Monday, May 26, 2008

Love in Five Acts

Used to be, there was a cat lady living in my building. Every time I passed her door, all I’d smell was piss and stale tuna. This was a problem because, when she stroked out, her body rotted for two weeks before anyone found her. The smell of a dozen cats can totally mask a decomposing corpse. And get this: when finally the door was kicked in, when finally they found her, the cats had chewed her face off. Burrowed right through the soft meat of her cheeks. What I'm trying to say is, if you’re going to love something, love something that can love you back. Or at least love something that can use a phone.

Greg, he’s my buddy but sometimes I’m not too sure about the kid. Late-twenties and broke and living with his Mom and not really giving a shit about any of it. The other day, we sat in his basement room and he told me he had something to show me. “I have a secret,” he said. What he had was a box of porn. Movies and magazines and eight by ten glossies. And the thing was, all the girls looked really homely, kind of ugly. “I can’t stand that commercial shit with the dime-piece chicks, the fake tits,” he said. “This I love. These girls, they’re totally accessible. I could actually bag ‘em.” But of course he doesn’t. He sits around in his Mom’s basement and watches someone else do it.

From time to time, I’ll close down a bar. When I have nowhere better to be and nothing better to do. When I have too many places to be and too many things to do. One night, a couple weekends ago, as last call loomed and stools began to empty, an old man started talking to me or his drink or nobody in particular. “I masturbate to my ex-wife every night,” he said. “Every single night.” He was balding and fat and hunched over, the type of guy every local watering hole needs. “You know how many times I masturbated to her while we were married?” And when neither myself nor his drink nor anybody in particular answered, he said, “Not one goddamn time.” Then he stood up to leave. “Love, you never really love anything until it’s gone, until it’s lost. While it’s still around all you can feel is infatuation.” And as he stumbled out the door, I figured he had a point alright. He had a point, only he had it all backwards.

“Surprisingly, when it comes to bootlegged videos, dramas are the top sellers.” My cousin told me this over lunch. “Action films don’t transfer well. The explosions and screams blow out the recording microphone.” Always, he’s been obsessed with movies. As a kid he would write his own Disney sequels, storyboard them and everything. “With comedies, the theater audience’s laughter gets picked up. It’s very distracting.” And when he started bootlegging movies, it was only to help pay for film school. But money aside, he never got accepted. “Horror flicks always sell but that’s because of the audience. Kids don’t have the coin to see all of them in theatres.” He likes to romanticize, likes to say he’s destroying what he loves only so he can build it up again. But I think it’s something altogether different. I think what he loved destroyed him. And now he’s just trying to get even.

My niece is four years old. And as much as her parents and grandparents and even I tell her she’s special, she’s actually pretty typical. Everyday she wears either blue overalls or a blue dress. To hear her tell it though, she just says, “I love blue.” Every evening she runs around with her favorite toy, a fuzzy stuffed elephant. To hear her tell it though, she just says, “I love Mr. Bobo.” And every time she sees someone she says, “I love you Mommy, I love you Daddy, I love you Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle.” And every night, every single night, she falls asleep with a big smile on her face. What I'm trying to say is, sometimes love is enough. At least for a little while.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Here's to a Better Tomorrow

Across the room, I hear him. I can’t see him, can’t see anything for that matter. Too far gone. But I can hear him, leafing through a magazine, every few seconds friiip. Steady, a syncopated rhythm with the bleeps of my heart monitor. Bleep, bleepbleep, bleep, friiip. Magazine after magazine, for two days now. A hundred of bucks an hour I’m paying him. For two days now.

What I’m paying him for is to wait me out. And yeah, a hundred bucks an hour is a lot of money to pay anyone, especially if that particular anyone is just brushing up on celebrity gossip. A hundred bucks an hour is a lot to pay anyone, but where I’m going cash isn’t all that useful. At least for a while.

When I go—and I’m pretty far gone as is—then he’ll earn his keep. Five hundred pounds of equipment, a hundred pounds of ice, a retrofitted van. When I go, he’s got his work cut out for him. But right now he waits. And I wait too. Bleep, bleepbleep, bleep, friiip.

* * *

Number one consideration with cryopreservation: viability of the brain. What’s the point of being brought back to life in a decade, century, millennium if you’re retarded? Or worse, a vegetable. And brain damage, it starts just ten minutes after you kick it. In an hour, your circulatory system is totally shot. No matter what, you won’t be getting any oxygen to the old noodle. After a few days, your brain’s completely liquefied. When it comes to cryonics, time is definitely not on your side.

This is why there’s a professional periodical reader camped in my hospital room. An employee of Frozen Futures Incorporated on twenty-four hour standby. When the bleep, bleep degrades to a long steady drone, then he’ll go to work. Immediately, he’ll ice my head, slowing any brain damage. He’ll toss me in the ice bath, the ice bath in the van.

Most people say this is a joke. Freezing your body in hopes of being brought back sometime in the future. Sometime in the distant future. Most people say this is crazy, something out of pulp sci-fi novels. A liquid nitrogen bath—negative three hundred and eighty five degrees Fahrenheit—virtually stopping any cell decomposition. Most people say it’s for those who can’t deal with their mortality. Me, I say I’ll have the last laugh. Long after most people’s great-great grandkids are nothing but maggot farms, I’ll have the last laugh.

* * *

My breathing slows, inhales and exhales come with less regularity. Across the room, the pages continue to turn. What I wonder is, if there’s a heaven, do I still get to go? If there’s a hell? When they thaw me out, will I be evicted from the pearly gates? Thanks for the hospitality, see you again in a little while. What I wonder is, am I buying a life extension, or peace of mind?

Across the room he stands, puts the magazine down, paces back and forth. The clack of his footsteps forming a whole new beat. Bleep, clack, bleep, clack… He’s impatient and that makes two of us.

If I have to keep him on the payroll much longer, I might not be able to afford a full body freeze. I might end up a neuro. That’s what they call the head-only freezes, neuros. The idea being, when the technology is there to reanimate a frozen body—a frozen dead body—the technology will be there to perform a brain transplant too. What’s more, human cloning. Imagine: your brain transplanted into the exact body you had as an eighteen year old. That, and neuro’s are a whole lot cheaper.

Now though, now’s not the time for counting beans. Now I count footsteps. Now I count bleeps. Now I count minutes because I’m done with hours, days, weeks.

* * *

The biggest myth about cryonics: somewhere, Walt Disney is frozen stiff. Somewhere he’s awaiting his reanimation. Really, Walt is buried in a Hollywood cemetery, right off the Glendale freeway.

The second biggest myth about cryonics: nobody’s ever been brought back. Get this: human embryos have been cryopreserved, thawed out and developed into totally healthy people. Sure, they look like some sort of prawn, but an embryo, that’s a human.

I mean, this is science. They don’t just throw a corpse into the deep freeze in some guy’s garage. This is science. This is a process. A whole team opens you up, replaces sixty percent of the fluids in your body with this liquid. This liquid, it freezes a whole lot better than blood. It freezes better, but what it does is turn you all yellowish, goldish, orange.

Then the big freeze.

They stuff your body in a metal pod, like a camper trailer or a subway car only considerably smaller and constantly cooled with liquid nitrogen. Negative three eighty-five. But get this: you’re not alone. Likely, there are another eight or so folks in the pod with you. Sounds crowded, sure. But don’t worry, half your roommates, they’re just neuros.

* * *

I hear potato chips. Across the room, chewing away. Bleepcrunch, crunchbleepcrunch, crunch… And by the sound of it, I’m getting there. By the sound of it, they’re kettle cooked.

What I wonder is, maybe the future turns out to be a downer. With terrorism and global warming and bird flu. What I wonder is, maybe no future is better than a crapshoot future. Blackness and nothingness and peace. What I decide is, it’s too late to wonder about that now.

The biggest problem: aside from the hundred dollars an hour currently disappearing from my bank account like an odometer in reverse, I still have to pay for the procedure, the storage, the maintenance. Not chump change. One hundred and sixty thousand United States Dollars.

I’m no mogul, no tycoon, no lottery winner. So what I’ve done, I’ve signed over my life insurance to pay for the cryopreservation. My beneficiary doesn’t happen to be my wife, my kids. It’s Frozen Futures Incorporated. But hey, how many guys get to enjoy their own life insurance settlements?

What I wonder is, maybe that was a selfish move. Left to fend for themselves, money spent on dead man’s gamble. What I wonder is, maybe the only place I really live forever is in their memories. Memories I’ve tarnished, memories that now come with an asterisk. What I wonder is, why’s it been so long since I’ve herd a bleep...

Monday, May 12, 2008

Last Stop

All day the boss had been on my ass. Nothing was right: the presentation should have been in grayscale not black and white, the spreadsheets organized by department not date. Even my tie looked ridiculous—red and with a slight sheen and exactly like one he wore last week. He was just picking fights. He’s always just picking fights.
But the day was over and I slumped into my seat. Copper colored sky drifted past the window and I figured all that bullshit didn’t matter much. Hell, the worst they can do is fire me. Some days I think the worst they can do is not fire me.
I was in the first car of the train. I always sat in the first car of the train. Maybe something in the back of my mind, a rollercoaster memory from childhood. Maybe because the middle cars are crowded and up here I always grab a seat. An hour to work and an hour home. Everyday. Barreling through North Jersey. Everyday.
My fingers were black from thumbing through the paper. Already past the good stuff, finished the sports and business sections during lunch hour. So I was onto arts and leisure, working my way around a movie review and taking long draws from a paper cup of stale, room-temperature coffee. The train was approaching the next station, another of the dozen between home and work, work and home.
Then the whole car jerked, slowed down real quick and I spilled weak coffee all over my power tie. Like nails on a blackboard only fifty-times louder, those emergency breaks. And immediately after, a hollow thud that shook the car and what sounded like wooden planks being crushed, splintered underneath the train.
We coasted for another quarter mile before coming to a stop beside the station platform. Outside I heard screams, hysterical cries but not clear enough to make out distinct words. Then, over the train PA the conductor announced we just hit a trespasser. Trespasser, what a strange word to use.
Some days I think the worst that can happen is they fire me. Some days I think the worst that can happen is they don’t. And some days I realize I don’t have any idea about the worst that can happen.

Every Thursday, every Thursday without fail, I take Madeline into the city to have dinner with Ma. I’ve tried in to persuade Ma to meet us out here—once a month, once a year, just once—but no. Ma, like so many her age, is set in her ways. If in the last five years she’s ventured below 59th street, well I’d be surprised.
So every Thursday without fail—after Maddy has finished her homework—we take a train into the city, then the subway uptown. And every Thursday Ma tells Maddy how much she’s grown and asks what she did in school this week and we eat. And then Maddy and I take the subway downtown and a train back into Jersey.
This week was a little different. We stood on the platform, Maddy’s hand tucked inside mine. She was talking about this and that, jumping from one subject to the next without a comma, period, breath in between. Her second grade class had a hamster and it had little babies that were pink and hairless and there were six of them and they voted on names and there was Pinky and Gus and Snowball and Gremlin and Fluffy and Cocoa and they all look the same right now so nobody can tell which is which except… Beside us on the platform was a young man, head bowed as if in prayer.
Maddy kept going. She hoped that we would have Italian food for dinner because she wanted spaghetti with one of those really big meatballs and she had measured herself last week and this week and she hadn’t grown at all and if grandma said she had then grandma was mistaken. A train was approaching on the track opposite. Probably a half-mile off but I could hear the distant growl, see the lights materialize, pinpoints on the horizon.
What commenced was difficult to watch. And as much as I wish that I had looked away, I simply could not. The young man—maybe twenty years old—climbed down off the platform and rushed across one, two sets of tracks, and waited, stoic as the low growl became a thunderous roar and the pinpoint lights grew larger and larger, brighter and brighter. I yelled to him. As loud as I could, I yelled. But he never looked away from the train. Maddy asked me what that man was doing why was he standing there what’s going on? I held her close, her face clamped to my chest so she couldn’t see.
The impact was amazing. Somehow I expected the man to be knocked down, pushed to the side. Hurt, probably killed but still there. It didn’t happen like that at all. The train plowed through him. A slap, like hitting a waterbed with the back of your hand, only so much louder. And he was gone. Just gone.
Maddy fought to look but I held her close. She asked what happened to that man why was he out there would he be okay? I pulled my phone from my purse and called Ma, told her we’d have to take a rain check on dinner this week.

It happens. Sounds cold, but that’s the God’s honest truth. Shit, this wasn’t my first. Not even my second. I’ve been a conductor for thirty-plus years. Nobody goes that long without one or two. And believe me when I tell you there’s some folks around here—fine as folks and finer as conductors—had themselves four or five in their careers. It happens.
 Old guard types handle it better. Used to be a time when, if you trucked someone, you’d have to hop right back in there and ride out your shift. Forget about a few days off, you’d barely get a cigarette break. The kids now—the ones who’ve been doing this for five years, sometimes less—they don’t handle it so well.
Must be the parents. Kids now, they grow up being told they’re special and unique and their shit don’t stink. Makes ‘em soft. One boy—started working here oh, a good three years back—he had a helluva time.
The kid was twenty-six, thrilled to land the job. Making more than his friends who went to college.  And hell, the trains are on tracks, practically drive themselves. Then about six months in the kid caught a suicide, double suicide actually. Couple young lovers looking to pull some Romeo and Juliet type shit. Sat down on the tracks, cross-legged and holding hands and just waiting. Boom.
Well the kid, he got the rest of the day off. And three more on top of that. But when he came back the following week he looked like a turd in a rusty can. Tried his best to keep on keepin’ on but within the month he’d resigned. No, they don’t make them all that tough no more, that’s for damned sure.
But me, this was my third. And call me jaded, call me cold but I doubt I’ll lose too much sleep. I did what I could. Blew the whistle, pulled the breaks. Like I said before, these trains are on tracks, practically drive themselves. If something’s in the way, something’s in the way. If someone’s in the way, someone’s in the way.
What I’ll remember most is this: closing in on the kid and he looked up, right at me. We locked eyes for a second, maybe two before we hit. And he didn’t look scared. He didn’t look scared and he didn’t look sad and he didn’t look angry. Then we hit and he didn’t look like much of anything anymore.
When finally I got the train to stop, a couple hundred yards later, I announced over the PA that we’d hit a trespasser. Always say trespasser because, for one thing, it ain’t up to me to decide what happened—suicide, accident or even the occasional murder. Always say trespasser because, for another thing, technically they are—ain’t nobody supposed to be on those tracks. Always say trespasser because, most importantly, it makes things a little easier on the passengers—a trespasser, well that sounds criminal, sounds like maybe they just might’ve deserved it.
So, I got the rest of the evening off. Another three days too. I don’t have all that long before I retire, a few years left on the tracks. And if this is the last one, well I’d certainly be grateful for that. But I won’t count on it. Still, I won’t beat myself up over it either. Because like I said, it happens. And I could live the rest of my life seeing those eyes staring up at me. Those eyes that didn’t look scared or sad or angry. I could see those eyes for the rest of my life or I could let it go. It happens.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Shelter from the Storm

Nothing left to eat. Cardboard box but no crust, not even crumbs. We still have some Mountain Dew—two cans from a six-pack. I hate that shit. It looks like piss and tastes even worse. Not that I know what piss tastes like. Still, the carbonation fills me up a little, makes me feel as though I’ve eaten something of substance. At least for a while.

What’s he looking at, the motherfucker? “What you looking at, motherfucker?” He’s been staring at me for a solid five. That’s okay, we’ve been up here for two, almost three days, not a whole lot to look at. But it’s different now, it’s like he’s looking through me, dazed out and blank. Like some bullshit TV show is taking place right between my eyes. It’s freaking me out.

“Nothing, my man. Nothing,” he says. But he doesn’t stop. So I stare back, right between his eyes. Make a game out of it, something to pass the time. Because all we have is time, and we have ourselves plenty of it. Not much in the way of food or drink or entertainment. But plenty and plenty of time.

* * *

Twenty-five minutes, that’s what it took to get to the house. He gave a bad address—a street number that didn’t exist—and a complicated order—a quarter pie mushroom, quarter sausage, quarter pepper, quarter olive. Still, I got there in twenty-five. I’m a professional.

This guy, he took his time coming to the door when I rang. “Oh my,” he said, finally answering. “My oh my. Looks like this one’s on you guys.” He reached over the threshold for the pie but I held tight. “Listen,” he went on. “I’ve already waited over half an hour for this pizza, please don’t delay my meal any further. As the ad states: thirty minutes, or it’s on us.”

“Buddy,” I said. “First off, you gave me the wrong address. Second…” Then I felt it. Rolling like waves under my feet. I stumbled backward, fell off the porch and onto my ass. He braced himself in the doorway as bits of plaster fell off the wall behind him. Crunch. An earthquake—biggest I’d ever felt.

The pizza box was facedown on the porch. There was a rumble far off, like thunder from two towns over. I picked up the pie, a little sloppy from the fall but plenty edible. The rumble was sustained, not like a thunderclap, continuous and growing louder. “I’m certainly not paying for that now,” He said. Louder and louder. “The way it looks, you should pay me.” Louder and louder, closer and closer. “Oh fuck!”

Behind me, a mountain of water barreled down the road, swallowing cars and mailboxes and anything else, everything else. In front of me, the guy grabbed the box and made a mad dash up the stairs. And me, I followed just as the wave engulfed my car and continued on toward the porch, the house, me.

* * *

Damn near three days. At first, I was happy to just be alive. The rush of water moved through and even on the second floor it swept over our ankles. After the surge passed, there was still a good eight-feet of flooding outside, a good eight-feet submerging the first floor. After the surge passed, the upstairs carpet was left wet and littered with trash, sewage, flopping fish. After the surge passed, we were trapped. We are trapped.

He’s still looking at me glassy eyed and gone. The first day, we had conversed. Figured the earthquake must’ve crumbled the dam at the county reservoir. That would have accounted for all the fish—trout stocked every spring. He smiles and licks his lips, the tongue moving steadily around like the second hand of a clock. The first day, we had eaten the pizza. He hadn’t wanted to share, not even in these dire straits. But he eventually conceded and we finished the whole pie, figuring help would arrive any time. He laughs and rocks back and forth, a soft chuckle to start, then deep guffaws. The first day, I had been hopeful and he had been grounded. But this ain’t the first day no more.

He stands, stops laughing but still stares. “Share the wealth, my man,” he says and gestures to the Mountain Dew. “Share the wealth.” I grab a can but hesitate, ponder his motives. Something sinister going on, that’s for sure. “Maybe we should ration this out,” I say. “Who knows how much longer we’ll be up here.” But he will not compromise. He moves toward me. Quickly. Before I can react, he’s on top of me. “Whoa,” I yell and toss the can forward—partially out of fright, partially to appease him. The can is caught handily but he relays no satisfaction.

“Share the wealth,” he repeats and I’m confused because as far as I can tell I pretty much did. “Share…” He turns to face the window. “The…” He cocks his arm and twists his body like a discus thrower ready to launch. “Wealth!” He sends our last full can of Mountain Dew crashing through a double paned storm window and sailing into the newly formed lake beyond. “The fuck?” I cry. “Why would you do that? Who knows how much longer we’ll be up here…” But he ain't paying me no mind. And leaving me with my despair and confusion, he climbs through the window and dives arms outstretched into the body of water formerly known as his front yard.

* * *

I’d like to say I see him swim off into the horizon. Despite all the trouble the guy gave me—the free-pizza-hustle, the extra creepy stare-down, the last can of Mountain Dew through the window—I’d like to say I see him swim and swim until he’s a dot, the dot swim and swim until it’s nothing at all. I’d like to, but that ain’t how it goes down. He makes it about twenty feet in some sort of ass-backward doggy paddle, then slips under. And now he’s gone, and I’m here. And soon, I’ll be gone too.

Maybe I’ll be rescued but I doubt it. Maybe I’ll swan dive out the window and swim for the horizon but I doubt that too. Likely I’ll just wait and wait until I forget what I’m waiting for. I’ll just wait and wait and wonder if Noah was this bored during his great flood. At least he had animals to keep him amused, keep him from starving. I'll wait and wait and wonder if the unicorns were delicious. I'll wait and wait. I'll wait…