Tuesday, November 30, 2010

30. Houses

Truth be told, I wasn’t bothering a soul, just sitting on a bench enjoying the last day of November and watching the renovation of an old railroad bridge that spans the Arkansas River. They were renovating it for pedestrian use. I was thinking how nice it is for old things to be re-used when a rather handsome blonde-haired lady in her late 30s walked up. She looked like an ad for L.L. Bean, complete with a sweater that announced “I love my Yorkie.”

“May I sit?” she asked.

I nodded at the empty portion of the bench and scooted as far as I could to the other edge.

“I’m just pooped from holiday shopping and need to take a break,” she said as she sat. “I’ve been at it since four A.M. on ‘Black Friday.’”

I nodded as if I had any idea.

She sat quietly for a few minutes before turning to me as if she had just received some hidden radio transmission.

“I’ll bet my house is bigger than your house,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“And better too. Mr. Donald designed the interior.”

“How nice.”

“My husband wants to get an even bigger one after our next child.”

I started to rise when she began to giggle.

It was C.W.

“You little prick,” I observed.

“Had you going, didn’t I?”

“Oh yes. Ruined my day completely.”

“But tell me,” he said. “What is with these big gaudy houses that Americans love so much? They even plan TV shows around them. Isn’t it a bit wasteful for a family of four to live in four thousand square foot structure when so many have none?”

“I dunno. Some form of ego compensation? Why do you ask me? I don’t have one.

The figure spoke. “Well, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe some day you’ll be as well off as we are and you can afford a decent home.”

“I have a decent home,” I started to say and then realized I was speaking to an alien, a smart-assed one at that. “Don’t you have something to do?” I said.

“Well, I am scheduled for a pedicure later this morning but I thought I would come downtown and see what it is about this ghastly place that attracts people. It’s so old here, and the houses are so small.”

“Perhaps the people who live here don’t rely upon the size and décor of their home to complete their raison d’être.”

“Their what?”
Houses like this were fine for your Greatest Generation.
Why not for this generation? - C.W.

“Forget it,” I said. “Didn’t you say you had something to do?”

“Well, I do have to pick up my maid, oops—they taught me at Women’s Club to call her ‘my friend.’ Sorry.”

“Say goodnight Gracie.”

“Goodnight, Jimbo.”

“Goddamit. Don’t call me that.”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

29. Tanning

Back to the antics of the Alien after he crashed our recent cruise—hoping to be rid of him for a spell, I found myself reclining under an overhanging deck in the “adults-only” section of the ship. I had been reading and fell asleep. Proust will do that to a person. I awakened when someone shook my arm and thrust a bottle of suntan lotion in my hand.

“Hon,” a voice said and I looked next to me at one of the most perfect bodies I had ever seen. “Would you mind spreading some of this on my back?”

My mind left France where I had been pleading with Marcel to lighten his prose and I focused on the source of this request. It was a stunning woman with ebony black skin face down on a deck chair and inclined slightly toward me with the most beguiling smile one could imagine. Then I noticed that she had untied the strings on her bikini top and was beginning to expose a near perfect gift of nature.

“Just a bit on my back Hon,” she said with a wink. “So I won’t burn.”

I must have been groggy from the sleep and inquisitive from the Proust, for all I could manage was, “Do African-American people sunburn?”

She managed a deep-throated laugh and then, “You don’t learn much from all those books, do you Jimbo?”

Shit! It was C.W.

“Don’t call me that,” I said. “And what are you doing here?”

“Getting some sun, Hon. What are you doing here, except staring at my assets, and I mean assets with a capital a-s-s-?”

“Shut up,” I said. I looked around to see if anyone was watching.

It laughed.

“C.W.” I snapped. “In the first place you are a goddam alien. In the second place, we are in the shade.” I gave him back the tanning lotion.

“Hon, you are getting excited.” He gave me this coquettish smile that would have made a World War Two veteran do the Buck and Wing. “Now tell me something.”

I made sure my wife hadn’t appeared on deck. “What?” I said.

“Why are you people so hung up on burning your skin so dark? Isn’t it unhealthy?”

“Yes, doctors say it is very unhealthy.”

“And isn’t it true that, up until recent history, a darkly tanned skin was considered a ‘thing that is a perfect example’ of the lower classes?”

“The ‘epitome’ of the lower classes. Yes. You are right. Mae West would have been appalled.”

“It sounds a bit like pertonelicka++.”


“Well, an ancient Faloonian practice of conjuring up images of monsters to make children behave. You know, an attractive but damaging solution to a minor problem.”

“Yes. Maybe.”

“Then the coquette spoke. “But I know what it really is, Hon. Want to know?” It tapped me on the forearm.


“I think you people finally figured out that ‘black is beautiful’ and you want to get there no matter what.” Then she turned toward me. “See what I mean?”

I gathered my Proust and headed for our cabin. I could hear the squeaking of deck chairs all around me.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

28. Rituals

For weeks I had begged C.W. not to follow me. I was taking my first long vacation since 1974, a cruise to Mexico. I needed some time away from his antics.

Lots of luck.

The most embarrassing thing happened this way. With some schooling in architectural history, I looked forward to a trip to Chichen Itza, the Mayan site. Little did I guess what would follow.

At the site, descendents of that great culture are reduced to selling trinkets to the tourists. They are small people, troublesome and annoying, but hey, they were there first.

Anyway, as we toured the great ball field, I didn’t notice a group of young Mayan boys playing soccer until one of them picked up the ball and wandered over to me.

“Pretty something, alright,” he said, nudging me in the side.

“Pretty something,” I said.

“Did they really chop off the head of the winning team captain?” he said in perfect English.

I looked down at a small, dark boy with black hair and a twisted smile.

Yep. It was C.W.

“Dammit,” I said, “I told you to stay home.”

“Jess,” he said. “Me at home.”

“Aw, man,” I said in exasperation.

“About this head chopping,” he said.

“There are differing opinions,” I said. Some say it was the losers who lost their heads.”

“You people do like your rituals,” he said. “Chopping off heads, eating your gods with a sip of nice Chianti, sacrificing your children. What’s the deal?”

“It makes us holy,” I said. “Now why don’t you go back home?”

“If it will make you feel any better,” he said. “By the way, did they really bounce the heads down those stairs?” He pointed toward the magnificent Castillo, or temple pyramid.

“Piss off,” I answered.

With that he kicked the soccer ball across the field and disappeared behind a temple wall. I thought no more about him until we followed the guide back to the Castillo for a discussion of the remarkable acoustics of the site. I became engrossed in the image of a great ceremony, imagining the costumes and headdresses of the priests and the huge crowds of people. I raised my camera to the uppermost section.

Then I saw it.

There was a blur at first—a figure darting between the uppermost columns. This was odd as tourists are forbidden from climbing the pyramid.

It got worse.

Down the temple stairs came bouncing—if you can believe it—a soccer ball. Not a head, but a soccer ball. I wanted to crawl under a statue, particularly as the entire crowd turned to stare at me as the last one who had been seen near such an object.

Look Closely to notice the alien's Mayan prank

Needless to say, this put a damper on the whole visit. The ball bounced all the way into the plaza and I must confess to imagining a head exploding into the crowd. I eased back toward the entrance.

I had almost made it when I heard a voice behind me. “Pretty neat, huh?”

“Get away from me,” I shouted at the top of my voice.

The young boy looked hurt as everyone turned to look. “Please Mister. You buy?” he said, thrusting a cheap plaster mask toward me.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

27. Pickups

C.W. was late. We had agreed to meet by the river. I was watching a barge navigate the channel between one lock and another. Finally, I saw him and immediately wanted to run. He was channeling a prisoner from some classic movie such as “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.” He wore tattered striped clothing and carried what appeared to be a metal bowling ball attached to a chain bolted to his leg. Every dozen yards or so he would put the ball on the ground, rest, and then pick it up and proceed toward me again.

It was too late to run. He had already seen me so I began studying my fingers in the hope that he might walk on by. No such luck.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said as he plopped down beside me and rested the ball on the ground. “I became distracted while gathering data and failed to take into account being slowed by the ball and chain.”

“I’m not even going to ask,” I said.

“Good,” he said. “I wanted to ask you something.”

“I can hardly wait,” I said, averting my face from a bicyclist who nearly ran off into the river looking at us.

“It’s about your means of moving about.”

This is a common topic for him. His fascination with the internal combustion motor and the automobile never slackens. He refers to it as our “global insanity.”

“I was down at one of the high-rise buildings taking notes on the vehicles coming from the parking deck,” he said, as he fiddled with his chain. “I assume these are people who work in the building.”

“Mostly yes,” I said. “Or people having business in the building.”

“That makes sense. They were dressed formally as if they had what you call “white-collar” jobs. How did that term evolve?”

“I’ll explain it to you some day,” I said. “Go ahead.”

“Well, would you believe that in less than an hour, I recorded no less than 10 men in business suits exiting the building in ‘collecting-things trucks?’”

“You perhaps mean ‘pickup trucks.’”

“Precisely. Now what exactly are they picking up there?”

“Well, nothing,” I said.

He assumed that look he has when something doesn’t pass through his “internal analysis mechanism” as he calls it. It’s a cross between looking stoned and falling asleep. He said, “That doesn’t calculate.”

“How do you mean?”

“They don’t haul goods for a living, do they?”

“Oh no, they probably don’t haul anything in those vehicles. It might scratch the paint.”

“They are so large and cumbersome—I can’t imagine trying to maneuver them through a parking deck.”

“I agree.”

“They have deplorable fuel efficiency?”


He assumed The Look again. “I’m trying to understand,” he said.

“It has come to be an expression of masculinity and power,” I said.

“You are evacuating me from your bowels, right.”

“I am not shitting you, if that’s what you mean.”

“It’s going to take me awhile for my systems to recharge,” he said, with quite a bit of sadness in his voice. “Then I want to tell you about a 90-pound woman who was trying to enter a parking space in a ten-passenger monstrosity.”

“An SUV?” I said.

“No, she looked like a regular person who just didn’t have the ability to reason properly.”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

26. Math

It was early morning and I was taking my walk in anticipation of a nice plate of eggs and grits at the end. It was cool, and a low-hanging fog was sliding up from the Arkansas River onto the park around the William Jefferson Clinton library and park. It was a good morning for thinking of past loves, Bob Dylan songs, and homemade bread.

Off in the distance, I could see a figure through the fog, sitting in a hunched position on one of the park benches. It was off the walking path, so I ignored it until I heard someone calling.

“Mr. … Mr. ... come here. You want math lesson?”

I looked toward the voice and was surprised to see an elderly Chinese man with a large, pork-pie hat working with intensity over what appeared to be an abacus. I decided to ignore him.

“No, no, come here please, mister.” He yelled insistently, and though it was morning, I feared he might attract attention, so I walked over. He thrust the abacus toward me with a grin.

It was C.W.

“Hey sailor,” he said.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Giving math lessons. Can’t you see?”

“Math lessons?”

“Ah, quite so, young mister.” He assumed his character’s voice.

“Why are you giving math lessons? And to whom?”

“Your species is severely lacking in analytical skills. We discuss before.”


“Not to worry. Low analytical skills just make TV preachers rich. But lacking math skills make you destitute.”

“How so?” He had my curiosity aroused.

“Look,” he said, and pulled a news-clipping from a file beneath the abacus.

I glanced at the article, which I had read a few days earlier. It reported that the United States Treasury had issued bonds offering a negative return as the latest insult in a long period of low interest on savings.

“That’s something, isn’t it?” I said.

He relaxed. “It’s not going to get your species into the Intergalactic Math Bowl,” he said. “What’s the idea behind this latest brain atmospheric disturbance?”


“Whatever.” C.W. loves to pick up mannerisms from young people, sometimes forgetting his present shape.

“Best I can figure is this,” I said, trying to put on my best pundit’s face. “In a Corporatocracy such as ours, it is vital that corporations— our deities—receive cash infusions. We must place our savings in the stock market, and not in fixed-income instruments. So we offer no return on them. It’s a financial strategy known as ‘nudging,' as in out of fixed-income savings and into the stock market.’”

“Is that all?”

“Well, there is the additional fact that U.S. Treasury instruments are the safest investments in the world.”

“Oh,” he said and smiled. “So your money is safe while it slowly disappears.”

“Or, you put it in the stock market.”

“Ah,” he resumed his character. “Then you have ‘preasure’ of watching it quickly disappear.”

“More or less.”

He fiddled with his abacus. Then looked up at me.

“Most civilizations in the galaxy would, at best, use your species for cleaning sewage conduits,” he said.