica and I were so comfortable together we often felt to need to talk at all. I mentally contrasted this with my wife Natasha and I who quibbled constantly just to make sure we were both still alive, jockeying so that neither would gain the upper hand.
We joined a group of doctors from Texas who were here to repair cleft palates, mostly in infants, but sometimes in older children and even a few adults. The children didn’t seem as scarred by the deformity as the adults, who were so permanently ashamed they would not look us in the eye. The cleft-palate problem can range from cosmetic, an attachment of the upper lip to the bottom of the nose, revealing the front teeth, to an opening all the way back from the top of the mouth, making speech impossible, and causing a whistling noise with every breath. We don’t see much of it in America anymore because it’s routinely corrected in infancy. But here, the scope of the condition was obvious.
Our jobs were clerical. Sometimes I took the before and after pictures, but most importantly, we kept the records. Many of our clients had journeyed several days by bus or on the back of a truck to get here. We didn’t have beds for everyone. Usually at least four family members accompanied every patient, but those relatives and friends cheerfully slept on the ground.
It was not a completely safe procedure. Anytime you use anesthetic, there is a danger of death. This crew of doctors had never lost anyone, but there had been an incident earlier in the year, in Salvador, where an adult never woke up from the anesthetic. In the less severe cases, they used a Lidocaine in combination with another drug, Versed, that relaxed and confused you, what they call a “hypnotic.”
Unfortunately, the local teenagers were well aware of our stash of hypnotic and pain-killing drugs, and these had to be safeguarded at all costs. They were expensive and powerful. An over-dose by an inexperienced user was highly probable.
One day it was my turn to guard the safe, and I found myself distracted y a phone call. That’s when I caught a teenage boy with his arm in the open door. Our eyes met and I swiveled in my chair and kicked the door shut. He howled in pain. And then started crying. I imagine he was sixteen at the oldest. At first he tried to explain that he was simply looking to borrow a pen, but no one believed him. His arm was probably not broken, but the bruising was already beginning to show by the time the police escorted him away.
The general level of poverty and a tradition of lawlessness combined to make Honduras a pretty dangerous place. Hold onto your wallet. Don’t go out at night alone. All this took some getting used to, as my travels heretofore had been confined to Southeast Asia, where Buddhism made people gentle. Sure, you could still get your wallet stolen if you worked at it, but in general, there was no comparing the two cultures.
But here we were in relatively violent Honduras, waiting for instructions from Jesus. If you had told me six months ago that this would be my situation, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Veronica and I talked about our unusual situation at length one night.
“How long are we prepared to wait for these instructions?” I asked.
“I have no plan B. Do you?” she replied.
“No. But we could come up with one.”
“Sure we could. But we’ve been making stuff up all our lives. Where did that get us?”
“Here with each other. We found each other,” I said, with surprising sincerity and conviction.
“Grace. An unearned gift. There are more on the way, if we don’t stir up a bunch of shit and then have to deal with that.”
“But will we know grace when we see it? I’m not sure. I’ve had a lot of good things offered to me, good fortune, but I’ve been looking the wrong way when it showed up.”
“Everybody worries about that. That’s what faith is for. Stop worrying. He’s not playing hide and seek with us.”
I was to find out the truth of her last statement the next day when she was off trying to find a shop that would repair her sandals. It seems that even here the crafts of making and repairing items were in decline as everything was imported from China. Here, where leather abounded, people wore rubber sandals that were so cheap they were discarded when the first problems arose.
She was gone and I was sitting in at a street side café when Jesus walked by. He was wearing the same clothes as before, only they were, if possible, even a little dirtier. He sported a headband that looked like it had been made from an old T-shirt.
“I was hoping to find you here,” he said. “How’s it going?”
“OK. Still waiting for instruction.”
“Good. That’s very good. You’re not out there rushing from nutty compulsion to compulsion.”
“Only in my head.”
“That’s the way it should be. ‘Wait on the Lord and be a good servant.’”
“Where’s it say that?”
“Some place. Maybe a psalm.”
“How do you keep us all co-ordinated? Most people aren’t really determined to do your will, but even those of us who are need to be co-ordinated, right?”
“That’s the hard part. That’s why everybody needs to chill and wait for guidance. Thanks to advertising, most people think it’s a good thing to be guided by impulse, by desire. It’s not. It sucks. And impulse-driven life is a complete mess. Instincts on rampage. Everybody’s got the same basic instincts, and if they’re allowed to run the show, people are in constant conflict.”
“I can see that.”
“We’re like rats all running for the same door.”
“I’m one of you. That’s the part most people forget. I’m just like you except I’m also divine. I’m like you’re older brother who got there before you and wants to show you the way.”
“But why does it take so long? Why is it so hard?”
“That’s the plan. Everybody has to come to their own realizations or else nothing really changed. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Divine Mercy is more powerful than your ability to mess up. No matter what you do it will eventually work out, because Mercy triumphs in the long run.”
“Because I’m infinitely more powerful than you. And I have your best interests at heart. You can relax and enjoy the ride or you can fret and fidget. Up to you.”
“It doesn’t make any sense that it’s so convoluted, so full of trial and error.”
“It doesn’t make any sense to you. I understand. But there are a lot of factors to consider here, and most of us can’t see farther than our own desires and preferences. Face it, you’re not equipped to understand. Later you’ll understand more. Until then, relax and let me do my job.”
By now Jesus had lit a cigar and was lounging back in a chair that looked like it was getting ready to snap out from under him. The sun was in my eyes so I shifted over to be able to be able to look at him without squinting. It was then that I saw the men in the SUV.
Across the street and in a parking lot an SUV with dark-tinted windows was parked. Three men were standing alongside the car, and looking in our direction. I got the impression there were more men inside the vehicle.
“Look over there,” I suggested.
“Satan and his minions. Yeah, they’re all over the place. Narco trafficantes. Some work for the DEA as well as the cartels. The place is swarming with them.”
“Are they after you?”
“Always. They’re after you, too, but they don’t know who you are. Yet. Try to keep it that way. Listen, I have another piece of the puzzle for you. Remember Claude?”
“Yeah. What about him?”
“He’s an important person for you to stay in touch with.”
“He went back to Nicaragua.”
“I know. That’s where you should be. Only a different part. Ometepe. You belong on Ometepe with Claude and Veronica. It’s an island in the middle of a big lake. Twin volcanoes.”
“What am I supposed to do when I get there?”
I finished the sentence for him. “….further instructions.”
Patience is a virtue, and I guess I wasn’t very virtuous, but I did my best not to complain about my struggles with it. I just thought I would have more time to improve my character. Turns out waiting wasn’t optional There was, and now I know there is, no alternative.
“Wait on the Lord and be a good servant,” Jesus said. “That’s not too hard to understand, is it? Simple concept, hard to put into practice.”
“You’ve got angels ready to zip across the universe at the speed of light to do your bidding.”
“Milton said that. Yes, I remember. He was right. ‘Those also serve who only stand and wait.’ Yes, he got the message loud and clear. Hey look, I gotta split. If you find those guys are following you, then it’s time to drop everything and go. I might see you again down here, I might not. But it doesn’t matter. Eternity is a very long time. Hasta la vista.”
With that, Jesus put on his shades and walked down into the dusty street and on over to his motorbike, one those junky Chinese pieces of crap that everybody rides around here and that falls apart in a year. As he took off, I saw two SUV’s follow closely behind. The last view I had of him he was riding up a hill into the setting sun, his bike spouting oily smoke and whining like a hornet in a bottle.
Only a few minutes later, Veronica appeared.
“He was just here,” I told her. “Said we belonged on Ometepe in Nicaragua, with Claude. Guess we’d better leave tomorrow.”
Claude was glad to see us, but hesitant to believe our claim of divine guidance. We assured him it was a pleasant and interesting tourist destination, which it proved to be. It only took a day and a half to get there, culminating with a ferry trip across a choppy Lake Nicaragua, with the dramatic cone of Volcan Concepcion growing steadily larger as we approached.
We found an inexpensive rental at a place called “El Porvenir” or “The Future.” It bordered the flanks of the dormant volcano, the two volcanoes making up most of the island’s land mass. There was absolutely nothing shaking at El Porvenir, but that was OK, because we had nothing to do but wait around. There was nothing close by so there was no temptation to go anywhere. We ate, slept and ate again. Every once in a while we would walk down to the water and swim a little, but there was no attractive beach to hang out on, and the sun was awfully hot while the lake was warm, brown, and lacking in any sort of wave action. So we didn’t even bother to hit the beach. Fortunately there were plenty of hammocks around, and a stony trail leading up to the other volcano for those restless enough to want to hike. I’ve never seen much percentage in trudging uphill, especially in tropical heat, but Claude made it to the top without complaint. He said there was a crater full of browning, warm water up there, a little cooler than the lake water, but not terribly different.
The guys in the SUV’s came at night. I heard them driving up the steep concrete driveway and talking to the guard. Even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying, I knew it was time to go. The three of us slipped through a gate in the fence and as quietly as possible faded into the woods. We had no flashlight and no idea where we were headed. But we knew we didn’t want to stay where we were and meet or future captors.
We hid in the bushes for hours. Eventually dawn came and we could see that the men in the SUV’s were gone. But we still didn’t want to risk going back to our rooms, so we began to walk up the dormant volcano. Roosters crowed. People were out working already, hacking away with their machetes and the infinite amount of green stuff that was growing all around.
We waved and said “hola” and most people waved back. Without a destination in mind, we kept slowly climbing until after about an hour, we found ourselves back at the lake that Claude had visited. It was still early morning and pleasantly cool. The other volcano stood in the distance, beautifully lit from the east by the sun, and just as we were admiring the view, it disgorged an immense chimney of jet-black ash. About twenty seconds later we heard a resounding boom. The sharp report of it echoed and re-echoed from this volcano to the other and back again.
“Thank God we’re on the dormant one,” Veronica said. We watched the black smoke be blown in two different directions, depending on altitude, and within three minutes there was nothing left to show. Then we heard bubbling coming from the lake. The bubbling stopped. Not long after, scores of fish floated up to the surface, floating on their sides. Soon there were hundreds, maybe thousands. The lake must have been quite deep, because it was hard to imagine that many fish living in such a small body of water.
“At least we won’t go hungry,” Claude said, as he began to use a long stick to retrieve a number of them.
We didn’t go hungry, even though we stayed there by the lake for the entire day. Turns out Claude had everything a survivalist would need in his backpack. We had a fire, impaled the fish on long metal spikes, and completed the meal with trail mix and filtered lake water. The entire day we didn’t see another person. Usually a constant stream of hikers visited the volcano top, but today they were either staying put or had already left the island.
At the time, we had no way of knowing that a general alarm had been issued, and that ferry service to the island had been halted, all boats employed to take people to the mainland. Most of the permanent residents chose to stay, but many tourists had already left, and of course we had no idea if the mysterious men who had come to El Porvenir were among them. Maybe we had over-reacted. Who knew?
We weren’t sure what to do so, in accordance with our latest philosophy, we did nothing. The day got warm, then the sun set and it became surprisingly chilly. Howler monkeys howled, or rather, hooted in the trees nearby. Their calls sounded amplified, as if each monkey possessed an amplified speaker.
The next day the dead fish were beginning to smell bad, so we left the volcano, climbing back down a steep trail that ran by a large waterfall. Every once in a while a gap in the trees afforded us a view of the lake below. Still no ferry operating.
When you’re on an island, you’re acutely aware that you’re no longer on the mainland, and that you can’t just zip away at a moment’s notice. And so, with this mindset, we leisurely made our way down to the water’s edge, where the dirt and rock road that circled the island would take us back to the nearest town, Alta Gracia.
Before we had made it five minutes farther, a speedboat pulled up near the shore. It was being piloted by a man who looked like he was playing the role of an Italian playboy in a sixties movie. Two women with dyed blond hair sat behind him.
“Want a lift?” he called in English.
“Where to?” Claude asked.
“Anywhere but here, I would imagine,” the playboy answered.
After wading into water up to our knees, we climbed aboard. The blondes, also wearing Ray Bans, giggled in unison.
Turns out we were headed back to the mainland, but not to the town with the ferry terminal, but another one I’d never heard of before, a simple place with fewer than a hundred homes. The Italian playboy pulled alongside and set us on the dock, and then waved a merry good-bye, gunning the throttle and racing off. The girls smiled and giggled.
It was there we learned that political unrest had accompanied to volcanic burp, and that a state of martial law existed throughout the country. Nobody knew anything for sure, but apparently there had been a coup, and the President was either in exile, prison, or dead.
We had no idea what this news meant for us, and for now we didn’t care. Even though there was no proper hotel in the town, we were able to secure rooms in a guesthouse, a ramshackle affair with crowing roosters in the yard and laundry on the line.
Not sharing Veronica and my newfound faith in you-know-who, Claude was brimming with plans. We should follow the Rio San Juan east back to the Caribbean, link up with rich people who sailed yachts around the world for pleasure, and sign on as deck hands. He had done the very thing twenty years ago and managed to circumnavigate the globe in a haphazard manner.
We told him we couldn’t join him, as we were awaiting guidance from above. Claude didn’t say anything for a while, then he ordered a beer and told us what he thought of our new belief system.
“You are delusional because you’re stabbing around trying to make sense of your lives. And since you’re both in the same place, enduring a crisis, you’re supporting each other in your irrational beliefs. But the crisis will eventually pass. Maybe then you will be able to let go of the irrational beliefs. Maybe not. I hope for your sake you will.”
We couldn’t think of anything to say that would change his mind, or cause him to suddenly want to be a believer, so we thanked him for his opinion and said we were glad we were all together again. I remembered what Jesus said in the bar in Tegucigalpa. “I draw men gently to myself.”
There was an old guy trying to flirt with two women who seemed irritated by his presence. When he looked my way, I nodded and smiled. He seemed European or American, but his nose was crooked in a way that suggested it had been broken long ago in a fight and never property set. After the girls left he approached us.
“I saw you arrived on Don Vincente’s speed boat. Did he try to hold you up out there? That’s his thing. He gives people a ride and then he robs them out in the middle of the lake.”
“No, he just gave us a lift.”
“You’re lucky. Maybe he figured you were so broke it wouldn’t be worth his while. I met one couple who he pitched overboard and they swam the last mile to shore.”
“I wonder if there were others who couldn’t swim,” ventured Veronica.
“That was my thought, too,” the old guy added. “Say, would you happen to have enough to buy me a beer? I’m plum broke.”
Claude came up with the money and the old guy handed him something and shuffled away.
Veronica sighed. “I think we’re going to be stuck here for a while.”
“How much did you give him?” I asked.
“I think about forty five cents,” Claude responded.
He unwrapped the wad of brown paper he was holding and it contained two almost identical rings. They were rust colored, with an orange stone. One was bigger than the other. They looked like wedding rings of some sort.
“He said these were for you.”
“He said that?” I asked.
“He mumbled it.”
Veronica came over and examined them. She slipped the big one on my finger and the smaller one on hers.
“Darling!” she cried, ironically. We hugged robotically.
Claude looked away.
It had gotten dark in the last few minutes, and we were barely able to see one another inside the restaurant. People here get by with little artificial lighting. Bulbs are few in number and weak. Electricity is unreliable. And when the sun sets in the tropics, it does it in a hurry. No lingering twilights. With the general lack of illumination, the stars are quite brilliant, and seeing the constellations and a crescent moon float above the volcano, still dimly glowing from the last of the setting sun, was an image to remember. I felt like something important was happening, but I wasn’t sure what it would turn out to be.
The next day, we went down to the waterfront to see about getting a boat back to the island. There were none. Easy, however, to catch a bus going anywhere else in the country. So we caught one headed to Rivas, a short hop away, a city with absolutely nothing to recommend it, but at least it was a city. They even had a hotel with air conditioning, though it was as expensive as one back in the States. We had lunch there and waited to see how things would turn out. I guess we were once again waiting for guidance.
Even though it was blisteringly hot day, the patio wasn’t too bad, with lots of shade and fans shared by every other table. As happens in a lot of Central and South America, beggars bothered the patrons unless chased away by a waiter. Our waiter was busy taking an order from another table. A toothless, shoeless black man approached us. To our surprise, he spoke perfect though poorly enunciated English.
“If you had any idea how much I love you, you’d stop your whining and enjoy every moment of your life,” he said, holding out his hand for money.
Veronica gave him a few coins.
“Each and every one of you is the source of immense delight. In heaven we can’t get enough of you. Even when you mess up, it’s cute, not creepy.”
“Do you have any guidance for us? We’re waiting for instruction,” I asked.
“Dig the present moment to the max. This is it. This is as good as it gets. There’s nothing you need to do that hasn’t already been done. This is the fun part. Drudgery is over. You can drag your ass around and mope if you want to, but it doesn’t entertain me and it certainly doesn’t do much for you.”
“We’re not deliberately manufacturing misery, “ I protested.
“Good, because there’s enough of it already. And it’s all fake. Stick to the real stuff…”
Just then our waiter arrived and shooed him away.
“Keep trying to get back to the island,” he said as he stumbled back down the street.
This was not what we wanted to hear. We were so done with the island. As a matter of fact, the charms of Nicaragua were starting to fade for what at first had seemed fresh and revolutionary now felt shabby and hopeless. Discouraged, we decided to eat and maybe come up with a plan of action. That’s when the Americans entered and took a table across from us.
“Tell us what you do for a living,” the leader of their group asked.
“Is it true you eat ashtrays?” asked his comrade.
“Can you eat one now?” a third inquired with a sneer.
“Sure. I do it if others bet I can’t. How much are you willing to wager?”
They snickered and looked at each other. Soon the boldest in the bunch offered to bet $100 that I couldn’t eat the ashtray in front of me. I made a big deal out of staring at the astray in mock fright. It wasn’t especially large, but I stared at it solemnly, even managing a comic gulp.
His friends soon followed suit. I asked them to give the money to the bartender for safekeeping and then I asked for a paper bag and a hammer and began the process of reducing the ashtray to powder. Veronica stared at me, as this was the first time she had seen me in action. I didn’t especially care for the expression on her face, but then I didn’t especially care to be going back to work, except for the fact that we needed the money. Three hundred dollars would last us almost a month here.
I wondered if these Americans were the men who had come to El Porvenir that night. They certainly weren’t tourists, as they had an air of SWAT team about them that just wouldn’t dissipate no many how beers they drank. The streets here were filled with a mix of people, but the wealthy certainly stood out compared to the rest of us. And these men looked as if they hadn’t missed a meal in a long, long time.
The pounding took a long time, and usually my audience waned after fifteen minutes, though there was so little going on here that I held their attention for a good half hour. Veronica still stared at me, and in that stare I read a variety of emotions. Blame, shame, sorrow, and finally compassion. No, it wasn’t easy being me, but I could have told her that if she’s just asked.
Then I began eating the sand. Usually, I washed each mouthful down with a drink, and since I hadn’t been drinking alcohol for a while now, I chose coca-cola diluted with water. Eventually I would switch to just water, but the eating took longer than the pounding, and I would be a this for several hours.
Veronica watched me, shooting a wan smile my way every once in a while. The three men had begun to argue among themselves about something unrelated to me, so I didn’t notice when two of them left. Finally, the leader of the group gave me his undivided attention and spoke.
“You seem far too clever for this sort of thing. There must be something going on inside you that makes you think this is all you deserve. I guess it beats some self-destructive behaviors, but it doesn’t add up, at least to this observer.”
I didn’t replay, but kept eating small amounts of sand.
“You could help your country if you like. That group of men you despise like you, for some reason I can’t surmise. Dick, Don, even W are hoping you’ll stand up for our country when the time arrives. Well, I’m here to tell you that time is now. Hillary and Condy both want me to remind you that we each have to do our part. Do you agree?”
I didn’t know what he was driving at, so I just nodded and kept swallowing.
“They’ve found a way to turn nuclear waste into glass. Deadly plutonium can be rendered almost inert by being turned into a kind of glass. We want you to show the public that nuclear energy can be safe. We want you to eat that glass. We want you to ingest the entire annual output of radioactive waste from an operating plant and we want you to do it on nationwide television. It’s been vitrified, turned into glass, and made inert. Can’t hurt you.”
I said nothing but Veronica got upset.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” she said, more loudly than I’d heard her say anything in the time I’d known her.
“Just a fellow patriot,” he replied. The more I saw of this guy, the more I liked him. I still didn’t care much for the people who sent him, but that didn’t mean they had all been painted with the same brush.
It took five more hours to finish the job. Just before dawn they examined the table at which I’d been sitting, and realized the ashtray was gone. The other two guys never came back, but the one guy handed me the cash, and then said “I hope you’ll give what I said serious consideration. They’re waiting to hear from you.”
Veronica and I staggered back to our rented room, drunk with fatigue. When we fell into bed with our clothes on, we both stared in silence at the ceiling. Something was crawling up there, probably a gecko. I thought about turning on the ceiling fan to scare it away, but then I closed my eyes and forgot all about the gecko until I woke hours later to a pounding at the door.
It was them again. The guy who had done most of the talking was at the door itself, with the other two guys acting as lookouts a few yards away.
“They want an answer. There’s a chopper with the glass from the reactor waiting at Gitmo. They’ll bring it down here the moment you say ‘yes.’”
“What’s in it for me?”
“Besides the helping your country?”
“You mean helping the nuclear power industry.”
“Solar and wind ain’t gonna do shit. Our energy demands are already a hundred thousand times bigger than that. We’re stuck. The air heads and hippies don’t want to hear about it, but it’s true. You can help us prove that we’ve got the hazardous waste thing covered.”
“And what’s in it for me?”
“More money than you’ve ever seen before or will again. And you’ll be famous. You can charge more for eating ashtrays, or give it up and go into a new line of work. Or retire here and never work again. Up to you.”
“I wanna live here. On the side of that volcano. I want to own a few acres of land, have a simple bamboo house with a thatched roof. I don’t need a lot of money to do that.”
“OK, give the money away. Up to you.”
Veronica indicated she wanted to talk to me in private. I told him we’d get back to him in a few minutes and closed the door.
“He’s right, you know,” she said once we were alone. “Nobody wants to face facts, but we can’t just listen to a bunch of brainless hipsters and airhead dreamers. We’ve got to find a way to deal with nuclear waste and stop burning hydrocarbons.”
“Where did these strong opinions come from? How come I never saw this side of you before?”
“We don’t know each other that well. Just because we like each other doesn’t mean we’re the same person. If these guys are going to give you a bunch of money to eat glass, take the money. Eat the glass.”
“What if it kills me? It’s radioactive.”
“It won’t kill you right away. It’ll kill you in thirty years. By then something else will have killed you already.”
“I thought you were on my side.”
“I am. I’m on our side. This is probably why Jesus asked us to come here.”
“Jesus. Forgot all about him. Yeah, maybe you’re right.”
“We don’t need to know what’s going on,” she continued. “We just need to have faith that He does, and that he’s got our best interests at heart.”
“He’s got a plan.”
“Maybe yes, maybe no. He could also merely be winging it. But if so, he’s better at it than we are.”
When I told the guy I’d do it, things started to happen really quickly. A very nice speedboat whisked us back to the island and we soon found ourselves back at El Porvenir, the idyllic guest house on the flanks of the volcano which we had last seen in the middle of the night when we slipped into the woods to avoid capture.
Within hours TV crews began to arrive. BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, NHK, Deutsche Welle. Fox News sent a legion of blonde bimbos. Then the black helicopter arrived at a helipad I hadn’t noticed before, surrounded by beautiful vegetation which was momentarily flattened by the win from the spinning blades.
Cameras rolled as soldiers carried the silver sarcophagus towards me. Reporters who tried to ask me questions were stopped by my handlers and handed a list of talking points which I had no part in preparing. I didn’t mind. This wasn’t my deal, it was theirs. I was simply the guy who was going to eat twenty pounds of nuclear waste fused into a blob of dark purple glass.
Set up took a long time. They gave me a large mallet to begin the operation and two smaller hammers with which to whack the chunks. As I hovered around the honey wagon, which in this case was a grill set up to cook street food. A reporter from Al-Jazeera approached me. Quite a beauty with the biggest mane of jet-black hair I’d ever seen, she started whispering questions to me.
“Is this the biggest object you’ve ever eaten? Is there a sexual thrill attached to eating glass? Why aren’t you afraid of being poisoned? Who was your favorite Beatle?”
“My favorite was John. He was the driving force and personality behind the group. The others were just along for the ride, though Paul was a good compliment to John, his talents were small by comparison.”
She nodded and waited for me to reply to the other questions. I tried to think of something succinct or clever to say, but couldn’t. Fortunately, I was rescued by a man with a walkie-talkie and a commanding presence.
“They need you on set,” he said both to me and his walkie-talkie.
When I sat down behind the purple blob, all eyes were on me. Even though the sun was bright, they had found it necessary to put bright reflectors which focused the rays right into my eyes. I could barely keep my eyes open, but my request for sunglasses had been denied for fears it would make me look sinister. The image I was to convey needed “warmth.”
Fortunately, they didn’t want me to talk, so I had no microphone, but all around me there was a steady cacophony of voices and languages commenting on my activity, as I began to break down the purple blob, first using a sledge hammer, and then a smaller hammer on the pieces. Even I could hear their forced enthusiasm wane as the process dragged on. Sexy this wasn’t.
Six hours into it, I began to eat. At first, I couldn’t notice any difference between the purple glass and an ordinary ashtray. Certainly it didn’t taste different, but it was all I could do not to let my imagination get the best of me and detect a warmth coming from my gut. Surely they wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble to deceive me and the general public.
Veronica, who had been sitting on the sidelines watching with increasing concern, came over.
“How is it going?” she asked.
“Same as usual, except I’m trying not to let my imagination run riot.”
“He wouldn’t have sent us here if this was a bad idea.”
“You know who.”
“Oh, Him. Yeah, I guess you’re right, or else we’re both wrong, in which case I’m eating a nuclear reactor just for the heck of it.”
The sun was setting and the TV lights seemed all the brighter. By now, the best looking of the reporters had tired of the affair and had retired to their dressing rooms, little campers and motor homes. A mariachi band had been hired to pep things up, and we’re waiting in the wings for permission to play. They seemed puzzled by what was going on, and I had to suppress the desire to take them aside and tell them they were not alone in their puzzlement.
The rumbling started just after the moon rose. At first, I thought it had to be some sort of construction noises, but then I remembered that there was nothing being built on this part of the island, and the volcano we were on was the dormant one, so it couldn’t be that. But what about the other volcano, the one a few miles away?
The rumbling noises came and went for the better part of an hour, until a sharp explosion got everyone’s attention. Suddenly, all cameras swiveled toward the overlook, with some camera operators removing their cameras from their tripods and carrying them on their shoulders. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see the volcano directly, but I could see a red glow of the eruptions flickering on the people standing along the road in front of me.
By now, I was beginning to feel something. A light-headedness, an elation that made people seem impossibly funny and, dare I say it, cute. Suddenly everyone was endearing. I felt a compassion towards them all, an avuncular feeling, a diffuse and non-specific love. I wished them well. I was delighted by their efforts and activities, all childishly playful in the face of what we were actually experiencing. How can you compare a volcanic eruption to a man eating ground glass as a publicity stunt? One has actual gravitas, the other is patently silly.
My new mood allowed me to eat much more quickly. I now swallowed the slurry with gusto. No one was paying attention to me anymore, as the eruption had upstaged me. Someone had even switched off most of the lights and so it became much more pleasant. I was enjoying this more than any other work experience in my glass-eating career.
The ash began to fall, making its presence known through the leaves of surrounding vegetation. It reminded me of ice rain back in Iowa. Not hail, but frozen rain, the kind that renders streets and sidewalks so slippery that all travel becomes impossible. Suddenly all the technician were scrambling to protect the cameras. Anchor people retired to their dressing rooms, all except for one blonde bimbo from Fox, who seemed drunk on excitement, and zipped around talking to anyone who might listen.
“This is an actual event! This is real news!” she kept gushing, getting more excited with each repetition. Veronica suddenly came awake, and pointed at the lady, laughing. She waved at me to make sure I saw her too. I waved back, finding both Veronica and the Bimbo to be impossibly cute.
Finally, my handlers approached and told me to pack up. By now I had eaten most of the ground glass. They advised me that we were going to evacuate to the mainland.
“What do we do with the remaining sand?” I asked.
“We’ll get a doggy bag,” the leader replied, solemnly.
I felt nothing but compassion for him, either, and deeply touched that he was taking care of us.
Veronica and I (with doggy bag) went to the helipad just as a few hundred howler monkeys leaped from the branches of a nearby tree, hooting as they scurried along the ground. They were followed by a dozen young people in yoga pants who were fleeing from a New Age resort nearby. We climbed aboard the chopper, whose engines were already running and whose blades were already turning.
As soon as we took off I could see the scope of the eruption. Huge clouds of jet-black smoke and ash were pouring from the mouth of the volcano, while red fires from below sporadically leapt above the rim. We were lucky to be getting away, and my gratitude caused tears to well in my eyes. Gosh, this was great! Could anything be better?
My excitement was mixed with a rare a novel sense of peace. I was calmly excited, if such a thing were possible. Choked with gratitude, speechless with wonder, I beheld the maelstrom of fire and smoke below.
That’s when I realized it was time to jump. Our curious pilot was taking us on a route right over the crater. If ever there was a time to experience jumping directly into an erupting volcano, this was it. How fortunate that it was all coming together like this. My hand grabbed the bag of sand even more tightly. I asked if we could slide the door open for a better view. Despite the noise of the motor and the fact that they were wearing headphones, the men in charge consented. I slid the door open. Veronica leaned over for a better view. We both stared down into the cherry-red circle, with swirling black smoke pouring upwards. I began to feel such elation as I had never tough possible. What better end for a wonderful life?
Before I could jump, I lost consciousness, and in the process relaxed by hold on the bag, which fell directly downward and into the fire. They caught me before I fell, and the pilot banked sharply to the left, causing the door to slide shut.
So I never got to eat the whole output of that nuclear reactor, but the part I tasted left me permanently transformed. I was and am now a better person than I had ever been. If only more people could taste what I have tasted, the world would be a happier and better place.
When we got back to our former guest house, Jesus was waiting for us at the cantina. Based on the number of glasses lined up in front of him at the bar, He had been tossing back mescal with beer chasers for some time, but didn’t seem any worse for the wear.
“You done us proud, kid. Nuclear power will be around for a long time thanks to you, and finally Monsanto GMO products are welcome all over the third world. Yep, Armageddon is just around the corner. Want a drink?”
“I’d better not. I’m higher than a kite already.”
“And you will be for some time. That stuff has a half-life of 25,000 years.”
He was right. Ever since that day I have been feeling better than I can ever remember feeling before. Who needs Prozac when you have nuclear waste?
Veronica and I eventually returned to America, drawn by big money offered for my story. Turns out I didn’t have to write it, there are people who can do that for you after just a Skype interview. Hallmark wanted to make a feel-good movie about it, featuring second-tier actors who resembled movie stars but without the distinct character of the more familiar prototypes. It would air many times on cable channels like Lifetime and Oxygen that appeal to middle aged women and offer stories of positive transformation.
Then came the interest in a real movie, an edgy affair directed by a German woman with an eating disorder who had made quite a name for herself in vampire erotica. She looked great from a distance, but up close she seemed an animated cadaver. Her husband, a little man who said nothing in the time I was with him, was scheduled to play me, except I heard there was also talk of offering it to Tommy Lee Jones, who had expressed interest. I was also informed that Kevin Spacey was considering the role of Dick Cheney, and Harry Dean Stanton wanted to flex his acting muscles with Nixon.
Even though nothing had really come to pass yet, I was now awash in money, and America seemed a far more benign place when one need not worry about the cost of things. Suddenly, paying thirty dollars for lunch was normal. I spent more in tips than I had for food and services in Central America.
The old feelings of boredom returned, slowly at first, but then they accelerated. I was gaining weight, getting fat. I slept ten hours a day and my biggest decision of each day merely involved which Netflix show to download. There was no reason to go anywhere, because all the shops were chain stores of some kind, and any personality they had was contrived and artificial.
Most of the communications we received from Hollywood involved promotional tie-ins and merchandising. Would I be pleased to have an updated version of “Moon Rocks,” a fizzy fluorescently-colored candy that could be re-packaged as edible radioactive glass? All I need do is pose for the package portrait and the bucks would soon roll in. The part they were really excited about was the lack of necessary FDA approval, as the product had been approved years ago, after the Apollo missions.
Jesus sent word through his people that he would consider a feature role if one were written into the script of either movie. I instructed my people to tell his people we would try our best, but I knew that most of this was completely out of my hands. I wanted to ask him if he wanted to play a good guy or a bad guy, but thought maybe that would incur his wrath, and then I’d be in for who-knows-what.
What I write is of no importance, nor will it have any in the future. But still, I write. I cannot stop myself, and I can only watch YouTube videos for so long without wanting to jump out the window. The ground is a long way down.
For the past few years, the stock market and especially hedge funds have been good to me, and so I live a long way up. The 72nd floor is so high that it feels like I’m in an airplane coming in for a landing. This feeling does not mix well with the nesting instinct. In fact, simply looking out the window makes me want to take a tranqulizer. When I come home from a hard day at work (OK, it’s not actually work, it’s mostly playing with my computer and making arrangements about lunch) I half expect to hear an announcement advising me to fasten my safety belt and that the contents of the overhead bins may have shifted.
So these are the circumstances of my life, yet when I write, I have nothing to say, no advice to give, no counsel to offer. In fact, my life may best serve as a caution to others: live as simply as possible and try to appreciate the moments of peace when they occur. It is peaceful sitting here at my dining room table, my laptop open in front of me, watching the clouds that float below casting shadows on the tiny buildings.
Sometimes I become aware of all the people who labor daily to provide the ease and comfort I enjoy. When I imagine their lives I briefly become sad, and then frightened. I think they resent my ease and comfort, and if they could, they would get even with me. They would enjoy throwing me out of the windows I now look through. Then I want to take a pill, to calm me down and stop the obsessive thoughts that are my constant companion once I try to enjoy a simple moment of peace, like the one I am now doing my damndest to experience.
The cook has brought me my dinner, but I have a hard time relaxing and enjoying my meal, or even swallowing my food, knowing that she wants to clean up and return home as soon as possible. So even though at this moment she is hiding in the kitchen, I feel as if she is standing next to me, glaring at my plate, waiting for me to finish my meal so she can whisk it away. Surely she is well-paid, at above the normal rates for cooks in these parts, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier for me to swallow my food.
What I’m writing here is the truth, so my confessions may have value simply because they are an accurate record of what it is like to be me, a moderately wealthy, mostly law-abiding middle-aged man at the beginning of the twenty-first century, living in the most expensive neighborhood in the capital city of an emerging economy, which is a polite way of saying I am surrounded by tens of millions of extremely poor people who would gladly throw me out my window if they could.
Is this the thanks I’ll get for fearlessly telling the truth? I feel like William Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey, grieving the lost innocence of his youth. I am like Milton mourning his blindness, consoled only by the fact that God no longer needs his services. Through an accident of birth and education, a convergence of circumstances that I had no part in, I enjoy high status. What I call “work,” others would call “play.” Essentially, I earn a handsome living gambling with other people’s money. If they win, I win. If they lose, I win.
A few yards to the side of our building’s entrance, I saw a group of fifteen or so men with shovels, digging a ditch in which to lay some sort of pipe. It was, as it typically is, horribly hot and humid. One of the men was my age and build, and the sight of sweat pouring off him as he gripped the shovel with muddy hands almost made me swoon in sympathy. “There but for the Grace of God go I!” I muttered as I walked the few steps to my BMW.
Yesterday was a real scorcher, and as I was walking a few blocks in an unfamiliar neighborhood I came across a small sewage pond with a few boys swimming in it. Actually, they didn’t know how to swim, but they weren’t drowning. In fact, they seemed to be enjoying themselves! Looked like a lot of good, not-so-clean fun. One of the things I appreciate most about the locals is their ability to enjoy the direst of circumstances. Absolute horror seems not to faze them in the least.
Far be it from me to judge how they run this country. There are a lot of locals who are far richer than I, and they seem untroubled by the great discrepancy of wealth. Maybe they’re hoping they will set an example to which others can aspire, and serve as role models. As a foreigner, I am thought of as an entirely different species altogether, so I can’t help inspire or motivate the locals to do as I have done. Besides, their path to the top would probably involve hard work and talent, while mine certainly did not.
No, it behooves me to keep my mouth shut, smile in an insipid and unfocused manner as I go through my day, and keep as much of my inner life as secret as possible. The Internet invites all sorts of fools and show-offs, voyeurs and exhibitionists to contribute to their own undoing, but I am not tempted to follow them on this road to ruin. My real name, my personal photo and e-mail address do not exist anywhere except in the most formal and appropriate of settings. No matter how diligently you search, you will not find a photo of me with a beer bong in my mouth, or posing in my underwear, nor do I comment on such postings by others. Discretion is in short supply nowadays.
Lately, the newspapers have been full of warnings of local unrest. The thin truce that has held for so long seems to be fraying. The military warns that they will not tolerate any nonsense from the communists, and the communists claim that the military is only interested in protecting the interests of the elite. A few public demonstrations are quickly crushed. Then, one night when I have come home from work I am sitting at my table, looking out over the city, I notice there are fires in several places, down along the river. Even though at this distance and through the thick plate glass of my windows I cannot hear sirens, I can see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. I am listening to a recording of Miles Davis’ Kinda Blue on my excellent sound system when the power fails. Fortunately, the Internet still works for a while, and my laptop battery is new, but the official news sources say little more than repeating a stern warning from the military that nothing will be tolerated.
With the power off, even more than the lack of artificial light, I notice the absence of moving, cool air. How long until the power comes back on? How will this place feel in a few hours without air-conditioning? Only one window opens, and I open it, to let in some muggy air. Now I can hear the sirens and what sounds to me like gunfire, punctuated by larger explosions.
The housekeeper brings me my dinner because the cook, she explains, has gone home. I ask about the fires, but she only shakes her head sadly and returns the kitchen.
This is not how I had planned my evening. Fortunately, the last time I was back in the States, I bought a wing suit, a flying costume of the sort popular with dare-devil extreme sports types in Switzerland. I keep it in the original box in my closet, near my diving gear. I’ve never bothered to read the instruction book that came with it, and in this light it will be difficult to do so, but I am urged to do my best by hearing shouting and angry voices coming from the stairwell. They still sound very a long way off, but surely a motivated mob could climb seventy-two stories in half an hour.
Getting into the suit proves no small task. It turns out I have neglected to purchase the small parachute that actually allows you to come to a stop. I remember seeing a National Geographic television documentary about flying squirrels, which contained a montage of their rough landings. Even though the wing suit stops the user from plummeting like a stone, you are still zooming along at over one hundred miles per hour. My only hope is to fly through the canyon of tall buildings until I reach the river, and then glide in for a landing over water. A surface dive. I was always good at surface diving back on the swim team. And, as swimmers go, I am still nearly at the top of my form.
Provided I am not knocked unconscious by the water landing, I’ll ditch the suit and holding my breath, swim underwater, undetected until I’ve put some distance between myself and the sinking suit. That way, if anyone has been following my egress, they’ll mistake the suit for me. Yes, this just might work.
The voices are getting louder. I hear cries of pain from my lower neighbors, breaking glass, laughter and cheers as something or someone tumbles downward from the windows below. As I put one leg through the open window I look back and see my housekeeper standing frozen in the kitchen doorway.
Like Errol Flynn in a pirate movie, I wave jauntily to her, and then sitting momentary on the edge of the sill, push off, spreading my arms and legs as I saw them do on YouTube, and hoping for the best.
A BRAND NEW SLIM
Slim´s big problem was that he thought only in terms of black and white. He didn´t allow for gradations of any kind: hue, density, or intensity. Either he was for you or against you.
With that sort of lens, the world seemed like a rapidly drawn pencil sketch, and nobody or nothing in it could earn his admiration for long. That´s why, at forty-six, he was still a virgin. No real woman had proved herself good enough.
He enjoyed pornography because in the videos and pictures he was never allowed to learn much about the women involved, so they couldn´t disappoint him by being flawed human beings. The same went for food. He enjoyed the anticipation of eating more than the act itself. All meals were more or less disappointing. They were just enough to keep him going until the next letdown.
It was his greatest hope that someday all this would change, though he hadn´t the faintest idea how this might come about. Then, one day when he least expected it, the idea came to him that incremental change might be the missing concept he had never before seriously entertained much less valued. It occurred to him that slow progress might be better than no progress at all, and that the amount of time it took to accomplish something might not prove terribly important in the long run.
Why this idea took hold one day, seemingly out of the blue, didn´t seem as important as the ramifications of the idea itself. Why, if this were true, then he had had his priorities screwed up for a long, long time.
He decided to test it, and began to study playing a musical instrument he knew nothing about, as well as learning a new language. The first few days showed rapid progress, but then he hit a wall, first with the clarinet and then with Russian. It all seemed too much. Where was the pleasure that came with doing something you were already fairly good at? He felt clumsy and stupid. Where was the fun in that?
After a few weeks of daily practice, he could play a simple melody on the clarinet and knew a dozen short phrases in Russian. After a month, he could play three songs and count to twenty.
What had at first seemed hopeless at last felt possible. His practice sessions rarely exceeded an hour per day, split evenly between the instrument and the words. Sometimes his progress was rapid, sometimes it was non-existent, but he continued anyway, for the sake of the experiment.
Slim began to look for other half-hour activities that he could practice on a daily basis. Jogging and figure drawing soon joined the regimen. Now, two solid hours of the day were spoken for. After six months, nothing substantial had really changed yet everything felt better. He was proud of himself. His own behavior had shown he was a man of his word.
He also found that when he spoke to others, he was far less negative than he had been before. He had always been quick to point out what was wrong with any circumstance. Now, such fault-finding no longer interested him. His few companions noticed the change and thought perhaps he was on anti-depressants. One female friend of a friend was convinced he had fallen in love, probably with a younger woman.
“He’ll be back to his old self as soon as the floozy leaves him,” she assured the group the moment he left the room.
The cynical female was named Crystal, and her secret was that she wanted Slim badly. She knew there was no young floozy vying for his affections, but it made a good story, and motivated her romantic ambitions. The fact that he had shown no prior interest in women only heightened her passion. She was the huntress and he was the prey.
“You know what´s wrong with you?”she told Slim when she found him sitting alone in booth at a café. Even though Slim hadn´t known anything much was wrong with him before she spoke, he had been trained to be polite to strange women.
“No, what´s wrong with me?”he replied.
“You think you´re better than the rest of us. But you´re not. You´re just a garden-variety human bean.”
Slim took time to imagine himself as a bean plant entwined on a bean pole. He nodded, thoughtfully, and wondered how long he could hold his breath around this woman, and if such behavior would cause her to leave him alone. He had been practicing holding his breath for increasing periods of time, and was now up to almost two minutes.
She had him pinned into the booth, having suddenly slid in beside him. Unless one looked very closely one would not be able to tell he was holding his breath, for his cheeks were not billowed out ala Dizzy Gillespie. But his face was growing slowly red. He was starting to sweat.
“You don´t strike me as a person who has a lot of secrets. Am I right?”she continued.
Slim shook his head “no.” The sounds in the restaurant took on a heightened quality, as if somebody had just turned up the volume. His ears began to ring.
“You do, however, seem like someone with blood pressure problems. Like somebody who´s about the have a stroke. My father had a stroke at fifty-five, but he lived for twenty more years in a nursing home. Every morning they would wheel him out into the day room and plant him in front of the television, but he couldn’t get them to understand that he hated TV, especially the programs the other residents and nurse’s aides liked to watch. So one night he managed to get himself over to the side exit and threw himself out the door and into the snow. He crawled a few feet before stopping. They found him frozen stiff the next morning, only five or six feet from the…”
Slim let out his remaining air and gasped for breath. No one else in the restaurant seemed to notice, but Crystal stopped talking.
“You are a strange one,” she finally said. He nodded.
They were married just a few days before his forty-seventh birthday. They honeymooned in Arkansas, spending most of the weekend in a motel just outside of Eureka Springs. He found out by looking at their wedding certificate that she was fifty-one.
“I’m glad you don’t have a thing about older women,” she cooed their first night in bed. He hadn’t thought about it one way or the other, but he guessed she was right. Separated from his clarinet, he practiced scales on a broom handle. He had packed his Russian textbook in his overnight bag, and was able to sneak in a half-hour of verb conjugations in between sight-seeing trips. Just before bed, he jogged in circles around the motel until he feared he might be taken for a prowler, and then up and down the dusty rock road that led to the main highway. Finally, he drew her as she reclined in bed, watching TV. She was flattered by his attention.
If they did little on their honeymoon, they did even less when they got back home. It took Crystal a week to organize their small apartment, and after a trip to Goodwill for second-hand drapes and K-mart for towels and cleaning supplies, they were domestically set. Then she began to watch television full-time. He still had a part-time job as a church janitor, and did some seasonal painting work when a friend of his who make a living painting needed a hand, but mostly they had few demands on their time.
She loved the daytime talk shows, especially the ones where the poor, uneducated women fought over men. Such programs confirmed all her prior beliefs about gender and race. She would hoot with pleasure when a melee of hair-pulling erupted while the unfaithful male in question snickered from the green room. Slim found it hard to be in the same room with her at these times, and spent a lot of time taking long walks trying to calm his nerves. Marriage wasn’t what he had hoped for, and pretty much what he had expected.
He decided to up his regimen of self-discipline. He added model-airplane building and calisthenics to his daily regimen. Within a few weeks Crystal noticed a difference in his muscle tone, and assumed he was doing it for her benefit. He let her assume what she wanted, and constructed a little space between the water heater and the basement stairs in which to construct and store his balsa wood model airplanes.
One night a week she would invite a few friends over for something akin to Bible study, though they weren’t actually reading the good book itself, but rather a guide to it that had been channeled by a blue-haired, self-proclaimed astral being who lived in New Mexico and had a cult following on the Internet.
Her fellow devotees were a mixed bunch, and the only thing they apparently shared was a deep distrust in organized religion and the government. Conspiracy theories of any kind were quickly accepted as Gospel Truth.
One evening, just after supper, he was doing push ups in the back-yard when he saw what appeared to be a pair of Mormon missionaries heading down the sidewalk toward their house. Even though he still had one more set of forty push-ups scheduled, Slim decided this would be a good time to head to the basement and begin gluing the tail wing assembly. He didn’t enjoy making polite small talk to salesmen of any kind, and the screen afforded by a few lilac bushes was not enough to ensure his backyard privacy, especially from those driven to save his immortal soul.
As he descended the basement stairs, he heard Crystal open the door and invite the young men in. She always welcomed anyone who might add to the day’s diversions. “What part of Utah are you from?” she cried loud enough to penetrate the floor boards.
It turned out that Crystal had quite a history of joining religious cults. When she was sixteen she had married a strict Seventh Day Adventist, who kept her pregnant and home-bound for almost a decade. When she escaped, leaving the children behind, she moved to the scrubby plains of Eastern Oregon, where she joined a large group of people who wore purple and jumped up and down, saying “hoo!” They were polygamous. Fortunately, they believed in and used birth control, which made her exit from there comparatively easy, and other than Monday night league bowling and her Internet dabblings, she had remained a spiritual free agent for a few years now.
That’s why Slim was surprised one night when she proposed that they join a church.
“Hon, statistics prove that couples that pray together stay together,” she had offered one night while he was brushing his teeth.
“That doesn’t seem a good enough reason to worship a false god,” he said.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and find the Real McCoy.”
As he spat into the sink he closed his eyes and was greeted by the image of Walter Brennan in overalls waving at the camera.
Slim tuned out the chatter from upstairs and concentrated on his model-building. He couldn’t tell what they were saying, but it seemed that he could hear the sincerity in their voices. Then, after maybe an hour, he heard the door close.
He finished what he had been doing, which involved an especially delicate operation of attaching a small metal hook to the rudder, and then lacing a control string through several other hooks and eyes. When he was done, he laid the model aside and went upstairs to see what there was for lunch.
The house was empty. There was a note on the dining room table in what he guessed was Crystal’s handwriting. “Gone to be baptized. I’m gonna be a Saint!”
He made himself a sandwich out of what he found in the frig, and then walked downtown to visit Glenn, who he knew would be home no matter what time of day it was. Sure enough, Glenn was in his room at the residence hotel, preparing some beans on a hot plate he kept in his room. It seemed like every time he visited Glenn, he had found him at his hot plate, cooking beans or making Kraft macaroni and cheese.
“How’s the wife?” Glenn asked when Slim sat down on the magazine-covered couch.
“Dunno. She left.”
“Already? That’s even quicker than I would’ve guessed. Think she’ll be back?”
“Maybe. Took off with a couple-a Mormon missionaries.”
“She’ll be back when she finds out what it’s really like.”
“You hear anything from the Feds?” Slim asked. Glenn had been waiting years for an answer to his request for a disability claim that he’d made when he heard that all you needed was to have a psychiatrist pronounce you unfit to work and you’d be taken care of for life. A lot of guys the age of Glenn’s older brother had taken that route, and had never worried about earning money again, as long as they maintained a minimal lifestyle, the kind to which Glenn had already become accustomed.
Glenn shook his head ruefully. “No justice in this world,” he sighed.
“Trouble is, you don’t have the right connections,” Slim explained, as if he knew what those connections were.
“You can say that again,” Glenn mumbled.
Even though he felt Glenn was a notch or two lower than the friends he could aspire to, Slim enjoyed visiting Glenn. He could relax around him. Together, the two of them could stare out Glenn’s window and watch car and pedestrian traffic cross the intersection in front of Glenn’s building. Looking up, over the paint store across the street, they could see a patch of sky above, bound by taller brick buildings on the next block, and that small frame of blue made puffy clouds seem precious. Minutes could pass without either of them saying anything.
Glenn’s furnished room had the Buddha nature.
Slim stayed most of the afternoon at Glenn’s, and then walked home, not knowing what he expected to find. Sure enough, Crystal was there, preparing dinner.
“I hope you haven’t eaten,” she said as he entered the kitchen.
“Nah. Just made myself a sandwich for lunch. Figured I’d have to order a pizza for dinner.”
“So is that your way of saying your glad to see me?” she asked.
“I guess. What was it like?”
“They’re nice people, and they talk a good line, but I couldn’t stand the music. It’s the corny stuff my parents used to listen to. And their temple feels like a Holiday Inn. Even when they try to be fancy, they’re plain and old-fashioned. Painted woodwork. Like a funeral home parlor. Gave me the willies.”
Slim decided maybe his new wife wasn’t so bad after all. He sat at the kitchen table and watched her cook, thinking that he had Glenn’s life beat by a country mile.