What the sailor told the magician’s assistant

“I was not old when I left home. My father beat us and we took refuge in my mother’s stories of a tree house sanctuary. We’d move someday to a leafy hide out where we’d see him way before he us, and play Aggravation and checkers, and read in hammocks, library books we’d check out when the coast was clear. Once I realized it was only a dream and not a plan, I left. I was a long haul driver’s punk for a year or two, after the money I stole from my father ran out. Then one night I heard a fight out in the lot of some poor bar as I huddled in the sleeper cab of my master’s rig, and him getting the worst of it. They abandoned him for dead and words bubbled from his lips when I went to him before the dawn. Get help he mumbled, so I did. I took the key to the strongbox and left with his savings, my second treasure. It was a lot for a kid. After that were dishes washed and unwatched tills. I never actually killed a man and all my loot I deserved more than the ones I robbed, high pressure systems move to low.
At eighteen I found myself at sea. I actually swabbed actual decks, and painted steel and served up slop and climbed up through whatever ranks one rose through and my foot locker filled with cash from paychecks never spent and jewels I bought to save space. One day, standing on the deck I realized I was at the place furthest from a tree as if I’d kept an oath sworn as a boy, which I had in fact not consciously sworn. But life can take us to these junctures unawares, where had we sworn an oath it would be fulfilled: no more love, no more trust, no more hope or faith, no dreams of trees it was for me.
And now I’m here with you on the bed of the sea they took my ship in a storm just like you. It’s over there, full of cargo. I’ve made my bed in a container full of mattresses, king size, and wander this shining city at all hours, looking for a place to spend my loot. Would you like to make a bet?”

“I’d wager that your trucker’s dead,” the magician’s assistant said. “I stole the clipping from your purse, that was my old profession, as you spoke and gestured. So you didn’t kill him but you let him die.”

The sailor shrugged. “To remind me of my life on land. My father beats my mother still for all I know and she still dreams of trees.” He got down on his knees. “Will you marry me? I’ll pay you well. I didn’t think so.” He stood back up. “I say that to all the girls, pro forma. If only we had a big casino with roulette wheel and blackjack and a stage and a red whorehouse in the back, or a mall.
A hobo robbed me down by the creek between my father and the truck. Or drifter, if you subscribe to the romantic notion that all hobos are above board by definition. I fought him and he knocked me down and pocketed my cash. Someday you’ll see how illusory this really is,” he laughed.

“Here’s your clipping back,” she said, the magician’s assistant. “And your other stuff I took. Are there many others here?”

“There are a few. Maybe more, who hide from me. I feel their thoughts and eyes. Captain Nemo is down here, the old liar, with his lying song of death.”

Major Smith and the space spider things II

Major Smith suddenly wheeled about, there in his yellow kitchen, wheeled like a dervish stopped in mid-whirl. He turned on his heel and returned to his refrigerator, where he opened the freezer. God, it was full of ice. He could barely get the drawer open. When was the last time he had defrosted? He moved a package of frozen corn, and a nearly empty box of popsicles. It was in here somewhere. He found it two drawers down, under a sack of ice cubes that had frozen into a solid brick: frozen bliss. He looked at the back of the box. Best before 2007, it said. He wondered if bliss could go bad. He put it into the microwave on low. Milk turned into yogurt. What would bliss turn into when it went bad? Joy? Euphoria? Rapture? He considered the difference between bliss and joy. He wished he had a dictionary in his house, and not all these thesauri.

The phone rang. His private phone. It was headquarters. The Secretary for Alien Spider affairs was on the line. Major Smith knew the score: the alien spiders who remained – and there were several – had taken to the oceans and made shipping unsafe because in the water they developed into huge, squid-like creatures that pulled tankers and cargo ships to the ocean floor, where sonar imaging and google maps discovered that they were being cemented into some sort of structure with some sort of natural adhesive that hardened into an impervious shell. What were they building down there, was the question. Their underwater city continued to grow. The alien spider squid continued to reproduce, although it was unknown how they did so, none had been dissected or observed laying eggs, giving live birth, dividing or mating. The alien spider squid soon discovered the Pacific Garbage Patch and added that to their structure in the space of days. Swoosh, like that, the oceans cleaned in days of centuries of mankind’s trash.

People were starting to get angry. What were these space alien spider squid up to? They were making us look bad, whatever they were. World leaders debated it in the UN but Russia and China vetoed it.  Within a year the oceans were pristine and world petroleum reserves were depleted due to tankers being all gone. Giant space alien spider squid were found moving up rivers, plugging factory pipes with their impervious whatever it was. The streets filled with panicked masses as pollution rates fell below the lowest levels measured in centuries.

Major Smith looked at the bliss. Elation? he wondered. Maybe it was a halflife sort of thing when bliss went bad. The problem was, none of the definitions he had was any good for figuring out a difference between bliss, joy, and happiness. If bliss was ultimate joy, then maybe it decayed into joy when it went bad, and from there into happiness, but the definitions he had found struck him as describing things as a sort of differences of degrees thing when he was sure it was in fact a difference of quality.

He found a jar in the cupboard with a little happiness stuck to the inside walls. With a small spoon, he would be able to scrape some off if he was patient. He held the telephone between his shoulder and ear and moved his eyes from the microwave to the cupboard, and back, repeatedly, as one does when shifting ones attention between two alternatives as part of a decision-making process.

Major Smith decided to give bliss a try. If it was, in fact, that. It looked a lot like joy.

“Yes,” he said into the phone.

Major Smith and the space spider things

Major Smith was walking along, minding his own business when the space spiders descended. Gigantic, skinnier than daddy long legs (which is why they didn’t burn in the atmosphere) (and just floated like thistledown instead), but highly destructive. Their webs were inescapable, their bite deadly. Their victims liquified inside, and were sucked hollow by the alien invaders, and spent the rest of their lives walking around empty, sitting at their computer screens reading the latest on Huffington Post, and ringing like bells when they bumped into each other on the street.

The aliens left as abruptly as they had appeared, launching themselves beyond the Earth’s gravitational pull and drifting in a huge cloud back into the black depths of space.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, an empty playground swing swang in a breeze, squeaking. A dog sniffed a shoe. A refrigerator opened and closed, the person who had opened it having decided they weren’t really hungry just restless. The person. A man of an age when men were expected to be more certain than he felt. Major Smith. He tried to figure out if he was sad or feeling sorry for himself, depressed or melancholy, sad or unhappy. As part of his exercise he tried to determine the opposite of sad.

Not “unhappy,” which is the opposite of happy. Sadness is too pervasive to have an opposite when sadness is the clay from which you are formed. Unfortunately, like clay, sadness bestows no particular grace or value, no charm or intelligence or any other intrinsic value. It’s just clay. You can make a wonky kindergarten ashtray with it, or a 3-legged lizard or a perfect sphere or a brick. You can burn the brick in a kiln and throw it through a bank window. You just can’t make a space spider with clay because they’re too… ethereal for clay.

Major Smith remembered he had to cook spaghetti, with instant sauce, for lunch, and two batches of chili con carne for lunch the next day, one batch spicy, one not.